Helen is probably 35. She wears her hair in a tight bun at the back of her head. There are times where it's partially unraveled like a ball of yarn. The frayed brown ends pulled out. It's more than likely she's married; there's calm in her hands, she never fidgets with the orders and she stands perfectly still when she takes money and gives change. She doesn't smile but she acknowledges a presence. A nod, a concentration on pouring the coffee, the pressure of her hands against the top of the cup when she fits the lid on. These might be matronly traits. They could be evidence she's a mother. Maybe a woman with older children. Awkward tenth graders shipped to the bus each morning. After she sends the kids off, maybe she sits at her coffee table and fills the silence with her breathing. Maybe she pulls the sounds from outside her home into some kind of a narrative, making meaning from sirens, tire squeals and garbage trucks backing up in the alley she likely has behind her home. Although, I don't know any of this. It could be entirely fictional. I've never actually met her.
"How can I help you today?"
"And would you like anything else?"
"Thank you, at your first window please."
This is Friday night for me. A car idling behind Tim Horton's. My fourth coffee steadying on my knee. The third dinner I've bought tonight rests on the passenger seat in heaps of cellophane. I haven't touched the fries and they waft chicken grease into the seats, my clothes, me. Its heat makes the windows condense into clouded streaks; a growing stain soils the brown paper bag tucked into my armrest. From here, I can see dirty thunderclouds shift rain like hands, folding, quaking. The windshield is dappled with rain drops, alight on the surface by pale neon store signs. Inside and outside, everything is a kind of liquid.
I am in the amniotic glow of a parking lot. There are low beams reflecting off soaked signposts and electric logos painted on the pavement. Where one surface speaks about another. My windshield blurs both. Wipers turn, hum, squeak. The droplets skid streaks against the glass. They could be tracers I'm seeing. My hands turning red, fists pushing into red eyes. When I take my hands away my sight blurs, eyes tear up, can't see anything but wetness. When I try to look, water takes the edges off, my sight lined in a haze, where objects and people lose their definition, their boundary.
I start my car and stop at the next McDonald's I see.
Sometimes I plan my nights. Working it out in my mind during the day. I pick the drive-thrus to go to and which people I really want to see. Helen at Tim Horton's; Tim is almost always working weekends at the Burger King on 15th Street; Samantha works alone at the Robin's Donuts on Thursdays; there are other people I want to see. I can make a story for each.
"Would you like to add a coffee for another dollar?"
"Sorry, we discontinued that special."
"Pay at the second window please."
When I talk to them, it's through a speaker. The distortion is a kind of de-personalization. Looking into the pinholes of the speaker-plate, it's as close to meeting eye-to-eye as I can manage.
Tim is an abnormally thin man. When Tim moves, one might use the word 'gait' to describe his posture. One might say, "Tim has quite a gait." One might feel empowered with such a word. I find words can put people in their place. When someone describes someone else, they have a power in the process of naming. When I say, "Tim is an abnormally thin man," he becomes my description, because my description is a kind of fiction with a set of assumptions, a type of reality where I hold dominion.
Tim is an abnormally thin man. He has quite a gait. He might have always been tall, a quickly sprouting kid with big feet. Despite his size, Tim wears his uniform well. The vest doesn't bulge or rumple at the wrong spots on his frame. He had that vest specially ordered. Tim is someone with an attention to detail. When he takes the order, his voice is deliberate, methodical. I can respect Tim for his faith in the process of order, the slow conscious detail of wrapping a hamburger. The careful placing of food into the Burger King bag. Tim probably has a mind for the scientific. I think this would make him a good lover. Attention to detail, he sticks to the facts of the body, an investigator with his hands. Likely, Tim is a virgin though. He probably feels inadequate with his sloping shoulders and stretching frame. His arms are too long for holding in a slow dance. Feet too big not to step and be stepped on.
"Hi, my name is Tim, how may I help you?
"Double-cheese burger with fries, okay, and anything else?"
"That will be $6.57 at your first window."
I finish my sixth dinner. I find I'm always hungry for more. I need to eat.
"Two apple pies?"
"Thank you for coming to McDonald's."
