What the fuck am I doing spending 48 cents plus tax on a measly cup of coffee, I keep asking myself. But then, it’s bottomless, so to say. But the cup is scarcely larger than a styrofoam shot glass, and if you want creamer you have to get back in line, which also means you have to endure the pictures of burgers, juicy meat staring enraptured with you, loaded with [relatively] fresh vegetables and lustily drooling ketchup and mayo and special sauce all over you, the buns, the sesame seeds like bumps on tongues, while the chicken nuggets are as hard to ignore as the tender oily breasts and thighs of a nude supermodel, at this point. And the fries, hot, crisp yet saturated with grease, the smells like pheromones tickling your nostrils and caressing you from a distance with invisible hands, so soft you wonder whether you’re really feeling them. And the pies–oh, let us not even speak of the pies. The old appetite, so long deprived.
I stare instead at the flabby orangutan, her teeth curling inward, hair of oily strands pinned under gaudy golf hat, soggy logs for limbs, fingers like mozzarella sticks and wiry hairs sprouting from moles and nostrils. Appetite successfully suppressed, for the moment. Could go for one of those sausage-like fingers, however. But perish the thought.
Swallowing as the balding over-alled monstrosity ahead of me heaves his tray of three Big Macs a large fry chocolate shake and cherry pie away to a table with him, I ask for five creamers. She gives me a contemptuous look, which irritates and bewilders me since she is not the manager and ought to know that she can’t legally be paid any less and no matter how many billions of dollars this fine food chain should gross she will not be any more likely to get a raise or promotion than if she should go down on the head manager in the john during her ten minute lunch hour and even should the business go under (not likely) there is no shortage of comparable establishments serving expedient cuisine which would gladly hire such a talented and dedicated pillar of the community as her for comparable wages, that is to say the minimum. No matter, she gives me the cream, I return her evil eye with my ubiquitous eye of apathy. I thicken the liquid with seventeen packets of sugar, rip open a plastic spoon and go outside for a cigarette, cursing the tyranny of the majority who want to live long and prosper, and cursing perhaps more vehemently the satanic tobacco companies who make one convince himself that he has no wish to live long nor to prosper.
My breath is just barely tinged with white on the air. The cold wakes veins. I stretch, dizzying head and relaxing muscles. It is as though in those few moments I have begun and ended a new day, woke and grown tired. I lean against the brick and try to light a Basic, but there is just enough wind to snuff the flame so I have to put down the coffee and break the beating breath with the lapel of my coat. Lapel–I think that’s what they’re called. Two cardboard matches left. Will have to grab more at the gas station on the way out of town.
The spoon does not quite stand up, and I consider going back in for more sugar and cream, but decide against it out of sheer laziness. An undissolved bog will remain at the bottom, which should jolt me enough to not fall asleep at the wheel, at least until I get out on the highway. Stomach grumbles at me, churning and moaning. Can’t give it anything more, not a crumb, for once aroused there will be no letting up in its seduction. Must make it forget. Maybe it will evolve away like the appendix. How far will I make it before I have to stop again on the side of the road for an indefinite nap? Shit shit shit: can I afford a pack of cigarettes? I check my wallet. I am secure. I may make it home. I just may, with all my might. Tobacco: the only pleasure in my life, I sometimes say, admittedly exaggerating (though only slightly) for dramatic effect.
As a gust thrusts a lock of hair into the cherry and the smell of singe stings my nose the glass door swings and out saunters a swarthy crooked grey specimen of a man, aging I cannot say how much. Moderate gut pushing a protuberant polyester goiter over his belt, top few shirt buttons undone to reveal grey hairs, ashen slacks rolled up into cuffs, black shoes possibly purchased in the thirties. Balding without attempt at concealment, slightly wild strands of silver jutting out from pocked pate. Odor of sweat. His mouth is curled up in a seemingly permanent grin, as though the old mother’s threat of faces sticking that way had turned a curse, and come true. His eye too has a certain glint, his face ruddy and composure shady. Whether in a perpetual state of jollity or one of mild madness one could only speculate. I’ve never been one to judge. Probably just because I’m incapable of deciding anything, never mind judiciously. I say hi.
