The machines are taking over all these sprawling farms. As I drive past, I see the tops of them rising up with more resolve and durability than any crop. Green and red and yellow, they’re meant to be a reassuring presence upon the land. They’ll till, they’ll plant, they’ll harvest, and all that the farmer is left to do is take the carrot and bite into it while reassuring the distributors that it’s fresh. But where are the workers?
I know that I don’t have a lot of useful skills. Apparently these days people want to know that their cars are being looked after by the book, not pieced together by some kid who thinks he has half an idea of what he’s doing once the thing starts up in spite of his adjustments. Everyone’s out for blood and references.
But a machine can’t tell you what might be salvaged or how to do things differently. It just does what it’s supposed to do, and if you waste a little, that’s the price you pay in order to save a little money. People are starting to give up trust in laborers. They don’t want to pay you a decent day’s wages, don’t want to see you going to the doctor or finding decent lodgings. Nobody wants to be responsible for another life, and they’d rather hurt with neglect than help as little as possible.
I used to think that my old man was kidding when he told me that every diner looks the same once you’ve been in enough of them. As I sit down in a booth not for the coffee but because someone’s left a newspaper behind, I understand why he was such a spiteful bastard. This place, affectionately titled Ma’s Diner, seems to have the formula down perfectly. The booths and stools for stragglers that want quick service are all the same puffy red plastic with tiny flecks of glitter trapped inside, as though someone had decided Ma would want that slightly feminine touch. The tables are a faded blue vinyl, and I can’t tell if they’ve been worn through with all the crushed dreams of men like me or if someone paid for a tasteful attempt at aging the place. The lone short-order cook wears a stained white uniform and a constant expression of organized chaos, while the two waitresses are a balance of new and old. The younger one has frizzy hair that has obviously been bleached blonde, and she spends her free moments twirling a curl or popping a piece of chewing gum that doesn’t look or sound fresh in the slightest. Her companion, who might be her mother or could be everyone’s Ma for all I know, has obviously helped herself to a bit too much of the pie that otherwise lies untouched beneath its glass. After I unfold the newspaper, she’s the one who slides up to me. I don’t know if I’m grateful or worried.
“Who let a good-lookin’ thing like you go out alone?” she asks. I would smile, but I heard her ask the same of a man who has a beard long enough to dangle into the omelet he’s been mulling over while trying to get a glimpse of the young woman’s discretely composed cleavage.
Somehow I still manage a polite smile and lean back to make eye contact while she stands beside me. Mostly I’m afraid she’s going to lean over me and smother me in the floral perfume that comes off her in waves. “Well, the little lady doesn’t like me talking to strangers, but I’ve been away from home a piece trying to find a bit of work.” There’s no reason to lie about it, not when she might know something. I’ve found that it’s the common folk who hear the most because they also talk the most.
It’s not my day though. It never seems to be. “You and everyone else around these parts. Seems like every day somebody’s in the same place you are, searching and circling all the ads and then dragging themselves back here for coffee after they’ve worn themselves out just stomping around town chasing after dreams that don’t live here anymore.” I must look discouraged because she gives me a smile and looks like she’s going to sit down. I hope she doesn’t. “You’re not from around here though, are you?”
The further north we go, the more often people ask that question. Sometimes it comes from a protective standpoint, but I can tell that she’s just trying to take my mind off how discouraging matters happen to be. “No. My girl and I turned eighteen and left home to start a better life. We just have to find it first.”
A hand goes to her broad chest, and she looks like she might actually leak a few tears on my table. I wonder if it would distress the color further. “My, if that isn’t the most romantic thing I ever heard. We don’t get many of your sort around these parts. Louise, we have a romantic here!” she calls back to the girl. She’s mid-hair twirl and gum crack, and the look on her face is one that makes it seem like she’s been caught stealing money rather than standing idle. “I bet you must be a poet and everything.”
“No, ma’am. I used to be a mechanic, but I don’t really have proper training. I’m trying to find farm work since that’s the sort of thing you don’t need much education for—“
“A nice boy like you breaking a sweat on a farm when you could be talking about romance? That seems unreasonable. You should find yourself a job in a library or a bookstore. Surely you don’t need a degree to put books on a shelf.”
“Or I could always make the toast for your fine establishment and free up a couple of hands.”
She gives a wild laugh, and I wonder when the last time anyone bothered to flirt with her was. It seems like it would be a rather small price to pay to make her happy. How many people does she see at their worst every day, those who have just woken up, just broken up, just had their dreams dashed and need a place to go where coffee’s still cheap?
