Steinfield’s Burger Palace was a popular joint in my hometown. Sometimes you would have to reserve a spot a week in advance just to get a table. The diner was known for its famous, “Henry” burgers, which was named after the owner, Henry Steinfield.
Henry was a very secretive man, always kept to himself and never let anyone into his personal bubble. Being extremely heavy set, well above average height, and having some physical deformities, he always stayed in the back so he wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. The only time his customers would see him was very late at night when he left the shop, or if you asked for him.
The first time I met him was the summer after my senior year of high school, I needed a part-time job and saw he was looking for a bus boy. One day, around lunch time, I decided to stop by and give Henry my resume. As I walked in, I noticed there were only a few people seated in a booth in the back of the diner stuffing their faces with burgers about three inches thick, juices running down their chins.
After a few minutes, I heard the kitchen double doors open up. Very slowly, loud heavy footsteps came in my direction.
“Can I help you?” I heard a vehement rumble right behind me.
I turned around as Henry stood there and glared at me. I took a few deep gulps to get my nerve up and handed him my resume. I nervously stood there as he investigated the paper up and down, analyzing it like a police report.
“You want to work here?” He looked down deep into my eyes has he towered over me like a giant.
“Yes.” I realized was the only statement I could muster up.
He stood there for another few minutes, looked at me with his lazy eye. The sweat on my forehead dripped on my white button down. Stains erupted on my armpits as the anxiety built.
“Come in tomorrow, 3pm sharp.” He handed me the paper and I watched him as he waddled back to the kitchen.
I got there exactly at 3pm the following day. I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths as I opened the door to my new job opportunity. At the counter, I noticed Henry was waiting on my timely arrival.
“You made it.” He said as he looked at his watch, his booming voice echoed off the walls like a cathedral. “Come with me.”
I followed him through the double doors. They slammed shut with force, almost knocked me to the ground. The back of the diner was bigger than what I thought. It reminded me of a warehouse, dark and dingy with overhead lights that flickered like a heartbeat. As I gazed around, tried to take in everything, I ran straight into Henry.
“I’m sorry.” I looked down at the red cement ground, embarrassed by my actions.
“Here is the kitchen.” He motioned all around him. “This is where I stay.” I nodded.
“Over there…” He pointed. “Is where I keep the meat.” There was a silver double door in the back of the kitchen fastened with a padlock.
“I have a couple of rules if you’re going to work here.” I looked up into his eyes, his right one floating slightly out of alignment.
“Rule one, don’t bother me while I’m working.” I listened to his every word and watched his every movement.
“Rule two, that back door right there?” He pointed to the two silver doors. “Never open those. Keeping the meat clean and cool is the difference between keeping the burgers coming and something going wrong and getting shut down.”
“I understand.” I started to say.
“Rule three, don’t bother asking me for the recipe for the burgers. It’s a secret and, while it’s nothing too fancy, keeping it secret does create a mystery about them that keeps people coming back.”
He pushed a medium black apron on my chest and motioned for me to go out front. I was greeted by a short, medium build, blonde girl.
“Hi, I’m Cynthia.” She said as she smiled. Her white teeth glistened like a couple of diamonds in the desert.
“I’m Tom.” I said back nervously.
She was a pretty girl, very alluring in appearance. Not wearing much makeup, only enough to brighten her eyes up. She also had her hair in a cute pony tail that showed off her modelesque jawline and bright blue eyes. And on the nape of her neck, she had a tattoo of a tiny C.
“So Tom, I’m going to show you the ropes today.” She grabbed her red writing pad. “Most of our customers come in around five, that is usually our prime time of serving. Henry told me you’re only busing, am I correct?”
“That’s right.” I said back to her.
“It isn’t a hard job, but Henry is very precise of how he wants things done.” We headed over to one of the empty tables.
“I think I already learned that.” I laughed at the thought.
“Don’t worry, you will get use to him and how he runs things.” She said as she smiled back at me.