I never touch. Touch is personal. Even when it's money changing hands. Skin, anywhere, radiates a kind of intimacy. When two people touch, they say something to each other. They share a narrative. I don't want to touch because it says something about me to the other person. Worse, it says something about them to me. It's tricky, but I've found the best way to avoid the situation is to place the money on the stainless steel rim jutting out from the pay window. I tried gloves, once, but it led to too many questions. A man wearing gloves in August is bound to bring unwanted attention. When I put the money down, I make sure I do it quick, forceful. We both escape from any kind of disturbance. Let's keep our stories straight.
The seventh coffee is bought from an all-night Aïœ|W on Macleod Trail. As I pull out of the parking lot, the rain subsides. Not immediately, but with ease, meditative. The billboards along the road gleam under a sheath of water. Their pale faces look like empty mirrors.
Samantha can't be over 20 yet she works late weekdays. When she strides up to the window, she swings her wrist bangles and pony tail like she's just come from kindergarten. She always chews gum and speaks slowly, as though she wants her customers to notice. The bubbles popping in her mouth punctuating her sentences. She probably has the attention of more boys than she can handle, or bothers with. I can picture them talking about her in hushed tones at the lockers. She's the kind of girl where if someone told you she was dating someone else, it could ruin your whole day. Samantha probably never calls back but always means to; she probably tries to break her own untouchable image but can't find herself with anything more solid. When Samantha undresses at night, I know she's dissatisfied with the results. When she blinks, her eyelids close slowly, softly. You could almost think she's about to go to sleep. There is a heaviness in her eyes.
"Three donuts, sure, and anything else?"
"Coffee, ya, large coffee!"
Sometimes I spend nights in grocery stores instead of visiting restaurants. I sift through the aisles getting food for the week. Often, it's fascinating to listen to the other shoppers talk. I try to piece together their conversations into something tangible. Last week, it was an all-night IGA. The store was empty except for a couple leafing through the fruit.
"Did you put her away last night?"
"Did she put up a fuss?"
"No, all quiet."
When I listen to other shoppers, there are times I think their conversations edge against ludicrous boundaries; at times, it seems their conversations are fantastical, threatening, surreal. It's hard to know the motives of speech without knowing the speaker. There are times when I am more real than my surroundings.
"Did you make sure?"
"You know, nobody heard anything did they?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, sure, sure."
I have come close to putting my hands on other shoppers. I have listened to conversations I've felt an urge to disrupt. Last week a couple talked about murdering their daughter while picking out oranges.
"I still feel guilty."
"This isn't a time to feel guilty."
Or, it sounded like their conversation was about murdering their daughter.
"I love you hon."
"I love you too honey bunny."
Or, it sounded like it was and it really was. I have been detached to the point where I can't control my own drama.
"Nobody has to know the better."
"Look, look over there. That man is gawking at us."
Last week I dropped a carton of eggs on the glimmering linoleum at an all-night IGA. I'm not sure if I'll go back to a grocery store anytime soon.
"Was that man listening to us?"
"I'm not sure."
I decide to visit Helen again as it's almost time to go home. My eyes are red, dried. Most of the water has evaporated; only the homely uneven face of the road remains. There are small reflective pools of water stranded in islands of soot; there are boundaries here. I think her shift must almost be over because she's shut all the lights in the store off. From the pay window, I see her moving silhouette.
"How can I help you today?"
"And would you like anything else?"
"Okay, wait haven't I seen you here before?"
"No, I have seen you here, almost every night, sometimes twice, or three times."
"I'm sure it's somebody else, not me."
"No, no it's you. Sir, are you okay."
"No--I-- I, I'm sure you have me mistaken for somebody else."
"No, sir, I remember. I can remember faces, I know looks, yours."
"I--I'm okay, thank you, thank you--I don't need anything tonight now."
"Sir I didn't mean to--"
Maybe I will go back one night. Probably, she won't recognize me again when I go. Or probably, she won't say anything the next time. It's likely she won't but I could be speculating, inventing what I hope will happen. She might never say anything to me again, or perhaps, she'll call a co-worker to fetch my order because she's too humiliated. It's even possible she'll quit because she's unsure how to deal with what happened. She'll go home and not tell her kids about this night. She isn't the type to unveil herself so openly to others. She'll quit and find another job with comparable pay and send her kids off in the morning. I think it's better if I keep the story like this. I'm not sure I'll go back anytime soon.