What Cheeseburgers Look Like in Kansas by Katie O’Neill

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open-road-kansas farms on side

I don’t know why I thought the drive from Indiana to California with my boyfriend, Matt, and his sister’s cats would be fun. For a better job and to find a gay community, his sister, Liz, moved from Indianapolis to West Hollywood. After I told her how traumatized my two family cats were on a plane during my family’s move from California to Indiana, she decided that her two cats, Climber and Ollie, had to be transported in her car.

Since Matt and I weren’t doing much, we offered to drive her car and cats to California. My year-long volunteer job of driving a mobile library to summer camps and schools for the American Red Cross had ended, and I had nothing to do but wait to start graduate school in the next few weeks. Matt was in his fifth year of college, studying financial management, and he struggled with his waitering job to pay for rent, utilities, guns, ammunition, and dates. At first, a paid road trip with cats sounded like a vacation. So a week later at five in the morning, we packed up Liz’s small, silver sedan with two cats in cages, one litter box, two coolers, three suitcases, four stacks of wet cat food, and two turkey sandwiches. Backing out of his parents’ driveway, we read the pity and worry on their faces that said: Im glad Im not you guys.

By the time we crossed into Kansas, about five hours after we began, I was annoyed. The cats clawed and meowed, and the radio twanged country music. The air smelled sour from pheromone spray I was told to mist into the cats’ faces every couple of hours to calm them down. Mile after mile the scenery was the same: dry, rough, and brown as a tortoise shell. After a year and a half of dating, I let out a dramatic sigh that Matt recognized as a very bad sign.

“Hey Katie, what do you think about Spencer and I opening a distillery in Indy?”

“I don’t know, how much money does that take? Probably a lot with how much space and supplies you need.”

“We’d figure it out,” he said in his usual upbeat tone, “you could help with the money you’d get from writing and selling your books.”

“Like that’s going to happen.”

Ever since I was accepted into a graduate program for creative writing, he thought that anything I scribbled would turn to gold. He thought that it was easy to write. He thought that graduate school for creative writing was the equivalent to receiving a PEN/Hemingway award.

I sporadically responded to his ideas about what houses downtown he wanted to flip for profit, or how cool it would be to be a gun salesman. He mumbled about his dreams and job prospects that were as far from his reach as California was to Kansas, and I asked myself, for the one-hundredth time, if we would last.

Matt was attractive. His thick brown hair sat perfectly on his head and curled like teased ribbon when it got long. His nose was straight and flared like a clarinet. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t grow a beard. The permanent freckles Matt got from a bad childhood sunburn at the Indiana Beaches left his face warm. Our legs were the same length, but his torso was flexible enough for him to lean down and kiss me; I didn’t have to tip my toes. He had patience, a quality I lacked, and he never stayed upset for long. He hated video games, professional sports, and throw pillows—all, we agreed, were pointless. I found it endearing that he didn’t want to be a lawyer or a doctor or a financial planner. But I didn’t know how long charming idiosyncrasies outweighed practicality. I worried that his musings about opening a brewery, a distillery, or flipping houses were only random gusts, not a steady breeze, of ambition. I worried that his ADHD—he never finished a book or chore without starting another, and ended up finishing neither—would soon no longer amuse me. I was beginning to think that six T-shirts with holes and two pairs of jeans that completed his wardrobe was not actually a smart way to save money. As I looked at him now, he seemed childish and a little dirty.

As the cats meowed and the Kansas wind slapped the windshield, I worried about how long I would stay attractive to him. My mood fluctuated as often as my weight, and maybe he was finding my snippy comments—that he once thought were spunky—bitchy. He would find my advice on how I would write a paper, or study for a test, not as welcomed or kind but condescending and pretentious. I was not the fun and carefree girl he met at a bar eighteen months before, and he wasn’t the handsome, charming guy, either.

Already, at twenty-four years old, I worried if Matt was going to be financially successful. Some of that worry was my own refusal to take responsibility for myself. I never had to worry about money. My parents paid for my life as an undergraduate student, my rent when I volunteered for the American Red Cross, and while enrolled in graduate school, they continued to support me. When they stopped doing that, I didn’t know what job I would want or even could get. The more Matt and I talked about the ‘what ifs’ of living together—a dog, compost piles, business ventures—the more I felt myself cringe. The shakiness of Matt’s future and the questionable direction of mine frustrated me, and on this long boring car ride, my mind wandered until I could only find faults with our relationship. We were bound to break and tumble like the dry grass that danced on the plains of Kansas.