She went on to tell me that everything had to be cleaned up by midnight. Henry, before he left the diner, checked everything to make sure it is up to his standard. She showed me the precise way of cleaning off the tables, making sure the floor is swept and mopped every night, and the register money had to stay in a safe under the front desk.
The night went by pretty fast, I caught on pretty quickly to Henry’s strict rules and policies. Even though my boss was a bit strange, I realized I was going to love this job. The atmosphere was great, the customers were warm and friendly, and I enjoyed being around new people.
At 11 pm, everyone scattered like little mice on the way to find cheese. I brushed my face off from the sweat that built up throughout the night, I could feel my cheeks break out with heat from the exhaustion of the day.
“How do you feel about everything? Do you have any questions?” Cynthia’s beautiful blue eyes seemed to shine as she looked me.
“I think I have everything.” I said back to her, trying to hide my red swollen face.
“If you have any questions just remember to ask me in the morning, have a great night!”
I watched her through the open window as she walked out of the restaurant to the alley way, her pony tail danced along with her slender body.
When I grabbed my car keys to leave, I noticed I still had my apron on. I took it off and headed to the kitchen to put back on the rack. As I opened the doors, I heard a women’s voice around the corner. I immediately stopped everything so I wouldn’t be heard.
I adjusted my body to see where the voices were coming from. At a slight acute angle, I could see Henry and a big busted brunette talking. She was wearing a red crop top, a mini leather skirt, and black high heels. Even being far away, I could see that mascara was smeared all over her face, giving her a raccoon look. Without meaning to, I held my breath.
Towering over her, Henry pressed his hand against her face and brought it up to his. The moment lasted for a few seconds as the women adjusted her weight, trying to free herself. They both stood there, eyeing each other for what seemed like decades. He reached into his pocket and pulled out some cash. The women brought out her hand to accepted the invitation as he motioned for her to go into the other room with him. Henry pulled off the padlock of the double doors, slightly opened it, and they both disappeared into the darkness. I could finally breathe again. Throwing the apron on the rack, I bolted out of the restaurant.
The next day, I intended to tell Cynthia about Henry, the money, and the woman I saw last night to see what she thought. When I got to the diner, I peeked through the the window to see if I could see her but I only saw a few customers sitting at the counter. The first thing I noticed when I walked through the front doors was Henry limping badly as he walked out of the kitchen. He came straight over to me.
Clearly not in a good mood he said, “Cynthia quit so you’ll have to take over.” He eyed me as I walked up to the counter.
“I got it, sir.” I nervously said. He limped back into the kitchen and I started helping customers.
We pulled out hamburgers left and right, mostly the special Henry burger with the special sauce. My mouth was watering by just looking at it; A big beef patty, lettuce, tomato, and a red sauce that everyone said was addictive.
Right before dinner time, when things slowed down a bit, I decided I should try one for these burgers for myself. I asked Henry if he could make me one, he grunted and sent one my way as I went on break.
I sat down in the very back of the restaurant to have a little bit of privacy. I looked at the colossal burger on the plate with its red juices dripping out. It was the biggest burger I had ever seen in my life, so thick that you had to use a knife to cut it into tiny pieces to eat it.
After the portions were right, I stuffed one of the sections in my mouth. The delicate red sauce oozed out, dripped on my chin, and made a spot on my white button up. I quickly grabbed a napkin and cleaned up the stain. I finally understood why this burger was so popular and addicting. Not only was the burger juicy, the red sauce was warm and sweet, which made the taste buds come alive. I closed my eyes and took in every morsel until the dinner bell rang.
The rest of the night picked up, then slowed down again. After the diner rush, it was time to start cleaning up to go home. I grabbed the mop and bucket from the closet to clean the red tile that went the length of the whole diner. First, I wanted to clean behind the counter to get any food that may have dropped. I bent down on my knees and scraped hours old sauce that was stuck on the tile, I moved the mop back and forth to make sure I got everything. As I stood up, something caught my attention. Wedged in between the bottom of the counter, there was a square shaped pin. With little force, I could get the pin out from the tiny hiding place. As I turned it over, I saw it was Cynthia’s name tag.
