Big Al’s workers are hip to their menu and full-belly promise. With their award-winning for the last-50-years-straight chocolate malted they give you a long spoon so you can spoon out gobs of malted before they melt into the slurp for the straw. But the malteds are the least of Big Al’s All-American Menu.
Big Al’s flattop grills have been frying burgers for fifty years and are just beginning to be broken in. Every year brings a slightly more tasty burger than the year before.
Big Al’s burgers are always trending. They are tasty but a far cry from the patty-made-of-dry-aged-porterhouse-trim sliders from the Fifth Street Steak House. Nothing as Happy Hour as that. Big Al’s burgers are always at hand ready to make a five-o’clock working man feel fed and a late-night drunk feel sober.
Big Al’s started accepting debit cards grudgingly about two years ago. Before that, it was a cash-only business through the years and multiple owners. Late one night, after the last burger call, I saw an owner pull in to check his cash receipts. He was in a brand new Lexus. His wife was in a formal satin evening gown. Big Al’s has two registers. The IRS and the State of California probably think Big Al’s has only one. The owner carried his personal cash register out of the restaurant, placed it in his trunk, and drove off. Nobody working or eating at Big Als never saw nothin’ no how.
I’ve been coming to Big Al’s for burgers, shakes, and its air-conditioned student’s and working man’s reading room since my family moved to Chico in 1963. Big Al’s reading room is big and never crowded. Today it’s empty. As always in the last 59 years, I order the chocolate malted, the basic burger, and the large order of fries piping hot and nicely salted fresh from the deep fryer. Too much fat. Too much salt. Too many carbohydrates. Too much dairy. Too much sugar. It’s not really a good diet for an old man, is it?
Now it is just me and my latest book all alone in Big Al’s reading room.
That book would be, The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard with an introduction by W. H. Auden
As I read these “Living Thoughts” it comes to me,
Who, just who, do I think I am? Really?
Then I read from the introduction by W. H. Auden for a moment and then I just stop. I think,
“Who reads such arcane stuff in this day and age? Damned few and never in Big Al’s.”
Then I just stop and think to think again, as so many at a similar phase of life do,
“What? Just what am I doing with the dwindling years given and now left to me? Just what do I think I am doing with these last works of my days.”
It was a strange and sobering moment and the irony of being at Big Al’s was not lost on me.
On the other hand, the questions of
“Who do I think I am?”
“What I am doing with the days?”
are the sort of questions that now recur dependably in any and all locales. It’s the kind of thing that tasks me as I expect it tasks all of us in our time — if we are in fact given enough time for such questions to form in our souls; if indeed we take the time to develop a soul. At all.
And then, as always, came the tick-tock echo inside my soul:
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
— — Eliot
Yes, Eliot. That astringent and persnickety old man. The poet I kept returning to through all those decades lived outside the Spirit. The poet that kept me tethered to Him through his Quartets; a thin tether but — like the long web strand spun by a spider — not ever quite breaking until I returned to where the Spirit had remained.
And upon arrival I found the bitter wine of Eliot’s own revelation filling my cup.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.
In my end is my beginning.
A beginning? Here in the side room of a ramshackle burger and fries joint in a small town far off Interstate 5? A beginning? Eating a burger, dunking french fries into a small pot of catsup, and drinking thickened milk reading, at random, I read one of The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard:
A POET’S CONFESSION
The cause of his suffering is that he always wants to be religious and always goes the wrong way about it and remains a poet: consequently he is unhappily in love with God.
“Unhappily in love with God.” That thought expands in my mind like a Chinese paper flower blooms in a glass of cool clear water.
Then I return to my humble burger with fries and my chocolate malted. And I read on thinking about poetry, malteds, and last meals since, at this point, all your meals might be the last one. A doleful thought but, by now, expected and dismissed so one can get back to thinking.
Thinking about Kierkegaard’s living thoughts. Thinking about Auden’s thoughts about Kierkegaard’s thoughts. Thinking while tasting the bread. Thinking while the fries lie cooling in their blood-red pool of catsup. Thinking that because I was alone I neglected to say Grace. Which is when I realize that there is no “irony” involved at this moment, only a meal of the most common food of the working man of my day. If the state permitted it there would be wine at Big Als. That and prayer would make it a holy meal, wouldn’t it?
After all, there was this working man, this carpenter, who the night before He was hung up and killed by men, ate only bread and wine.
OR BY MAIL WITH “CASH CHECK OR MONEY ORDER” TO
Gerard Van der Leun // 1692 Mangrove Ave Apt: 379
Chico, CA 95926