Breakfast and a Cigarette: A Novella in Four Directions
by Bill McLaughlin,
RAY STUMBLED FROM THE BUS, squinting in the midday light. Inside the station he received directions to the corporate park. Across the road he found a diner and treated himself to a large breakfast; his first full meal in two days. He ordered eggs over easy with whole wheat toast, home fries and a short stack of pancakes. He ate slowly, savoring each bite. He sopped up the bright yellow yolks with the triangular ends of his toast, which were dripping with jam. His pancakes sat in a pool of syrup, crowned with globes of rich butter, slowly melting. The steaming cakes offered only the slightest resistance to his knife and fork. His potatoes mingled with bits of fresh green pepper and onions. The outside edges were browned and crisp, the white flesh inside, smooth and warm.
Breakfast was his favorite meal. Ray would often order breakfast for dinner or lunch. Even at fancy restaurants, Ray couldn't resist a gourmet omelet. Liz would fume. She couldn't understand how he could choose eggs, no matter how ingeniously prepared, over savory sauces, succulent meats and seafood or exotic vegetables, crisp and lightly seasoned. But Ray was a breakfast guy and she long ago gave up trying.
The waitress, an older woman with soft gray curls tucked neatly under a web of fine netting, tacked endearing terms onto every sentence.
“Here ya go, sweetie. How's everything, darlin'? Y'all need more coffee, sugar?”
Normally, Ray would have been embarrassed at such silly and superficial affection. But this morning he believed in this woman. He imagined himself in her kitchen. They were friends really, they just hadn't formally met. Afterwards, instead of paying a check, he would do her dishes, perhaps perform some chore around the house. Then they would sit on the porch with cool drinks and reminisce about the people they knew, the changes life had brought them over the years. They would laugh at stories told long ago and told again. Her southern drawl, thick as his pancake syrup, smoothed him over, took the edge off the tortuous bus ride, nourished him more than the food he ate.
When he finished, the mechanical clang of the cash register cleared away the illusion and he found himself outside, walking east along a busy four-lane highway on the outskirts of Asheville, thinking of cigarettes. He left the highway about two hours later and began following the smooth black toxic asphalt roadway that led past the monotonous clutter of corporate glass and steel sitting recessed on empty, waveless emerald seas. Occasionally a large boulder or elder tree remained to adorn a too-familiar logo. Finally, Ray found the sign that matched his phone bill. He stood outside the office building unsure of what he really intended to do. Each step toward the entrance took him by degrees from his old life and led him slowly, inevitably, toward the new. He entered and found himself in a large sunny lobby, a jungle of fichus and rubber trees. Windows, perhaps fifty feet high, surrounded him, bathing him in a cool, filtered light. He walked to the gleaming mahogany reception desk in the center of the lobby and was greeted cheerily by a young woman. She gave Ray a pleasant smile as she retrieved a strand of straight black hair that had caught on her handless phone set.
“Can I help you?”
Ray was silent. This was not the face he had expected. This was not the voice on the bill. The in-voice; the cold, aggressive voice.
Finally Ray answered her.
“No. No thanks. I just need to do something.”
Ray moved to the sitting area. He sat on the richly upholstered couch. On the center of the table, among the glossy corporate propaganda, he emptied the large glass dish containing wrapped mints. He removed the phone bill, now damp and mangled, from his back pocket. From his shirt pocket he took out his lighter. He held the invoice over the candy dish as the yellow flame licked at the paper. It warmed, then browned; it burst into flames, first orangey-red then blue and green. Wavy streaks of purple leapt up as he carefully laid the burning Final Notice in the plate. Satisfied, Ray walked to the door and stepped through the solid glass portal back into honest light. He was dizzy with weightlessness, his body rebounding from years of compression.
“Now,” he thought, “Now I can begin.”
