Ed Johnson was as happy as any man who had just enjoyed a steak dinner for only four dollars and 99 cents, plus tax. Patting his swollen stomach, he paid the bill and then shuffled down to the gaming floor, where Helen was busy working the slots.
It seemed like only yesterday they had first vacationed at Chief Big Wampum’s Casino and Resort. Ed fondly remembered piling his wife and kids into the old Buick station wagon for the long drive from the city. Every summer, they would rent the same little cabin on Lake Teepee and play miniature golf until the moon rose high over the shimmering water. He sighed. The kids were grown up, and the Buick died years ago. But Helen was still with him, beautiful as ever.
Ed found her straddling a stool between two machines, where, for the last 12 hours, she had been plunking in nickels and pushing buttons, pausing only to reload every few minutes with a fresh Virginia Slims. When one of the machines began spewing coins, Ed sidled up to her. “My gal’s got the golden touch tonight,” he said, gently squeezing her shoulder. Helen felt his rough, familiar hands and looked up, smiling. “Eddie,” she said, “my legs are asleep and I gotta take a dump. Wanna help me up?”
“Of course, my sweet,” Ed replied. “Of course.”
No one in the Burger King saw Tina slide her Whopper under the table and stuff it with the head and torso of a freshly killed rat, which she had covertly removed from her purse moments earlier. No one, that is, but Glenn. He had watched the lovely but sad young woman from the moment she had walked into the restaurant. And now, as she was surely about to take a bite of the adulterated sandwich and let loose a hideous shriek, he sat down across the table from her. Shocked, Tina dropped her Whopper. “You don’t have to do this,” Glenn whispered. “I’ve figured out a way I can pay for the wedding. I’ll even have enough money to get you that engagement ring I promised.”
“But how?” Tina asked, fighting to hold back the tears. “Love of my life, how can you possibly come up with all that money?” Glenn smiled grimly. Slowly, he lifted the bun of his fish sandwich like the lid of a jewelry box. To Tina’s surprise and delight, the fried cod fillet was studded with small pieces of broken glass, which sparkled like diamonds in the flickering fluorescent light.
Standing in line one afternoon at a café, two strangers, Jason and Maria, struck up a conversation and soon discovered a shared interest in Dave Matthews. Then there was a joke made about ravioli. An hour later, their souls had embraced.
As he sipped the last of his coffee, Jason stared approvingly at Maria’s glowing skin, pouting lips, and seductive curves. And from across the table, Maria admired his perfectly coifed blond hair, preternaturally chiseled arms and chest, and a beaming smile that never seemed to falter. At that moment, nothing mattered to them but each other. They held hands and discussed the heated intercourse they would enjoy later that day.
Suddenly, Jason hesitated. Things were going too quickly, and he had been hurt before. “Whoa, this is crazy,” he said, his voice muffled by a gargantuan plastic head. “Maria, I don’t even know your last name!”
Her last name. For a moment, Maria said nothing. If there was one thing her family held dear, it was that name. Her beloved grandfather had carried that name with him to Ellis Island almost a century ago. Later, he had refused to change it to sound more “American,” and had endured with quiet dignity a lifetime of jeers and threats and other small-minded cruelties, even from his closest colleagues at the yam-canning factory. His pride in that name had been unshakable. So was Maria’s pride in her grandfather. She cleared her throat.
“Clementine … Maria Clementine,” said Maria Pukestain-Hitlerpimple, fiddling nervously with her tea infuser. “What a beautiful name,” Jason replied, itching and sweating beneath his ponderous costume and its scratchy inner lining. Hearing this, Maria smiled wider than she’d ever smiled before. “And you’re a beautiful person!” she said with excitement and relief, squeezing his mittlike hand. “Oh, Tom Tasty, we were meant to be together. I just know it!” It was only then Jason Feldstein remembered he was still dressed as Tom Tasty, cartoon mascot for a national chain of buffet restaurants. Dear God, he thought, looking out the window at a nearby street corner. I forgot to hand out the rest of those fliers!
Beautiful, starstruck Maria talked dreamily about the romantic evening ahead, and Jason tried to nod politely as he searched for the strength to confess his secret. But the top-heavy Tom Tasty head exaggerated the nod, pulling Jason’s own head up and then down with terrific force, like he could not have agreed with her more.