The Untapped Gold Mine of Taco Bell That Virtually No One Knows About
“Grilled chicken burrito, no ranch avocado sauce. Substitute Fritos in for the avocado sauce.”
The front of the cashier’s shoulders curved in as she leaned back and squinted at the buttons.
“I was… I would like a spicy potatoes, I mean potato soft taco with Fritos substituted in for creamy chipotle sauce. Grilled please.”
She poked the keypad in quick succession. Three jabs and ‘+ 0.30’ flashed in green digits on the display.
“Spicy potato soft taco, minus chipotle, plus fritos,” she repeated back.
The boy of twenty-two years stood plank-like behind the counter. His gut balanced over his locked knees and the heels of his four-stripe off brand Adidas sneakers.
“A shredded chicken mini quesadilla with fritos substituted in for creamy chipotle sauce, not grilled please.” This time he recited the lines without pause, “I want a bean ‘n cheese burrito, no red sauce no onions, grilled please. A fresco crunchy taco with no lettuce and extra pico.”
In 10th-grade his English teacher once confessed to a fear of public speaking. “What about right now?” a classmate had asked. “That’s the thing, I don’t consider you my peers,” his teacher replied, “I’m only afraid of my peers.” In college the teacher was to give a speech on Alzheimer’s, “I practiced it dozens of times, borrowed my friend’s camcorder, recorded myself, the whole nine yards. Practiced, practiced, practiced. Memorized it word for word. When it came time to give the speech, not only were my oration and jargon flawless… but I was also able to relax and adapt to the audience. I actually told some of my best jokes during that speech.”
So too had the boy practiced.
“Chalupa supreme, no lettuce, extra pico.”
At a rehearsed pace.
“A fourthmeal crunch wrap supreme. No nacho cheese, extra tomatoes subbed in for the nacho cheese, not grilled please.”
“And a doritos loco taco no red sauce no onions, add guacamole and yeah.”
“Eighteen nighty eight.”
He grabbed a twenty.
“Do you want your receipt?”
The boy took large cha-cha-sliding steps, one back and three left, then began harassing the man distributing orders.
“Can I get a cup of water please?”
And “a handful of medium-spicy salsa,” a minute later.
And then, “your ice machine on the left is broken.”
“It’s not broken it’s out of water.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
He clenched the top of the bag. The plastic swung and twirled beneath his grip as he walked out of the air-conditioning into the humidity. There was a fence, a drive-thru, parking lot. The roads had curbs running the full length of the grass-pavement boundary and he chose his position with much excitement and extended his arm back and lowered himself onto the white-speckled cement.
The first item, “doritos locos.”
Seasoned beef, cheese, lettuce, and yes, the guacamole extra. The fork’s prongs lifted and combed the ingredients. All four checked out. He broke off a piece of the shell and chewed on the nacho cheese flavor. There was some potential there because, unless he was misremembering, he had not specified the shell’s flavor.
Next up, “fourthmeal crunchwrap”.
Each item he whispered under his breath and cross-referenced with the receipt.
No errors on the crunchwrap.
When the next two also checked out, he felt something growing in his throat and whispered fuck.
His hands curled into fists and his fingernails imprinted into his hands’ meaty base. He pushed until his fingers went weak and then tried to push harder.
“Grilled chicken burrito, em avocado sauce, pee fritos,” he muttered in code with closed eyes, “loaded potato griller, em creamy chipotle sauce, pee fritos, grilled, shredded mini quesadilla, em creamy chipotle sauce, pee Fritos, not grilled, bean and cheese, em red sauce, grilled, fresco crunchy taco, em lettuce, extra pico, fourthmeal crunchwrap supreme, em cheese, extra tomatoes, not grilled, locos taco, em red, em onions, pee guac,…” his voice trailed off into a large swallow and when he opened his eyes everything glistened. Before him was an empty drive-thru and needle trees set against a hot blue sky. It all glistened in his eyes and the seasoned beef sparkled in his lap in the hot sun. The food was due to his hard work. Yes, his work— he had done mother’s chores. He had learned where cans and glass could and could not be recycled. The styrofoam could never be. He knew that and he had done a good job.
The image of his mother’s face filled him entirely.
He wiped his nose and swallowed hard. His eyes shifted down towards the bag and noted the receipt’s lottery number, 019741, and the cashier’s name, Vanessa J. Xbox and Game Stop gift cards were among the prizes. This trick of cutting paper without scissors, he’d been good at since third grade. He folded just below the asterisked line and pulled either side outwards over the bend of his knee. Perfect. He tore it perfectly and held the two pieces in separate hands. He had always been good at this trick of cutting paper without scissors. It was known by some back in 3rd or 4th grade that he was the best at it.
