by Raul Clement
[Author’s note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Blue Mesa Review. You can purchase the issue here.]
The turnpike’s crowded come Thanksgiving, so at first Dylan doesn’t notice her, the new girl at the Northside McDonalds. Then the traffic breaks and he catches purple glimpses of her, a body bobbing among the waves. He hasn’t spoken to a real woman in so long he wonders if he remembers how. His last girlfriend, right before he dropped out of college, had accused him of cowardice, of running away. He can still see her getting into her car and pulling slowly out of the parking lot, daring him to run after her, to say, Wait, I was wrong. It’s okay. But he hadn’t, and now here he is, watching a girl on the other side of the turnpike.
One thing he’s learned: Southside and Northside don’t mix. It sounds like a bad show tune, but it’s true. Only a hundred feet of shimmering blacktop separate them, but it’s a five mile drive, heavily tolled, to the nearest turnabout. You could walk across, of course, but he’s seen too many rabbits paralyzed in headlights, too many bucks dragged bleeding hundreds of yards, ragged fur and antler smeared across the median. No one’s forded it yet, the Great Tollbooth River.
The air’s bone dry, the sky a chalky blue, and the leaves are rattling from their branches—so why the raincoat? She’s pulled the purple thing so tight the hood shadows her face. It hides the maroon and gold button-up, but he’s sure she’s a newbie. Just look at how she scrutinizes her watch, how her glance darts to the bright-lit windows of the store, as if expecting someone to come out and reprimand her at any minute. After a moment she hops from the car and slips off her hood. She shakes out a head of rich, auburn curls that goes tumbling down her back. She slips on her visor and disappears inside.
In the kitchen, Francisco’s struggling with a vat of last week’s fryer oil, a difficult task for a one-armed man. Some sloshes on the floor, and Rainbow leaps back and hops on one foot, pretending to be horribly burnt. Rainbow is a ninety-five pound transvestite with a piercing through her labret. Somehow, she’s neither convincing as a woman nor a man.
“Want to give me a hand?” Francisco asks Dylan. He waves the exposed stump of his arm, which if Rita were here, she would say constitutes a serious health code violation. Rainbow gives a snort of high-pitched laughter and then goes back to cleaning the grill. It’s down time, or as much of it as they get anyway, between the lunch and dinner rush.
Dylan grabs one side of the bucket and they haul it out the back door, where there’s pair of steel drums designed especially for old grease, collected by the county once a month. Dylan doesn’t know how they dispose of it once it’s in their possession, and he doesn’t want to know. He peeks around the corner, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northside girl, but there’s only a long line of cars, creeping toward the drive-through window. The stars are coming out.
“I had a dream I was a balloon,” Francisco is saying. It’s the following day, around four p.m. “I filled up with air and I floated high above the trees, looking down at you all. It all seemed so laughable, you know? All the things we worry and stress about. Nothing.”
Rainbow is nodding sagely. Last night she had her left breast tattooed, and she rubs it gingerly as Francisco talks. She showed them it this morning—a grinning rabbit with half of its skin flayed off, in honor of her first pet, who was struck dead on this very turnpike. Dylan doesn’t know which is more horrifying, the tattoo or Rainbow’s breast.
“I’m going for a smoke,” he says.
He’s halfway through his second cigarette before the girl steps outside, in the same purple rain coat. She looks about, as if to make sure she isn’t being watched. Once again, she takes a seat on the hood of her car, and reaching into the pocket of the raincoat, digs out a brown paper bag, unwraps a sandwich. She swallows it in slow, thoughtful bites. It’s only her second day and already she’s bringing homemade food. She glances up and smiles at him—at least he thinks it’s at him. From this distance it’s hard to be sure.
