John Vanderslice


The first came around 5:30.  Hamburgers and fries were already on the table.  And the rest: pickles, onions, tomatoes, ketchup, mayo.  I cooked and sliced it all, just like I used to do at Hub City.  June, meanwhile, had her nose stuck in a book.  (Another test, she said.)  At Hub City, I never waited table but, still and all, I brought everything out.  I set the places.  I didn’t use to do dish either, but I’d be the one cleaning after we finished.  I was reaching for the mustard when the phone rang.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Mr. Reeves?”

“No, I’m not.”

A small knot of a chuckle.

“Come, sir.”

“Come what?”

“I’ve got the information right here.”

“Who is this?”

“Internal Revenue.”

“The IRS?”

“You got it.”

June reached for her burger but missed because she wasn’t looking.  She still had her nose in a book.  Instead her hand hit her milk glass.  Now we had Lake Superior in the middle of the table. 

“Aw,” June said.  “Look at that now.”  She let her book dip a half an inch.  She stared at the spill.

“Get a wash cloth,” I said.

“Excuse me?” the man said.

June shot me a look and started sopping the lake with her napkin.

“I said a wash cloth.”

“What for, Mr. Reeves?”

“I don’t mean you,” I said; then to June: “I mean you.”

She frowned, her cheeks pinched, blonde eyes narrow, like she was reading words on my face, tiny ink pressed into my skin.

“Are you speaking to me?” the man said.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” June said.

“I’m not.  I’m just saying clean it up.”

“Clean what, Mr. Reeves?”

“Shut up,” I said.

“Excuse me?”

“What did you say to me?” she said.

June stood: her shoulders taut, her belly in, her back straight, showing off her six foot frame.   June wasn’t above using her body to make a statement.

“I didn’t mean you,” I said to her.  But maybe I did.

“Me?” the man said.

“No,” I said.

“No, what?”

June was standing, glowering.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said.  “It was rude anyway.”   

“Stop it,” I said.

“Stop what?” the man said.

“Not you,” I said.


“June,” I said.

But she was gone, her finger stuck inside that book, holding her place.  Maybe she was going to the kitchen for the wash cloth.  More likely she was headed for the bedroom to study in private.  She’d keep hold of the book either way.

“Sir,” the man said, “should I call back at another time?”



“I don’t know.”

“I’ll just call back later then.”

“Okay.  No, wait.  I—”

Dial tone.

No, I was about to say.  I don’t want you to call back later.  I want you not to call back at all.


A half-hour later I was done with my burger and fries.  June was still in the bedroom.  Her burger was going cold, so I ate it.  Already I’d cleaned up the milk spill: found the wash cloth, blotted the lake, wrung the cloth over the kitchen sink, wiped up the remainder, wrung it again.  Even so, there was a big gross wet spot on our plastic table cloth, a whitish damp like slime on the under side of a log.  This too I’d have to clean.  I wasn’t about to get her to do the rest.  I knew what she would say: She was sorry about being short, but—and the “but” would be apparent from the first word of her sentence—she was incredibly stressed from all the studying.  She’d never had to study this much before.  In high school, she would say, you never studied; they just passed you.  Here, she would say, it’s a brand new ballgame.  They actually expect you to know the answer.  And they expect you to answer.  And if you don’t they chew you to pieces.  They fucking kill you, Bill.  That’s what she would say, articulating each word as precisely as if she were publishing my sins.  From all she said about that college, I only imagined a big eating machine with the students running furiously ahead of professors’ maws, a few snapping inches from their asses.  I couldn’t tell if she was lying or paranoid or cynical or true.  One thing was sure though.  She was nineteen years removed from high school.  That couldn’t help. 

I left her some fries.  There were more burgers in the kitchen if she cared for one.  Plenty more, in fact.  I knew about making enough. 

The phone rang.  I’d forgotten about the IRS.

“I paid my taxes,” I said into the mouthpiece.  “I paid too much taxes.”

“Excuse me?” a man said.  It could have been the same man.  I wasn’t sure.  He had the same smoothness, the same delivery, if not the exact same tone.  I found myself listening hard at every word, wanting and expecting to know for sure if it was him but never knowing.

“Is this the IRS?”

A pause.  “Why, no. Visa.  Good news, sir.  You’ve been randomly selected from a pool of customers who’ve used their cards recently at hotels, airports, retail outlets, or gas stations.”

“I don’t have a Visa.”

“Sure you do,” the man said.

“Excuse me?”

“Sir, I think you do.”

“I don’t even have a job.”

