Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Clint enjoyed his job as general manager of Bass Pro Shop. Really, he did.
He’d started working as a sales associate when he was 20. Six years later, (on a recommendation from his retiring manager “for his responsible and capable tendencies and ability to adapt to and manage any given situation”) he’d been offered the position of general manager. He hadn’t been sure if he was ready for it—after all, he’d never really been the kind of person to like confrontations, or unpredictability. And it was only AFTER he accepted the position did Jim, the manager that Clint had inherited this job from, give him two pieces of advice.
“Clint,” Jim had said, wrapping his arm around Clint’s shoulders and steering him toward the carp pond as if they were father and son discussing life matters, “this is a recreational facility. A big boy toy store. So don’t take your job too seriously.” Then he stopped walking and looked Clint in the eyes. His voice deepened.. “But take your customers seriously, son—always. And never underestimate what they’re capable of.” Though it sounded dramatic, like instruction for dealing with big game, Clint had followed it to the letter and it had worked for a year now.
But in that year, Clint had seen exactly what Jim was talking about. Customers presented him with all species of situations not addressed in his managerial protocol handbook. Once, a woman brought a trapped raccoon into the store because she thought the Bass Pro Shop could take it off her hands. But when Clint kindly explained that they weren’t an animal refuge, the woman opened the cage, with a spiteful smirk, let the animal loose and then sashayed out of the store. The coon clambered to the top of the mountain goat exhibit, and sat there hissing while Clint helped the animal control people wrangle it into a cage.
Another time, he helped revive a woman who fainted when she was caught off guard by the taxidermied cottonmouth in a display by her foot. Clint had cleaned up a pile of deer guts that had fallen off the back of a pick-up truck in the parking lot. He had fished flip flops out of the fish pond. Had politely asked men who were casting lines from the fishing department over to the women’s clothing section to stop.
In other words, customers themselves were about as unpredictable as any of the big game or hobbies that his store helped them to dominate. And in a place where testosterone raged sometimes out of control and bragging rights were not merely unwritten law, but a constitution to live by, Clint had never quite overcome the fear. The fear of the overpopulation of an unpredictable, sometimes aggressive species of customers. It stayed with him when he was drinking coffee in his office and the phone rang. It twisted his gut every time his name came over the intercom. It assaulted him when he heard a customer say ‘excuse me’ right behind him. He even had nightmares of worst case scenarios. Making and keeping his customers happy was Clint’s lifelong goal. ‘Cause at his core, he assumed that really, he simply feared confrontation with corporate and the consequences of unhappy customers.
Incidentally, confrontation and consequences were all that Clint could think of right now as he stood holding an accident report form. He watched the woman sitting at the table across the café with her back to him, her arms crossed as if she were cold. Her short brown ponytail still dripped, forming a small puddle on the floor behind her. A sack of wet clothes sat by her chair.
Clint jumped slightly as Brad, one of his floor clerks, walked up next to him holding out a fleece Coleman blanket from the camping section. “Here’s that blanket you wanted. Oh and this.” He held out a plastic bag containing a digital camera still seeping water from the cracks in the camera body. “She doin’ okay?”
“Yeah.” Clint released a sigh that sounded pitiful even to him.
“Don’t worry about it, man.” Brad said, as if he could sense Clint’s tension. “It’s not like this is the first time somethin’ like this has happened. Remember those idiots a couple years ago on Youtube?”
“Yeah, but they meant to do it.” Clint rubbed his hand across the auburn goatee on his chin, a gesture he reserved for times when he didn’t know what to do. “Man did you see how scared she was?”
“Could be worse.” Brad grinned. “She could be dead.”
Clint shot him a death glare and grabbed the blanket and bag out of his hands. He nodded toward the girl. “Who knows what in the world she’s gonna say—or want.”
“Eh, maybe it won’t be as bad as you think. Bite the bullet and get it over with.” Brad clapped him on the back. “Good luck, boss. And let me know how this one turns out.” With a chuckle, he walked back to the camping department leaving Clint alone with his cramping stomach.
Clint stood for another thirty seconds, trying to determine his approach. Overcompensate. If we give her what she wants upfront, maybe that will hold off a lawsuit or even out of court costs. He remembered from his days of watching Davy Crockett as a boy that with enough charm, you could tame a grizzly. So with a well-rehearsed smile spread across his face, he approached her table. “Hey there. Look what I’ve got.” He wrapped the blanket around her shoulders “This’ll help warm you up. It was Robyn, right?”
She nodded, accepting the blanket eagerly. But her face remained sullen.
