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There is only a skeleton of a crowd at the newly refurbished, revamped, and reopened Honker Burger. Outside, a soft gossamer dusk is enveloping the town of Bluffington, but the Honker Burger feels anything but comfortable. There is a coiled tension that is decidedly uncharacteristic of a family-friendly diner. The milieu might charitably be described as a millennial's interpretation of an opium den—long shadows, cramped booths. Other than a quiet older man methodically picking the beets out of his salad, the only other patrons are rowdy multi-hued (pink, blue, two greens) high schoolers. Their food has long been devoured. Indeed, they seem to be hanging around solely for the sake of playing the same Papa Roach song on the jukebox over and over again.
Cut my life into pieces/this is my last resort.
“They were here yesterday too,” Doug Funnie says to me, stepping up to the counter, making a big show of looking over the menu, as if this were the first time he’s seen it, which of course it is not. “I want this place to be the hangout spot. Like it used to be.”
Like it used to be is a precious notion to Doug Funnie, as it is to a host of child-stars who have outpaced their greatest moment by decades. At just 36, he appears older still, slightly stooped, wielding more than the mere suggestion of a beer gut. Crows feet crouch about wounded eyes and there are even fewer strands of wispy hair on his head than the 11-year-old superstar most of us remember. Doug Funnie is friendly, sometimes even charming, but never comfortable.
He orders two moo-cows with no stinkers and no cukes (cheeseburgers sans onions or pickles) for himself, a wet one for me, and a tuber to share. The cashier seems flustered by the nostalgic affectation, but Doug is the boss, or rather, the owner. He explains to me that it has been his ambition for years to purchase Chez Honque and convert it back into the Honker Burger. For him, it is a symbol of the good old days.
“Business could be better,” Doug tells me, tearing noisily into his first moo-cow. “I’ve never run a restaurant before so you know we’re going to have some ups and downs, but you know, I don’t think of this as a restaurant. It’s an investment. It’s the future. It’s my legacy.”
Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a place where teenagers eat overpriced burgers and listen to Papa Roach.
“I can’t finish this,” Doug says, rubbing his belly with exaggerated strokes. “You want a drink? Let’s get a drink.”
An hour later we are drinking whiskey on his roof. The stars look down on us as he points out Bluffington landmarks with inebriated enthusiasm. That’s where the bowling alley used to be. There’s the theater where I conquered my fear and watched The Abnormal. That’s where Chalky Studebaker was decapitated in a car accident. I didn’t grow up in Bluffington—in fact, this is my first time here. But like many children of my generation, Bluffington felt almost like a second home. Even now, Doug is considered one of the most successful coming-of-age reality TV programs in history. Reruns have aired near continuously for over twenty years. We grew up with Doug and Porkchop and Skeeter, with the loathsome Roger Klotz, the lovely Patti Mayonnaise. To a generation of fragile kids caught between the hammer and anvil of childhood and the slow-burn of growing up, Doug’s struggles were our own, his dreams were our dreams.
Now here I am, and there Doug is, on his knobby knees, trying to make himself throw up. “Just give me a minute,” he says several times. I’m finishing my drink as Doug Funnie finally vomits. He doesn’t get up, and eventually we both fall asleep on the roof. In the morning I am still drunk, so I wander.
Doug Funnie’s most recent memoir How I Doug Myself Out of Hell was a modest best-seller. His first tangible slice of success since the show was canceled, it chronicled Doug’s harrowing post-fame spiral, including his multiple failed attempts to stay sober. I spy a signed copy of it on his bookshelf, surrounded by some of the other books Doug has written. Most are self-published alternative-history novels in which the Axis defeats the Allies in various ways. There is a Quailman graphic novel, written by Alan Moore. There is a novelization of Smash Adams, which like the film that spawned it, was a critical flop. There are tacky samurai swords mounted on the walls. Big-screen TVs sitting next to one another. A framed photo of Porkchop. There is a an immense Persian rug dotted with wine stains. There is no food in his fridge, only Diet Coke cans and two different kinds of mustard.
When he wakes up, Doug drives me around Bluffington in his wide purple convertible. Bluffington is not what it once was, Doug explains. It is no longer the Bumper Sticker Capital of the World. As far as Doug knows, it is not the capital of anything in the world. Jobs are scarce and most of his old friends moved away long ago. “Even Skeeter?” I wonder. I see Doug tense ever so slightly. He nods and tells me he hasn’t talked to Skeeter in years, though his brother Dale helps out at the Honker Burger when he can. “Dale’s a good guy,” Doug says forcefully. I keep pressing.
