I suck a whole glob of spit up behind my teeth and then I release it in a gloopy, slow motion dribble down into the patty mixture. I watch my saliva shine in the flickering light of the bare bulb that hangs above the preparation counter. It takes a while to sink into the meat. I give it a good mash with my closed fists to help it along. More spit. More mashing.
Out back in the alley, I can hear Donald bashing around the garbage bins. I threw out some meat three weeks past its sell-by date and he didn’t like that at all.
‘Do you like wasting my money? Do you think I work this hard to watch you throw my money away? Don’t you have any respect?’ With Donald it’s always questions which require no answers. If you try to answer, the likely response will be a quick, meaty punch to the side of your head. Your ears will ring for a while. You might even see stars. And then you’ll get back to work and shut your goddamn mouth. I used to try to fight back. I’d square my shoulders and say in a loud, stern voice, ‘I’m your father and you should respect me.’ Donald would stare at me with flinty eyes and speak very softly, ‘what did you say to me, old man?’ He’d advance slowly, coming right up close until his hot breath stirred the hairs on my head.
‘I’m your… Father… And you should… Respect me?’ It came out as a question, my bravery dying in my throat like some small, quivering creature. The hopelessness weighed on my heart until it crushed it completely. A bleeding mush of dejection. Much like this patty mix.
I knead the mixture into a satisfyingly meaty mound. I begin the slow process of moulding it into individual burger patties. This is my favourite part of the burger making process. It’s methodical, it requires precision and rhythm. Mould a ball of meat into a squat rugby-ball shape, gently squeeze it into submissive firmness, do the same thing again a hundred times. When I still thought that my depression was a phase, I bought self-help books from the second hand bookshop in town. I read them late at night under my lumpy duvet. They all said the same thing: keep busy. Do tasks that require precision and concentration. Just take it one day at a time. It’ll all be OK in the end. I took it one day at a time, but I stopped counting after five years of nothing ever being OK.
All the patties must be the same size or Donald will get angry. Once, a customer complained that his wife’s burger patty was bigger than his was. I got a real beating for that. My eye twitches at the memory, not because of the physical pain but because of the way that with each beating, it felt like my soul was crumbling away a bit more.
Before Donald, I’d been beaten plenty by my older brothers. My father never beat me. He was a good Christian man and in the event of any of the children misbehaving, his go-to disciplinary method was to lock us in the bathroom with the family bible and tell us to start from the beginning and keep reading until he came back to let us out. Sometimes we’d be in there for hours. Sometimes only five minutes if we’d done something small like leaving the tap outside the kitchen door running. Then he’d test us to make sure we’d been ‘paying close attention to the word of the Lord’. I shudder as I wonder how long my father would have locked Sonia and Donald in the bathroom for. Until the skin had fallen away from their big bones was my guess. Maybe if I had been more like my father and less like me when the kids were small, they wouldn’t have turned out like this. But I remember something that my mom used to say. She would tut tut tut and say, ‘some people are rotten to the core and there isn’t anything that we or even God can do about that.’ I stopped praying to God about Donald and Sonia a long time ago.
Sonia and Donald like to go at it on the stainless steel countertops in the kitchen after we’ve closed for the night. They barge in, already groping each other like drunken teenagers, and I clear out pretty quick to avoid seeing things that cannot be unseen. It makes me sick to my stomach. Both of them so fat, fat, fat and ruddy-cheeked and red-haired. It makes me want to puke into my patty mixture just thinking about it. I reach into the cupboard above the prep counter and take down the huge plastic bottle of urine-yellow oil. I shake my head. No, there is nothing I nor God can do about them. Nothing except use an entire bottle of disinfectant on those countertops when they’re done. I scrub and rub until the steel shines; shines like a new pair of leather shoes. With each brisk fwoosh of the bristles against the steel the knot of unease in my chest releases a little.
I hear Sonia clattering into the dining area in her high-heeled snakeskin boots. She’s yammering away on that blasted cell phone she always has clamped in one hand. She shrieks with laughter that ends in a loud snort. It is a huge effort for me to listen to Sonia speaking without pressing my hands over my ears. My mother would have said that she speaks like a drunk fishwife in a crowded market. There was a time, long after I had lost all hope for Donald, that I still held a glimmer of hope that Sonia would turn out differently. When she was as old as thirteen and she couldn’t sleep, she would slide into my bed and I would tell her stories about the farm and my mother’s cooking until she fell asleep. I cannot pinpoint where exactly everything fell apart, and it seems senseless to dwell on it now.