A bad sign. “You doin’ okay?” He pressed, settling in the seat next to her, hiding the plastic bag with her camera under the table.
“I’m fine.” She fingered the price tag dangling from the blanket just beneath her chin. Wincing at the price, she dropped the tag as if it were hot. She tried to recover by looking over at him. “Um, thanks for the change of clothes.”
Marlene from the ladies clothing section had fixed her up with a dry pair of jeans and a t-shirt. “Do they fit okay?”
“They’re perfect. But, um—” She looked down at the outfit, “how much will all this cost me?”
Clint stared at her blankly, not wanting to underestimate the simplicity of the question, yet marveling at its innocence. “Oh! No, no. You can keep those. No charge. In fact, is there anything else that I can get for you?” He looked around for something else to offer her and spotting the snack bar, asked, “Are you hungry? Want some water?”
“I think I’ve had enough of that for today.” She coughed, as if a few drops of water still remained in her lungs.
He wasn’t sure whether to laugh or apologize. She was either severely disgruntled or just sarcastic. Gotta feel her out a little more.
“Oh, and—” she gave him an apologetic glance. “I’m sorry about—the fish.”
Clint sat up straighter and blinked. A customer was apologizing to him? “Oh, d-don’t worry about it.” He crossed his arms on the table and leaned forward. “We’re gonna mount him and put your name on the plaque as the fisherman who caught him.” He saw her smile slightly. Charm boy, charm. Works every time. “Although, I gotta say, your technique ranks right up there with throwing dynamite in the lake.”
“Yeah, well, technique wasn’t exactly on my mind at the moment.”
“No, I guess it wasn’t.” This seemed like a good enough transition into what he was really there for. He pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket and clicked it open. “Look, I need to fill out this accident report. Can you tell me what happened?”
She groaned, putting her head in her hands. “It all happened so fast. I was taking a picture from above the tank, but my foot slipped on the waterfall spray and then— ” She stopped, as if she couldn’t bring herself to repaint the scene. “And then splash.”
He pressed a little harder on the pen as he wrote, hoping that she’d overlook the fact that technically it was their fault that she went over. He’d been telling corporate that they needed to redirect that waterfall spray. It settled right there on the floor at the landing.
Her sharp gasp pulled him out of his reverie. “I just remembered. Did my camera—?”
He stopped writing and set the plastic bag in front of her. “Sunk to the bottom of the tank. We dipped it out, but it’s probably dead.” He hurried on. “But we’re gonna take care of that for you too.”
Lifting the bag to inspect the camera, she shook her head. “It was a 300 dollar camera! I don’t expect you to pay for it.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’ve been through a lot. We want to take care of you.” He jotted down the expense of the camera in the margin of the report.
She set the bag down and eyed him for a minute. “All right,” she smiled, as if resigning to this and any future kindness. “Thank you.”
Her smile made him feel better. She was small and, well, cute. Some mascara was smeared around her eyes and— Focus Clint, focus. He cleared his throat and went back to filling out the accident report. “So why did you come in to the Bass Pro Shop today?”
She chuckled, remembering the simplicity of her visit. “I was looking for a pink Browning buckmark for my car. But you didn’t have any.”
A buckmark? She looked so unassuming. As if she might have a hobby making jewelry or scrapbooks. That’s right. Those were the ones Jim told you to watch out for. Better keep her happy. “Well, we’ll get you a pink buckmark, even if we have to special order it.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Nah, we want to take care of you.” He slid the paper over to her. “Here, can you fill out this top information for me?”
As she concentrated on filling in her phone number and address, he asked, “So what do you want with a buckmark? You hunt?”
“Me? Hunt?” She burst out laughing. “No. I just like the fact that I’m making a statement.”
“What kind of statement are you trying to make?”
She filled in the last space before passing the pen and paper back to him and then smiled coyly. “I support the right to bear firearms. And I like to keep people guessing.”
“Most of them don’t think of me as a buckmark kind of person.”
You got that right, Clint thought. “So what kind of a—”
“Good grief, do they really have to stare?” She put her hand up to block the side of her face closest to the people in the café. “I should have sold tickets.”
Clint looked over his shoulder. A twenty something year old guy, who looked as if he sincerely didn’t realize that capitalizing on someone else’s trauma was ethically in question, pointed to his high-tech phone screen and laughed. “I was filmin’ the fish tank when you fell in,” he yelled over to her. “I got it ALL on video. Just uploaded it to YouTube.” As if this were meant to calm her.
“Great.” She squinted at him, her voice brittle with sarcasm. “Thanks for lettin’ me know.” She pulled the blanket closer around her.