I laid her name tag on the counter and started thinking. Did she have it on yesterday? I know she had it on because I kept looking at it. Suddenly, I heard a loud banging sound that came from the kitchen area, I grabbed the name tag and stuffed it in my pants pocket. I pretended to start mopping as I peeked through the tiny whole that housed the food. Henry came out of the room with the silver doors and quickly locked it behind him. As I watched him, he put the key in a jar adjacent to the room.
This is when I knew I had to know what was behind those doors.
During training the night before, I remembered Cynthia said that Henry always left at 11:30 every night.
“Why.” I asked her.
“No one knows. And I don’t want to find out,” she’d reluctantly said and moved on to the next task.
I rushed to get everything done as the he next few hours ticked by like molasses. The adrenaline went through my veins, inched down from my head to my toes. I played with the salt shakers, pushed them back and forth as I watched the clock. Click. Click. Click.
I heard heavy footsteps as the minute hand landed on 11:30. As I peeked through the little window toward the kitchen, I watched Henry as he walked out of his office. His leg dragged behind him, belly bulging out of his white grease stained t-shirt, and he was holding a large heap of clothing. Right before he got to the back exit, he grabbed a big black trash bag. He ejected saliva on the concrete floor before he exited the building.
When the coast was clear, I quickly went through the two doors that lead to the back, I knew I only had a little bit of time to explore. I first looked around the room, everything looked normal to me. The stove was off, but the little light above it was on. As the I walked around, the main florescent lights flicked, signaling that I needed to hurry. I saw the door to his office, the only wooden object in the whole building. The door squeaked loudly when I opened it, echoing throughout the room. I turned on the light so I could see the room better.
There was nothing but clothes in this room, put in a big pile right in the middle of the floor. I walked over and started looking through it; all women’s clothing. There were t-shirts, pants, skirts, shoes, and the most disturbing yet, underwear. As I moved some of the top pile over, I recognized an outfit. It was something so simple but it stuck with me; a red crop top, a mini leather skirt, and black high heels. I picked up the red top and examined it, I could still smell the fragrant flowery perfume. I dropped the shirt, moved back the pile, and left the room. When I turned around, the two silver doors called me.
I reached up and grabbed the key that was nestled nicely in the jar. When I successfully grabbed it, I slid the key right into the padlock. It fell on the ground, hitting the concrete floor with force. The doors slowly opened up, showing nothing but darkness. The smell filled my nostrils, sweet, heavy, nauseating. I covered my nose and mouth to try and mask the decrepit vile smell. As I turned on the lights, it flickered for a second, trying to gain its heartbeat. At first, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. But as I blinked three times, I realized I wasn’t imagining it.
On the ceiling there were meat hooks, the ones that hang down from a long metal chain. Normally butchers use these for pigs and cattle, to hang the meat up after they are done skinning the animal. But on these meat hooks were skinned human body parts.
Right in front of me were legs, torsos, and arms, moving back and forth on the hooks like dust in the wind. In the corner, the corpses were piled up in disordered mounds, scattered here and there. An immense, haunting buzzing filled the air: thousands of heavy blue flies were hovering over the bodies, the pools of blood, the fecal matter. I wanted to close my eyes, or put my hand over my eyes, and at the same time I wanted to look, to look as much as I could, and by looking, try to understand, this incomprehensible thing.
I heard the chains rattling, as one of the swaying torsos caught my attention. I slowly walked over to it, trying not to step on anything. In between the monstrous amount of blood was a remnant of skin. On it was the letter C.
I slowly stepped away, inch my inch, towards the door, towards the only exit that will get me out of here. When I neared the doorway, that’s when I heard the footsteps, coming right towards me. As I turned, Henry was right behind me. Sweat rolled of his body in clumps, making puddles on the concrete floor. When he looked at me, his lazy eye looked towards his creations, seemingly to smile.
“Fresh is better. But you’ve never tasted fresh blood. Have you?” His scarlet soaked teeth protruded as he grinned at me.