Sunday Snippet, Flash Fiction, The Wind In Your Face by Bill Chance

The older you get the stronger the wind gets – and it’s always in your face.

—-Jack Nicklaus

Dallas City Hall Plaza (click to enlarge)

The Wind In Your Face

Craig took a break from work and, hungry, decided to go to a local run-down crummy counter service seafood emporium.

While he was waiting on his order an old man sidled up to him and asked a question.

….. “Any sugar for this here tea?”
“Umm, that thing there, it’s already sweetened .”
“Where’s the ice, I think I need some ice”
“There on the coke machine”

The old man, very thin, shaking, held his flimsy yellow paper cup, now half-full of the bitter old tea that they serve from big sweating metal cylinders with black plastic taps on the bottom, looked at the coke machine, levers lined up, the little grated tray held a few old ice cubes spilled by the last customer (Craig). The old man poked at these tentatively, like someone who grew up in an age when restaurants had waitresses in aprons and carried notepads, waitresses that actually brought your iced tea to the table.

“They don’t give you any scoop.”
“Umm, see that thing right there in the middle?” Craig pointed.
“This?”
“Hold your cup under it, press this lever, and the ice’ll come out.”

Craig had been standing next to the array of drink machines and collection of condiments, pumping catsup out of a recessed bulk container and mixing it with Tabasco in little white paper cups. The supplied cups were tiny so he had to prepare a handful of them. As Craig stood back with his red plastic tray he watched the old man as the ice came out in an unexpected tumble, that startling fast-food ice bin rumble, Clankity-Clank. The old man jerked, collapsing his drink cup, ice and tea squirting out. With a heavy sigh, the girl came out from behind the counter with her dirty looking towel and helped him get things straightened out.

Craig sat down at a booth. It was late, almost three, the day at work had been awful, full of disasters; he hadn’t been able to sneak out for lunch until the middle of the afternoon. Desperate for a few quiet moments he had gone for fast food fish, hoping the place would be mostly empty this late. As he started to eat, the old man shuffled over and settled in slowly in the next booth. He sat down on the other side, facing straight at Craig.

“McDonalds has fish sandwiches now.” he advised.
“Uh-huh.”
“Mebee I shoulda gone over there, fish sandwiches, ninety nine cents.”
“Really.”

Craig remembered noticing a big sign in the entrance to this joint that promised a hefty senior citizen discount. It made an impression on him ’cause he noticed it would be only thirteen years before he would be eligible.

It was obvious that the old man wasn’t there so much to eat some fried fish as to talk to somebody. Craig knew that in small towns even today, most restaurants have long counters where you can go get coffee, maybe a cinnamon roll, sit and the major activity is to for everyone to simply talk to each other. The old man looked like he belonged in a very small town.

“I can’t eat this hard crust on this fish.”
“Uh-huh.”
“I went down to the VA hospital to get some new glasses and some teeth. They bought me some glasses but I can’t see with ’em, I can see better with these.”
Craig took a good look – he was wearing an enormous pair of those cheap plastic reading glasses they sell at dollar stores.
“But they won’t give me no teeth. I’ve gone down to there over and over, the doctor said I was too thin, filled out this form….. they still won’t give me no teeth.”
“The VA sent me these papers, hundred pages long, my sister…. but still they won’t give me no teeth and that’s what it said, right there.”
“You know, I really like tomatoes. Sliced tomatoes.”
“I really like eaten’ me up a big plate o’ sliced tomatoes ‘n scrambled eggs.”
“That’s what I had this morning, tomatoes ‘n scrambled eggs.”
“It they’d serve that here, it’d be…..”

As he talked he became more and more garrulous. Also, more and more incoherent. He would be jumping around in time, his stories would go on for awhile, then lose themselves in a long pause, only to start up somewhere else, sometime other… related, but different. It was apparent that Craig didn’t actually have to speak to keep this conversation going, only look up from his food every few minutes and nod a little.

“Did you get bread? They don’t give you no bread here. I like some bread with my meal. I really like bread.”
“I went and got coffee… Eight-five cents!”

Craig wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be low… or high.

“At the Waffle House they’ll let you sit there and get coffee and some eggs.”
“Then they’ll keep comin’ over and warmin’ it up and let you sit there all day.”
“….. and they would wash that cup, that spoon, a couple of plates, wash them, pick them up, only charge five cents.”
“I was there in Houston this morning.”

Craig was sure the old man walked up to the restaurant. Although he said “this morning” he had the feeling the old man hadn’t been in Houston for decades.

Craig finished with his food and had to get back to work. Actually, he would liked to have talked to the old man, get his story, but he was too far gone to be able to have a real conversation. By now he was simply complaining about random things that are too expensive. Also, it would be uncomfortable to talk with a stranger like that, Craig had the uneasy sensation of looking into his own future. The day had been too stressful already to have to deal with that.

He mumbled something incoherent and dumped the remnants of the meal; plastic plate, paper cups, bits of fried something, through the swinging door on the trash bin. He didn’t make eye contact with the old man as he walked past and went out to his van.

On the drive back to work Craig decided to set his alarm for a little earlier the next day. That way he could get up and make some scrambled eggs and tomatoes for breakfast.