Clint moved his chair around to block their view, and reached out hesitantly to touch her arm. “Hey, don’t worry about them. They’re just ignorant rednecks.”
“That’s redundant.” She snorted. “Ignorant. Rednecks.”
He loved the way her intonation barely changed with each statement, no matter what her emotion was. “That’s right. So give ‘em a break.” He grinned. “Besides, I have to admit, watching you cling to the side of that tank, screaming, ‘Will they bite?’ was pretty darn hysterical.” When she cut her eyes over at him, he hurried to clarify, “NOW—of course—it wasn’t THEN.”
“Well this IS Bass Pro Shop.” She snapped. “Aren’t y’all supposed to have exotic stuff in here? I mean, you could have had piranhas in the tank for all I knew.
“They’re Grouper.” He said, dryly, attempting to keep the conversation light. “Grouper don’t bite. What cracks me up is that you were in a 10 foot tank and you can’t swim, but you were scared of the fish?”
“How did you know I can’t swim?”
“Because in between yelling about the fish, you were also screaming, ‘I can’t swim.’ And then there were the tell tale signs of the sinking and struggle and gasping and—”
“All right, all right.” She rolled her eyes but couldn’t stop the grin. “I have an overactive imagination. The only thing more mortifying than falling in a fish tank at the Bass Pro Shop is being systematically stripped of my flesh in front of an audience. A docile death like drowning didn’t occur to me as a worse option.”
“You’re taking this pretty well.”
“Eh, you either laugh or cry. Why waste the body fluid? Things like this just happen to me.” She reached up and loosened the ponytail, casually. A trickle of water splashed onto the floor. “I’m always looking for an adventure, but catastrophe usually finds me first.”
“Are you a connoisseur of near death experiences?”
She thought for a minute then shook her head. “I think today was the first life threatening one. But you know, the petty little things. Flat tires, getting lost in the bad section of Atlanta, being accosted by angry herons—that kind of thing.”
He grinned, hoping she had more stories to tell. Anything to give him an excuse to—Clint, get a hold of yourself. She’s a customer. Get her in, get her out before she suits you. Business, boy. Business. His smile disappeared. “You could have drowned you know.”
He ignored the sarcastic comeback and suppressed a grin, trying to remain professional. “That wouldn’t have looked good for Bass Pro.”
“I think people would have thought worse about the retard who fell into your fish tank.” She looked down at the tag she was fiddling with again.
“Y-you’re not a retard, Robyn.” He assured her softly. “Anyway, we’re really glad you didn’t drowned.” There that sounded professionally distant.
“Glad I could help you out.”
He needed to get out of this conversation while she was still in such a compliant mood. Looking down at the accident report in his hand, he said, “Well, I think I’ve got all the info that I need here. So if you need someone to drive you home or if your clothes need to be dry-cleaned, or if you want to stay around for lunch at the Islamorada—anything—you let me know and we’ll take care of it. My office is right through those doors.” He patted the table once and stood. “Have a great day, Robyn.” Well, that was easy. Letting out a sigh of relief, he headed out of the snack shop.
“I could suit your butt off, you know.” Her voice still held the same almost bored intonation.
Clint was sure that he lurched from stopping so fast. Whoa. Where did THAT come from? Slowly, he turned to face her, his stomach cramping, his mouth bone dry.
“That water up on the floor—” she cast a glance toward the waterfall ledge “clear violation of safety code. I know I slipped on it.” She crossed her arms and let silence punctuate her meaning. “I’m seeing emotional damages out the wazoo.”
The almost exotic unreadability that had intrigued him so much before, seemed almost dangerous now as he tried to gather some thoughts, some response. Respect the customers—they’re intelligent creatures. With this one especially, he knew he couldn’t bluff any longer. And surprisingly, he realized that he didn’t want to.
Pulling the chair back out, he sat down. “You’re right. It was our fault.” He pulled a business card out of his shirt pocket and held it out to her. “And if you want to—pursue this further, here’s my name and number.”
She took the card and looked at it for a minute, then slid it back across the table with one finger. “Good thing you’re takin’ such good care of me already.”
He sat there confused, searching her eyes, as if they were a compass that would tell him exactly which direction this entire scenario had just taken.
Finally, she grinned. “You need to chill, Clint. We aren’t all out to get you. Besides—I mean, I got a new outfit, a Browning buckmark, a new camera—possibly lunch and anything else probably short of carting home one of those boats you got out back. What more could a girl want?”
