October 4, 2007
Damn, I missed.
Out of the corner of her eye Suzie caught a flash of international safety orange disappearing over the barrier, making a clear path for a fraction of a second, arching over the hood of a red pickup in the passing lane. She steered with her left hand and pumped off two more shots, aiming at the windshield.
Another miss. Damn. And another. Shit.
She was weaving in and out of the lane, swearing at the guy, her car jerking with every shot. She was seething with frustration. The driver of the other vehicle noticed nothing, even as a slow barrage of orange paintballs crossed his windshield. He was on the phone, and could only see things right in front of him, and only if they didn’t move. Like the road stretching on ahead, which was clear and unchanging because he was single handedly blocking all the traffic on the road behind him. And there she was, trying to kill him. And he never noticed.
Suzie turned her attention to the traffic for a moment as they went around a bend, and then matched speed with him again and aimed a shot at his passenger side window. She decided that trying to hit his windshield presented too many physics problems at the moment, and went for the cheap hit. If I can’t kill him, at least I can put the fear of God in him, she thought. She squeezed the trigger, and heard a click, but no pop.
Empty. Feh. With a bleat of frustration Suzie threw the gun down onto the floor of the passenger side. It was a cheapo starter paintgun that only held ten rounds, passed down to her when one of her roommates got tired of it. But she had been practicing. And she was in hot pursuit. And she was out of paintballs.
Sniping 101: It’s not easy to hit a moving target head on sideways through sixty-mile-an-hour winds. She was going to have to figure in the air resistance of a marble-sized plastic ball. She was going to have to figure out crosswinds and parabolic trajectories. She knew she’d get a headache trying to figure it out.
She was disappointed in herself, and was glad her dad couldn’t see her. She promised herself that the first chance she got, she was going to get away to the hideout and practice with moving targets, something on a rope swung from a big branch.
She was also going to have to figure out a way to load more paintballs. Hoppers that sat on top of the barrel of the gun were just too visible in a car where just anybody could look inside and see what you were doing. If she was going to be Vigilante Of The Year then she was going to have to remain below all sorts of radar. Waving her starter paintgun around was bad enough, but at least she could keep it mostly below the level of the door, and maybe work on disguising it somehow.
Suzie was still riding next to her intended target. He was still driving in the passing lane, and had no idea that this was his lucky day because she was out of ammo. So she shoved her middle finger out the window at him, also unnoticed, and then worked her way over into the right lane and took the next exit.
She thought about logistics. She was way out I-20 west of town, almost to Douglasville. She could get back on the highway going east and take 285 around to 75 south. There wasn’t much traffic right now, it was two in the afternoon. It shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes to get down to see her boyfriend Nelson, and she had plenty of time before work. Unless there was an accident. She looked out the window at the passing scenery. It was a nice day. She decided to take the back roads anyway, see some countryside on the way to Riverdale. Suzie reached into her heart and pulled out all her rage and flung it out the window like a girl with a Care Bear in her bag.
The guy in the red pickup had been bothering her for miles, driving in the passing lane. A lane meant for passing, she had thought furiously at him. You goddamned redneck. Something about the way he drove pressed a button, and she’d been indulging in road rage again. She had this thing about drivers with less than courteous manners and less than average driving skills.
Suzie had noticed him ten minutes earlier when she was getting onto the Connector downtown. She’d been on the Freedom Parkway overpass, merging southbound on I-75/85 just before the east-west I-20 interchange. She’d noticed him driving erratically below. He stuck out as the problem vehicle in six lanes of slowing, crowded highway.
His was a large red pickup in the passing lane going first faster, then suddenly slower than everyone else as he realized he had to cross six lanes of traffic to make his exit onto I-20. What an idiot, she thought. Right where traffic gets sticky and he’s in the left lane being macho.
It was the Grady Curve, mentioned in every rush-hour traffic report. A wide bend in a congested area right in the middle of Atlanta, where two major north-south interstate highways cross a major east-west interstate highway. the bends were the designer’s little joke on everybody. Hours of disruption every day; hundreds of thousands of drivers tailgating through crowded downtown exit and entrance ramps. It was always a bottleneck. Right in the dead center of town, a city in the middle of the forest, with five million people and eight million cars.
Suzie had just come out for her patrol and had been scouting for her first offender when she spotted the red F-350. He nearly rammed her trying to cross over to his exit to I-20, and from that point on, he was her suspect.
They both pulled into a lane at the same time from opposite directions, she with her signal flashing, he swerving unannounced into the hole she was edging into. Suzie first thought he must be drunk. He was a crew-cut white guy in a white t-shirt, kind of beefy-looking. He had Douglas County plates, a plastic trash bag flapping in the bed of his truck, and a Heritage Not Hate license tag frame.
He’d gone from the passing lane through three lanes to almost hit Suzie, and was pulling over another lane to the right. Traffic was slowing and car distances were only slightly larger than a car length as cars backed up around the Grady Curve.
He shouldered into the next lane, causing the guy he cut in front of to swerve and brake suddenly, and then he pulled into the next right lane with barely a glance to see who he was displacing. I’m right, Suzie could almost hear him exuding. I’m important. Fuck y’all.
Suzie saw him thrusting into her lane and had to hit the brakes to avoid his rear bumper. This in turn frightened the guy behind her who was too close to begin with, and he put his brakes on, and the guy behind him had to put his brakes on when he saw it, and if it had been any closer to rush hour, it would have turned into a slowdown all the way back to Tenth Street.
When she saw him horning in front of her, Suzie’s first thought was to creep up behind the car in front of her and squeeze him out, but he barged in anyway. She gave way only because he was so much bigger and so much more determined, and he grinned as he pulled in front of her and then proceeded to barrel his way into the exit lane just as the white line changed from dotted to solid, and the I-20 traffic split off from the I-75/85 traffic.
On impulse she followed him, hurrying to the right across the solid line and taking a graceful merge between two cars, waving thanks to the car behind her. She briefly noticed a gaggle of homeless guys sitting under the bridge watching traffic. They looked happy in the warm spring sunlight; amused.
She brought her attention back to the asshole in the truck. Did I see a nice big victorious grin on your face? she wondered. Just ram your big old truck in front of me and everybody else with barely a glance? Didn’t even look. Wouldn’t care if you sideswiped me. Probly don’t even have insurance, and you for sure wouldn’t stop even if you did. Would it be the end of the world to miss the exit and go around? No, but you’ve got to come all the way over no matter what kind of trouble you cause. You’ve just got to ride in the passing lane. You probly cut across all those lanes of traffic every day.
