I’ve never been the kind of person to eat fast food. Geri cooked real dinners and I brown bagged my lunches. Sure, we took the kids out for burgers now and then, but it was a treat, not a way of life.
There’s a kid running around at knee-level who looks a little bit like Jeff when he was a boy. Same bushy hair, albeit a shade lighter brown. He wears a red and yellow striped shirt, as if he were McDonald’s branded. His mother puts a hand on his shoulder and I think she’ll tell him to quit running because he’s going to knock into someone and send their food flying, but instead, she tells him not to play there, but to head to the play area. So, he runs away from his mother’s side, in line to order, and past the glass door that another grown up is conveniently holding open. The kid doesn’t even say thank you, and the next second he’s climbing the ladder up to the big twisty slide that feeds into the ball pit. Probably for the best. Out of my way, at least, so if someone spills his coffee it’ll be on that side of the restaurant where you ought to expect such things.
Still, I worry about the boy. When Jeff and Susy were little, you could afford to let kids run and play on their own, but nowadays it’s all over the news about missing children. Not just strangers scooping up kids, but teachers, or preachers, or soccer coaches. You can’t trust anyone, and this woman sends her boy off to play unattended.
I reach the counter ahead of her. Order my usual medium cup of coffee with two creamers, yogurt parfait and a copy of USA Today. Splurge a little and get a hash brown, too.
The kid who takes my order asks if I’d like two, because they’re two for a dollar, as if he’s never seen me, as if I’ve never been here at breakfast time before and don’t know the hash browns are two for a dollar. His forehead is greasy and littered with dots of pimples. I remember when Jeff wanted to work a fast food gig in high school and I wouldn’t let him, fully aware he’d end up just like this kid. Stand around it long enough and all that fry grease seeps in through your pores. And what do these kids eat on their lunch breaks? More McDonald’s, of course. More grease and salt and fat. “One’ll do.” I try to say it easy. I know the kid’s doing his job, but you’ve gotta be firm or they’ll give you the two hash browns and charge you the dollar and say that’s what they heard you say, and it’s an argument. If there’s one thing worse than being in a McDonald’s first thing in the morning, it’s lowering yourself into an argument with one of the employees.
I started coming after I moved to be closer to Jeff and he and Kate had their first born. It’s what Geri would have wanted—what she would have insisted we do. No sense in staying put and withering away alone when there was family to be around. Small town living was good. Quieter. I got to be buddies with my next door neighbor Louis and we watched football games together on Sundays, and he’s the one who got me going to McDonald’s for breakfast where all his friends hung out. An old crowd, but what was I if not old? After Louis had his stroke and it was clear Jeff and the family were too busy to see me more than once a week, I needed some sort of social outlet, didn’t I? So I kept coming.
“Look who finally showed up.” Big Carl always reeks of cigarettes and always gets a full breakfast. It’s a miracle he’s lived this long, well into his retirement. Today he eats hot cakes, slathered in butter and syrup, and two sausage patties, also in syrup, from a Styrofoam container. He’s got a large coffee, a large orange juice, and glass of water to take his pills. Most of them
have pills, and it’s a point of pride for me that I don’t. “We were starting to think maybe you’d croaked.”
Big Carl says this, regardless of the time, whenever someone’s the last to show up. You’d think that we had a job to do, a schedule to keep. As if it weren’t one of the few luxuries of getting older that we don’t have to go anywhere at any specific time, or go at all if we don’t want to. I check my watch and it’s 8:45. That’s a good time to show, after most of the folks rushing to get to work. I’m not in their way. They’re not in mine.
Lenny squints at my tray. He squints at everything, including his newspaper. I’ve seen him wear glasses a couple times, but for whatever reason, the skinny bastard doesn’t want to make a habit of it. He points a liver spotted finger. “You know those hash browns are two for a dollar.”
Big Carl—he calls himself that, it’s not just a descriptor—likes to think he holds court, talking over the rest of us and giving people a hard time as he sees fit, but the gravitational pull of our little group of eight or nine oldsters revolves around Lucinda, sitting next to him today. She’s the only woman in our group, and I think she likes the attention. She eats a Fruit and Yogurt Parfait and sips from a hot tea. She skips over the news section of the paper and goes straight for the crossword puzzle.