After we punched in at a fourteen-hour drive, Matt pulled off on an exit for Colby, Kansas, a small town near the border of Colorado. While the rest of the town was dark, the highway motels were lit up like a city. We checked into the Quality Inn, the only motel that accepted cats as guests. When we opened the door to our room, I was horrified by the black mold that covered lamp shades, the stained and smelly maroon carpet, and the blood-stained towel shoved under one of the two beds. I never stayed in a motel like this, and I worried about the possibility of foot fungus. I worried that someone would pick the lock, break-in, and steal clothes and cats. Since Matt brought his pistol, he assured me we were fine. Awesome, you can light up a cockroach if it gets too close to my bed, I thought.

I wasn’t surprised that he brought it; after he paid a considerable amount of money for a conceal carry permit, he carried it everywhere. He brought the gun—concealed under his T-shirt and jeans—to restaurants, my house, and the grocery store. Every time I noticed it, I let out a long sigh.

“You never know when something’ll happen,” he always said.

We let the cats out of their cages to use the litter box. One by one they entered the plastic box, and when they dug and scratched to cover their shit, they left clumped litter pellets on the floor that added nicely to the room’s filth.

It was ten at night, and we were hungry. After we drove for a minute to get to the outskirts of town, we found the only place still open. When we opened the B Hive Bar’s door, the barmaid looked up at us and, in a defensive stance, put her hands on her big hips: we were definitely not regulars at the joint. She looked as if she belonged in the past: she had a lazy eye magnified by thick glasses, her long, brown hair that reached below her butt was held with an acid-washed, denim scrunchy, and an oversized T-shirt hung over her worn, white jeans.

“Lemme see y’alls ID,” her voice was raspy and quick, “Alright, what can I getcha?”

She didn’t tap her foot with impatience, though she looked like she wanted to, because there were only four food options and two beer choices: cheeseburger, double cheeseburger, fries, onion rings, Budweiser, and Coors. They didn’t mess with light beers; at the B Hive, it didn’t look like anyone was on a diet.

“Two double cheeseburgers, an order of fries, and two Budweisers, please,” Matt said and rubbed his hands in excitement. He knew that if there was anything to get both our spirits up, it was something fried, a decent amount of beef, and beer. We sat in a ripped and worn leather booth. At the bar, five men watched NASCAR, and they sunk into their swivel stools as if they were made of memory foam. The men clenched pints of beer that met their mouths as often as the cars on the mounted television completed a lap.

“Damn, Sheryl, who ordered that?” one of the men asked.

“These young kids over there. They aren’t from around here. Don’t know what a cheeseburger looks like in Kansas.”

“They don’t know what they’ve gotten into, do they Sheryl?”

“They sure don’t.”

As Sheryl flipped the red meat, she laughed with the men, and they asked how one another’s days went. Matt and I shrugged at each other.. We waited, drank our beer, and talked about how our parents overused jokes from the movie Airplane, and I told Matt about the funny, but sad, Kleenex pack I found with a pattern of the saying, “I Love Boys,” in the glove box that his mom gave Liz.

“My mom still thinks that Liz is a lesbian because of some phase she is going through.”.

“A phase?”

“Yeah, like she’ll grow out of it or something,” Matt said with embarrassment.

I thought we might be a phase. With the relationship that was in my hands, it seemed impossible for us to move on. The curiosity was gone. I knew that he didn’t dance, and after a stressful day, he always opened a 16-ounce can of Budweiser. He knew how I got the scar on my chin, and when I got nervous, I picked off my fingernails and licked my lips. The newness of a first kiss, or the first time we had sex, was a long time ago and nothing had come to replace them. The mysteries were solved, and the mundane was left for me to enjoy until I couldn’t any longer.

Sheryl returned and plopped three red plastic baskets on our table.

“Hope yah enjoy,” she smiled, turning her attention to the bar. “Hey boys, wanna go outside for a smoke?”

Every patron left the bar to accompany Sheryl, and we were left with the biggest cheeseburgers I ever saw. They were heavy and thick: a pound and a little extra each. When I picked one up, the bun crumpled like brown leaves around my fingers. The bottom bun barely held the meat and grease that fell to the basket below.

“Well, we have to finish all of this since they said that, right?” Matt laughed, and we tried to eat everything. What I didn’t eat, Matt took it upon himself to shove into his mouth. Pleased with ourselves, he paid for the check, and I unbuttoned my jeans.

