My friend AG has these fierce, intelligent eyes and this swagger that makes her seem twice her actual size. Other people have said that, not just me. I joke that her spirit animal is a bigger version of herself. She has a way of walking into a room like she’s already marked the exits and figured out nine ways she’ll win if a fight breaks out. A smile like someone in an upscale catalogue, like she’s delighted at something just out of frame that you’ll never know about.
Sounds like I’m laying it on thick, I know. Sure, she gets sweaty. Her office is a mess, she has a hard time throwing away old magazines. But spend an hour with her and I bet you’ll agree she’s like if a crashing wave had a baby with fresh linen, and that baby was raised by Jason Bourne. If fast food had an opposite, it’d be her. But one time, years ago, we went to Burger King. She and I walk into a Burger King together, you’d think the manager would come over and hit me with a broom and ask her if she was looking for directions to someplace nicer. An Arby’s, at least. I don’t know why I think of Arby’s as being more upscale than Burger King– maybe it’s because someone told me years ago that their roast beef is kangaroo meat, and even though I don’t think that’s true the place has struck me as being exotic ever since.
Probably if we went to Burger King it’s because I was craving one of those cheap chicken sandwiches they have, with the thin piece of chicken dripping so much grease that you can taste it as soon as you hold it near your face, before you even take a bite. According to the Internet, most fast food meat starts out as pink batter before it gets poured into a mold and then tossed on a grille if you’re lucky but most likely a microwave. Maybe. If that’s true, if those chicken sandwiches really do start out as pink batter, then whoever came up with the batter deserves to win a prize.
Anyway, AG and I got our food and sat down, and AG said she felt like people were looking at her. I told her I’m sure they were. Let ‘em look. What dude doesn’t want everyone in the room looking at the woman he walks in with? We ate, and when we were almost done this old retired-looking guy—this was in Williamsburg, Virginia, where everyone either looks like a retiree on their way to the golf course or a parolee with a balloon full of methadone they’re looking to sell—came over and said hello. “I’ve been looking at you since you walked in,” he said. “Saw you notice, so I figured I’d better come by so you’d know I’m not a creep or anything.”
AG looked at me like, Told you so, and I looked at her like, I know you did, and the old guy shook AG’s hand and said to her, “You’ve got such a pretty smile, reason I couldn’t stop looking is it reminds me of this girl used to work for me. Had a smile that lit up the whole office. Sweetest thing, and a hard worker. She’d show up in the morning, it was like the sun coming out. You and her could be two peas in a pod. It’s uncanny. Even your hair, gosh. Two peas in a pod, I’m serious.”
“That’s sweet,” AG said.
And I’m thinking, I go into a fast food place alone and it’s like the gates of Hell open up, she goes in and strangers start telling her she’s the sun and stars. I’ve always thought you could read the psychic lay of the land in any town in America by walking into a McDonald’s or Burger King at lunchtime and checking out the crowd. When I was a kid there was this guy that sat around the McDonald’s all day sipping coffee and eating his fries real slow and asking everyone that came in if he knew them from somewhere. Never anything boring like a Christmas party at a mutual friend’s house or from around the neighborhood. “Excuse me,” he’d say to some young mother struggling to get her twin toddlers to finish their Happy Meals, “did we meet at an orgy in Louisiana, summer of ’78? You were the girl that got pissed at everyone, right?” The young mother would balk and freeze and he’d turn to the next table, some old grandpa reading the newspaper, and ask, “Didn’t I see you at Greg’s the other night? I left before the ambulance came. They get that kid breathing again?”
It was never clear if he was playing a game or completely insane. And if he was insane, how insane was he? Had he actually attended an orgy in Louisiana in 1978? Had a kid asphyxiated at someone named Greg’s house? How much of this was he making up? His brother was the vice-principal of my middle school, who I hated because once when I got punched in the face and shredded my lips against my braces he called me into his office and told me not to let it happen again. In his office, though, the vice-principal had a framed photograph of his brother, probably taken in the mid-70’s, wearing a wrestling uniform, holding an American flag, standing in front of the logo for the Olympics.
There are so many other guys I could tell you about. The checkout kid who told me he was designing a spaceship, and how his plan was to coat the ship’s hull with the grease they used in the fryer to help cut down on friction as he pushed through the atmosphere. This recovering heroin addict who haunted the pizza place and dressed up like a clown for kid’s birthday parties in exchange for either twenty bucks or pizza, if there was extra pizza lying around at the end of the party.
The old guy told AG, “I just wanted to make sure you knew why I was looking. Didn’t want to freak you out. Love that smile. Never thought I’d get to see it again, and then there it is.”
AG thanked him, and the old guy started off, stopped, turned and went on: “See, a couple years ago? This girl and her boyfriend got to fooling around and he put a gun in her mouth and blew her brains out. Small caliber bullet, bounced around her skull for a while. Big mess. So I know you ain’t her, but when I saw you walk in—wow, it sure was nice to see that smile again. I’m telling you, peas in a pod.”
I’m trying to figure out why this story has stuck with me to the extent it has. I’ve had weirder run-ins, had lots of conversations take much more unexpected turns. Once when I was working at a comic book store, this guy came in and asked if I could help him get in touch with the X-Men, because he couldn’t remember if they were comic book characters and he was real or if he was a comic book character and they were real; and if they were real, he needed their help. Something like that happens, you feel like the seams holding the world together are loose. Sometimes it’s amazing, like, anything can happen! And sometimes it’s terrifying like, Holy shit, anything can happen? How are there ever breaks between terrorist attacks and mass shootings?
The way I remember it, the old guy faded into a spooky mist when he was done talking. Probably he just ambled out into the parking lot. AG and I sat there staring at each other. AG, bewildered, said, “I look like a person that got murdered.” I think I just shrugged. And the reason this story has stuck with me, I think, is because I wasn’t sure if what had just happened fell under amazing or terrifying. Maybe the best stuff is both, or maybe the terrifying stuff can become amazing when you’re not facing it alone. That sounds a little lame. I guess I was just happy that it happened to us both, together.