So I went down to the pizza place near my old apartment tonight ---- the Mexican food place in my neighborhood not sounding as appetizing with the colder weather for some reason ---- and I put in an order and then ended up having to wait about 10 minutes for my personal pizza.
Fine. I checked the free weekly rack but it was already depleted. I ended up going into the room with the big screen tv, where the teen waitress who had just taken my order was texting, leaning against one table, and one lone customer sat with a beer and a basketball game.
I don’t follow basketball anymore, and the large screen tv, from across the room, had a vague enough resolution that I couldn’t make out the clock or the score. The large room with its hardwood floors and wooden walls transformed the ambient music and conversations in the main dining room and the play-by-play with occasional crowd roar all turned into a sonic soup, out of which the occasional fragment would bob up to the surface like the odd chunk of carrot or green bean.
I focused my face upon the screen, more out of a sense of duty than any real interest, as if focusing all my attention on the game would make the time pass faster and bring me my pizza. It was also to freeze out the other occupant, the older man with long, stringy hair that seemed as if it could not decide whether to be gray or blonde; soon it became clear that my attempts were wise, but futile.
The man with his soft gray windbreaker that looked as if all the color had been boiled out of it and his similarly nondescript light pants and brown shoes made some sort of jovial comment to the waitress when she cleared the table nearest the tv ---- uh, what, did you just call her a gladiator and warrior queen? Um, she’s a waitress ---- she made some unintelligible noise of demurral and he said, “But that’s what you are, aren’t you? A ----” more garbling, and she shot back “kinesiology major!” over her shoulder as she took the dishes into the kitchen.
Oh, ok. Makes sense now. “I wanna be a trainer for the NBA!” she shouted offscene. That hardly sounded feasible but, whatever. Who am I to piss on someone’s youthful ambitions in the space of knowing her five minutes? At least, not out loud.
But in watching the waitress leave the room my eyes and those of the other customer had met. He had me now. His stare was a little glassy; the way he had turned his whole body, carefully, to watch the waitress pass told me he had finished that pitcher of beer himself. He poured the last of it into his glass even as he started to speak to me. He reminded me of my dad, and of me being sent to go pull him out of bars; he carried his liquor with great practice. Clearly he was in the genial and awkwardly loquacious mood; with my dad, at least, this would quickly progress to belligerent and vicious.
So when he fixed his boiled blue eyes in a weathered, tanned face on me and asked me something about whether I appreciated the competitive streak in mankind (gesturing at the basketball game) I knew I was going to be chatted up until I got my pizza box and possibly afterwards. I politely nodded and smiled and shrugged, alternately, glancing between the tv and the man, the sounds of the two swimming in and out of focus.
“What are you getting, pizza?” he asked me after a while. I nodded. “I’m getting a burrito,” he jerked his head, “down the street.” Then why are you--- my expression asked. “I’m just here for the tv. My tv is broken.” Ah, I looked. “I wouldn’t come here otherwise. I mean, I hate that guy! He’s such a douche.” This said with a nod as the manager came through with a clipboard, almost soon enough for him to have heard.
I smiled, because I know the manager from back when I lived a street away and he and his wife were always having their matching white 4x4 extendicab trucks being powerwashed and detailed back in that alley and I was always having run-ins with them over parking and the dumpsters and the noise from the powerwash compressors and yeah, he pretty much is a total douche. And judging from his cuffed chino shorts and white shoes and polo and Top-Gun-era Tom Cruise haircut, his douchiness hasn’t changed at all since I moved.
Unfortunately my smile was enough for the man to launch into an extended monologue about how bad commercials are and how they control your brain.
Don’t look at your watch. Don’t look at your watch. He asked me something about Obama, and then asked if I believed Obama would actually make the visit to North Dakota. I looked at him: What? “Because Bill Clinton never actually made it that far. He came close, but he didn’t go all the way to Ruby Ridge…” more indistinctness, although now I was perking up my ears. Was there some sort of news thing I’d missed? I agree it would be cool for Obama to go… ok, now we seem to be into something about the spirituality of the Indians…
“But I would never vote for Obama,” he said abruptly.
“No?” I asked. My heart sank in that weird way I have when forced to acknowledge the existence of Republicans, as if it were a personal affront aimed at me.
“No.” he said. “Know who I would vote for.” I leaned in, unable to help myself. Then he turned with an air of great finality and sipped at his beer, musingly. He was silent for perhaps two whole minutes. Damn, you’re good.
I suddenly noticed that the commercial I had been watching was for a video game and that I had been unable to distinguish between the computer-generated and live shots of players.
When the manager asked me if I was doing ok on his way through the restaurant, the man finally spoke again. This time he was the one who leaned over. “Know who I would vote for?”
“No,” I said, breaking my don’t encourage them! rule.
“Skippy.” I looked a question at him. “Don’t know ---- history of the ---- baddest motherfu--- of elephants?” Once again the sounds were a wash and I picked through them vainly. I shot another look of confusion at him. “Over three thousand years of history --- how could you not know ---- on this great ball of dirt --- and I,” here he thumps his chest “I tell you I am not happy to be born here again! Of all the planets I told them to drop me on, this was the last on the list!”
Oh man. This is either crazy burnt-out hippie or homeless man talk. New scrutiny of his pants indicated that they were clean, but also had been worn while dirty for extended periods of time. His shoes were uncomfortably new, still squeaking with a cheap shine. The re-observation was inconclusive ---- the homeless in our area often sport a mix of the old and ragged, clean, and new distributions from the shelters, but on the other hand the long surfer hair pushed back with old sunglasses suggested he could be one of our local New-Agers. Gradually out of the diatribe and past lives and aliens I recognized “Africanus.” Wait, Scipio Africanus?
“Hannibal?” I queried when the elephants came round again. “Exactly! Over the Alps! Over the Alps!” he talked faster and gesticulated more, and happily. We were now on the same side, it seemed. He was now telling me how humble Scipio Africanus was ---- just a regular joe motherfucker, didn’t want to be Caesar, didn’t even need reward, just wanted to get his job done ---- not like that Genghis Khan, who was such a good guy but lost touch with his roots, let the power get to his head ----” This guy is talking like he has a personal relationship with Genghis Khan… Huh. Is that like having a personal relationship with Jesus? Listen, his cadence is even changing, getting more preacher-ly.
Suddenly one of the wait staff materialized in front of me, my coveted pizza box in hand. Food! As I stood to go, said bye, took the box and my purse, the man downed the last of his beer seemingly without even a pause in his oration, got up, and started following me. Almost so subtly as to seem natural, the manager interposed himself between the man and me and began asking some detailed question or other as I booked it to the exit. Ah, I take it all back about your douchiness. You understand people more than I thought.
Free, I started to walk back home, warm cardboard box in hand. Skippy, huh? I didn’t even know he was on the ticket…