"Whatll it be, folks?"
"I want two poached eggs on toast, ham, hash browns, and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice."
"Large or small?"
"White, whole wheat, or rye?"
"Hell have the same. And coffee. Bring us some coffee!"
The waitress departed.
"I hope you dont mind me ordering for you. Is that all right? And please dont worry about paying; this is on me. After all, if it hadnt been for you, I dont know what I would have done. Do you believe it(?); were actually going to eat? Im famished! You should have seen the dirt that came off me in the john. Incredible! I nearly took a bath in their pint-size sink. Look; my nails are a disaster area. No, dont look. What I really want to do is shampoo my hair. There wasnt time; it got too crowded. See that woman over there? She walked in just as I was pulling back on my bra. You should have seen the look she gave me. Anyway, I feel a whole lot better."
The waitress returned.
Brandy took a loud, appreciative "slurp."
"I swear I must be addicted to this brain-buzzing stuff. So, you like to play with the half-&-half, too? Isnt it funthe way it sinks then mushrooms up when you stir it in? My father taught me how to drink coffee. Never add more than one lump of sugar; add cream to turn it tan not white; and always drink it hotpiping hot; Daddy hated for what he called Joe' to turn tepid. I was real little then, but I still remember. Except Im fond of it white. And I like two sugars. Have you ever noticed how getting those proportions just right always cues the waitress to come and freshen your cup? Raw sugars better than this bleached stuffthough I think sugar is bad period, dont you? Ever put whipped cream in coffee? Its heavenly How about some music? Rock, country, jazz; what do you like? I like all kinds. Wait; Ill see whats available on the juke."
Simon watched as Brandy crossed the room, feeling a surge of affection, a twinge of despair; theyd been through so much during the past twenty-four hours, yet here she was behaving like a mere acquaintance. Or was she simply nervous? Or embarrassed to be seen in public with a mute (as she tried to fill in his silences with her non-stop chatter)? Sad, he thought, as Brandy's passage caused every man at the counter to swivel on his stool in her direction.
I sound like a goddamn bimbo; whats gotten into me? Every time an intelligent man pretends at least to like me, I start driveling on and on like the village idiot. I can hear myself doing it. If Im not stupid, I might as well be. Not that his total lack of speech helps mine sound any wittier. I wonder if hes aware of what an advantage muteness is; its so unrevealing. Silence is golden, they say; but its also unfair. Well, all Ive really done is ramble on a bit; Ill stop. Besides, hell like me for who I am or like me not at all Now, lets see; music: F2, H3, N8.
Her selections made, Brandy hastened back. Breakfast, in her absence, had been served.
"Food! Have you ever been this glad to see ham and eggs? Mm, tastes divine!"
Simon had forgotten about his appetitea reflex whenever he confronted some major change. This had happened often, sometimes with alarming severity. When first he took to the open road, for example, three full days went by before he realized he had swallowed not a bite. By then he was weak, dehydrated, and starting to hallucinate. It usually took being presented with food to relieve him from these fasts. Then, for a time, his interest in nourishment reemerged only to disappear if his transition proved incomplete.
"Simon, do you have any specific plans for when we get to Tucson?"
He shook his head.
"Youre not meeting anyone: friends, family?"
"Well, youll be needing a place to stay, wont you?"
He wrote on a napkin with his fork: SALVATION ARMY.
"Oh Well Listen; Ive been thinking. I dont know anybody in Tucson. I think I might have a friend living outside of town somewhere, but nobody inside. So, when I get there, I thought Id maybe stay at a motel. You know, until I can find an apartment? Thats what I did when I first moved out to LAexcept, there, I had a roommate. Ive never gone to live in an unfamiliar city all by myself. And I really dont know Tucson from Timbuktu. So, I was thinking, maybe you wouldnt mind staying with me for a while? Ill have to pay for a room anyway, so it wont cost you anything. And Id feel a whole lot safer having somebody else close by. Somebody I can trust. What do you say? Interested?"
Her offer took him somewhat by surprise (in light of how inauspicious he considered their cultural re-entry; Simons slant on the greasy-spoons environment was anything but positive). Brandy, he concluded (perhaps too rashly?), was back in her element. Yet, despite his tacit censure, he surprised himself by answering with a nod.
"Great! It'll be fun. You can help me search for my brand new digs. Then, after I move in, hows about I have you over for dinner?"
Though Simons acceptance pleased her, Brandy was careful to implant that the arrangement would be temporary.
"More coffee, Miss?"
"Yes, please Hey, I put a quarter in your juke box and haven't heard a peep."
"Out of order."
"Oh. Well, can I have my money back?"
"Sure, Sweetie; Ill take it off your bill. Coffee, sir?"
The waitress wore a yellow uniform with thick black stripes at the waist and hem: her hips widespread, her breasts pendulous, her hair bleached-blond and as stiff as a dime-store wig. She had been pleasant about the refund. She poured more coffee for Simon, then labored off to other customers, tipping her pot over upturned cups like an oversized bumble bee.
Four men from the next booth got up and filed pasts l o w l yeach one taking a calculated glance at Brandys physique. Simon noted her discomfort, his glance no less acute. Pulchritude, he thought, might very well be a curse. To be looked at, not seen into, was to have ones genuine beauty all but ignored. He considered a lot of women renowned for their good looks to be downright ugly, pathetic in their need to incite desire.
"Jeezus, Simon, youre staring. You do that a lot, you know. Its bad enough getting ogled by the local yokels."
Brandy gestured toward the foursome; Simon gestured an apology.