An hour later, Ray was still sitting on the curb on Cesar Chavez Drive sucking a peppermint. No cops had come, no security people. Nothing around, just the small, sad-looking young maples stuck in the ground like toothpicks, neatly arranged by some anal landscaper. Suddenly he noticed the girl, the receptionist, was standing over him.
“Do you need a ride somewhere?”
Fiona was from British Columbia. She had come to Asheville with a boyfriend who had since left her for a hike up the coast. She got a job at the Biltmore. Got fired for having too much attitude and too little aptitude for kissing the abundantly ample, well-rounded butts of wealthy tourists.
“Man, you're the first interesting thing that's happened to me in six months,” she told him.
“Christ. You probably think I'm off my head. You don't have to be nice to me. I know what I'm doing... what I've done.”
“What are you still sitting here for?”
“I'm waiting to get arrested.”
“Arrested? Are you kidding? They're not gonna arrest you, man. We had a guy in here last week throwing baby powder around the lobby, screaming, 'You fuckin' sonsabitches. Y'all got the amtrax now, you bastards!' He had a big manila envelope filled with the stuff, just taking fistfuls out and tossing it in the air. The funny thing was, in like one minute, he was covered in it—the whole place smelled like a nursery. Him they arrested. You've got no worries, dude.”
Now he noticed her for the first time; her black hair, nutmeg skin, dark eyes: a northern girl. Alert, Nordic eyes like pulsing stars in the winter sky. Eyes made for catching the flutter of a hawk's wing or the mercurial quiver of a pine marten beneath freshly fallen snow. Without words, she spoke of split wood and running sap, searing coals and the deep, sweet peace of midnight sweats. Those solemn eyes and steady hands only hinted at the broad current that ran beneath her surface; a secret river flowing through a stale and stagnant landscape. Standing there with Ray, she transformed the curbs and streets and lawns. The spindly red maples became ancient elders, the predictable grass turned to wildflower prairies thick with caribou moss and lichens, the pavement shrank until it was no more than a thin black line dividing the wild from the civil.
But there was a sadness also. A sadness born of the fluorescent, make-believe jungle; of eyes wounded by the false blue light; trapped for months in that sterile space without rain or wind or clouds. A box where the temperature never changes, the light never dims, and where no living being can ever feel at home. She sits there—for money—with her Nordic eyes and asks, “Can I help you?” And everyone is satisfied.
Downtown, on the top floor of a three-story brick walk-up, they sat in her studio eating home-made pizza. Her apartment was so sparsely furnished, it seemed to Ray that she had not yet moved in or was at that moment nearly moved out. He said so and she reminded him of his former life, just two days old; reminded him of all the possessions he willingly abandoned for a cramped and dirty seat on the Greyhound.
In the center of the large room was a potter's wheel. The hardwood floor was covered with slivers and shards. Earth-colored cups and bowls rose around them like a relief map of a lumpy lunar surface. They sat on bean bag cushions, eating and talking.
“Why are you doing this? Being so nice to me?”
“Hey, I'm a traveler too. Just not right now. Don't worry, you'll get a chance to give it back. Just don't ask for more than you need and you'll get it. I promise you. And once you get it, make sure you give it away.”
Ray looked at her with a million questions building behind his brown eyes. The corners of his mouth curled like question marks. She sensed his confusion.
“I know it sounds freaky but it's true. You just need to throw yourself out there. Think of it like a river. You need to find your way into the center of the stream. If you hang on to the shore, grabbing at every tree stump and root, the current will rip you apart, bring the roiling, abandoned debris of civilization crashing down over your back, splitting your skull with the hard cold steel of ambition, competition, and greed.”
Ray opened his mouth to ask a question, but he simply stuttered. She tried again.
“There's a door out there. Behind that door are other doors leading to the wonders of this garden we live in. Children know it, and then we take it away from them. You've been here for more than 30 years and it's like you haven't ever seen it. But you remember something of it, otherwise you wouldn't be here. You're lucky. Not everyone remembers. Some suspect but they never act on it. They never re-enter the garden, never live in the moment. Thirty-three years. And what were you waiting for? Do you think it will be any worse than what you left behind? You put one foot through that door today. You know what's next.”
