SALT HILL 21, Summer 2008
He leaves the apartment at 3:45 p.m. Goes back in for his jacket, re-locks the door, leaves again. Walks half a mile up a side street that takes you up to the highway, the fall, leaves spindly along the sidewalk and the roar of the interstate ahead kicking up smoke and fumes, almost gets hit by a car, hands in the front of his parka that is out-dated by a decade and zips halfway down and is poofy with two bold stripes of different colors on the shoulders, those of a professional sports team, the logo of a ferocious fish of some sort embroidered on the back, fabric cuffs coming undone on the underside of the wrist, slightly frayed to resemble being chewed on by a small dog. He isn’t a particular fan of the team nor does he closely follow any sports aside from the general knowing-what’s-going-on such as what teams are the best and a couple superstar players, the kind of information that seeps in by breathing the air. Sweatpantish pants that are thin and in the wind hug his legs tight, printed with a zebra-esque idea of red and black and gray, heavily washed, the legs of which are elasticized into a scrunch at the holes and are hidden by two high-top sneakers, laced not all the way up so they are open and disregardant of the ankle-supporting purpose for which they were designed, worn black in the toe and strip along the lace holes, gray everywhere else, once white, soles lopsided and smoothed, and the reason for not being laced all the way is because the laces have snapped and are tied without the needley plastic tips into a small but manageable knot. He is clean-shaven, without sideburns, his haircut is a distinctless one that makes him look fresh, two fading beaches of short wispy hair on the back of his neck, and relatively short, and you see him from your car and think nothing of him—a man kind of jogging across the street. He is the lone pedestrian, this a place where people don’t tend to foot it, a well-sprawled town where you need a car, and he is then something to look at and notice, something to wonder about, and he walks over the meager but green strip of grass and past a modest tree then drops off the curb and into the parking lot, where he starts to walk by two cars in spaces next to each other but holds up and goes around, through an empty space, ducking into the wind and glancing off to the distance at his right, heads towards the door, a couple climbing out of their car and holding hands, high school or college or married, he can’t tell, he was never good at ages, but he holds the door for them as he goes in, a white piece of paper folded in his free hand, just now remembering that he forgot to put on deodorant again, his right sock with a hole where the big toe keeps sticking through, but they are just far enough behind him to make his holding the door for them unnecessary, unless he wants to make a deal of himself standing there holding the door, which he doesn’t, so he lets it close, hoping they understand, opens another door, glass like the other, goes in .
Leaves Iraq, flies into the US, stays at his brother’s apartment on the couch which doesn’t fold out but with the back cushions taken off is actually quite comfy, duffel bag open and spilling over with dirty undies in the corner where he put it to stay out of the way, and he gets up at seven in the morning because that’s when his brother does, because he has a job, and he doesn’t want to be sleeping on the couch with mouth open and feet sticking out from the end of the blanket snoring happily when his brother wakes up early for work and is stumbling around in an early-morning stupor, tying his tie and grumpy and can’t find his keys. Eats a bowl of cereal and his brother leaves for work and he goes back to the couch and turns on the TV, lies down, watches one of the morning shows, enjoys the friendly hosts, falls back asleep. Later in the day he leaves early enough to give him time to ensure he gets there before 4:00, in case the walk there takes longer than he estimates, which it doesn’t, actually is shorter, seven minutes. The time-warp of afternoon strolling. And now here he is inside a structure, standing to the side of the line looking up at the menu behind the counter illuminated and wall-size, with eight meals to choose from, and drink names written how they appear on the cans, and side items and potatoes and salads, promotional cardboard shapes dangling from the ceiling by string, a plastic bubble containing children’s toys, six duplex cubes with swinging doors that on them say TRASH and a plastic tray or two on top, wooden railings set up to guide the line into a zigzag airline order in the event of heavy traffic, the opposite of now, and he likes that the point of this is to fit more customers in and make the line look smaller to people who walk in, and likes that he is able to figure this out—those small camouflages, procedural decorations, like a shelf built to cover the unsightly heater in the corner of your living room. Hands back in his pockets, clutching the paper, dampened by his palms, wondering how he looks, a man with black hair standing in a fast food place, a guy in his mid-30s with dark features, the facial structure of a police officer leaning on his patrol car watching the fire, fierce, concentrative, focused and grown and developed. A guy, a man .
