Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Wheel of Fortune - by profmarcus

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The line at McDonald’s was short. The only full breakfast advertised on the sign was the deluxe with pancakes. He had thought for a long time that the only items fast food places offered were the items on the display board behind the counter until someone told him that they didn’t always put everything on the sign.

“Do you have the breakfast platter without the pancakes?” he asked the short, round Hispanic woman who turned to him expectantly after handing the previous customer a large cup of coffee.

“The Big Breakfast? Sure. You want the Big Breakfast?”

“Yes, please, with a large coffee and a large orange juice.”

“That’ll be $7.85.”

“Damn,” he thought to himself as he reached for his wallet. “$7.85 for breakfast at McDonalds.”

Every time thoughts like that crossed his mind, he only succeeded in reminding himself that, like it or not, he was getting old. Just last night at dinner, listening to his son and his wife talking about the cost of putting a concrete pad around the rear patio deck, he remarked that his mother had purchased her first house for that amount. Following the blank stares and conversational lull, he pushed back from the table to begin the task of sorting, rinsing, and readying the day’s accumulation of dishes, utensils, pots, pans, glasses, coffee mugs, and the dreaded na-na’s for the dishwasher.

“If people would rinse them when they put them IN the sink,” he thought as he scraped nearly petrified egg yolk from a mixing bowl. He used to be vocal about such things, sometimes to the extent of being grouchy, nagging, and, in the bad old days, verbally abusive. Now, he just mentally shrugged, relieved to have that behind him. He had always taken pleasure in cleaning up and leaving things looking nice and neat. To simply allow himself to feel good about what he was doing without indulging the other never failed to give him a lift. It was times like this that he knew without a doubt that all the pain had been worth it. “I wouldn’t turn back the clock for anything,” he thought, watching through the kitchen window as the stiff evening wind pushed a tumbleweed repeatedly against the fence. Another thought quickly followed. “I sure do hate wind.”

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But now, here he was, out on his own again, traveling alone, enjoying a leisurely breakfast, and taking his time before going to the gate. Airports had been the milestones of his existence for a long time, going on at least twenty years, ever since getting out of his marriage and starting to live his own life rather than trying to be a pale copy of someone else’s.

From previous trips, he knew without looking that the TV in the seating area would be tuned to Fox News. Standing in line, he had heard the announcer mention Norm Coleman. “Of COURSE, Fox would be interviewing Norm Coleman,” he thought. “Another mouthpiece of the administration.” He glanced at the screen and grimaced when he saw the Senator’s face. “He even LOOKS like a stooge,” he thought. The next story up was on the Minutemen featuring the Minuteman leader, the crusading newspaper editor from Tombstone. “I can’t fucking believe they are giving this much airtime to a quasi-racist militia.” He shook his head as he reached for his pen and notebook.

After making a few notes and realizing he couldn’t hear well enough to get the full drift of the story, he turned back to his eggs and sausage. “I wonder what these other people think about what’s going on in this country,” he asked himself. “I wonder if they even think about it at all. They look just like ordinary folks, the kind you see everywhere.” He sipped at his coffee, sweet and hot, just the way he liked it. The six empty bags of sugar lay next to the cup, casualties of the morning. Fox droned on, a happy dog-saves-baby story followed by almost five minutes on a whipped cream cake-eating contest where one of the participants was overweight and yet another was downright obese.

He patted his own stomach and felt once again the tightness of the jeans around his waist. A stubborn litany of thoughts raced through his mind with the speed of computer code that had been programmed in over a lifetime, so fast they didn’t even consciously register: the uncoordinated-chubby-little-kid-and-the-butt-of-the-playground-bully thoughts. “I weigh more than I should. I don’t exercise. I don’t watch my diet. I don’t like how I look, I look even worse now that I’m getting older.” He glanced once more at the TV as he drained his coffee. “I wonder what a REAL news program would look like,” he thought.

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He was the first to take a seat in the gate area. He hauled out his laptop and began writing. Slowly the seats around him started to fill and a group gathered on the seats to his right. They were obviously an athletic team headed for an event and one of them, possibly the coach, was passing out white envelopes.

“This is for dinner tonight, breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and breakfast and lunch on Saturday,” she instructed as she passed among the women. “They have that breakfast at the hotel,” said a tall blonde in running shoes and blue shorts as she adjusted the elastic holding her pony tail. “It’s pretty good too,” said an equally tall black woman in a burgundy jogging suit.

There were about eight of them and they were in high spirits. “Is that a BOOK, you got, girl?” one of them asked, peering into the knapsack of the woman seated next to her. “It’s a pleasure book,” the other woman said, laughing as she pulled it out of her pack, waved it briefly back and forth, then dropped it back in. “I had my last final yesterday. I’m through with them OTHER books.” “Girl, I ain’t never read no book for FUN in my whole life and I sure ain’t startin’ NOW,” the first woman declared, rolling her eyes and shaking her head.

