A Flash of Understanding by Melanie Brake

*Featured Art: “The Broken Pomegranate is Full of Stars” by Rebeka Fergusson-Lutz

I was fifteen that summer evening in 1988 when the man appeared in my drive-thru lane at the burger place. Fifteen and restless in a completely reckless sort of way.

I was stationed in the drive-thru alcove, taking orders for burgers and fries from the voices I heard through my headset. When the copper-colored car pulled around a few minutes after eight, the lights above my window shone bright, and my view of the interior was clear. At first what I saw didn’t register. It was simply another object. An object like the rubber and plastic emergency brake lever between the man’s two front seats. He wore dark-framed glasses with lenses so thick his irises were amplified—his eyes turgescent and probing—and a shiny baseball jacket gaping open like the crotch of his pants. I stared at the man tucked in the bucket seat, his penis protruding from the opening in his lap. He smiled at me and, with his fingertips, stroked the bill he held in his right hand.

The heat from the onion rings burned through the white paper bag I held. A double burger and the rings. That’s what I had heard through the headset a few minutes ago when his car was still a shadow at the other end of the lane. Now he was parked in front of me with his humanity springing from his lap.

I couldn’t speak. What does one say to a man displayed like that? So I spun around, desperately searching the restaurant for an ally in the experience.

The front counter was quiet. Burger World was deserted. Nick, the manager with the blond hair and crystal blue eyes who had hired me a few weeks ago, was in the back with the other head guy and the burger-maker settling some sort of work-related dispute. I didn’t see the other counter girl and remembered she had been sent back to swab the bathrooms a few minutes ago. Instrumental versions of eighties soft rock hits filtered through the speakers.

“Hey, you want this?” I heard the man’s voice flutter through the little window. The night air was cool as it rushed in. The paper bag I held in my hand was softening from the steam, the top crumpling like a lunchroom brown bag in the hand of a grade schooler.

“Hey,” he said again.

I didn’t know what to do.

I glanced back at him. Still there. Still solid. And still staring at me through the thick lenses of his glasses, working the money he held in his hand.

“Okay, one minute,” I said to the man in the car, feeling the rise of nervous laughter, but I stifled the rising threat of giggles long enough to consider how I should handle this unexpected turn of events. Wasn’t this illegal? Showing up at a drive-thru window with such a thing exposed? Would I get in trouble for not taking the money he held in his hand? Should I toss the food and tell him it was on the house? What if he came back?

I spun around to face him again. Now his hand was on his thing. I shrieked, back-stepped, whirled around, and leaned around the corner:  “Nick!”

Then I looked back at the window, just in time to see the little car’s red brake lights reflected on the black pavement. The rusting vehicle’s tires screeched as it swung onto the two-lane road, small-town quiet at eight-thirty on a Tuesday night.

That’s when the hilarity seized me.

Nick appeared and looked from me—bent over with hysterics, leaning on the stainless steel lip of the bi-fold window—to the empty drive-thru lane.

“What?” he said.

I couldn’t talk. He noticed the bag in my hand and leaned forward, searching the drive-thru lane for the customer.

“His thing…”  I finally managed to say. I was still giggling but approaching composure as I rubbed my eyes daintily to avoid smearing mascara and rocked the burgundy visor on my head to straighten it.

“What thing?  What happened?”

I could tell he was getting annoyed, but I was almost afraid to say it out loud. Like I had done something I shouldn’t in witnessing a man’s erection in my drive-thru.

“That car pulled around. I had the food ready and opened the window and looked out….”

I couldn’t help it: I started convulsing with laughter again until I noticed his black tasseled loafer tapping on the greasy tiled floor. I took a deep breath and finally managed to say, “His thing was hard” though I dropped my voice when I said “thing” so that Nick had to ask again.

“His what?”

“His, you know,” I said and motioned toward my crotch. “His dick.”

“For real? His dick? No way!” Nick said. By this time Cheri, the other manager, had walked up from the back where she had been working on scheduling.

“Dick? What?” Cheri said. She looked confused and slightly horrified that Nick and I were talking dick.

Breathless, I told her about my encounter with the erection in the drive-thru, my hysterics in check though Nick was now fully engaged. As I told her, Cheri’s face flared a mottled red that crept into the hairline of her spiky grey hair. The other girl was back from the bathroom and stood at the end of the counter—her too-tight shirt hitched up over a belly roll and her pants, no doubt, slipping low to expose a sliver of behind. She stood watching the three of us with the reeking mop head inches from her face.