She merged with I-20 traffic westbound, and drove down the road with him for a few miles, hanging back, watching. Just as he did on the Connector, he got into the left lane and stayed there. It was early afternoon and there wasn’t much traffic. The road was moving at 75 miles an hour right through the middle of downtown Atlanta. The guy and his red pickup were four or five cars ahead of her, and thin as the traffic was, it was still starting to back up behind him waiting for him to get over so they could pass on his right. Like they’re supposed to, she thought approvingly. Using the passing lane. The lane designated for passing slower traffic. Asshole. She looked viciously at his car.
Suzie inched up through traffic to get closer to him. She was driving a ’94 Dodge Doohickey two-door automatic six-cylinder POS that got twenty-eight miles to the gallon, catching up to a Ford 350 truck with wheels the size of her door. Normally a truck like that would leave her in the dust. But she had a mission. And she was determined. And he was driving erratically. And he was on the phone.
She saw this with intense disapproval. He was looking straight ahead. Driving at the same speed as the guy on his right, probably subconsciously. He was blocking, she counted, six cars who wanted to be on their way. Talking on the cellphone, his brain the size of a pea, his vision narrowed to a cone, his eyes glazed over. He’d stopped making sense of what was going on around him. All his attention was on his conversation. And what could be so important? His job, his girlfriend, his buddy, a bill collector? She started screaming at him. ‘Look at what you’re doing to the road!’
She was even with him and two lanes over to the right, gripping the steering wheel with superhuman strength. Her costume itched as she began to sweat. She scratched with the tips of her driving gloves; the fishnet weave made a great scratcher, and besides, she bit her nails. Her windows were down halfway and there was a nice cool breeze, but the sun was out and she could feel the sizzle right through the windshield. The road was going 58 because of the red Ford.
Four lanes; people in the slow lanes driving 55; people in the next left lane doing 60, the leftmost two lanes should be doing 65 and up to 75 except for this redneck just sitting at the head of a clump of traffic, in the passing lane, forcing anyone who wanted to pass to go around to the right. Which in case he didn’t know, she pointed out to herself, is illegal. She shook her first at him violently. The cars in back of him were flashing their lights and tailgating trying to give him the message, but he was on the phone, and probably unaware that he was in the passing lane at all.
So one car after another jerked into the next lane, whipped around him to the right, and then came back into the lane in front of him to continue on their journey. Suzie saw at least one finger and heard several honks. But he never noticed. His windows were up, loud country music was on the radio, he was shouting into his phone, his brainstem maybe the only part of him paying attention to the road. And maybe not.
As a fifth car finally swerved past him, she saw him finish his call. He put his phone down, put both hands on the wheel, looked around for the first time in minutes, and sped up to 70.
Suzie became aware of other things as she relaxed her obsession with the guy’s bad driving habits. I-20 had was now cruising through the treed, genteel area called West End, a turn of the last century area of old Queen Anne houses with twelve-foot porches under ancient trees. A great, old, upper middle class black neighborhood. Now and then the gable of a house could be seen through the greenery. Traffic was thinning out as the pickup stopped blocking the flow. Cars settled into their preferred lanes and relaxed into a constant speed and generous spacing as the road gentled its way through the trees toward I-285 and the Chattahoochee River. The red truck was still in the left lane, but he was passing the slower cars like he was supposed to, and generally behaving himself.
Suzie backed off her stalking and let him get further ahead of her. If he was being reasonable, there was no point getting all upset about him. There were plenty of bad drivers to choose from in Atlanta. She looked through a gap as she passed the exit to MLK Drive, the road peering over the tops of trees for a moment as it rounded a bend, looking out over a sea of green.
The pod of traffic she was riding in crossed over the I-285 interchange, everyone driving at a safe distance from each other, letting merging cars and trucks integrate without any crowding. And this was how it was supposed to work. There were both left and right exits onto the Perimeter, and huge big heavy trucks were allowed, for one mile only, to use all six lanes of traffic to get into position for their exits. An asshole driving in the left lane at the wrong time could screw the process right up.
Suzie loved to drive: it brought her such peace. Except for the idiot drivers. She had a real problem with bad drivers. Her dad had a real problem with bad drivers. All her dad’s trucker buddies had a real problem with bad drivers, especially around Atlanta, where there were bad drivers from all over the country who moved here just so they could screw up traffic on a daily basis.
Then Suzie saw the driver of the red F350 weave and jerk as he picked up the phone again, flipped it open and started pushing buttons. His foot let up on the gas pedal and he began to slow down the moment he put the phone to his ear. While the first cars behind him cruised up and passed easily, the others were prevented from swinging out by a VW minding its own business in the next lane. So the cars started piling up again, waiting for the bug to get past the truck so they could get by, flicking their headlights hoping to make him notice.
As they approached a double-lane exit for Six Flags, several cars cut over to take the exit at the last minute. She could see the guy shouting into the phone two lanes over and two cars ahead of her. He was oblivious of the traffic ripples in the other lanes; his fingers twitched on the wheel, and he slowed even further as the conversation developed into an argument. Suzie watched as the drivers behind him got impatient and started swerving around him. She braked sharply as the car in front of her braked sharply to avoid a Mercedes cutting out to pass the guy. Asshole, she thought. You’re a danger to decent drivers. You really shouldn’t be allowed to live.
She rolled her window all the way down. The wind blew in on her face, and the sound of engines and spinning wheels on concrete rose up to a loud, dull roar. She gripped the wheel with both hands and spat hair out of her mouth so she could see, edging forward and working her way left to approach the red truck. Like a cat stalking a bird, she crept up on him, watching him continuing to disrupt traffic. She was fully in her mission now.
In her head she accused him, argued the case, and justified his sentence. It’s his fault, your honor, she argued in her head. Causing a traffic jam in the middle of the day, when everyone can expect an easy, pleasant ride down the fucking highway. He’s too stupid to drive and talk at the same time. She nodded over at him. There he is, driving in the passing lane. Going below road speed. Nobody can pass him. People are taking chances to get around him. He’s an accident just waiting to happen. And he’s on the phone. Not paying any attention at all to the road. Or the traffic around him. And now he’s fighting on the phone. Getting all emotional and driving on automatic. And where are the cops? Would they even stop him? He’s barely going the speed limit. They would only notice him if they were driving in traffic with him. Like me.
Suzie sat up straight. She felt like a real crusader for justice, and at that moment was prepared to take her mission very seriously. She had gone to the trouble of wearing a superhero costume, even though it chafed, just to prove her commitment. And she’d worked up an elaborate crime fighting ritual to enhance her focus. She was doing her bit to keep Atlanta free of dangerous should-be traffic criminals and hazards to public safety. There were lives at stake, and it was her duty to do something about what any idiot could see was a very real and present danger. If the cops were too busy, then it fell to her as a citizen to step in and do what was right.