I loved and respected my parents until the day they died. They insisted on all three of their sons getting a ‘proper’ English education, and we all went to boarding school at a private school in the area. During the school term, our father would drive to the school in his old truck once every two weeks to drop off baskets of baked and bottled goods made by our mother. She worried that we weren’t being fed well at school. Naturally, my brothers ate all of the bran muffins and gooseberry jam before I could get near it, but I always lied and told my mom that I had got my fair share. My parents knew that my brothers bullied me, and my mother would have intervened, but father said that ‘boys will be boys’ and maybe a bit of rough treatment would toughen me up somewhat.
When he finished school, my oldest brother took over the family farm in the Eastern Cape, and when Jan finished, he stayed there, too, to help Derrick run the place. My parents moved into the cottage on the property and died a few years later. They were found lying side by side with the family bible nestled between them in their bed. I was in my final year of school and I took it very badly. I almost failed my final year exams but I persevered because I knew that that was what my parents would have wanted most.
I came back to the farm when I finished school with dread pooling darkly in my stomach. Jan and Derrick didn’t care about what I chose to do with my life. I was small and weak. They called me Weasel and I laughed along with them even though it hurt my feelings. They were big, strong ‘farm’ boys with loud laughs and cruel intentions. They’d barely passed matric and they mocked me for getting straight As like some ‘nerdy virgin’.
More than anything, I wanted to be a chef. I taught myself to cook from my mother’s old, handwritten recipe books. I cooked my way from melktert to Sunday roast lamb. My brothers called me a moffie but they were happy enough to eat the food this moffie cooked. When I was twenty, I left home. I was terrified of being along in a big, new city. I had no one to express these fears to and it was this realisation that made me see that I was already alone on the farm, anyway. There were no hugs or kind words. Jan cuffed me on the shoulder (I had a bruise the size of a dinner plate for two weeks) and Derrick waved me off from the fields as I walked on by, my father’s old rucksack slung over one bony shoulder. I was going to Gauteng, to Johannesburg, and I was going to be a chef.
These memories make the depression both better and worse. Sometimes I tear up, but other times I think that I would have been just as miserable if I had stayed on the farm with my bullying brothers. Patties made, I move over to the sink and begin the tedious task of scrubbing clean pots and plates caked with dried meat and bits of limp lettuce. Donald and Sonia would rather die than help me to wash the dishes, and they’re far too stingy to hire a dishwasher. I run the kitchen entirely by myself while the two of them grin and simper at the customers in the dining area. I’m a quick and thorough dishwasher. I washed dishes at a Mike’s Kitchen for three years when I first came to Joburg.
Eventually I realised that they were never going to let me take off those rubber gloves and trade them in for a cutting knife. I was on the brink of giving up hope and going back to the farm when I met Candice. She wasn’t pretty, but she was kind to me. Wide, interested eyes and small, soft hands. She baked cakes for me and told me that I was the best chef in the city. She reminded me of my mother, I suppose. We got married after knowing each other for only six months. Candice wore a dress she had sewn herself using scraps from the clothing factory where she worked. The priest skipped most of the service because he had another engagement to get to. It feels like people are always rushing past their interactions with me to get to something or someone more important. Donald swears loudly as the sound of a garbage can crashing over outside echoes through the empty kitchen. His mother had also started to swear near the end. Her sweet tones turned to words lashed out with disgust at my incompetence as a father and as a husband.
Our marriage wasn’t a happy one for very long. There were a few months of pet names and awkward caresses, but when the bills started to pile up and I lost my job, Candice stopped being so kind to me. She used to say, ‘Cobus, you need to take control. You need to show people that you deserve respect.’ In the end, after giving me two children and enough debt to drive any man to a bottle of booze and a handful of pills, Candice found a man who actually did deserve her respect. They fled to Cape Town and I never heard from either of them again. Thinking back, this was probably when I knew that all hope was lost for me. There I was; a pathetic, lonely man with a stack of bills, two small children and no backbone.
I had also just bought Burger Land, a roadhouse in Boksburg, using a massive loan from the bank. It was a run-down, stinking old place squashed in behind a used-car dealership and across the road from an Engen garage with a Wimpy that would prove to be my unbeatable rival. But it was mine. My real chance to be an actual chef in my own restaurant. I put all of my time and effort into making Burger Land into a success. I sourced the best quality meat on credit that I would never be able to pay off and I baked my own buns. However, it soon became clear that people only came to Burger Land if they couldn’t get a table at Wimpy. Burger Land has never had more than seven customers at one time. Once, during a massive hail storm, fifteen people were forced to take refuge inside the roadhouse. I ran about, wafting plastic menus under their noses, and I was ignored. They drank tepid coffee and loitered near the doors.