Clint wasn’t sure why he wasn’t more annoyed at her obvious strategy to unnerve him. Nor did he understand why he proceeded to say, “I really do want you to know how much I’m sorry. I’ll never forget the way you held onto to my neck like a wet cat when I pulled you outta that tank and carried you to the back room.”
She laughed, brushing a strand of now almost dried hair behind her ear.
“No, honestly. I’ve never seen anyone that scared and embarrassed before. You shouldn’t have had to go through that.”
“And yet, you’ll go home and watch the video on YouTube and laugh your stinkin’ head off.” She predicted, shaking her head in disapproval.
“Oh, yeah. Probably go back to my office right now and watch it. Probably post it on Facebook and show it at the company Christmas party, too.”
“Do I get compensated for supplying the entertainment?” She twirled the piece of hair around her finger.
He thought for a minute about his comeback. It wasn’t professional, but then again, very little in the past fifteen minutes had been. “I live by the bay,” he blurted out, pushing the business card back toward her. “Why don’t you call me sometime and you can come over and let me teach you how to swim just in case any of your other adventures take you around water?” He held up his hand as if swearing. “No piranhas or flesh-eating trout or vicious grouper or hidden YouTube video cameras.”
She fingered the card. “Promise?”
“You bet.” He winked. “And if there are—I’ll take care of you.”
“And what about YOU?” She raised an eyebrow. “Are you dangerous?”
He wasn’t even sure where, but somewhere along the way the game had changed. Like those hunters who tell stories of becoming the hunted. And, strangely, he didn’t mind the swap. Because for all that this girl talked about wanting adventure, Clint had a feeling that she was herself quite an elaborate adventure. She was unpredictable. Risky. And for once in his life, he didn’t turn and run or offer more amenities, bribing the impulsive moment to pass him by. This girl looked as if she’d be extremely displeased if he answered, ‘no.’ And since customer satisfaction was always his goal, he leaned forward, rested his arms on the table and smiled confidently. “Oh, you’re in luck, ma’am. I’m one big adventure just waiting to happen.”
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
I fell in love a few weeks ago.
The moment I stepped from the van, my heart commenced its love affair with the lusty salt smell associated with the sea. There are stories in this place, I thought as we walked across the gravel parking lot. Inside, I hugged myself against the chill of the freezers, as I pressed my way through the crowd of people gathered around the front cases. And there I fell in love—with fish heads, their milky eyes staring pitifully at me through the glass; miniature squids, resembling some kind of rubber bath toys; slabs of scarlet salmon and metallic-skinned tuna; and brilliantly colored fish eggs—orange and green, shining like plastic beads on a dollar store necklace. I cheered on humongous lobsters fighting their way to the top of the tank, climbing over others who, resigned to their fate, lay on the bottom. I stared for an unacceptable length at the large-nosed Italian man perched against a stool, calling order numbers into a microphone and thanking customers at full volume for their loyalties. Yes, I fell in love with a seafood market.
I’d heard the name of the place in many conversations, each time hearing others rave about the seafood market and its restaurant. As an avid seafood lover, it seems strange that my reason for finally visiting was far from purchasing my favorite food. Instead, I visited the shop under the most curious of intentions—not to buy seafood, but to sample scoops of gelato, the smooth and marshmellowy textured Italian ice cream. If it weren’t for my world-traveling friends who knew of Italy’s delectable desserts, I’d have never gone. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed to find such a delicacy in a place like that.
Patty and I surveyed the tubs of dazzling colored gelato and sorbets: pistachio, raspberry, hazelnut, butter pecan, peach, coconut, and all the average flavors. We sampled several, and then ordered a scoop each, she savoring raspberry and I the fresh white coconut.
At the check-out counter, I flinched at the young cashier’s rudeness when she snatched the ticket angrily out of Patty’s hand. Eyeing Faye, I took a step back, feeling an awkward moment about to unfold. Faye rarely tolerates rudeness and the fallout of her intolerance can range anywhere from mild scolding to cruelty. Surprisingly, she said nothing.
The more I watched the woman, the more I realized that she wasn’t an everyday-run-of-the-mill rude worker. There was a world behind the counter that I knew nothing of and I felt distinctly as if we were being punished for the crimes of others. In addition to us, she took out her frustration on her bubble gum, smacking it, gnashing and chomping it. Her eyes looked sunken, tired, as if she’d forgotten to put on eye liner—or just hadn’t cared to. Then, from no apparent provocation, she began to delineate her trial of the snowbirds.
How she hated snowbirds who hauled their old selves and money down South—the way she talked—with the express purpose of tormenting her.
