t is my brother's and my shared belief that a single fast food meal eaten on or about June 6, 1982, ruined the relationship between us in a way that we still don't understand, and from which we have yet to recover. Please bear with me as I set the stage for this incident—an incident which I believe, in its sum, to be as tidy an aperçus as can exist for the essence of siblinghood.
ONE'S BIRTH PRESIDENT
My brother and I were stripey-shirted, off-brand, bowl-cut brunets for most of our young lives. I, Chris, was born in 1975; the younger, gentler Hristo Dragomirov (I have changed my brother's name to both protect his innocence, and also to make him sound like a brooding Bulgarian piano genius) was born in 1979. Kodachrome now bleeds red across our gap-toothed smiles and land-grab collars.
Gerald Ford, my birth President, flew in an Air Force One that allowed not just smoking, but hoot-fueled, wildly heteronormative screenings of Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. Parker House rolls and empty fifths of Cutty Sark were no doubt chucked at the closing credits with a simian brio the likes of which dignitary air travel rarely sees any more. Children born under this President are generally thought to display alpha behavior, as well as a natural tendency toward easing relations with Soviet nations.
Hristo's birth President, Jimmy Carter, was a well-intentioned farmer-gentleman who simply wanted peace and love for all, and the peanut-scented toilet spray on his Air Force One undoubtedly rested beneath a hand-embroidered cozy that bore a matriarch's rheumatic rendering of the Presidential Seal. Children born under this President typically take it on the ear from those born under preceding and successive Presidents.
ONE-OFFS AND CHAIN RESTAURANTS OF THE EARLY 1980s
We lived our young lives in the undistinguished San Francisco east bay suburb of Danville—slightly before the rapid proliferation of McMansions gave the nearby hills an economic form of cauliflower ear. McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Burger King defined the spectrum of our fast food. McDonald's once proudly showed us, on a Boy Scout field trip, how they threw their food away every fifteen minutes. We never toured the other two, so I can only assume they had the same pride in craftsmanship.
In my youthful estimation, however, the greatest restaurant in town was either The Happy Hound Dog—where they served beguiling, ridged cottage fries with their hot dogs—or The Pizza Machine, which featured a ten-foot-wide, automated steel marble run mounted on one wall. (There may have been pizza there, as well, but it was likely slid like a thermometer into the dropped maws of little-leaguers, by their mothers, as they stared agape at the mechanical marvel before them.)
Sushi Bar Hana opened in Danville in the early 80s, but this was back when the very idea of sushi outraged our geranium-scented grandparents, and we never saw a soul go in or out. If we ever rode past it while Grandpa was driving, we looked the other way for a few painful seconds and hoped our ears would not catch a volley of broadcast scorn. (I have since learned that Grandpa had a very complicated relationship with Japan, owing to the things he was ordered to do there when he was seventeen, and as such I have, as an adult, re-evaluated sushi. It is good stuff, sure, but difficult to enjoy while fishing.)
Down at our humble house, with its brown linoleum floors and avocado-colored kitchen appliances, we cut our teeth on plates of canned refried beans and white rice. The clutch dinner was Foster's Freeze, for hot fried corn dogs we'd bring home and eat during Channel 3 airings of The Muppet Movie. Or drive-thru Burger King hamburgers, with that mustard-pickle heat and thirty-meter flame-broiled bouquet, which were eaten with sacred deliberation in the back of Grandma's old blue 1975 Mercedes-Benz, the one Gramps had imported from Europe because he said it was cheaper than buying a Cadillac that way.*
Or, perhaps, it was the birthday party pizzas we ate at Round Table, the Arthurian-themed chain whose ovens' unburned butane lingered delectably—almost as a sour note—on the surface of all the fatty acids on the product. God, how I loved the sour note of that butane on the fatty acids of that product.
NOW TO THE MEAT OF THE MATTER
I tell you these things because they were the gamut of our gustatory landscape in that time. It is a fairly complete survey. Adults had steakhouses where they could, deep in their cups of Brandy Alexanders and muscatel, bluster about cocaine and Roman Polanski, but if we were ever allowed at such affairs, we were simply given coloring books and drinks with grenadine and reminded that Christmas was designed by our silence.
