Breakfast and a Cigarette: A Novella in Four Directions
by Bill McLaughlin,
(page 5 of 16)
He drew his poncho close against the night air and around his sudden sadness. As he thought of her and their time together, a light salty mist rose slowly within him, pinched his eyes and swept like clouds over all his thoughts.
In the middle of the night, the bus stopped for dinner breaks at places like Burger King and Wendy's. Around midnight fast food slows down. By 3 a.m. it's going so slowly that it heads into reverse and begins to decay under the pink UV lights. The grease flows like lava, determinedly escaping from the grizzle and soaking through the hopeful paper wrappers, smudging stainless countertops like wet kisses on a mirror.
Behind the counter, in front of the dehydrating food, solemnly stand the limp and laconic symbols of the 21st century service industry. Dire need finds its only answer under the cold fluorescence in an Arby's uniform at the foot of an exit ramp on I-95, or along the miles of junk food alleys stretching before and after every look-alike American town, or in a grimy inner city “express” version with barred windows and armed security guards. And the gulf between a minimum wage and a living wage grows with every order: millions underserved.
At the announcement of a “dinner break,” the bravest and most desperate riders venture in from the bus. Without sarcasm, the driver warns, “We've only got fifteen minutes. Don't linger!” As if the driver thought that the harsh light, spongy fries, rubber burgers, morose employees, and bright orange furniture were too tempting, too exhilarating for the average hound jockey to resist. Yet even these drive-in orifices were a refreshing change from the confinement and relentless ass-numbing advance of the mangy gray dog. Experienced passengers brought their own food. They rattled plastic bags for cookies, oranges, apples, corn chips, sodas, cheese and crackers. Other passengers hung around outside the bus—never too far away—psychically tethered to their leashes. Some stood as if hypnotized, listlessly kicking at the pavement with their heels. Waiting, just waiting.
Strained conversations sprouted slowly, then became noticeably louder, eventually drawing envy from the great unspoken yearning for commonality. Envy quickly turns to resentment and scorn is whispered against the talkers, bitterly uniting the non-talkers and so achieving the desired camaraderie at last. But the talk soon dies, like autumn flowers in the frost, and the largest dose of envy is directed toward the sleepers. Sleep! Oh, to sleep through the dinner breaks, smoke breaks, squealing brakes; sleep while scrunched and crunched; sleep through stops and starts, crying babies, exploding parents, snoring drunks, moaning lovers, and the tinny metallic clatter of headphones playing the nails-on-a-chalkboard vocal stylings of Lady Blah Blah at full volume. Dreamland was everyone's destination.
At the dinner break outside of Savannah, a stocky Latina in her late 40s smiled at Ray and began a quiet conversation. Yolanda had thick chestnut red hair which fixed her round face and meaty dark lips, dark like nipples, like Cuban coffee. She was tired. She told Ray that she was on her way to Jacksonville to see her daughter, grown now, with two little ones.
“You believe it? I'm a grandmother!”
But the daughter's husband was out of work and had been for too long. She was going there to help her daughter open a beauty salon. She had saved the money over the past ten months working 80 hours a week at a restaurant.
“I've been working my ass off. Triple shifts. No days off. But now that I have the money, we're gonna find a nice place for the beauty parlor. And it's gonna have a little room on the side for the babies, so she can work and have them with her.”
Ray smiled at her selflessness, a bit overwhelmed. “Wow, you've got a big heart, huh?”
“Hey, it's for my baby. What can I do? She comes first, you know.”
Ray nodded but he didn't know. He hadn't thought much about kids. Between the stress at work and the arguments at home, kids seemed like a suicide wish. They talked about it, but they had always decided to wait. When things were going badly, it was out of the question. And when things were good, they dared not change anything. Finally, they just stopped talking about it. Then they just stopped talking. Now, listening to Yolanda, Ray was relieved. He couldn't imagine working triple shifts to support a married child—with kids of her own. But Yolanda didn't think much about it as far as he could tell. It was just something that needed to be done and she did it with little thought for herself. He admired her strength, her casual attitude toward self-sacrifice. Ray thought of Fiona. He thought about what he had told her, that he had no purpose. Now he thought maybe that wasn't true. Perhaps his purpose was not as clear and distinct as saving forests or starting beauty salons. Maybe his purpose was more personal right now. Maybe it had to be unraveled rather than declared. He realized the ironic truth that when he had a job, he didn't need a purpose. But he could no longer be defined by what he did—he didn't “do” anything. He could not be defined by the house in which he lived—he didn't “live” anywhere. It was no longer possible to estimate his degree of success by comparing the property values of his neighbors. He was naked. Who he was or was becoming would now be in plain view, not obscured by symbols and icons. But his identity and purpose remained as mysterious as the lumps of protein now petrifying under the heat lamps at the Arby's just off exit 18A north of Savannah.
Breakfast and a Cigarette, Part II continues...