This short story of mine was published in River Styx. It has nothing to do with multiple sclerosis. I wrote it back when my fingertips tingled painfully every time I used a keyboard. ‘nuf said.
Flatten the Hills, Inflate the Valleys
BEING LOST gives Tanya a real thrill. She’s told me that, and I’ve heard her say the same to others. I’ve heard her tell the truckers she gets herself deliberately lost, that when she finds a street she realizes she’s never been down before, and she suspects she doesn’t know where it ends, certain fluids are secreted by certain glands, and she’s off, cutting through four lanes of traffic if she has to, so she can take that mysterious left. And if that street leads to another unknown street, her tires will squeal with delight.
The truckers tell her how they like their eggs: sunny side up, scrambled, over easy, over hard. She tells them how she likes her streets: curvy, diagonal, irrational, inexplicable, illogical. She says that she despises the dead end, the parallel, the numerical. And how there’s nothing more disappointing than a hint; the east, north, south, and west streets, roads, concourses and boulevards.
Some of them ask her, you from around these parts?
These parts are upstate New York.
Hell no, she says. And I’m cutting out of here just as soon as I can’t get myself lost no more.
Tanya puts a little Dixie lilt into her voice when she’s really going for a tip. Those times her voice gets sexier than any wag of the fanny. It drives Rhonda, the other waitress, crazy, and not with desire. Tanya might’ve gotten lost in a lot of places, but by her own admission, she has never wound up in the South.
I’m the busboy at the Big Eats. Invisibility is my job and my vocation. When Rhonda gets too irate from hearing Tanya’s manufactured accent, I duck under the counter and collect another plastic tub of filmy dishes so I can dodge Rhonda’s eyes, indignant irises purpling with rage, pupils pursuing confirmation from mine that indeed, this time my beloved Tanya has gone too far.
What Rhonda would’ve known, if she really listened to Tanya’s stories, is that Tanya can never go too far. This is Tanya’s nightly lament. There is no moment more dreaded than the inevitable recognition of a flagpole, the sudden emergence of a tattletale water tower, or the blunt intrusion of an interstate highway on some windy, dusty, no name road. Her mind immediately constructs a line between two points: the offending flagpole, water tower, interstate, or what have you, and her own driveway. This line, however crooked it may be, has a beginning and an end. Her brakes squeak with humble acquiescence, her turn signal clinks with disappointment, and she’s on her way home again.
Sometimes Tanya visits me while I load the dishes. Other waitresses have tried that in the past, and I’ve scared them off by singing portions of the Faust opera in my most strident baritone. Tanya doesn’t scare as easy, so I let her stay. We’ll share the serenity of the steam until Rhonda hollers that Three is up, or Danny, that’s the owner, walks by one too many times, saying nothing. Tanya likes the dishroom, likes to hum along with the deep, solemn lullaby of the dishwasher. She even likes to peer through the greasy diamond shaped window to the front room. I think she understands how this dishroom shelters, even nourishes me.
I asked her once, why not just ignore the landmarks, drive on, and get lost again?
She shook her head, and said nothing. I could have told her the answer. For Tanya, to be lost is to be under the delicious spell of the unknown. With the invasion of the known, the spell is broken.
Tanya has lived here for almost three months. I don’t know how long it will take her before she’s exhausted her possibilities, before each mark will become a landmark, and it will be time for her to move on again. I want to smear paint over every street sign. I want to bend the rivers for her, flatten the hills, inflate the valleys.
When I first moved to this village, two years before Tanya’s arrival, I fell hard for Rhonda. I’d picked the location at random, and brought nothing with me but my weights, ten crates of books, my VCR, and 300 or so videos. No family photographs, no letters, no address book. The first place I went was the Big Eats, and Rhonda was the first woman I saw. I was after her body, I admit, those hard, bulging calves, that powerful ass of hers, those upright breasts causing such delightful tension in her stiff uniform. I filled out my application, all three lines – name, phone number, and felonies – while fantasizing about loosening Rhonda’s lustrous black hair from her rigid bun. I wasn’t after her to marry her, or even to talk to her. I just wanted to be able to watch her walking around in that tight, starched uniform of hers. Honest.
Tanya, on the other hand, isn’t much of a looker. She’s kind of dumpy, her butt sags, and she’s got a gap between her two front teeth, upper row. She doesn’t wash her hair too regularly, and it separates and dulls after a time.
