I seem to remember, in a distant, far-off land and time, that I started a blog page intending to write some fiction.
And then it turned into a sometimes-weekly, usually longer, drivel about my real-life life.
I blame Chuck Wendig. He used to have flash fiction prompts every Friday. Now he doesn’t. So it’s all his fault. It can’t possibly be me who is responsible for my own lack of writing, or the fact that, when I do finally sit my ass down in front of the computer, it’s much easier to unload whatever happened to me that day than to create a work of fiction from my own brainy parts.
Well, I found another website with flash fiction contests, so there goes one of my excuses. Might as well try this, and then I can post it on that fiction blog I started all those years ago.
This month’s prompt was a bit awkward. They gave us five things that we had to incorporate into our story. They were: 1. the main character’s flaw must be one of the seven deadly sins, 2. a dream vacation goes awry, 3. MC’s strength is the same as mine (I went with organizational/analytical, since I had just finished creating the teams and schedule for a curling league), 4. The MC has a rival, and 5. The MC needs to break the rules to win.
The Glutton Games
“This is no good.”
Robert lowered the chicken wing from the front of his mouth. Every ounce of meat had been removed, the sinews and crusted nub gnawed clean enough to pass inspection. He licked residual gristle and sauce off of his bottom lip, looked at his fingers, glistening with a pale orangish-red residue, then proceeded to place them in his mouth.
Beyond his hand, he saw the beginnings of a scowl in the bartender’s . Rob thought back to his last comment.
“Oh, not the wings. The wings were excellent. Savory and filling. Just enough chutzpah to make the wings worthwhile, but not those hulking monstrosities that look like bona fide drumsticks. The sauce never protrudes the meat enough on those, and what you’re stuck with on bites two and three is just a flavorless piece of dark.”
The bartender’s brow went from shrewd to confused. He shrugged and was in the midst of turning away when Rob continued his critique.
“The sauce was poignant. Not too much vinegar, a bountiful combination of flavor and heat. I can’t stand wings that are afraid of heat, but those who feel that simply adding heat is a way to avoid needing flavor are equally as problematic. My compliments to your chef.”
“Our chef?” The bartender responded. “Sure. Our chef. I’ll pass those compliments along.”
I’m sure the guy sitting on his ass and dropping pre-packaged shit in the deep fryer will love the compliments, he thought.
“No, waht I was referring to as not optimal is this,” Rob continued, waving his arms at the plate-glass windows opened up to sheets of drenching rain dumping on the tarmac outside.
The bartender shrugged. “Hurricane season.”
“Haven’t you heard? It’s always hurricane season in Miami.”
“So you’re stuck in Miami for an extra day. Could be worse. If your flight gets grounded an extra day, you’ll get a tropical New Year’s.”
“If I’m stuck here, then the crown is as good as gone.”
The bartender knew a baited statement as well as anyone. Airport bartenders might run into a different sort of customer than a divebar, a lot less “drinking myself to death,” and a lot more “I’m working through my mid-life crisis.” Especially in Miami. But bar customers are bar customers, and they’re all searching for an audience. Or else they’d be drinking at home where it’s cheaper.
“Can I get you a drink?”
“I don’t know about a drink, but maybe a bit of dinner to drown my sorrows.”
Rob made a show of picking up the menu, even though he had already looked at everything on the menu multiple times and knew exactly what he was going to order.
“Not much of a drinker?”
“Gave it up when I was in my early twenties. I think it was bad for me.”
“But you sit at the bar?”
“It’s more comfortable.”
Robert shifted his weight, causing the cushioned stool to squeak. Frankie wondered if comfort was just a euphemism for not being able to jam his fat ass into a regular sized chair. Or under a regular sized table.
“How’s the Monte Cristo?”
Once it’s out of the plastic?
Frankie shrugged. “Good.”
“Then I will take one of those.”
The barstool creaked under Robert’s weight.
“Fries?” Of course.
“Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. But sure.”
Frankie turned to punch the order into his computer screen, then turned to do his bartenderly duty, like the husband or wife of most of the mid-life crisis Miami patrons.”So what’re you in Miami for?”
Robert harrumphed enough to shake his jowls.
“Evidently what I’m here for is to watch wind and rain. What I was supposed to be here for was a shrimp eating competition.”
“Oh yeah? I didn’t know there was a competition for that.”
“Well, as it turns out, there wasn’t. The hurricane canceled the event.”
“Whatever. My chance at the belt is gone.”