The man fidgeted in the black vinyl seat. “It’s firing off already,” he thought, trying to ease the complaining sciatic nerve in his lower back and thinking of two flights and the seven more hours of discomfort that lay ahead. He had come to realize, slowly and with a certain degree of fascination, that his back eventually adapted to whatever chair he sat in most regularly but until that adaptation was complete, he could expect nothing but grief from his sitting apparatus. He was always learning something, he thought, and even though it often came wrapped in pain, he guessed, once again, that having knowledge was generally preferable to not having it.

After offering a smile and a good morning to the flight attendant at the front door and being rewarded with a curt nod, on his way down the aisle, he managed to grab two blankets, one to carefully pad the offending area of the aircraft seat and the other to serve as a headrest against the window frame. He was surprised to see the blankets. Since the airlines had announced that they would no longer carry the pathetic little wads of fiber-fill they had the nerve to call pillows, he assumed the blankets would be gone too. “They’ll probably be next,” he mused.

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The women’s team picked its way carefully down the aisle in a bright bubble of laughter, friendly taunts, bright colors, and multiple packs, purses, sacks, gym bags, and audio devices, all in rhythmic, swinging motion. I’ve got jerky, guacamole, and chips for later,” one of them announced. “I don’t want to sit next to YOU!” said another with a big grin.

The man adjusted, re-adjusted, and re-re-adjusted the blanket, trying to find the right fit between his head and the window. He hadn’t slept well the night before. In fact, he hadn’t slept very much at all. This seemed to be the case more and more these days. The medicine the doctor had given him helped enormously but it evidently was still not enough to conquer the night before a trip. “Well,” he reminded himself, “there were extenuating circumstances.”

The brother of his daughter-in-law had flown in the evening before and the man had been recruited to mind the grandchildren while the parents went to the airport. By the time they got back and the excitement had died down, it was late and he lay in bed listening to the blood rush in his ears, trying without success to turn off his interminable mental chatter while his 4 a.m. start lay silently on the nightstand, forming and re-forming digital seconds in the dark.

The brother had been discharged from the Navy that day in Virginia. He had been plucked from his ship off the coast of Italy over two months before and shipped to Germany with a diagnosis of acute depression. Nearly a month in Norfolk followed, during which time his diagnosis was amended to “acute depressive disorder.”

The man was on intimate terms with depression. It had hung around for many years as a stranger before he recognized it for what it was. Even now, though, he found it still had a few tricks up its sleeve. A master of disguise, it could buddy up to you and, before you knew it, you were fully engaged in that same, old, totally familiar, deadly conversation. “Oh, it’s YOU again,” you would say when the realization finally hit, but by then it was already too late. “I wonder what it’s like for him,” he thought.

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He had had only a few moments to chat with him the night before and now the man would be gone for a week. He did manage to squeeze in that he could use help on his blog. If the blog was to amount to anything, it required near constant attention. It was already consuming the better part of the man’s waking hours, so much so that, sitting on the airplane, he already found himself anxious for the airport layover so he could jump on the wireless internet and catch up. He needed someone to back him up and he thought that the brother, who shared both his political views and his interest in computers, might be a good fit. “Besides,” he thought, “it might help his depression.”

The man stared out the window. Below, the neat squares of farming landscapes, many inlaid with the circles produced by agricultural sprinklers, drifted slowly by under thin, hazy clouds. “How quickly it changes,” he thought, remembering the rust-red moonscapes and jagged snow-capped peaks that had already slipped out of view.

For some reason, the only gambling machine that had ever attracted the man’s attention was “Wheel of Fortune,” built around the theme of the TV show. The machines were always placed in groups of two or more and were programmed to endlessly play the show’s signature audience response theme, alternating with ringing bells and flashing lights. It seemed that no matter where you went in Nevada, you would hear “W-H-E-E-L O-F F-O-R-T-U-N-E” piping out of somewhere.

He wasn’t attracted to it because he wanted to play it, he certainly wasn’t attracted to it because he was a fan of the show, and the tacky recorded theme tended to stick in his head and drive him to distraction. He found the multi-colored flashing lights and screens garish and the whole aspect of the machine and its squatting clones seemed vaguely akin to gaudily over-painted prostitutes trolling for customers.

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In his fitful sleep of the night before, the idea had barely flitted across his mind before he thought, “Why not?” Maybe it was the very “American-ness” of it all. Maybe it was the slightly twisted perspective he had of the world in general. Maybe, he thought, it would make a good illustration for a story.

That morning, as he gathered up his last travel items before leaving for the airport, he retrieved his camera from the one bag to be checked, replaced its batteries, carefully re-stowed it in his briefcase, stepped back and smiled. In the final moments of packing, he often forgot one or two small items he had pledged to remember. “This time,” he thought, “I think I’ve got ‘em all.”

Quietly closing the bedroom door, he rolled his bag down the hall, through the living room and up to the front door. As he peered out the window, he flipped on the porch light and watched as, almost immediately, the driver of the waiting cab snapped on his headlights in response.

“What fortune will THIS trip bring?” the man asked himself as he stepped out into the chill, pre-dawn darkness.

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2 Comments:

At 9:14 AM, Blogger Matt the Hat said...

The pictures wouldn't load for me.

 
At 5:21 PM, Blogger profmarcus said...

yeah, i know... don't use myfilehut.com...

 

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