by N. D. Coley
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Ian Paulson, red-faced, teeth clamping against teeth, scowled. His left hand pulled at a rag tied to the limp wiper blade while his right foot pressed the brake. The blade motor, which had been whining and hissing and clanking for months, had finally given up and decided it was done. Drops of rain pelted the windshield.
Ian looked through the glass and into the road beyond the traffic light. The road and the few cars that dotted it had the appearance of a smeared painting, something handled before it was dry or simply left out in the rain. Vehicles looked like blobs dotted with lanterns. The rain made the headlights on the cars fuzzy and shapeless. For a moment, Ian imagined that they were not cars at all, but old women, cloaked and hunched over, making their way about some pedestrian business.
He had business to attend to as well. Hunger, and not just an ordinary craving, but the kind that makes the skin around the bottom of the eyes stretch. The kind that makes the knees go weak and the tongue go wet with longing. He had not enjoyed a good meal in two days. Hanging on the edge with a client, and a rather expensive one, did something to drain his appetite and, in most cases, he would not eat until his bank account was full. Today was different, and in a rare moment, his desire to feel full was greater than the desire for another dollar.
The light turned green. Ian pulled his arm, now soaked with rain, up and back, working the left blade manually. Through the windshield, the green light looked like a smashed bell pepper. The Mercedes moved through the wet canvas, water splashing upwards from the tires, a spray of acid rain coating Ian’s face and neck. He closed his eyes and regretted not packing an extra shirt.
Ahead and to the left, the blur on his windshield shifted from the blacks and greys of the road to the red, white, and yellow of a familiar pair of arches. As the rain fell the arches moved back and forth, like two snakes sneaking in and out a thick lawn. Ian gazed over his shoulder and, seeing an all-clear, maneuvered off the road and into the parking lot, taking a slow turn into the drive-thru. His was the only car, which was an unusual thing at this location this time of day, even in a heavy rain.
He stopped in front of the posted menu. The glow of the fluorescent lights, cylinders that served as beacons for the menu of hastily crafted salt and fat, pulsed. There is so much broken in the world, he thought, but he didn’t think that anything could ever put lights like these out. The line of a half dozen bulbs behind the pictures of bagels and biscuits and hotcakes was constant.
He imagined that maybe they weren’t bulbs in there, but lighthouse stations staffed by sea-hardened men who faithfully carried buckets of lamp oil up and down steps, all day and all night, to their posts. Ian had quite the imagination like that. Things were always worlds within worlds within worlds to him. He liked to think that if his own world were just another detail in another world, maybe a gear on someone’s bicycle, that he wouldn’t have to be so anxious if it collapsed. Gears could be replaced easily.
His foot squeezed the brake. He put the window down, only a crack, to keep the vocals in and the rain out. The speaker crackled. Incoherent garble came out sadly, like a doomed communication from a marooned pilot.
Ian lowered the window more and cleared his voice. “Hello? Hello, sorry. I can’t hear you. Hello?”
The garble continued in frustrating, arrhythmic clusters. Ian sighed and let his foot off the brake. The vinyl surface of the wheel slid through his fingers, and the car drifted forward and made a left turn up to the window.
The takeout window was empty. A sticker of a clown-faced man greeted him and told him yes, the location accepted cash and credit cards, and if need be, Diner’s Club International would do too. An 800-number prompted him to call should his service and experience not be exemplary, and a tray below the window reminded him that if he had any pennies that weren’t all that important to him, that they could be used in the cause of preventing childhood hunger.
Ian drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and waited. Just a few days ago, while he had shoehorned some TV time with his wife and daughter into the schedule, he watched a public-service announcement from some organized labor committee: something about living wages for food service workers. The commercial featured a scrawny woman in a poorly-fitting uniform, appealing to the camera with eyes that had animé proportions. Her eyes glimmered as tears welled up, and there was a voiceover about daycare costs and medical bills.
A voice broke him from his trance. There she was, in the window, the girl from the commercial. No. Not the same girl but very much like that girl. She lacked the animé eyes but still looked sad, thin, and malnourished. Her shoulders slumped. Heavy, ash-colored bags pulled down her eyes and forehead, a stretch of skin matted with greasy hair. A yellow and red visor hung over her face. It fit too tightly and accentuated her overly sized earlobes. Her eyes were brown, dark brown, almost black. At a glance it was hard to tell the iris apart from the pupils, which made her eyes look like buttons laid over egg whites. Her skin had the complexion of leather left in the rain. She could have been an old 30 or a standard 48.
“Hello?” she said. “I’m sorry. These headsets don’t work well. Especially in the rain. What can I get for you?”
