Stick-Shift Meets His Match
by Lewayne L. White
Jimmy “Stick-shift” Kinison would be the first to tell you that he was the champion Atomic Chili eater at Marlene's Good Eats. He'd knocked Floyd Fallon from the top spot by eating eleven bowls full (Floyd's record was ten) then eating four more to make it fifteen.
Cable Food Channel's Brick Benson, host of Champion Chow, even interviewed Stick-shift when the cable food show taped an episode about Marlene's.
“You already beat the champion, why not just quit at eleven?”
Stick-shift dug at his teeth with a toothpick, then said, “Well, I reckon I wanted to make sure no one in the world could beat my record.”
And in three years, no one could.
Then the skinny guy from out of town showed up.
* * *
Things were quiet in Marlene's. The breakfast rush was over, and lunch was a ways off. A few regulars sat around nursing their coffee, and a pair of visiting newlyweds dilly-dallied, trying to decide if they were going to actually look around town, or just go back to the motel room again.
Gogo, the busboy, pushed his cart along, collecting the breakfast dishes and the tip money. As he moved down the length of the counter, he hummed the theme from “Quantum Leap.”
When he reached the end and looped back around to do the booths along the opposite wall, he switched to “Buck Rogers In The Twenty-fifth Century.”
As he weaved through the tables between the booth and counter, he whistled the theme from the “X-Files.”
Gogo wasn't very sharp, but he knew his sci-fi theme songs.
Stick-shift, running low on funds and three days away from his next unemployment check, sat at the counter doodling in a pocket notebook. The battered spiral book held scribbles, scrawls, and lists that Stick-shift thought might bring him closer to his *Big Successful Plan*.
As Gogo passed him on the way back to the kitchen, Stick-shift looked up.
“Hey, Marlene, that doofus's song reminds me. You see that UFO last night, round ten?”
Marlene, the diner's owner, operator, and queen waitress, scooped the tip money from Gogo's cart.
“Baby, we had a pack of people in after the game. Nobody here saw nothin'.”
Marlene pulled a couple crumpled bills from Gogo's collection, and stuck them in her pocket. “Split the rest between you, Chewie, and April.”
Gogo, now humming the “Outer Limits” theme, nodded.
“I mean *evenly*, this time. Quit giving the other two extra. You work just as hard as they do.”
April Cochrean, the other waitress on duty, said, “You ought to be giving the money back to those people. They're the ones gotta eat Chewie's cooking.”
Chewie Gomez yelled from the kitchen, “Hey there, girlfriend, least I can cook. Reason you out front's cause you burn water.”
April thumbed her nose at Chewie, then said, “Thanks Gogo,” when the busboy handed her a wad of bills and change.
Gogo nodded, humming.
“What's he humming, now?”
“It's from The Invaders,” said a new voice. “A television series about aliens disguised as humans.”
Everyone turned to see the skinny man at the diner door.
Gogo looked up, nodded, then pushed his cart back into the kitchen.
“A classic show,” the skinny man added. “I'm surprised it isn't running on that Sci-Fi channel.”
Marlene gave the man her megawatt smile. “Welcome to Marlene's. Care for a cup of coffee while you browse the menu.”
“I came for your magnificent Atomic Chili.”
Stick-shift looked up from his notebook, and saw the guy was about as big around as a broomstick. *No competition*.
“Chili be ready in about a half hour, if you don't mind waiting.”
“I saw your chili featured on Champion Chow. I believe it is worth waiting for,” the man said.
“A bowl is two bucks, unlimited refills is five.”
The guy nodded. “If I beat your current record holder I pay nothing. Is that still correct?”
Stick-shift looked up again. “Record's fifteen bowls.”
“May I see one of the bowls, please?”
“Gogo,” Marlene said. “Bring the man a bowl, please.”
Gogo trotted out from the kitchen, carrying a bowl about the size of a small sauce pan.
“Star Trek-Next Generation,” the man replied when Gogo handed him the bowl.
The guy examined the bowl, appeared to make a few mental calculations then said, “I will have no problem eating that much chili. And, since I have no money, I have little choice but beat your champion.”
Marlene blinked at the man, then said, “And if you can't, how you supposed to pay?”
“I will beat your champion,” he replied. Not cocky, just a statement of fact. “In truth, I will need to eat approximately twenty bowls.”
“And how you supposed to pay if you don't,” Marlene repeated. Not mad, just curious.
Gogo, now humming “Battlestar Galactica,” reached into the pocket of his jeans, withdrew a wad of ones, and counted out five. He set the money on the counter in front of Marlene.
“You sure?” she asked Gogo.
“Gogo's got you covered, Mr.... What's your name?”
The man hesitated for a second, then said, “Roswell. Leonard Roswell.”
“Well, Mr. Roswell, the chili will be ready soon, and we'll see how you do.”
* * *
He did well.
Stick-shift wasn't paying much attention, until he heard April say, “That's ten.”
She marked another chalk line on the board beside the Atomic Chili winner photo, which currently featured Stick-shift Kinison.
“Hey, Marlene,” Stick-shift bellowed. “Why don't you go ahead and pour me some bowls. Looks like I'm going to have to defend my title.”
“You got the cash if he knocks you out?”
Stick-shift dug around in his jeans, then his coat, then upended a ratty sneaker and came up with almost five bucks.
Marlene looked at the collection of change, then at Roswell.