Dylan began working at the Southside McDonalds as a college junior, with only thirty credit hours left and the full intention of completing a degree, but his father had taken longer dying than expected, and after the chemo, the hospital and the cremation, there wasn’t any money left. Dylan Sr. was a bookie, placing bets at Langston Hughes Memorial Greyhound track down in Loveland, and for a while it had been a decent living. Problem was, he couldn’t help placing his own wagers and he winded up owing some connected types. They let him live, but he never was the same afterward. It was only a couple of months later that he found the lump at the base of his skull.
“These types of tumors can affect decision making,” the doctor told Dylan. With Dylan’s mother gone, there was no one else to tell. “Have you noticed anything erratic in his behavior?”
You mean like gambling your life away? Dylan thought.
His lawyer wanted to sue, but by then Dylan Sr. was terminally depressed and could summon enthusiasm only for high-speed car chases on TV. He recorded these chases and watched them repeatedly, with same lost gleam in his eyes each time, though he already knew the outcome. It took him back to the Loveland, he said, to the “flesh and bone” excitement of a group of long-limbed Greyhounds tearing around the track, pounding down the dirt, in pursuit of the ever-elusive hare.
“Dogs teach a man to live,” he told Dylan. He took a drag of his cigar and doubled over, coughing woundedly. The chesnut-brown wig slipped from his skull, revealing a shiny, birthmarked pate. “How to chase the hare. You’ve got to chase the hare, or else why are you here?”
The next afternoon, same purple slicker, only this time it’s raining. Muddy gray water beats down in great, whipping sheets. Lights on the interstate move by in a swimmy dream. He waves to her and she waves back. He waves again, this time more vigorously. Then, inspired, he climbs into his car and switches on the lights. He flashes the only Morse Code he knows—SOS, the international call for help. She appears to smile—again, difficult to say—and points to her chest. I, or me. She holds up two fingers. I…peace? No. Me too—a fellow passenger in need.
Inside, Dylan works the register, a cush job offered to senior employees. People come at him in steady file, a wall of smooth, featureless masks, shouting orders at him over the hiss of burgers cooking, the gurgling of the fryer, the tinny crackle of voices from the drive-through speaker. Two children, one in a plastic cowboy hat, tear around the dining area, ducking under booths and climbing on tables. Normally he might have a word with their parents, but this time he leaves it to Rita, who comes huffing out of the back room, her hair in a net and her eyes rimmed red from crying. Rita’s got problems of her own, a boyfriend who left her for their salsa dancing instructor, and a kidney that won’t excrete. Her doctor recommended salsa dancing as a kind of natural therapy, and now he’s been added to her list, along with the salsa instructor and a score of others, of people she secretly wants to kill. The list is posted in her office, scrawled in big blue Sharpie and titled just that—People I Secretly Want to Kill. Dylan asked her about it once—“If you post it like that, how is it secret?”—but she just stared at him in a way that made him wonder if he was next on the list.
As Rita takes the parents aside, delicately explaining the situation, Dylan presses numbers and colored buttons on the cash register as if in a trance. A shadow of a smile plays about his lips.
“Who’s your new girlfriend?” Francisco whispers in his ear. He’s clutching a hundred-count bag of Chicken Nuggets, which he prepares to dump into the fryer. “Does she dig on onesies?” He nods at his stump.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dylan replies.
The next day he doesn’t work, but the following day is clear and sparkling, one of those autumn afternoons where the light comes in slanted and bright. Yesterday, he journeyed to the all night Wal-Mart in Loveland, passing the Langston Hughes track. Without quite realizing what he was doing, he doubled back and pulled into the dark parking lot. He sat on his hood for a while and stared at the closed gates, not really thinking of much. The structure seemed smaller, less stately and more decrepit, than when his father used to work there.
Langston Hughes was an avid fan of Greyhound racing, and it is said that as a young man he spent an entire afternoon at the Loveland track, placing one grand wager after another. At the time the track had been named for Walter Schultz, the shipping magnate who’d funded its construction. That afternoon, Mr. Hughes won only a single bet, but he never stopped laughing uproariously, flushed and drunk in the August heat, a slender beauty at his side. Or so this is what Dylan’s father told him as a boy. Now he’s not so sure if he believes it—not because it’s unbelievable, but because it was his father saying it.