Another car swept to the right of the redneck in the truck and angrily cut back into the left lane in front of him, narrowly missing his front bumper. Suzie could see the driver shaking his fist at the guy. But he never noticed. The next car did the same, but put on his brakes as he pulled in front of the guy, whose dull satisfied gaze withered and grew into an ugly look as he noticed, then braked, then watched the guy flip him off and stand on the hammer of his Mustang. But his worry was momentary. He went back to his argument, his face settled back to bovine, and he thought no more about it.
He’s slowed back down! she thought in fury. I can’t stand this. He’s the worst driver I’ve seen all day. He truly deserves to die. She bent over to scratch a sudden itch at the back of her knee where the sparkly tights of her superhero costume rolled and pinched. Then she reached under the seat on the passenger’s side, swerving slightly as she ducked down to grab her paintgun. Carefully checking that nobody was observing her from neighboring cars, she brought the gun up into her lap and cradled the barrel in her left elbow, waiting for her chance.
She was mad enough to kill someone, and that someone was still on the phone and driving like an idiot. Sitting bolt upright with one hand on the wheel, short red hair whipping around her head, she was concentrating so hard on her subject that she was forgetting to check her mirrors or monitor her instruments.
Her attention was divided between staring hard at the target and glancing at the road in front of her. With every look she grew more angry, and she could only have vaguely described her feelings or the reasons for them. He’s a bad driver and deserves to die, was how she would put it, but that wouldn’t begin to describe the feelings that made her vengeance feel so right.
She felt rage, anger, fear, and sadness, in that order. The sadness was buried; the fear was physically and emotionally thrilling; the anger gave her the energy she needed to execute the sentence; and the rage was against negligent drivers everywhere, focused tightly on this one crew-cut pudgy redneck son of a bitch driving down the left lane in a gas-guzzling pickup with penis-extender monster truck tires.
Although Suzie had experienced road rage for years, and though she’d played through revenge fantasies a hundred times, she’d never actually tried to kill someone before. This was, in fact, Suzie’s debut as a modern crime fighter, and as she shadowed him down the highway, she had to admit to herself that so far she wasn’t doing very well. She’d missed, again and again, and now she was out of ammunition and never thought to bring a spare 10-round tube. The rage boiled up, and she just barely choked off the impulse to ram his truck. I’ll push him off the road into the median where he’ll flip over and catch fire, she thought. But a quick look at the size of his wheels brought her back to reality. And so she gave up her pursuit, just like that, thrust a finger at him, and started moving through the right lanes to exit and turn around.
The good ol’ boy in the red pickup cruised ahead down the road, trying to calm his wife down. She’d been going thru his drawers again. He was going home to a night of hell. If he’d known he had a choice, he might have let Suzie hit him.
Three cars back, in the right lane, a blond woman in a red SUV was driving back to Douglasville from dropping her husband at the airport. The kids were watching a DVD in the back seat, and her mind was somewhere else. It was over before she knew it, but her eyes happened to be focused on Suzie’s blue car, and so she saw the whole thing. She dialed 911.
‘Hello…What’s my emergency? I want to report someone shooting at a car…Yes, I just saw a driver in a car. Shooting at another driver…In another car…A truck…A blue car…I don’t know what kind…I don’t know what year…I didn’t see the driver.’ Holding her phone to her ear and trying to think, she started drifting to the left, and swerved to correct it. ‘Well, yes I did see the actual gun. I’m pretty sure of that…Or movements like firing a gun…The driver pointed it at him from the driver’s seat…I saw the bullet…Yes, I did. It flashed real bright, like a tracer, like on those shows on the War Channel…Yes, really.’
Brake lights came on in front of the woman as traffic continued to adjust for the red pickup controlling the road from the left lane, now ten cars in front. She didn’t see the brake lights because she was so busy trying to recall details about the assailant’s car. Traffic slowed to 35 miles an hour on the road in front of her, but she didn’t notice.
Somewhere in her brain as she cruised down the road, whole cell colonies cringed and tried to avoid an impact as the traffic slowed to twenty-five, then fifteen. Finally she made sense of the panorama and put on her brakes. She screeched to a halt only inches from the next car’s rear bumper, as it came to a halt only inches from the next car in front of it. The kids set up a wail of complaints, and her bag on the front seat flipped over and ejected its contents onto the floor. She dropped the phone; it flipped shut and cut off the call.
The dispatcher scratched her head and did what she always did with calls like that. She notated it on the log as incomplete and went back to filing her nails.
In her ancient blue Dodge Doohickey, Suzie Q Public, Queen of the Road, slipped the car into neutral and coasted up the exit ramp.
* * *
October 4, 2007
Suzie was sitting in the passenger seat of a 1964 GTO convertible, her legs up on the dashboard, bare feet wiggling, sipping sweet tea and reading the paper that rustled slightly in the breeze. The Goat was baby blue, one of only 6,644 convertibles made the first year John DeLorean produced the very first muscle car for GM.
It had shown up in the shop over a year before, needing something to do with the carburetor, but Nelson was always vague about which exact part, and how long it was going to take to order, and nobody but him knew whose car it was anyway. And the guy never showed up, and the part never came, and Nelson had it parked in the middle of the shop, in the north bay, and opened the door behind it every day to get the breeze, and locked the garage around it every night; and it stayed there and grew legs, like a big comfy couch.
Sometimes when Suzie was hanging around the shop, she got tired of standing around, sitting up on the stool, leaning against the worktable, or pacing around outside watching the sky. And she’d grab the paper and go sit in the Goat and read. But she didn’t like to sit and read the paper. Because it annoyed her. Reading the paper.
Nelson was her boyfriend, and he was the manager at Stone’s Auto Repair, a stand-alone cement-block building along a strip of services heading down Tara Boulevard on the way to Jonesboro, Griffin, and the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Both sides of the road for miles were gas stations, fast food places, used car lots, strip malls, failing suburban ventures, storage places, and other assorted nondescript businesses. Here at the very beginning of the middle of Nowhere, Georgia, they catered to the needs of the motorists, and they were serious about snagging them. If zoning permitted, they would have had massage parlors, spas and topless bars.
The sign out front actually said Stoners Ato Repar, because of the peeling paint, and because Suzie had brought in a paint pen and written an R right where the apostrophe was. She thought it looked good. Nobody else noticed. It was starting to fade in the sun, though, and she might think about touching it up when she had nothing to do.
Which was a joke. There was never anything to do when she was hanging out at Nelson’s. She couldn’t work on cars, even though she could if she had to, because the boys wouldn’t let her pick up a tool.
Today they were moderately busy. It was getting on for three o’clock. The lot was full of cars, but that meant nothing. Some of these cars stood around for weeks before the boys were finished with them. Others were in and out the same day, and the owners of those were sitting in the tiny, gray, cramped, cold, tile-floored waiting room with three-year old magazines and a pot of free coffee nobody ever fell for.
