Order 77; double Whopper and fries, and one hamburger children’s meal. Order 77.
I watch as an old man, his hands gnarled with arthritis and his feet wrapped in orthopedic shoes, holds up his receipt and shuffles to the counter. He nods towards the indifferent cashier and takes his full tray, slowly as if his whole world were resting upon it, to a booth where a small girl is waiting. She smiles.
Reluctantly, I turn my eyes back to my own crowded table.
The situation hasn’t changed. Pen’s boys are still here, a collection of three vaguely familiar faces from school, eleventh grade burnouts known mostly for smoking Camels behind the gym and making cat calls to anything wearing panties. My early hopes for Chad Mumford (that his childish crush on Grace might actually lead somewhere, that he’d be a boy worthy of a girl like her) have faded like overexposed photographs.
“That’s cool. I like the Syfy channel too- Sharknado and all that.” Chad makes a chomping sound with his teeth, smacking his incisors together like a hungry woodchuck. “I think they have another one coming out.”
I’m embarrassed for him, everyone is. But he seems oblivious, having hardly taken his eyes off Grace since we arrived.
“I like science fiction books.” She corrects, looking at him as though he were carrying Hep C and just offered her a used Band-Aid. “I don’t watch the Syfy channel. I really don’t watch TV at all.”
Sitting in front of me, Brian Kirby and Maxwell Bero choke down laughs along with bits of their Whoopers.
“That so?” Brian asks, his thin ferret face a bright red. More bread and beef come out than words. “That really so?”
“Yes.” Grace snaps. After only twenty minutes in their company we’ve learned to treat these two like toddlers, keeping with one or two syllable answers and sharp tones.
“I love TV.” Maxwell laughs. His belly (bigger than both mine and June’s put together) shakes like the proverbial bowl full of jelly. Everything else about him, the broad shoulders and long, unkempt brown hair, his two or three chins covered with short moss-like stubble, conspire to give the impression of a Neanderthal just thawed from a glacier. “Mine’s like a big, fat, vacuum tube filled mother.”
Chad belts out a goat-like laugh, sending cherry Coke spewing from his nose. Its a sad thing to watch. He seems intelligent enough, but only just, and these other two are only pulling him down by the ankles.
After a few moments things quite down, the only sound being the other customers talking and Maxwell’s not so sublet chewing. June’s already finished her bacon cheeseburger and most of Graces chicken sandwich and now sits observing our male counterparts. There is a somber familiarity in her eyes, as if remembering some sad aspects of a past life. She stopped laughing at their jokes fifteen minutes ago.
I turn to Pen, the divisor of this fiasco. Watching her playing with her cold fries I have to fight down the urge to strangle the life out of her. Did she actually thought this would work out, that we’d blend together like a peas and carrots and not like Shunis and Shias? And we took her talk of these guys as a joke. I mean, she’d mention them sometimes, her other life as she calls it, but with no evidence but her disappearance several nights a week, we just thought she was full of it.
“Y’all should come drink with us.” Maxwell says, making an effort to push the remainder of his fries into his mouth with one go. “We got some beer left from last night.”
“They don’t drink Maxwell.” Chad says, giving him a serrated look. He’s cleaned up the cherry coke and has recomposed himself.
“I don’t drink.” Grace reaffirms, unblinking, her words seemingly moored to the foundation of the Earth. God, I love her, this unmovable girl!
“We can teach you to like it.” Maxwell’s smile shows crooked teeth that braces should’ve fixed years ago. But I guess when your mother, an obese brunette with a perpetually sour attitude, works at the 5th Ave. Pump and Go and your father has left for parts unknown, straight teeth may not be as much a priority as paying the light bill. “The beer is in the trunk.”
“It’s twelve o’clock in the afternoon.” I say, as if the time of day would make any difference. I get the shakes just thinking about going anywhere near his pumpkin orange junker, a Chrysler Saratoga that puffs more white smoke than Tommy Chong.
“Chad’s mom is at the river for the weekend.” Brian gives me a wink, his charity for the fat redhead I suspect, “We have all day.”
“No thanks.” I make Grace’s sharp, uncompromising tone my own.
The last time I had a drink was February of last year. Mom thought I was at a sleepover with some church kids, instead I was at one of Tammy William’s parties, drinking rum and cokes in her garage with a boy named Gabe Fulton, the tall, yellow haired cousin of someone I hardly knew. Thinking of it now is like recalling a bad dream.
Just one more? He’d ask. We were sitting alone on a mangy green couch, surrounded by the garage’s four windowless walls stacked high with cardboard boxes. The place smelled like a litter box. …one more?
After three or four drinks (Gabe seemed to mix each one stronger than the last) the room began to tilt and my words started to slip out of my mouth as though my tongue didn’t have any teeth or lips to hide behind. I said something about Obamacare, the new IPhone 6, and Pap Paw dying.
He moved closer, placing his arm around my shoulder. He smelled like a woman, all hairspray and perfume. I brushed his arm off and stood, looking up at the ceiling fan, watching it swirl around in a slow, sad way. Behind it was a large brown water stain shaped like Maine. I could make out where Bangor would be. That’s where Stephen King lives.
Stephen King? Gabe stood and wrapped his arms around my waist. I was much thinner then and was wearing a dark blue dress with small white flowers dotting it like dim stars. Mom said that I always looked beautiful in that dress.
