On the street again I felt more deranged than I normally did. If that was possible.
Nothing was what it seemed and everything was just what it always had been. I wondered why that should disappoint me but then, given my history, it was hard not to be at least a little disappointed. Nothing had ever gone the way I thought it would. From the very beginning. I started my great saga with the high minded goal of discovering love in a corrupt world. With a child's single-minded egotism I envisioned myself to be some sort of reincarnation of Diogenes and that, somewhere I would hold the light up to that face that would tell me the truth and take away the pain. And look what I ended up with. I created a monster that it's taken most of my life to escape from (or so I thought). The only face I ever saw clearly was my own staring back at me from a mirror like a freak on a bad acid trip. Was that the truth?
What was the message there? That love is unconditional?
Was that a good thing?
Anyway, there I was again- on another street, in another nameless city filled with too many questions and not enough answers. I wondered if, Like Sisyphus, I was bound to forever be captured by every pointless experience trolling for fresh meat and led down the rat hole ad infinitum.
I knew I had to do something but I wasn't sure what. Seeking some form of salvation I thought about going to the library but there was nothing there but books about salvation. The museum was full of dead dreams depicting salvation, religion was just a business selling salvation, philosophy was just another name for salvation and if all else failed even entertainment would just mean another version of the same freak show I had just escaped from. What was left? I felt like getting a room someplace in some terribly expensive hotel and going to sleep in the jacuzzi with my head under water.
Maybe that's why "final solutions" are so tantalizing.
With those sour thoughts and my frustration lingering like bile on my tongue I turned and started down the street. I knew that if I went someplace, anyplace other than where I was that something was bound to happen but I did it anyway.
As I walked along the trash strewn sidewalk, unlit and smelling of something not terribly pleasant I thought about the children I had seen in the playground beyond the fence and wondered if they had gone home and said their prayers after the exhibition on the cold concrete. Probably not. To them it was just another way to pass the time. Tomorrow they would go to school and laugh about it.
Not that I really wanted to find out what had happened to them. Not that I wanted to retrace any of my steps. The past was prolog. It was better to keep moving forward. Never look back. Most of the time it was too dangerous even to look to the side. There was always something waiting that would leap out of the shadows at the slightest opportunity. But now even what was in front of me wasn't safe. Not unless I came up with some entirely new plan.
I wondered if, by sticking out the proverbial thumb I was again courting another possible reincarnation of the same pointless experiences i had just left behind but it was too late to turn back.
There was an all night truck stop at the end of the block near the skyway onramp. When I looked in the fogged window I could tell that it wasn't a place where stylish people hung out. The people at the counter were rough looking and wore heavy clothes. I figured that they must work in the neighborhood or were just passing through and somehow that felt safe so I decided to have a cup of coffee and ponder.
Inside, the overheated, crowded room the smell of fresh strong coffee and hamburgers cooking mingled with the various odors of working bodies. They smelled like horses after a hard ride. At least it was the smell of labor not the smell of bums or drunks or rich people, or the sour odor of druggies. I'd had enough of that.
This was what I thought about as I made my way among the tables to a booth in the back.
I sat, as always, with my face toward the room, the wall at my back. When the burly men, their heavy clothes smelling of wet wool, had to pass to go to the restroom they maneuvered between the tables and the chairs in a weaving dance that seemed more delicate that one would expect. I giggled as the thought of elephants in tutus came to mind.
The waitress finally arrived. She looked harried. Her black hair was mussed and her upper lip trembled beneath a mustache of sweat. She wore a white, tight uniform open at the neck to show the tops of her dull breasts.
"What'll you have honey?" She asked. Her voice was raspy like from too many cigarettes and she had some kind of a nasal accent, not foreign but more like she came from New York.
"Coffee is fine. Maybe a piece of pie if you have coconut creme."
"we always have coconut creme honey. All the boys like something rich after their meal. That or cheesecake. We make the best cherry cheesecake in town."
"Don't tempt me." I replied with a smile.
She smiled back and licked her upper lip.
"First time I've seen you." She asked.
I'm just passing through." I replied with the time honored chit chat that tests the water but doesn't go in too deep.
"Yeah, me too. Don't worry, I'll take care of you." She said mysteriously and turned away.
"Hay Al, java and nuts!" She called across the counter as she passed, turning back to flash a quick smile in my direction before going on to a crowded table full of unshaven men.
All I could see of Al was the top of his head and his eyes squinting over the stainless steel countertop. He was a little guy with slick black hair combed over his bald spot and round rimless glasses. He looked efficient and a little impatient as he slapped full plates down on the ready board.