“But what if I want to go back?”
“Don't worry. You can—and you won't.”
“But what about you. What are you doing here—working for them if the universe is so generous, if 'the life' is so good?”
“This is where I need to be right now. I came here with Bobby because I needed to accomplish something.”
She paused and looked at him with a quiet so solemn it made him nervous.
“Ray, have you ever put your arms around a 500-year-old tree?”
“You mean am I a tree-hugger? What do you think?”
“Maybe you've never heard the sound of an army of loggers descending on an old-growth forest or witnessed the destruction after they've finished. But I have—too many times. Back in B.C. they're clear-cutting all the old ones. There are people here in Asheville that can help. I'm just a messenger. Bobby is on the trail, walking north. He thinks if he stays in the woods, keeps moving, then they can't get him. But he's wrong. See, it's not enough to just live the life, you've got to help protect the garden. That may mean doing something you don't want to do. You know, getting arrested, making money—oh yeah, or working for the fuckin' phone company!”
They laughed at the ridiculous gulf between saving ancient forests and her “Can I help yous?”
“How did you get that job at the phone company anyway? The more I know you the less likely it seems.”
“My uncle. A suit, but cool in his own way. He's a lot like you actually. He hates the bastards too. Thinks that phone service should be free, like a co-op. He says they use natural resources to make everything like the cables, the poles, the wires—resources that belong to everyone—and no one really. Then they spread their wires and poles and towers all over the Earth—and now they're even trashing space with all their satellites. Then they charge us ridiculous prices—and it's not the cost of maintaining the system, no, but to make millions in profits, stock options and golden parachutes for all those slacker executives.”
“Who said this, you or you uncle?”
“Funny Ray. I can't wait to tell him about your little bonfire in the lobby.”
“Yeah, that's probably the only way he'll find out. It's like it didn't even happen.”
“Kind of anti-climatic, huh? On the surface, it's a typical corporate reaction: silence. They hate negative publicity. They don't want to acknowledge any dissatisfaction. But watch out. Right now they're fucking with all your personal records. If you had any credit, it's gone. That lobby was full of surveillance cameras, you know. There's little digital pictures of you streaming from one corporate security desk to another. Wait, you'll be picked up somewhere in west Texas by a couple of rookie sheriffs from Podunk County with your name on a rap sheet for holding up a 7-Eleven in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Typical. If you speak truth to power you better brace yourself for a stinging retort.”
“So what's your uncle's solution?”
“Retirement. He says he's going to retire, buy a 50-foot Winnebago, cover it with solar panels and head to the Arizona desert and never be heard from again. You know, the new American Dream.”
Sensing Ray's growing frustration, Fiona gently lifted one of her bowls, holding it up for him to see. Between the transparent glaze and the clay were painted intricate renderings of tree roots and trunks, intertwined around a bold sunset alive with eagles and bears: a celebration.
“This is where I come from. Where my people have lived for thousands of years. Now they say that the forests—the old trees especially—are worth too much money for us to just live with. We're not industrious enough. 'Too stupid to know what we've got' is how they put it behind closed doors. But they're the ones who are ignorant. Their accounting software can't figure the real value of an ancient tree; there's no depreciation formula for the health of a river, the death of a species. These trees are an integral part of our culture. They're used for totems, to record our history and the important events of the people. When the trees are gone, so is the culture. Anyway, today was my last day. I start for Tofino next week. It's done and I don't regret it. I have a squat on the Sound back on Vancouver Island. With the money I made here—working part-time at the phone company and selling my pots at the Folk Art Center—I can keep fighting the timber companies for more than a year. Plus, I met so many great people here, some of them are coming up to help, others are writing about it, talking about it. It's happening. We're gonna stop them. I know it now.”