Ian looked at her and, thinking on the things that must have happened to make her who she was — the sleepless nights with screaming children, the angry boyfriend with alcohol on his breath and other women on the side, the endless rounds of phone calls from bill collectors, knocks on the door from rent seeking landlords — and forgot what he was doing.
“Sir?” she squeaked. “Can I get you breakfast?”
He snapped out of it. “Oh, uh, yes. How about a sausage biscuit? Make it the combo.”
She smiled and nodded. Ian noticed her name tag, a plastic oval with a sticker that had been through a few spin cycles. It read “Me-an.” Ian looked closer and saw a faded “g.” Megan. That was her name.
Megan punched in his order and recited a whole dollar amount, plus change and applicable sales tax. He saw her mouth moving and, deep in thought about how much she deserved her place in life, and how much it could be ascribed to acts of God, didn’t hear a word. He took out a 50-dollar bill, a note that had the sweet smell of new paper to it, and handed it over.
She took it deliberately, lifting up the till to hide it underneath, far away from thieving fingers, and secure beneath more modest 5- and 10-dollar bills. “Just a moment,” she said. “Sorry again.”
Ian, instantly bored, reached for his phone. As his hand closed around it, the phone slipped through his fingers, wet from the rain on his hands, like a bar of soap. It slid up and onto the dashboard, across to the passenger side, and down between the seat and door, lodging into a space half an inch thick and difficult to reach from his side. It wedged in place and started to vibrate and jingle.
He grumbled and was startled by the sudden presence of a brown paper bag. The smell of hot grease slapped his face. A handful of bills and coins found their way into his other hand and somewhere in the blur, he heard a meek call that thanked him for coming and urged him to have a nice day and stop by again.
Ian placed the bag of grease on the passenger seat, mouthed a “thank you” that came out as a grunt, and relaxed his foot from the brake. The car rolled forward, out and into the rain, which was now heavier and paired with pockets of gathering fog.
Ian reached out to the wiper again and moved the crippled blade but could not keep up. The rain flowed steadily, and to Ian it seemed that he was not in a luxury car, but on his back, submerged in a stream, with his eyes trained on the raging waters above.
He thought he could see a parking space in front of him, but white lines came and went and were gone. Perhaps there was a car in it, but the wiper blade seemed to scrub that from view. Ian frowned, turned the car again, and made his best guess as to what would be the driving lane. The last thing he needed was to clip a parked car in this mess. He’d find a spot, pull over, and wait for the downpour to subside. His phone jingled again, and the device made the plastic on the side of the passenger seat vibrate. No way he could reach it without getting out, so not now.
Ian scanned to the right of his car, and the left, but Good God, he thought, this is just as bad as a white-out. He pressed his foot against the brake again and slowed to a full stop. He had brake lights and taillights, and it wouldn’t be his damned fault if someone smashed into him.
Ian reached into the center console and pulled out a travel bottle of hand sanitizer, a free hotel perk from the Double Tree. He didn’t like to use it, because it reminded him of that hotel, which made him think of the lawyer, or the woman who said she was a lawyer.
He could picture her black hair and blue eyes. The way her olive skin had a shine to it. She was muscular but tall and trim, and the way her blouse hugged the contours of her breasts? He remembered how she’d pressed the bottle of germ killer into his hands before she let him slide his fingers up that blouse and around those curves. What happened after that was pleasurable and predictable and left him with a mix of guilt and longing.
He rubbed the alcohol-based goo between his fingers, and suddenly there was an arm in his face, holding a paper bag of food. He silently asked himself what the hell was going on.
To his right, in the passenger seat, was a crumpled paper bag and an empty wrapper. A stray hash brown, burnt to his liking, was wedged in between the cushion. He realized that his mouth suddenly tasted of old sausage, but he didn’t remember actually chewing on sausage. Bits of biscuit crumbs were caught in the food pocket that had developed under a molar. They pressed against his gums with a dull ache.
The arm hung like a detached limb, floating in space. The new bag crinkled, and blots of grease stained the paper. Dark circles swelled against a logo and a tiny printed reminder him that yes, they did recycle one hundred percent of their paper products.
The arm shook the bag. “Sir, your order? Here you are.” It was Megan.
Ian looked to his left and, bewildered, saw that he was back in front of the takeout window. Did he get turned around in the fog and rain? He wasn’t confident about where he did go, but he was sure that he had not turned left and left, and left again to get back to the window, and he was doubly sure he hadn’t eaten the food he tasted in his mouth, or left garbage behind, but the evidence was on his seat and in this mouth, and the bag dangled in front of his face.
Copyright © 2020 by N. D. Coley