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As many college students do, I practically lived off fast food and pizza delivery during my years as an undergraduate. I went to a school in my home town, so lucky enough for me I didn't have to live on campus and suffer through the cafeteria on a daily basis, but nonetheless, my eating habits usually involved a lot of things fried in grease and covered in cheese. Of course, back in my early 20's, I had the metabolism to handle it. Now in my late 30's, I have sworn off fast food forever. Yet, before you praise me for my healthy lifestyle, please understand, I don't do it for my health.
I lived in a small apartment back in those days- a typical student dwelling adorned with garage sale furniture and movie posters. It was a humble place, but it was inexpensive so I didn't have to get a roommate and in a great part of town surrounded by shopping and restaurants. Since my apartment was on the bottom floor, it wasn't uncommon for me to come home from time to time with advertisements taped to my door or hung on my doorknob from local businesses. I would often find coupons and take-out menus and by now I had amassed quite a collection. I was familiar with just about every restaurant in my neighborhood. I knew which ones delivered and which ones didn't. I knew which ones stayed open late and which ones were fast or slow or overpriced. I guess you could say I ordered out far too often.
One night, as I was studying for an exam in the late hours of the night, my stomach began that all-too-familiar rumbling that had so many times before disrupted my ability to concentrate. As usual, I had been so wrapped up in preparing for the finals that I had forgotten to eat dinner, and as usual, I would resort to some late night delivery. It was approaching midnight, so I knew a lot of my regular places would be closed by now, especially being a weeknight. I shuffled through the collection of take-out menus in the kitchen drawer, trying to decide who to call. The only places that delivered this late were pizza joints, and I just wasn't in the mood for pizza. Not again. I was about to give up and just dial the nearest pizza place when I came upon an advertisement I hadn't seen before, or at least, I didn't remember having seen before. It was just a square piece of glossy paper that looked as if it had been torn from a magazine or one of those inserts they put in the newspaper. Strangely, I didn't remember having torn this out. But then again, I had been in a fog of constant studying for nearly two weeks, so perhaps I had saved this and had just forgotten about it.
The ad featured a cartoon-ish clown mascot holding balloons. Beside him was a comic-style speech bubble with the words “CARNIVAL BURGERS. Now open until 3:30 a.m.! We deliver!” Beneath the speech bubble was a telephone number. I had never heard of Carnival Burgers before. Was it a new place? I had reservations about ordering a burger by delivery, but I thought, “Why not?” I mean, how bad do you have to be to mess up a burger?
I dialed the number. It rang only once before a voice picked up on the other end. “Thank you for calling Carnival Burgers! Would you like to try our special house burger?” The voice sounded almost electronic, like it was pre-recorded.
“Uh, no thanks”, I said. “I'd like to place an order for delivery.”
“Excellent. I would be happy to take your order, Sir,” the electronic voice replied in a far too upbeat manner. “What would you like?”
“I'll take a hamburger with cheese, pickles, lettuce, onions, and tomatoes. A side of fries.”
“Would you like mustard, mayonnaise, or our special house sauce?”
“Excellent! Your order will arrive shortly. Thank you for calling Carnival Burgers!” The line then disconnected. I figured the person on the other end must have accidentally hung up. I hadn't given them my address or my payment information, and the voice hadn't given me my total. I dialed the number again to complete the order.
This time it just kept ringing. I let it ring for what felt like a solid five minutes. When no one answered, I hung up and dialed again. The same thing happened. The phone just kept ringing. I thought maybe they were busy, which would have been odd being so late in the middle of the week, but maybe their burgers were just that good and maybe I had just gotten lucky getting through the first time…? Doubtful. I tried one more time. Finally, after about the third ring the line picked up. The same electronic voice spoke, but this time it sounded slower and deeper, like the recording had been slowed down, “Thank you for calling Carnival Burgers. Would you like to try our special house burger?”
“No thanks. I actually called a little while ago. I think the line was disconnected. I never gave you my address-”
“No worries, Jake” the slow, electronic voice replied, “Your order is on its way.” Click.
I never gave them my name. I was suddenly hit with a wave of confusion mixed with uneasiness. My logical brain began to weave a scenario in which they could know my name without me having given it to them. Maybe I had ordered from this place before and I just didn't remember. Maybe they had some sort of number recognition software on their phone system so that repeat customers would be displayed on a database or a caller ID of some sort. Maybe that's also why they didn't ask for my address. Perhaps it was already on file from a previous order. Or maybe I did give them my name and I was just mistaken thinking I didn't.
As much as I wanted that explanation to make sense, I knew I had never ordered from them before. I can be absent-minded at times and forgetful, but not that forgetful. I had never heard of the restaurant before.