She sat around on the only stool, or leaned on a clean part of the worktable, or paced, or sprawled in the Goat with her feet up. She cleaned out her car and checked all the fluids and pressure readings. She watched the boys do emissions tests, oil changes, tune ups, minor engine repairs. She saw customers wander back to ask questions and get escorted right back out by a greasy mechanic waving a greasy rag in front of their face so they wouldn’t get a good look at what the boys were doing to their car. And though she might be there for half the afternoon, she only spent about seven minutes in any kind of conversation with her boyfriend; most of that during test drives in customer’s cars.
And until Nelson got a few moments and they could go drive around the mall, she was stuck reading a newspaper, or watching clouds go by. And of the two she preferred the clouds. The news was always stupid and trivial, or important and fabricated, and it just made her mad. It was just one version of the truth, and it served interests that were very different from her own.
Suzie was a socialist anarchist, or that’s as near as she could get to politics. The State should pay for everybody, and everybody should be able to go off in search of their exalted destiny even if it wasn’t all that economically viable. The poor should be lifted up and the rich reined in so that everybody got to the trough.
And it was a reasonable position for her to hold. Because there she was, with not much of a job, and not enough money to go into debt and rise to the next level. Maybe by the time she was middle aged she’d look around and notice that she’d become middle class, and she’d have a mortgage and vote Republican and be paying on an SUV. But right now she didn’t have any obligations, no hooks, nothing to strive for. So she was pretty solidly anti-class, anti-money, anti-power and influence, anti-establishment, anti-the-way-things-were.
So this newspaper article she was reading was driving her nuts. ‘New Law A Solution To Homeless Problem.’ It was about a brand new law banning homelessness in Atlanta. It drove her nuts because the homeless guys just sat in the shade talking and minding their own business, and there on the front page of the Journal-Constitution they were being accused of being depraved criminals, lying in wait to rob honest people. The paper was absolutely certain about it, no doubt at all that they were right, no room to look at it any other way.
Suzie found herself growling. Her dad had taught her to see the world from all sides, and she was offended, and scared. She could see a whole newspaper-reading population going right along with the Journal’s attitude without spending a single moment thinking about the issues.
Suzie put the paper down and climbed out of the car over the closed door, sliding her legs over the side and standing up next to a fifty-gallon barrel of oil. She had to be careful about getting her pants dirty. Everything in the place would leave greasy shiny streaks if she came close to it in her white work pants.
Stupidly, she’d changed clothes first thing, dashing into the customer bathroom to get out of her costume. It chafed something horrible, and Suzie already knew she was going to have to do a serious rework right away. Summer was coming.
The garage’s metal roof pinged and snapped in the sun. The loblolly pines waved feebly in the breeze; sixty-foot tall weeds. Even in May it got really hot in the garage when the wind died down; even with north and south bay doors open practically all the time.
Stoner’s Auto Repair was a typical concrete standalone with a flat metal roof, fifty feet square. Concrete blocks were painted two tones of gray with a stripe of yellow. It was maybe thirty feet high, with a suspended ceiling stuck full of pens flung up there by the boys.
Allen, a buddy of Nelson’s fresh out of jail, was over in the southwest bay, down in the pit doing an oil change. Nubby was working on a white minivan in the southeast bay. Nathan was out in the parking lot bringing a customer’s car to the northeast bay for emissions.
Nelson was standing at the south bay door looking out at the traffic, silhouetted, motionless. He looked like a preying mantis, one arm raised up and leaning on the wall, one foot crossed over the other, knees and elbows akimbo. He looked like Danny Kaye, only tall and skinny, stretched out to somewhere around seven feet and dangerously underfed, with a massive Viking head, sunken eyes, a hooked nose, a huge chin, and curly used-to-be red hair thinning on top.
Suzie could see his thoughts floating out around his head, his concerns, his responsibilities, his plans and schemes. But though she could see his thoughts, she still couldn’t read them. Nelson was deep, and nobody really knew what was going on inside him. Sometimes it seemed like he was trying to confuse things on purpose. Sometimes she thought maybe he was a psychopathic liar, but she could never be sure.
Nathan pulled the car into the emissions bay and ran it up onto the ramp, braking sharply when it got to the rollers at the top, the frame of the car teetering at the very edge. He got out of the car with a big sheepish grin on his face, and nodded at the edge of the car. ‘Almost went for a trip, eh?’
Nathan was over six feet and was pretty thick around the middle. He was somewhere in his late twenties or early thirties, though he had lots of lines on his face so he could have been in his forties, except that he didn’t act old enough to actually be grown up. Little things made Suzie think he was younger. Like that grin. And the fact that his crew-cut hair was bleached blond like some surfer dude with a beer gut. Compared to the other mechanics in the shop, he had perfect teeth, broad and white and filling his mouth. Maybe that’s why he grinned so often.
The car he was going to test was old, from sometime in the early ’90s, and it was painted a curious shade of dark blue. The paint had been put on with a paint roller, and featured visible brushstrokes and waves and dips where it covered patches of bondo. Although not designed to draw attention, the paint job was notable for its raw energy and expressionistic flair.
Nathan was very attracted to it. He stood up from the stool in front of the console where he was entering the car’s data into the computer, and studied the car for a long moment. ‘You know, I think if I were going to paint a car like this, I’d take paint and splatter it on the car.’ He made flinging motions at the car, white there, green there. Very artistic. It would have looked good, especially glazed over with a thick coat of clear varnish.
Nubby passed by with a greasy rag in his hand and had a quick look at the car. ‘This is house paint, not car paint,’ he said, straightening up. ‘See, you can scratch it with a fingernail. And when winter comes and it gets cold and damp out, it’ll pull off in sheets.’ Nubby was short and skinny and didn’t say much. He wore his hair in a mullet, thinning on top with a long ratty braid running down his back. He was about thirty, short and skinny with bad teeth; quiet, a hard worker with a wife and a baby at home.
‘How would you know about that, Nubby?’ said Nelson, coming over to see why his people were clustering together at one end of the shop.
Nubby came back and they all stood around the car. ‘Cuz I did some house painting once, and this other guy on the crew just came back from robbing a liquor store and used it to disguise his car, is how come. It worked for a couple of days, but then it started cracking, and it didn’t last more’n two months. He never got caught for the robbery, though, so maybe it worked after all.’ Nubby stood wiping the greasy rag over his wrench, thoughtful. ‘He died. Robbed another liquor store, and the cops chased him. Ended up in a ditch.’ He shook his head. ‘Gas tank blew up. Not much left to bury.’
‘Serves him right,’ Nathan snorted. ‘He’d have been better off robbing a diner. There’re fewer guns under the counter than they used to be, and the cops are bent on eating in peace.’
