It was Independence Day, and I was spending it imprisoned. My cell was one hundred twenty-three cubic feet, the inside of the Lincoln Continental I’d been driving for hours. Granted, the rich leather seats and wood inlays of my prison are pretty damn nice, but enough is enough. I was done with work for the day, and just wanted to get home and wash the death out of my hair. There were much too many hours and miles between myself and that goal, and, I’d begun to notice, too few places to stop on this stretch of barren highway. Every so often, a dilapidated shack broke up the moss-covered oak scenery. I’d snapped the radio off two states ago. I was pleased with that decision, suspecting that I’d hear “Dueling Banjos” if I dared turn it back on. I seemed to recall having seen a gas station forty minutes ago, but there hadn’t been a single restaurant. The people out here must have to kill their dinners, I concluded. I don’t eat what I shoot. I’m not a vegetarian, but I’m not a cannibal, either.
I glanced between my hands at the glowing instrument panel on my dash. It confirmed that I needed fuel soon, and my stomach’s rumble seconded the motion. The clock read eleven a.m., I scarcely believed it. The last meal I’d had was an overpriced, over-stale cruller at an all-night convenience store, hours and hours ago. I passed a sign that read Fern; I had no idea if that was a city or a county, or if anyone even lived here. I was pleasantly surprised to see a large red-and-white shield towering over the trees ahead. That meant a Phillips 66 gas station. I exited immediately, it was just off the highway. It looked to be the original gas station from 1927, still in original condition. In front stood three pumps under an inadequate canopy, and a sign on each that said “PAY BEFORE PUMPING.” I parked the Lincoln and headed inside the tiny shack. No quick mart here, meaning, no food, either. Great. The man behind the counter had stringy white hair with a beard to match. I suspected he might have been the original Philip. I gave him a twenty for gas, and stared at the bag of pork rinds on the counter. I was almost that hungry. “Anywhere to eat?” I asked him. He started to answer affirmatively, then interrupted to contradict himself. I hadn’t thought it was a tricky question. Finally, he managed, “You got Fern’s Hot Dogs up ‘round the curve a piece, like I told the others, but…” I cut him off with my thanks and headed outside to pump the gas. It sounded as if he called after me, “They’re closed.” I dismissed that, after all it was July 4th. Nothing’s more American than having modified food starch, nitrites, and mechanically separated pork smothered with relish, minced onions, and mustard.
“Hot dogs,” I murmured to myself. They sounded edible, even appealing. I suppose that indicated just how hungry I had been. I headed “up ‘round the curve” per the old man’s directions. ‘The parking lot at Fern’s was full of American flags and pickup trucks. It looked promising. As I exited my vehicle, a dejected-looking family was returning to theirs. “You can’t eat here,” the father told me. “Unless you’re in the contest.” He must have seen my confusion, so he clarified. “The hot dog eating contest. They’re only feeding the contestants. No exceptions.” I thought on that a second. I had a toolbox full of very convincing ways to change that. But the process is painful, and like I said, I was done working for the day. However, I’d made a killing earlier, so I had a wallet full of ways to get a hot dog or two, I was certain. The man read my mind. “I offered them two hundred bucks. No dice.” I watched them get into their out-of-place European sedan and drive slowly back up the dusty road. So, I thought, I can’t eat here. Unless…
On cue, another car pulled quickly into the vacated space. A fidgety man exited, stammering something like, “This is a bad idea.” He was my height, if he’d been standing up straight instead of slumping. He had red hair and a matching moustache. Plaid shirt, buttoned all the way up to the collar. “Nice shades,” I told him. “What?” he said nervously, touching his gold aviator Ray Bans. I pointed to my identical pair. “Nice sunglasses. You here for the contest?” “No,” he chirped in a shrill voice. “Yes! Well, I don’t know.” I must have been asking tough questions today. He looked towards the crowded hot dog joint, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. “I guess I should try,” he said finally. “Gene,” he said, sticking a freckled hand out. I shook it, and said, “Gene, I have a paying proposition for you.”