There are three locations of this particular fast food chain in this town, over 7,500 in this country, over 11,000 in the world, and he enters one of them. The one he enters is empty and vast save for an old couple nibbling in silence by the window at a table for two, wrappers spread out on their brown plastic trays with raised diamond-shaped pattern, fries emptied from cartons into a small pile on the wrappers and teeny ridged paper cups filled with ketchup, slowly sipping from strawed plastic-lid drinks, chairs attached to the table, tan and gray (respectively) salt and pepper shakers, a pile of yellow napkins between them. Two upper-teenage males with smooth faces and big bones at a table in the center of the dining area, hooded sweatshirts and the even growth of heads once shaved but now growing back, cheeks smooth but red, knees bouncing as they hold their burgers before their mouths with two hands, hunched over and staring without expression at things over the other’s shoulder and raising their eyebrows and making a face of worry as they open their mouths wide and bite. He stands aware of himself and begins panicking because he doesn’t zigzag with the wooden zigzagger but stands to the right-hand far end off the pick-up spot, next to a register that is not being used, pulse picking up and the fear of intrusion, offending, being asked to leave. He thinks maybe he should have gone through the zigzaggers regardless of the nature of his being here, hopes he appears still pleasant and decent for the cheerful-looking teenage boy with an embarrassing assault of very bright acne from forehead to throat who’s standing behind the functional register, hands on either side of it, glancing at him, as here comes the couple from outside and the male half zigzags towards the boy and the boy straightens and says to the couple, —Welcome to Wendy’s, can I take your order? He hopes the boy isn’t getting any kind of negative vibe from him and his disregard for the zigzaggers, an opinion that this guy is trouble, which he could pass on to the manager, wherever she is, who trusts her loyal employee and makes her decision based on it. The protocol here, he notices—as the male half of the couple places his order, the female short and Middle Eastern descent of some sort and the male tall and white, with the hat of a baseball team—is this: greet the customer, take the order, ask if that’s it, but to fill the drink before taking the money, which, he is pleased to figure out, gives the customer enough pressure-free time to find the correct amount and maybe even get the exact change rather than just handing over a twenty, thus not only making for a happier customer but also cutting back on the number of opportunities the cashier has to give the wrong amount of change, saving the company money, probably a larger amount of revenue in the long run than you’d think. He tries to soak in the possibility of coming here every day, filling the drink order before taking the money. Spending the majority of his hours awake here, the place where he conducts his daily activities, what he does with his days. His job. A man with a job. What he does .
The couple carries their trays away and the cashier now turns to him and says, —Can I help you?
And he goes, —Yeah, uh, I had an interview scheduled for four o’clock. To work here. I’m a little early, but. Well, just a couple minutes early. But. I’m supposed to ask for Debby?
And the boy says nothing, disappears to the back, seems like a nice kid, he thinks, a hard worker, doesn’t have an attitude like you expect from a boy his age. He thinks, If I get the job then I’ll be working with him, at least sometimes, we’ll be seeing a lot of each other, sharing the same space, breathing the same air, and maybe we’ll grow to like each other. I’ll be like an older brother or uncle, sharing my world experience, give him tips about life and girls, buy him cigarettes, divvy up the mopping duties. And then that would make this, right now, this, here, this will be the first time we will have met .
A woman his own age comes out, without her hat, and she’s pretty, thin, with lively green eyes, a juvenant face, a couple freckles on her nose, breasts small and lively under her uniform Polo shirt, but she’s tough in that easy small feminine way, the kind of girl with brothers who hunt, girls he’s known a lot of from the army, and she says in a voice loud enough for everyone there to hear, —Hi, yeah. Take a seat and I’ll be there in a sec .
—Okay. Uh, anywhere?
—Anywhere? Should I sit anywhere?
—Yeah, wherever. I’ll be there in a sec .
—Is right here good? —Right there’s fine. Just one sec .
—Or is there a place that’s better for you? —No. There’s good .
—Whatever’s best for you. I mean .
—There’s good. I’ll be out in a sec .
Sits down imagining himself falling in love with her, or her falling in love with him, something he tends to do on a mostly unerring basis with females who are in the least bit attractive. He is the kind of guy who falls in love easily, a perpetual feeling of incompletion that he believes the right woman will one day fill. There’s always more out there, things he doesn’t have. Sees himself kissing her forehead in the morning as she groans awake beside him, her hair askew and eyes puffy, the white sunlight coming in, and shuffling around the kitchen making coffee and toasting bagels, dodging each other, before they go to work .
Watching movies with his arm around her on the couch, feet crossed on the coffee table .
Walking down the street, bundled up, into a small Vietnamese restaurant no one knows about but them. Not something he wants as much as a scenario he sees. An object on a shelf. And she disappears again to the back and he hears things clattering and a man’s voice and her laughing and goofing off with somebody, then a door shuts and it falls silent, his elbows on the table and hands folded in front of his mouth, his face cold and smooth-dry, staring at his application unfolded before him as he breathes through his nose, thinking he maybe shouldn’t have folded it and that folding it might reveal that he’s sloppy or careless and she, as one who hires, no doubt has an eye attuned to such revealing characteristics and it might affect the outcome without either realizing it .