‘Let me tell you something,’ Nelson spoke up. ‘Best thing would be to rob a bank. Nobody expects that these days, not since the ’80s. You just get you a good disguise and be all nice and polite about it, and have you a good exit plan, and you’ll be fine, because the tellers have strict orders to just hand the money over.’
Allen the new guy spoke up, stepping into the middle of the circle and shaking his head. ‘No,’ he said, the voice of experience. ‘You can’t do that anymore. They’ve got all sorts of ways of monitoring banks, and restaurants, too.” He looked sad. He acted like he was throwing cold water on a pack of dogs.
Then he smiled kind of wistfully, his big bushy moustache snarling up at one end. ‘No, drugstores is what you want to rob these days. There’s lots of boys want to buy anything you can carry away from there. Times you don’t get no money from the registers, you’ve got all these class A drugs sitting behind the counter. And cough syrup. I knew this guy’
Allen was getting ready to tell them about someone he was in jail with who masterminded the biggest heist in the South, and they could see it coming, so the boys edged away. Nubby abruptly turned and walked back to the car he was messing with, as if trouble was an infectious disease Allen carried.
‘Aight.’ Nelson spun around on the balls of his feet to look them all in the eye. ‘Everybody get back to work. We don’t need to stand around jawing about the best way to make us some money. That’s what we got jobs for. We do the work we’ve got in front of us, and I for one go home with plenty.’ He grinned like a showman, and grabbed the clipboard for the hand-painted car. ‘Who’s doing this?’
Nathan raised his hand, grinning. He grinned whenever he was the center of attention. Mainly because he spent so much time getting yelled at. But maybe he was trying to make a friendly moment of it as a way of feeling better about himself. Whatever, it tended to set Nelson off. Maybe he didn’t like seeing that many healthy teeth. His were stained and jumbled up together near the front of his mouth, but he had most of them, and that was better than Nubby or Allen.
Nelson looked at the clipboard again. ‘This says retest?’
Nathan leaned over and looked at the paperwork. He nodded. ‘Yep.’
Nelson did a double take for the audience. ‘Nathan, tell me something. Did you ever see this car in here before?’
Nathan started to say that he could have seen it before its paint job and just not recognize it in its current state.
Nelson could tell what he was going to say and jumped in, his arm flailing at the test results. ‘No, Nathan, we’ve never seen this car before. And that’s the God’s honest truth. So why are you giving them a retest if they haven’t paid their twenty-five dollars for the first one?’
Nathan shrugged. ‘They said they were bringing it in for a retest, so I’m retesting it.’
Nelson ran his stained fingers through his hair. ‘You didn’t check. Nathan, you’ve always got to check.’ Nelson blinked and started off toward the office with a lurch, and then dashed back. ‘I’d like to get the guy out of here, so I’m gonna let you go ahead and do the work to make it pass.’ He paused and jerked his head. ‘Nathan, you listening to me? I don’t want you running the test on the computer. Let me fix it first. Can you remember that?’
Nathan nodded distractedly, his eyes darting around and beyond Nelson’s face. He’d decided to check the glove box for proof (or not) that the car’d been tested somewhere else. Maybe it would mollify Nelson a little to know that Nathan was at least half right. So he climbed back in the car and ransacked the glove compartment, taking a sheaf of loose papers and receipts out of it and sorting through them, letting papers slip through his fingers and fall to the grimy floor of the shop. He singled out a couple of sheets of crumpled paper and spread them out, tossing the rest on the passenger seat. ‘Looks like this guy failed at two other places.’
Nelson walked back over from another part of the shop and took the papers from Nathan, shaking his head. ‘So yeah he might have a retest coming, but not from here, because you only get the retest A,’ he ticked it off on his fingers, ‘if you get some work done to make it pass, and B, if you’ve already paid that particular shop. And you can see right here,’ he said, waving the papers at Nathan, ‘that he didn’t. So go ahead and finish entering him into the system,’ he repeated patiently, ‘ and go ahead and make him pass, but I don’t want you finishing it, because we’ve got to make sure to make him a new bill and get him to pay us.’
Nelson walked off again and left Nathan to finish entering the VIN and other input and run the test, confident that Nelson would know how to get around the rules. Suzie hung out watching Nathan. She’d appropriated the barstool while the boys were admiring the van gogh car, dragged it over to the edge of the wooden worktable that separated the GTO from the emissions bay, and perched on the unfinished wooden seat. Nathan had to enter the seventeen-digit VIN twice, and then twice again when the numbers didn’t match.
She had her shoes off beneath her stool, and kept sliding her bare feet over the rungs gingerly trying to find a spot worn bare of grease. Her butt was beginning to ache and she was going to have to get up and walk around soon. She always felt kind of lethargic when she was hanging out at Nelson’s.
Nathan was muttering to himself. ‘Make it pass. He wants to make it pass. I’ll show him passing.’ He ran tests. He pressed the hydraulic lift button and the front end of the car rose up six inches or so. Then he got in the car and ran it up to sixty for awhile, watching the monitor that he’d turned so he’d be able to see it from the car. Then he got out and punched up some other test, and got back into the car and ran it at half speed for awhile, his face going blank, his mouth hanging open, hunched over inside the little toy car. Maybe he was a football player in high school. He was very jock-like, being not too swift and always inclined to just stand in the way and let everyone go around him. Maybe he was a fullback.
Nathan was a relative of Nelson’s, and Suzie was not really sure how close a relative, maybe his sister’s kid, maybe his aunt’s. He wasn’t the brightest bulb God ever screwed into a lamp, but he tried, and he was enthusiastic about his job, and he loved working on cars. Well, not really. In fact, when Suzie asked him, he insisted that he hated working on cars. But when she asked him what he’d rather be doing, he never said; he just muttered for a few minutes about how much he hated it, using vague unfinished sentences and waves of his hand. So maybe he didn’t love working in a garage. But he certainly tackled his work with vigor.
Suzie sat there watching Nathan. Nathan sat there watching the monitor. Time passed. Nelson came up to the window of the car to check on what Nathan was doing, and for awhile she watched them both watching the monitor, the same mesmerized look coming over their faces.
After a few minutes of this, a black dude in a white t-shirt and long red shorts came cruising in through the back of the shop and strolled up to Nelson. A customer perhaps. Nelson conferred with him, stepping away from Nathan’s window, and then they drifted off and walked through the south bays and disappeared around the corner to the side of the front parking lot.
She was thinking of the boys as the three musketeers, or stooges, or Marx brothers. Nelson, Nathan, and Nubby. Three J’s Garage. They made that name up themselves one day after pulling off some audacious fraud against the owner and rolling up cigar sized joints to celebrate. They’d puffed ceremoniously until they were coughing, and did complex handshakes using mostly their fists. With some sort of rebel yell once they got their breaths back.
