Burger by Jesse Waters

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shined black shoes


There’s a middle ground in my mind, sometimes poison, sometimes polish. A good spit shine looks just like patent leather if it’s done just so.

This book is a memoir-ish.

Remember those paintings back in the 1990s that were so popular? Those computer-generated pastel zig-zag nightmares that supposedly had a 3-D spaceship poking out if you gave yourself a migraine crossing your eyes to see it? I never saw one of those pictures do what it was supposed to, and I’ve got really good eyesight.

Those pictures – that art – never had titles, or names.

If a thing has no name, is it still true? Is the way a thing looks from one perspective the one perspective of the way a thing looks?

I’m not saying I’m lying. I don’t lie. But someone here might have a different version of all of this, like, ask my mother about some things here. She’ll just laugh, and say, “That’s Jess.” But ask her about other things, or talk to one of my friends, or enemies, and they may say, “It was all that and more.”

A spit shine takes polish, a thin rag, and spit and work. Patent leather shoes need Windex.

But this next thing? My mosaic of a Jewish kid sent off to a southern-Baptist military school? Trust me – all genuine, totally true events.


I am ten months from being thirteen, and have yet to hit puberty in mid-80s America. We’re living in Cape Charles, Virginia, the last town on the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. There’s a smallish blue-black bruise just below my right eye. I grew up with my parents just outside D.C., in Reston, but at one time we had an apartment in D.C., 2800 Connecticut and Cathedral. There, I was blocks from the greatest zoo on earth. The metro. Food carts every three blocks. Funky restaurants down some back alley. Sirens. People sleeping on heat grates.

Cape Charles? One red school house, K-12. Graduating class that year we moved? 6. 1982 census for Cape Charles, Virginia? 1,189. Nearest McDonald’s restaurant? 35 miles away. Outside it starts to thunder. “Take these upstairs,” my dad says, handing me a stack of catalogues for boarding schools, “and see if any of them strike you as a place you’d want to go.” This is Harold, the one father I’ve known my entire conscious life. Imagine a slightly taller Jack Nicholson. With a gold front tooth.

Aww, bullshit, I say to myself – they won’t go through with it. I nod and frown a bit, my head down and to the left: a passive-aggressive look learned through post-memory and my mother, both of us knowing it will enrage Harold . I mope the school catalogues upstairs to my room in our new house here in the middle of nowhere.


It’s been eleven months since Harold decided to Green Acres the family. He thought it would give us some good, country morals. It was horrible. I was used to buildings, city asphalts cracked and rolled rough. Here, one block from the Chesapeake Bay, I heard nothing but ocean. Kids in Cape Charles heard my northern accent and only ever wanted to scrap or screw. My mom taught kindergarten at a smaller school in an even smaller town some few miles north while my dad commuted back and forth from D.C. every three days. By Yahoo! maps that’s 660 miles every week.

Flipping through the pages of schools with names that all end in -ton, and -tine and the word Friends, I set aside the three military school catalogues. Not only do they scare the shit out of me, but my parents are pacifists, hippies from the 60s. They went to love ins and sit ins – there’s no way. There’s a bruise just below my right eye the size and color of a small mouse with a red line across its back. From the living room downstairs, I hear a commercial for the Egg McMuffin, long in my heart the greatest breakfast choice. Though I’m upstairs in my room in Cape Charles, ten months from being thirteen, and yet to hit puberty in mid-80s America, in the synapse blast of neurotransmitter making memory, sound suddenly random now ecstatic, I’m also eleven on one specific Thursday evening in mid-February in Reston,Virginia. The dog under the pew in the foyer is watching the humans at the butcher block table-thing in the middle of the kitchen. It’s the judicial, social and gestational center of this home. The father has been back from his job (working in grants 56.5 hours a week for The Government) 22 minutes and 48 seconds, and is eating eleven peanuts cracked open from their shells, three smears of wine cheese across three wheatstone crackers and one apple slice. But his is a voracious appetite . “How about some McDonald’s?” he says.

