Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cruise Control - Part 5: Mask of the Green Death

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  So we get back on the interstate, after narrowly escaping the slowest security guard to ever be issued a gun permit, and we motor south. Based on the track record of our journey so far, I’m fully expecting our caravan to be zipping down another exit ramp within minutes, forced to deal with yet another surprising development that causes our mission to slam to a halt once again, with people running to purchase emergency medical equipment and some cheap bean burritos. (People are always hungry, what can I say.)

  But no, we actually manage to drive for a bit, with dawn finally breaking and the sun casting a golden glow on our pale and haggard faces, reminding everyone that natural beauty is something that takes a lot of work, despite what the magazines tell you. I caught a reflection of myself in the window that would cause most people to swear off sex for the rest of their lives. It’s hell getting old.

  Eventually, though, the sunrise and the making of actual progress came up against another obstacle, namely hunger. In one planet-aligned moment of mass hysteria, we all suddenly decided that we were absolutely starving to death. We had to consume food right this instant or people would perish. Text messages went flying between the various vehicles, and people began chanting to the gods of nourishment and satisfaction.

  Terry, being the lead driver and therefore inherently responsible for the survival of the tribe, had to make a decision. Locate some mutually-agreeable emporium of fast-food nirvana, and do it quickly. Otherwise, there would be rioting in the streets and reactionary results at the next public elections.

  Terry scanned the horizons, as man has done since primitive times when you had to kill your own food and there was no satellite TV, and his practiced eye spotted the gleaming, brightly-lit yellow arches of a McDonald’s in the distance. He sagely decided that surely everyone could find something at said location that they could shove in their mouths, and turn signals were rapidly engaged, with now-happy people high-fiving each other in rapturous anticipation.

  We exit, cross over the interstate, and our train of fools motors toward the Mickey D’s a short way down the road of whatever town it was that we found ourselves descending upon. (I didn’t bother to initiate the GPS program on my phone, not realizing at the time that I would need to know the name of this town for possible future legal action.) We pulled into the parking lot of Ronald’s House of Salt and Grease, spirits high.

  Only to find that the damn restaurant wasn’t open for business. What the hell?

  Signs on doors, with words written by evil people who hate happiness, proclaimed that the building was still under construction. No food was being proffered, no surly high-school students were there to reluctantly take our orders, and no local redneck women would be giving birth to their 17th child in the restrooms, using the noisy hand-dryer blower to tidy the tyke up before they marched back out to order a Happy Meal.

  “Then why the hell is the sign lit up?” bellowed Terry, deftly maneuvering our vehicle to avoid slamming into the random construction equipment that we hadn’t been able to see from the highway. “Turn the stupid sign off!”

  Plan B. We headed toward the exit of the pointless parking lot, with the other cars grudgingly following us (It’s not open, people, get over it), only to find that somebody apparently rang an important bell, and now every single car in the entire town was lined up on the road before us, and not letting us out of the parking lot.

  “Really?” muttered Terry. “This road was deserted two seconds ago. I hate people.”

  “I hate people, too,” I offered soothingly. This is one of the reasons why we are a couple. It makes things easier if your partner has shared animosities.

  Tara, my seat companion, awoke from her Dramamine-induced catnap, probably due to all the violent twisting and turning of a vehicle that was supposed to be going in a straight line to Galveston, and presented a question to the court. “Do we have to eat it if we don’t want it?”

  I chose to ignore this query, presuming that Tara’s words were merely the rambling side-effects of taking drugs. No one ever makes fully-coherent statements when arising from chemically-induced slumber. This explains much of the content you hear on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program.

  Eventually, there was a gap in the yokel parade, and Terry floored it. The other two vehicles did the same, because if we got separated now we would probably never see each other again, and although this prospect was pleasing on one level, it probably wouldn’t be a good situation once one of the cars managed to make it to Galveston. We had a group booking, and all of the heathens had to be present or there would be irritating questions.

  Terry led our entourage of the pretty but damned back up the road, and then whisked into the parking lot of a Jack-in-the-Box. The other cars followed, after narrowly avoiding being run down by some farmer driving his tractor down Main Street. (What’s up with that? Why do they let people wearing overalls operate combines on city streets? I don’t get it.)

  Seconds later, people are leaping out of cars and racing into the restaurant. (I’m assuming that at least one person needed to throw up, because that was already an established theme for our travels.) Since I was blessedly feeling non-eruptive, I took my time, so I was one of the last of our clan to enter the establishment.

  Where I found said clan all crammed together in front of the tiny ordering counter, gathered in a minimal space between the counter and the miniscule seating-area of the restaurant. There were only about four tables, none of them occupied, because an average-sized human being probably couldn’t fit into the seats. Who designed this layout? The Lollipop Guild?

