by Taylor Pavlik
It was past eleven and the Hamburglar still hadn’t come home. Victoria tried to read but she couldn’t focus. She adjusted the settings on the Kindle app for her iPad, making the letters brighter, darker, bigger, even smaller, but nothing worked. She checked her iPhone 5: no messages, no missed calls. The phone had started fritzing on her ever since the 6 was released, and sometimes it just failed to ring. She wanted to upgrade, but Connor had somehow gotten it into his head that he was going to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and there was no end to the things they made you pay for. Still, she’d hoped the Hamburglar would surprise her for Christmas. Now those hopes were dashed.
He left in a rush after hearing an ad for the new McDonald’s Sirloin Third Pound Burger on the radio, and Victoria knew the day of reckoning had come at last. She wondered—and suspected she’d torment herself over this for years—if it was bad for Connor that the Hamburglar had made it so far before the fall. Connor was good for him, sucking up all his attention and stripping away the idleness that led him to his darker compulsions. Victoria was barely conscious when Connor was born, but she heard that the Hamburglar took his son in his arms and wept right there in front of the hospital staff. He was as good a father as she could ever have hoped, and she’d fooled herself into thinking this life they’d made was enough for him. Then the damned McDonald’s ad came on and she saw something in him snap. He dropped the spatula right onto the fresh-cut lawn and left without a word, the Certified Angus Beef burgers he’d been grilling for the three of them still sizzling on the grill. Connor called after him but he didn’t seem to hear. Victoria sat there for too long, shocked, unsure how to draw him back. Before she knew it he was backing the Camry down the driveway. The burgers were nothing more than charred pucks by the time Victoria thought to get them off the grill, the Hamburglar long gone.
When she met the Hamburglar, he was working the register at the Jiffy Lube she frequented on her commute to and from the city. At the time, she worked at the front desk of the IGA Corporate Office. She hated it there, but she had student loan payments to make and she didn’t want to go crawling back to Iowa where her parents and uninspired friends waited with great anticipation for her fall from grace. And so she dug in her heels and assured her family everything was going just as planned. Every day after work she returned to the attic apartment she rented, opened a bottle of Frog’s Leap, and turned on the cable she stole from her trusting landlord. As she drifted off to sleep, bathed in the Late Show’s insomniac glow, she’d think: Tomorrow it all changes.
The Hamburglar didn’t announce himself as such, there at the Jiffy Lube counter— no stripes, no mask, just a pudgy young man with messy red hair in a maroon polo—but there was something dangerous and incongruous to him. They were both waiting for the man in front of Victoria to finish counting the handful of change he’d dredged up to pay for a pack of cigarettes when she noticed it. He was trapped there, like something caged, slightly flinching as each coin hit the plastic countertop. They both were. She made it a habit to buy her morning coffee at the station, even though she suspected they never cleaned the urns, just to have an excuse to share a moment with the Hamburglar every day. It took a month of increasingly pointed flirtation for him to work up the courage to ask her out. She said yes and he smiled a conspiratorial smile.
The Hamburglar picked up Victoria in a gray Elantra. It squealed, waiting there in the driveway, while Victoria checked herself in the hall mirror. The Hamburglar was dressed in horizontal white-and-black stripes, red gloves, and an oversized hamburger tie. When Victoria sat in the passenger seat he turned, touched her gently on the shoulder—either unaware of or unapologetic about how ridiculous he looked—and asked her if she wanted to get into trouble with him. It was exactly what she wanted to hear.
The Hamburglar parked the Elantra as close to the McDonald’s entrance as possible and kept it running, that ugly squeal growing in urgency. He asked Victoria to open the glove compartment. Inside was a black mask, a black and yellow cape, and a snub-nose Smith & Wesson revolver. He donned the mask and cape and checked each chamber of the revolver to assure it was loaded. He produced a black wide-brimmed hat from somewhere and placed it atop his head. Then he kissed Victoria on the lips and before she could react he was out the door.
Victoria watched the whole robbery from the passenger seat of the Elantra. It didn’t even occur to her to flee the scene. Inside the McDonald’s, families fell to ground as the Hamburglar waved the Smith & Wesson wildly, barking demands Victoria couldn’t make out over the car’s insistent squeal. The teenaged cashiers froze. One of them handed a stack of cash to the Hamburglar and he slapped it away, letting it scatter on the tiled floor where a few enterprising customers scooped it up. The Hamburglar pointed with the gun to the rows of heat lamps and the boxed and paper-wrapped burgers congealing beneath them. The cashiers began loading the burgers into take-out bags, which the Hamburglar snatched, one by one, with his free hand. When it was done, the Hamburglar slung his haul over one shoulder and backed out of the McDonald’s and into the getaway car. He tossed the sacks of burgers, already stained with grease, into the backseat and sped away just as Victoria heard the wail of approaching sirens.
They drove for a long time, crisscrossing down side streets and dark suburban drives. In the midst of their escape, the Hamburglar stripped off his mask and cape, wrapped them around the Smith & Wesson, and passed them to Victoria to return to the glove compartment. She didn’t see what happened to the hat. They stopped at a patch of dirt overlooking a gorge, nothing but a dinged-up guardrail between them and the void. The car reeked of burgers by then, the sweet stench of grease so strong Victoria swore she could feel it coating the roof of her mouth. The Hamburglar killed the engine and the lights and unceremoniously lit a joint. He puckered his lips around it until the end glowed a deep orange. He exhaled a cloud, the dank scent buried among the cheeseburger stench. The joint trailed curling wisps of smoke as the Hamburglar passed it to Victoria. Victoria had never smoked anything stronger than a cigarette before and she hadn’t liked the cigarette very much, but she took the joint and inhaled until her lungs burned. He didn’t laugh when she coughed, which made her like him more.