Ray saw her northern eyes fill with light. He thought he was beginning to understand, maybe not completely, not yet, but he was starting to see a world take shape, a world he had never suspected. She pulled a futon from the closet for him and he laid there on the floor amid a carpet of pot shards and porcelain chips. Across the room, she curled up on the old thrift store couch. Lying there in the dark quiet of the studio, in the shadow of the Great Smoky mountains, it seemed to him that her “good night” was sweeter, her hug truer, her kiss more tender, than any he could remember.
The next morning, Fiona and Ray walked to a small cafe downtown for breakfast. Ray had his usual. Fiona started with oatmeal but then became hungry watching Ray. They finished by splitting an order of French toast topped with strawberries and honey.
Fiona took Ray to her favorite thrift shop. Ray bought an extra shirt, a small day pack, and a wool poncho. The poncho, made in Mexico, was old and faded but of obvious quality. It had caught Fiona's eye because of its Earth colors: red sandstone and the muted blue of Mayan corn.
They spent the rest of the day poking around used book stores. At Fiona's insistence, Ray bought a tattered copy of Walden. They stopped by the Greyhound terminal where Ray bought a ticket for the night bus. Just before handing the money to the agent, Ray hesitated for a second, though unsure why. Finally, he pushed the cash under the window. Outside, Fiona held his hand as they walked back to her apartment.
“So, where to?”
“South. Key West.”
“Why Key West?”
“I don't know really. I've never been. I don't really care where I go so long as it's warm. I've never escaped winter before. Maybe I can get a job on a charter boat or do some bartending. I don't know. I just gotta move. I can't explain it. See, you have a purpose. I don't. You probably think it's pretty selfish, right? I mean just going somewhere because its warm.”
“No, I don't. You're just beginning, Ray. You'll figure it out. Just follow your instincts. Don't think about it too much. Just go.”
Back at her apartment, Fiona gathered a few things for Ray to take on the road. She gave him a brush for his hair and some peppermint soap. From an old cigar box she took out a glossy agate. The orange rock, no bigger than a fingertip, was rippled with thin waves of cream and rust under a pearly patina.
“For good luck,” she said.
Near midnight, they walked once again to the terminal. They said good-bye as the cars on the highway rushed past, oblivious to the bittersweet parting of two travelers. Ray looked back at Fiona as he put his foot on the first step. He stopped, sensing something unsaid, something undone. Fiona smiled, her eyes overflowing with the light.
“Remember, Ray, one door closes and another opens.”
Ray gave his ticket to the driver then slipped into a window seat, his new pack beside him. He watched as Fiona smiled sweetly, her hands clasped behind her back. She disappeared as the bus joined the stream of traffic. Slightly numb, he continued to stare out the window as Asheville, then the lumbering skyline of the Great Smoky mountains, then finally North Carolina itself, faded from his view into the black October sky.
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.
Twenty-four hours through Florida. That old gray dog stopped and panted in every major city and town down the I-95 spine of the sunshine state. In the early evening, Yolanda was met in Jacksonville by a drizzly rain. From his window, Ray gave her a 'thumbs-up' for luck.
As the bus made its way southward, the few remaining signs of autumn disappeared. Oaks and maples and elms were replaced by sand pines and loblollies growing like match sticks in the thin sandy soil. Occasionally the outline of a live oak could be seen throwing its ghostly moss-covered branches against the darkening horizon. Night descended and Ray spent the next eight hours in an uneasy half-sleep. He closed his eyes and listened to the other riders settle in for the evening, adjusting their seats amidst muffled coughing and the juggling of packs and travel kits and plastic bags—up to the overhead, back from the overhead, again and again. One by one the reading lamps were turned off until only a few remained. Outside, the bus was enveloped by a steady stream of headlights; tractor-trailers roared by, elaborately lit with the yellows and reds and blues of carnival rides. Exit ramps, assisted by massive billboards, bright as day, did their best to yank drivers off their course, luring them into those gaudy neon clusters of commerce with ceaselessly repeated offers of free coffee, cheap gas, slot machines, naked dancing girls, fireworks, and discount cigarettes. But the bus rolled on, oblivious to the seduction. Ray suddenly longed for his own car, for the freedom to take any exit he wanted, to pull a few slots, grab a beer and a sandwich and maybe even slip a few bucks into some sweaty, pulsating G-string—anything to break the monotony.