Gene left a relieved and richer man. He’d squeaked his thanks, and I’d assured him that he’d be hearing from me. The way his tires kicked up dust as he departed, I figured Gene was never coming back to Fern; the city, county, or restaurant. As it turned out, that’d probably be for the best. I headed toward the hot dog place, armed with the identification of one Eugene Murple, from Baldwin, wherever that is. I assumed he hadn’t traveled too awfully far just to turn tail and run. Parked conspicuously up front was a monstrous truck, a Ford F-Million 150 or something. There were red, white and blue flags hanging out of every oversized window. The back window read “King Cyrus” in flowing yellow script that looked like mustard. The truck had a vanity plate, also. “DOG KING.” It was an impressive attempt to brand insignificance, even if it fell well short of brilliance. I brushed sweat and dust off my forehead, pushed my shades back up, and went in the front door.
“YOO-Gene!” came the bellow from the man who could only be King Cyrus. After all, his garish yellow shirt said so, right across its expansive front. The back read, “Dog King,” naturally. Everyone laughed, not with me but at me, and parted to let me take the final empty seat at the counter. Cyrus was spilling over into my personal space. I avoided eye contact as I imagined Gene would have. After all, I was him, for the time being, at least. I checked out my opponent peripherally.
Cyrus had a fat head, with eyes that were too close together. He looked like those stationary binoculars you put quarters in to use. You’d just have to grab hold of the huge ears on either side. His skin had the texture and hue of undercooked bacon. And the odor, I realized. He brayed unintelligibly like a donkey, obese body shaking as he laughed at me. He kept fiddling with a huge, gaudy “Dog King” ring on his right hand. It was shiny yellow gold, with overstated stones, and yes, a wiener wearing a crown. It wasn’t budging a bit as he worried at it. His bloated finger had evidently swollen since he first put on the hideous ring, now it was likely inhibiting circulation. The only way to remove it now would be to cut it off. The ring or the finger.
“Have a seat, Gene,” the woman whose grease-stained shirt identified her as Fern said dismissively. I wondered if the people here didn’t know one another apart without the personalized shirts. Fern smelled like Kool cigarettes. I imagined her buying a pack a day from the original Phillips 66 for the past 80 years. “You ready, Cy?” she addressed the giant next to me, in a decidedly warmer tone. “Almost, Fern,” Cy answered, turning back toward me. Lucky me. “Eugene!” he screamed, as if I were deaf. I winced, and mildly corrected him, “It’s Gene,” I said, bending myself into Gene’s slouch, and speaking in a barely audible voice. I figured it was a passable impression of the timid man I’d met minutes earlier. “Eugene!” he re-shouted, ignoring me. “You got rid of that God-awful (he pronounced it “Gawd”) mustache, now we can see your God-awful upper lip!” He wasn’t finished; he wasn’t ever finished. “You didn’t show the last two years, I figgered you got tired of losin to me.” I faked a mild protest and let him continue. “Well, I guess if you do your best, you can get you-self another lame-ass second place ribbon, and help me carry my trophy out to the truck. I’m runnin’ outta places to put ‘em all!” His loud remarks predictably got plenty of laughs and sycophantic cheers. What a bunch of idiots, and I was sitting next to the largest. Mentally and physically. A big fat fish in a fetid little pond. A half-dozen ways to murder him crossed my mind. I wasn’t going to do that, though. I’m a professional. I don’t kill for free.
The final contestant sidled up. Nearly as large as Cyrus, he was wearing a blue jersey with what appeared to be a white toilet seat on the front of it. As he passed by, he gave me a look I could only describe as utter pity. I had a feeling Gene got that look a lot. Cyrus got a clap on the back from the same guy. He stood up, they hugged awkwardly, and the big mouth pointed needlessly at me, saying, “Check it out, Colt, the “World’s Biggest Loser” came back!” He slapped me on the back hard enough to rattle my brain and bring homicidal thoughts back to the front. I made myself remember, then, that I didn’t need any trouble, that I’d come here to eat, nothing more. “Fern,” I chirped, in Gene-like fashion, waving to get her attention. She came over, leaning close so I truly appreciate the menthol carcinogens she was marinated in. “You think I could get a plate of nachos with my hot dogs?” Fern’s mouth fell open. Cyrus was staring at me, speechless, possibly for the first time ever. “Nachos,” Fern repeated. “This here’s a hot-dog eating contest. You really want nachos too?” I did want nachos. She muttered something or other about “crazy,” and gave the kitchen the order despite her misgivings. Looking at the clock on the wall, she shouted, “It’s about that time!” quieting the crowd. Everyone but Cyrus, that is.
