The Pursuit of Happy Meals

“And what to drink?”

“A Diet Coke.”

“Will that be all, sir?”

“That’ll do it.”

“Okay, sir, let me repeat the order: two large cheese-burger, a side of freedom fries, a Diet Coke, and a medium ice cream cone.”

“Not freedom fries, just freedom.”

“A side of freedom, sir?”

“Right.”  There was a brief pause as the man without a face presumably entered the order into the register.  In theories of rhetoric, it is widely believed that a detailed description of a particular scene will generally facilitate vivid mental imagery.  This in turn will cause a greater impact on the reader or audience.  So while the man without a face is entering the order, allow me, like a good writer, to take this moment to describe the scene for you—before the story gets ahead of itself and has to wait for itself to catch up.

The sky was like an ocean that a giant, who prefers particularly creamy tea, had filled with the proportionate amount of milk for a brew that size.  That is to say that the sky was, as it usually is, a light shade of blue.  Can you picture that?  Under the blue sky, there was a horrifying, ceramic clown head—certainly no excuse for a face—held up by two purple metal poles, with a bright shiny speaker like a bad root canal in its mouth.  The man without a face was speaking through this speaker.  He had a young, innocent voice, almost childish.  Beside this head and speaker was our gentleman’s red convertible.  The gentleman’s convertible had converted itself so that the top was down, since, as we have noted, the sky was blue.

“Okay, sir, and would you like to oversize© that today?”  The man without a face interrupted our description.

“Do I not sound American to you?”

“Very good, sir.  Do you want the toy that comes with the meal?”

“The toy?  What is it?”

“It’s a car, sir.”

“Oh, gee, um, I would, you see, but I’m a busy man.”  He was hesitant at first, but then he gravely added, “I don’t have time to play with toys.”

“Sir, I really think you should take the toy.”  He spoke sincerely.

“I’m telling you I don’t have time!”  The gentleman was a bit annoyed.

“Sir, do you have any young ones, sir?”

“One.”

“A boy or a girl?”

“What difference does it make?”

“Maybe your little boy or girl would like the car.”

“Hm…I suppose that’s a valid point.  Hold on.  He’s right here, let me ask him.”  The gentleman turned to ask his son whether he would like the toy that comes with the meal.  “He says he wants it.  Throw it in I guess.”

“Throw what in where?”

“The toy!  Throw the toy in with the meal!”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  I don’t throw things sir.” The gentleman didn’t even respond.  “It’s a matter of policy.  A Cadillac or a Corolla?”

“What makes you think an eight-year-old boy is gonna know the difference between a Cadillac and a Corolla?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but if you’re only eight years old, then by law I am prohibited from serving you in the drive-through.  It’s a matter of policy.”

“My son, you idiot!  Not me, my son!  I’m a forty-year-old proletarian breadwinner, past his prime, and suffocating in my bleached-perfectly-white collar of choler, which grows tighter every day!  I only have half an hour to take little Jimmy out to lunch before I have to drop him back at his enriching grade school and return to my tiny, sweaty little office.  I don’t have time for—”

“—would you like that for here or to go?”

“To go, you idiot!”

“Sir, I really think you should eat it here.”

“You what!”

“It’s just, people usually tend to enjoy it better here.  Especially—”

“Enjoy!  People usually enjoy!”  The gentleman was hysterical.

“—Especially when they order a side of freedom.”

“Did you not hear a word I said?  I don’t have any free time at all.  The most I can afford to do is take the freedom to go.”

“But sir it doesn’t work that way.  It’s a matter of–“

“–Give me one, clear, practical reason why I should stay here.”

“Sir, there is a play land out back.”  He nearly pleaded.

“I’m too old for play lands.”

“No sir, it’s not that kind of play land.  I really think you would enjoy it.”

“The nerve you have!  It wasn’t long ago that your average, decent man would be ashamed even  at the thought of a play land for adults.  Now, thanks to the clever Freudian intellectuals and what have you, they’re proud to shout about the sort of thing freely from loudspeakers in front of children!”

“Sir you misunderstood me.  It’s not a play land just for adults either.  It’s a play land for everyone.  All ages, all kinds.  It’s something that Freud could never have dreamed of—and that man certainly knew how to dream.  But this has nothing to do with dreams.  It’s real.”

“Oh, I’ll bet!  I know exactly what this has to do with!  I’m taking my freedom to go—thank you very much—and when I get home from work, I’m yelping about you for false advertising!”

“Do you have time for that sort of thing?”

“You better believe I do!  I have time for whatever I want.  It’s a free country, isn’t it?”  The question was clearly rhetorical, but the gentleman seemed almost unsure.

“I don’t know.  Do you feel free?  I thought you came here looking for freedom.”

“Here?  Here is the last place I’d look for freedom!  That’s why you’re advertising is false.  You tell the public that you can offer them life, freedom, and the pursuit of happy meals, but then when someone asks you to deliver, all you can talk about is some imaginary play land.”

“I told you it’s not imaginary.”  He pouted.  “They serve apple pie.  Part of the healthy-eating act.  You can probably smell it from there.”