I settled back in the booth. A Ricky Nelson song, LONELY TOWN played softly as a backdrop to the conversation. Suddenly I remembered having spent the night in a place just like this in an Iowa winter when I was in high school. I was hitchhiking someplace, living the great American novel, and got stranded without a ride at a truck stop one below zero night in a blizzard. I kept falling asleep on the table and the waitress kept waking me up. I remember how I scuffed out into the snowbanks by the two lane and hoped a truck would stop but nobody cared, so between falling asleep and thumbing I drank rank coffee and read ON THE ROAD. I was on an adventure. I was easy to please and didn't care. I was into stoicism and Camus and didn't give a fuck about bougious comfort and yak yak yak. The problem was finally solved when the waitress ended her shift and took me home with her for the night.
All I need is snow. I thought.
The waitress' name was tattooed on her neck. It was Linda. She returned with coffee and pie and winked at me but I didn't encourage her. I'd had enough of women in white.
I've had enough of everything. I thought, slipping slowly on the slick slope of futality as I sipped my coffee and the stone of my discontent rolled back down the hill.
And then Linda said, "God damn! Hay Al, look at the snow."
I turned around.
Outside the sweating window wet pillows of snow were falling in chunks. It had already smothered the asphalt and the windows and cabs of the freight liners lined up in the parking lot across the street.
A big guy in a red and black checked lumberjack coat stomped through the doorway and stood just inside slapping snow from his arms.
"Son of a bitch!" He yelled. Gonna be bad lightning out there boys and girlies!"
I smiled at the term. I wondered what "bad lightning" had to do with blizzards.
By now the view outside the window was foggy white with visibility down to a narrow band of street and snow mounded trucks. In contrast the room now seemed to express all the warmth that had escaped the frigid reckoning of some forbidding god. The bright eyes and sturdy laughter of the lumpy men, the teasing voices bantering with Linda and her tart rejoinders as she threaded the narrow tracks between the huddled groupings of wet wool and leather, the smell of hot grease, and coffee and the clatter of pans contained everything and every one with the kind of comfort and coarse good cheer that seemed almost unworldly and unique. not like the common confines of a street side diner. In a moment of sharp awareness, I realized it was Christmas. How had I overlooked it? I was so caught up in my own selfish reflections that I missed the obvious, like the christmas tree in the corner or the red hat on Linda.
Without a pause my imagination turned the simple scene into one in which what might happen next would be that Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus might enter from the cold and stand dripping snow upon the floor.
I sipped my coffee and thought about it. I couldn't help but mingle in my mind the experiences I had had previously. It seemed as if I had come through a mirror and now looked reflectively back on a world that was no longer relevant. Maybe this is what was meant by a sea change. Whatever the case, the tide had definitely changed, whether for the better or for the worse was yet to be revealed. But now something entirely new had been added. An I wasn't sure how I felt about it.
It was then that she placed the pie on the table and sat down across from me.
I knew it. I had asked for it. Now the car had stopped and another finger was beckoning fatefully for me to hop in.
She smiled and brushed a stray strand of damp hair back from her shiny forehead.
"Hope you don't mind honey but I'm on break and it seemed safer to sit here with you than run the risk that one of the gorillas would play grab ass while I cooled out." She said with a grin. "I mean they're nice guys but I'm too tired for grab ass right now. Know what I mean?"
"So I looked safe?" I replied.
"What's "safe" anymore? She volleyed.
"Safe is as safe does." I countered.
Well, I've done just about everything so I must be really safe, huh?" She said and laughed.
I didn't say anything. I just pulled my pie in close and proceeded to eat it.
"Good pie huh?" She said.
"I never eat it. Seems like the older I get the more I weigh. I can put on ten pounds just looking into a donut store display case."
In spite of myself I had to smile as I remembered how, when I first got to the coast I would spend the nights walking through town eating donuts by the sack as I watched the night stalkers do their dirty deeds.
"You too, huh?" She asked.
"Something like that."
I focused on a calendar on the wall next to the cash register. It had a photograph of a ballerina in a tutu holding a skull high above her snake-like arms. I thought about leaving but it was too late. I wasn't sure what too say but I knew it didn't matter. The scene was going to play itself out no matter what I did.
"So what's next?" I asked.
"Next? That's a funny question. Why should anything be next? Maybe it will all come to and end tonight. The snow might never stop. Santa might get buried and all the kids would cry." She tipped her head and looked at me with curious contemplative eyes. "What about you honey? Would you cry?"
"Sure, why not?"
