By Jack Keillor
Growing up poor in Minneapolis, you have to think of some pretty inventive ways to stay warm in the winter. From putting on long underwear underneath our snow pants towarming up the car for a good half hour before we went downstairs and cranking up the stove and opening it wide, half the time not even putting our heads in it. We brought our heat conservative attitudes to the dinner table as well. That’s where the Chili Cheese Burrito came in.
Taco Bell’s Chili Cheese Burrito was not only the most delicious part of any day it made its way into, but if you asked anyone in my family, it kept you warm for days. From the piping hot cheese to the warm, spicy chili, Taco Bell’s Chili Cheese Burrito was like a month of heat paid forward and sliding down your esophagus. It wasn’t a complicated burrito, everything it had in it was right there in the name, but it was a great burrito. I’ve always found that the simplest things in life can sometimes be the closest to perfection and the Chili Cheese burrito is a prime example of this.
There were hard times back then, too. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression here. It wasn’t all Chili Cheese burritos and snow pants. Sure, the Chili Cheese Burrito was everything we needed it to be, but it didn’t stop my sister Jennifer’s toe from freezing and falling off when mom locked us out of the house for “working with them”, an episode we still don’t understand and probably never will.It sure as hell didn’t save Jimmy from that car accident. Noburrito could have been expected to melt the ice at the intersection of Hennepin and Franklin that made his car skid, uncontrollably, into that open pick-up truck full of manure that he would inevitably suffocate in. That was no burritos fault. That didn’t stop me from being angry at it, though.
I can’t tell you how long I blamed that burrito for everything that was wrong in our family. From dad’s drinking to mom’s fragrant cheating to dad’s also fragrant cheating. It was never the burritos fault, I know that now. At the time, though, I’d held it on such a high pedestal that it couldn’t possibly live up to everything I wanted it to be. You can’t do that to a burrito. It didn’t deserve it. It was doing everything it could to keep our family together. The fault was never with the burrito, it was always with us. The people. Burritos are made perfect. It’s man that is flawed.
So for years I didn’t order the Chili Cheese Burrito, no matter how cold it was, no matter how badly I wanted to taste that delicious chili and melted cheese on my lips. I lived without that burrito for so long I barely even remembered what it looked like, what it smelled like. Maybe that was for the best, I’d thought for years. Maybe it was time to let the burrito go. There were plenty of other burritos on the menu, as my dad once said when I’d be recently dumped after a 3 year relationship and he was trying to cheer me up after he’d caught me having rebound sex with a burrito.
Today I bought myself a Chili Cheese Burrito. Today my memories of it came flooding back to me. Today I felt like the boy I used to be, so full of life and hope for a bright future that you couldn’t even get a picture of me without a smile if you’d tried. I thought the burrito would bring me memories of that boy I hadn’t seen in so long. The boy that had no idea his brother or sister’s toe could ever be taken away from him, not by a cruel and unloving God but a vacant, uncaring one. A God that just let random shit happen constantly and took credit when things went right and blamed others when they went wrong. It was never the burrito I was angry at, it was the uncaring attitude of a God that may or may not exist and I blamed it on the burrito. When I took that first bite, though, I knew that it had never been the burritos fault. It instantly transported me not only back to my memories of being a boy with a family full of living people, it made me that boy again.
I jumped up from my seat, ran to the sauce counter, grabbed two handfuls like that dumb kid I used to be, and I slid back into the bench with a little too much force and hit my elbow against the wall. It hurt, but that kid kind of hurt. The kind where you know it’s going to be fine in a minute so there’s no use whining about it now. I covered the damn thing in sauce, way too much of it. I had to scrape some off with a napkin and a spoke before I could even eat the damn thing and then I got it all over my tie by the time it was over. I must have looked like a real goober sitting in that booth, covered in food and sauce like a kid before learning about shame. Before life takes the fun out of itself, takes away all wonder and leaves you with nothing but knowledge. Not even knowledge, but the knowledge that you lack knowledge. The feeling that you know too much to live a free, easy life but not enough to do anything special with it. The burrito took me back to that time, and if I’m being honest with myself, it was the best I’ve felt in at least ten years.
I took my tray to the trash and dumped it, paper place-mat and all, threw it on top and headed for the door with a big, dopey grin on my face. That’s when I got the call. My sister, Jennifer, had died.
Damn you, burrito. Damn you.
5 out of 5