“They threw their trash in my tip jar.” She lamented, picking up the plastic container much like the one holding my gelato only with ‘Tips’ written in pastel marker across it.
Patty and Faye had walked away by now. But as I stepped up to the counter, the woman was far from finished. “One lady was looking at the shirts and then she came up here and said, ‘I’d buy a t-shirt if it was a ‘reasonable price.’’ She grabbed my gelato container, scanned it into her register and then slammed it down on the counter and said through clinched teeth, “I had to get this—“ She reached under the counter and for the briefest moment I pictured her pulling out a super soaker squirt gun or an Uzi. Instead, she held up a hardcover book and pointed to the title.
“Just to keep me from killing them.”
I read the cover silently: “The Love Revolution by Joyce Meyer.”
She shook her head wearily and stuffed the book back under the counter. “$1.25.”
Unsure of how to respond, I held out my money and smiled, happy to have been a sponge to absorb some of her frustration. I wished her well in her quest for patience and hoped for a swift migration of her invaders. Then I walked away to join my friends out at the van.
Love will always call you back. And it did. A few days later I returned to the market. I browsed the same route—staring in at the fish; watching the lobsters who had yet to figure out a way to escape the tank. Then I made a wish list of crab dips, and cheeses, seasonings from the world over, and exotic flavors of hummus. I tasted a sample of pistachio gelato, the color of a million smooshed peas. Then tasted the hazelnut—and predictably ordered a cup of coconut.
At the counter. I smiled to see that she was working again. She didn’t remember me, but when I asked, “Are the snowbirds gone?” her eyes lit up with recognition.
“Well, they’re gone, but now we’ve been invaded by spring breakers.” She sighed and swiped my deli ticket under her scanner. “I figured out that I’m just burnt out on this job.”
“How long have you been working here?”
She scrunched her face as if calculating. I expected her to reply with a copious length; perhaps she was in the owner's family and had been working there since she was a little girl, or—
“A year.” She replied. “I’ve been here through two tourist seasons.”
I fought back a snicker at her lack of endurance, until she explained, “I’m getting ready to start college and the personality test I took said I didn’t have a personality for being a cashier.” She threw her hands up. “There you go.”
“What are you going to college for?”
“To be a dental hygienist.” She beamed, as if she had told me she’d been accepted to some elite university where she would learn to cure the common cold.
My mouth fell open for a moment while I tried to formulate a way to tell her what I was thinking. “I can’t explain it, but you LOOK like a dental hygienist.”
She looked at me doubtfully.
“No, really. I’d let you clean my teeth.”
This time she laughed;
So excited that I’d fulfilled my mission, I said, “See you later,” and started walking away.
“Hey.” She called. “You forgot your gelato.”
Rolling my eyes at myself, I grabbed the container. “Thanks.”
I walked out of the store, smiling because she had no idea that the gelato was only an excuse for what I had really gone back for—to see if she was there, to hear more of her story. Just outside the door, I sat down at the table and took a bite of the cool gelato, content that I’d found what I went for.
Monday, April 4, 2011
He sat across from her looking as if he’d be more comfortable in a plastic booth at Whataburger than a leather chair at this Olive Garden table. But he had told her to choose her favorite restaurant. So here they were.
Staring at the menu, his brow was furrowed as he gnawed fervently on his lip. She couldn’t tell if he was nervous about pronouncing those Italian dishes or if he was calculating the price of the meal.
It was her job to make him comfortable, so she folded her menu and asked, “What looks good to you?”
“Um, not sure.” Seeing that she had already put down her menu, he scanned the menu more feverishly. “Geez, you know what you want already?”
“I usually get the same thing every time. Lasagna Fritta.” She sipped her water.
“I’ll uh, probably just get the spaghetti and meatballs.” He laid down his menu and fell silent, looking down at his overturned wine glass, as if wishing it were full.
“So, Billy tells me you work on cars, Dusty.”
“Um, yep.” He picked up the straw wrapper and started fiddling with it.
“I think that’s one of the most enduring occupations ever because people will always need to drive and cars will always break down. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
"Um, yep. That’s what I always say.”
“I always wanted to learn how to fix my own car. I mean a good mechanic is hard to find. They usually try to trick you into getting a new motor when all you needs is an oil change.”
“Yep, some of ‘em.”
He was trying to be involved in the conversation, she’d give him that much. But even she was bored of her own conversations. To spice up the conversation, she decideed to mention her occupation. That always seemed to work. “I work at Victoria Secret.”
“That’s real nice.” He looked out the window, unfazed by the information.