Just relax. His hands slid down my sides and he tried to pull my skirt up. I pushed him away and stumbled out outside, toppling boxes as I went. That night I walked home crying underneath a black moonless sky. I meet June the next week and never looked back.
“Who’s not being fun right now?” Pen asks. No, she hasn’t thought things through, and she knows it.
“Sober anybody ain’t any fun.” Brian mumbles. He checks the time on his cheap pay-as-you-go flip phone. On it’s screen is a photo of a topless girl. He’s pulled a charge out of nowhere and has found a wall outlet to connect it too.
“We really don’t drink that much.” Chad whispers to Grace, “They’re just talking. Honestly, I really don’t like it all that much.”
“Oh, really?” Laughing, Maxwell balls up his burger wrapper and throws it point blank into Chad’s ear. He turns to Brian, “What did he say last night?”
“He said “‘raw…rawww…blaa!'” Cackling, Brian nearly falls off his seat. As thin as he is he may snap in two if he hits the ground. “He threw up a whole French fry!”
Chad’s face turns beet red. I don’t know if is should feel sorry for him or wave my finger in his face, saying some crap like you reap what you sow or your sins shall find you out.
“Why don’t you two shut up.” Pen eyes them with the intensity of Welsh sheepdog corralling a few strays. They shrink back, almost imperceptibly, all smiles and no words.
“Do you like wrestling?” Chad moves quickly to change the subject. The dirty details of one’s life aren’t what you use to break the ice. “You know, Raw and Smackdown?”
Grace squirms in her chair.
“I love it.” He says, insisting on beating a dead horse, “Pen and I watch it all the time.” He looks at Pen for back up. She pipes in, mentioning Monday night’s matches and a half-dozen names I’ve never heard of before.
“John Cena is my favorite.” Chad smiles as if remembering an old friend, someone who saved him from a bully years ago, “He’s the baby, that means the good guy, but I like good guys. It’s a lot harder to be the good guy.”
Grace’s begun folding her napkins into perfect squares and placing them in neat rows beside her cup. Her unused pepper packets, six of them, have already been lined up like small soldiers at the edge of the table. She’s disconnected completely, retreating into a world where a little OCD can help you cope with just about anything.
“Does anyone need a refill?” Chad grabs his and Grace’s cups and moves towards the soda dispensers.
“What about mine?” Brian waves his own empty cup in the air, but Chad ignores him and disappears behind a partition.
“I think it’s time to go.” Grace says. She begins cleaning up her arrangement, sweeping her napkins and pepper packets into a perfect little pile.
Maxwell makes a thick, sucking sound with his teeth, like water swirling down a drain. “You know, Grace, you really need to get those ice cubes out of you a**.”
We look at him, surprised.
“Huh?” He cups his hand around his ear as if he missed her response. “You don’t like that Little Miss. Priss?”
Grace leers at him.
“He’s a good guy and you’re treating him like s***.” He leans forward, propping his enormous head on his pink swollen hands, creating an almost elegant composition, “You know he cares about you so much he doesn’t even beat off to you?” He places a hand over his heart as if touched by the thought, “He doesn’t even milk the sausage in your honor? Shows how highly he thinks of you.”
“I’m through with this!” Grace holds up her hands as if fighting off some hideous creature, and stands, her chair sliding back, streaking before falling to the floor. “I’ll be outside!”
I watch her go, pushing past Chad returning with two full cups. He looks at us then turns and follows her out.
“Jesus Christ!” Pen laughs, her hands over her mouth, her shoulders convulsing. God I want to kill her!
I try to follow Grace but June pushes me back into my seat.
“Your little friend there is a freak.” June says, venom in her voice.
“On Valentine’s Day he showed up at the True Love Waits Dance at our church. Like some kind of stalker.” I say, regretting I ever felt sorry for him, “He’s lucky she even showed up today.”
Maxwell nods, slowly leaning back. He makes a show of popping each one of his knuckles. A contemplative look comes over him, and his face changes from Neanderthal to early Cro-Magnon, less a brute and slightly more human. “Yeah, he’s a loser. But he’s our loser.”
Brian sucks his drink dry and rattles the ice in the bottom of the cup.
“You didn’t know this would happen?” I ask everyone, even myself. We all seems guilty of something terrible (or in the very least incredibly dumb) here.
“I figured she’d just talk s*** to him.” Maxwell scratches his head, ruffling his thick unibrow before straightening it again, “Then he’d wakeup. He’s not really into her anyways. He just wants something.”
“Yeah, what’s he want then.” June’s already made up her mind about these three, just as I have, but we’re curious. Isn’t all knowledge, good knowledge?
Maxwell picks his teeth with a plastic fork. “Ms. Priss is the antithesis of his mom.” He spits a strand of lettuce to the floor.
We look at him, waiting for some exposition. Yes, I know 8th grade words too.
“That means she’s the opposite.” Brian adds. At the right angle his face is positively weasel-like. I’m beginning to wonder if he had grubs added to his burger along with bacon and pepper jack cheese. “You know, like black and white.”
“I know what it means.” June glares at him, “What’s wrong with his own mother?”
Maxwell laughs and shakes his head, his many chins jiggling. Apparently we weren’t paying attention. “Who do you think buys us beer?”