“If I ever have that much demand for toast, I’ll know exactly where to turn. In the meantime, why don’t you let me know what it is you want to order?”
“Bacon and eggs. Toast if you have it,” I add with an exaggerated wink. “And a cup of coffee would be worth my life. Do you know where there’s a pay phone nearby too?”
“There’s one in the back next to the restrooms. You’re not going to run off on me, are you?”
“What, and leave my newspaper behind?” I ask, and she must understand that there’s some serious territoriality beneath the humor because she gives my shoulder a squeeze as she ambles off to yell at the cook and then smack the girl towards the coffee pot. The liquid looks opaque and more black than brown from where I’m sitting, but I know that I’ll probably drink it anyway.
My pockets rattle with the quarters I picked up at the diner I stopped at yesterday. Chances are I’m spending more on the phone calls home than I am on the horrible, greasy food that gets me from town to town. I think my pants hang a little looser these days, but that could just be the coins weighing my pockets down. I slide a few into the machine, knowing the distance isn’t going to be the cheapest.
“Dustin! You’re early.” It’s not the greeting that I’m expecting, and I realize that the volume she uses isn’t because she’s frustrated but because she’s excited. She must think that I found something already and want to report the news.
“I’m sorry. I just didn’t look at the time. I must’ve gotten hungry early or something. And I really wanted to hear your voice.”
“Oh.” She clears her throat, and it’s all too easy to imagine that there are a few tears slipping down her cheeks. It must be difficult for her to endure this. Well, dammit, isn’t it just as difficult for me out here? I’m the one handling all the rejection day in and day out. All she has to do is wait for me and hope. “I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. Just as soon as I find something, I can probably come home for a week or so, maybe bring you up here with me.”
“Then we’ll be paying for an apartment that neither of us is even in. We’d need that money.”
“Not if I found something that was worth it, and if it was for more than a month or two, we could just move. It wouldn’t be all that bad. You could settle down, find some friends who can take your mind off things.”
“I have friends here, Dustin. You just don’t know them because you’re not here.”
“I will be though. Just as soon as I find something.”
“And when is that going to be?” There’s a cold note in her voice that I’ve only ever heard once, when I suggested that she go skinnydipping with me when she hadn’t even taken her clothes off with a boy before. She had been incensed at the time, but I talked her into it a month later. She’d slapped me for it too.
For a second, I consider dropping the phone on the hook and just telling her tomorrow that I ran out of change. That wouldn’t be fair in the slightest though, and chances are she might not even answer out of some strange feeling of being wronged. Even if she’s the one attacking me here. “Tonight. I’m going to find something tonight and won’t sleep until I do. Not even a nap at the steering wheel.”
“Dustin, please don’t promise things that you can’t deliver on.”
“What, because I said I’d marry you and I haven’t yet? I’m going to. I’m going to find a job tonight, and then I’m going to drive home and we’re going to get married. We don’t have to wait for our families, so we’ll just go up to the courthouse and have it done, simple as that.”
She’s quiet on the other end, and I start to suspect that she’s just give up on talking sense to me. Finally she lets out a little gasp. “Sometimes I really wonder about you.”
“You’ve known me long enough to know me better than anyone by now.”
“It won’t matter when I get that job, I’m telling you.”
“I suppose it won’t. I miss you.” She’s quiet a moment, but I can tell that she’s going to say more. There’s that heaviness that settles in when you know you’re not supposed to be the one talking just yet. “The neighbors talk about us, you know.”
“What do the neighbors say?”
“They think that we’re living in sin.” The last word is hissed in a panic, the same way she’d tell me that we have a mouse or that she thought she heard something in the house in the middle of the night.
“Well, we aren’t married.”
“But we love each other. Love isn’t a sin.”
“And what would you know about sin?” I tease, but I can tell she’s only becoming more wound up by the second. I don’t like the place where we live. The walls have too many eyes and ears, and there’s no real control over what everyone else happens to think about you. Either they accept you or they shun you, and any attempt to influence that is just met with hostility and reassurance that you’re getting what you deserve. “Just don’t listen to them.”
“But I want to have friends. I have to be here all the time. You don’t understand…”
“No, I don’t understand what you see in those people. I don’t see why you’d possibly want to be respected by those old hags. They’ll just turn their backs on you again.” I breathe, just once so she can hear it. “Look, I’m nearly out of time on this thing. I’ll call you tonight when I have news. I love you. Don’t forget that.”
She doesn’t respond for a second, but when you’re paying for the privilege of hearing nothing but labored breath, it feels more like a century. “I love you. I’m sorry that I covet sometimes.”
It seems like a weird verb for her to use, but I’m just glad that she’s not angry with me for the things we can’t control. “You start looking for a good recipe to make me when I come home,” I tell her, and I hang up the receiver slowly. The important thing is not to show any sort of reaction to the people in this diner. I hardly need the people here to gossip about me as well.
When I get back to my booth, there’s a plate that has a small mountain of bacon reclining on a bed of scrambled eggs. A couple of wedges of generously toasted and buttered toast are tucked beneath. Sometimes you find hospitality in the strangest places. I should feel my heart warmed by this, but instead I feel sad that I can’t just wait here forever for something good to happen to me. If a job were as easy to come by as a decent breakfast, then I’d be a very lucky man in my life. Instead, this is my fate.
The coffee’s as bad as it looks, but it does the trick in washing down the food. I’m pretty sure the acid dissolves even the slightest crumb that might have lodged itself in my throat. The kick in energy isn’t so bad either, and when I’ve had my fill, I know that I don’t want to stick around for a refill. When I pay, I hand my waitress a tip and also leave one on the table since I’ve decided to take the newspaper with me.
I drop the paper on my passenger seat on top of the map that’s wrinkled with new latitude and longitude from how many times I’ve folded and unfolded it. I should buy a new one, treat it better, but this is all that I can afford for now. It has to lead me somewhere, and I’m not going to give up on it. Even though it seems pretty clear to me that it’s given up on me.
There are so many souvenirs inside this car of a life that could just be chalked up to failure. All I’ve done since driving away from home is drive some more, trying to find a place where I fit in. I don’t have friends. I can’t even start the family that I want. The woman I love probably doesn’t love me as much now that she has to put up with the distance between us. What good am I here? What purpose am I possibly serving in going through these motions when they’re not leading to anything?
I throw the newspaper and the map in the backseat. With the tangle they’re in, they make a louder noise than I expect. It’s oddly satisfying.
So far I’ve been climbing increasingly north. No more of that. If I keep wishing that that direction will solve all our problems, I’m going to reach the North Pole and have some fighting words with Santa. It’s time to get real. I have to come up with another plan. I’ve already been south. That just leaves east and west. So I just drive.
Spend enough hours behind the wheel and you’re sure to get away from where it was you just were. I count on that as I watch the signs announce cities I’ve never heard of and will never visit. I can’t go all that far, I know that gasoline is a precious thing, but it only takes a couple of hours before the road decides to give out on me first. A fence is broken, and one cow stands idly in the middle of the road. There’s no detour, and I’m not all that keen on turning around when I’m not terribly sure where it is I’ve wound up or how I’ve gotten here. I kill the engine and just sit for a moment, trying to figure out where I go that I haven’t already been.
“There’s no use waiting here, mister,” a man calls out from where the fence is still in one piece. He’s smoking a cigarette, and in my imagination, he really ought to be doing so while wearing a cowboy hat and boots. He has the shoes, but they’re worn down from so much work outdoors. “Bessie here is as stubborn as anything. Every couple of weeks, she breaks down the fence, and what does she do with her independence? Stand in the middle of the fucking road looking confused. There’s not even something to eat there. She just does it to do it.”
“Well, pardon me saying so, but it seems like the easiest way to solve that problem is to make your fence work.”
“You think you’re clever, don’t you?” He pushes off so he can stand up straight, and for a second I think he’s going to come over and smack me for trying to tell him what to do. But once he throws down his cigarette, I can tell that he’s laughing.
“I don’t believe that thinking and being clever have a whole lot to do with one another. If you’re clever, the thinking does itself.”
“All right, Clever. What am I supposed to do to keep that cow in the fence?”
“Give it something that’ll keep it from breaking out again.”
“And how do you propose I do that? I can’t exactly ask Bessie what it is she wants. Believe me, I’ve tried. She’s worse than a wife.”
“Well, it’s not about what’s inside, just what’s along the outside. Obviously this wood’s not cutting it, so you’re going to have to go with something like an electric fence. It might take a shock or two, but she should learn her lesson sometime.”
“I raise these cows and take them off to slaughter. How am I supposed to look after them and take care of these fences at the same time?”
“Well, I could do it.”
He narrows his eyes at me, and I realize that he’s probably not as old as I took him for. Lately I just assume that everyone is older than me since they all seem to be a hell of a lot more qualified for the jobs that I’m after. The sun has made his skin take on a slightly leathery quality, but I can see youth gleaming in his eyes. He’s out to keep his money and doesn’t want to be taken for a fool. He’s still young enough to be proud. “What kind of a fool do you take me for?”
“Look, mister, I’m not trying to fool anyone. I’m looking for a bit of farm work, and this seems like it’s a project that would keep me busy a little while. I’ve got a wife-to-be that I need to provide for, and this seems like a good a deal as any to look after her until something more permanent falls in my feet. Just let me give you a day to show that I’m worth it, and if you don’t agree, you can ship me off with no harm done.”
Realistically, I know the fence is a silly diversion. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks to gather supplies and get the job done, but this is experience and a possible reference, two things that I’m currently lacking. Being a farmhand for even a day sounds better than having always dreamt of the opportunity because you didn’t have a daddy pushing at you to be a lawyer or a doctor or a politician.
“What’s your name, boy?” he asks at last, and I can’t help but notice how I’ve gone from “mister” to simply “boy.” I’d be bothered except for the fact that it makes him sound like he’s going to be bossing me around.
“Dustin. And that’s about all you need to know if this is all the further we’re going.”
“Well, Dustin, I inherited this place from my father. He put up the fence in the first place, and to be honest, I don’t know the first thing about how to look after it. We haven’t had a decent helper around these parts in ages, and frankly I don’t like the idea of hiring someone local and then getting a backlash when they’re fired. I don’t reckon that you really do either, but I can tell an honest man when I see one. Because you wouldn’t try to lead me on when we’re out here by ourselves and I don’t owe you shit, right?” The man screwed up his face as though he wanted to spit, then thought better of it. “We’ll give this a try. If you can figure this out, you’ll be saving me money in the long run. Do you have anywhere to stay?”
“To be honest, I don’t even know where we are.”
“That’s fine. I have an extra room. We can take that out of your wages if you earn any. You can eat with me and the missus. It’s a pretty fair deal though. The hotels would do nothing but rip you off.”
“I should probably talk to mine myself before we make our little arrangement official. Why don’t you turn your car around and go into town a bit? You’ll go about a mile before you reach any crossroads, and then just take the left. It won’t be difficult to figure out where you’re going from there. I’m sure that you can find a phone somewhere in there. And kid? Get some food in you. You’re probably the skinniest thing I ever did see. Are you sure that you’re up to this kind of work?”
“Give me a spin and we’ll find out.”
He could tell me that I’m the ugliest person that he’s ever seen, and I’d still be as elated. A job is an opportunity, and I’m determined to make the most of it. I know I shouldn’t spend the money on having a big dinner, but I tell myself that I’m going to need the strength. The entire drive into town, I’m thinking about what it’d be like to have a steak again. Even a pizza, just eating the whole thing in one sitting. That would be incredible. People just take for granted when they have money, but when it’s gone, all you can think about is how you don’t have it.
By the time I get into town, I realize that it’s not what I had expected. I suppose the term “town” made me picture sidewalks, traffic lights, people on the street corner smoking and getting up to the only bit of no-good that would otherwise blight such a place. Instead it’s just a long road with houses on either side, the wood painted unoffensive colors like white or yellow.
I park in the first lot I find, which happens to be for a bar. I’ve been inside of one before, the old man made sure of that pretty early on for me, but actually going and drinking hasn’t been something that I’ve done. Still, I do have some happy moments from my early years when he’d set me up in the corner with a bag of popcorn and a bottle of Coke, showing me how he’d win money from playing darts with his friends until his aim started to falter from one drink too many. Then my mom would roll in and take us home, and I’d lie about having eaten dinner just because I didn’t want her to stop our trips and the treats I’d have because the men at the bar thought I was cute. The trips stopped after a while anyway.
In my memory, the smoke in the bar is nostalgic in its own way, bitter the same way a cup of coffee might be. There was nothing malicious about it; guys just wanted to have their cigarettes in peace. So when I open the door, I’m nearly knocked back by the smell of the place. There’s a haze in the air that makes it difficult to see, and I’m surprised that there are only five or so patrons in the entire place. Still, I see a handwritten menu pasted up on the wall behind the bar, and it seems like the only place short of a convenience store where I’m going to be able to pass the time. I might as well lose a couple of hours here. Besides, they have a television.
“You coming in, or do you just intend to let all the fresh air come in here to choke us?” a woman calls out from behind the bar. I seem to have a certain magnetism today with women who are probably as old as my mother and twice as wide. Still, there’s a sort of wink in her voice, like we’re both in on the joke, so I let the door drop shut behind me.
It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. At once it’s twilight inside, and the woman goes back to polishing a glass to keep herself busy. Even in this lighting, her hair has a shine to it that seems more likely to be greasy than anything, and it was bleached blonde once upon a time if I can judge by her roots. Still, it’s much better to judge someone by their smile than any other part of their appearance. Clearly she wants to get a bit of business going, because she seems sincere in her happiness.
