The night was a dismal bog of black, with tiny pinpricks of light piercing through but doing little to break the darkness. The car’s headlights carved out a small area of substance and existence as Les drove, but none of what they showed so far on the shoulders of Interstate 10 had been worth looking at—tired trees, dying grass, colorless concrete dividers, road signs to nowhere special. The black night had fallen on and filled the world outside of his car. It had somehow managed to spill in through the closed windows and the metal, too. However it made it, the black night was in here with Les, and it whispered to him with the voice of a humming engine and rubber rolling over pavement: SLEEEEEEP, it said.
Les yawned, twisted his neck until he felt the satisfying pop of joints, and then looked down at the car stereo: 1:43. He cursed himself for being in his car, driving, at 1:43 in the morning.
I should be in bed, he thought, huffing out a bemused laugh. Then he thought of Sarasota, stoked his will, and pushed the accelerator down a bit to press on through the murk.
He was tired, but his fatigue was also laced with the heady mixture of adrenaline-alcohol-excitement that he had been jacked up on throughout his week in New Orleans.
Les had been in New Orleans for the entire week once again, his annual ritual ever since college, come hell or high water or work. What was this, his sixth? Seventh? If he tried hard, he probably could remember…but he didn’t feel like trying right now. Instead, he reached up and ran his fingers along the bright bead necklaces hanging around his neck, under his shirt. The few beads that were visible above his collar sparkled in the glow of the dashboard lights as Les rubbed them. He felt the cold, hard plastic balls, one after another, and recalled the rosary his mother had given him once when he was a kid, with the same brown beads as her own, and which he had then lost somewhere with the utmost haste, to her great despair. Staring into the black night, he rubbed these cheaper, more colorful beads and thought—tried to think—back on this latest week-long extravaganza in New Orleans. God it was wonderful, like a cleansing release of one year’s worth of repressed frustration, anxiety, fear, guilt, desire…everything. In his fatigued semi-silliness, Les felt the dying traces of some unnamable, undirected wonder and reverence. His smile slinked along his face a little more, and he let up a little on the accelerator.
As wonderful as Mardi Gras had been this year, it hadn’t quite been the same as its six (or seven or eight?) predecessors. Andrea hadn’t been there with him this time. She still wasn’t talking to him, even after three months and his innumerable attempts to talk to her for more than a minute.
He had met her at his first Mardi Gras, which was also her first. That was in his first year at the University of Florida, also her first year at Ole Miss. Even now, that first glimpse of her face floating in the Fat Tuesday crowd was perfectly vivid, neither faded nor blurred by the years.
“Your costume is amazing,” Les had told her after walking to her and standing beside her on the sidewalk for at least five minutes. The city was luxuriating in the final day’s excess glitz, glamour, and gluttony. Floats were rolling by, musicians and dancers were flitting around on the street and among the crowd like impish spirits, beads and coins (and God knows what else) were flying, and Cajun spices seemed to flavor everything. But at that moment, Les perceived none of it.
“I said your costume is amazing!”
“I’m not wearing a costume.”
“Really? I’d swear you were dressed as Helen of Troy. You know, the most beautiful woman who ever lived, the face that launched a thousand ships, Achilles vs. Hector…?”
“Oh, damn,” she said through her hand, trying and failing to stifle her laughter. “That has to be about the worst pickup line I’ve ever heard.”
But she had laughed, and her brown eyes had softened. And then he had laughed, and his entire body had softened. And that was that.
Les sat in his humming car and watched as images of Andrea played on the black screen of the night, shots of her taken from the past seven years (It WAS seven, damn it! he thought):
Andrea in a bubble bath, just a head floating on the white bubbles.
Andrea dancing naked on the Florida sand as the sun rose.
Andrea hovering over him as they made love, her sandy-colored hair tickling his cheeks.
Andrea sleeping, her face relaxed and angelic in the timeless softness of sleep.
Andrea walking in on him and Courtney, their neighbor, having sex in his and Andrea’s bed.
Andrea turning, walking out of the bedroom, and closing the door.
Les stopped the film then. He dropped his hand from the beads and back to the steering wheel. He looked down at the car stereo: 2:13. He pushed the accelerator down.
