On my walks around Moscow someone occasionally decides – usually for no other reason than they thing it might be “fun” – to mess with me in some way. I have had cars swerve into puddles to splash me intentionally. I have been yelled at as a way to startle me – or to insult me. I have had things thrown at me. Almost without fail, these incidents have been instigated by groups of young men. I’ve seen a bit of this beyond my Moscow wanderings. In my younger days, I worked as a security officer at a university and witnessed a remarkable range of stupidity. Much of it was benign, but the occasional heartbreaking incidents where this stupid behavior became damaging or criminal have stayed with me all my life.
So when this hamburger bun – easily the strangest item I had photographed so far – showed up on my walk, it was easy to imagine that it was part of an all too familiar “boys will be boys” story. A story that would weave – a little sadly and a little hopefully – into this world of Unpaired.
“Would you just eat the damn burger, Z?” It was 12:14 AM on December 21 and the speaker, leaning forward through the gap between the front seats of the blue Audi A4 was talking to the young man in the passenger seat.
“But how the hell is it perfectly clean? That’s what I want to know.” Zack, in the passenger seat, had a red and white Quarter Pounder clamshell box sitting on his left thigh. Most of the sandwich itself was upside down in the top half of the package; he held the bottom bun in his left hand. “Shouldn’t there be onions or relish or burger juice on it?”
The young man leaning through from the back seat said, “The onions should be there.” He pointed to the exposed bottom surface of the all-beef patty.
“How the fuck would you know?” the driver asked.
“I worked at McFuckers for a few weeks.”
The driver glanced at the face poking between the seats. “Of course you did,” he said. “Anyway, I ordered it without onions.”
Zack looked at him, “Why? And by the way, where the hell are we going?” The Audi was driving up the hill on F Street, having just passed the football stadium.
“Onions are disgusting. And we’re driving around.”
“I like onions.”
“Tough shit. I’m driving. I’m in charge. I pick the music. I determine where we’re going. I order from the drive through.”
“You’re a dick,” Zack said.
“You’re the man,” the young man in the back seat said.
The driver turned and seemed to address the bun in Zack’s left hand, “Apparently I’m a rapist.” He turned the car through the free left turn at the top of F Street onto Hayes.
There was silence in the car for a long moment before the young man in the back seat plucked the bun from Zack’s hand while simultaneously pushing the window button to his right. As the window buzzed down, he said, “If you are, we all are.” He tossed the bun out the window.
“What the fuck?” Zack said as the bun tumbled to a stop face up on the ice 28 inches from the curb on the West side of Hayes Street. The Audi continued south on Hayes.
“Stop bitching and eat your burger,” the driver said.
“I’m not a rapist,” Zack said quietly as he closed the clamshell in his lap.
“You ARE eating this,” the young man in the back seat tapped the burger package. He had mis-heard Zack’s previous statement.
Zack didn’t respond. His brow was furrowed and his eyes were slightly squinting now. He was looking off to his right. The Audi slowed to 13 MPH as it reached the stop sign at D Street, then accelerated through the intersection.
Four minutes later, the Audi turned right on Third Street. Just west of Polk Street, the car slowed and pulled to the curb. The three young men got out of the car. The driver and the young man from the back seat crossed Third and went up the steps to a house just west of mid-block. Zack trailed behind. The driver opened the door to the house, looked at the young man standing next to him and then looked down toward Zack, now standing on the sidewalk at the bottom of the steps. “The fuck is wrong with you, Z?”
“He’s sad about his onions,” the young man who had been in the back seat said as he pushed past the driver through the door.
. . .
Twelve hours and four minutes later, a lanky man came out of a house on the West side of Hayes Street and turned south. Almost immediately, he stopped. If anyone had been nearby, they would have heard him chuckle. He pulled out his phone, crouched down and pointed the back of the phone at the hamburger bun, still sitting undisturbed on the ice near the curb. After a moment, he stood up, put his phone in a jacket pocket and continued south.