"No, seriously? What's your Christmas going to be like?"
"Well, you said you were new in town. You probably don't know any body right?"
"Something like that."
"So, it's not nice to be alone at Christmas."
"Well, I could always go to mid night mass."
She was silent.
I took another bite of pie.
"What about you?"
"Me? I'm going to grandmas house. I go there every year. She and my poppy are all I've got left."
"I don't have anybody."
"See, that's what I mean. You should come with me."
"Why me?" I couldn't help but ask.
"Maybe it's my way of being a mommie." She replied with a shrug. "I mean, what the hell, it's better than nothing."
I thought about making a joke but the savage look in her eyes convinced me to just let it play itself out.
I nodded my head.
She reached out and touched my hand.
"Listen, I'm not coming on to you and I'm not going to get weird. It's just that since my folks died holidays have been a bitch. Working here doesn't help. I mean these guys are great but it's like dealing with the elephants at the zoo. You feed them peanuts but it would be crazy to get too close."
"And with me it's different?"
Well, yeah, I guess it is." She said as she blushed.
"You don't look like you want anything."
"looks can be deceiving." I replied. "Everybody wants something."
A shadow shaded the gleam of her suddenly hungry eyes. Although she sat across from me she seemed suddenly far away. What was she thinking of? God knows. When I looked into her eyes, I saw darkness and, behind the darkness, something else that made me shiver.
"Goose cross your grave?" She asked.
"Huh?" I said.
I didn't want to talk about what I had seen there because I didn't want to think about what I'd seen there. But that was beyond my controlling. A shadow of the end of days? I thought, trying to put a name to it so I wouldn't feel so helpless in the face of it but that wasn't it exactly. As close as I could come was that we shared something, some emptiness at the heart of us that once might have been filled except for the path not taken. I didn't know what it was with her and I wasn't sure I wanted to know because if I did I might know all of why I had gone astray.
"Geese? Grave?" She said. Her eyes glittered but behind the glitter I knew it was still there, leering out at me as if from behind a mask.
"Something like that." I replied, hoping she would leave it at that.
Up close her skin had a granular, flint-like quality to it and their were clumps of eyeliner caught in her lashes. Her eyebrows looked like they weren't real and she looked older than she probably was. I sat there and she sat there and the laughter and talking got louder and the snow falling outside the steamed up window got thicker and I suddenly felt that she was taking my measure although I couldn't quite catch her at it other than that every time I looked at her she was looking over my head at something behind me. It seemed like it was a trick to deceive me. As if she had really been looking at me but her reflexes were faster than mine and she had sensed that I was going to look at her and looked up just before I did.
The track my thoughts were taking didn't make sense.
"So, what about it?" She asked.
"What about what?
"Oh." I replied. "When are you going?"
"I'm off work at 11. I'm leaving from here. My clothes are in the car."
I didn't want to go but I didn't want to tell her I didn't want to go. After all, it was christmas and spending it alone was my alternative and, considering the company, not much of an alternative at that, so I sat there and didn't say anything until she slapped her hand on the tabletop.
"Fine. That's settled. Just sit right here. Do you want anything else? It's only another hour. Do you have a toothbrush. Oh never mind, we can stop some place, if anything is open. Of course there's someplace open." She said with a smile. "It's Christmas. People are always shopping at the last minute"
She smiled again, stood up and was gone before I opened my mouth.
"Settled." She said. I supposed it was although I was hard pressed to understand just how it got settled so quickly and without my having done anything but that was nothing new so I didn't dwell on it. I just sat there, thinking about Christmas.
During the time that was left I must have drifted off because when she finally brought me around by shaking my shoulder I didn't remember anything that had anything to do with where I was or what had taken place since she got up from the table. When I looked around I saw that the cafe was empty and Joe was standing in the doorway putting on a pair of rubber boots and smoking a smelly cheap cigar. I got up from the table and we walked to the door just as joe closed it behind him. She reached up and switched off the overhead lights. We stood there in the flickering light of the christmas tree and I heard, from the back room, the sound of Bing Crosby singing silent night. She opened the door and snowflakes swirled through and settled on my cheeks. Outside the snow had drifted into huddled shapes against the parking meters and the wire fence across the street that surrounded the parking lot. I went out first and she closed the door behind me and gave me a pat on the butt.
"Come on" She said. "It's too cold to be standing here. The car is over there." She pointed toward the curb where an old black lincoln hulked. It had a cracked window on the passenger side and a scrape on the front fender and looked like it had seen better days.
As I walked carefully toward the jeep the snow crunched and squeaked under foot.