How long had he been driving now? He had left New Orleans sometime after midnight. Mardi Gras was over, Fat Tuesday had come and gone, the city had exhausted itself once again, and he had felt a troubling, visceral urge to slouch home. Les had crossed over the Louisiana border just as Fat Tuesday, and all the maniacal festivities, passed into past tense. Now it was Ash Wednesday.
Les yawned again. He had maybe another hour to go now until he got back to Sarasota. The thought of crawling into bed--his still-familiar bed in his old room in his parents’ house, now just his mother’s house, where he had been staying since Andrea kicked him out of their apartment--beckoned him onwards through the black night and murky haze of exhaustion. He wasn’t stopping somewhere to sleep. He had to get home…then he would sleep, for days if needed to make up for the week in New Orleans and all the alcohol and food and…the other stuff.
A blue road sign came into the headlights, gaining substance and clarity as it grew larger and closer. Les had not bothered to note most of the things on the side of the highway--he had a vague recollection of seeing something about a place called Gautier recently, though he couldn’t recall exactly when and where that sign had passed him by. He noticed this one, though, and read it:
REST AREA 1 MILE AHEAD
TOILETS VENDING MACHINES
The car stereo show him that it was now 2:23.
“I need some caffeine,” he muttered. And he had to pee. Might as well stop now and refuel for the remainder of the drive.
A minute or so later, Les pulled off I-10 and rolled up to the rest area’s unremarkable, you’ve-seen-me-before building. He took a few moments to stretch his limbs, crack his neck again, yawn, stretch his legs, and get himself into sorts. Christ, he felt tired all of a sudden, all washed out under the washed-out glow of the vapor lights.
The night was silent around him, and very black. There were no other cars in the parking lot, nothing going east or west on the highway. Not even a God damned bird at this time of night--or morning.
Les hit the restroom first, answering that most essential of nature’s calls, and then went to look for the vending machines. He was hoping for a Pepsi machine…he wanted a Mountain Dew, something that packed a good caffeine punch but wouldn’t send him into seizures like those awful “energy drinks.”
He turned the corner of the building, imagining the sweet-crisp taste of the green nectar of the gods and remembering the rows of green cans lined up in his refrigerator…that is, the refrigerator in his apartment, the apartment that Andrea was now staying in alone, since he had been banished from said apartment within hours after he she had walked in on him and--
And stopped dead in his tracks. The hairs on his neck danced and tingled, the skin on his arms stiffening into goose bumps at the same time. The beads dangled against his chest, cold and hard.
A man was standing in front of one machine, the one with the snack foods. He looked to be somewhere in his late thirties, maybe just breaking forty at most. He was a big guy, pudgy and sort of droopy all over, filling out his aged and dirty jeans, his brown-and-black-checkered flannel shirt, his creased work boots. His hair was clipped very short, incompletely covered by the faded yellow baseball cap on his head.
From where he stood, about ten feet from the man, Les could see the shadow of stubble on his face and neck. Or was it dirt? He couldn’t tell for sure. The guy looked dirty but not grimy—like he had just gotten off a long shift at some factory or gas station, not like he wallowed in filth or went long periods without bathing.
Les checked his watch: 2:33. What in the hell is he doing here at 2:33 in the morning?
Well, what the hell are YOU doing here at 2:33 in the morning? his prissily rational mind fired back, not missing a beat. Just turn around, before he notices you, get in the car, turn the key, pull out, and get the fuck back to Sarasota.
This fellow in the flannel shirt had not looked over to acknowledge Les when Les came around the corner and then stopped like a criminal in a prison searchlight, nor did he turn his face from the snack machine as Les sort of shifted where he stood and then continued walking over to the machines. He walked, listening to the prissy voice of reason badgering him in his mind, yet still walking, as if pulled or pushed forward. His body had transitioned out of that instinctual DANGER! state, with all nerves and reflexes on high alert. Now, Les felt…well, pretty damn relaxed. Whatever the voice of reason was saying about ax murderers and slow painful deaths, he felt not terror, but…fascination.
Les took his slow, easy steps, his eyes fixated on the guy at the machine. But the guy had never acknowledged Les’s presence when he turned the corner of the building, nor did he as Les approached him. He just kept feeding coins into the machine, reaching down into a fanny pack (which hung unusually low, as if trying to bear a burden too great, and covered his crotch instead of his fanny) to find a coin and then raising his hand to put it in the slot. Les felt his eyes follow that hand: in, down, up. Slow and casual, almost graceful. The coins would shine for a second in the fluorescent light, held with the tips of his fingers and drawn up through the still, silent black air.
