We need to talk about death and Applebee’s
When dark thoughts take over, visit the haven of riblets and margs to find life.
The sign at Applebee's on U.S. 19 in Clearwater on Feb. 5.
The sign at Applebee's on U.S. 19 in Clearwater on Feb. 5. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]
Published Feb. 9|Updated Feb. 10

I thought about death in Applebee’s. Where the Maroon 5 flows as freely as the margarita mix. Where burgers are cooked “pink or no pink.” Where the waffle fries aren’t the only thing getting loaded.

Yes, Applebee’s, the nation’s gaudy corporate house of camaraderie and savings. Inelegant, loud, the butt of many jokes. Few like to admit they go to Applebee’s, but people go to Applebee’s. You may have heard that the Applebee’s $200 Date Night Pass, which includes a $30 credit to be used 52 times a year, sold out in one minute.

That is $1,560 worth of sticky meat nibs and gluey white dips inside a dingy room that judges no man for his pain. I’ve been lured into countless Applebee’s by cocktails so cheap they practically pay you, by a glowing red apple that whispers, “Fried green beans are health food. Face your mortality.” Just this week I found myself wedged in a clammy booth staring down paper Valentine’s Day decor and intrusive thoughts.

My day had started innocently. I was catching up on news, like I do every Monday morning. “Sitting all day at work boosts risk of early death by 16%,” I read in The Washington Post. I processed this while oozing around the surfaces of my home like a flabby tabby, which made me think of my cat, recently dead. Every article I opened thereafter seemed to be 1) about how others died or 2) how and why I was next.

I hoisted myself up for a long walk, a great bodily privilege that would surely turn the day around. An hour wandering beneath tree canopies with a morose spirit brought on darker clouds than before. Cloaked in February’s gray shadows, every plaque and seawall in the park took on a sinister quality.

“I’m writing about death,” I messaged my editor.

“What type of death?” she replied like a cool parent who does not freak when their moody teen smells of funny cigarettes.

I answered noncommittally, then turned back to the cursed draft. What emerged combined the perils of a sedentary lifestyle with the following: microplastics in breast milk, obituaries, global warming, Category 6 hurricanes, colonization, massacres and centuries of human oppression. My brows crept to the center of my head. I turned back to my editor and announced I had written myself into a crevice of doom.

She read my copy. Maybe I should take a hot shower, she offered. Or go to Applebee’s.

Applebee’s has become a running gag among our team of writers. We had our work holiday party at Applebee’s, capping the year with cheeseburger quesadillas and Dwayne the Rock Johnson’s The People’s Margarita.

You see, our management periodically gives Applebee’s gift cards as prizes in newsroom contests, deep fried morale boosters coveted among the staff. I have never won one, and not for lack of trying. Applebee’s is for everyone, but I can’t help but get salty to see co-workers skating off with MY all-you-can-eat boneless wings, riblets and shrimp.

Those co-workers are cool and youthful! They should hang in vegan tapas bars with chic bathroom wallpaper! I, however, am the Applebee’s mark, raised on bleached malls and Kmart layaway. Are chains good? For civilization? Probably not. Probably these companies have exploited workers and paved wetlands and thinned the ozone, and probably I am 16% more likely to die early because I’m not part of a vegetable co-op. But facts are facts. I’ve left no Chili’s unchilled, no Cracker Barrel giant checkers unchecked. I had to marry my husband because he knew the meaning of “sunroom at Rax.”

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I informed this husband that we had to go to Applebee’s. He said, “K.”

The Clearwater Applebee’s, which poetically looks out on U.S. 19 and shares a parking lot with a Home Depot, was packed. Wall to wall on a Monday! Did they all have the Date Night Pass? It was so busy that a couple stole our seat, claiming to be us when the host called our name. Before you ask, they did not have the same name. This was Applebee’s subterfuge.

Surrounded by “2-for-1 ALL DAY EVERY DAY” banners hanging from the drop ceiling, I told my spouse that sitting at work boosts risk of early death by 16%. I told him that I got preoccupied with death in the park. I told him that, on the bright side, I saw owls.

“Isn’t that the park where the owls were poisoned?” he said.

The host took us to seats in the bar. “There’s a Monday burger special,” she explained. Her eyes had seen so much.

Imagine a movie moment where reality clicks. I looked around, and every table stood littered with $6.99 burgers and bottomless fries. Customers double-fisted pinot grigio and downed unnaturally blue potables. Everyone sang happy birthday to the bartender, who sawed off big globs of sheet cake. Cher warbled from on high, “Do you believe in life after love?”

It’s hard to dwell on death when everyone is unapologetically Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood. We ordered the bargain burgers and a themed margarita from the “Breaking Bad” guys. My dour mood faded, drowned by the din of clanking plates and easy listening. Maybe I was dying 16% faster with my backside on the banquette, but the bill for a life-affirming burger in a room of plotting elders was less than $30.

Two days later, we had a work contest. I won an award for writing about my dad’s death. I guess that’s the reason I’ve been preoccupied with finality. Why I’m a tad depressed, why bad news leaps off the page and grabs my throat. All of this goes away, the walks and the cats and the owls and the cocktails and the birthday songs and the people you love. Impermanence has crystallized in a way that it hadn’t a few months ago.

The win made me eligible for Applebee’s bucks. I waited for my name to be plucked out of a bowl, to graciously accept my 860 calories of mozzarella sticks with ranch in exchange for an essay about death. What a tidy bow that would be. Alas, no seamless ending came.

It’s alright, though. Stomaching life’s darker days is a practice that takes patience. It takes long, gloomy walks. Sometimes, it takes responsibility for one’s own chicken tenders. As a consolation prize, I entered myself in a drawing for a chance to buy one of 1,000 additional Applebee’s Date Night Passes. For a limited time only.

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