From a large plastic bag, Dylan removes a neon-green Frisbee, a roll of Scotch tape, a pen and a yellow legal pad. Bent over the sun-warmed hood of his car, he scribbles one word: Hey. The girl watches him curiously. He tears off a length of tape, then another, and affixes the paper to the Frisbee. He waits for a breath in the traffic, and then casts the Frisbee powerfully. It sails over the highway, wobbling gently to the weedy edge of the lot. The girl walks, not too slowly but not too fast, to pick it up. She reads the note. She studies him for a moment, face obscured by the glare of the lowering sun. She reaches inside her car, finds a pen, and removing the cap with her teeth, pauses for a long time, considering what to write. She puts down something, then seems to think better of it, crosses it out. She balls up the piece of paper and begins anew. Then, taking a running start, she launches the Frisbee back across, her whole body twisting in the attempt. The disc doesn’t quite make it, rolling to a stop two lanes in, where it is swept under the grill of a passing pickup. Miraculously, it reappears unscathed. Dylan darts out to retrieve it.
“Hey,” the message reads.
He thinks for a minute. “What’s your name?” he writes. He flings the Frisbee back across the turnpike in a wide arc that sails just clear of the parking lot. It bounces through high grass, into a ditch of knotted brambles. She retrieves it and holds it up with a triumphant grin. In a moment, the disc comes soaring back across.
“Carmen Ríos,” it says. Or maybe Caren Rios. But what kind of name is Caren? He finds it interesting that’s she written her full name. She’s one of those girls who draws hearts over her I’s, which normally irks him, but here seems endearing. “Dylan Broderick,” he writes, and then in a bold flurry, “Where are you from? How old are you? What do you hope to do with your life?” He worries this last is too heavy and vague, as if the Frisbee might buckle under its weight. But the reply comes quick and unmeditated: Chicago; twenty-two (one year younger than him); and Play Frisbee on the Turnpike with a Cute Boy.
“It’s looks like you’ve already found happiness,” he writes. “An enviable lot. Hopefully someone matching that description will come along soon.”
“I’m not picky,” she writes. “See you.” He watches her run back inside, curls swaying as she goes.
In the insular world of Greyhound racing, a dog that catches the hare is known as a “dealbreaker.” Greyhounds are sprinters, and as such are easily winded; they do not race more than once in a day. Once a dog sinks its jaws into the stuffing of the admittedly very fake rabbit, the race is over and no winner can officially be declared. Money must be gathered and redistributed. Drunk and inveterate gamblers are a raucous and impatient lot. They clamor and bang on the booths, one small spark shy of riotous. The glass of the booths is bulletproof, but it’s no match for an angry mob. Dylan’s father had braved their wrath several times in his career, and once he’d had to be hospitalized for a couple of bruised ribs and a sprained wrist. He’d called out the riot guard on that one, and they’d swarmed in with tear gas, mace, and shiny black sticks.
“No one likes a dealbreaker,” Dylan Sr. told his son when he came to visit him in the hospital.He had asked about Dylan’s girlfriend, and Dylan had confessed that she’d left him. “I always thought that she was too much for you. Hard-nosed.”
Like Mom? Dylan thought.
This was just a few months after Dylan’s mother had left him for a chiropractor in Des Moines, but Dylan now believes she was on her way out long before that, tired of the four A.M. knocks on the door, the hushed conferences out in the hall, the women who’d corner her in the grocery store, begging Dylan Sr. to call his henchmen off, saying that their husbands needed one lucky break, just one, and then they’d settle up. Of course, the break never came and soon enough those same henchmen came for Dylan Sr. Claudia left him for a man of earnest principle and steady income. Several months later, a postcard arrived at their door. The postcard showed the shimmering wheat fields of Des Moines, rippling in the wind, a sky blue water tower floating balloonlike in the background. The postcard had no return address and only one word on the reverse side: dealbreaker.