“Some guy had his weiner out when he pulled up,” I announced to the counter girl, wanting to spell it out for her. I turned to the line guy who was listening now too and nodded in earnest as if to affirm to him that it had indeed happened. He stood frozen with a silver spatula in his hand behind the glare of the burger chute warming lights.

My headset beeped, and I punched the button automatically:  “Hello and welcome….”

“Give me that.”  Nick pulled the headset off my head and managed to stop laughing long enough to communicate with the car at the other end.

Cheri pressed against me—wrapped her ample arm around me—and hissed that I should see if maybe it was the same guy, but I could already tell it wasn’t, even in the dark. I saw the outline of an oversized rumbling truck, and I stepped back away from Cheri and the drive-thru area, suddenly aware of the windowed alcove and the reflection of me in her awkward embrace.

Nick and the burger guy worked on the new order and Cheri told me to tell her one more time what had happened. She was so close I could smell the cherry Hall’s on her breath. I started running through the event again and was only halfway through the story when Cheri reached for the black telephone wired into the wall beside the chugging milkshake machine. She started dialing. My eyes widened, and I sobered up when I heard her say, “This is Cheri at the Burger World off of Celebration Highway. I need a cop here now. One of my girls was just assaulted.”

A cop arrived fifteen minutes later, and I listened to Cheri tell him about the “assault.”  It sounded way serious when she said it that way. The cop was stern and solid, an assortment of bulky instruments hanging from his belt. He listened and made notes on a white pad with a tiny pencil that reminded me of the miniature golf place down the road. I didn’t dare say anything. Older men, especially men like him, intimidated me.

“Are you sure, his ah…penis…was exposed?” he asked me when Cheri finished her version of my experience. I could feel the heat flash in my cheeks, but before I could answer Cheri jumped in.

“Of course she’s sure. She isn’t blind. Now are you going to go look for the asshole?”  Cheri was pissed—her cheeks retaining the mottled red and moisture beginning to dampen her grey temples. The incident felt far less funny. The cop asked me if I had seen the perpetrator before, but I heard “penetrator” and looked, confused, to Nick and then Cheri.

“The perpetrator. The flasher?  Do you know him?  Have you seen him before?” the cop said.

“Uh-uh. I don’t think so,” I told him.

“No telling how long that creep has been watching her,” Cheri said.

I hadn’t thought about that.

The cop looked at Nick and Cheri and asked if it had happened to anyone else. Both of them shook their heads. This was the first time.

The cop left with an assurance that the incident would be investigated.

“Stay safe, young lady,” he said to me and flipped his notebook closed. He nodded at Cheri and said he would be in touch if anything came of it. As he walked out the double doors and to his car, I could have sworn I saw his shoulders jerking up and down in laughter.

Two weeks later, the flasher in my drive-thru was nothing more than Burger World lore. The kids I worked with ribbed me about it for a few days, but then it was forgotten. I never heard from the police officer and didn’t know whether or not the guy was still roaming free terrorizing other young fast food workers with his erection. A family friend mentioned that he might know something about the guy who had flashed me. He worked construction in the area and had heard rumors about a similar incident. He assured my mother that he would look into it. That was all we could do. Likely some dumb pervert getting his jollies and really nothing to worry about.

And besides, there was bigger news in Burger World: Nick the manager announced that he was heading out for boot camp in a few weeks. His career as a fast food manager was done. Better things were in his future. He was maybe twenty-five, and I secretly applauded myself for realizing all along that he wasn’t a typical fast food lifer. I was still young, but I felt like I had an intuition about those things.

The fact that Nick was leaving was disappointing. Working at Burger World was going to suck. Half the reason I wanted to be there was because he made the shifts fun. He was lean and blond with a rough stubble on his jawline like Don Johnson on Miami Vice. His blue eyes crinkled and he made us giggle when he sang the words to the eighties instrumentals filtering from the Burger World speakers. He never asked us to pay for the burgers, fries, and drinks we were supposed to ring up at half price before eating on break. On his breaks, he sat in the office in the back sneaking Marlboros behind the closed door.

On Nick’s last night as manager of Burger World, my best friend told me to call my mother and tell her we had to work late, a quarterly clean-out kind of thing for the restaurant. My mother was skeptical on the phone, but I told her someone had quit and I was the only one who could fill in. It was overtime, I said, not thinking that I might have to explain the lack of it in my check later. Regardless, she agreed as long as my friend could drive me home. She was tired and going to bed.