The year, as I have mentioned, was 1982. My father had an unpopular friend named Tom, and Tom had a girlfriend who was always trying to escape the country. Tom's girlfriend, who we will call Carmen, had taken a part-time job with one of those companies that gets hired by fast food franchisees to run "independent third-party evaluations" of their products and services. This meant, in a nutshell, that Carmen paid my mother a small sum of cash to take my brother and me to Carl's Jr., a west coast fast food franchise specializing in hamburgers, baked potatoes, star-shaped chicken nuggets, and chatty people who sat alone in the corner, organizing the backpacks of their lives. In exchange, my mother would fill out a score sheet which ranked her satisfaction with the zucchini fries and hand soap.
From what I can piece together—the oral record is recorded over in places, as it were—we went to a Carl's Jr. restaurant in the office park by my father's insurance agency. (He recently told me, over dinner, that he recalls having declined to join us that night in favor of eating Saltines to Rachmaninoff, alone in his car on a lonesome promontory.) We took the family's 1980 Toyota Celica hatchback—a very sporty number at the time, which featured exterior fixed blinds on the rear window, and a blue metallic paint job not unlike R2-D2's anodized accent patches. There is a very good chance that, en route to the restaurant, my brother and I rolled about on the front and rear seats like a couple of hyperventilating, unsecured basketballs, fresh from the second-hand smoke of our respective classrooms and unlicensed day-care facilities.
INTO THE TRACTOR BEAM OF ACTION
This particular Carl's Jr. was located between a storefront which sold DOS-based spreadsheet software on 5.25" diskettes ("Egghead Software"), and a breakfast diner called McCurley's where once, over caramelized linguica and eggs, my father had gone on a protracted tirade against Oakland A's pitcher Dennis Eckersley, who had walked in and "looked around like an arrogant asshole" before leaving.
Thin pressed-aluminum ashtrays, bearing the Carl's Jr. logo, were on each table. Very, very old couples—daisy-chained to oxygen tanks the size of unexploded ordnance, and possessed of transparent hair and epidermis—gummed and tremored their way through baked potatoes and salad bar salads in tall-backed naugahyde banquettes that are, even now in my mind, more haunting than the idea of an acid trip spent stitched, like an endomorophic fetus, inside Sam Kinison's still-living belly.
My mother sat us down at a booth, then slyly consulted the pale green half-sheet of memo paper which determined our order. It was to be nuggets, a few hamburgers, french fries, fried zucchini, and soft drinks.
As Hristo and I** sat and tried to "act normal," she walked to the cashier and ordered this lavish spread in the alarmingly easy tone of a wealthy woman who habitually summoned such bounty without calculation. On the edges of our seats, and certain that this extraordinary ticket would immediately alert the staff to the presence of sleeper agents, we awaited immediate ejection from the restaurant like two blindfolded, cigarette-puffing men on the gallows deck.
Ejection never came. The young woman with the visor and the tight hair bun simply processed the order, took the cash that my mother had discreetly removed from the small manila envelope, and handed back change. Hristo and I were as ice, ceasing to exist, attuned solely to riffles in this unacceptably calm field.
It should be noted that I was a congenitally shy child. Nearly to the present day, I could not perform even the simplest of social operations without succumbing to tears of self-implosion, full well roiling with the knowledge that I was in every way the metaphorical clumsy, dismembered, five-foot articulated elephant penis flopping around on stage at the spelling bee of human existence. Give me, however, dominion over my brother before my elders, and I was Absalom. I was a spectre of peace and glory in a cloud of chamomile and Mechlin lace, on a chariot drawn by floating harpsichords. My mother, therefore, allowed that before the food came, I should take him to the restroom to wash up and arrange our various species of relief.
Over time, and despite my public overtures toward benevolent light, Hristo and I had privately demonstrated several behaviors from the Cain and Abel playbook. For example, there was the time we were at a lake, and I threw a rock at his head, to see what would happen. (He was very injured, and cried a great deal.) There was the time I heard him running down the hallway, and I ran toward him in such a way as to ensure that my knee would connect with his groin at the greatest velocity I could muster. (He was very injured, and cried a great deal.) And now, there was before us this interesting little trip to the restroom.
He stood at the lone floor-length urinal, fastidiously undoing the fastenings of his brown corduroy trousers. He pulled the front tails of his shirt up and tucked them carefully under his chin. He spread his feet as far as possible. He was the very poster child for socially responsible urination, and though I did not compliment him as such, I can still picture his face, as serious as any veterinarian with his ear to the belly of a sow dying in childbirth.