“You hear what Obama said today?” Lenny folds over his paper and holds it close to his face. “He says there are no Islamic terrorists. Give me a break.”
“That’s not what he said,” Carl corrects him. “Not exactly. Remember, he’s a Democrat. He’ll never say anything in absolutes.”
Dee Dee—one of the workers—goes into the play area. She’s good with kids. I’ve seen her carry out trays of Happy Meals to them. She’s the one on birthday party duty in that play
area. A nice girl. A pretty girl, too. In the old days, we would have called her double-Ds, even though that’s not empirically true, because it would be a convenient nickname for a pretty girl.
Dee Dee’s always nice to me. She always smiles, and she winked at me the other day when I got caught holding the door open for one kid and it turned into being a stream of four of them, followed by the mother pinning a cell phone between her shoulder and the side of her head, the handle of a car seat over her elbow, a fifth kiddo asleep in there. I was annoyed, but Dee Dee winked and it made it feel funny, like it was all some big joke and when you look at life that way, you can’t stay mad, even if a part of you thinks you ought to.
It bothers me sometimes that Dee Dee is so friendly with me, in a way I don’t think she’d be with a younger man. It signals that I’m old enough to be harmless, and it’s not good being that ancient. Old people and children—before you’re a teenage jerk, after you cross the threshold so the idea of dating you would have to be a joke. People see an innocence there and it isn’t right.
I do like that Dee Dee’s in the PlayPlace with the little boy who looks like Jeff, though, because it’ll mean that someone’s looking out for him. From where I’m sitting, I can see the top of the slide and I haven’t seen him climb back up there, which has me worried he’s gone missing. Maybe his mother came in with the food already and made him sit down. Or maybe he’s still tuckered out in the early morning, I guess.
“There’s going to be a fish fry at the Lion’s Club Friday.” When Gary pauses, he curls his tongue out over his upper lip. He’s not as big as big Carl, but he’s plump. The kind of man who’s spent a lifetime eating McDonald’s cheeseburgers. He always finds something about food in the paper. If it’s not a fish fry, it’s a church bake sale, or a new restaurant opening, or a comment about a grocery store ad. Always hungry, always looking ahead to his next meal, even
when he’s got a jiggly fried egg patty on an English muffin right in front of him. “Twelve dollars, all you can eat. Not bad.”
Lucinda puts a hand on his arm and moves it away like she’s swatting him in slow motion. He looks at her. Hopeful. He’s got the spot of honor on the other side of her today and it’s probably the first touch he’s had from a woman in years. He never talks about a wife—current, ex, or deceased.
“Didn’t the doctor tell you to watch your cholesterol?” she says.
“Doctors say a lot of things.” He tears at the newspaper. Doesn’t even crease it first to get a straight edge, just tears at it all ragged. “What’s the point of being old if you can’t indulge yourself?” He stuffs the scrap in his pocket for later.
“I remember going to the senior prom at the Lion’s Club,” Big Carl says. “They’ve still got that same crystal chandelier, but it doesn’t shine the way it used to. I remember the way it looked that night. 1952. It sparkled. Valerie—the girl I took—she said it looked like we were dancing under the stars.” He eats a big bite of a hot cake that didn’t cut all the way so the piece adjacent to it hangs loose from his fork, then his lips before he sucks it in.. “I remember she smelled like roses.”
Here in McDonald’s, everything smells of eggs and butter. The coffee’s burnt. All of these oldsters have a history with all of the local haunts—I bet every one of them has a Lion’s Club story like that, and I always feel like a jerk nodding along without anything to contribute, like I’m behind because I haven’t lived in this Podunk town my whole life. Try talking to them about a restaurant in Boston or Chicago, they look at you like you’re from Mars.
Jeff shouldn’t have moved here. This is a place for old-timers and people who think small. Young people—smart, vibrant young people ought to live in big cities, especially at this
age. That’s the mistake I made, too young, and that’s why he got brought up in a town like this. Shouldn’t one generation learn from the mistakes of the one before it? Want more? Live better?
The running boy’s mother wanders unsteadily back toward PlayPlace, balancing a tray. So she wasn’t there before, and she didn’t get the boy who looks like Jeff away from the slide. So where is he?
