Combo Number 3

A short story by the author of the collection “The Cult In My Garage”

Duncan Birmingham
Human Parts
Published in
6 min readAug 8, 2021


Photo: arturbo / Getty Images

Where are his eyebrows? I had prepared myself for gaunt and pale, sure. Maybe with a bandana like Campbell Scott in that 80’s movie with Julia Roberts. But, no. His face is puffy and pink, his shaved head shiny and unadorned and his eyebrows are totally AWOL. I wish I’d Googled the kind of cancer he has. I wish I remembered the name he told me — it was hard to pronounce and maybe began with a D. I wish I wasn’t so hungover.

The next curveball comes in the form of long sunburnt legs exiting the passenger side of the Chevy Malibu. I wish his wife wasn’t so attractive. She stands and wraps me in a hug like we’re the oldest of friends. She’s heard so many stories. She’s excited to meet “the legend.” She and Ted got married eight days ago in a courthouse in Ogdensburg, then hopped in the car and drove cross-country to see the sights. Apparently that includes me. I don’t know how long he has left but I feel unworthy to be on his itinerary. I hope I’m not the sole reason they came to Los Angeles. They giggle and bump hips like newlyweds do as I lead them into my apartment building.

I offer them beers. He laughs and insists his wife and I have one. He says he’s on all kinds of medications. He says that’s why his face is so puffy and shiny. I shrug like I hadn’t even noticed and immediately want to strangle myself with an electrical cord.

Why didn’t I clean my apartment? There’s probably all kinds of microbes, cat hair and shit getting into his frail lungs. Thank God, I made my bed and I make note of this a couple times telling them how much they’ll love sleeping on the orthopedic mattress while waiving away their concerns about me taking the couch. It’s the least I can do for one night.

It’s like I’ve never had anyone in my apartment before. I can’t remember what I usually do or say or where I sit. With beers and an ice tea for him, we assemble in what I call my living room to talk about their road trip. They’ve been seeing national monuments, listening to podcasts and visiting distant relatives. They have a special Instagram account for this trip and take a selfie posing with me and my cat. They post our photo next to one of a sunset over the Grand Canyon. I tell them what I’ve been up to the last six or seven years. It takes all of two minutes. Feels like they’ve been here for years. I’m thrilled when they ask if they can take showers before dinner.

I tell them I’ll take them wherever they want to go. I run down a series of restaurant suggestions — pricey downtown fare, hot spots, new places, sushi? steaks? Anyplace they want, I stress.

Tico’s! Ted wants to go to the terrible little Mexican restaurant in North Hollywood we frequented years ago. To my dismay, he even remembers the combination special he always ordered. His usual, he says.

“I’m not sure that’s even there anymore,” I say but he’s already checked his phone and confirmed it is.

The place smells like grease and salsa stains dot the dark carpeting. He insists we sit in our regular booth under a faded Touch of Evil poster in a dusty frame. The food is even worse than I remember. It’s hard to find Mexican food this bland in Los Angeles. Ted doesn’t notice. Maybe his treatments zapped his tastebuds. His mouth is full of quesadilla as he tells his gorgeous wife little stories from our days living together. He keeps glancing at me like I’m supposed to chime in. I’m cramming burnt jalapeño poppers in my face cause I don’t have much to say. My hangover is crashing into heartburn brought on by the cheap sangria chock full of recycled fruit rinds.

It’s hard to talk to someone with no eyebrows. Their expressions look blank. You keep thinking they’re expecting you to say more. And maybe Ted was. Either way, it’s very disconcerting. Who knew that eyebrows were the key to the whole face? I find myself getting angry at Ted with his mouthful of stale quesadilla and lack of eye-hair.

I mean couldn’t he have drawn on some eyebrows? And what about a bandana — he could look like David Foster Wallace or at least thrown on an old baseball cap? Why hadn’t he let me take them someplace good? I would’ve maxed out my credit card to take them to Nobu if they wanted. Why were we suffering through this place with a two-star Yelp rating and no air-conditioning? Who knew how many meals he had left? They were headed to Riverside to see his cousin in the morning so Tico’s would be his last dinner in Los Angeles.

God forbid he expired with a Combo Number 3 inside him. And why?

For old times’ sake. If he’s expecting me to make a toast or something, he’s in for a letdown.

He keeps telling his beautiful wife stories that I remember differently or don’t remember at all. I’m far more interesting in his stories — a real character always looking for an angle, willing to do anything for a laugh. His wife laughs with the familiarity of someone who’s heard these stories before. She says she loves the one where we ate too many pot brownies and got lost hiking through the hills all night searching for the Hollywood sign. “We had no cell phone reception and were getting stalked by coyotes,” he says.

I want to tell him that he’s getting it all wrong, we were only lost an hour. We were never even that close — Craigslist roommates for chrissakes. The bulk of our time together — drinking beer on an itchy couch in a studio apartment in a new city or eating tacos leafing thru the free weekly here — was spent wishing we had the money and connections to be anywhere else, with anyone else.

“Hot plate! Hot plate!”

The waitress brings our main courses. Ted ordered Number 3 Combos for him and his girl. My chicken enchiladas are soupy and so covered in molten cheese, I doubt there’s any chicken even in them. I mush the food around with my fork. “Gross,” I mutter and ask Ted if he’s sure he doesn’t want to go somewhere else. He and his new bride exchange a look. Clearly she’s good with whatever he wants — how could she not be. He shrugs and says that the bad food at Tico’s was always part of the fun.

Even with the lack of eyebrows, I see he’s hurt. He’s not expecting anything profound or heartfelt from me. He’s smarter than that. He’s here for a few laughs, some tasteless jokes. He wants a mindless good time. That’s supposedly my sweet spot and yet I’m failing even at that. Ted knows my limitations. He knows me better than I want to admit, the fucker. Hell, maybe we were close. I find myself nearly overcome, missing him at the worst possible moment.

I squeeze out a smile, signal for another pitcher of sangria and try to play my complaint off as a joke.

“I was just testing you. This place is classic,” I say. “Bottoms up.”

I lift up my plate up and tilt it towards my face like a starving orphan. They laugh as I frantically start shoveling in the whole enchilada with comic gusto, not caring as the burning cheese lays waste to the roof of my mouth.

Author’s note: A version of this piece of fiction, “Combo Number 3,” first appeared on the Storychord website years ago. It was also the first story that came to mind when I started compiling pieces for my story collection, The Cult In My Garage (plug: available now!). Then I got feedback from a couple writers I respect that as much as they liked the story (they claimed!), it felt out of place in the collection. Long story story, I cut the short story. I killed my darlings. But now I have cutter’s remorse. I wish my book was bigger (who doesn’t!?) and I really like this story. Did I make the right choice by not including this one or did I rob a generation of readers by cutting this classic?… You decide.



Duncan Birmingham
Human Parts

Duncan has written on tv shows like Maron and Blunt Talk. Find him on twitter @duncanbirm and order his upcoming first book here: