By Richard Helmling
A sharp electric tone screeches from the alcove of the restaurant’s drive-thru window. The girl on duty for the night shoots past the counter in a blur, engaging her headset and going through her opening spiel for the customer in the blue Chevy around back. She bobs behind the shift manager as she darts toward her register.
He adjusts as she moves closer, straightening up a bit from the slouch he’d crumpled into while idly talking to a regular customer across the counter. He cranes his neck after her, after the shape of her buttocks pushing out the faded fabric of her slacks and the equine sway of the long rope of hair dangling out of her cap.
There is something like a smile on his lips as he turns back.
The customer stands at the counter like a wobbly, misshapen idol, all Buddha belly and unnatural posture. He sips from a half-gallon paper cup, occasionally dribbling on his short-sleeve pinstripe shirt and the navy shorts that stop above his rocky knees and albino-pink legs.
“It’s the comparison I’ve heard is closest,” the man says.
Reorienting on the other side of the counter, the restaurant’s shift manager leans his compact frame against the bulky register with a faint creak of stubborn plastic. He smiles a different type of grin with half his face and answers, “You know, I hear that a lot. Most people get this weird idea about the Roman Empire. You know what people are really admiring when they say this stuff? Their engineering. That’s about the only criteria you can use to say Rome’s the greatest empire in history. You’ve got Alexander’s, or the Khans--all bigger. Hell, China was bigger than Rome for a thousand years. Rome was a flash in the pan. So if people want to make that comparison, then that’s what they’re saying. They don’t even know what Rome was, or how it worked. It’s a confused understanding of history if you ask me.”
“I think that’s what that book I was talking about said, too.”
“What was the name of that one again?”
“Um, I can’t remember exactly. I’ll look it up and tell you tomorrow,” the man stammers.
“Sounds good,” the shift manager says absently, looking past the man to the dark hanging on the other side of the front windows. “Well, I better get back to work.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. I should go. I’m just gonna get a refill.”
He takes the barrel from the customer’s pudgy fingers and loads it with soda before handing it back across. He gets a smile from the graying, pasty face as the older man turns and heads out with flopping steps.
“Dude, that guy is weird,” a voice booms from behind the heat lamps.
“Be nice,” the girl’s voice interjects from the drive-thru.
“He’s harmless,” the shift manager tells the cook without looking at him. Instead of turning, he punches in a sequence of commands on the front cash register, prompting it to spool out a long strip of printed tape.
“I don’t know how you talk to that guy, though. Whenever he comes in here you get talking about shit like that. It’s like you know everything.”
“But where you find all that out, man?”
“So you’re all educated and shit,” the hefty fry cook continues while switching off the bun-toasting machine.
“Guess so,” he answers. “And don’t say ‘shit’ when there are customers around.”
The frycook cranes his neck to see around the wall of the dining room. “Oh shit, are there people here?” he asks over the sound of the machine winding down.
“So where’d you go to school?”
“Um, I actually went to Harvard for a while, but I ended up back home here at Harvard on the border.”
“Yeah, but I had to come back because of family problems.”
“Oh yeah? That’s cool. Hey, can I break down the toaster, man?”
“Way too early.”
“Come on, man. I’ll just run some buns through ahead to get us through the night.”
“Dude, come on.”
“Hey,” he says, turning away from the register. “If it were my restaurant...well, if it were my restaurant then I’d be chained to it and that thought would probably drive me to suicide so then you’d be free to do whatever you wanted.”
A little chirp of a laugh emanates from the drive-thru window.
“No, you can’t break down the toaster,” he says and steps over to the drive-thru girl’s register.
“That’s funny, huh?” he asks her.
“Little bit,” she tells him. The brim of the baseball cap shadows most of her face, but her lopsided smile pokes out. He hovers before her, and she cranes her neck up to see from under the hat. Her form is pretty much lost in the baggy uniform, but bits of her body push outward on the combo wardrobe of printed tee-shirt and on-the-cheap work pants: strong shoulders, breasts, and a little hip. For a moment her long face looks only doughy, but her smile widens when he looks down at her. The expression pulls up her cheeks and stretches her jowls back, giving her face some shape.
“Excuse me,” she says and steps around him.
She saunters off as he runs a report off her register too and pops the drawer open.
He calls her back up a minute later.
“What? Is it off?”
“How many twenties did you take?”
“I don’t remember.”
The frycook peers over his equipment to listen in and the other cashier wheels the sloshing mop bucket past them on her way to the lobby. He takes quick note of them and continues, “You’re ten dollars under.”
“There was that rush earlier,” she says, peering off with her lips pinched up. “Maybe I made change for a twenty on one of those instead of a ten.”
He frowns and shoots a quick look at the others to set them back to their tasks.
“I don’t remember.”
“Any other possibility?”
“If it’s exactly ten, then that’s what it’s got to be. If it was a void I forgot then it wouldn’t be ten on the nose.”
“Alright, well, I’ve got to log it, you know that.”
“I haven’t had a drawer shortage since my first week. Sorry.”
“Just be more careful, okay?”
The drive-thru pad picks up the weight of a pick-up truck with hungries in it and she turns from him to push the button on her hip and issue her standard greeting/suggestive sell combination into the mic dangling beside her chin.
A few more orders come and go, but the clock eventually creeps closer to the mark they’re waiting on. He watches her shape in the convex mirror as she sweeps the last stray fries left in the lobby during a lull between orders. He walks past the frycook.
“Now,” he tells him.
“‘Bout time!” and immediately starts pulling apart the machine.
He walks slowly out into the lobby, but she does not look up, does not slow in her task. “It looks fine,” he tells her.
“She shouldn’t have mopped so early,” she says, throwing her head over her shoulder to indicate an absent coworker.
“It looks fine,” he repeats. “Let’s get everything stocked. I’m looking to do a record close tonight.”
Soon sharp clicks coincide with sections of the ceiling going dim. The crew members loitering against the front counter straighten up and start shuffling toward the door, waiting for him to come up and unlock it.
Outside, the street lamps leave rainbow smudges on the oil puddles in the parking lot.
“You need a ride?” one of them asks the young drive-thru girl as the other workers split up and disperse toward their cars.
“No, mine’s coming,” she says.
At the door, the shift manager is fumbling with the lock. “I’ll wait with her,” he volunteers.
“Okay,” the others sound off. “Bye.”
As the others’ cars roll away, the remaining two figures--standing apart--follow with their eyes the red glow of tail lights receding in both directions until the street is calm and empty. Then both converge on the remaining car and climb in together.
“I’m sorry about before,” he tells her as he rolls the engine over.
“When I got on you about the money.”
“It’s just that...I mean I have to be fair.”
“I can’t treat you differently, you know. They’d catch on. Hell, I’m surprised somebody hasn’t already.”
“It’s okay, I get it.”
“If anybody found out and it got around, especially up to the district manager--”
“Don’t worry about me. I get it. You’re doing your job.”
“Yeah, but according to my job, we shouldn’t even be together. Hell according to the law--”
“Please. The law in Texas is seventeen.”
“Age of consent is seventeen. You’re not breaking any laws.”
“Would I what?”
“Did you really think you were breaking the law by being with me?”
“I guess not. I mean, I did know about it being seventeen and all.”
“You don’t mind having a boyfriend who can’t admit he’s your boyfriend? Does your mom know about us?”
“So you’re my boyfriend?”
“Come on, I’m serious.”
“I don’t care what people think,” she shrugs without looking at him. “Those aren’t my rules.”
“Everything you’re talking about. Those aren’t my rules,” she says again.
“So you don’t follow the rules.”
“Not if they’re wrong.”
“Why are these wrong?” he asks, a surprised lilt to his words.
“What does the district manager care if we’re sleeping together? We both do our jobs. It’s none of his business. That’s why I don’t care that you chewed me out for the drawer. It’s your job. It’d be wrong if you didn’t.”
“I didn’t chew you out, did I?”
He opens his mouth once, stops himself, then begins again. “I’m interested in your morality here.”
“You’ve never cared about my morality before.”
“I’m putting some pieces together here. I’m just trying to figure you out is all. You told me once you don’t go out drinking with your friends.”
“Isn’t that someone else’s stupid rule.”
“No. That’s my rule.”
“I promised myself something about that.”
She just shakes her head.
“So, didn’t you make a promise to the company?”
“You signed some agreement, right? Something about company policies and all that.”
“Maybe, but that’s not the same thing as a promise.”
“Why not? Seems like it.”
“No, a promise is specific or it’s meaningless. Look at marriage. Somebody gets up one day and promises vaguely to love and to honor, but you know that most men cheat on their wives anyway.”
“Is that right, though?”
“Depends on the person. I mean, it’s not right, but it’s not necessarily wrong.”
“Promises don’t work like that. You promise one thing and you do it for your own reasons. You don’t get up there and make some promise that covers your entire life. That’s not a real promise. It’s different if a man loves a woman and he’s still in love with her and she expects him to only be with her or something, but those are extraordinary circumstances. That’s not what most marriage is about.”
“What’s marriage about then?”
“Need,” she answers, still gazing out ahead of them as the headlights catch pedestrians and bus-stop benches on the side of the road.
“When you get married, you won’t expect your husband not to sleep around?”
“I don’t know what I’ll expect. Relationships are individual, particular.”
“Are they all about need?”
“So you’re not in love with me?”
“No, I’m not in love with you.”
“What if I’m in love with you?”
“You’re not in love with me,” she answers flatly. He stops watching her and keeps his eyes on the road. “It wouldn’t matter anyway,” she continues after a block or two pass by. “Love doesn’t really factor into morality.”
“I had no idea you thought this way about things.”
She keeps her arms crossed as they pull into his apartment complex.
They walk up the metal stairs toward his level.
He regards her from just behind with an unsteady expression, as if uncertain of how to speak to her, how to touch her. Finally, he decides on a gesture and reaches for her hand.
She accepts, wrapping her fingers around his wrist as she walks ahead.
At the door she stops and stares blankly at the thick coats of white paint.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“Yeah, I’m just tired, I guess.”
“You want me to take you home.”
She squeezes his hand. “No, no. Let’s just get inside.”
The door creaks open to darkness. The hanging blinds that cover the sliding glass door to the eight square-foot balcony let in long slats of orange light from some cheap bulb out on the path between buildings. They act out an apparently familiar script. He passes her, crunching his knees together to navigate the narrow gap between the wide, squat coffee table and the couch against the wall with its distended cushions threatening to pour out like failed soufflé batter onto the course carpeting. She closes the door, cutting off the light behind them and leaving only those long orange lines from the other side of the room. He clicks on an old halogen lamp, the kind that used to populate college dorms a decade before, but which were responsible for enough house-fires that they’re not in stores anymore. The light’s enough to give form to the bulky shadows in front of her, the shapes of the furniture that define and overwhelm the space. Billowing brown folds of fabric hint that the sofa is stuffed to bursting with whole flights of fowl fluff, but when she swings her purse onto the side it drops stone-like into the fathoms of the cushions. He sighs and kicks off his shoes while she saunters by the stacks of books he has piled on the floor. She gives the untidy stacks an affectionate, good-to-see-you-old-friend smile and then settles into the couch herself, flipping on the TV and cycling through channels with one hand while pulling out the band from her ponytail with the other. “You want something to drink?” he calls back from the kitchen, though it’s close enough he doesn’t need to shout. She answers and in a second he is returning to her with a beer and a Sprite.
When he sits, he slides down along the length of her, settling in brick-mortar tight.
She lets the channel rest on the news and lowers her head to the crook of his neck, closing her eyes. He reaches around behind her with his free hand and begins kneading the soft triangle of flesh above her left hip. The edge of her shirt comes loose and he works his fingers down beneath the hem of her slacks. As he brushes the fine hairs below the plexus at the pit of her back, her eyes open and her back arches, bringing her head into recline.
He shifts his face to meet hers and they begin a weary disrobing. By the end they have shifted positions and he is settled back into the cushions, erect and waiting. She creeps around him on her knees, finding perch in his lap.
Her eyes close as she rocks atop him, silently.
When his grunting is finished he clutches hard at her buttocks and she becomes still, a single tear of perspiration tracing a line down the crease of her back.
They restore their undergarments but leave the rest of their clothing on the floor.
He picks up the remote and flips channels in her place.
“It’s getting late,” he says after half an hour.
“Hmm,” she purrs.
“Does your mother know about us?”
“You guys don’t talk.”
“It’s complicated, she and I. It must seem like she doesn’t care, but that’s not it.”
“What is it?”
“Does she worry?”
“Maybe some. She knows me, though.”
“Still, it’s late, I should get you home.”
“Wait,” she says, sitting up and swinging her eyes away from the flickering screen. “I wanted to ask you about Harvard.”
There’s a jerk in his neck, a start like he’s choked on something.
“What about it?”
“You never explained why you didn’t finish school there? Why you came back here?”
“Why do you think?”
“I guess I didn’t want to make any assumptions.”
“It’s not what you think.”
“I’m sorry, forget about it.”
“I got the grades. I didn’t flunk out, okay?”
“I was drummed out.”
This time she doesn’t protest. Now she’s curious and she will let him tell it. Tell something he’s never told.
“When I got there--God, it was immediate. All the money. All those damn kids had it so easy. Here I was, scholarship kid from El Paso.”
“You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to. I just--”
“I worked hard,” he continues, ignoring her interjection and her offer. “I had to. If I didn’t I’d lose the scholarship or lose the biggest of them. Had to keep a 3.5. I did it. Worked my ass off because I’d signed up for too many hours. It was a bitch that first semester. Always in the library because my jack-ass roommate would never let me have any peace. We ended up in a real war by the end. I was always studying. Never worked harder in my life…”
His words trail off for a moment and she watches him carefully while he goes back, then returns to her with something to say.
“There was this girl. This skinny little white girl. White girl from money. I should’ve known better, but I couldn’t help it. I was...I had a thing for her. I got her attention a little bit but couldn’t seem to get anywhere, like there was something stopping her from wanting to be with me. Then one night we were both at this party at the dorm. She was already pretty drunk when I showed up.”
“God,” he exclaims, breaking his own rhythm. “I hadn’t been out with anyone, been with anyone the whole time I’d been up there. So she and I got together. Found us a room on the floor with nobody in it. It looked like a little kid’s room. All done up in cartoon posters. Don’t know whose room it was. But she and I did it and she just kind of passed out afterwards. That was it, end of semester.”
“I flew home. Had my Christmas break.”
He shakes his head and rubs the meaty hunks of flesh below his thumbs into his eye sockets, wiping away perspiration from his brow with his fingertips as he draws his hands back down.
“Then the day before I was going to fly back, I got a phone call. I was being suspended, pending an investigation. The university police talked to the El Paso police. I was never arrested, but they talked to me. Four hours they talked to me. In the end, my suspension just became terminated enrollment and I guess that was good enough for her. She dropped the charge if I just stayed away, stayed quiet. I did some Internet searches, thinking her dad probably had some sway at the school, some big donations or something. Never found anything, though.”
He checks her with a quick sideways cock of his eyes. She’s not looking. Her head’s down, pointed at her lap where she’s rubbing her palms together real slowly. Legs and palms clasped tight in her own shadow.
“But I mean, you know I didn’t rape her. She just regretted it and talked herself into believing she never wanted it. You know?”
His pleading tone catches her attention. Her long face is drawn downward because there’s no shape to her mouth now, it’s smaller like that. Just a slit with nothing showing, barely even any peach-colored lips. She nods to him faintly and moves her hand to rest one palm lightly on his knee.
“That was it. That was my whole life ruined right there.”
“You could’ve fought it, I guess.”
“Go back there? Go back there with all their eyes on me, thinking that about me? No way.”
“Another school. If you--”
“Nah. Nah, I learned my lesson. Besides, you should’ve heard my mother. ‘Told you,’ she’d say. ‘I told you not to go up there.’ Over and over again.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“How could you? I don’t talk to anyone about it. Even when I came back, I avoided everyone I used to know, everyone who knew I’d gone out there. I never wanted to explain it. That time I slipped and said, ‘Harvard,’ in front of you. God, that must’ve been the only time I’d said it in eight years.”
“You’ve mentioned it twice to me,” she corrected.
“Guess I mention it more than I realized.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I’m very sorry I brought it up. I didn’t know it would be this bad a memory for you.”