Frankie looked at his customer again. There were so many responses that his job had indoctrinated out of his vocabulary. The fact that this rotund man, who probably had not been able to fit a belt around his girth for the last two hundred pounds, was whining about a belt was comical. But Frankie’s job required tips, and tips required discretion.
“Are you a competitive eater?”
Robert’s gut heaved up to his chest.
“I am. Perhaps you recognize me from Nathan’s Hot Dogs on the Fourth of July?”
“I don’t really-,” Frankie responded, and was pleased to hear the ding from the back room signifying his customer’s sandwich was ready. His tip might have been teetering if the conversation progressed enough for Robert to hear his lack of interest, bordering on disdain, for what was clearly the man’s sole purpose for being. The Monte Cristo would go a long way in earning the tip back.
Robert bit into the crusty sandwich, choked out of his full mouth, spraying some of the powdered sugar forward in a fine cloud. He made a small moaning sound as he chewed through the ham, cheese, and greasy dough in his hand. He breathed heavily, causing another spray of powdered sugar into the air between he and his server.
“I came in,” Robert started, then swallowed the chunks still in his mouth, “-sixth at Nathan’s. Nathan’s isn’t a real-,” chew, chew, “-competition. Too many amateurs that saw it on TV. Too many specialists that have figured out how to eat hot dogs without really embracing the spirit of the-,” two more chews and a large swallow. “Again, my compliments to the chef.”
Robert put the remains of this half of the sandwich down on his plate, looked at his greasy hands, shrugged in a futile attempt at mirroring the bartender’s smoothness, then picked up a french fry.
“Do you have any ketchup and ranch, maybe some barbecue sauce, to dip these in?”
The bartender nodded and produced a small plastic cube of ranch and two small plastic pouches of ketchup. He had no barbecue sauce but didn’t feel the need to announce that fact.
Robert’s cell phone buzzed. He finished the three french fries in his hand, wiped his hand on the navy blue polo shirt, and reached around to his back pocket for the phone. As he pushed his thumbprint on the bottom circle, Frankie found himself wondering if Robert needed to have grease on his finger for the phone to register its owner.
“Oh, this is no good.”
He turned his phone toward Frankie despite the bartender never asking for that courtesy. With no other customers, Frankie leaned in to see a selfie of a wiry man, smiling a grin with enough gaps and crooked teeth to make a British dentist shudder, wearing John Lennon-style sunglasses inside a casino. The text underneath the photo read, “Tasting the victory, Bobbie!”
“Who is that?”
“My rival. Cameron. He made it to Vegas.”
“I take it that’s a bad thing?”
“Doubly so. That’s where my flight is indefinitely delayed to. The ice cream contest that Wynn’s is running tomorrow will finish out the yearly competition.”
“What happens if you don’t make it?”
Robert breathed out, deflating his shoulders in defeat.
“The belt was mine. I already had a lead on Cameron. I gambled on the weather to attempt the Miami Shrimp Fest contest to pad my lead. But if I can’t make either of the last two contests, all Cameron needs to do is finish in fifth place to win the year.”
“So the non-gambler is winning because he went straight to Vegas?” Frankie chuckled.
Robert was not moved by the frivolity. He buried his head under his hands, in an action that Frankie assumed was for emphasis, although he wondered if Robert did in fact believe in his own histrionics.
“So what are you going to do about it, Bobbie?”
“Robert, please. I hat Bob. Or any derivation thereof. It’s cheating. A shortcut that destroys the essence of a being. It’s like dipping a hot dog bun in water to consume it faster. You’re not really eating a hot dog bun.”
“Sorry, I assumed your friend was calling you by your-,”
“Not a friend. Cameron is a rival. And he calls me that to chide me.”
Clearly it works, Frankie thought, but instead repeated, “So what are you going to do about it, Robert?”
“What can I do? He was only fifteen points behind me. I got no more points in Miami, and I shan’t be in Vegas.”
Robert alternated dips with each french fry. With one, he would dip it in ranch first, then in ketchup. On the next he would reverse the order, carrying the runny red liquid into the thick white one. Frankie started wiping the counter in order to break the hypnotizing pattern after the fourth such routine.
“Are there any other eating contests you can hit?”
“Without access to an airplane? Doubtful.”
“Well, what are the rules? Is there some over, um, overarching board you can appeal to?”
Frankie congratulated himself for replacing “overeating” in his mind with “overarching” out of his mouth.
“There’s nothing official. It’s just a yearly rivalry. We’ve established the ground rules ourselves.”