“Will you come out with me this Sunday?” Dylan’s most recent note said. She simply smiled and nodded, and the knowledge of this date was enough to carry him buoyant through a week of staff meetings (they weren’t pushing the McRib hard enough, and don’t forget the holiday specials), nonplussed customers, corporate scandal (someone had lifted five grand from the Lexington branch, an inside job if there ever was one), and long lines of screaming children. He felt a bit like Francisco, way up in his dream balloon.
When the day finally arrives, they meet at exit 127, five miles south of the Northside McDonalds. She is waiting for him at the travel plaza, leaning against her car in a yellow sundress. The dress’s pleats whip about her ankles. Her toes are squeezed into high-heeled, red leather boots. She must be freezing, Dylan thinks, and suddenly feels embarrassed to be seen in his faded Army jacket and frayed jeans. Should have combed my hair, he thinks. She is wearing the purple rain slicker, as always.
“You know it’s not raining, right?” Dylan says by way of greeting. “I’ve been meaning to ask you that.”
She nods. “But it might start any minute.”
“My grandmother always used to say that if you have low expectations you won’t be disappointed,” she says. “She raised me.”
“Sounds like a wonderful woman.”
The race track, exposed at its northern opening, is buffeted by a hard-edged Canadian wind. In a fit of chivalry, he offers her his jacket, which she accepts, draping it over her knees. He shivers uncontrollably but makes no complaint. It turns out her name is Caren after all, pronounced with a Latin-sounding A.
She has bet on the last place dog. “If it wins, I’m rolling. If not—well, I didn’t expect it to anyway.”
“I suppose I’m conservative,” he says. “I never thought of myself that way.” He has placed a bet on Firefly, a dog whose name sounds fast and whose odds are sufficiently low—six-to-one—for a substantial payoff, but sufficiently high to seem judicious.
“So listen,” she says. “There’s something I should tell you.”
“Yeah?” He waits for her to speak, but then she grabs his arm and points out to the track. The race is about to start. It’s the first time she’s touched him.
There’s a sharp whistle, and then the short, dry pop of the starting gun. The dogs come roiling out of their gates in a skirt of dust, and as the yellow cloud settles you can see their lean, silvery muscles stretched taut, their combed heads thrust from long necks swollen with cords, their small paws scuttling for purchase in the dirt. The crowd is on their feet. At first the dogs are nearly even, and it’s anybody’s race, but then one gray and blue-spotted beast, the smallest and scruffiest of the lot, noses ahead. And incredibly, it’s Blue Angel, Caren’s pick, who edges around the second bend, just twenty yards behind the steady bobbing of the hare. The great crane arm yanks the stuffed rabbit around the track, and Caren is jumping in her seat, Dylan’s coat falling forgotten on the dirty, soda-puddled ground. She clutches his hand and looks at him more closely than anyone ever has, he thinks. Then she returns to the race, clapping and cheering herself hoarse. It’s the last lap and it doesn’t seem possible but there it is: with one final, heroic lunge, Blue Angel crosses the finish line mere inches in front of the first place pick, Remember the Alamo. A groan arises in the crowd, most of whom have made safer picks, like Dylan. Firefly finishes several lengths behind. They go to pick up her winnings. She counts through the money again and again, as if she can’t believe it’s real. It’s more than she makes in a week, if she gets paid anything like him. Afterwards they stand at his car, reluctant to let the moment pass. He’s about to suggest that they get a drink somewhere—to celebrate her win, just like his father did the rare times he won—but she speaks first.
“I’m married,” she tells him. “That was what I wanted to tell you.”
For the next two days, no messages pass between them, and he works in a fog of misery and doubt. He goes drinking after work with Francisco, Rainbow, and one of the fry cooks. Rainbow takes them to a Tranny bar in downtown Levinston, where the bass thumps loud and low, and shirtless men in leather pants gyrate in an ecstasy-induced sweat. There is cage with a live Bengal tiger in it. The tiger, bored by the whole scene, stretches out languidly, licking his paws with a distracted air.