The kids were teenagers when they started to become involved in the running of the restaurant. Both of them had dropped out of school early on and nothing I said could convince them to go back. I became more of an annoyance than anything else to them. I think that those years that I invested in the restaurant were years that I should have invested in my children. They didn’t know me, and they certainly didn’t respect me. They did not take after me or their mother. They took after their uncles whom they had never met. I looked at them; at their mean, beady eyes and tight grins, and I saw Jan and Derrick, cornering me in the playground at school and using me to practice their rugby tackles.
I’m jerked back to reality by the backdoor slamming closed behind Donald. He has the packs of thrown-out meat in his beefy hands. I can smell their rotten stench all the way from the other side of the kitchen. He advances towards me, and I don’t even attempt to stop myself from shrinking up against the countertop in fear. For a second I think that he is going to slam the stinking meat right into my face, which is at the level of his gigantic chest. Instead, he rips the plastic off of one pack, grabs a fistful of the green-black mince and throws it into my beautiful, red vat of patty mixture.
I think, ‘tonight, ladies and gentlemen, our special is Burger a la Spit and Rotten Meat.’ I almost smile. Donald seems to sense that I am on the brink of a hint of joy and he forcefully knocks me into the edge of the counter as he lumbers past. My bony hip cracks off the steel edge and I actually hear it fracture. The pain is shocking. It sends waves of sensation through my body. For the first time in a long time, I feel awake and aware and alive. Something starts to bubble up inside of me, some powerful force. For a second I wonder if I am going to hobble through those kitchen doors, into the roadhouse dining area and scream bloody murder into Donald’s fucking face.
But then, this powerful force inside me dies. It flutters for a moment in my hollow chest, and then it dies. A sense of loss crashes over me the likes of which I have never before known. Not when my parents died, not when the head chef at Mike’s Kitchen called me a ‘useless rat’, not even when Candice left me. I need that powerful feeling back.
I limp over to the gas-stove, one hand cradling my cracked hip. I turn on the gas and strike a match. The stovetop bursts into life. I stare at the blue fames for a moment, mesmerised. I think of my mother’s melktert. I think of the hopeful thumping of my father’s rucksack against my back as I walked into town to catch the bus to Johannesburg. I feel what is left of my very being splinter and then explode. Dizziness crashes over me and I clutch onto the edge of the stove. What do I have to live for? I think. Why am I here? What use am I to anyone? A small sob scrabbles up my dry throat and forces its way between my lips with a muffled pup sound. My entire body is shaking. I stick my left hand directly into the flame. And it’s back. The powerful feeling returns. I pull my hand out. I stare at my hand with a kind of detached fascination. The skin is red and bubbling and throbbing. The pain surges through me, over me, around me. Why hadn’t any of Donald’s former beatings elicited this kind of response? I suppose he had never hurt me badly enough before. I am almost excited for my next mistake worthy of a beating.
Later that night, when our one and only customer for the evening has left, his belly full of Burger a la Spit and Rotten meat, Donald really lays into me about my hand. He calls me a ‘fuckin’ fuckwit’ and refuses to give me anything to bandage the burns with. I ask Sonia to take me to the hospital. For just a second, I see pity flicker in her eyes. Her hand twitches towards the car keys on the counter. Donald shoots her an icy glare and her hand stills. I tell him that my hip is also fractured and he laughs as he walks past me. He winks at Sonia and gives her massive behind a good smack. She throws out a frantic giggle. I hobble into the kitchen and plunge my hand into a cold vat of mince in the walk-in fridge. The powerful feeling is gone again, and I know that it is never coming back. I know that no emotion is ever coming back.
When I limp back into the dining area to pull the shutters down over the windows, the lights are out, and the only illumination comes from the flickering red and blue neon sign over the front door outside. The ‘U’ in ‘Burger’ and the ‘D’ in ‘Roadhouse’ have been out for over a year. The forms of Donald and Sonia are barely visible to me over by the corner booth. He’s running his hands through her frizzy red hair and murmuring sweet nothings into her ear. She’s giggling like a schoolgirl. I run my uninjured hand through my own frizzy red hair. I sigh straight down deep into my bone marrow and I think of the rat poison that Donald keeps in the shed outside.