My brain goes cold: The most popular kid on the block, Cross, is staying for dinner.

The four of us pack into the family car, a diesel. We had a mid-sized luxury diesel car in the 80s just after people were going to the pump based on the last digit of their license plates.

My father (and not my father) thinks his magnanimous offer of McDonald’s – the only fast food I ever ate until living solo — means grace, and benevolence and providence. I can now recall how at ten months from being thirteen, and yet to hit puberty in mid-80s America, I saw these next brief events as victims of physical trauma sometimes see their personal catastrophes, up and away from their bodies in the hazy aura of out-of-body reality. We putter away from the house, and 11 minutes 29 seconds and 7.34 miles later, our car pulls into the drive-thru momentarily filled with ambient fluorescent rays. The white bag comes into the car. My hell begins.

Even having been through all this before, I have to lean forward over the seats to reach for a few hot, fresh French Fries. Cross was the kind of kid every other eleven year-old wanted to befriend. He had Atari first, and cable first, perfectly feathered light auburn hair, and his father let him work out with him on free weights, and his house was the one on the corner with the big yard just across from the cement ball courts. Horking a few perfect drive-thru fries in the car is something everyone on the planet does, anyone except the mammal-parents in this vehicle, but I knew that I had to at least try to secure a few of those hot, fresh fries for Cross and myself.

My mother crushes the top of the bag closed. “Just wait ‘til we get home.” No fries on the way home, no sips of soda — nothing more than delicious bag-air filling the car with silent want. No one speaks. Eleven minutes 29 seconds and 7.34 miles back home are somehow months. On that haul home clothes change, my father’s beard becomes long, longer, then cut back in a blink. The film flickers and my mother’s hair curls and changes colors, houses and buildings on the sides of streets scaffold-up in fast-motion, daisies on lawns pop out of their green stem-pods, flower, die and fall back. The sun and moon pass over the car like tumors in metastasis.

Inside the house, the bag and my parents move to that butcher block table, while Cross and I head for the dining room. We sit down.

“What’re your parents doing?” Cross whispers.

The two of us watch as an odd triage begins in the kitchen. Three plates emerge from their cabinet place, and burger, quarter-pounder, and Filet O’ Fish are placed one on each plate at eleven o’clock. Fries come out of their bags between two and four o’clock, depending on size. Four glasses come fresh and clean from the dishwasher, mouths wide as they wait to swallow each drop of beverage now being transferred from wax-paper cup to glass. With these corporate-art plates in hand, my parents walk into the dining room, serve, and sit down.

There’re parsley sprigs on each plate.

Cross and I wolf down our meals, and outside in the late-winter dusk, bouncing a basketball around, I try to joke about what crazy parents I have. “That’s cool,” he says, “it makes sense. My Dad says your folks are kikes. You even sort of look like Ronald McDonald,” and I have no idea what that is, or means. Kike – man! It bites like a dark fang. My parents, those fucking Kikes, I think to myself. Ten feet tall, and Cross and I run down the hardtack white of the sidewalks along our D.C. suburb houses to where the block kids are waiting, and I have something to tell them.

So that’s what I’m thinking, on my bed in Cape Charles. I am ten months from being thirteen, and have yet to hit puberty in mid-80s America. There’s a bruise on my right eye the size and color of a small mouse with a red line the exact width of Harold’s wedding band across its back. I have no sense of myself, have stolen money, screwed people over. When we first arrived in Cape Charles, I was “given” a paper route I never wanted. Rather than man-up, and just deliver the 112 daily papers to the people paying for them, I’d deliver maybe sometimes fifty of them, and throw the rest behind this old abandoned ice plant at the edge of town. Sometimes I’d just throw them in the sewers. My customers were old people, the kind of folks who get up at 4:30 every morning and wait for their newspaper. And I was throwing them in the sewer. When I delivered around fifteen or twenty papers on Tuesday November 4, 1984 – Election Day – a vibration began in the house, and the idea of me being somewhere else started to bubble up.

