My Summer Vacation
I had a car, and I put in a full tank of gas every Monday so I could limp to work during the rest of the week. But this Monday morning, I sat there watching the numbers spin until they hit forty dollars, and when I dug my last two wretched twenties out of my pocket and paid the guy inside, he didn’t even look up from the floor. He wasn’t reading anything or talking to anyone or watching television. He was just staring at the floor.
Looking at him, I realized that I wasn’t going to work today. Damn work. Damn all of work. Damn every job that every person has ever had.
My car was a burgundy Lincoln Continental that smelled like cherries and old lady perfume, because I bought it from the son of the old lady who lived next to my parents when the old lady died. The car didn’t have any big problems yet, but little things were always snapping off of it. Like the radio knob, or pieces of the door handle, or flakes of rubber from the floor mat.
I pulled out of the gas station and I got onto the highway instead of heading to the strip mall. I let myself drift out to the far lane, and I squeezed the gas and let the car have a full swallow of my money. She jolted forward on me and fishtailed a little bit. The car didn’t hug the ground or twitch under my soft hand. No, she floated – she was a boat – and I floated right along with her.
I drove west for three or four hours, grinning to myself, guessing I was fired. I thought about everybody shrugging at each other, scratching their heads under their paper hats, pointing at the place where I was supposed to stand, shrugging, shifting from one foot to another, saying “dang if I know, guess he’s fired.”
Forty dollars didn’t get me very far. Forty dollars got me to the next big town. Forty dollars of flat-out-lane-weaving-drumming-my-hand-on-the-wheel-and-cackling-driving got me to a town with a big green highway sign instead of a little white one. I guess it was time to stop, and see where I stood.
I should have felt remorseful and stupid. But instead I felt elated and smart. I pulled over into the first restaurant that was one of a kind and parked in one of the back spaces. It was a place called the “Border Grill,” even though we had to be a thousand miles from any border that I knew of. The parking lot was completely empty, but the sign still said “open.”
Of course, now I was broke. There was nothing in the glove compartment, so I popped the trunk to see if there was anything worth trading for food in there. There was a bald spare tire and a canvas sack that I knew had an old Mexican blanket inside it that I could sleep on in an emergency. I shut the trunk and locked it.
I went inside the restaurant and slid into one of the middle booths. The whole place was empty. No waitresses, no cooks, no customers. The lights were on and the door was open and the pies in the case looked fresh, but I guess everybody was hiding in back, or else the place was some kind of social experiment.
I want a hamburger, I thought to myself. I want a big hamburger with a bun so soft and greasy that when you stick your thumbs in it you make two dimples and come away with sesame seeds like pupils under your fingernails. I also want some French fries cut like prisms and I want to dip them in mustard, and then I want to eat some apple pie and ice cream, and I want to take a scoop of that ice cream with my spoon and stick that ice cream in my coke.
But how was I gonna pay for it? I was glad the restaurant was empty. It gave me time to think; to weigh up my options.
There was a juke box. I had thirty-five cents in my pocket. The way I figured it; that was enough for one song in the juke box. But before I could stand up and throw away the last thing I had in life, the waitress came out from the kitchen. She was forty-five years old, but she looked like a beat-up thirty five. Her mascara was thick and it was the only make-up she wore. She looked pretty good, actually. It was easy to smile at her. She looked like the kind of grown-up woman who had a bank account that grew and grew because she prayed to it once a week instead of going to church.
“You look like you are here to eat,” she said, making it sound like a threat.
“I’m not here to teach school,” I said back.
“You come off the highway,” she said. “So you don’t know.”
“What don’t I know?” I said.
“The cook don’t ever come in until after noon,” she said. “He’s supposed to be here at nine, but since there’s never anybody in here in the morning, he never bothers getting in until lunchtime. Everybody knows that.”
“I’m here,” I said.
“I can see that,” she said. “I can get you coffee and I can get you pie.”
“How do you get to work?” I asked. “If you don’t mind my asking. There’s no cars out there in the parking lot but mine.”
“I walk,” she said. She shifted her weight on her hip and her eyes fluttered as she smiled.
“Are you saying I have to take my hard-earned money somewhere else?” I lied.
“We ought to have some kind of sign,” she agreed.
I looked her over and I saw that she was strong and funny. I knew that I was about to leave and go back home on stolen gas from the next gas station and grovel for my paper hat back. So this is what I said:
“You got a bank account, and I got a car. Why don’t we do five things all in order here since there isn’t a cook, and no customers come in until noon and I can’t get a hamburger which is what I really wanted and which is what I was gonna stiff you on, but now I can’t even do that. Why don’t I take the thirty-five cents in my pocket – which is all I have -- and put on your favorite song in the juke box? I don’t know what it is because I don’t even know your name. And then why don’t I take you over to that booth by the window and get your clothes off and make love to you real slow to the beat of it since nobody comes in until noon anyway, and fucking has got to be more fun than sitting back there sneaking cigarettes or whatever? And then we clean out the register and the safe, and then we clean out your bank account and THEN we go see my Uncle Robert in Colchito who is NOT ONLY a preacher, but he also smuggles drugs out of Mexico, and he would love to have a proper looking white couple to sit on a kilo of weed and drive it to Austin every once in awhile. And he’d pay us for that, pay us enough to live until my writing career takes off or one of us gets cancer, which is inevitable, just look at us.”
“You are trying to fuck me by saying I’m about to get cancer?” she said.
“I was just following my thoughts,” I said. “It’s not like I planned this out.”
“I would do everything you said right now,” she said. “Even though I’ve got a boyfriend. I would do everything you said, except for the fact that a song costs fifty cents on the juke box, not a quarter. So you are fifteen cents short, which means we can’t even get started.”
“I knew it,” I said, standing up, while she laughed at me and poured me a small cup of coffee “to go” in a paper cup. I didn’t bother asking her what her favorite song was. I was trying to have a good time – not break my own heart.