On the third day, the Frisbee floats lazily into view. He reads her note. “Are you mad at me?”
“No,” he replies, and then as an afterthought, a postscript, “I don’t know.”
“It’s not a happy marriage,” she writes. “He’s on the way out, I promise. His name’s Lewis and he’s a knife salesman. He’s always trying to get me to stand still so he can practice knife-throwing tricks on me. Once, he cut off the tip of my ear.”
“I don’t want to hear about it,” Dylan writes.
“Then you don’t want to know me.”
A schoolbus passes between them, creaking in its axles, a dozen small children mashing their faces curiously against the windows. Dylan goes back inside.
The next day, he takes his cigarette break out back, by the grease drums. When it comes time for lunch, he sits at a corner booth wedged between the drink machine and the bathroom. There’s a lot of commotion here—the rattle of ice cubes in plastic cups, the whoosh of flushing toilets—and the occasional waft of shit and piss mixed with antisepctic tablets whenever the bathroom doors swing open. But he feels secure in his corner, away from the window. He’s brought a book—on the history of greyhound racing, as if to torture himself—but the truth is he mostly stares at the page, unable to concentrate.
Three days go by like this, but it feels like an eternity, a geologic amount of time. After every shift, when he emerges into the cold November night, he’s almost surprised to discover that life continues unabated, shameless. He expects a wasteland, overrun by vegetation and huge reptilian birds. But cars rush by and people emerge from the glowing façade of Northside. He hurries to his car to avoid seeing her.
After a few days, she calls. He’s half asleep and he answers without thinking. “I want to talk to you,” she says. “Can we meet somewhere?”
He hesitates, but says yes. They arrange an appointment at the coffee shop in the travel plaza where they’d met before. He wills himself to arrive late, but somehow shows up early anyhow. But there she is, even earlier, sitting inside. She’s taken off the purple slicker and draped it over the back of the chair. Her arms looks very pale in the harsh halogen light.
“Hi,” she says.
He takes a seat and waits for her to speak. She shifts uncomfortably, coughs, then stares down into her coffee, where the cream has clouded the surface. She swirls the liquid with a stirrer and looks back up at him. “Aren’t you going to get something?” she says. “It feels weird, you watching me like that.”
“I don’t want anything.”
“Lewis has agreed to a divorce.”
“Okay.” He’s not going to give her the satisfaction of a reaction.
“Look,” she says, “I should have told you. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was scared you’d freak out.”
“Lewis and me—it’s complicated. Remember what I told you about my grandmother? Well, imagine growing up that way. Thinking you’re never going to get anything. That you don’t deserve it.”
He hates it when people do this, talk about their failings as if they were like the weather, outside of their control. It reminds him of his father, always blaming the dogs when he lost, telling himself that next time it would be better, next time his dog would come in. Never considering that it wasn’t simply bad luck that had put him where he was. Dylan stands. “I’ve got to go.”
She just nods and watches him leave, or so he imagines, though he doesn’t turn around. He wonders if she’ll just keep sitting there, drinking cup after cup, waiting for a moment that never comes. Let her wait, he thinks.
The weekend brings a dense, low-lying fog creeping from the marshy woods surrounding the highway. Traffic moves at an intermittent crawl, and there is news on the radio of delays and pileups, road closings and tollbooth robberies. Dylan calls in sick twice in a row, burying himself in bed with a pillow over his eyes. Dealbreaker, he keeps thinking, remembering the sharp, black letters, the way they rose menacingly from the blank postcard.
The next morning Dylan’s head is steady and calm. The anxieties of the week seem foolish, overwrought. He hurries to work, arriving fifteen minutes early. The fog is still rolling and mixing along the weed-choked shoulders of the highway. As he was hoping, she’s on break, eating another sandwich. The fog cuts ribbons around her. He sends the Frisbee sailing across—no note attached, the Frisbee alone is enough—and it disappears into thick, gray clouds.