“I heard the liberals are going to try to take all of our guns away. Don’t they get it?” Lenny said. “Take the guns out of our hands and the only people who’ve got them are the terrorists. They think it’s bad what happened in Orlando. What if the Muslims knew no one had guns anywhere?”
It’s the same small town conservative talk I heard when I was a younger man, and I don’t know if it’s more or less frustrating for the familiarity, for the fact that all of them probably grew up hearing it until they repeated it.
Oscar joins us. He’s a wiry old man with big tufts of white hair that he doesn’t comb or maybe there’s only so much a comb can do against hair like that. He sets his whole tray on the garbage can like he does everyday, leans over, and pours some of his coffee down into the trash. Often as not, he gets some of it on himself. He says it’s because they always give too much and Big Carl’s told him he should just ask them not to fill it up all the way, but he never does and inevitably, toward the end of our morning routine, one of the workers retrieves the bag and has to be extra careful because the bottom’s filled with coffee. Sometimes the bag breaks, so the coffee and whatever other garbage juices it mixes up with leak little drops across the floor.
“Gun control’s not the same as taking away guns, Lenny,” Big Carl blows on his coffee. He drinks it with the lid off so it isn’t so hot so long, but I always eye it, sure he’s going to spill it all over the place. “Call me a moderate on this one. I think some control is OK. But I do also
think there’s a problem when people who don’t understand the fundamentals of how a gun operates are the ones calling the shots. I heard a man on the news the other day, talking about how the size of the clips was one of the issues, because why would anyone need a clip with so many bullets. I sincerely don’t think this man knew the difference between a clip and a magazine.”
The mother in PlayPlace is looking all around. She doesn’t see the boy. She talks to Dee Dee for a moment. Dee Dee smiles at her, too, and I think for a second maybe that speaks better of her perception of me—that I’m not so much harmless as just any customer, and she smiles at customers. But that’s not right either, because this is a middle-aged woman. A mother. And Dee Dee puts us in the same category. Mother and grandpa, the both of us not to be concerned about.
But the mother looks concerned. She realizes her mistake, surely, in sending the boy off on his own and now he could be anywhere. I imagine a stubbly-faced man in a black ski cap waiting at the bottom of the slide with his arms open wide to greet whatever child might come to him.
“You need screening to get a gun. There ought to be screening for making gun laws, too. A written test, at least,” Big Carl says.
I take a bite of my hash brown to keep from talking because I don’t feel like engaging today, and half expect Big Carl is trying to engage me. If people like him paid attention to what was happening under their noses half as much as they concerned themselves with their obtuse takes on world affairs, maybe they’d contribute something to society. I promise myself, right then and there, that as soon as Jeff’s kid graduates high school, I’m out this Podunk town. No sense sticking around after that, at least if I’m in decent health. Maybe I’ll be one of those old-timers who drives around in an RV. I always thought it was silly and I’ve never driven anything
like that—never anything bigger than a twelve-foot moving truck—but how bad could it be? Maybe I could finish off my bucket list—finally get around to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon like I always thought I would.
“There’s not that much screening necessary to get a gun,” Lucinda says. “And I don’t see what knowing how a gun works has to do with that part.”
“Ha!” I can’t help myself from barking out a laugh. Lucinda usually doesn’t weigh in on political discussion. The only time I remember her pointing out something from the newspaper was a cute strip from the funny pages about explaining death to kids. I thought it was really sad and kind of beautiful, and a hint that Lucinda had more going on upstairs than most of us to appreciate a thing like that. All Big Carl could say in response was, geez that’s depressing, Lu and I think half of it was just to get a rise out of her because she doesn’t like being called Lu and she’s told us that dozens of times. He flirts like a grade schooler, and you’d think he’d have some more dignity than that.
But today, when Lucinda brings up the obvious flaw in these Republican geezers’ chatter, she’s the one beyond reproach. Big Carl will give her a hard time but he’ll never engage her in a real argument where she tries to pick apart what she says, and now, though the lot of them might descend on me in her place, I’m also under Lucinda’s protection because anything they say about me as a goddamn liberal would apply to her, too, and maybe they wouldn’t care if I got up and left, but they’d be damned fools to let the only lady in their crew slip away.
