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Burger Place by Rick Kast

As the restaurants began to open up after the pandemic, I found myself craving something really basic: a burger with fries. Maybe later I’d want some swishy French dish floated onto the table before me by a waiter in a heavily starched uniform, but right now I just wanted someone to plunk that burger and fries down in front of me. So this place called “The Cheeseburger Café” seemed like just what I was looking for.

I was wrong. Boy was I wrong!

The place was empty when I walked in but it was a little early for lunch. There wasn’t anything that said I shouldn’t, so I sat down at a table. After a few minutes a thin girl with lank blond hair came out of the kitchen. She had haunted blue eyes and looked kind of strung out. She didn’t hand me a menu. She just said, “We have cheeseburger, cheeseburger without fries, cheeseburger, cheeseburger without chips, cheeseburger, or cheeseburger without slaw.”

After a moment for that to register, I asked for a hamburger with fries.

“This is the Cheeseburger Café,” she said, as if I’d just asked for a Dortmunder at Benihana.

“Just don’t put the cheese on it.”

“We can’t do that in the Cheeseburger Café.”

“Okay, then, a cheeseburger with fries.”

“We don’t have that.” She gave me a pitying look. “Need to hear the menu again?”

“You have a printed menu?”

“No. Cost-cutting.”

“Just bring me a cheeseburger with fries. Or I want a hamburger with fries but you tell me you don’t have hamburgers.”

“Listen, we have cheeseburger, cheeseburger without fries, cheeseburger, cheeseburger without chips, cheeseburger, or cheeseburger without slaw.” She spoke more slowly this time as if I were the slow kid in the class.

“Give me the first one.”

“The cheeseburger that’s not without the fries?”

“Yes! Absolutely.”

Now I was getting this thing, I thought.

“You want it done, redone, or undone?”


“You haven’t been here before, have you?”

“To tell you the truth, I’ve never even noticed the place. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m here now.”

She smiled at that. “We been here forever. Since before I was born. Since before you were born . Probably before everybody was born. Listen, done is done, redone is done again, and undone hasn’t been done at all. Got it?”

“So undone is raw?”

“Please, this is a family restaurant.”

“Is redone done well?”

“What do you think? Our cook’s been to chef school. He was in Paris, France, on a tour once.”

“I mean is it well-done?”

“I tell you it’s redone.”

“Okay, I’ll have the done cheeseburger that’s not without the fries.”

“What about a drink?”

“A small iced tea.”

“We don’t have small. We have medium, large, and the most-humongous-drink-you’ve-ever-drunk size.”

“So medium is really small?”

“No, medium is medium. We don’t have small.”

“How big is the most-humongous-drink-you’ve-ever-drunk size?”

“You kidding me? You just said you wanted small. Think about the biggest drink you’ve ever had and it’s bigger. You can’t even describe how much bigger it is.”

“Would it fit on the table?”

“Ha, ha, pretty funny. I’ll pass that one on to management. You might see it on the buses one day. Too big to fit on the table. Pretty good.”

“I guess I’ll take the medium iced tea. Unsweetened.”

“We don’t have unsweetened.”

“Just don’t put the sugar in it!”

“You think a cook who won’t not put the cheese on a hamburger won’t not put the sugar in the tea? It’s a production thing, you know. We’ve got things so streamlined here any change would just put a kink in the process and slow down everything for everybody. No can do.”

“What everybody? There’s no one here.”

“You beat the rush.”

“What other drinks you have?”

“Lemonade, limeade, orangeade, and nothing.”

“I think I’ll get nothing.”

“What size?”


“You need to hear the sizes again?”

“No, no, I mean I want nothing to drink.”

“I heard you the first time. But I need to know the size.”

“How about a most-humongous-drink-you’ve-ever-drunk size nothing.”

She paused before writing this down on her pad and gave me a conspiratorial look. “You know, you get unlimited refills free. Why pay for the most-humongous-drink-you’ve-ever-drunk size nothing when you can get the medium for a lot less and get unlimited refills?”

“Okay, give me a medium nothing.”

“How about dessert?”

“What do you have?”

“Apple pie with vanilla ice cream, apple pie not without vanilla ice cream, vanilla ice cream not without apple pie, cherry pie with vanilla ice cream, cherry pie not without vanilla ice cream, vanilla ice cream not without cherry pie.”