Every now and then, this routine was broken as the man pushed one of the buttons on the machine. A motor would whir somewhere inside it, followed by that strange sound of some packaged convenience food bouncing down and off the glass and metal of the machine before landing with a crinkly thud-plop in the bin at the bottom. Instead of reaching down to take the fallen snack, like you were supposed to do, the guy resumed putting more coins into the machine, one after another, just as he had been doing before.
The scene seemed to Les like a sad tableau of an old, wasted gambling fiend parked in front of a slot machine in Vegas or Atlantic City. Quarter after quarter, dream after dream, pull the lever, take your shot at the big money. But all the quarters and dreams that went into the slot never paid off…they only drained the person as he put in another quarter and another dream, sipped his complementary booze, smoked his cheap cigarettes, and chased the skirt tails of Lady Luck. But she always ran too fast.
Although the man didn’t look filthy, from afar or up close, he smelled like cigarettes and stale beer. Les noticed this now that he was standing beside him, not more than five feet away. The man’s hand (his right hand it was) continued its arc from the fanny pack to the machine’s slot, up and down, coins going up and in but not coming back down. Then a pause, a push of a button, and a whir-thud-plop. Now repeat.
Les stood in front of the soda machine, but he wasn’t thirsty. Hell, he wasn’t even tired now. In fact, he couldn’t remember exactly why he had walked over to the machines, or why he was even here in the rest area in the first place. He just watched.
After standing there for more than a minute, Les’s wonder became something more like awe when he saw that the machine’s bin was full of packages. Chips, candy bars, peanuts, gum, breath mints…. They had not only filled up the bin. Now they were rising back up into the main compartment, inching up and up towards the other packages that still waited with eternal patience, cradled by the spiral metal rods. Many of the rods now held nothing, however. Indeed, it looked as if most of the packages were in the pile, not up in the rows. The guy had been there for a while. That was a big pile of food.
“You must be pretty hungry, huh?” Les asked. He jumped at the sound of his own voice in the night, not enough to be visible to someone else but still plenty for him to notice it and blush. He hadn’t been aware of the urge to speak, nor the act of doing it, before it happened.
The man didn’t notice Les’s little convulsion or the voice that caused it. His hand went into his fanny pack, found a coin, raised it up, fed it into the machine, and went back down for another.
“And it’ll sure be a pain in the ass to carry all that stuff back home with you.”
No response. In, up, down. In, up, down. Pause. Push. Whir-thud-plop. In, up, down.
“Hey, can I buy you a soda to go with your…supper? Breakfast? Something to wash it down….”
In, up, down.
“You look like…like a Dr. Pepper man, am I right? I’m getting a Mountain Dew myself, but I think you are a Dr. Pepper man. Let me--”
The man’s hand stopped midway through its return down to the fanny pack, and he turned his face to Les, cutting off the quickening noise of Les’s words as they tumbled out of his mouth. That face was blank, round and droopy and somehow gray with stubble and shadows; even the eyes looked gray, the irises dull as if with a thin coat of dust.
His baseball cap sat on his head at an angle, the bill pointing up towards the stars. It was raised enough that Les could see…a cross of gray ashes on the man’s rounded, bald forehead.
The man’s cheeks twitched slightly, and his lips started to lengthen. The smile spread across his face like a crack across a windshield, with imperceptible persistence, getting longer though it never actually seemed to move. The grayness of the eyes brightened some, too, and the man nodded. Then he turned back to the machine, found a coin, and fed it into the slot.
“So, Dr. Pepper it is, okay? Right.” Les pulled some change out of his pocket, found two quarters, and put them into the machine. He pushed the Dr. Pepper button, heard the motor whir, heard the can bounce and bang into the compartment. He took the cold can out and then fed two more quarters into the slot, pushed the Mountain Dew button, heard the motor whir and the can bang-bounce its way into the compartment, and took the cold can with his other hand.
“Here you go, my man. A cold Dr. P. just for you.” The can felt very heavy, and very cold, in his hand as he held it out through the space separating him from the guy.
The man’s hand stopped again, and the face turned towards Les again, and the smile crept across the face again, and the gray eyes locked with Les’s again. The hand reached out and took the can of Dr. Pepper.