There was still hope inside the bag at his feet. He opened the next item, a spicy potato soft taco.
Iceberg lettuce poked out of the chunky potato cubes. Potatoes, yes. Lettuce. Cheese. Fritos, yes. Chipotle sauce, no.
The spicy potato checked out.
He picked the fritos and chewed them one by one. He carefully refolded the tortilla around the ingredients while thinking longingly of the future day he would earn it, pull it from the refrigerator, microwave it, sink his teeth into it. The ‘Order Total: $18.98’, stamped on the receipt, was about half of last week’s income. Half might be acceptable, definitely acceptable for treats, not just any treats, especially important treats for his new-found positive outlook, like these treats. But all the same, treats that mother did not know about. And treats that were half of last week’s money.
The next item checked out as well and he couldn’t hold it in any longer.
The tears rolled quickly and he tried to catch them but his eyelashes scrunched up into a mess. He curled his knuckles into a fist and pressed hard against each eye. Why me? Jesus please no longer ME. The tears rolled out of his hungry, hollow body in the hot sun and he could feel his mesh shorts falling high to expose his legs. He could see his thigh’s soft skin. It was all he could manage to dry his eyes long enough to peak and check if anyone recognized that he was Dylan Christopherson, class of ’09.
He used his hands to press his eyes shut and felt the bottom of his big palms cup beneath his jaw. “He gets it from grandma,” mom had once said after dad compared his hands to Michael Jordan’s. “But he plays basketball like Charles Barkley,” dad said, “defense and rebounds. I love Chuck. He was such a class-act.” Dad had then squeezed his hip, “but Chuck had little hands so you’re like a Chuck with big hands.”
Please Jesus please. I’m yours I promise I’m yours if only please, let this last bean ‘n cheese have onions and I am yours.
Between inhales he checked if anyone knew he was Dylan Christopherson, class of ’09. His vision glistened between his finger slits and happened upon the eyes of a stranger. He first noticed saw the outline of her neck muscles craned toward him and he felt the presence of her upward-looking eyes locked onto his situation. The van was gray, hunched like an animal and positioned peacefully in the drive-thru. She was his mom’s age, he saw through the minivan’s window. Her eyes were concerned and directed towards his and he wedged his face deeper into the crevice of his arm.
He choked back two gulps and pressed harder and harder. When he surfaced again, it was with a locked jaw and a fixed neck, determined not to turn towards the van or so much as flinch. He stood up not knowing how to move. He decided on forward. Following the curve of the empty curbside, he wandered towards the building’s side entrance.
His confrontational side had been developed in high school. “Crab-walk!” coach Krueger would shout. He and the other wrestlers rolled from their stomachs onto their backs. Army-crawl to crab. Arms slapped down, hips rose up, and the boys scurried across the mat-padded floor, some losing direction and hitting the mat-padded walls. “Eighty-five degrees!” Those cutting weight were wrapped in cotton sweatsuits. Puddles of sweat pooled and shined across the red mat. Crab-hands slipped in them. “Get nasty!” Between sets coach Krueger turned off the air and only their panting could be heard. His voice dropped to an intimate level, “Hate that wall. There’s a lil fucker inside you that’s questioning. Kill it with hate. Hate for the wall on the other side of the room. Line up!” The whistle blew and he hated the wall. He fucking hated it. He crab-walked across the room and socked it with an underhand and then turned his hate toward the opposite wall. He bear-crawled and hook-kicked it. An even strike would slap the loudest. The flat-soled wrestling shoes could strike very even and explode louder than anything else in the room. He dropped to an army-crawl and did the same to the north wall. “Bet Dylan didn’t know you could rest while bear-walking! Dylan learns something new every day!” Later when he applied the trick to his biology test, tactfully, he did well, inspiring him to use it in other domains of his life: girls, school, arguments with his parents. “Tactful passion,” coach Krueger called it. He had tried so very hard when faced with the decision of ‘vicodin and Halo’ or ‘just Halo’, but anger didn’t lend itself to working in quiet situations, and those had always been very quiet situations.
He pushed the white, hexagonal pill out of his mind.
The sweat on his neck turned cold as he passed into the air-conditioning.
“Hi.” He wiped his puffy eyes and held the receipt outstretched. “Are you Vanessa J?”
“So you just took my order,”
“… and my taco was supposed to be cool ranch.”