His grin creeps up his cheeks a bit, and he walks on by, silent, glancing sidelong, as they say, at me as he passes. I watch him, but feel more as though I am the one watched, through eyes in the back of his head and the back of his back and the seat of his pants. His gait is stilted yet swinging, I would not quite say swaggering because his posture would not allow it. Were it not for this tangible slyness on his part I might well swear–though I’ve forsworn swearing ages ago, that is, oaths, that is, promises, that is, conviction–that he was not mildly mad but rather retarded. (I leave it to you to fill in appropriately politically correct terminology at your leisure.)
This crooked little man does not make it far before like a boomerang through stew he is back, with his sidelong glance. He walks on past, in the opposite direction, scanning about him in a manner that says, “Ah, the planet earth: so much beauty and evil that goes unseen, so many possibilities that will bear no fruit. So many rich opportunities, squandering and hoarding and lording adoringly . . .” (Certainly that’s how he scanned; how dare you doubt me.) Making a feeble attempt at ignoring my presence he makes his way back to where I stand. For reasons I can not quite pin down, I light another cigarette; something holds me from going back inside. Something about the man’s eye? His wily wary submerged mind?
The smoke reaches him; he is drawn over.
“Hiya there. Heh heh.”
“Gotta fag there, have ya?”
“Heh heh. Fer me? Fer me’ve ya got one?”
Immediately chastising myself even as I take the pack from my pocket, I hand one over. (Two left.) Expertly he wraps his lips around it, letting it droop there and wriggling it around with his mouth. His hands slide into pockets. The grin has not faltered. His eye fixed on mine, shifting only to one other spot, somewhere lower on my person, resting there, then shooting back up. (Oh, he’s just admiring the fine bone structure of my pelvis, that’s all . . .)
“Ya got uh, uh light theyuh?”
“Got uh some uh uh fieuh? Heh heh.”
“Yeah, right here, just a sec.”
“Heh heh.” As a ‘thanks’ he nods slightly and raises the matchbook in the air as though confirming something, showing me some little miracle he holds in his hand, that he only pulls out for special occasions. As though to say: “Ah, matches: best invention since the wheel and sliced bread.”
He puffs away without really inhaling, the cherry now glowing hot now smoldering, short gasps swooning in and out. Now he drags, letting the creamy heated white air drip out slowly and then finally blowing hard with the last of his lungs. His fingers find the cigarette, he takes it from his mouth and, holding it close to his face, studies it curiously.
His eyes shift from mine down to that lower spot and back up, and now down again.
“So uh you uh, you from round heeuh?”
“No. Just in town for a couple a days. I’m leavin this morning actually.”
“Oh yeah? You’s leavin? . . . Why’s you heeuh foeuh?”
“Just visiting some friends, for the weekend.”
“Oh yeah? You’s got friends? Got some friends heeuh do yas?” (In a skeptical tone suggesting I am lying about having any friends.)
“Dey uh, dey live neeuhby? Heh?”
(Oh no, he’s called my bluff. The “friends” ruse has failed. [?])
“Ah, no . . . I’m not sure. I don’t really know where I’m at. They live a ways away . . . that way, I think.”
“Heh heh. Mmm. I don’t know no bodies heeuh, I’s from Cincinnati myself. Y’ever been down Cincinnati?”
“No. I don’t travel much. Can’t afford it.”
“Mmm. . . . Yeah my uh my woman’s, I got a woman down there Cincinnati. I got a woman, see, but she’s down theyuh now so’s I’m all lone. Guy get’s kinda lonely don’he. Don’he? I sure gets lonely, see. I been in town few days but I don’t know no bodies heeuh, see. Get’s hod, donit? Gets kinda hod.”
“Yeah. Yeah. So uh you uh, you’s got a woman have ya?”
“No. Fraid I don’t.”
“Ah hah hah, you’s gotta have a woman. Some body make ya tickle. Heh? Gotta scratch the itch, heh? No? Gets pretty hod. Yeah?”
“. . . . .” I smile. One of us is humoring the other.
I’m now fully aware of where his eyes lie, like claws at my crotch, now remaining there as long as they do in my eyes. I try not to return these glances. Think now I smell semen intermingled with the sweat on this urchin.