At last, he gestured to the sacks of burgers in the back seat and asked if she wanted some. She was surprised to discover that she did. He reached back and retrieved a bag for each of them. Victoria’s was filled with Big Macs, relatively intact in their cardboard containers. The Hamburglar’s paper-wrapped Double Quarter Pounders with Cheese weren’t so lucky, but there were a few that had kept their shape. He passed one to her and she passed him a Big Mac in exchange and they feasted.
It may have been the weed, but stolen McDonald’s cheeseburgers were vastly superior to any Victoria had ever paid for.
They went on a spree, robbing every McDonald’s due east of Chicago as they raced to the Detroit border. The police caught up with them somewhere near Battle Creek. The Hamburglar raised his greasy red gloves as the State Trooper approached their gray car, gun drawn on the driver’s side window. He commanded them to exit the vehicle with their hands held high. Victoria stumbled on gravel when she stepped onto the highway shoulder, skinning her bare knees and then the palms of her hands on the asphalt. The second State Trooper approached her, his Glock aimed with terrifying precision, and barked some order. The world went yellow and a high-pitched ringing needled at Victoria’s ears. She vomited right there on the side of the road. It was pink, like raw meat, and it tasted like ketchup and pickles. The rest of the burgers followed, flowing out of her in a pink torrent. The second State Trooper cursed and put down his gun. The Hamburglar was on his knees just a few feet away. He locked eyes with Victoria and said he was sorry, again and again, as the first State Trooper cinched his hands together and then kicked him in the kidney.
The Hamburglar was convicted to five years for armed robbery. Victoria got one year probation because they played it off like she was a hostage with a minor case of Stockholm Syndrome. She kept clean, found a new job prepping real estate sales for CBRE, and visited the Hamburglar every weekend. Prison chiseled the Hamburglar into a man. Every time Victoria saw him, he was narrower than before, his rounded edges refined into harsh angles. He told her he’d been under some kind of addict’s spell that compelled him to steal McDonald’s cheeseburgers for reasons he couldn’t fathom, but prison was eating away at his past motivations and infecting him with a reason to go on, and that reason was her and the life she promised. He was out on good behavior after two years and seven months. Two months later, Victoria married him.
Then came the years of peace: their honeymoon to Greece; the birth of Connor, who was conceived on that honeymoon; Victoria’s rise through the vicious ranks of real estate; the Hamburglar’s recovery and his job hauling lumber at Home Depot; the move to the suburbs; the Camry; the Sony Entertainment System; the suffocation of their youth. All through this, the Hamburglar insisted he was done with McDonald’s. His anarchist impulses, he said, had been cauterized by his experiences in prison, which he never wanted to discuss. Victoria had lost the appetite for McDonald’s cheeseburgers on the side of the interstate, so she took the Hamburglar at his word, but every now and then she’d taste a familiar blend of salt and fat on his lips and wonder where he’d been.
Victoria was drifting off to sleep in the La-Z-Boy, the Hamburglar still nowhere to be found, when she noticed the light on in Connor’s room. She shut her iPad’s cover and hoisted herself out of the chair. Connor was still awake, listlessly paging through his favorite Avengers book. He asked Victoria if Dad was coming home soon. She sat on the edge of his tiny bed. I don’t think so, she said.
Connor’s room was filled with Marvel Superheroes paraphernalia. His favorite was Captain America. Victoria had always thought it funny how her son was drawn to masked vigilantes. She was uncertain about the legality of the Avengers’ actions, but it was clear that they were the Good Guys. They rescued innocent bystanders. They stopped robberies. They captured criminals. Victoria picked up a Captain America action figure and ran her thumb around his red-white-and-blue shield. The Hamburglar was always buying Connor these toys, spending money they didn’t have, but it made their son happy and that was enough.
Where did he go? Connor said.
The lie just came to her, but as she spoke she knew it was a story she’d been preparing to tell from the moment she decided to marry the Hamburglar.
Your dad was once a hero, she said to Connor. He wasn’t a superhero like Captain America. He was more a folk hero, like Robin Hood. What he did was he dressed up in a costume and he robbed McDonald’s restaurants of all the cheeseburgers they had. You see, he hated McDonald’s with all his heart because they’d driven his own father, who owned a small diner, out of business. This was back when your dad was still a kid like you. Every time he saw a McDonald’s after that he got very sad, then very angry. Now, McDonald’s is a big scary corporation and it’s impossible to fight them if you’re just a regular person, so he became someone who did have the power to fight them, someone who could inspire others.
Victoria’s phone rang. It was a number she didn’t recognize. She ignored it and took her son’s hand. He looked up at her, eyes wide.
Well, your dad, as you know, was breaking the law when he did what he did, so he got in trouble. They sent him to jail. I bet you didn’t know your dad was in jail. After they let him out, he decided he’d struck a good blow against McDonald’s and it was time to settle down, marry me, and have you. But a hero’s work is never done. When your dad found out that McDonald’s was introducing the Sirloin Third Pound Burger, he had to do something. You see, the sirloin third pound burger was his father’s specialty at the diner, and selling that burger was like spitting in your dad’s face.
Did he go to steal them all? Connor said.
Victoria’s phone rang again. She pictured the Hamburglar, still dressed in whatever new costume he’d come up with and kept hidden away from his wife and child for untold years, a black mark staining his face where the arresting officer had clubbed him with a truncheon, sitting there in the county jail with the hard plastic phone pressed against his ear and a jacked-up guard standing over him, arms crossed, his patience wearing thin.
Yes, she told her son. That’s just the kind of man he is.