The lunch crowd was just starting to die out around the time Marty entered the dingy old diner. No doubt the dive had seen better days, probably before Sputnik caused millions of Russkies to raise a toast to the skies. The joint smelled of greasy burgers and body odor, and The Box Tops were warbling “The Letter” out of small distorted speakers strategically placed around the establishment. Marty had taken two steps inside the door before a twenty-something brunette baby doll in an apron walked out to greet him.
Baby Doll ushered him to a red vinyl booth that seemed to be held together by silver duct tape. Marty slid into the booth and picked up a menu.
“Can I get you a glass of water?” asked Baby Doll. Marty didn’t look up from his menu, but said yes, he would take some water. He scanned the typo-laden menu, which looked as though it had been printed around the time Ronnie Raygun took his bullet, when a small blonde girl clutching a stuffed Teddy bear approached his table.
Marty looked up at her, blinking. “Mister?” she inquired, utterly unfazed by his adultness.
Marty nodded, signaling that she had his attention.
“Do you got a quarter?”
He grinned uneasily, looking around to see where the child’s mother was. He spotted her, standing up at the front counter paying her bill. “Suppose I do,” he said. “What are you gonna do with it?”
The little girl’s eyes lit up. “I’m gonna put it in the gumball machine and get me a gumball. Hopefully it’s a red one.”
“You like the red ones, huh?” he asked, producing a shiny quarter.
The little girl nodded. “Uh-huh.”
“The red ones are the best,” he said, winking as he held out the quarter.
The little girl snatched the shiny coin from his hand. Already turned and halfway to the gumball machine she said, “Thanks, mister!” Marty looked back down at the menu, trying to make the important decision of just what to have for lunch. It was a difficult decision. Should he have the open-faced roast beef sandwich? Or maybe a mushroom swiss burger? Or a double-decker cheeseburger. And then, even once he’d made his selection, there would still be sides to consider; mashed potatoes with brown gravy or a helping of golden French fries?
He was still weighing these options when Baby Doll reemerged with a green, plastic cup of ice water. She sat it down on the table beside the napkin-rolled silverware. Still peering down at the menu, Marty asked, “What’s good here?”
He looked up at Baby Doll, her big brown eyes twinkling, a ready-made howdy-do service smile plastered on her features. “Everything’s good here,” she chirped, her voice annoyingly happy the way only morning people who actually liked Mondays could manage.
“What do you suggest?” he asked, trying again. “What do you eat here?”
She flashed a perfect brilliant-white Weather Girl smile and said, “I eat here every day. Mr. Thompson lets us eat on a discount. It’s not much, but at least it’s something. Every little bit helps, you know?”
Marty showed her a fake smile. “So what do you eat?”
“Oh, I only eat salads,” she said happily. “With little chunks of chicken, French dressing, and extra croutons.”
Marty shook his head. “No, no, that won’t do for me.”
Baby Doll’s face twisted in confusion. “Why’s that?”
“Because I hate vegetables.”
“My little brother hates vegetables, too,” said Baby Doll, as if she was trying to comfort him about something he should be embarrassed about.
“I really hate vegetables,” said Marty. “I hate them more than anything.”
Baby Doll bit her lip. “Anything in the whole world?”
“Pretty much,” he said, nodding. “Pickles are the worst.”
Baby Doll smiled as if she might laugh. “I didn’t think anybody hated pickles.” She said it in a judgmental way that made it sound ridiculous, as if he was the only son of a bitch on God’s green earth that hated the briny things.
“Yep,” he said. “I hate ’em.”
“Why’s that?” inquired Baby Doll, her order pad and pen held steady at her chest.
“Who can say?” said Marty. “I’ll tell you what—I’ll just have the double-decker cheeseburger. Is that pretty greasy?”
Baby Doll looked unsure of what her answer was supposed to be. “I guess… Well, not too greasy. Do you, uh, do you like greasy cheeseburgers?”
Marty laid the menu back down on the table, still looking at the girl’s soft China doll features. “Hell yeah,” he said. “Who doesn’t love a good greasy cheeseburger? Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Relieved, Baby Doll shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Good,” she said. “Mr. Thompson makes the greasiest burgers you’ve ever seen. The grease just drips off of ’em. They’re real messy. Some people love that, but then others…”
Marty nodded. “They don’t care so much for that.”
“Right,” she said, repositioning her pen to write. “What kind of side would you like?”
“I’ll go with the French fries.”
Baby Doll smiled. “I’ll bet you eat ’em with gobs of ketchup.”
Marty grinned. “Guilty as charged. I drown them in it.”
“I thought so,” she said, nodding happily about her being correct. “I’ll get your order in and it’ll be out in a few minutes.”