The rain stopped unnoticed somewhere near Daytona. Riding that blurry line between wakefulness and sleep, Ray found it difficult, sometimes impossible, to tell the difference between dreams and reality. The hum and rumble of the bus lulled him into a quiet contentment at last. He closed his eyes and saw Liz walking through the house accompanied by an older woman in her 50s, a typical middle-class American figure, spreading and rolling in all the places you would suspect. She was thoroughly tailored from her dyed auburn helmet hair to her manly blue business suit to her practical shoes. He recognized her as the loan officer from the bank. She and Liz were in the house, moving from one room to the other. In each room Liz would make a disparaging remark about Ray and the woman would laugh. Liz was holding Ray's jumble of keys in her right hand. Now they looked gigantic to him—dozens of keys—hundreds of commitments and duties and responsibilities. They hung limply from her fingers. Joan followed Liz into the kitchen.
“I can't believe that asshole. Look at this place! Look at those papers. These are all important documents. Look, they're just piled up. You can't hardly see the table!”
Liz looked over at the stove top with its pan of burnt eggs and the sink full of crusty dishes.
“What was he thinking? That someone's going to come in here and clean up after him? Maybe he figured when he ran away, that when he came back—oh, and he'll be back, believe me—that everything will be okay. Is that it? I knew if I wasn't here to pester him, to keep reminding him of what needed to be done, he would just let it all go to shit. I knew it.”
As they walked back through the living room, Liz stooped to pick up Ray's credit cards.
“Joan, is your husband like this? I mean if you left him for a few months, would he do this?”
“Sixteen years ago my husband—my first husband—left me. He just snuck away in the night while I was sleeping. I kept thinking he would come back. I couldn't believe that someone could just walk out and not look back. It defied all reason. I thought we were as happy as most. A year later I realized he wasn't coming back. I pulled myself together and started to make my life over. You're lucky Elizabeth, you're going to get this house back. You don't have anyone depending on you. I had two small kids and nothing—I mean nothing. I lost everything, except those kids.”
Liz brought in the week's newspapers that were accumulating on the front steps. In a small spiral notebook she wrote herself a reminder to cancel the paper.
“I hate that paper. It reeks of him.”
At the coffee table, Joan took out the paperwork that needed to be signed. Liz would keep the house. Her parents were going to help her make up the missed payments, the penalty, and the refinance charges. They talked as they continued inspecting the house. Liz asked Joan about her husband.
“Did you ever hear from him again?”
“Oh, about two years later I started getting these postcards. The first one was from Paris. Then Madrid, then Milan, Venice, and finally Athens. He never said much, just the usual: 'Happy as a lark...Don't be mad... blah, blah, blah.'”
“How about his kids? Didn't he ever mention them or say he wanted to see them?”
“I don't consider them his kids—neither do they. I remarried to a pretty nice guy. He has his faults but he's not a quitter. He helped me with those kids like they were his own. I was able to go back to school, finish my degree and find a real job. Good riddance to the bastards! Who needs them!”
“Elizabeth! Did you see what's in the toilet?”
“Oh no, what now?
The house now belonged to Liz. Ray's name was gone from the contract, the deed, the title, and the insurance. His car had been towed from the driveway. His other possessions sat in heaps around the house waiting for garbage day. Liz spent the rest of the afternoon scraping his name from the mailbox, replacing it with small black plastic letters of her own. She sat at the kitchen table in the dark, her face folded in her hands above the pile of documents, and quietly cried until she had expelled the last of him.
Lackadaisical Old Woman:
by Amit Parmessur