The 1000 Pound Hamburger
It was already dark when Sipak parked the Daru-Taxi in the alley. The slap of his sandals against the ground turned from a sharp flap to a muted thud as the concrete gave way to red dirt. The smell of curry and mint tea mixed in the air with the stench of wet garbage. It made his stomach turn.
Rice again, with butter and safflower and lean chicken. Sipak scooped another handful into his mouth using the flat, warm khobas-bread his wife had waited in line for hours for. He swallowed without tasting, and grunted irritably when his wife asked him if he wanted any tamarind juice. Rising and walking to the bedroom, he nearly tripped over a schoolbook that one of the children had left on the floor. Cursing, he reached out and slapped his eldest daughter across the ear, shouting at her for not making the younger ones keep the house clean. Shutting the curtain behind him, Sipak sat down on on the thin, ragged mattress in the corner of the room. He waited for a moment, his breath held, listening to his wife clear the platters from the floor and Fasila screech at her little sisters. Outside, Sipak could hear the muezzin from the Muslim quarter, and the sound of lorries carrying gravel and chalk to the factories.
When he was sure he was safe, Sipak lifted the corner of the mattress where it covered an old drain in the floor. He lifted the grate and reached down until he could feel the knot of the plastic bag. He carefully lifted it, making sure to not let any of its contents rattle. Crouched over it he undid the knot and spilled it out onto the cool tiles. Coins. Warm cotton bank notes. Scraps of papers with I.O.Us scratched into them. Sipak lipped his scabbed lips and arranged the notes into piles, counting them and then scraping them into new ranks and counting them again. 250 pounds in 5 pound notes. 323 pounds in 1 pound notes. 98 pounds in 1 pound coins. 50 pounds to be collected from Gulshan, who he had sold a tire to. 12 pounds from Um Sayeed, who he had lent some rice. To the pile, Sipak added some notes and coins that he had not shown his wife.
Almost, he thought to himself, almost.
It had been nearly a year that he started saving. Nearly a year since the hamburger.
It was at Martyr's square, where all the Daru-Taxi drivers would line up and shout over each other. "Come with me! Come with me! Only 5 pounds for a ride across the city!"
"This man is a thief! Only 3 pounds for me!"
"7 pounds to the airport! Only 7 pounds!"
Across the square, the men who wore sunglasses and black silk suites would smoke imported cigarettes and look at their Rolex's, making sure that they flashed in the sun so everyone could see. Their drivers would come for them in black sedan-cars with tinted windows. Sipak would look at the men across the square and lick his lips. He would imagine the taste of the imported cigarettes. He would dream that he was standing there, looking at his watch and cursing his driver for being late, and his driver would just say how apologetic he was, and Sipak would wonder aloud if he should pay him at all, and then the driver would begin to cry and beg and Sipak would just laugh. Then he would go home to a house on the hill, one with white walls and barbed wire at the top, and with a wife with blonde hair like a foreigner.
On a miserable day in November, Sipak was standing in the rain, holding his jacket tight and cursing under his breath. Across the almost deserted square, he saw one man with black sunglasses and a silk suit, look again at his Rolex-watch and stomp his foot in anger. The man looked up and saw Sipak and he began to walk over.
"Hey! How much? For the Regency, how much?"
"Only 5 pounds, sir." Sipak stammered, "and fast. Only 5 pounds. Truly as-"
"OK, OK." the man said. He stood there for a moment, and Sipak suddenly realized what he wanted and hurriedly opened the door of the Daru for him. As Sipak drove, he could smell the cigarettes the man was lighting. As they crawled through the crowded streets, smoke filled up the cab. It made Sipak's eyes water and his stomach lurch. All the while the man in the back talked angrily on a cell phone, pausing only to light another cigarette and ask if they were close yet.
"On my beloved children, not further, not further, sir." Sipak would murmur, but the man would already be back to shouting at someone at the other end.
When they pulled up to the hotel, Sipak nearly fell scrambling out to open the door for the man and help him with his bags. A porter in an ugly red jacket had already rushed forward and elbowed Sipak out of the way to pick up the man's suitcase. The man gave Sipak a 5 pound note, but no tip. As Sipak got back into the Daru, he saw that the man had forgotten a little brown paper bag. Snatching it up, Sipak lifted himself out the window and began calling out- but the man had already vanished inside the great marble building. Sipak parked the taxi and ran to the hotel, his sandals slapping hard against the brackish puddles. He pushed his way past the doorman and looked around the lobby for the man.
There- at the restaurant. He was just seated at a table with flamingo-pink napkins. A waiter was already bringing him his food.
"Sir!" Sipak shouted, "Sir, you forgot your bag!"
The man looked up and waved Sipak forward. The waiter sneered at him, but Sipak bowed his head and presented the bag.
"Very good," The man said, fishing another five pound note out of his wallet and handing it to Sipak.
"Thank you, sir. A thousand thanks."
The man smiled weakly but didn't look up. The waiter pulled the cover off of the tray he had carried and a wave of thick, warm smells washed over Sipak.