“Lemme see,” she grabbed the receipt. “No look you ordered the normal flavor.”
“But I wanted cool ranch.”
“I just took your order, I didn’t hear no cool ranch.”
Her eyes narrowed and he looked away.
“Who… just. Ah, nevermind,” he muttered, “it’s just, sorry, there’s another thing wrong here.”
“See,” he wiped his eyes, “another wrong thing, here look.” He pressed the receipt flat against the counter and their heads tilted inwards.
“Spicy potato soft taco was supposed to have fritos. It didn’t have any.”
“Yeah. It was missing the fritos.”
“Look, you can’t come gettin’ free food every time.”
The words rang in slow motion, and he listened, not feeling his face go stiff.
“I was here last time you did this. We gotta take the next in line,” she said.
He watched her bored expression, not noticing his face stiffen harder still.
“Wait. I, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” Again, he turned away from her eyes and just listened as some words and “misunderstanding,” fell into the air between them.
“It’s just my spicy potato soft taco is missing its fritos.”
He swallowed and waited. “Hey Bo!” she shouted again, and a boy appeared from the back kitchen. He watched the square-framed glasses and the blonde ponytail of Bo from ‘three grades younger’ move toward him and felt himself to be Dylan Christopherson of ’09, standing in his shoes. He was Dylan Christopherson and Bo was Bo. It was noon on a Friday and they were inside a brightly-lit Taco Bell with a counter between them.
“You put fritos in his loco taco?”
“What’s up?” Bo grabbed the receipt.
“It was, um, a spicy potato taco, with,” he tried to clarify.
Vanessa cut him off. “Ya spicy potato. Did’ya sub fritos in for the ranch avocado?”
“I have my, here. And it doesn’t have fritos,” he said.
“I put them in no?” Bo said.
“No, don’t think so.” He heard his own voice and it didn’t make any sense.
“You don’t think?” Vanessa interjected.
“No, I. Like yeah I just don’t know.”
“So you admittin’ now? I got it correct huh?”
“No! No, here, lookit here.” He fumbled through the bag.
“I can just put another on the grill,” Bo muttered.
“No! He’s doin this every time now!”
On the third try, his shaking hands found their way onto the correct item. He placed the evidence between them and rolled the taco open, “See, it’s just I think you maybe forgot the fritos.”
“No I’m not lookin’. I know what you do. I know what you do. You ain’t getting no free food again.”
“Lookit it’s right here though.”
“No I’m not.”
“Look’t it. How can you expect me to, when you don’t even look’t it?”
Her machine-gunner eyes narrowed at him once more. “Cause I know what you do.”
“What’s that then?”
“You eat it. You probably eat it already. That’s why you taking it outside now. You think it’s sneaky or some shit?”
“I swear to GOD I did not eat it. I didn’t do it I swear. I swear to GOD. You can’t accuse me of that!”
“We need to take our next customer.”
He placed his palms on the counter and leaned forward. The words didn’t come out of him this time. He swallowed and felt his knees wobbled behind the counter and he knew Ryan Pink’s mom was watching him. He was being witnessed by the eyes of parents with last names of those he went to high school with and he could not pretend any longer.
“You’re harassing us n’ we’re just tryin to do our jobs! Now move it we need to take our next customer.”
He yanked quickly on his T-shirt’s collar before the tears spilt out into the open.
“Hey, I can fix one up. Not a big deal,” Bo interjected.
“No!” Vanessa turned to him, “we need to take our next customer. Kay? Did’ya hear me?”
“I… I’m, sorry,” he tried pulling the collar over his eyes, but caught her smug grin and sobbed uncontrollably. “I’m sorry lookit, why won’t you look at my fritos?”
The corner of her lips lifted into a smirk.
“… That my spicy potato doesn’t have any fritos.”
“I’m sorry too. We need to take our next customer though.”
“See no fritos, see no fritos!” His clenched fist landed on the taco. He mushed the potato in his fingers and raised them to eye-level. “It’s a free country.”
A laugh broke through her clenched lips. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
He slapped the tortilla across the counter.
She jumped back. The lettuce and cheese clung to her polo.
“Yo! What the hell!”
“Out out out, you can’t be doing that.”
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” The tears rolled harder now than ever. “I’m… it’s… a free country… and I’m just.”
“You best be leavin’ right now.”
The glass door swung open under the weight of his foot. “Fuck YOU,” his aggressive voice had no tactful passion “It’s a free country… and I’m… I’m a rookie.” Turning back, he saw her grin once more and he ran for it, out on the familiar Muscatine Avenue, he ran for it. The length of his hometown and not one inch of it gave one measly fucker of a fucking fuck shit. Past Mr. Hargrove’s shed and past the gas station.