“I haven’t seen Skeeter since college,” Doug finally bursts open, fiddling with the dials on his radio, perhaps looking for an appropriate song to drown me out. “Look, you have friends in middle school and you have friends in high school and it’s not a big deal when you don’t know them anymore. I’m sure you don’t talk to your best friend from high school, so why does everyone care so much about Skeeter fucking Valentine?”
Skeeter’s absence from How I Doug Myself Out Of Hell (he is referenced twice, both times in relation to Dale) was universally noted. It must be said that his whereabouts are not exactly a mystery. Skeeter Valentine is a celebrity in his own right, the lanky wunderkind that NASA plucked right out of college. Since then, he’s hit the talk-show circuit with poise, humility, and his trademark humor. He’s undoubtedly the coolest nerd since Carl Sagan, and success hasn’t ruined his good cheer. "Honk-honk" is still his catchphrase, and somehow it doesn’t feel grating, but earnest, innocent, infectious even.
“I wish him the very best,” Skeeter tells me over the phone. “Hanging with Doug and Porkchop were probably the best days of my life. You never forget being the Silver Skeeter.” When I ask him how he felt about being left out of Doug’s memoir, Skeeter only laughs and begins to regale me with a metaphor about our rapidly expanding universe and dying stars and black holes, until the reception cuts out. I try calling Skeeter back many times, but to no avail.
“i'm sure you don't talk to your best friend from high school, so why does everyone care so much about
skeeter f***ing valentine?”
We cruise down Jumbo Street. Doug takes me to a falafel restaurant run by a friendly Lebanese couple. They greet him by name and he sits at a table that I take to be his usual spot. Fans hum in every direction. Doug slurps a Diet Coke. He orders a lamb shawarma wrap. Again he chews noisily, licking his lips voraciously for every last delicious scrap. Doug’s famously large nose is still large, but his face has grown into it. I notice his soul patch for the first time. His eyes are small, barely dots really, but they are alive, darting this way and that, never content to gaze at any one thing for too long. Sometimes his eyes light up with childlike enthusiasm, but just as soon do they take on the look of a man suffering ‘Nam flashbacks. They are good eyes, despite all that.
“Come on, let’s go somewhere where we can get a drink.”
Doug drives me to a smoke-filled bar that seems entirely populated by morose heavy-set men. “Two bourbons, one neat and one on the rocks.” I realize belatedly that Doug is ordering only for himself. I ask for a beer. The bartender has purple skin, thin arms, frizzy yellow hair, and wears a bolo tie. He says nothing.
“I didn’t start doing drugs until about halfway through high school,” Doug admits, “Tame stuff, really. Weed, shrooms sometimes, nothing major. Still, everything started to change. I stopped writing in my diary. I killed Quailman off. I stopped listening to the Beets. I was getting pretty heavy into rap-rock around then, we all were I guess. And...then the whole thing with Mrs. Dink happened.”
Mrs. Dink is Tippi Dink, former mayor of Bluffington and Doug’s former next door neighbor. He doesn’t go into lurid detail right away. Instead he orders another drink and finishes it in a single gulp. “Mr. Dink was like a mentor to me. But then Guy [Graham] came along and you could just see that Mr. Dink thought of Guy as the son he never had, and there was no room for me in that dynamic, which was fine, you know? One day I went over to borrow Mr. Dink’s grill, but he wasn’t home. Tippi was, but she wasn’t her usual sarcastic self. She was crying. Nothing is scarier than the tears of a fearless person. We hugged. We hugged for a long time. And...every week after school we would hug. That went on for a long time.”
“Until Mr. Dink found out?” I ask.
Doug pauses, takes another shot. “Yes. Until Mr. Dink found out.”
The damage was irreparable. Mr. Dink never spoke to Doug again, though he and Tippi eventually reconciled. It was then that Doug first tried coke. Doug went to Bluffington Community College for half a decade, but didn’t leave with a degree. Residual checks from the syndication of the show allowed him to pay his rent. Doug briefly made his way to the big city and lived with Judie, his bohemian poet sister, but that situation was untenable. He ended up back in Bluffington, bunking with the infamous Roger Klotz. They’ve been best friends ever since. In fact, it was Roger who loaned Doug the money to reopen Honker Burger.
“Roger’s not such a bad guy,” Doug explains, shoving pretzels into his mouth with crunching invective, “Him and Dale and Ned [Cauphee] are the only dudes around here I still talk to. Roger’s very anti-PC Culture and you know, he’s super into Donald Trump and it’s not exactly a secret that he has some seriously problematic views on women, but if you need a ride at four in the morning or five bucks for a shot he’s your guy. I mean, I know it sounds like I have low standards for friendship, but it’s really the opposite. He had my back when no one else did. I’m probably only alive because of Roger.”