Suzie sat there watching them and suddenly saw them all lit up, as if surrounded by an aura. They were a team of total country misfits doing their best against the odds, being their own loser selves and getting away with it. She felt proud of them, like their teamwork meant something, and wanted to applaud them in public.
She spent some time fantacizing the logistics of coming around one night to tag the building with their caricatures and Three J’s Garage. There was only one place to paint it: around back, away from the road. People would only notice it when they drove around, so it would be a private tribute. The boys were proud of the work they did on the side and the scams they worked. They deserved a tribute.
Suzie’s butt hurt, but it didn’t help to shift on the stool. She considered getting off it and going outside to look at the sky. But she stayed and watched as Nathan did another test with a tailpipe monitor, and then a test with the gas cap. He looked around for the barstool, saw Suzie sitting on it, shrugged and grinned, and went over to stand at the console to punch up the results.
He bent over his work, bobbing with the silent rhythm of some song he wasn’t quite humming, his bleach-blond crew cut waving slightly with each nod. He peered at the printout as it came out. ‘It didn’t pass, Nelson,’ he called cheerily. ‘Duh.’
Suzie could see that he’d been thinking about how to fix it so it would pass. He’d taken a bunch of readings, and stood there and thought about it for a few minutes. During which time Nubby changed spark plugs in the minivan; Allen did another oil change; Nelson and the black guy came sauntering back through the shop, said a few happy things to each other, and did the fist handshake thing, and the guy went back to his car and left. Suzie sat there the whole time, perched on the barstool, leaning forward to take the pressure off her butt, with her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands.
Nathan jumped into the car and took a close look under the dash, his feet kicking outside the door as he came up with a radical, exciting idea. He jumped out and went to the shelf that ran the length of the west wall and rummaged around for a fuse. ‘A big fucking fuse. This’ll fix it.’ He ducked back into the car and replaced some smaller fuse with one lots more powerful. And then he ran the reading again, and was all smiles. ‘Make it pass, he said. Hey Nelson, I’m making it pass!’
Nelson didn’t hear him because he was in the office making a phone call. Nathan took the opportunity to run the retest so that he’d have something printed out to show Nelson when he came to check on it. Nelson would think he was finally getting the point of doing emissions tests, and would be really proud of him for figuring out how to make it pass.
‘It passed, Nelson,’ he said when Nelson emerged from the office and closed the door behind him. Nathan was bursting to tell him what he’d done. Because making cars pass an emission tests was a very complicated science. Nelson might know most of the tricks, but Nathan was sure he’d come up with a new innovation himself, and Nelson would finally see that he wasn’t as dumb as everyone thought he was. He handed him the certificate as it came off the printer.
Nelson frowned. ‘What’s this?’ Nathan pointed to the part where it said Passed, smiling broadly. ‘No, what is this?’ Nelson asked again, pointing to the part where it said Retest. ‘Nathan, didn’t I tell you to let me do it? I swear you never listen to a thing I say.’ He looked pained.
Suzie made a sympathetic noise as he walked past her to check on Allen. As he passed, he brushed her shoulders with the back of his hand, which was almost clean. It was the only notice he’d given her for half an hour. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with that boy,’ he said loud enough for Nathan to hear him. Suzie made a questioning noise. ‘He loses me a little bit of money every time he touches anything, is all.’
Nathan grinned, looking like a big Garfield. ‘But I got it out of here, it passed and now it’s leaving.’ That’s what Nelson had told him to do. Suzie could see how proud he was, and that he was totally oblivious to Nelson’s displeasure.
She wandered over to the front of the shop to stand in the shade of the overhang and look off south into the sky. There were great views to the south and the north, and you could stand anywhere in the shop and see weather coming in. But there was no weather coming in.
The sky was bright blue behind puffy little clouds that had no rain in them. There was a tease of a breeze wicking through the shop, and the air was cool, but it was hot out there in the sun. It was hot out in the sun even in the winter, something Nubby complained of every time he went and stood outside for a cigarette, like he was doing at that moment.
Suzie went to join him. ‘So smoke inside,’ she said as he swore between puffs. He shook his head. ‘It’s not like you couldn’t smoke in the shop. I mean, there’s nothing flammable in there. Just the aerosol cans, really.” Suzie turned to survey all the oil and grease, the tires stacked against the far corner, the filthy floor and the wads of paper trash everywhere, the big bottles of pressurized gasses, the fifty-gallon drums of oil and transmission fluid.
Nubby took another drag and nodded his head toward the inside of the shop. ‘I just need a break from all the aggravation.’ They stood and watched the sky while he smoked. Nubby’s dad had some land when he was a kid, and he’d spent lots of time wandering the fields and woods. He was saving up to buy a few acres to put the trailer on, further away from Atlanta, and for a guy who didn’t speak much, he loved talking about the country, and would it rain, and how hot it was getting.
He ground out the butt under his boots and went back to the minivan. Suzie went back to her post near the worktable, past a sign on the wall that said Only Legal Emissions Tests Are Done Here, Any Requests To The Contrary Will Be Reported To The EPA. She’d drawn a winking eye on it when they’d first put it up, and Cindy, the owner, had replaced it and yelled at Nelson about it. But she drew a wink on that one, too, and after a few replacements, Cindy stopped noticing it and the sign stayed tagged.
Nathan had reclaimed the barstool and was getting ready to test another car, a white pickup. ‘So, Nathan, what did you do to make it pass?’
‘I put in this big fucking fuse, and now it’s fixed.’
‘But, isn’t that just hiding the problem?’
‘And doesn’t putting in too big a fuse cause a fire hazard?’
He shrugged. ‘So what? It passed, and that’s what counts.’
Nathan wasn’t concerned with the twenty-five bucks the customer didn’t have to pay for the test, either, because that was office stuff, and he didn’t want to know. Cindy, Glenda who worked in the office when Cindy wasn’t there, Nubby, and Nelson all worked the register and wrote up jobs. Nathan just did the little stuff that Nelson told him to do.
He didn’t even have to go to the bank to cash his paycheck. He could get paid right out of the till. It would just be more to think about if he had to know prices or deal with the customers. And it was a whole nother computer system in the office. Out in the shop there was just the emissions machine and the dashboard computer thing they could plug in to download shit from the car. That was more than enough. They couldn’t pay him to learn any more than he already had to.
Suzie was tired of hanging around with nothing to do. The soles of her feet hurt, and she had to be at work in an hour and a half. Her butt still hurt from sitting on the stool. She had actually come by to see if Nelson could do something about her air conditioner. He’d filled it with freon the last time she’d been here, but it had already escaped into the upper atmosphere, so she needed some more.
It was just too hot driving around in the sun with the windows down. It was really sweaty in all those costume layers, sitting in Atlanta traffic with no breeze, and now that she had a good job she had to make sure not to come in dripping wet. At sixty miles an hour, eighty-degree air might be slightly cooling, but when she was in stop-and-go traffic there wasn’t enough breeze to keep her from breaking out into runnels of salt water down both sides of everything.