“A fantastical play land, floating in the sky, where they serve healthy-eating apple pie.  I’d sooner die.”

“Sir, it’s no such thing.  If you would come in, I could show you it, and you’d understand.  Or really…I can’t say if you’d understand, but you’d definitely believe what I’m telling you.”

“No thanks.  Nothing could be so spectacular that it’s worth the time it would take me to park the car in this sketchy part of town, climb every last one of those brown-tile steps” (of which there were two) “and creek open that slimy smiley-face-door to come in.  That’s not to mention the danger of leaving my car unattended around here.”

“I assure you, there is no need to worry about your car.  There is a car that comes with the meal if you need one.  But what I want to show you is a lot better than that.”

“You’re full of lies.  If I leave my car here someone will hot-wire it and drive off.  Don’t think the internet wouldn’t here about that!  I’ll write everything.  I’ve also heard you’re culinary methods are unethical.  I’m reporting animal abuse and auto-theft.”

“It’s true that our products use a lot of resources.  But I assure you nothing is wasted.”

“I knew it!  You’re killing perfectly innocent cows, aren’t you?  You ought to be ashamed!”

“No, sir, not cows.”

“What then?”

“Men.  Actually, just one man. One perfectly innocent man.”  He was entirely frank.  “That’s all it took, but many others followed him on their own.  All volunteers of course.”

“Look, don’t mess with me.”  The gentleman’s tone changed drastically.  “I have a gun.”

“Sir, it’s the freedom.” Both parties were dead serious.  “You see, it’s hard to come by.  You can’t just get it to go.  It’s a matter of policy.”  By this point, the gentleman had realized that this was no ordinary drive-through.  He and his son had gotten a little lost on the way over, when they came to this place instead of another.  He had assumed the whole ‘freedom’ thing was just some kind of joke.  A funny name for a menu item, exaggerating just how wonderful the potato squares must be, or something like that.  Now, however, it clearly must have been more literal.  Frighteningly so.  He would have left right then and there, were he not overwhelmed with a morbid kind of curiosity.

“You’re killing men?”

“For freedom sir.  That’s why it doesn’t cost anything.  It comes with the meal.”  This was indeed how it was listed on the menu.  “But as a courtesy, if you do order the freedom, we ask that you be willing to go next.”

“To go next?  What do you mean?”  He was afraid to ask.

“To follow the man.”

“But I want to get away from The Man!  That’s why I’m asking for freedom in the first place.”

“No, I mean, you must be willing to die, just like the innocent man was.  You won’t have to die, not really.  Certainly no one will force you to die if you don’t want to.  You just need to be willing to die if you order the freedom.”  This was the most ridiculous thing that Jimmy or his father had ever heard.  There was something eerie too about the way it was said.  The gentleman could have sworn that the man speaking had suddenly become possessed.  Or perhaps it was the ceramic clown head itself that was possessed.  Perhaps he, his son, and that horrific, haunted head were really the only ones there, and this mysterious acousmata, this dire, disembodied voice was insinuating something much more dreadful than anything he could imagine.

“I’ll take my meal now.  How much do I owe?”

“Nothing sir.  But would you like the freedom?”

“Yes, but to go please.”

“You can’t have freedom to go.”  Was that the man talking or the ceramic clown head?

“What on earth could be in this ‘freedom’ that makes it worth all that?”  He laughed uncomfortably.

“Well, I’ve known many people to get a lot out of it.”  The cashier’s innocent, childish tone resumed.  “One fellow, much like yourself, sir, was in a bad marriage, a bad job, and a bad mountain of debts, and this changed everything.”

“So it’s a loop-hole?”  The gentleman had been meaning to get a divorce, quit his job, and file for bankruptcy, but who has the time?  If this ‘freedom’ could take care of all that without any rigmarole…

“—Sir, I didn’t finish.  In that fellow’s case, the marriage, the job, and the mountain of debts still went on just the same.  This only took the bad out of them.”  The gentleman was confused, but he didn’t know what to ask.

“But why do I need to die?”

“You don’t.  Like I said, someone else already volunteered for that position.”

“That’s right.  I forgot.  I only need to be willing to die.  Well then, what if I—how about this: if you give me this freedom…to go…then I’ll be willing to die for now, but then, since no one will force me, I’ll just—if anyone asks, I’ll say—”

“—Sir, that’s not how it works.  Don’t you get it?  That’s what the Freedom is.  It’s complementary—a down right gift, really.  Someone perfect died for you—he died to fix your whole situation—and if you accept that he was willing to die for you, then you’ll be willing to die for him as well.  It’s only natural.  And that right there is the gift, that’s the freedom.  This fellow with the bad marriage, he didn’t suddenly escape from a civic bond imposed on him by the law.  He was liberated from a self-imposed kind of bondage.  For years, he’d been protecting himself from his wife’s attacks.  She was spending all their money, taking advantage of him, robbing banks, and chewing with her mouth open just to annoy him.  A wicked woman, there’s no doubt.  He had nearly lost his mind to paranoia over the next thing she might do to injure his precious self.  But when he accepted Freedom, his perspective slowly changed.  Little by little, he began to realize that he wouldn’t be worried if she came at him with a knife (much less if she spoke with food in her mouth) since he was willing to die.  That’s the gift.  It’s not a loop-hole.”