“Opening up the Honker Burger is supposed to fix things,” Doug tells me. I can see that he is in pain, that he knows the Honker Burger has not yet and perhaps never will offer up the magical deliverance he needs. He lights a cigarette in the bar, a filterless Lucky Strike. He smokes quietly and uses my beer as an ashtray. “Life doesn’t unravel all at once. There’s no big battle to be lost. Just little shit. On the margins. And one day you wake up in your vomit and you say how the fuck did I get here? But you know. You know.”
I don’t have to bring up Patti Mayonnaise. I know he’s about to.
We go back to his house. To his room. With reverence he pulls a vinyl from a large stack. It’s a 7” of the Beets first single, “I Sneezed On My Face,” a quick two-minute burst of luscious pop hooks and buzzsaw guitars. He plays it again. And again. And then again, but this time he sings along. “I put this song on the last mixtape I ever made Patti.”
When was that, I ask.
“Yesterday,” he admits, unfurling a rare smile. “Some days...some days it physically hurts when I think about her. Out of everyone, I’ve let her down the most. It’s stupid, but you don’t forget your first love. You can’t.”
This is of course why Doug can never forgive Skeeter. Because Patti chose him, if not until the end of time, for long enough. Because though they have since amicably separated, Skeeter is the father of Patti’s daughter, Jocelyn Mayonnaise-Valentine, an 11-year-old girl that Doug has never met. Eleven years old. The same age Doug was when he was catapulted to stardom as the star of his eponymous show. I mention this to Doug. He barely reacts, but finally says, “God damn.”
Patti is also famous, at least in certain circles. A former bronze-medal winning athlete (beetball), she now runs a hugely successful non-profit for victims of automobile accidents. In short, she’s a hero, all that we expected her to be back when the show first aired. Doug fishes out his flip-phone and shows me Patti’s number. “I look at this almost every day. I need to call her or delete this number. That’s all there is to it. I need to choose.”
“life doesn't unravel all at once...one day you wake up in your vomit and you ask how did i get here?”
Doug fixes us up a couple of whiskey sours and we walk to the backyard, which dappled in shadows from tall trees. There is a marker at the foot of the largest tree. A grave. Doug sits in front of it, cross-legged, obliterating his whiskey sour with insistent sips. I know at once that this is Porkchop’s grave. “You know, I thought I wanted another dog,” he tells me, moisture collecting at the peripheries of his eyes, “But I didn’t. I wanted another Porkchop. But obviously there is no other Porkchop. There was only him. You can’t just adopt a new best friend.”
I try to comfort him with sympathetic noises, but I’m drunk, and it’s moot anyhow. He’s not having it. “I could build a thousand Honker Burgers in this town and it won’t bring him back. Damn, I’d build anything to get him back. Or destroy anything. Either. Same thing. Same thing.”
“Call Patti,” I suggest, drunk and no longer afraid of unduly influencing my subject, “Deleting her number is what a loser would do. You aren’t a loser. You are Doug Fucking Funnie. You’re the hero.”
“I’ve been a total shithead for too long,” Doug says back, “You know, I seriously thought if I reopened the Honker Burger everything would just start over again. Patti and Skeeter and everyone would just be there again. Ordering moo-cows and tubers. So stupid. So, so, so stupid.”
There’s nothing stupid about a person walking out of the darkness, I want to tell him. Instead I say, “Just call her. I’ll go inside.”
I walk back into Doug’s house and leave him sitting in front of Porkchop’s grave. He's strangling his cell phone. I fix myself another drink and peek out the window, but Doug hasn’t moved. I go through a stack of his mail. Bills, coupons, a postcard from Beebee Bluff, campaign literature, more bills.
He still hasn’t moved. It’s getting dark. I’m leaving Bluffington tomorrow. Small towns can sink their teeth into you if you aren’t careful. I fall asleep.
When I wake up, I hear something. I stumble to the window and peek outside. Doug is pacing back and forth, excited footfalls over brittle grass. His flip-phone is pressed against his ear. I can hear the staccato rhythm of nervous conversation, the highs, the lulls. And I hear something else. Doug is laughing. He is laughing his ass off. The laughter fills the house, but I still drift off. I wake up on the couch as he slips back inside. He tiptoes over to me and throws a few scratchy blankets on top of me. I’m about to ask him how Patti is, but of course I can’t. That’s something he gets to keep for himself.
Or maybe he never called Patti. Maybe that was just Roger on the phone. I don’t know. I sleep for a long time and do not dream.