Nelson must have read her mind. He came over and stood behind her, rubbing her shoulders for a moment with the backs of his wrists, then leaned over and said conspiratorially, ‘Let’s go for a spin. These boys about to drive me crazy.’ So Suzie straightened up from her position against the worktable and stretched, then went off to use the bathroom in the office. Because Nelson might say right now, but he still had things to do before slipping away, and she knew she had maybe ten minutes before he’d dash to the car and fuss at her for not waiting there the whole time.
All mechanics have pictures of naked women somewhere. This place had porn mags strewn all over the shop floor bathroom which were perfectly safe from discovery because nobody has ever seen a filthier bathroom.
The outside of the door had years of greasy handprints on it, and the doorknob was so slick that the boys had to use their shirt tails to twist it open. Every surface was grimed; there was a scuffed-clean path to the toilet from the door. There was no toilet paper, just old newspapers dashed into the corner. You wouldn’t want to wash your hands or even rest anything on the lip of the sink, and don’t even think about looking at the underside of the seat.
Should a customer open the door by mistake, they’d never notice the porn mags. The horror would show on their face and in the way they backed off, and you’d be able to see them thinking that they’d better get their car away from the shop as soon as possible.
Suzie used the customer bathroom instead. She pulled open the door to the office and was hit by a blast of air conditioning, cooling the waiting room to a frigid fifty-eight degrees even though it was only spring. She made her way past the front counter, past Cindy, and past the sullen, angry stares of customers waiting for their cars, and slipped into the bathroom, which was spotless compared to the shop floor bathroom. This bathroom’s only flaws were a hastily patched wall where someone had gotten angry and put their fist through it, a constantly dripping sink, and a pile of paper towels spilling out of the waste basket which she scooped up and stuffed back in – her contribution to tidiness.
Suzie didn’t like to be in the shop when Cindy was around. She’d give him hell for having his friends there during business hours. So she only ever nodded when she had to deal with Cindy, who scowled back in that Southern, cold-eyed smiley way. Cindy was a nervous little woman who was always afraid of being made a fool of or ripped off. She’d thought she’d get rich owning a franchise, but she was in way over her head. She was too nice, too middle class, too clueless. She should have just let Nelson run things his way and take what profit he could generate without prompting.
But she was adamant about doing the right thing, and so she came in twice a week to oversee everything, and that meant she’d be looking at the books and asking questions and wanting the boys to work more and faster. Cindy might have done well being an office manager in a small place, or working in a parts store, because she micromanaged. But the boys were allergic to scrutiny and didn’t respond well to management techniques, so when she came in they hustled around and added a little more energy to their movements so they’d look busier and more effective and she’d stay off their backs. It drove everyone nuts.
Even Nelson looked more efficient and seemed to get more done when she was there. But he was the star of the shop, so Cindy never said much. Maybe she was a little intimidated by him. A little charmed. The more she looked up to his genius, the more his methods slid. In fact, as long as they made money and the books were straight, she didn’t have much to complain about. Nelson was always there on time, came in on his day off whenever they could get hold of him, handled customers with charm, and had the benevolent air of a master at work. He was the perfect employee. Except he was ripping her off at every opportunity.
Nelson was a mechanic’s mechanic. Not in the sense that other mechanics looked up to him and studied his skillful way with an engine, but in the sense that anything he touched had to be gone over later by another mechanic, making more work for everyone. He fixed anything that came into the shop, anything the customer wanted done, whether it was necessary or not, and whether the repair was actually done or just approximated, and whether or not he’d done that kind of repair before.
To Nelson, nothing mechanical was a mystery, just a big pain in the ass. He always figured he was a born inventor, not a technician, and this led to some creative repairs that it was best the customers didn’t know about.
Suzie came back out and found him yelling at Nathan for something new. She waited around until he was through, and then he washed up at the back sink, and they got into some customer’s red Camry that was sitting out back.
It had been sitting in the sun, and its black interior felt like the inside of a toaster oven. There was a fine covering of dust on everything. The inside of the windshield was filthy, with streaks and splotches from imperfectly wiped condensation and spilled coffee. The car had a CD hanging on the mirror by a thread, a full ashtray, and paper trash all over the floor – newspapers, McDonald’s bags, discarded mail, drink cups, water bottles, cigarette packs.
She had to move a bunch of papers from the passenger seat, and glanced in the back as she got in. There were clothes scrunched in the corner of the back seat, and car parts and cans of car fluids taking up the foot room. Nelson was already revving the car and was impatient to get away before Cindy noticed him gone.
Nelson started the car up and they headed down Tara Boulevard to the first subdivision and snaked around the streets. It was a maze built in the ’60s, called Camelot. It had a Tudor look, sort of. She looked at him fondly and relaxed into the seat, gently sweeping her hand over to his side of the car, hoping he wanted to hold hers and be close. But he had something else in mind, and turned his hand over to reveal a joint he’d palmed back in the shop.
Nelson smoked a lot of weed. He smoked it all day long, and always had a huge big joint ready to smoke when they’d take a break. Suzie couldn’t stand getting high all day long, but there was no refusing Nelson, and he never asked her if she wanted to smoke, just handed her the joint.
It was the size of her thumb, and she held on to it while he fished around in his pockets for the lighter. Then she handed it back, after duly admiring the tightness of the roll and the enormous amount of weed it contained. He pulled a half-smoked cigar out of his pocket and put it in the ashtray, so he’d have some camouflage in the unlikely event a cop stopped them. Then he lit the joint, bellowing smoke as he took the first drag and rolled the window down a crack so he could see where he was going. He started to cough, his 7’4” frame convulsing tightly as he let out great hacking sounds that reminded Suzie of an end-stage lung cancer patient. She looked at him with concern as he passed her the joint, but he had turned his attention back to the road and didn’t see her face.
‘Great stuff,’ he said, once he caught his breath. ‘Taste that. That’s the measure of good pot, you know, how hard it makes you cough.’
Suzie was dubious. ‘I’m not sure there’s a connection between the amount of THC and how resinous it is.’ Because she rather thought it wasn’t.
‘Nah, it’s a well known fact.’ He took another hit, and the coughing continued. ‘Seriously, did you know that the pot we smoke today has twenty-three times more THC in it than what you could get in the ’60s? Even the field-grown strains are stronger. That’s why it costs so much more.’
‘That and maybe the general rate of inflation?’ Suzie was not easily satisfied with Nelson’s explanations. They were so absolute. So she usually tried to bring out other facts that might influence the subject so they could have a discussion. Suzie had trouble talking to Nelson because he knew so much about everything, and though she could see flaws in his logic and holes in his evidence, she always understood that it was because he’d already factored in their relative influence on the matter, and was expecting her to see that.