But I laugh in the same instant that Oscar shows up and he jumps and the lid’s still loose on his coffee and there’s still enough in there for it to spill over the brim onto his hand and onto his sleeve and he screams like he’s been electrocuted. He almost loses his balance—he really might’ve if Gary didn’t get a hand on his back first.
Oscar’s looking all around himself, really in a state and Lenny takes what’s left of the coffee cup from him to set it down and helps guide him toward his seat, before he rouses. “I gotta get more coffee.”
“I’ll get it Oscar,” I say. “It’s my fault for startling you. This cup’s on me.”
“You’ve got to pour out a little.” He talks like he’s straining—his voice is always soft and tired like that. Like he already spoke his allotment of words for his life and he’s running on fumes. “Not a lot. Just a few sips so it’s not sloshing.”
I’ve sat next to Oscar enough times to know how much coffee he wants—about three-quarters of a cup—so I tell him I’ve got it and walk around him, feeling nimble. Decrepitude is a relative thing and maybe I’m still relatively spry, relatively far from death.
“Get the poor guy napkins, too,” Big Carl hollers.
On my way to the counter, when I’m about to get in line, I look over at PlayPlace again and there’s no sign of the mother. Things have gone from bad to worse. She must not have spotted little Jeff and gone on some sort of frenzied search. And just then I see a darker spot in the slide. A round, tucked up shadow where the slide turns from a red to a yellow segment around a bend.
The boy’s stuck. I look for help but there’s a long line. Long enough that Dee Dee is back behind the counter, not in PlayPlace, bagging and bringing food to drive thru, or putting it on trays at the counter—how does she keep track of what goes where? She’s too busy to be bothered, and the rest of the workers won’t take the time to listen to me. Not if I’m doing anything besides placing an order.
So, it’s up to me.
I walk into PlayPlace. Pause as two kids run by, fortunately not to the slide, just running to run. What’s with all of these kids? Is it some sort of holiday? I make my way to the exit of the ball pit and crouch down. I haven’t been on all fours in a long time, but I’m feeling strong. Like today, I can rescue little Jeff and deliver him to his mother. Get back to our table and the guys will all want to pat me on my back. Maybe Lucinda will want to kiss me on my cheek, and I’ll take it, if just for the status symbol among the rest of the oldsters. Even Big Carl will have to admit that what I did was pretty great. Maybe Dee Dee will look at me and see the younger man I once was. Think I’m dashing. Ask me to tell her stories from when I was her age, besides saying I’ve got free coffee for life.
I peer up into the slide. I can’t see past the curve, and don’t know why I thought I would be able to. The slide smells the same as the trays after they’ve just wiped them down with their cleaner—when some of the workers slap the liner down too soon and start reusing them right away because it’s busy, and the cleaning fluid seeps right through. They’re not patient enough. No one is these days.
“Jeff?” I call up to him. No answer. This is scarier. Maybe he’s not only stuck, but hurt. Maybe he tried to stand up in the slide and hit his head and knocked himself out. I ease my shoulders in. It’s a tight fit. Tighter than I thought. They must make these slides smaller than they used. I begin my slow crawl up. No need to rush. Just have to get up to see if the boy’s all right. I see myself tugging gently on his leg to get him loose if he needs it, then the two of us can slide back down, easy-peasy.
But the climb is hard. Harder than I could have imagined, the space too tight, the angle too steep. I slide back, involuntarily, but only a little. Only a little until I’m wedged in tight. I can’t crawl forward, can’t crawl back. I might be stuck here forever.
But it’s warm here. There are worse places to be stuck. And someone will come along sooner or later. People must have seen me go in, right? They must have thought I was crazy. They’ll come help me. And then someone better equipped—someone younger and slimmer—can take my place and reach Jeff and deliver him, too. Let them be the heroes. Young people need that sort of thing more, anyway.
My eyes are heavy. I didn’t get to drink much of my coffee and I’m paying for it now.
Help will come soon.
So in the meantime, I breathe in and breathe out. I rest my eyes.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and his hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press. He has previously published with journals including The Normal School and Hobart. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.