“Obliged,” the guy said. Then he winked.
Les stared into the ashen eyes, stared at the ashen cross, held the cold can of Mountain Dew.
“Name’s Mike,” he said with a distinct, though not thick, deep-South drawl.
“Glad to know ya.”
Mike popped the top of his Dr. Pepper and took a long, slurping swig of the soda. He belched, smiled with satisfaction. He never took his eyes from Les’s.
Les popped the top of his Mountain Dew and took a short swig of his own soda, not noticing that he spilled a few drops onto his shirt, not taking his eyes from Mike’s. He felt the cold liquid flow down his throat, into his belly, but he didn’t taste it. Mike’s eyes held him, the gray irises deeper than a universe.
“Good. I like Dr. Pepper.”
“Yeah, good stuff. I knew you were a Dr. Pepper man. Better than that Mr. Pibb crap.”
“Ain’t had that before.”
“You’re not missing much.” Les still didn’t know what he was going saying or why, but he kept talking, in fact chatting with no bother to calculate or reflect. “Now, Mountain Dew is my kind of soda. Lots of sugar, lots of caffeine. Perfect for a long drive in the early morning.”
Mike nodded, still smiling, still staring with his ashen eyes into Les’s.
“I’m heading home. Sarasota. Just spent a week at Mardi Gras…whew, you know how that is. I’m bushed, but I want to get home tonight and sleep in my own damn bed, you know what I mean.”
Mike didn’t nod. He didn’t seem to know.
“I’ve been to six, no wait seven, and they’re always a blast. You should go sometime, man. It’s not that far, and you gotta live a little sometimes, you know? Let your hair down, loosen your belt, lock the Good Angel in the closet and listen to the Evil Devil on your shoulder….”
Mike kept smiling, staring at him.
“This one wasn’t the same without Andrea--she was--I mean still is--my girlfriend. She and I are, you know, ‘having trouble’ right now. She kicked me out…but she still loves me, really, and I apologized and all, so it’ll all work out. I know I deserve everything and all, but…huh, women, you know?”
Mike nodded, took a drink of Dr. Pepper, belched.
“Say, what’s with the ashes?”
Mike’s crack of a smile disappeared. His eyes tightened, and he fixed Les with a squinty stare for twenty, thirty seconds. Then he turned back to the machine. His hand went into his fanny pack, found a coin, rose through the air, and fed the coin into the slot. Les saw the round coin shimmer as it rose, looking silvery-white in the fluorescent light.
“It was nice talking to you, Mike. I gotta get home now and get some sleep, okay? It’s been a long week.” Les spun on his heels and started to walk. As he took the first steps, he felt the beads tap against his chest, cool and heavy. In that instant, with the tap of the plastic, his mind flashed with his first glimpse of Andrea, standing on the sidewalk at Mardi Gras and smiling, then another flash of her face as she stood in the bedroom door, staring slack-faced at him and Courtney.
Tap, flash. Tap, flash. Two flashes, quicker than an eye blink, freezing him in his tracks for the second time that night.
Moved yet again by some unnamed inspiration, something biological below consciousness, Les spun on his heels and said, “Oh, but here, take these.” He reached into his shirt and pulled off one of the necklaces, the other three or four still dangling and tapping softly against his skin. He offered the necklace to Mike, who turned to look at him again and then took it with a reflexive movement, holding them in his left hand. “Something from Mardi Gras for you. Now, you know, you’ll have to go and get your own….”
Mike fixed him with another squinty stare. And then, with a graceful sort of deliberateness, he bent down, reached into the machine’s bin, and pulled out a candy bar. He reached out, offering it to Les with a little flick of his hand, and nodded.
Les stared into the ashen eyes, stared at the ashen cross, and took the candy bar.
Mike nodded, smiled, and turned back to the machine.
In, up, down.
Les walked back to his car, got inside, started the engine. He sat there for a minute, in the utter silence outside and inside of him, and then got back on the road to Sarasota. He ate the candy bar, drank his Mountain Dew, and drove through the black night.
Later, that blackness changed with tender, graceful deliberateness into ashen gray as dawn approached.
But Les didn’t see it. As the night changed from black to gray, Les was sleeping in his bed in Sarasota, a smudge of chocolate on the right corner of his mouth.
Image credit: Rob Holland, from Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons License.