  I joined the rest of my family at the counter, huddled as we were like badly-dressed immigrants at Ellis Island. I was already over the situation, because I don’t like crowds, even if I know or am related to the people doing the crowding. Everyone else was studying the menu board, salivating and dreaming of useless grease coursing through their bodies. I was studying the fact that there were no employees standing on the other side of the counter.

  Where were the people who worked at this place? Shouldn’t one of them  be out here with us? That certainly seemed like a good idea to me. I briefly considered the possibility of a grisly store robbery having just taken place before we got here, leaving slumped bodies strewn across the kitchen and greatly impacting customer-service response times. Then I heard a burst of cackling laughter coming from said kitchen, a sound that normally doesn’t follow slaughter near the deep-fryer. Okay, then. The staff wasn’t dead, they just didn’t care.

  There was a small bang, which could have been anything from someone being fed up with the malt machine to a bedpan being hurled at a cheating boyfriend, then a woman came through the doorway into the counter area. She seemed thoroughly amazed to find so many people looking at her. I was thoroughly amazed that she could keep her eyelids open, considering the stunning amount of metallic-green eye-shadow she had heaped on those straining lids.

  She just stared.

  We stared back.

  No one was immediately satisfied.

  Then she finally sighed and pried open her just as heavily-coated lips. “Whaddya want?”

  One of the clan stepped forward. (Okay, perhaps I should say “was squeezed closer to the counter by the remaining tribe”.) A very simple order was placed, one without embellishment or special instructions. Metallica did not respond in any way. Our clan member tried again, being very thorough, and practically acting out the butchering of a pig, the preparation of bacon, and the placing of the fatty strips on a biscuit.

  Metallica flinched the tiniest little bit, a very dim light briefly sparking in one eye. She looked down at the cash register, some reanimated primal instinct reminding her that she should probably push one of the buttons located on the keyboard. After about three days, she finally found a button that appealed to her in some way, and she stabbed at it, frowned, and stabbed again.

  I was two seconds away from being done with this whole mess.

  Metallica studied the results of her handiwork while the register did something important, seemed satisfied with the results of whatever this was, and then looked back at our family member, her facial expression indicating that she fully expected this order to be the largest ever placed in the history of the planet.

  But no. “Um, that’s it, just the biscuit.”

  Metallica seemed quite pleased with this development, happy that the unbearable horror of taking an order was over for at least a few minutes. She searched for and punched another button. Almost immediately, a cry of “Got it!” rang out from the kitchen area. For my family’s sake, I hoped the cook was talking about the biscuit order and not an STD.

  Metallica announced a purchase total, and then seemed devastated when our family member handed over a few bills. It became very clear that Metallica preferred the simple swiping of plastic cards over the handling of live cash, because the second option required her to count, and she already had far too much going on in her life to mess with that. But she sighed and took the money anyway, rooting around in the drawer for what she hoped was the proper amount of pennies and nickels.

  Metallica shoved the distasteful coinage at her first customer, obviously put out with people who used actual money, then moved on. “Next?”

  But before anyone else could step forward, an odd beeping noise took place in the mysterious, staff-only hallway, some kind of alert signal. “Oh,” announced Metallica. “Someone’s at the driv-thru.” Then she turned and slowly sashayed out of sight, the weight of her immense duties in this establishment causing her feet to drag even more.

  She was working both the counter and the drive-thru? At seven o’clock in the morning, one of the peak traffic points for this kind of place? Aw, hellz no.

  The buzzer on my tolerance alarm clock went off, and I was finished. I calmly turned to Terry, explained that I had to get out of here, and gave him my rudimentary order (one sausage biscuit, that’s it, nothing else or Metallica’s head would explode), wished him luck, then turned and fled.

  I climbed over three startled family members debating their chances of ever getting to place an order, then crashed through the doors. I whipped out a cigarette, crammed it in my mouth, and lit the damn thing without even looking, a dexterous skill I had honed after years of fleeing overwhelming social situations. Politely, I stomped away from the entrance so my disgusting habit would not irritate newly-arrived patrons, even though a wisp of smoke was nothing compared to what awaited inside.

  Unfortunately, my polite maneuver did not include paying attention to where I was stomping, and I suddenly realized there was nothing but air beneath me as I plummeted off the edge of the sidewalk. (My eye caught the brightly-painted “Watch your step!” on the curb just a tad too late. My bad.) It wasn’t a huge drop, just a half-foot or so, but it was enough to result in a loss of motor skills, a poorly-executed landing that Olympic judges would frown upon, and the launching of the cigarette from my cussing mouth.

  The burning little tube flipped acrobatically through the air, paused at the top of its trajectory as if surveying possible landing targets, then dive-bombed into the grease-spot peppered parking lot, little flashpoints of danger, and rolled under a strange car, still burning with the potential of igniting an explosion that could demolish this entire town.

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