The sound of a heavy door opening and the laughing returns, then the soft suctioning of closing. The evening sun comes in fluorescent and slanted, hits you in tones that sting your eyes and bring out the deep colors buried in the concrete, grass, sky, makes you feel nowhere and forgotten, safe, the pillars of craftsmanship and the oblique smell of maintenance. It is beyond you, the meditation of eating, the solemn prayer of dine, the gracious refueling. No music on and their voices low and respectful, this is not their home, guests of something too large for them to understand. The dining room is tremendously well-kept and the paneled ceiling—free of brown stains or off-filtered slabs, no traces of unruly children bored tossing mustard into the air behind their parents’ backs—concealing the piping and fans and electrical wires strung and connected by men who spent months building this fast food restaurant only to leave for good once they were finished to never return. An existential art of the fly-by-night. Grind your man-hours away and send them off to orbit to live and breathe on their own. The sterile buzz of some sort of machine either in the kitchen or next to your head. An eternity from wall to wall through big unstreaked windows with giant decals announcing in explosive tones special-time prices and going-fast supplies visible to churning bellies on the road. A tauntful beckoning. Partially obscuring the view of the sliver of Pennsylvania in which you are present. The architecturally landscaped outskirts of a business park set amongst smooth new windy roads you can see the end of from their start. So spruced it makes you think of young mothers and their babies. Homes with trees in the front yard propped by wooden training sticks and big magic-markered boxes in the dining room. The unsteady whisking of birth. Amongst magic-wanded casual dining chain restaurants whose lacquered tables are waited on by brunette girls with ponytails taking time off from school who come in on their off days to sit at the bar and play with their earrings. Wonderful rounded facades supersonic colored .
Translucent from the inside. Orange mulch. Fresh mowed grass. Wet-looking wood-iron benches for long waits by big parties. A man-made drainage ditch in a football field-sized green plot and in which a single duck floats, pecking at the water. The drainage ditches’ tributaries veining out and taking you underneath the interstate bridge where the water sludges into a swampy goop atop pointed gray rocks. The peace of rest beside transience .
Gripping tight to time with a crystal sky while those zoom past in an instanting of space .
The triumph of nowhere .
Debby’s voice from the back says, —We need more napkins. Hey. More napkins .
He bounces on the balls of his feet. Bobs his knees. Imagines her back there sitting on a counter swinging her feet, thinking of things to tell her staff to do, lying down on ] the floor with her hat over her face, saying out loud to nobody, —Wasn’t there something I had to do? He thinks, Maybe I should go back up there and remind the kid behind the register so he can in turn go to the back and remind Debby about the interview. But do it kindly. Maybe smile and say to the kid, Whoops, looks like Debby might have forgotten I’m out here, heh heh. The boy will laugh too and say, Yeah that’s Debby all right. Tell you what, she’d lose her head if it wasn’t attached to her neck! We’d share a laugh and the boy would say hold on and go get her and I’ll say thanks and go back to the table. But now that he thinks about it, he decides he doesn’t want to be annoying or make a fuss and so stays where he is .
When Debby finally reemerges from the back she sighs as she sits across from him, not looking at him, rubbing her forehead, snatching his application with one finger, saying, —Yoink. She looks at his application, studies it, takes it seriously, humming a tuneless tune. She doesn’t ask a lot of questions. This is good. It lessens the chances of her figuring him out. That his driver’s license is fraudulent but looks skull-bustingly legit, with the holograms and everything, that he got from his buddy who makes a surprisingly lucrative living manufacturing and selling fraudulent driver’s licenses and social security cards and birth certificates and even passports, to illegal immigrants or well-off underage drinkers and guys like him. The interview from here more or less consists of Debby asking him if he has a criminal record and if he is honest, and though he wants to point out the paradox of the question he says yes, to both. He doesn’t mention the nine days of brooding following 9/11 in which he felt as though he was having a nervous breakdown. Meditations on death and what it means to be free or an American. 24-hour cable news and watching flags flap from the antennae of automobiles. He doesn’t mention that he joined. Back then he had his own place outside Philadelphia and spent his nights and weekends alone in his apartment, on the computer or watching television, thinking about painting the walls of his apartment, too aware of the inconsequentiality it meant to be him. And so he joined to make himself feel bigger, to embolden and italicize himself. Put himself into the consciousnesses of others who were horrified by 9/11 but deep down thrilled and excited by it. Something happening to them. Joining was a good idea to people. It was a good idea to him too. He saw joining as grim and stoic and heroic in a battered helmet and rifle in his hands, patrolling the streets of a ruinous Middle Eastern city, flying in on a helicopter with cigarette dangling from his lips under the cover of night, parachuting out and landing with a big knife in his teeth, face streaked with black, signaling to his men, pointing at his eyes and waving, sneaking up on enemy camps and opening fire, fighting hand-to-hand combat and slitting throats and tossing grenades and diving in to foxholes, saving his buddy’s life and being awarded a medal in a hospital bed but not caring because of the hell he’s witnessed, throwing the medal into the ocean somewhere and going home quiet with an empty stare, a light but thick growth of beard, a tremble in his speech, perhaps a limp and dots in his arms, legs, buttocks, and visions of dead soldiers in the mirror, everyone he meets feeling inferior in his presence knowing who he is and what he’s done but respectfully keeping their distance, old men buying him a beer or passing him on the streets nodding to him, watching, muttering to their wives their approval of his joining. Joining as becoming the man you’ve never been. Joining as doing what needed to be done then going home to eat Ma’s supper .