Good grief! Billy had sent her on pity dates before, but this was by far the worst. That girl must’ve torn his heart out; he practically had a DNR tacked on his forehead. It wasn’t as if she ever thought it would work out between them. Or even that she had come out with him under those pretenses. She smirked, looking out at the parking lot. No, nothing would work out between them, not with that monstrosity of a truck he drove.
This guy was clearly in distress and needed something more than small talk to get his mind off his problems. He needed therapy.
She needed to perform a test to see just how bad it was. First, the silence endurance test: see how long a stretch of silence could go before it bothered him. She sat back in her seat and watched him patiently, like a lab worker might observe a specimen.
After three minutes passed, he still just stared out the window. It was clear that this would go on for as long as she decided to remain silent. He wasn’t initiating conversation anytime soon. Next came the observation test.
“Look at that rain coming down.” She grinned.
“Uh, huh,” he nodded.
“Cats and dogs.”
She shook her head, squinting at the sunlight streaming through the blind. Her diagnosis was complete.
Just then the waiter walked up. “Y'all know what you want?”
“Yes. We do.” She stated matter-of-factly. “We’re leaving. Come on, Dusty.” She gathered her purse and opened it, handing the waiter a couple dollars.
“But, but—“ Dusty sputtered. “Look. I’m sorry I’m not good company—”
“Dusty, it’s all right.” She laid a hand on his arm across the table. “Any man who can’t tell a rainy day from a sunny one is clearly still in love and needs to talk about her. C’mon. Let’s get you out of here.”
He followed her, weaving in between the tables to the front door.
“Wh-where are we going?”
“To my place. I’ve got a box of Cap’n Crunch at my house. Cereal is a comfort food.” She stopped to let him catch up. “And a bowl of cereal on my back porch definitely isn’t a date. You need to talk. I’ll listen.”
When he had helped her climb into his truck and gotten in himself, he looked over at her still a little confused. “H-how did you know?”
“Apart from the obvious signs?” She chuckled softly. “Billy always sends his buddies my way right after one of them breaks up. I generally know how to help them get over their girls. But you—you’re just hurtin’.” She reached over and patted his hand.
“Let’s go. The Cap’n’ll help you feel better.”
For the first time that evening, he smiled.
Sunday, April 3, 2011
At times Cam hated hanging out with them—-times like, oh, right now, when, as seniors in college, Troy and Jeff were flirting with the high school girl making sandwiches behind the counter at Arby’s. Ty was making stupid comments to the girl at the register who clearly had heard every line a frat boy had to offer.
Cam wondered sometimes what it would be like to walk into a restaurant and sit down to have intelligent conversation with his friends—he smirked, Having intelligent conversation with them would be as awkward as wearin’ a burgundy sweat suit to an Auburn game.But these guys—the Core Four as they called themselves—had been his buds since grade school, through high school and now college. They hadn’t grown up that much since high school. But instead of abandoning them and going in search of that bridge from boyhood over to manhood, Cam stood in line at Arby’s in the middle of Auburn, Alabama, listening to Troy and Tyler try to extract from Jeff exactly how long it had been since he had changed his underwear.
Lucky underwear is a subjective term, Cam thought—seeing that the only lucky person involved was the party who hadn’t exerted the effort to change it. A day count didn’t matter past a certain intensity of odor—one that he was familiar with since Jeff had ridden over here with him.
Cam had tried to understand why he couldn’t bring himself to separate from them. Maybe he felt that he’d lose his identity—and yet he didn’t want to be identified with them. Maybe because he was afraid that if he left them, he’d never find anyone else who would ever accept him the way they did—but they didn’t accept him when he started talking about grown-up things like making a budget or getting a Master’s degree or making a resume. He wasn’t sure what made him stick with them. But more and more he felt that they were a burden, more like an eternal babysitting gig than his friends.
He ordered his number 3 in an apologetic tone to the woman at the register. When she handed him his receipt, he thanked her to compensate for his friends’ inconsideration and walked over to fill his cup with Dr. Pepper.
At the drink island, the underwear conversation was still in progress.
“You wearin’ your lucky boxers?” Jeff asked him. He grabbed too many cup lids in his hurry and flippantly tossed the extra four in the trash can.
“No, Jeff.” Cam sighed. “I stopped wearin’ them our sophomore year and funny thing—the Tigers have done just fine.”
“But it’s the principle of the thing, man.” Jeff clapped his hand down on Cam’s shoulder. “You do it for the team. Where’s your Tiger pride?”
“It might as well have been you that poisoned the oaks.” Tyler chimed in.