But I did have that ad in my drawer…
I decided the most logical answer was the best one, and that I surely must have ordered from them before. Despite having talked myself into this conclusion, I still felt uneasy as I waited for the knock on my door. I couldn't focus on my studying. I turned on the television to break the suddenly overwhelming silence of my apartment. I flipped through the channels. Being a broke college student, I couldn't afford cable, so my late-night TV choices consisted of infomercials, religious programming, and talk show reruns. I settled on some trashy talk show where the host was telling people who was and who wasn't the father, when the TV signal was cut in with static. A commercial popped on to the screen. It was snowy and the sound quality was poor. A clown, like the one in the print ad, danced in front of a small building with a sign on it reading “Carnival Burgers”. The same electronic, overly peppy voice spoke. “Come to Carnival Burgers where the fun never stops! Now offering delivery!” A phone number flashed on the bottom of the screen. The static dissipated and the screen returned to normal. I turned off the TV.
Just as the TV clicked off, there was a knock on my door. I hesitantly approached. I peeked through the peephole to see a clown, balloons in one hand, and a paper bag with “Carnival Burgers” printed on it in the other. I gulped, took a deep breath, and opened the door.
The clown smiled and said, “That will be $8.66 please.” It was the same electronic voice from the phone.
I pulled a ten dollar bill out of my back pocket and handed it to him. “Keep the change,” I said, trying to mask my nervousness.
“Thank you! Enjoy your order and please call us again! Next time, try our special house burger!” The clown handed me the paper bag.
I took the bag and thanked him. He stood there an uncomfortably long time and there was an awkward period of silence as he just stared at me before I slowly closed the door. I thought that maybe I should have asked him how he knew my name and address, but I let it go. I waited a moment and then looked out the peephole. He was gone.
I had been so hungry earlier, but now I hardly wanted to eat. I opened the bag and found nothing unusual inside. It was just my order. Just a hamburger with cheese, pickles, lettuce, onions, tomato and mustard with a side of fries. It was warm and smelled good. I felt my uneasiness diminish and my hunger return. I ate the burger and fries and it was actually quite decent. It wasn't the best burger I had ever had, but certainly not terrible. After eating, I studied a little while longer before crashing at about 2 a.m.
A few days later it was the weekend, and I was driving home to my parents' house to spend the weekend with them. A couple of days of my mom's home-cooked meals and my old, comfy bed was just the thing I needed before finals week. They lived in town, so it wasn't a long drive and I liked to visit when I could. As I was driving, I came across some road construction. I followed the detour signs to an off road that I was unfamiliar with. I was aggravated, but as I said, it was a relatively short drive so a small detour wouldn't make much of a difference. The detour guided me into an old residential neighborhood. There weren't many businesses...just all houses...a small park…and then there it was...on the corner of an intersection. It was the building I had seen in the television ad. Carnival Burgers.
I pulled into the parking lot and stopped. It was certainly the same building, but unlike the one in the ad it was old and run down. The painted sign was faded and covered in dirt. Some of the windows had been broken out and replaced with boards. It looked as if it had been abandoned for years. I got out of my car and peered through one of the windows. Inside were booths and tables, blanketed with dust. There were cracks in the walls and cobwebs draping the small amount of furniture still left inside. In one corner was a plastic statue of a smiling clown holding a chalkboard menu with the now barely legible words, “Ask about the special house burger!”
I felt weak in the knees and a pain in my chest. This couldn't be the same place. Once again my logical mind began to rationalize the situation. This was obviously just an old, abandoned location. The restaurant has moved and re-opened somewhere else. There was no “now located at____” sign, but that had to be it.
I got back in my car and continued to my parents' house. Later that night at dinner, I asked my mother if she had ever heard of Carnival Burgers. My parents had lived their entire lives in the same town, so if anyone would know about it, they would. When I asked her she told me, “Oh yeah, the old burger joint. It was shut down a long time ago they said for 'sanitation reasons'. It was actually a kind of big deal when we were kids. We all loved going there. Sure, it was kind of a McDonald's knock off, but it was fun. They had this clown that would give out balloons. What was his name?”
My father cut in, “Jestereo, because of that weird voice of his. Some sort of electronic voice box. I thought it was creepy. “
“I thought he was funny. I was sad when they closed it down,” my mother said.
My father continued, “They said it was for uncleanliness but the rumors are that it shut down because of the disappearances.” He looked over his glasses and spoke in a melodramatic tone for effect.
“Oh, those were just stories the older kids told us to scare us.”
“What stories?” I asked.
My father replied, “They said a lot of people in the neighborhood started going missing, and the only thing the cops could find they had in common was that each one had ordered delivery from Carnival Burgers on the day they disappeared. Even weirder was they all had ordered the same thing- the 'special house burger'.”
I decided not to tell my parents about my experience. I have never eaten fast food since.