There on the plate was a hamburger, a thick, mouth-watering slab of ground beef tucked between two fluffy loaves of foreigner-bread. Sipak could see mushrooms and lettuce and diced onions peeking out from underneath, and the first trails of mustard were beginning to run down the sides. Sipak stood there, gazing dumbstruck at the plate.
"What's this?" The man said, surprised to see Sipak still there. "Very well, then." He reached into his pocket and pulled out another 5 pound note.
"Now be off with you."
Sipak's tongue felt heavy in his mouth. He scooped up the note and bowed again, shuffling out of the restaurant. He could hear his sandals slap deafeningly against the marble, made glossy from the glow of the crystal chandeliers hanging above.
It was that day that Sipak changed.
He would drive the Daru-Taxi back and forth through the winding streets, promising his enraged fares that he was only avoiding traffic. He took to hanging up baby pictures of his children in the window of the cab, and remark on how he had six children, and another on the way, and who knows how he will provide for them all. In the grey hours before dawn he would go out onto the road leading to the factory and sell cigarettes to the workers. He rummaged through the trash heaps like a beggar, searching for scrap metal to sell to the hadadae. When he tried to collect from Um Sayeed, she cursed at him and told him that she did not yet have his money. When he threatened to come back with the police, she gave him 10 pounds and the tie from her son's closet.
A year of this.
Selling cigarettes and cheating customers and counting bank notes in the dark. At night, Sipak would kick the heavy, itchy blankets off of him. He would lie there, imagining that he was dressed in his finest clothes. He would go into the hotel, and be seated by the same sneering waiter, now contrite and groveling. He would casually point the hamburger on the menu, as if it didn't really matter what they brought him. And he would sink his teeth into that burger, feeling the softness of the foreigner-bread, and the delicious crunch of the onions and mushrooms. And then the cool of the mustard before returning to the juicy warmth of the meat. And who's to say that he would not be offered a cigarette by one of the men at another table? They would start up a conversation about business, and Sipak would tell him all about how he could be given a 1 pound note at dawn and turn it into 5 before the sun had set. And who's to say that the man wouldn't be impressed, and say "Sipak, old boy, you are just the kind of man my business needs. Not like these layabouts and malhesh." And soon he would be moving his wife into a house on the hill with gardens and high walls. And he would be driven into town in a black sedan-car, and even have an apartment in the city for a foreign mistress. Who's to say that he wouldn't?
When the day came, Sipak couldn't sleep at all. Even before the trucks full of chalk and gravel rattled down the road to the factory, he rose and carefully lifted the corner of the mattress. His wife stirred softly, but did not rise, and Sipak scooped up the bag and tucked it gently into the pocket of his coat. He did not take the Daru-Taxi to Martyr's Square, but instead to the Muslim quarter, where there were khaeyat shops. There he bought himself immaculate white pants, and a silver shirt, and a white jacket to match. He bought a pair of cream-colored shoes, and when he did not have enough for socks, let the hem of his trousers hang over them. In the mirror of the Daru-Taxi, he combed back his hair and gelled it, and sprayed cologne on himself until he could smell nothing else. Parking the Daru-Taxi three blocks away, he confidently pushed his way through the crowd until he came to the hotel.
The porter there did not open the door for him right away, but Sipak stood there until he did. Inside, he walked straight to the restaurant, delighting in the shrill squeak of his shoes against the glossy marble.
He had meant to wait for the menu, as he did so many times in his dreams, but excitedly asked for a hamburger the moment the waiter walked over. He sat there, running his fingertips across the flamingo-pink napkins and licking his chapped lips. Sipak could smell the hamburger even before the waiter had lifted the lid over the plate. Rich and strange. With hands that almost trembled, Sipak lifted the hamburger up to his mouth and sank his teeth into it.
But it was all wrong.
The foreigner-bread tasted dry. The onions did not snap but were instead oily and slippery. The meat crumbled, and his teeth bounced on it like rubber. A torrent of ketchup and mustard spilled out of the back and onto the clean, porcelain plate. Another bite, and just more of the dry, tasteless mess.
"Hey!" Sipak whispered to the table next to him. When they did not hear him, he hissed louder.
A man with round spectacles looked up at him.
Sipak could barely keep the panic out of his voice. "Is there something wrong with your food?"
The man shrugged. "It tastes the same as always to me."
"A new cook? Have they hired a new cook?"
"I don't know."
"Is it possible?"
"I said I don't know. Leave me be, won't you?"
He leaned away, and Sipak turned back to his plate. The hamburger sat there, two bites missing. Onions and mushrooms hanging limply off of the edges. A few crumbs of beef sinking into globs of yellow mustard.
Sipak slapped his hand to his mouth, but not before a strangled sob escaped. And then another. And another. Sipak rested his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands, just as the tears began to flow.
Gordon Brown is a former expat, recently moved back to the US from Syria (where he grew up). Since his arrival in the New World he has been published in Danse Macabre. He spends his free time writing feverishly and looking after his cats, of which he has none.