He chortled plastically.          

“Who is this?” I said.

“Sir, Im from Visa—

No,” I said.  “Who are you?

I heard a long pause.  Too long.

Did you call here before?

Sorry to bother you, sir, the man said.  He hung up.

I cleared the table: the plates and the napkins and the ketchup and the mustard and the pickles and the forks.  And the mayo.  And the tomatoes and onions.   And the two bottles of beer: one empty, one untouched.  The whole time, I kept wondering if this was the same guy.  One second I was sure.  The next, I decided I was imagining things.

I heard June in the bedroom utter an exclamation.  It could have been surprise or anger but sounded more like pain, sharp and in the abdomen.  That kind of knifing torture.  Then I heard a thud: thick, woody.

The phone rang.  I should check on her.


Mr. Reeves?

Who is this?

Don’t you remember?

My mouth was opening, but I was listening too hard to answer.  I wasnt actually sure of the question he asked.

What do you want? I said.

Only whats fair.

I laughed.  Sure, you do.

I am serious, sir.

I was virtually positive it was the same guy.

Look,” I said, “why bug me now?”

Good question!  he called.  We found a flag, Mr. Reeves.

A flag?

A speck—a bump—a hiccup—a nugget—

What are you talking about?

Something that caught our attention.

June came out of the bedroom, her faced drained and hopeless; her eyes glazed red like something just pulled from a kiln.   That book was still in her hand, her finger lodged inside.  She walked to the table.  She stopped.  She saw that it was cleared.  She slammed the book down and glared.  I tried to gesture; I mouthed the words: Leftovers  in the kitchen.

I dont want leftovers, she said.

Its about a Visa expense you reported.

I dont have a Visa, I said.

Mr. Reeves, he said, drolly.

Did you call a minute ago?

His harangue was stopped by confusion—maybe real, maybe feigned.

A minute ago, I repeated.

Wheres my burger? June said.

You were eating dinner, the man said.  But that wasnt a minute ago.

You ate my burger, didnt you?

Theres more in the kitchen. Get another.


I dont want another.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I don’t want another.  I want you not to eat my burger.

She threw her hands down against her thighs.

Whats wrong with another one?

Another what, sir?

Not you, I said.

Who? he said.

You, I said.

What? June said.  What who?

If youre hungry why not eat the other one?  If you need to—

I dont need a goddamn thing.  I want you not to my burger.  Dont you understand?

Need to what, sir?

Not you.

Who? he said.

I dont think I understand, I said to June.

Ill try to explain again, he said.

Shut up, I said.

She shook her head woefully for a full five seconds.  Youre pathetic.  You already had one of your own.

So what?

The so what should be apparent, sir.

I didnt mean you, I said.

You look like you did, she said.


Excuse me?

Not you.

Im leaving.  Im going to Wendys.  And then Im going to school.  Because Im not even allowed to study there.  Much less eat.

Who says youre not allowed?


Shut up.

Shut up?? June said.

Not you.  Who says youre not allowed?

Oh, please, she said, grabbing back the book from the table.  Dont even start.  She slapped her jeans pocket to check for keys.  She moved for the door.

Come on,” I said.  “Come on.  Im sorry.

Im not asking you to apologize, Mr. Reeves.  I just want you to explain this—

“My name’s not Reeves.”      

Dont, he started, his voice shriveling.  Dont even try—

And I dont own a Visa.

June opened the door.

Wait, I said.  I said Im sorry.

Its too late to apologize, he said.

Shut up, I said.

Excuse me?

She was on the other side.  She turned back.  She looked at me.

Im leaving, she said.

Mr. Reeves—

I hung up.  I walked to the door.  She closed it on my face. I heard footsteps running.  I opened it.  When I stepped outside she was halfway to her car.  I asked her to come back.  I asked her twice.

The phone rang.  I went inside.  I grabbed it: my palm hot, the words ready in my mouth.

What do you want, I said.  I mean really.  Tell me.

Uh . . . hello? a man said, not a voice Id heard before.  I didnt think. 

Who is this? I said.

Who? the man said.

Yes, I said.

Um, sir?  You donated two years ago to the Maxwell campaign?  Im calling to see if youd like to donate again?  All major credit cards accepted.  Visa—

As he spoke, I turned my ear closer to the earpiece.  I distinguished lighter pronunciations of vowels, a less gravelly tone.  More equivocation.  But then again then again, there they were: the words.

Mastercard, Discover, American—

No, I said, punching through his litany.  “Listen to me.  Who are you?”



by Nancy Dunaway