It’s always the last stop of the night. The place that’s faithfully open after last call, after the last ember of the bonfire winks out, and after the fiancée sends me off with a kiss goodnight. The night is far from young, but it isn’t dead yet either. Pulsing with fresh energy from the drive home, a truckload of buzzed passengers recently dropped off, I slow down for the neon sign.

Taco Bell, that is.

Waiting my turn in the drive-thru line, I turn off the blaring radio to eavesdrop on the customers in front of me. A kid wearing a flat-billed Tigers cap is hanging languidly out the window, talking to the order-box like it was his math tutor. “Can—can I get a—ah, what’s it called—it’s the one with the, the cheese is like…” He looks back into the car to phone a friend, but his cohorts—all females—are giggling too dizzily to help out. “I don’t know man, some kind of burrito.  Surprise me.”

Behind him, a couple in a rusted Oldsmobile is bickering furiously. From the gist of their spat, I doubt splitting a Doubledilla is the root cause of their argument. But fights can be weird like that, and the battleground has shifted. The guy in the driver’s seat made his case: he volunteered to DD that night, it was his money they were spending, he wanted a Doubledilla, and tastes be damned if she wanted anything on top of that. Fair enough.

Then the woman brings up someone named “Keisha,” and it seems the trump card has been played.

When I order and idle up to the pick-up window, I’m greeted by Taylor, a resilient soul who’s been working the graveyard shift here for the last three years. He’s simultaneously talking on his headset to the next drunken batch while shooting me an upward nod. He’s grinning his usual “keep-on-keepin’-on” face and moves about the cash register with that upbeat, springy dance of his, but I can see in his eyes he wants to go home and cash the fuck out.  

If you work third shift at Taco Bell, you either need to be an expert interpreter of Drunk-Speak, or you need to be apathetically wise enough to know your customers don’t care what you give them. I’ve seen Taylor dish out both, depending on his mood. I once pulled up to the pick up window after having ordered nothing but a taco, and he listlessly asked me what I wanted to drink with that.

“I didn’t order a drink,” I said softly.

He shrugged apathetically. “I don’t give a fuck. What do you want?”

“Oh!” I blinked in surprise. “I guess an extra large Baja Blast.” And I got one on the house—his way of saying, “Thanks for being a regular who’s not a dick.”

Tonight, Taylor’s powering through it. The dancing steps seem less like carefree whimsy and more like a boxer’s warm-up. “Whatcha up to tonight bro?” he asks. He spies the kayaks in the back of the truck.

“Kayaking out at Bass River,” I say sheepishly, feeling guilt. “How ‘bout you?”

He leans on the window and lets his head down for a brief second. “Man… I’m sick of all these drunk-asses coming in every night. They shout at the order box, they get out of their cars and walk around, and they got a problem with everything!

It’s true. I’m not sure how it started, whether it’s their menu, environment, or their terrible marketing gimmick that coined the term “Fourthmeal,” but Taco Bell has been burdened with the mantle of dealing with late-night revelers looking to keep the night lit for some time now.  “Guys, I’m pretty hammered right now. Who’s feeling Arby’s?” said no one ever.

When I think about it, I realize Taco Bell played a fairly prominent role during my formative years. In middle school, my cousin and I competed to see who could go to Taco Bell the most times throughout the summer. We’d bike to Standale during lunch breaks at the farm, eat a whirlwind meal of quesadillas and crunchwraps (well, I would. Jared is the only person I’ve ever seen order the Mexican pizza without fail), and pedal home again before our break was up. By the first day of school, we had both eaten at Taco Bell a grand total of thirty-seven times—more than trice a week. You may think that sounds detrimental to one’s time, income, and wellbeing, but Jared and I were both awarded “Taco Bell Hall of Fame” status that summer, so who’s laughing now?

In high school, we’d go to Taco Bell after football games, dances, parties, and movies. It was where we connected, where we fought, where we gossiped, and where we pregamed. And by that, I literally mean where we would go before track meets. Oh, to have the metabolism of a seventeen-year-old again…

I remember when moving into the dorms at Calvin College, Taco Bell bonded everyone together. Our RA offered to take each guy on our floor there for a “get-to-know-you” date, and as far as I know, nobody objected to the venue. Whether you were a drinker or an abstainer, grew up in a big city or small town, attended a Christian school or public one, everyone liked the idea of a T-Bell run.

These days, my time spent at Taco Bell has dropped off a bit. Whenever the gang does hit up the Bell for some late, post-drink sustenance, the errand almost has a nostalgic quality to it. Going there myself, on a night like tonight, starts to feel lonely—almost sad. I used to go to Taco Bell just as often as the gym with satisfactory results, but achieving the same physique requires a more disparate ratio every week. When hunger strikes on the way home, the Bell flashes its compulsory lightbulb above my head, and then I find myself musing about vegetables in the fridge that’ll eventually go bad instead.

“You deserve a raise,” I finally tell Taylor, for lack of a better response. When he’s back in the kitchen fetching my Quesarito, I take a sip of my Baja Blast. Damn, if that isn’t a drink conceived in Heaven I don’t know what is.

Someday, I will quit Taco Bell for good. A day when the metabolism of man fails, when I forsake those faux-Mexican foods and break all bonds of customer loyalty…

But it is not this day.
An hour of salads, and saved dollars, when the age of fast food comes crashing down—
But it is not this day.

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