He had nearly finished the eleventh bowl already, and literally hadn't broken a sweat. Not even Stick-shift could eat the Atomic Chili without mopping his brow.
“Close enough,” Marlene replied. “April get this man some chili.”
At this, the regulars, who'd only occasionally glanced at Roswell as he shoveled in chili, sensed a battle coming. Several men moved closer, taking seats at the counter. A few began placing bets, while others lined up at the pay phone to call friends and relatives. Meanwhile, the newlyweds opted to head back to their motel room rather than watch the locals trying to out-eat each other.
“Best gimmee five bowls, April. I got some catching up to do.”
April snorted in a very unladylike way, then headed to the kitchen. She returned a moment later, plunked down a tray loaded with chili bowls.
“Eat up, Stick.”
Stick-shift glanced sideways at Roswell, who had just licked his eleventh bowl clean. With a deep breath, the Atomic Chili Champ dug in.
The gathering crowd murmured, and more money changed hands as more bets were placed. Gogo trotted around collecting empty bowls, and humming “Stargate, SG-1,” while April marked the board, and retrieved more chili. Marlene just kept pouring coffee, taking orders, and watching money roll in.
* * *
Stick-shift was up to ten bowls, and felt ready to bust. He also realized that April had just made the fourteenth mark under Roswell's name.
Roswell, who'd been a skinny little twerp when he'd come in, now looked like a lollipop halfway down the stick. His legs were still scrawny, but from his waist up, he swelled like he'd eaten a beach ball, not bowls of chili.
“Better slow down there, boy,” someone said to Roswell. “You're gonna pop and make a huge mess on Marlene's shiny countertop.”
Roswell glanced at his wrist, which bore a very elaborate-looking watch. “I cannot slow down now. I have a specific window to fit through.”
“Son,” said another regular. “You'll be lucky if you can fit through the door.”
“I have only a few more bowls to go.”
April placed another bowl in front of him. “This'll make fifteen. You eat it, you'll be tied with Stick over there.”
“Bring more, please,” Roswell replied. “This is excellent chili, Marlene.”
“Thank you, sugar.”
“Jeez, Marlene, between these two, they're gonna eat you into the poorhouse,” one of the spectators said.
Marlene glanced around at the diner. Every available seat was occupied. People had even brought their own folding chairs. Others just stood around, plate in one hand, fork in the other, eating pie and yapping about the lunatics eating chili. She'd already sent Gogo to the bank twice to make deposits and get more change.
“I'll be just fine,” Marlene said with a smile.
Stick-shift wasn't sure if he would. He hadn't even made it to his own record yet, and he thought he was going to explode.
Roswell, on the other hand, had just cleaned out his fifteenth bowl and asked April for another.
“He eats that next bowl, and he's the champ,” said the guy on the stool next to Stick-shift. “Better make your peace with that before you puke, Stick.”
“Gimmee more,” Stick-shift mumbled, afraid to open his mouth too far.
April placed another bowl of chili in front of him, and he felt his stomach lurch.
*This isn't fair*, Stick shift thought. *Last time, I trained. I was hungry. I was ready*.
He heard Roswell slurp another spoonful from his sixteenth bowl of chili.
*I'm the champ*, Stick-shift thought. *Me! I was the one on TV and everything. I was famous*.
“I was famous!” Stick-shift yelled, lunging for Roswell. “Now I'm gonna be nothin' again.”
Roswell caught the man with one hand, holding him several inches from the floor. With his other hand, he spooned the last of the chili from the bowl.
“Excuse me, April, may I have another?”
Instead of the applause and the camera flashes that should have accompanied Roswell's new title of Atomic Chili Champ, there was only silence. Everyone stared, some openmouthed, at the stranger holding Stick-shift in the air with one scrawny arm, while casually asking for another bowl of chili.
Roswell looked around, then shrugged. “I still need more.”
Then he shook Stick-shift slightly, up and down.
“Although... How much has he eaten?”
“Ten bowls,” said April.
Roswell smiled a very *wide* smile.
* * *
Jimmy “Stick-shift” Kinison's picture still hangs in Marlene's diner. It was the same picture they supplied to the police when Stickshift's PO came around after Stick missed a meeting.
Stick's still the Atomic Chili Champion and has been for nearly four years now.
He's practically famous.
The last time anyone remembers seeing him was that second night of UFO sightings. For some reason no one recalls much else about that day, but those that saw it remember the UFOs, and the large explosion in the nearby woods that rocked Marlene's Good Eats.
Those who managed to run out in time quickly saw something big and smelly fly into the air. Witnesses lost sight of the object in a blazing overhead glow, which swallowed it. Then the glow itself diminished into a small point of light that flew away at amazing speeds.
UFO researchers dismiss the whole incident as an eruption of swamp gas in the woods. They argue that this accounts for both the explosion, and the ghastly stench.
A couple spending their honeymoon in town claim that they saw a “skinny guy” challenge Stick-shift to a chili eating contest that day. Apparently, they think this created quite a stir, and might have something to do with the missing man.
When asked by local reporters to corroborate the newlyweds' story, the diner's owner claimed to recall no such confrontation. “If there was fighting over my chili, I'd sure remember it, wouldn't I?”
None of the other staff recalled any sort of chili challenge, either. However, the only one who consented to make an actual statement was the busboy, who simply hummed the theme from the “Twilight Zone.”
Copyright © 2005 by Lewayne L. White