He ran until his legs were the mushed, triple-wrapped wad of taco bell squeezed under his arm. Until they pulsed with pain. Maybe his fat gut would like that now.
When Newport bridge came into view he slowed to a jog and then to a walk. His mother’s disappointment filled him entirely, her broken face looking intently at his guilty one, her voice ripping through her vocal cords into his ears as she choked on each scream. “You haven’t been using these for? I know they can be used for…. Oh Dylan, no Dylan..” Hers was the same level of hysteria he had just publicly lay bare to Vanessa and parents of those he went to school with and wrestled with and used to be friends with and Vanessa had sat there laughing.
Giving up on the what-tree-would-I-rather-be game, he sat on the edge of Newport bridge, his back against the guard rail and legs crossed. He had sweat-soaked half his shirt. He had cold, mushed mix of burritos and tacos for a week.
He pulled the last item of flattened wax paper from the bag. The bean n’ cheese, his last hope, his last hope from the parking lot which now felt like a life so distant. The bean n’ cheese that didn’t matter anymore. He pinched the edge of the tortilla, letting its insides spill out.
Glistening inside the brown mush were small, clearish cubes.
He tore through the rest of the bag. Bo or Vanessa J.
Bo or Vanessa.
The receipt was scrunched in his pocket. Grilled Chicken, no. Potato, no. Shredded Chicken, no. He found it printed there: Bean Burrito, – Red Sauce. He read it again: Bean Burrito, – Red Sauce. His eyes swelled wider. Bean Burrito, – Red Sauce. No onions and no minus onions. Bean Burrito, – Red Sauce. No minus onions. Vanessa J oh fuck no fuck no fuck no.
He rolled the tortilla into a ball. His flat palms circled opposite one another and he pressed the tortilla tighter and tighter, that fucking Vanessa J. That evil, evil woman. He clenched the ball and stood up so as to put his shoulder’s momentum into the throw.
A minivan surfaced from the oncoming lane and the driver saw him and he saw the lady again. His eyes ran from the van’s rounded hood down to her blonde curls, and then through her sunglasses he saw her gaze locked onto his. She was someone’s disappointed mother and she was seeing it all. Fine let her see it. Let her see everything. Now she will see it all. She will see all of it. She will see it. She wants to see it then let her see every measly part of it.
He pivoted on a forward-leaning foot, completing his turn as his arm fell across his torso in a fully extended follow-through. His arm cracked hard like a whip across his torso and the burrito smashed point-blank onto the windshield. He watched her terrified expression evolve as it passed in slow motion. The beans splattered with the thud of a gunshot and the remains fell to the ground.
Now it was his turn to watch her. He watched as somebody’s mother drove the remaining length of the bridge, as the lane in front remained cleared, and as she flipped a tight U-turn around the median.
With his fingers hooked round the back of the yield sign and the toe of his sneakers wedged into an open slab on the guard rail, he used the foothold to boost himself onto the barrier’s upper pane. With his hand flat against the metal sheet, he balanced his feet beneath him and faced the minivan square shouldered. Once more he allowed her eyes meet his and knew he had stayed one moment too many.
“BEEEEPPP!” Her palm slammed hard against on the horn.
His legs convulsed during the free fall, then stiffened and struck the river’s surface in a rotating arch, upstream from the hydropower station’s churning wheels.
The lady whispered “fuck” in rapid-pace as she extended the geartstick to park. The soft effs continued slipping through her lips as she opened the door and stepped onto the cement.
“Oh my god. What’d you honk? You shouldn’t have honked!” the boy witness was already at the bridge’s edge. His fingers fumbled on his phone screen and he shouted into the rapids, “Oi!”
“You didn’t see him?” the lady screamed to the boy.
“Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”
“Shit! Oh no oh shit no.”
The lady was not from the Taco Bell drive-thru nor was she somebody’s mother. She and the boy were both aware of last summer’s news story in which a drunk teenager died there trying to impress his girlfriend, as they dialed 911 and pointed at his quick-shifting body struggling to stay surfaced and reassured one another, “he’ll make it oh God,” “he might not make it,” and “he’s gotta make it.”
Kam Rex Hansen is a physicist and writer. He researches solid-state physics at Columbia University and the University of Utah and is working on his debut novel, Birthweek of a Hikikomori. He can be found online on his website: slumberpartygiggles.com, on Twitter: @kam1am, and on Instagram: @naosdauf