“So you have apple pie with ice cream and cherry pie with ice cream.”

“Is that what I said?”

“I think I’ll have nothing.”

“You can’t have nothing for dessert like you can to drink. You can drink a bunch of it but you can’t have it for dessert. I mean nothing and desert are kind of antithetical, aren’t they?”

“But I want nothing for dessert.”

She looked pensive. “Well, I guess you could order something and then not eat it.”

“Give me the cherry pie.” I no sooner said it than I knew it was going to be a problem.

“Which one?”

“Just cherry pie.”

“You need to hear the menu again?”

“Listen, I just don’t want any ice cream.”

“You’re going to have a cheeseburger and fries and you’re worried about a little ice cream?”

“Okay, give me the cherry pie with vanilla ice cream.”

“We have a special today on the cherry pie not without vanilla ice cream.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Fifty cents.”

“No, I mean . . . never mind. Give me the cherry pie not without vanilla ice cream.”

“How many scoops you want?”

“Just one.”

“You can’t have just one. You can have three, four, or five.”

“I’m trying to lose weight.”

“I’d recommend three, then.”

“Okay, bring me the damned three scoops.”

“You don’t have to get all upset about it. If you don’t want three scoops, just get four or five.”

“Bring me the three scoops.”

“Which ice cream bin you want them out of?”

“What’s the difference?”

“One was made yesterday, one the day before yesterday, and one no one knows when it was made.”

“Does it taste any different?”

“Does it . . . ? Well, my goodness. Of course it tastes different. It was made at different times. The ingredients are never exactly the same. There may be more of this, less of that. And the conditions are different. There may be differential freezing rates. And the weather—ever notice how things taste different when the weather is different? A bowl of chili’s not the same in August as it is in November, you have to admit that. I really like the ice cream from the bin that nobody knows when it was made.”

“Make it that one then.”

She left to return in a moment with an empty glass and placed it on the table in front of me.

“Is this my medium nothing?”

“So what’s it look like?”

“I’ve been thinking: why am I paying anything for nothing?”

“Because you ordered it off the menu.”

“Could I revise my order and get the nothing that’s not on the menu?”

“Nothing’s always on the menu. Where you been, living in some dream world?” She disappeared into the kitchen. In a few minutes she returned.

“I’ve got bad news.”

“Break it to me.”

“We’re out of cheese.”

“So I can get a hamburger after all!”

“No, it’s the Cheeseburger Café. How many times I have to tell you?”

I closed my eyes for a moment but she was still there when I opened them. “Tell me something: If the cook is out of cheese and he won’t serve a burger without it, what can I get to eat?”

She thought for a moment. “I’d get the cheeseburger with the nothing on it that you ordered for your drink.”

“That’s what I want then.”

“Okay then.”

She grabbed the glass for my medium nothing and headed for the kitchen. In a few minutes she returned with my burger.

“Could I change my dessert order?”


“I want the cherry pie with the nothing I ordered for my drink on the side.”

“You can’t do that. You’ve already got the nothing you ordered for your drink on top of your cheeseburger.”

“But nothing is infinite.”

She stared at me for a moment. “Who told you that?”

“It’s well known.”

“That’s a dangerous thought. It makes me shiver all over. And, if you’re right, just how do you think we could serve up infinite nothing? Our nothing has to fit into a medium, large, or most-humongous-drink-you’ve-ever-drunk size cup.”

“But if I can get unlimited refills of nothing that’s infinite nothing.”

She rubbed her tongue over her upper lip and looked for inward wisdom. “I see where you’re going there. But you know, people can’t handle infinite nothing. We’d get closed down if we gave it to them. We had to cut off a guy just last week after three medium nothings. He was getting a blank stare and talking to himself.”

“It probably wasn’t infinite nothing that made him crazy. It was this place.”

“That isn’t nice.”

“Could I have some ketchup for my hamburger?”

“You mean your cheeseburger with the nothing on it that you ordered for your drink?”

“Yeah, right.”

“You put ketchup on it, what will you have on it?”


“There you go,” she said.

The next day I thought about it a long time. Then I went back to the Cheeseburger Café. I mean, wouldn’t you have? The blond was still there. She smiled when she saw me. “I’m glad you came back,” she said. “See what you did?”

She put a menu in front of me. You know what it said.

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