“YOO-Gene. What are we going to do with you? You just keep comin’ back for more punishment, like a dumb poodle. Like your wife!” he added loudly. He did everything loudly. I gave him the open-mouthed look I figured Gene would have. Cyrus leaned his floppy purple veined ear demonstratively in front of my face, screaming, “What’s that you say, Eugene? I can’t hear you!” There were more laughs from his fans. I imagined cutting his ugly ear right off the side of that monstrous head. I have just the thing to do that. I’m not that guy right now, I reminded myself. I’m not on the job.
Let’s get this started, I thought. Let me eat three hot dogs and lose disgracefully like Gene would do. “Eugene!” the fat jackass thundered, as if correcting me. “Your collar’s unbuttoned.” I looked down as expected, and his sloppy finger brushed roughly up under my nose, sending ripple after ripple of unattractive chuckles through Cyrus’ ample midsection. His ridiculous, ill-fitted ring nearly drew blood. I started out of my seat. Ten minutes with this chucklehead, and I’d had more than enough. Much more. “Mother fu…” I started, channeling my inner killer much more than Gene. They were all looking at me now. I stopped myself, forced myself to cool down. I didn’t need to attract undue attention, make anyone wonder who I really was. Because who I really am, is pretty unsavory, like the ingredients of the hot dogs we were about to consume. Or the contents of the trunk of my car. I was thinking quite a bit about those unmentionable objects, tools of a lost art.
I cleared my throat loudly, and called out feebly, “Fern! Never mind the nachos.” They were staring at me just then. King Cyrus looked a bit shocked. I caught myself and snort-laughed. That made everyone relax. “Oh, it’s on, now,” Cyrus said, to the agreement of all, myself included. It was all about the hot dogs now. I intended to beat the small-town simpleton at his own game. Honestly, though, I didn’t see how. It was obvious he had a tremendous capacity for gluttony. All I had was my inner rage.
As if things weren’t already slanted in his favor, it dawned on me that the two other contestants, barely visible around Cyrus’ girth, were Cyrus’ people. One of them even had on the mustard-yellow King Cyrus shirt. Who brings ringers to a hot dog eating contest? I was really getting aggravated. I needed to eat, or someone, perhaps more than one someone, was going to die. I was mentally counting the steps out to my car, and the lethal instruments within. “EUGENE!” the roar interrupted my homicidal fantasy. “You alright? Your face is redder than your hair!” The obligatory laughter erupted again. I could filet his carcass so very quickly. I stared straight ahead.
In front of us were placed tall plastic glasses of water, and plates of steaming hot dogs. Wieners and buns only, no condiments. The very definition of unrefined, uncivilized. The contest started without much hype or introduction. Fern did one of those loud annoying whistles with her fingers in her mouth. When it was quiet, she announced, “Y’all know how this works. Twelve minutes. Most dogs wins. Lets make ‘em disappear, boys!” She blew an airhorn, I stayed in character by flinching, and we were off.
I watched Cyrus’ method out of the corner of my eye. Take the hot dog out, break it in half, dip the bun in water, and stuff everything in your mouth. He had a big advantage in the mouth department. He was four or five ahead before I knew it. The other guys were also ahead of me, but by less; they were letting the Dog King keep his crown. Cyrus was watching me closely. He slowed down when he saw how far behind I had fallen. My hunger was gone; unfortunately nausea was replacing it. “Lookin’ a little green, Eugene!” my adversary mocked. I just kept eating. I thought maybe I could pull off some sort of “Tortoise versus Hare” upset. As the minutes dragged on, however, it was obvious he wasn’t going to let that happen. He kept his margin at about three, and time was mercifully running out. It would take divine intervention to overtake the Dog King, and it wasn’t like I could call in any favors. I prepared to accept the inevitable so I could get the hell out of this place. I started to take a sip of my water. There were so many crumbs floating in it, it looked like a filthy birdbath. I felt the mostly unchewed food in my stomach working against gravity.