Cam had learned over his three and a half years in the communication disorder major at Auburn University that if you ignored people, they’d stop talking, eventually. In theory this always worked. With these guys it was a fifty/fifty success rate. This time, an Auburn game on the TV saved him, since anything with orange and blue caught his friends’ attention like red catches a bull’s. They went to sit in a booth along the back of the restaurant to wait for their order numbers to be called.
Ignoring the ensuing conversation about the game, Cam surveyed the restaurant. For a Sunday evening, the place was busy. A family still in their dress clothes from their Sunday evening service sat right behind the drink island, with a screaming three year old smashing curly fries in her hair.
A group of black ladies in red hats congregated by the door, waiting for their orders and talking noisily among themselves in animated conversation.
Another table of college students occupied a table in the corner, involved in conversation that elicited eruptions of laughter every so often.
The TV blared sports news above the din of the small restaurant.
But there by the window, right under the TV sat a young woman in jeans and a t-shirt; she was probably about his age or a little older—Cam couldn’t tell. She was alone, eating her curly fries daintily, tearing each coil in half before dipping one end in ketchup and popping it in her mouth. While she chewed each bite, she turned her attention to a small notebook on the table beside her sandwich wrapping. She scribbled something in it and then reached for her beef and cheddar again. Each time the sauce touched her fingers, she wrinkled her nose in disgust and reached for a napkin which, once desecrated, she would ball up to join the snowstorm of napkins surrounding her at the table. Something about her solitude in the middle of noise struck him with an emotion he couldn’t identify. It wasn’t strong enough to be desire—maybe the cousin of desire—jealousy. Her ability to be alone, but confident, to exude a maturity in identifying with herself intrigued him.
After taking the last bite, she stretched her legs out to rest on the seat across from her and concentrated fully on the notebook.
Cam jumped, startled when the other three friends burst out as the Tigers scored a basket.
The girl turned to look over her shoulder at the boisterous table, smiled, but then repositioned herself in her seat so that she was turned even farther from them, as if their noise were offensive to her solitude.
“Cam—hey man. Did you see that? Cam, hey. Where are you?”
Cam blinked and turned to look at Troy. “Uh, I’m right here.”
They looked toward the girl he’d been staring at and Troy let out a loud painful sounding snort. “REALLY, man. REALLY? Her?”
Cam attempted to nonchalantly defend himself. "What are you talking about?” He picked up his cup and drained it of the soda as his friend snickered to one another.
“Order 97.” The woman at the counter called the familiar number.
“That’s my number.” Cam jumped up, greatful for the escape.
“Looks like the shortest way up there is beside her table.” Ty laughed.
“Wait—someone get him a pen.” Jeff threw a napkin at Cam. “Don’t forget to ask for her number.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Cam grabbed his empty cup and made sure to walk around the other way to the counter. He gathered his tray, but when he turned around, his heart jumped to see that the girl stood throwing away the wrappers and napkins into the trashcan. She stopped right next to him at the drink dispenser, waiting to let him fill his cup first.
“No, you go ahead.” He insisted.
She stood on her tiptoes to watch the cup fill with Dr. Pepper, and when it had almost flowed over onto her fingers, she pulled it off and pressed the lid back on. “Thanks I, uh, hope your Tigers win.” She nodded toward the TV, and smiled.
Before he could tell her just how disinterested he was in the game, she called a cheery ‘Thank you,’ to the workers behind the counter and bounced—that’s what it was, as close as he could describe it—bounced trot out of the restaurant. Making sure that the guys couldn’t see him past the small divider between the drink island and the seating area, he craned his neck to watch as she backed out and pulled away. He grinned when he saw in the corner of her back window a Crimson Tide A. I wonder what else we’d disagree on?
Walking back past her table, he spotted the closed notebook with a pink and yellow design on it lying on the chair next to where she had sat. She must have left it when she was gathering her wrappers. Glancing back at the guys to make sure they were preoccupied with the game, he picked it up, trying to decide what to do. It was above him, of course, to snoop and read another person’s private writings. But he couldn’t stop himself. He wanted—no, needed to know what had preoccupied her in the silence. As if something written in that notebook could teach him about breaking free.
The pages were filled with penciled words in wide, loopy handwriting. Opening to the first page, he saw a plan for a budget. Surely that wasn’t what had preoccupied her. Let it go, boy. Take the notebook to the counter. You’re better than this. And yet he flipped further into the book. He found a list of books about writing labeled “to read.” Maybe she’s a writer. He flipped to the back of the notebook, searching for the last entry. He found the beginning of a journal entry.