Quit his job in IT and moved out of his apartment, shipped off to basic training, where they ran you so hard that smokers awoke in the morning coughing up thick gobs of black shit. He spent an entire year expecting to be deployed to Afghanistan in the morning. He was eventually sent to Iraq where he wasn’t given a bulletproof vest or toilet paper and didn’t jump out of any planes because his job was to do laundry. He washed the uniforms .
The underwear. He ironed the socks. He folded the laundry and delivered it back to the soldiers. He watched guys ten years younger than him play cards and take shits. Then he washed their clothes. He saw nobody die. He heard gunfire twice in the distance. Hanging out with 20-year-olds who couldn’t get into college taking pictures of themselves holding machine guns. Growing mustaches. Talking pussy. Passing around sticky porno magazines .
They’d joined. Watched intermittent cable TV and made cell phone calls back home and surfed the internet, checked his email, went on a patrol here or there that would last 5 days and consisted of climbing into a Hummer in a line of Hummers and hold on tight and off you go at 80 miles an hour in a thousand mile circle. He doesn’t have to tell Debby that when it came down to it, war was little more than wearing a uniform and looking for toilet paper and doing your best not to embarrass yourself. He wiped with computer paper stolen from the office where you get your mail. He pretended to sleep one night while two 19-year-olds from western Maryland and northern Virginia doubled up on a 23-year-old female private from North Carolina in the bunk next to him. There was the time he cut his finger on a can of freeze-dried baked beans. He watched fistfights during football games. He went home on leave, didn’t report back, is now AWOL, applying for a job that pays $5.15/hr, under false identification .
Debby is paid $9/hr and calls this thing that he is here to join the team. She is 26 and doesn’t think too much about politics or war. She doesn’t keep up with the news because she has to keep the napkins full and balance the registers and open and close and fill in for AWOL employees. She is married to a guy who works at the water treatment facility for $12/hr. They have a six year old and she smokes marijuana three or four times a day and is high right now after smoking in the walk-in freezer while her 4:00 interview waited. She goes to church on Christmas and Easter and believes if asked that homosexuals shouldn’t marry because marriage is a sacred thing between a man and a woman and has cheated on her husband twice though that was in the first year and she’s calmed down since then .
He is nameless as he leaves his brother’s apartment at 3:45 p.m. so as to ensure he is not late for his 4:00 interview. Garbage bags set outside doors, a cigarette butt here and there. Discarded pizza boxes flattened and grease-spotted. A car alarm whooping somewhere .
Finds himself walking through what could be classified a suburb built, he knows, to scatter the citizens and sprawl them away from cities in case of an enemy attack, back when such things were imminent. A product of an old paranoia. Your fractionalized environs, a butter knife scraping across to land you here, with a piece. And he is unsure of what he is doing as are many, or where he is from, as are many, or what has become of his desires and who he knows, how he has adapted to the harsh truths and let-downs of growing older and seeing what turned out to be myths popping off like dandelion heads one after the other. There seems nothing to be and from here on out is unmapped terrain. He is so powerless and confused that he’s whimsical. He kicks veined yellow-brown leaves up and watches them scurry from the wind into the road. But he is exhausted by where he’s been .
It stays gathered on him like more layers of skin. The plane ride that deposited him over there then waited for him to mope back aboard to bring him back home. A time traveler .
He finds a joy in disappearance. A free-fall into the depths of blatant, easy employment .
Because they would never know. A boundlessness. A who gives a shit .
First thing he did when he got home was buy massive amounts of toilet paper. And when he opens his eyes he’s waiting for an interview at a fast food restaurant, wondering if his fly is open. The laughter of the girl in the back who should be interviewing him not irritating him though it is clearly irritating the old couple by the window. Nothing she could do would irritate him. This fact makes him feel like a fool and blood rushes into his temples and twice he puts his hands on the table and braces himself to stand up and walk out and leave but, yeah, okay, but then what?
James Boice lives in Cambridge, MA. His work has been in Esquire, McSweeney’s, Fiction, and other magazines. He is the author of the novel MVP and the forthcoming NoVA (January 2009 from Scribner).