Thirty minutes before closing, the tension was rising. Nick was the closing manager; the other one had left an hour earlier. He sent the girl who couldn’t keep her pants above her crack home early. He told the old line guy that he would take over and sent him home too. That left my friend and I at the counter and one of Nick’s buddies—a guy who had graduated from my small high school—working the fries and helping with all the necessary closing tasks. While we were still mopping, disassembling, flipping off switches, and wiping countertops, Nick rolled a small keg into the Burger World back room. Then, one after another, friends of his slipped in through the back door.

Before long the room filled with adults I didn’t know and a cloud of smoke. I had changed into a black AC/DC tee and cut-off shorts and stood beside my friend, chatting and looking around the room at all the new faces. I tucked my head close to my friend’s, and we whispered silly things so that we both laughed and tossed our heads back. Nice-looking girls with long bronzed legs. Marlboros smoldering carelessly in our hands.

I could smell the french fry grease in her curly hair and hoped mine smelled better. I sipped beer from the orange and burgundy striped Burger World cup I held and waited for Nick’s crystal blue eyes to turn my way. We stood around the deserted fast food place listening to Metallica and cracking jokes about how we were desecrating the “family atmosphere” and rolled our eyes at a hundred versions of “would you like fries with that” when we passed our cups for refills to the boy in charge of the keg. We huddled in the back with the lights turned low and away from the expanses of windows that formed an L at the front and right side of the restaurant. We stood there, smoking and chugging beer, laughing more and more at the stupid things everyone was saying and doing. Partying.

After a time, Nick offered to drive me home. I couldn’t believe my luck. In the span of five minutes, I envisioned a relationship that ended with exotic adventures as a military wife. I would totally make it work, graduate early and all of that. His smile wrapped itself around my ring finger and was as good a promise as if he were on one knee.

He tossed the Burger World keys to his friend, reminding him to lock up. All but a few people remained, and they were also getting ready to leave. The nearly empty keg had already been rolled back outside and into someone’s truck. My friend had told me to go ahead; she was driving with her boyfriend who had shown up an hour earlier. I followed Nick to the wide steel door in the back past the little manager’s office filled with paperwork. We paused outside the door and he lit a cigarette he had tucked in his shirt pocket.

“Take a drag. Hold it in for a sec before you blow it out,” he said.

So I did. We finished smoking and walked over to his car. Dull red. I couldn’t seem to find the door handle on my side. I giggled while I fumbled until he popped it open from the inside.

Nick drove away us away from the yellowish cast of the parking lot lights and the few people climbing into their own cars. I waved at my friend as we drove past. She gave me a thumbs up. I laughed and Nick reached over and ran his hand up my thigh.

“What’s so funny,” he said but I just shook my head. I wasn’t sure what to say. Everything was hazy and felt like it was tumbling in slow-motion from a million miles away. Threading through the narrow city streets and climbing up the steep hill. We were going the wrong way, and I might have told him that, but I don’t remember for sure. At the time, I don’t think I cared. Summer breeze with a slight chill through the open window. Metal music pounding—tinny and distant—from the speakers in the backseat.

Then I remember sitting in the passenger seat of his car on the gravelly berm of a deserted side road high up in the hills. When he tried to pull me over to the driver’s seat, the seatbelt was still buckled around me so he reached over me and unbuckled it like I was a kid and pulled me onto his lap. I pulled back, leaning and nearly dead-weight, but he held tight, and I was pinned between him and the steering wheel behind me.

I like to think I asked him to stop, but all I remember clearly is his arms tight on mine and the searing between my legs. Then he was done and I was kneeling on the the dirt road outside of the car, the pebbles pressed into my bare knees as I retched. Everything was out of focus. Was it him or me who said No one needs to know about this, okay?

Somehow I was back in the car and telling him how to get me home though I can’t recall a single word we said from that point on.

And soon I stood on the curb in front of my house breathing in the earthy damp of almost-daybreak—raw and uneasy—as I watched Nick’s brake lights flare, then dim in the darkness as he rounded the bend.


Originally from the Southern Tier of New York, Melanie Brake lives with her family in Central California where she spends three-quarters of the year cussing the heat and dust while longing for the pine trees and rainstorms of her childhood. Melanie graduated from the Red Earth MFA in creative writing program in 2019 and is currently working on a coming-of-age memoir.

Rebeka is a full-time professional high school English teacher. When not writing lesson plans and grading papers, however, she works as a freelance writer, editor, and researcher. She studied art history (and English literature) at Boston University. For more of her work, please visit https://fergussonlutzart.blogspot.com.

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