“If it’s just the two of you, tell him to go pound sand.”
“There are six of us. But Cameron’s the only one who can give me a run. In fact, he’s won it two years in a row. And I guess this make it three.”
The fat man lowered his head and put his greasy fingers through his rolly neck one more time.
“What do the rules specify? What counts as an eating contest? Can I just say you have the best ketchup-and-ranch dipping skills and give you a french fry award?”
“It doesn’t work like that. Nothing arbitrary. You just get twenty points for first place, nineteen points for second place, and so on.”
Frankie shrugged and turned to look at his wonderfully-stocked bar, glass bottles glistening in the incandescent halogen that would get little use today if the only customer willing to chance any non-delayed flights only wanted to stuff his mouth with more solid matter.
“Unless…,” Robert said, dragging out a thought that he had already worked through for ten seconds. “We wrote down some rules seven years ago. I don’t know the last time I looked at them. I don’t know the last time Cameron or anyone has. We’ve always just ascribed to the ‘Spirit of Eating.’ But I wonder if there is a technicality I can use to secure my position.”
“Sure. Like an Act of God clause.”
“I highly doubt we would have put any of those in. Most of us are agnostic, if not atheist.”
Frankie was about to explain what an Act of God provision was but decided it wasn’t worth his time.
“I think I have it stored on Google. Do you have free wi-fi here?”
Frankie shook his head. “The only place in the airport that doesn’t charge for wi-fi is Starbucks. And not the counter Starbucks. There’s an actual Starbucks in between terminals. You shouldn’t have to go back through security.”
“Thank you. I suppose I could go for a Frappuccino after that Monte Cristo.”
“Glad I could help.”
Robert pulled his wallet out to settle the bill, leaving his customary 19.5% tip.
Robert smiled and waved at the bored workers in each of the eateries en route to the promised land. He passed Fish n’ Chips, Waffle House, a place named Cubano’s, a Hardee’s, and three different Starbucks counters before making it to the end of the terminal. With scintillating thoughts of cinnamon dolce syrup and extra whipped cream on his mind, each coffee mermaid ensconced in her circular field of green seemed to beckon to him, telling him that the journey would be tough and that there was no need to pass her by for her sister two hundred yards further. She could offer him up some frozen, caffeinated concoction for him right here.
But he ventured through, powered by more than just a sweet tooth. His Google Drive was the true goal of this expedition. The Frappuccino was merely a reward for the exertion and something to soothe himself while he did a little bit of research on how to topple Cameron’s dreams of a three-peat from twenty-five hundred miles away. And in a torrential downpour, to boot.
After a cheery wave at the teenager girl working the McDonald’s register and the dour-looking scrawny middle-aged man leaning against Dunkin’ Donuts counter, he finally saw the sign leading to Terminal Two, and the familiar green circle guiding him to a venti drink and some wi-fi.
Robert waited for his Frappuccino to be finished before finding a seat and pulling his laptop out of his carry-on bag that was not likely to be carried on to anything on this particular day. It wouldn’t do any good to find a seat and then have to stand back up to get his drink. And he wouldn’t be accomplishing any research on an empty stomach.
The Starbucks employees seemed just as bored as Frankie had, but they didn’t engage Robert the way the bartender had. They were not working for tips, and they were used to customers wanting speed and efficiency, a temporary fix in a temporary cup, that they could take away with them.
With his caffeinated milkshake before him, RObert opened up his laptop and logged onto the Starbucks wi-fi. Ten clicks later, he was skimming down the rules that had been crafted, he looked more closely, a decade before. Google Drive didn’t even exist back then, or at least Robert was unaware of it if it did exist. Somebody, he wasn’t sure who, had moved the document onto the web and shared it with everybody a few years ago. And there it had sat. Robert checked.
Only one revision since 2014, and that was a technicality that had arisen due to one of the eating competitions losing its status as an officially sanctioned Major League Eating designation. He remembered it well. Three of them had already signed up for the waffle competition in Tulsa when the MLE dropped the competition from the official list. Something about the waffles not being a uniform size and weight. The seven members involved in Robert’s competition had spent weeks arguing back and forth over e-mail, the four that were not going to Tulsa finally being overruled by the three who were. Non-sanctioned events were added to the DIning Belt competition. Robert had made the change on the Google Doc, and it hadn’t come into play since then.