When we got back to the motel, the cats were real frisky. When I tried to move Ollie’s dandruff-shedding body off my pillow, he hissed. Climber climbed into my suitcase, pulled out my underwear and dragged it through the soiled carpet. I couldn’t sleep. The cats were meowing at the walls, the door, the sink, and the toilet. They scratched at the walls and the cheap polyester comforter, and I realized why hotels with standards excluded cats from the guest list.

“Why’re they being so annoying?” I yelled at Matt.

“If we’re calm, maybe they’ll relax.”

“I’m calm!” I shouted and searched for a travel kit my doctor mom made me. It had antihistamines, heartburn pills, stool softener, sleeping pills, pain pills, antibiotics, and laxatives. The long drive, the motel, and the cats made me want to take every pill in the box, but I only swallowed one sleeping pill. I was ready to sleep: tissues were in my ears to dull the noise and acne cream was caked on my face to prevent stress pimples from emerging. Before Matt shook me awake at three in the morning, I peacefully slept for two whole hours.

“I can’t take this anymore. We have to get out of here and get a really early head start,” Matt said.

Still wasted from the sleeping pill, I slowly nodded. He helped me change and pack my suitcase. He tapped my butt with a cat carrier and pushed me towards the car’s passenger door. Through my haze, he showed me the multiple pictures of the room he took on his phone to send to corporate Quality Inn, but I knew he would never get around to sending them. While turning out of the motel’s parking lot, he cursed a few times to ease his anger.

When I woke up hours later, my hair was greasy, my breath smelled, and we were passing Denver. I opened the sun-visor mirror and was displeased. I padded powder on my face and gathered my long, brown hair into a ponytail. The landscape of buildings turned into mountains, and it was my turn to drive. Matt had wanted to drive the whole way, which he deemed an impressive accomplishment, but his lack of sleep dissolved his resolve. For the driver trade, we stopped for gas and beef jerky.

Because the next state, Utah, did not recognize his conceal carry permit as legitimate, Matt unloaded and dismembered the gun and put it in the trunk. Back on the road, he fell asleep, and I handled the ups and downs of I-70 that went through mountains. The scenery—I suspected—was gorgeous, but my eyes were too focused on the steep road I was not trained to handle. I had learned to drive in the Midwest, where the roads were flat like Indiana. I tapped the brakes as often as my ears popped, and the cars with Colorado license plates flew by me. They were not concerned about the brake failure warnings, the elevation, or the lack of thick barriers against cliffs and heart-piercing rocks. On the wheel, my sweaty hands were clenched at ten and two. I didn’t want to disturb Matt with the radio, so I heard tires that slowed and met pavement, and my blood that thumped. I was terrified. I wanted to shake Matt awake and tell him I couldn’t drive. I stopped myself, and I thought maybe my issues weren’t with Matt but my uneasiness to take risks.

Unless I knew there were slim odds against me, I never gambled. I went to the same college as my brother and sister; I turned down a gift to backpack through Europe for fifty days because I was afraid that I couldn’t travel by myself, and since I was six, I’ve had my hair cut by the same person. Matt was my first real risk, and it terrified me to not only stick around, but to think that I might end up not liking what I stuck around for. I was old, a curmudgeon without the years. I couldn’t enjoy our relationship, a road trip, or an unplanned night out without thinking about the dangers and unforeseen conclusion. Without giving anything the patience it required, I wanted to know how things would turn out. I complained to my mom about Matt’s incomplete plans after college and his horrible time management. She immediately responded with, “There is always going to be something wrong with anyone you date, the question is, is it worth it?”

Six hours later, I was still driving, and we were out of the mountains and in the deserts of Utah. The heat ticked on like a gas stove. I tried to turn up the A/C, but the car only blew out hot air.

“Shit. I think the air conditioning is broken,” I said and woke up Matt. The cats panted and we sweated.

“Pull over at the next exit with a gas station,” he said as he gave the cats an extra spray of pheromones. For each cat, Matt made a bed of ice in their crates. He bent over the back seat, trying to fit blankets over the ice. On the curb of the gas station, I sat and ate a turkey sandwich, chugged water, and asked when we were leaving.