“But that doesn’t sound like a gift at all.  It sounds like a malady.  Depression or maybe Gothism.”  The gentleman hardly cared to realize how late this all was making him and Jimmy.  Maybe he wasn’t in such a hurry after all.  People often act like their in a hurry only to make themselves seem important.  However, this sort of pretense always betrays itself as soon as something more interesting comes along.  At the moment, this prospective death seemed more interesting than affectations of business.

“The Goths certainly did have something about them, but it wasn’t depression.  An honest monk in a monastery, what do you think he has to live for?  Just this bizarre, mysterious gift.  A gift that consists in being taken from rather than being given to.  An anti-gift, if you will.”

“But freedom is a commodity, not a liability (excuse me, but I’m a business man).  A market is only really free when it has a surplus.  If people don’t have any disposable income, then competitive marketing doesn’t exist, since everything must be sold for essentially no profit.  What I mean to say is that if you take away my car, my time, and my life, I won’t be a freeman—I’ll be a slave, a sucker, and a specter.”

“Not at all—”

“—Let me take it a step further.  Freud suggests that the ultimate legal tender for the economy of human affairs is…something you alluded to earlier.  What I mean is…to be blunt…the man with the most mates is the freest.  In that light, I’m almost tempted to think it a shame…about the play land and all…”

“Let me tell you something.  (I’m speaking to you now not only as your personal cashier—however honorable a title that in itself might be—but also as your fellow human being.)  I once thought exactly the way you just described.  I tried having a surplus of everything.  The modern world insists, after all, that these sorts of lower appetites must be satisfied, if we are ever to be free from pain.  But for some reason I found that the more I possessed, the more I was in turn possessed.  Each commodity was also a liability, and at that, a debt twice as great as its own worth.  The lower pleasures I satisfied, the impulses I acted on—these began to control me.  I believed that pleasure was the way to happiness, and so I was compelled to pursue pleasure, and I could be happy doing nothing else.  In short, I believed in Freudian psychology, and that belief was precisely what made it a reality for me.”  The man without a face had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.  This job of cashier, as some readers may be aware, is one of the most highly sought after vocations of people in that field.  One can understand why.  The faceless philosopher went on:

“But it was one day while eating a happy meal that it suddenly hit me.  It was a fly swatter slightly misguided by an old man without his glasses.  He apologized right away and explained that he had been aiming for a fly that he had heard buzzing in my general direction.  For my own part, I didn’t hear a thing.  But after that happened, I got to thinking about my life, and I realized that I had been calculating my net worth all wrong.  A surplus was exactly what I needed, but not of money or luxury or sex.  I needed a surplus of something else.  I couldn’t really say what it was, but I knew at that moment that whatever it was must be inversely proportional to the kind of worth I’d been pursuing in the past.  Maybe it was a surplus of hope, or something like that.  A surplus perhaps of reason to act.  When we have no such surplus, we can only act to maximize our own pleasure.  But if we have extra reason to act and to exist, we can do both freely.”

“But Freud suggests reasons to act—”

“—Not reasons so much as causes.  Neo-Freudian and popular psychology assumes that human behavior is caused by external events.  That may be true of any individual who believes it, but I have found reason to act in spite of those events.  I have reason to relinquish every pleasure and still be satisfied.”

“And what reason is that?  A dead man?  Is that your reason?”

“It is now, but when I first accepted freedom, I didn’t really understand—”

“—I’m sorry to say that this sounds like the most morbid bit of hogwash I’ve ever heard.  Which reminds me, I forgot to order a drink for Jimmy.  But as to your philosophy, I must say that I will never follow any ideology related to death.”

“Then you are an ignoramus.  Every ideology is related to death.  But let me tell you, when I first came upon this whole philosophy, it had nothing to do with—”

“—Buddhism doesn’t have to do with death.  It’s about inner peace, rebirth if anything.  Come to think of it, Buddhism is about freedom too.  The freedom found through meditation.”  The happy meal seemed a long ways off.

“That’s still related to death.  Call it rebirth if you like, call it anything really, death is still death.  But when I found Freedom, or rather, when Freedom found me, it had nothing to do with death.  It was the farthest thing from death.  Some sentimental people like to suppose that the opposite of death isn’t life but love.  I can’t say I know whether that’s true, but I do know that love his how I found freedom.  These days I feel like I kind of have a surplus of reasons for living.  I’m free to do things that don’t satisfy me at all, and even then, to be completely satisfied.  I used to be a helpless romantic, but now I’m ashamed to admit I’m a helpless altruist, and there’s nothing else I’d rather be.  I wish I could say I figured this out on my own, but really it was all a big, embarrassing mistake.  You see there was this one girl, well…you don’t really want to hear this, do you?”

“Not really.  I’d actually just like my meal now.  You can leave out the freedom.  It’s honestly more than I bargained for.  I’ll take just the happy meal, just the happiness to go, please.”

“Very good, sir.”  He spoke with a cold civility.  “I hope your son is a licensed driver.  It’s a matter of policy.”

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