“Take these upstairs,” my dad said, handing me a stack of catalogues for boarding schools. “And see if any of them strike you as a place you’d want to go.”

I am ten months from being thirteen. Maybe one of these three military schools would be all right. I look through a few catalogs. Big soccer fields, Olympic-sized pools. White, careful faces in blue jackets with crests. Lacrosse sticks. Rowing vessels sculling across mirrors. I pick out two with the glossiest pictures of the nicest buildings, and set them aside. An hour passes. My dad, Harold, knocks on the door of my room.

“What’s up?” He pushes the door aside. “Got any homework?”

We both know I have never once in my life admitted to having homework. He doesn’t really wait for an answer, and hands me two books: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and Clyde Edgerton’s Walking Across Egypt.

“I thought these might give you a clue about what kind of people we live around now.”

It’s hot in my room and my head, I’m not listening to my father, I don’t even know how to listen to myself. I’m not even looking at him. I’m sort of reading the back cover of Walking Across Egypt, and then looking down at the school catalogs. My father says something like, “I’d like you to read those,” or “Pick up your clothes,” and I think I say, “Sure” but I’m ignoring him, or not looking at him, or something like that, because from nowhere his right hand shoots out and grabs the front of my shirt. Then he yanks my face in front his. This is Harold. Imagine a slightly taller Jack Nicholson. With a gold front tooth.

I am thirteen months old. Maybe a bit more or less. It’s 1971 in Los Angeles, California, specifically married-student housing at UCLA. My mother has left Jon and married Harold. Here’s what I now know about why: One evening, in Jon’s parent’s living room, Jon’s father put his arm around my mother’s shoulders and, taking her aside, confided that “Eventually one day Jon will eventually grow up.” For my mother that was one eventually too many.

I am thirteen. I’ll soon hit puberty in mid-80s America. I have black leather dress shoes on my feet with white athletic socks stretched high to my knees. There are blue and red bands around the top cuff of each sock. I am wearing khaki Bermuda shorts and a tucked-in blue T-shirt with a four-letter acronym logo for the military school in which I am now enrolled. My hair has never been so short. Two months ago, during a tour of the school, the cadet taking us around said, “It’s really just the uniform that makes it military. That and the marching. We don’t really order each other around.” I have all my school books for the next seven weeks in both arms, a white paper slip with a room number in one hand. This is the new-cadet look: dork squared.

I’m walking through some green-gray corridor when two guys sort of get in my face, but they’re not yelling at me to drop down and give them twenty, or to tuck my goddamn chin in. They’re quietly suggesting that I forget about finding the room, and go down to the pay phones to call home for someone to get me, because if I don’t, if I stay, I’ll regret it. I remember they said something about my nose, but I don’t remember what exactly. Amidst the rest of my almost-jet black hair there’s a half-dollar patch of silver just above my right eye. This is day negative one.


jesse watersA winner of the River Styx International Poetry Contest, runner-up for the Iowa Review Fiction Prize, the DIAGRAM Innovative Fiction Prize and the Paul Bowles Fiction Award, Jesse Waters is director of Bowers Writers House at Elizabethtown College. Jesse’s fiction, poetry and non-fiction work has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes, and has appeared nationally and internationally in such journals as The Adirondack Review, Coal Hill Review, The Cortland Review, Cimarron Review, Iowa Review, River Styx, Story Quarterly, Southeast Review, Sycamore Review and others. His first collection of poems, HUMAN RESOURCES, was published by Inkbrush Press in 2011.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/David Wright

  1 comment for “Burger by Jesse Waters

  1. Wow. I love how the images come around in circles, how the story emerges from these recursive rememberings. So glad I got to read this.

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