"Though I must admit your stares are more polite. Most men positively drool when they check out a woman's body. Guess they think its flattering. But, boy, Ill tell ya, it really gets on my nerves. Woman enjoy 'flirtation'; its visual rape that makes us feel like whores. And you know men are just as prone to being embarrassed as we are? I mean when the tables are turned? I used to spin around and march right back to guys whose 'gawks' undressed me, look them up and down then straight in the eye. Sure did make 'em squirm. Theyd try to save face with a smirk or a wink at their buddies, but, basically, they got the message; felt exactly how it feels to be sized up like meat. Since the age of twelve, Ive been sort of bigyou know, up top. I can remember praying, actually praying, Id be able to walk from home to school without hearing a wolf-whistle. Never happened. Im not bitterthough Heaven knows I could tell you lots of sordid tales. Its just that Ive had to teach myself that most men act like jerkspresent company excepted, of course. You ready?"
While Simon stocked up on peppermint-flavored toothpicks, Brandy paid the bill, leaving a five-dollar tip blotting up water-rings on their vacated table.
Simon could have paid. Three days before meeting Brandy, a Baptist minister had dropped him off in downtown Las Vegas. "Welcome to Sodom," hed said, then drove off in his Lincoln Continental, leaving Simon at a bus-stop with a rain-soaked newspaper and seventy-seven cents. In the paper he found a coupon good for one free breakfast and some slot machine tokens. He went to the advertised casino, ate a meal (as soggy as the coupon), and, in a dispirited mood, fed the gratuitous tokens to a one-armed bandit winning! On his third pull an avalanche of quarters spilled out and overflowed the tray. He stuffed his pockets, then went gambling. Within the next six hours he had amassed what (by road-denizen standards) was a veritable fortune.
As Brandy and he now climbed into the car, Simon had two hundred dollars in his shirts left-side pocket, another six hundred stuffed haphazardly inside his pack. But money, somehow, had ceased to mean what it once meant. Eight hundred dollars, when he had first set out, would have been an enormous comfort. In fact, while thumbing around in those early months, he had carried a sizable stash; struck him as unthinkable (being a novice) to have few or zero funds. Then, about half a year into his wanderings, he had gotten an over-night ride from this cheerful sort who insisted on buying him dinner. The following morning, in a gesture of grateful reciprocation, Simon paid for breakfastwith money he had hidden inside his pack. Fifteen miles outside of El Paso, this cheerful sorts baseball cap accidentally blew off and out the window. He stopped. His obliging passenger clambered out to fetch it and the cheerful sort drove off with everything Simon owned.
That lesson had been a hard but invaluable one. It was as if the final vestiges of his past had been, in an instant, whisked away. After the initial shock, panic and frustration, Simon found himself happier, calmer, and far more relaxed. For the first time in his life he breathed the rarefied air of freedom. In owning practically nothing, he had somehow gained everything. From then on, money or no, he managed to get by. When there were no rides, he walked. When there was no food, he went hungry for a while. He came across things: a coat, a pair of shoes, a can opener, a comb things. Things were always available. He would lose them, find others. Money came and went just like the things. He never recovered his stolen pack. He likewise never recovered his former possessiveness.
Thus Simon regarded his present affluence with relative apathy. The opportunity to spend his wealth, or lose it, would no doubt come to pass.
Meanwhile, Brandy, as she drove, was practicing a relaxation exercise learned during dance training. The image she used was of a spiral staircase, winding, top to bottom, the length of her spine. First she concentrated on her diaphragm, breathing in and out at a steady, pulse-synchronizing pace. Then, imagining herself at the stairwells top, she spiraled down, releasing tension in each successive vertebra as she went resulting in her impression that a channel had been opened through which thought and sensation could travel unimpeded making her aware, now, of the cars vibration and of Simon sitting quietly in the seat beside until a truck horn blared, its BLAST undoing her tranquil state of mind.
A semi driver was trying to get her attention. He edged up alongside. Simon leaned over into view; the truck sped past.
"Dont pay any attention; it happens all the time. Listen, I just got an idea. See that blue book on the back seat? Thats my journal. Ive kept one for as long as I could write. Why dont you pen a letter or something; I mean to me. I havent had time to jot down stuff about yesterday. You know, about our meeting and everything? If you were to make an entry, it would jog my memory later. Whatever you like, okay? Ill keep quiet Really; anything at all will do just fine."
Simon had once been a prolific correspondent. But not anymore. There was no one now with whom he wished to be in touch. And even if there were, his roving from place to place made pen pals impractical. Suzi had been the last human being to whom he had written. He wincedthe pencil in his hand like an inefficient splint.
Brandy glanced over. She had, indeed, kept quiet; not once had she interrupted him.
He leafed back through the pages to where he had begun, wanting to tear them up. If Brandy read what he had divulged, she would know his silence was a sham. And she would no doubt misconstrue his reason for maintaining itwhich had nothing to do with penance, he believed, or with his past. The past was a dead issue (literally and figuratively). Silence, on the other hand, was a key to future doors.
"Dont re-read it; youll only be tempted to change things. Whatever comes straight from the heart is always best as is; its more honest. Give it here."
Brandy took the book from his hands and tossed it onto the back seat.
"You were at that a long time; look."
The sign they approached, then passed, read TUCSON 86 MILES.
Again, she glanced sideways.
"Dont worry; nobody reads that journal other than me."
Her intuiting his uneasiness made Simon wonder What else had she gleaned while her passenger 'reminisced'? A horn sounded. Another trucker pulled alongside, leered at Brandy, and, upon spotting her companion, sped ahead. Horns had been honking (come to think of it) off and on the entire time he sat writing.
Brandy shrugged (as if responding to Simon's subtext).
"What can I do? It takes all kinds."