Later that night, we made it to Interstate-15 that weaved like a drunkard through the Virgin River Gorge, five miles from the Nevada state line. Midway through the gorge, the car stuck on a winding road wedged in-between sky scraping rocks, the engine light blinked on. Before Matt could react, the car gave up and died. Plastic melted into the engine and it overheated, and shut down in the worst possible place. There was no shoulder, only road and guard rails. We couldn’t call for help because the rocks that zig-zagged high above our heads blocked reception. We coasted to a stop, and I looked around frantically.

“What the hell is happening?” I asked as semi-trucks honked and swerved passed us.

“It’s okay, we’re fine,” Matt said. A lie that neither of us believed. A long couple of minutes later, a police car came up behind us, turned on his lights, and lightly tapped our car down the gorge until we reached a spot to pull over.

The police officer pulled up, rolled down his window and said, “I bet this is the first time you’re happy to see me and my lights,” Matt laughed and nodded in agreement, “That happens sometimes, cars just give out from the heat, I could tell you all were in trouble. I’ll call a tow truck for you guys, too.”

While I secured the cats in the back seat of his truck, the tow man, Derek, short and muscular, wheeled the car up on the platform. For once, the cats were calm. They blinked slowly and licked their paws on their thrones of ice.

“The nearest Honda dealership is in St. George. And that’s the only place you’ll find a decent motel around here. We’re gonna have to go back east about thirty minutes if that’s all right with you guys,” Derek said—the most depressing news yet.

We had to turn around. I made Matt sit in-between Derek and me as we rode back through the gorge, back through Utah, and into the St. George Inn & Suites parking lot. While Matt checked in and paid for the room, Derek and I hustled to get everything out of his truck and the car. We unpacked two cats in cages, one litter box, maps, two coolers, three suitcases, stacks of wet cat food, CDs, and Matt’s gun case. Derek gave me the address of the dealership where he was dropping the car off, and I paid him from the white envelope labeled “emergency” that Liz left. This was one, and finding alcohol was another emergency. After the cats were settled, we walked to the nearest gas station. The old gas attendant educated us on Utah Liquor Law at convenience stores. Apparently, you can only buy beer that doesn’t exceed 3.2% alcohol content. What I needed right then, at the very least, was 12.9%.

“You’re telling me I have to drink four of these to even get a buzz? This is bullshit,” I said as we walked back to the motel with a Big Mac and two bags of fries and three six packs. It really was. It was bullshit that the cats were so annoying. It was bullshit that the air conditioning went out. It was bullshit that the car died in a gorge. It was bullshit that we had to spend the next day selling the bullshit car and then buying another one to drive to Los Angeles. It was bullshit that I smelled like a sweaty boy. It was bullshit that our clothes were covered in cat hair. It was bullshit that I had pimples that resembled the terrain back in Colorado. It was bullshit that there was a pool at the motel, but I didn’t bring a swim suit.

I boiled over like a forgotten water pot on the stove, and with beer in one hand and a cheeseburger in the other, I yelled and cried. I was beyond angry, but at that moment the only person I didn’t hate was Matt. He started to laugh about the cats being calm in the back of the tow truck, and he toasted his beer to our luck, that we didn’t die in a gorge with two annoying cats. I knew that he was the type of guy to make the best out of unruly cats, sleep deprivation, and a bad road trip. Maybe I did get more than I bargained for with Matt, but it didn’t matter to me. In the middle of Mormon country, in the middle of my emotional breakdown, he was laughing and he was worth it.

An hour before the pool closed for the evening, Matt and I rolled up our jeans and dipped our toes in the lukewarm water. We watched kids playing sharks and minnows in the deep end. With their arms full of clothes and towels, moms sat alone on patio chairs and smiled at their children. Kids screamed, laughed, ran along the side of the pool, and hid behind fake palm trees cemented into plastic pots. We drank our beer and kicked our feet back and forth underneath the chlorinated water.


kate-oneillKatie O’Neill is an MFA candidate in creative writing, with a concentration in nonfiction, at Butler University. She has a shorty story published in 34thParallel Magazine and essays appearing or forthcoming in Bitch Magazine and Eunoia Review.



IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/LeAnne Adams

  9 comments for “What Cheeseburgers Look Like in Kansas by Katie O’Neill

  1. Great story! I loved it and could relate so much to having to know the answers to so many of my questions!

  2. You are a very talented writer my young long-time friend!! I remember and relate….you took me on a wonderful adventure!

  3. Well done, Katie. Enjoyed the read, very relatable as I have moved across country in a tiny car with my now husband.
    ~ Amy (MJ’s daughter)

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