“Say you know I uh, I got me a place theyuh, jus right over theyuh, right round the conah theyeh you uh, you wan’ come ovuh theyuh wi’ me? Heh? You c’n bring ya friends too, dey c’n come ovuh too. We all go ovuh. Heh? . . . You friends uh, dey make ya tickle? Heh? Dey uh make ya come o what? Yeah? Mmmm. Das good, das what a guy’s gotta have ya know. . . . So uh, you uh, you evah seen a guy jack off befoeuh? Heh? Ooh, you’s gotta do dat some time, das really sumthin. See dat stuff squirtin out theyuh, heh, uh, jus like a milkshake. Heh? Yeah. Dastuff’s good f’ya, too, dastuff’ll cure ya, oh yeah. Heh. You don’ need no medicines dastuff. . . . So you’s never seen some body jack off befoeuh? Oh, you should do it.” (He gives me a moment to think about this.) “So you got money? You got any money ta uh, ta get home wit o what? Cuz I’s got money. Yeah, I do, I’s got lotta money. You wan’ some of it? Heh? You wan’ come inta da batroom dare wi’ me? Heh? Come on inside. Come an jack off fo’ me, I give ya, uh, I give ya, heeuh, fifty dollas. Heh? Come on wi’ me.”
“Nah, that’s o.k. I’ll get by.”
“Oh, you shuah? You shou’ try it. I jus’ watch. I’ll make ya tickle. You gets hod? You hod now? Heh? Mmmm. You pretty big. Heh? You lookin pretty big, aincha? Everybody does it. Theyuh was a guy jackin off in theyuh jus now, I was inna batroom theyuh you could hear um. Yeah. Yeah. Maybe I go talk ta him. Heh? . . . I jus live right roun da conah theyuh, you wanna come ovah. You shuah? . . .”
His eyes drop down one more time. He licks his lips, swallows. Glance at my face, now takes a panoramic span around: the street, the sky, the cars, the sun’s ray piercing the grey day. The signs, the stop lights.
Gives me a wave and a wink as he saunters back inside. Perhaps heading for the bathroom. Is he a local? Is this a daily occurrence for the MacDonald’s groupie? Who knows. I forego the third cup of coffee and head for my car.
As I turn the key I wonder whether this was an anomaly, or merely the natural culmination of a life of loneliness, dissatisfaction, the repression of social mores. Is this what old age does to a person? Just your typical dirty old man, only slightly more outspoken? Is this what they mean by “eccentricity”? I wonder how he has lived, what his parents were like; try to envision him as a small child, as a prepubescent. I can picture myself, should I live that long, filling his shoes, even more so than now crawling on my knees to a place without pleasure with less than nothing to lose. And, who knows, perhaps something to give.
Well, enough of that.
Turning my head as rapidly as exhaustion will allow to either side, I wait for the rampant traffic. In the mirror first, I think, I notice a grey figure meandering my way from the glass doors. Yes, it is he; I can feel his eyes on me, trying to heat me up through the windows, imbue the inner air with his fleshy presence. He makes a point of walking by right in front of the car. Sidelong glance. On up the sidewalk like a wayward lackadaisical hunter, sniffing and feeling his way across the concrete. I’ve no choice but to watch him as he wanders off, shrinking away into the hard world, all the more lonely for having lived the longer.
Without turning his head he pats his back pants pocket, holds his left hand out, gyrating it in a circular motion while rubbing thumb across forefingers so as to say, “If ya need cash, ya know wheyuh ta find me,” or possibly, “I hope ya regret what you’s missin, theyuh. Heh?” After all, what else is one to do with his pension?
Finally I find a gap in which to gun the car, only to be stopped almost instantaneously by a red light once I pull out. I look to the left for the dirty old man, and for a second don’t see him. Then I notice him crossing the street just ahead of me, crossing my path for the last time. The sidelong glance–or is this merely a feeling in me? Once across, he heads back in the direction from which he came, towards the MacDonald’s.
Paying for gas and a pack of Basics, leaving me literally to my last dime, I can’t help but ask what exactly stopped me. A moral sense, conscience? Doubtful. I have no quarrel with promiscuity or even sexual deviance. I am all in favor of homo- and bi-sexuality. No, I was not asking, “What would Jesus do?” Would it have been so terrible? It is not an opportunity one has every day. It might even have been fascinating, exhilarating. I couldn’t help but feel flattered, either. I sure as hell could have used the dough. And what’s more, I could have used the experience, whether to become a fond memory or a regret, a mistake or merely something that happened. A real piece of life to write about, instead of only questions, doubts, second guesses. All the way home, off and on but more on than off, for five hours I ponder this fond farewell. I mull over and over whether what I’ve done was “right,” or merely an alternative, an easy evasion. The question echoes: what is right with me? And what is wrong with me, and with the world?
Copyright 2000 by dustin hansen