“I’m sitting in an Arby’s in Auburn. Been a long weekend—visiting the family in South Carolina and realizing how much I’ve changed and they’ve changed since I last saw them. It’s kind of funny—I’m listening to a group of 20 year old guys up at the counter talking about how their friend hasn’t changed his underwear since last week. Silly boys. I wonder if they’ll ever grow up. But they’re cute.”
Cam stopped reading, his face turning red. He felt as if someone had taken a snapshot of him picking his nose and displayed it in the middle of Times Square. As if he’d stumbled upon someone replaying a video of his life that he hadn’t known they had recorded.
But these thoughts were confined in a stranger’s notebook—not plastered on Good Morning America or the front page of the National Inquirer. Why should he care what a random woman had thought of him? Why should it matter what she thought of him?
But it did matter. Snapping the book shut he walked over to the table and sat down, ripping open packets of sauce and squeezing it onto his sandwich. How could she not see that he had been standing off to the side? That he hadn’t been flirting, or giving input in the loud underwear conversation? I’m not even dressed like them. He looked over at his three friends wearing baggy shorts and t-shirts in contrast to his khaki pants and a polo. The more he thought about it, he fumed, unsure of the object of his anger.
Jeff jerked him out of his mounting fury when he kicked him under the table. “Look, Cam! Your girlfriend’s back.”
Jeff nudged Troy with his shoulder and they both burst out laughing.
She looked a bit frantic as she walked over to the table where she had been sitting, looked on the drink island, and even pressed open the trashcan, searching for what he knew he had already found. She hurried over to the lady behind the counter, and when the woman shook her head and the girl looked as if she might cry, as if her worst nightmare had just come true. She stood for a moment in the middle of the room looking lost, then in resignation she bit her lip and turned toward the door.
Cam gripped the notebook on his lap, struggling to know what to do next. But just when she reached the door, he made the decision.
Springing out of the booth, he called, “Hey, is this yours?”
She whirled around with relief on her face until she saw who the rescuer was. She blushed, horror tightening her jaw when she saw the guys behind him snickering.
“I just found it over—”
Before he could explain, she snatched it out of his hand, angrily. “Glad I could show you guys such a good time.” She called past him to the others, “Laugh it up, losers. You're just like your stupid Tiger team.” She shot Cam a sarcastic gaze before spitting out, “Thanks a lot.” Then turned on her heels—and this time, trotted out of the restaurant.
He stood in place by the drink island, wishing that he could explain that he wasn’t like them.
And then as if he’d finally diagnosed his problem it settled in. He was them. He was with them. His presence condoned them.
“Dude, what was HER problem? Callin’ us losers.” Troy stood from the booth and started toward the door. “I’ll show her who’s a loser.”
Cam grabbed his arm as he marched by. “Let her go, Troy. She probably thought we read her notebook.”
“Let go, man.”
Cam tightened his grip and raised his voice. “It’s not like you would do anything to her if you caught her anyway.”
Troy turned his anger on Cam. “You’re always actin’ like you’re so much better than us.” He jerked his arm out of Cam’s grasp. “And you know what? I’m about sick of it. What’s your problem?”
“My problem? You want to know what my problem is?” This was it—the moment Cam had been stashing inside for a long time. But he decided to speak slowly. “I’m a senior in college. I’ve got a full time job to get myself through. I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do when I graduate in May. But I have three idiots for friends who don’t seem to care that life is coming faster than they can grow up. Okay? So there. That’s my problem.” He felt the need to clarify a step farther. “You guys are my problem.” The words felt horrible coming out, but once he’d said them the truth felt so good that he continued.
“And another thing. I’m a communication disorders major, but I don’t need a degree to diagnose what you guys have.” He pointed toward Troy. “You—you’re obnoxious.” Looking at Tyler he said, “You’re immature. And you, with your lucky underwear—” he wrinkled his face in disgust at Jeff, “you’re just gross.”
Without bothering to gather his food, he pushed out the door and climbed into his Jeep, processing through the anger and emotion of the scene. He had just peeled off what had been his best friends since childhood. Had just left behind the best part of his boyhood and teen years. And it hurt like ripping a band aid off a hairy arm. But—wasn’t that the point? If becoming a mature adult meant making painful or uncomfortable choices, then let this be the first.
He backed out of his parking space and pulled around the side of the building, driving slowly past the window where he could see them, stuffing their mouths with fries, eyes glued to the TV as if nothing had happened. Almost as if he had never even been a part of them. He shook his head and drove off. I wonder if they’ll ever grow up?