He reaches over for the drink he’d left on the table, takes a sip and then turns to her again. “Why did you want to know?”
“I was just curious about your experience there.”
“I was just considering it.”
“I’m applying there.”
“What? Are you serious?”
“Yeah, I thought I’d try for it. I know one of my friends from last year who didn’t get in, even with the Gates scholarship, but my grades--”
He laughs out loud.
“What?” she balks. His face is twisted with the smile he’s wearing, but hers is going sharp.
“Harvard? Come on. Do you know what it takes to get in to Harvard?”
She leans away, giving herself a slightly improved vantage on him.
“I was just talking about that,” she answers in a husky, almost whispered rasp.
“I mean, come on,” he continues. “It’s not like they let just anyone go there.”
She nods to him, saying nothing.
She stands, the long lean lines of her body stretched tall at the edge of the sofa. She looks down. With a quick dip she collects her clothes from the floor in two handfuls.
“What?” he stammers. “Don’t…” She is dressing quickly, slipping on her shoes while yanking the shirt down over her head. “Listen, I’m sorry. I was just saying it’s really hard.”
“No,” she says, turning to him after already starting toward the door. “That’s not what you said. You said, it’s not like they let ‘just anyone’ in.”
She finishes shoving her left heel into its shoe and opens the door. He is still undressed.
“Where are you going? You don’t have a car, you--”
“You don’t know me,” she says, and he doesn’t recognize the tone in her voice. “I’ll be fine on my own.” The door slams.
Out of pride or shock, he does not follow her. He sits dumbstruck on the sofa for a few minutes, then fetches the remote and turns on the television. His attention snaps to the door periodically when neighbors or the wind rustle past, but no meek knocking ever draws him up from his seat.
Finally, by two, he falls asleep on the couch.
In the morning he wakes with a start, flailing his arm so wildly that he knocks over the empty beer can on the table. Seemingly unable to collect himself, he wanders listlessly inside the tight confines of the apartment, even laying down in his bed for a few minutes before rolling right back out to dress himself. He splashes something from a green bottle through his hair and starts out the door.
It’s long before opening, but when he turns the key in the lock at the restaurant and cracks the door he hears voices in the kitchen. The head manager and the morning maintenance guy are hunched over the fryer, conferring on a diagnosis.
“Morning,” his boss chimes when he enters. The maintenance guy just cocks his head to say hello.
“I just need to get something,” he tells them.
His boss waves him toward the office and returns his attention to dredging the fryer.
Inside the cramped office, he has to squeeze between desk and trash can to reach the file cabinet. He rifles through the bottom drawer, not finding whatever it is he wants.
“What’cha need?” From the floor he looks up in surprise as his boss leans against the door jamb to the office with one hand, his coffee mug in the other.
“I’m just…” he begins but lets the sentence collapse as he lifts his head up in frustration.
“I already moved her to ‘inactive.’”
“Your little friend. She called and quit this morning.”
“She was a good worker,” his manager says. “She said she’d work out her shifts if I really needed her to, but that she’d prefer not to come in anymore. I told her we’d manage.”
Stooped on his knees by the file drawer, he seems to realize something all at once. He starts to open his mouth, then stops.
“Shame. But fortunately she never did work that many hours. It won’t be that hard to fill her shifts. She’d only work those three closing shifts a week. Guess that’s what it takes.”
“Takes for what?”
“To be what she is.”
“What do you mean?”
“My son goes to her school, you know. They don’t know each other, but he knows about her. Top of her class.”
“No contest, he told me.”
“Really,” he replies absently.
“Didn’t know that, huh?”
“No,” he answers, eyes downcast.
The manager starts to turn. “I guess she’s gone now.”
He nods, staring at the red tab marking off the “inactive” folders.
“So we shouldn’t use those records to make any personal calls.” He looks up suddenly, with a jerk, and they lock eyes for a minute. “Whatever you didn’t know yesterday is what you don’t know today.”
His boss says nothing else and leaves.
Alone in the office, he looks again at the red section and then slides the drawer closed, rises and crosses out of the office, past the counter and out of the lobby.
The mountains obscure through the white morning, he stands for a moment where he stood beside her the night before, then climbs into his car and returns home.