When fast food offers a break from mortality.

By Juno DeMelo
Updated June 15, 2017
father's day in-n-out burger joint personal essay
Credit: Arielle Cifuentes

I swore off meat in fourth grade after reading a pamphlet I got at an Earth Day fair with a picture of a leering fat-cat agribusiness scion peeking out from behind a Ronald McDonald mask on the cover. Weirdly, it didn’t keep me from eating fast food.

For years my jam was Jack in the Box’s teriyaki chicken bowl without the chicken or Wendy’s broccoli-and-cheese baked potato. Then I discovered the “grilled cheese”—that’s a cheeseburger without the patty—at In-N-Out.

It was my dad’s favorite place to eat, usually on the sunny patio overlooking the carwash next door. He even owned an In-N-Out T-shirt. At home he was often volatile and sullen, lurking in the den with the shades pulled down checking his stocks or watching the evening news in stony silence. I suspect he was depressed and bitter. But he always seemed at peace sitting under one of the red and white plastic umbrellas waiting for our number to be called.

It’s funny that he loved In-N-Out, because otherwise he was a Southern California health nut through and through. He took gingko biloba supplements and made his living as a squash pro and soccer coach. For years he ate Total cereal every morning, and our fridge was always stocked with Yoplait yogurt and baby carrots. We had a green salad with dinner every night, and he’d dress it with olive oil and vinegar, never anything creamy.

My dad moved to the U.S. from South Africa in his early 20s, and I suspect In-N-Out represented an all-American ideal to him: smiling blonde teenagers in clean white uniforms serving reasonably priced 100 percent beef patties and real ice cream shakes. Eating there felt like going back in time to the America Trump and my dad thought was great.

Six years ago, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At first he had a positive attitude exemplified by the “tough times never last, tough people do” bulldog statuette he kept near the kitchen sink. He planned not only to beat cancer, but to embrace it as a wake-up call, an opportunity to be kinder and gentler to his loved ones. But just over a year post-diagnosis, when the cancer had clawed its way back after surgery and chemo, he resigned himself to death.

“I’m ready to go,” he whispered from his bed when I rushed home to San Diego from New York City to be with him for what we estimated were his final hours. He was skeletal by that point, sucking water from a sponge and wearing a diaper that he somehow managed to never soil, a feat the doctors attributed to an inhuman level of discipline.

But death does not adhere to deadlines. I tried to ride out the uncertain days working remotely and going for long runs on the bike path behind our house, anything to keep from sitting bedside holding my dad’s hand and listening to morphine rants. I felt deeply ashamed of my discomfort with sickness and death, and yet I couldn’t seem to push past it.

One day, my stepmom and I decided to run to In-N-Out for a late lunch. “We’ll be quick,” she promised. My aunt had come to stay with us by that point, so it wasn’t like we were leaving my dad alone. But the getaway seemed risky nonetheless: A woman from hospice had already come and warned us that the beginning of the end—cold, mottled hands and feet—was finally setting in.

I don’t remember what we talked about in the drive-through, only that the paper bags of food were lukewarm by the time we got home. And I don’t remember the exact sequence of events: One minute we were pulling into the garage, and the next, I was propping my dad’s body up in my arms.

In the absence of a gunshot wound or a fall from a bridge, the demarcation between life and death is unclear. I’ll never be sure whether my dad had already died by the time I got to him, or whether he knew for a few seconds that we’d come back just in time. Whether he smelled the fast food on me, and if so, wondered how we could possibly be eating French fries when he’d begun starving weeks ago.

Later, after a man wearing a tie had come from the morgue and wheeled my dad out, I remember looking at the bags of cold food on the kitchen table and wondering whether to put the leftovers in the fridge, then feeling foolish for worrying about food waste in the wake of what had just happened. I noticed ants crawling over the fries and thanked them silently for making the decision for me.

I’ve been to In-N-Out once since then, last summer, on the way to the San Jose airport with my husband. He’s from Detroit, so In-N-Out has that special regional-chain, when-in-Rome glow. For him it’s still an Instagrammable food Disneyland where no one’s yet fallen off a rollercoaster.

Once he and I got in a fight as I was cooking dinner, and he said the meal tasted like anger. The milk shake I ordered that day came in a cup stamped with “Proverbs 3.5”—“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not into thine own understanding”—and it tasted like guilt.

But maybe it shouldn’t have, because it’s hard to stay by someone’s side 24/7, to not try to ignore death for at least as long as it takes to consume a brain-melting combination of salt, sugar, and fat. And everyone needs a reprieve sometimes: from baby carrots, inner demons, and mortality.