There couldn’t be two waitresses more different than Rhonda and Tanya. They’re both top–rate; it’s a difference of style. Rhonda’s down to business. The regulars prefer her, because she always knows exactly what they want, will get it to them nice and hot and with no fuss, will ask them about their families if she likes them, will let them be if she doesn’t. She’ll reject a plate at a glance if she can tell that the yolk won’t break when they expect it to, and inform the cook how many seconds the eggs have left on the griddle. No one ever has to send back a plate, if Rhonda’s got them. People like that. And of course, she’s got a waitress’s best asset, as I’ve mentioned before. The rule with Rhonda is, look but don’t touch. People like that, too. Contemplating trouble is an end in itself.
Tanya works the other side of the spectrum: the clientele who come, not for the perfect, predictable egg, but for nourishment of the soul. An order will sit cooling on the hot plate in the time it takes to see all 14 wallet photographs of an out-of-towner’s grandchildren, as Tanya croons, why he’s got your eyes, doesn’t he, or, look at that wide forehead, it’s a sign of sensitivity, I hear. But no one in the restaurant will care, because pretty soon they’ll be gathering around to see those pictures, too, and to pull out their own. And if there’s some person left untouched, unconcerned about Bernie’s mother-in-law’s mastectomy, or whatever the topic of conversation may be, Rhonda will detect their dissatisfaction, even if she’s facing the opposite direction, like she’s got eyes staring out of her fastidious bun, and she’ll pick up their neglected plate, throw some extra slabs of bacon on it, and bring it right over. And while it’s true that, in tangible ways, Tanya leaves a lot of slack for Rhonda to pick up, it is beautiful slack, because it is slack created by something no less than love itself.
I ask Tanya, so what does it feel like for you, when you’re lost?
Her dimples enfold her face with bliss. It feels…her eyes squeeze close as the sensation overcomes her. It feels…her face flushes. Oh gosh, I can’t even tell ya, she says, though again she tries. It feels like…instead of words, a tiny little squeal emerges from her throat, or somewhere even deeper. She turns her head away, embarrassed. It just feels good, all right?
Rhonda called in sick one night, a slow night, the night of the big thunder storm. I’m shy around Rhonda, always have been. The sight of that fine behind of hers just silences me. With Rhonda out of the way for once, I could finally approach my beloved one, without fear of attracting any ridicule.
Tanya smelled wonderfully musty that night, like rain and dirt and leaves and grass, as if she’d been permeated by the storm. The travelers lingered, waiting for the rain to let up, and they shared anecdotes and revelations as Tanya poured them third and fourth cups of coffee. I hung back in the dishroom, like I always do, even though we had yet to accumulate a full load of dishes. I’m afraid of the front; I am looked upon with suspicion there. The truckers know I’m not their kind, and are unsure of whose kind I am. I kept the radio off and hovered by the doorway, listening, waiting for a chance to be alone with her, to make my proposal. Finally, she came out back to restock the sugar and the Sweet’N’Low.
I asked her, and even though it came out sort of hoarse and wobbly, she understood right away.
Why of course, I’d love to come to your place for dinner sometime, honey. Just name a date.
Sunday was the only night we both had off. I spent the rest of my shift constructing directions for her. I live off a ways from the Big Eats, out on an unpaved mountain road. It’s easy for folks to get lost, trying to find me. That’s what I would guess, anyway.
The next couple nights were torture. I kept trying to read Rhonda’s face, to see if Tanya had told her anything, but Rhonda’s face was as fixed and hard as stone. This was her usual demeanor, but I wondered if now it meant something. I didn’t dare search Tanya’s face. I didn’t even make eye contact. I held my breath every time I passed her, and concentrated on keeping my hands nice and steady, so I wouldn’t break any dishes. She asked me once, something wrong, honey? I said, no, nothing, and slipped away to the men’s room to get sick.
Sunday night has now arrived, and Tanya is two hours late. It’s working out just as I planned. I am standing by the window, savoring the moment. In my mind, I see the nearby roads that wind and twist and, thankfully, circumvent the road to my house, and I see them as she must see them, as mysterious, devious, terrifying, ecstatic. I turn each corner with acute anticipation, switch on my brights for the deserted stretches, search for the fictional signposts, driveways, dead ends, deaf child signs I have myself invented, for Tanya, for my love. I feel myself jolt on the potholes, feel my eyes strain with effort, and feel, yes I think I’m really feeling it now, that sensation Tanya had no words to describe. It is building up in me, overtaking me. I am lost in bliss.