“It’s a bit early for the evening crowd, but if you stick around long enough, you’ll make some friends. You don’t look like you’re from around here.”
“Everyone seems to be noticing that about me today.” I feel silly standing in the middle of the floor, so I hoist myself up on a stool. It’s much closer than I remember it being, but then again, I’ve grown. It takes a bit of effort to remind myself that I’m an adult now, and all of this is perfectly all right.
“Well stranger, I could ask you what your name is, but obviously your drink would probably be more important.”
And I don’t know what to order. My first time out on my own. I can’t see what’s behind the bar, and while I’ve had a sip here and there, I don’t know what it is I prefer. “Whiskey,” I tell her, “on the rocks.” I’ve heard the last part so many times in films that it just seems like the proper punctuation.
She leans against the bar with her elbows, pressing up her cleavage. It’s a disturbing display, and I manage to keep eye contact. “What kind of whiskey would that be?” she purrs sweetly.
“Whichever one I can afford the most of,” I shoot back, trying to disguise my nerves. I know that I shouldn’t be here. I should be back at home with a bottle of wine, toasting the success with my wife. Karen should be my wife, but instead we’re just engaged in our own way, and I’m here and she’s there.
There’s something about holding that tragedy in that makes me grasp the glass when it’s placed in front of me. The ice cubes knock against my teeth as I fling the liquor into my mouth. It hasn’t had long to get cold, and it burns all the way down. I shudder as I feel, then taste, the drink. It’s disgusting but appealing in a masochistic way, and I can hear the bartender laughing at me as she asks if I want another. I nod. Why not?
She refills the glass, and this time I let the amber liquid settle for a second. It almost seems to be glowing, but I know in some logical part of my brain that it’s just the light from around the room reflecting and getting trapped amongst the ice. It feels very late all of a sudden, the result of the perpetual twilight with the only windows covered in heavy drapes.
When she reaches out for my glass again to refill it, I decide to ask her if she happened to have a telephone I could use. Her eyebrows go up immediately. “What, so you can slink off without paying for what you’ve already cost me?”
It’s a change from her formerly warm tone, and for a second, I’m offended. But that’s the price of business. When she tells me the dollar value, I cringe like I had while downing my first drink, but then I remind myself that this is an investment. If I spend this money, then I have to make it back. Obviously it’s as easy as that. How could it not be?
“The phone,” I remind her gently, adding money for a third and dropping in a tip from some of my quarters. I doubt I’ll need all of them when I’m settled in on the farm. A landline feels like such a faraway luxury.
“Go towards the jukebox and then hang a right. It has a little booth, so you can’t miss it.”
“Much obliged,” I say, pulling down on an imaginary cowboy hat to show my gratitude. I don’t know that she gets that I’m fooling, but when serving spirits to people all day, I’m sure she sees plenty of odd behavior. Or maybe these people are just trained professionals when it comes to handling their liquor.
I’m hardly conscious of the trip I make once I’m off the barstool. One second I’m learning how to find my balance all over again, and the next I’m pulling on the door of the phone booth. It’s a charming little thing, and I feel like Superman when I tug the door shut behind me. Then push it open. Then tug it shut again.
A quarter drip-drops out of my pocket when I go to reach for some. Cursing myself, I bend over to pick it up and hit my forehead on a protruding phonebook. No wonder this design isn’t particularly popular anymore.
This really shouldn’t be happening to me yet. I don’t really know the units of liquor or how loyal the bartender is to them, but this shouldn’t be hitting me so hard. My body should be prepared for this with genetics like mine. Maybe it’s because I haven’t eaten since that late breakfast and have been sleeping in the back of the car. Maybe this is just the way that this is supposed to be happening.
Buzz buzz, says the phone, and I laugh into the receiver. What better thing could she be doing besides waiting next to the phone for my success? Obviously she should know that it’s coming. I don’t know why she would have reason to doubt me. I told her I’d get her away from home, and I did. I told her I was going to marry her, and I’m going to.
She engaged. I don’t know when she picked up the phone. She must have heard me laugh. This would be embarrassing, but I’m too delighted to know that I’m going to talk to her. “Start looking for wedding rings and a nice dress,” I blurt out, and it’s not the first thing that I wanted to say, but it’ll do.
“Fuck what the neighbors think. If they say we’re living in sin, then we’re going to take the sinful part out of it. I’ll be your husband, and you’ll be my wife.”
“What are you talking about? You sound funny. Are you all right? Where are you?”