Robert pulled the bylaws over to one side of his screen and picked a spreadsheet for the other half. As he read through each provision, he listed ways to earn points on the spreadsheet. On the column next to the points possible, he placed a column for himself and a column for Cameron. He wrote the number of points each of them had earned on each of the competitions. As he knew it would, the totals added up to him being ahead by eleven points. A ninth-place finish was all Cameron would need to repeat his annual victory for the third time in a row.
Seeing it in spreadsheet form did nothing to assuage Robert’s nerves or spirits. He had been methodical, all year long, and now he was stuck in a Miami airport, a “working” vacation gone horribly awry. He felt an emptiness deep in his gut.
The pastry case called out to Robert, and he figured he would think a little better on a full stomach. Leaving his empty venti cup, he stared into the display case, in deep contemplation over the texture of a croissant versus a scone. Which would compliment the cinnamon dolce still lingering on his tongue? He looked up for some help, but the only employee facing the front of the counter was standing sentry by the cash register with all the personality of the Queen’s Guard.
“Double-smoked bacon, cheddar, and egg sandwich, please.”
In the end, Robert decided to split the difference, getting the savoriness of the scone in meat form, placed between a croissant bun. It was a go-to he had gone to many a time before.
The Starbucks employee, whose nametag listed a doubtful name of Spike, swiped Robert’s Starbucks card while one of the diminutive employees behind him bent down, opened a refrigerator, and removed Robert’s sandwich from its plastic wrapper to place into the toaster.
“What are you working on?” Spike asked, more out of the discomfort at being face-to-face with a motionless customer staring at his coworker’s back than out of a genuine desire for an answer.
“I’m trying to win a competitive eating competition,” Robert said, choosing not to engage in the verbal parlay he had played with the bartender earlier. Spike was not going to go fishing for deeper understanding.
“They have a breakfast sandwich eating competition?” Spike asked.
“No. The eating contest isn’t here. But unfortunately, I am. The contest, and my rival, are in Vegas.”
Robert took out his phone, showed Cameron’s text message and selfie to Spike.
“He’s a competitive eater?” Spike asked, surprising Robert by showing even this modicum of interest. “He’s so skinny.”
“Yes, he is.”
Robert looked down at his phone. He was satisfied that somebody else noticed one of the things that had always bothered him the most about the two-time defending champion.
“You can never trust a skinny eater. He’s not doing it for enjoyment, only to win. I bet he purges it all later. Maybe I should follow him to the bathroom next year and disqualify him.”
A croissant sandwich protruding out of a white bag appeared between Robert’s eyes and phone. Robert’s eyes followed the feminine arm of the employee who had cooked it back up until he was looking into two stone faces. Neither Spike nor the newcomer, Bianca, were enjoying his current line of logic. Robert thanked them and returned to his seat.
Back at his table, Robert stared at his spreadsheet while he ate his prepackaged sandwich. The egg was poached too hard and the pastry was not nearly flaky enough to call itself a croissant, but the bacon was sublime. The right amount of crisp with subtly marbleized pork fat saved the sandwich.
Unfortunately, the spreadsheet did not have the saving grace of bacon. The numbers all looked the same. A seven here, a six there, side-by-side empty cells on columns b and c, an xxx next to shrimp-Miami, the total of column b eleven points higher than column c.
Then it hit him. The two empty cells. Non-sanctioned events. He went back to the Google Doc to read the wording. “Any commonly accepted eating competition, whether sanctioned by the Competitive Eating Board or not, which may include, but is not limited to…”
A commonly accepted eating competition.
They have a breakfast sandwich eating competition? Spike had asked.
Frankie the bartender had said.
Finish four fish and fries in ten minutes, your soda is free. That would, by any definition, be a commonly-accepted eating competition. In fact, the rules accounted for these Man vs. Food style events. But they maxed out at three points each. Robert would need three of them to secure his victory.
Robert leapt to his feet. The chair skidded across the faux wood floor. His gut bumped the table, nearly toppling his laptop, but he didn’t care.
“How many breakfast sandwiches have you sold today?”
Spike looked at Bianca. Both shrugged. “You’re the first one.”
“Can I get that in writing?”
“I guess so.”
“Better give me two more, just to be sure. Then I’ll come by at the end of your shift to verify.”
“You just want me to write that you ordered three egg sandwiches?”
“No. Write ‘Most Breakfast Sandwiches of the Day.'”
Robert slapped his laptop closed and attempted to run out the door. Fortunately, Spike called after him, allowing him to slow down and catch his breath.
“Where are you going?”
“Tugboat first, then back to the bar. Didn’t you know you’re amongst the greatest french fry eater in the entire airport?”