As the lanky man stood up on Hayes Street, Zack was sitting in the coffee shop at the corner of Sixth and Main Streets. He sat at a table tucked under the balcony. He was sipping black coffee from a small paper cup. He was listening to the Christmas music on the coffee shop sound system – “Mary, Did you Know.” There was a cup on the other side of the table. It brimmed with frothy foam.
He was staring at the tea bag that had floated and emerged from the foam when he heard the barista say “Emma!” quite loudly and then “Hi, Lacey.” He leaned back in his chair and looked around the lath-paneled pillar toward the counter. Lacey was standing beside a stroller. He watched her pull one white and one blue glove off and put them in the pocket of her coat. She extracted a wallet from another pocket. The barista pointed in his direction and he heard her say, “he’s bought it for you already.” Lacey’s head turned toward him and she smiled when her eyes met his. She put her wallet back in the coat pocket and stepped behind the stroller. He turned back to the computer on his table. He closed the lid, put his elbows on the table and leaned his forehead on his knuckles.
“Hey, Z,” Lacey said, touching his shoulder. Emma said “Zeeeee!” from the stroller.
Zack turned to Lacey and smiled. “Hiya. Hey Emma.” He reached his fist out toward the stroller. A tiny fist emerged from the stroller and touched his. There was an attempt at an explosion sound effect from Emma as both fists expanded and ten fingers waggled. “Mary, did you know” ended and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” started.
“Her father was reaching to get her out of the stroller yesterday and she bumped his fist and made that noise and did that with her fingers. The look on that poor man’s face… Are you okay? You look tired.”
“I didn’t sleep much last night.”
“Boys’ night out,” she said with a smile and acrobatic eyebrow movements.
“Yeah. Sort of. I actually didn’t stay out very late. I – I couldn’t get to sleep after.”
“Room spinning?” She was still grinning.
“No. No. I… Lace.” He put his forehead back on his knuckles.
“Zack, what’s wrong?”
He looked up. “I – it’s something Rob said. When we were driving around. I…” He trailed off and turned away.
“Zack, what the hell?” Neither of them heard Emma begin to chant “watt. da. hell. watt. da. hell. watt. da. hell.”
“Okay. This is really weird and I don’t know how to – anyway. The first time we – you know…” He looked at her and saw her smile shift. He turned away from her, looking down at the table and continued, “We had both been drinking and I spent most of last night looking back at … it. And well…”
“Are you saying I forced you?” Lacey said. He turned sharply and looked at her. He searched her face and found only a small smile. In this silence, they could now both hear Emma’s chant. They both turned and looked at the little girl in the stroller. “Emma. Stop, please,” Lacey said. She then put her right hand on Zack’s left wrist and said, “You aren’t him. You do know he’s a dick, right?”
Zack’s response was to sigh and to break eye contact.
“Zack!” she said loudly. He turned back to her. “Do you know how many times you said, ‘are you sure?’ to me that night?” He shook his head. She said, “I don’t either, but I think it was more than ten and it almost cost you the opportunity to get into my pants.”
“Lace!” he said and looked around to see if anyone had overheard.
She laughed and ultimately so did he. The song ended and they fell into silence. They heard Emma chanting “pants. pants. pants. pants.” They laughed again. Their laughter was oddly loud in the silence of the coffee shop. They stopped and Lacey looked at Zack and took his hand.
She said, “You know she wasn’t the first girl he did that to, right?” The music finally started up again – “Jingle Bell Rock.” After a moment he nodded. She took a sip of her London Fog and said, “Thank you.”
. . .
On Hayes Street, a white 1996 Ford F250 rolled south and ran over the hamburger bun. The temperature was 34 degrees so the liquid in the bun was still near solid. The deep mud and snow tread of the front right tire pressed into the bun and lifted it cleanly from the street. As the truck continued south, the bun left a faint, floury, circular impression 100.7 inches from where the bun had rested through the night. As it rolled south toward D Street, it left an identical circle on the asphalt every 100.7 inches. By the time the truck had turned west on D Street, continued down the long hill, turned south on main and entered the drive-through line at Dutch Brothers Coffee, the bun had met the street 504 times and the residue being left was no longer visible to the naked eye.