I had a bad feeling that vomiting during one of these contests would be the ultimate humiliation. Keeping the dozen or so hot dogs I’d consumed down became my only goal for the final two minutes. I heard a loud gurgle, and it hadn’t come from my stomach. I took a sidewise glance at Cyrus, and he was turning purple. He was choking, the bloated bastard. A shout went out as Cyrus flopped off his stool. He was in all sorts of distress, and I couldn’t help but take a quick peek. I’ve seen quite a few gruesome deaths, in fact, I’ve caused many of them myself. This one was special, though, and it brought a smile to my face. I even got my appetite back. The other contestants, his cronies, abandoned their plates and began frenzied attempts to save the beached whale. I did what any aspiring “Dog King” would do; grabbed another handful of the damned hot dogs, and wolfed them down. Most of the attention was on the attempt to rescue King Cyrus. Several men had joined the cause, struggling mightily to get him upright, and struggling even more to attempt a Heimlich maneuver. It took long arms to get around his huge gut. Against all odds, they succeeded. With a sickening whoosh of breath, a mostly intact dog propelled across the counter. The groans turned into a half-hearted cheer when the onlookers at Fern’s realized that their hero would live to be revolting yet another day.
Just as the cheers died out, Fern blew the airhorn again. “Oh my GAWD!” she said over shocked silence, “Gene won!” It was true, he had, or rather, I had. Everyone was shocked, and silent, for an ominous moment. The tension was so thick you could cut it with the sharpest boning knife I owned. Then the place erupted with protests, curses, and several attempts by Cyrus to strangle me. Finally, Fern restored order with a third and final blast of the airhorn. I put on my best apologetic look, and spoke in the mousiest voice I could manage. “Well, I sure am sorry, Cyrus,” I lied. “I just couldn’t stop. I really had no idea I could ever… ketchup.” I snort laughed, and hated myself. But the tactic worked fairly well.
Everyone lightened up just then. Everyone, except the heaviest man in the room. His face was the color of eggplant. A really angry eggplant. I cowered, as expected, when Cyrus made one last effort to choke me. Colt, the man in the blue jersey (it was a Colts logo on the front, he later explained to me) gently and forcefully intercepted him, and guided him back to his seat. “Fair and square, Cy, fair and square,” he repeated like a mantra. It wasn’t nearly as effective as what I said. “Fern, get all these gentleman a round of beer.” That lightened the mood considerably. Alcohol soothes the savage beast. I had plenty of cash, so I kept the party going for a couple more rounds. King Cyrus (if he could still be called King) cooled down just a bit. He stared at the mug in his meaty mitt as if it were ambrosia. “That’s mighty tasty,” he said, “Almost as good as Eugene’s wife!” I couldn’t take being Gene much longer. Fern tapped my shoulder just then, and presented me with my trophy, with minimal fanfare. It looked like a golden blender. We filled it with beer and passed it around. Then it was time for Gene Murple to take his leave. Every patron of Fern’s either pumped my hand or slapped me on the back as I worked my way to the exit. Everyone except Cyrus, who was as drunk as he was daft. He pulled me close. I let the hefty man put me in a headlock and knuckle my hair mercilessly. He dug in with his ridiculous and overly tight ring, naturally. Why? I thought. Why did he have to do that?
I left Fern’s Hot Dogs as a local hero. Half of the crowd followed me out. Hell, I even gave one of ‘em a ride.
After all of the festivities in Fern, I hummed most of the way home. “Dueling Banjos,” I think. I got cleaned up in time to sip Pepto Bismol and watch fireworks from my back patio. Not a dreadful day, all in all. For me, at least. Tomorrow I’d go to the post office and mail a package to one Eugene Murple in Baldwin. I needed to return his identification, as promised. I gave him the trophy too. And the best part, in my opinion.
The “Dog King” ring. Hey, I gotta be me.