At some point during his protocol I realized that I, too, had to relieve myself. The violent interface of a public toilet seat had never been something I could countenance, so Hristo's urinal was my only option. My brother hogged it, and took his sweet time.
As I waited for him and my own condition worsened, it dawned upon me that a great deal of the floor-length urinal would be available to me if I were to stand behind him and direct my efforts through the space between his legs. It would be efficient, harmless, and hardly required a surgeon's touch. In my mind, it was something we could even brag about as we went back to the table, high-fiving about the awesome thing we had done, together as brothers. An achievement.
I stood a foot behind him and aimed with ease into the trapezoidal space between the dropped bottom of his trousers and his outstretched feet. The stream of a healthy child is like that of a pricked firehose held in place by the index finger and thumb of Garry Kasparov: a thing we don't commonly wish to acknowledge as perfection in the physical world, but something we know to be the apotheosis of power and intuition.
About half a second into my own relief, Hristo started to flip out over the sight of unexplained liquid shooting between his legs. I hadn't anticipated this. Perhaps a verbal alert would have helped things turn out better, but I had failed to warn him of the great experiment at hand, or even consider that such a surprise might be anything other than his lot and that he should accept it.
He looked over his shoulder, in a panic, and his "fight or flight" reflex kicked into high gear.
High gear as it was, anyhow. In the end, Hristo wasn't really trying to "flee" or "fight." We think a lot of nature, but this was not a moment of well-defined instinct or noble action. He was just a scared little boy caught in a complex matrix of safety, danger, family, and urine. He neither fought nor fled; if anything, he "noticed and was stung by the neutered scorpion of human pain."
The back of his sweater grew dark with curlicues and patches of moisture, and with this came my angry admonitions to stay put and quit ruining things. It was to no avail. There was soon no surface of my brother which would be welcome in polite company, and while his panic angered me, I held my course and let things run out as they may.
There is a sense within us, even during complex and disorienting new circumstances, which knows when we have done something that warrants protracted and boring repercussions. I sensed it whirring up within me just then. I can tell this now, because I remember worrying that the hamburgers and nuggets would not be at their finest hot serving temperature by the time my mother had sorted out our respective fates. There was that fear, down in there, that the food would have to be thrown away. It had been learned long ago, under the great aegides of both McDonald's and the Boy Scouts.
"[Hristo] was playing with the sink," I offered, as we came back to the table, my brother in tears. "He got wet." I took a nugget and a burger and ate quickly. The food delivered: warm, salty, fattishly yielding, a haunting of Maillard throughout.
She, sensing that children who love playing in sinks do not often conclude their activities by having nervous breakdowns and cowering behind limbs from their dry and glaring brothers, gave his sweater a whiff. Its aroma would not be unfamiliar to a mother.
Hristo and I have scarcely shared a close moment since. There could be many reasons for this; I can't in good conscience claim the Carl's Jr. incident alone. For example, our zodiac signs make nothing better than a desperate-sounding new American car together (The "Twin Ram." New from Dodge. Its front bumper has crenulated nautilus finials.) Our Chinese calendar animals—rabbit and goat—have never been featured in a centaur-like mashup. Or maybe he just doesn't like me.
In all my searching, however, the most causal and compelling conclusion I can draw is that we were born under incompatible birth Presidents. I urge you, aspiring parents, if you want your children to get along, fruitfully mate twice during the first two years of a Presidency. If my parents had done this, Carl's Jr might today be a paragon of fast food excellence—thanks to my mother's comment card—rather than just another hamburger chain with messy bathrooms.
**As I said before, I was born in 1975, and Hristo in 1979. He is the better brother now: He runs the family insurance agency, can risk putting bills on "auto-pay," and has a stable relationship due to his handsomeness. I, on the other hand, have bet the farm on this story becoming a Michael Bay-directed major motion picture. (I also have dreams of yo-yo dieting until I approximate my OKCupid pictures.) Back
Life in Chains is Eater's essay series exploring essential roles played in our lives by chain restaurants — great and grim, wonderful and terrible. Read them all in the archive.
Chris Onstad is the award-winning cartoonist and writer behind Achewood, and also the cofounder of Portland Syrups, a whole-ingredient mixer company based in Portland, Oregon.
Editor: Helen Rosner