He stopped her. “One more thing.”
She looked back at him. “Yeah?”
“No lettuce, tomatoes, onion, and above everything else, absolutely no pickles.”
She nodded in a perky way that made him wonder what she would be like as a sexual partner. “Got ya, boss. No pickles.”
“At all,” he said. “Seriously, no pickles.”
She smiled big, flirting just a bit. “Or what, mister?”
He grinned back. “Let’s just say I’ll be really angry.”
“Well, we don’t want that,” she said, still flirting. “After all, I want my tip.”
And Baby Doll turned and walked back to the counter, making a point of swishing her ass as she did. Marty watched her as she went away, nodding his head to some crusty old banjo-laden country-western song about broken hearts and cowboy boots.
About eight minutes passed before Baby Doll appeared at his table again. While waiting, Marty had tolerated the grating music which filled the room, occasionally looking up at a muted soap opera on the old black-and-white TV hanging at the front of the room. Baby Doll sat the plastic plate, piled with French fries, down on the table in front of him. It smelled good and Marty was ready to dig in.
Seeing that he had drained his water cup, Baby Doll asked, “Would you like me to get you a refill?” Already anticipating the answer, she picked up the empty cup before he could even speak, and she turned and walked away.
Marty inhaled the pungent fried potato smell and reached for the ketchup bottle. He unscrewed its lid, dumping a ridiculous amount of the stuff onto his fries. He then lifted the hamburger bun to apply ketchup there, as well. When he did, he was horrified to see three slices of neon green cucumber affronteries to humankind sitting there atop his cheesy burger patty. He forced himself to avert his gaze, fighting back the feeling of impending vomit. He slid the plate across the table, away from him.
“Goddammit,” he said, his stomach still turning from the unexpected pickle sighting.
A moment later Baby Doll returned with the condensation-coated cup, now fully refilled. He looked up at her, their eyes locking, and she knew right away that something was wrong.
“Is there a problem?” she asked.
He nodded, looking back down at his defaced burger. “I’m afraid so,” he answered grimly. He looked up at her again. “It’s all fucked up.”
Baby Doll cocked her head like a puppy hearing a high-pitched sound, wrinkling her brow as she did. “What do you mean?”
Marty raised his hand and pointed at the plate. Her eyes tracked from the tip of his finger to the burger sitting a few inches away.
“Go on,” he said. “Take a look at it. Look under the bun.”
Confused by what was he happening, Baby Doll reached out and pulled back the bun, revealing the nasty little bastards in all their abominable glory. But she still didn’t understand. She looked at him questioningly.
“Pickles,” he said. “They’re all over the damned thing.”
She started to laugh, unable to control herself. “That’s it? That’s the big drama?”
Marty glared at her. “I told you—I really hate pickles.”
And he stood up.
It was just after two when Sgt. Malone pulled his police cruiser into the diner’s parking lot. He switched off the red lights and climbed out of the car, walking over to where the other officers were congregated. They turned and saw him.
“What seems to be the story here?” asked Malone.
“Nine people dead inside,” responded the cop. Malone had never seen him before and figured he was new to the job.
“How’d they do it?”
The cop made a face of disgust. “Shot up the place, blood all over the walls, everywhere. It’s a goddamn slaughter party. It’s like the fuckin’ Wild Bunch in there.”
Malone nodded, letting it all sink in. “Robbery?”
“It doesn’t appear to be,” said the young cop. “There appear to be other motives.”
Malone nodded again. “Any surveillance cameras?”
“No, sir,” the young cop said. “But there was another thing—a really strange thing—that I’ve got to show you.”
“Take me to it,” said Malone, already on the move towards the diner’s entrance. He read a sign in the window as he did. “Their sign says they got the best burgers in town. You figure that’s true?”
“Beats me,” said the young cop, now leading the way.
“I kind of doubt it,” said Malone. “Everybody always makes that claim. Then you get the burger and it’s just a regular old burger.”
“Yeah,” said, not really paying attention. He led the older officer into the blood-drenched crime scene. He walked towards one of the bodies—a young Amish man with a dingy Duck Dynasty beard lying there on the tile—and squatted down over him. “I want you to see this,” said the cop.
Malone squatted down beside him, looking at the bloody corpse. That’s when he noticed for the first time that the corpse had something covering its eyes. “He’s got something in his eye sockets,” he observed.
The younger cop nodded. “All of ’em do.”
Malone reached down and plucked the tiny object from the dead man’s eye. “Well, hell. It’s a goddamn pickle,” he said. “What do you make out of that?”
“I have no fucking idea, sir,” the cop said, trying to parse it all out. “Maybe someone just really hated pickles.” The two cops remained there squatting, laughing at the improbability of this scenario.