the all-night burger joint
Arvamus 24 Dec 2017 Justin PetroneEWR
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IT OPENS AT THREE in the afternoon and closes at five in the morning. Its air is thick with the smell of hot bubbling grease. It does its best business after all the other bars in town close, and restless locals find their way to its door. It’s the all-night burger joint and it’s just around the corner in every town in Estonia. At Christmas time, it is done up festively. There are elves displayed in the front windows casting pointy shadows on the snowy sidewalks. In the glass by the grill, a Nativity Scene. The infant Jesus writhes in his manger. The Three Kings look on. What have they brought their savior? A vegan burger?

Inside, young men in thick jackets sit around a fake Christmas tree that glows with blue lights. Someone cracks a joke and they roar with joy. Even at nearly 5 AM they are not yet subdued by alcohol or weariness. Their appetite for life is so substantial.

Nearby, two young women drowse before plates of crispy spuds. They are Estonian ladies and so both look a bit like Little My from the Moomin books, though hardly identical. The fries find their way to their mouths. They are comfortable in the all-night burger joint, so they talk with their mouths full. There are spots of sauce on their lips. This is just an outstretched arm from the plastic infant Jesus and elves in the window.

The ladies are also restless. After a night out, they still want more. This is Estonia. Nobody is satisfied. After glasses of wine and several bars, they’re still bored. One talks of going to Italy in the spring. The other wants to run away to Portugal as soon as possible.

“Mallorca,” the first offers as a compromise. The other agrees. But not just yet.

“I just can’t stand this climate anymore,” one of the women then says to me.

“But you are from this climate,” I say.

“But even when I was a child, I just wanted to run away!”

“No matter where you run, it still won’t be paradise.”

“That’s not true. Other places have palm trees. And beaches. Paradise!”

Somewhere inside the all-night burger joint, Frank Sinatra has begun to sing. The speakers are invisible. I imagine that Sinatra himself is just out of sight. Perhaps he is flipping some fries as he does it, with one of those old-fashioned white caps on his head, just like the ones you see in the movies about old burger joints the 1950s. The golden age.

“Silent night,” Sinatra croons through the greasy air. “Holy night.”

Then I noticed that the tipsy ladies are leaning across the table. They’re whispering. Plotting. They cast glances at the elves in the windows.

“Which one?” one mouths to the other.

Then right under my watch they snatch up one the elves and run out the door. I watch them through the windows, laughing and snorting in the snow, on their way toward morning dreams. These Estonians are like Siberians, I think. Always packing up their shelters, always hungry for another landscape. I imagine what it would be like to journey with them. Maybe over the ice flows of the Gulf of Finland to return their rescued elf to Santa Claus at the North Pole. I just sit there though, feeling too content to move. This morning, there is just nowhere else I would rather be. It’s my very own Christmas peace.

(north! December 23, 2017)
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