‘I’ll tell you something else. The CIA, who – believe it – have been genetically engineering pot all this time for maximum effect, have also been setting the price to the dealers. And that’s really why the price is so high.’
She blew out her lungful of smoke a fraction of a second early. ‘Now don’t tell me that the CIA is entirely behind the drug trade.’ Everything Nelson said sounded plausible when he said it. But when you got away from the shop and thought back on it, parts of the vast conspiracy it always ended up being didn’t quite hold together. So she was always a bit skeptical. Or tried to be, to balance the thrill of emotion she got whenever she thought about a huge vast conspiracy to control the world.
‘It’s the God’s truth. The CIA took it over from the mob in the early ’60s.’ He waved the joint with energy, pointing to the windshield, indicating an imaginary Southeast Asia spot on the lower right, then sweeping over to Europe and South America and Mexico on the left.
‘Yep, they got into heroin and then they got into coke, and they only recently took over pot because turns out it’s the most profitable.’ He looked wise, glancing at her, driving the car with his left hand, his elbow draped all the way out of the window, his head within millimeters of the roof, his knees right up beside the steering wheel, poised to take over the driving should he happen to drop the joint and have to fish for it.
Nelson was of Scandinavian heritage, one of the few spots in the world where humans still intermarry with giants. His every move was a dart and a jab as he wheeled and pivoted on stilts for legs and mop handles for arms. And yet, for all his 8’3 ”, he weighed 92 pounds. You could see his spine through his belly, swear to God. He always spoke with a great animated rush, completely enthused by the thoughts he needed to communicate, possessed by the immediacy of his truth.
‘Yeah. And let me tell you something else.’ He said quickly. She looked at him as he paused with dramatic emphasis to take a deep drag and commence coughing again. He was so noble looking, so intelligent. Beautiful in a really ugly way, with his big sunken eyes, his big toucan nose, his massive jaw, those enormous Buddha ear lobes and batwing ears, and almost-red wiry hair looking like the grass in an Easter basket.
He loomed in her direction. ‘The reason it’s still not legal is because the CIA can fund its entire black operations budget with the price of pot today. It’s the highest return on the dollar of any option, legal or not. The drug companies are killing themselves trying to come up with patentable uses for pot, that’s how profitable it is. And the government doesn’t want the competition, and doesn’t want to license it, because the only revenue they’ll get is tax, which is a fraction of what they’re getting now.’
He sat back and passed her the joint, proud of his razor-sharp insight, pleased at having revealed the damning truth.
Suzie was trying to become a skeptic by nature. But get her high and she had no problem believing in secret societies, hidden organizations, master plans. The thought frightened her, because if they were running things, then things were being run into the ground.
‘See, my dad was a Mason,’ Nelson said as he reclaimed the joint, which was getting small and sticky. He held it with the tips of his fingers so it wouldn’t burn him when he took the next hit. ‘My dad told me some shit. All sorts of secret societies are running things you would not believe. The CIA can control the weather. They’ve got big machines. I’m not shitting you. But the Masons don’t need machines. The highest Masons get together and use these magic powers they spend all their time developing, and they can make it rain or snow anywhere they want to.’
Suzie thought of Glinda, Good Witch of the North, making snow fall to wake Dorothy and the Lion. She’d heard stories about her mom’s crowd, conjuring thunderstorms in a drought. But what Nelson was saying sounded a little far-fetched. If they can’t even predict the weather, how can anyone control it?
She burned her fingers on her last turn with the joint, so she waved it away when Nelson handed it back to her. He happily kept it and took several short drags, but choked it all out immediately in another long fit of coughing.
‘Let me tell you something else about the weather,’ Nelson said. ‘I been reading about this. Back in the ’70s the CIA built a Tesla machine to control the weather. They like studied Russian weather patterns and found some sort of pressure point, a spot up in the North Atlantic where all the big storms came from. And they turned this machine on and made the whole earth, like, tingle, and focused it on that one spot and made a wave of turbulence. It instantly affected the weather, and Russia was hit with storm after storm for months. Ruined all the crops.’ He stopped for another coughing fit. Suzie watched with concern as he grew red in the face and didn’t seem able to stop coughing even to draw a breath.
Gradually the hacking diminished, and he eagerly put the butt end of the roach up to his mouth for a last hit. ‘Thing about that is, it fucked up America’s weather, too, and they had to stop.’ He turned to her earnestly. ‘But don’t think they’ve stopped trying to control weather. They’ve just moved on to other methods. Like electrifying the atmosphere to power airplanes and monitor the earth and control the clouds and shit.’
Suzie wanted to hear more about this latest claim, but Nelson turned into the parking lot of the garage and handed her the smoldering roach. ‘Here, put that out and let me get back to work.’ He pulled to a stop and lunged over for a kiss, then was out the door and bouncing off into the back of the shop while she was still trying to find her shoes among the debris on the floor of the Camry.
She turned her mind to work. The thought of going off to work and leaving the breezy garage reminded her that she wanted him to fix her air conditioning.
Cindy wandered out from the office, carrying a clipboard and calling, ‘Awl change,’ like she was selling newspapers on the street. Nelson was back at work, and she knew it was going to be another hour and a half before he’d be willing to pay attention to her again. She’d just spent all her available time with him talking about conspiracy theories instead of asking him when he was going to get around to looking at her car. She didn’t bother approaching him to ask about it. She knew what his answer would be: ‘Come see me tomorrow and we’ll fix it first thing.’
So, fine, she thought. Whatever. Let’s just go and maybe get to work on the early side.
* * *
October 4, 2007
Never tempt God by saying ‘Early’ with reference to Atlanta traffic.
She drove off with a wave nobody saw. They were all bent over a car and Nelson was fussing at Nathan and never looked up. Somehow relieved, Suzie made for 75 North back into town. Suzie Q, Queen of the Road, happiest when she had a steering wheel in her hand.. She didn’t really like staying still. Didn’t like touching the ground. Loved the wind in her hair. Seeing the trees flash by. Watching the sky reinvent itself every day, all day long. She headed straight up to the entrance ramp, and joined the traffic heading to Atlanta.
Traffic was moderate, an average of 75 cars per mile in each lane, an average spacing of 70 feet. The road speed averaged 72 miles per hour. It was the usual mix of pickups, SUVs and cars, with commercial vans and trucks here and there; everybody behaving themselves. Big rigs were kind of thick on this stretch, most of them preparing to go around the Perimeter and leave the Connector to the lesser vehicles. God bless them. Professional drivers, who know how to drive, keeping out of the way of the idiots.
Then she hit her brakes suddenly because of someone crossing in front of the semi next to her and into her lane. It’s a wonder truckers don’t lose their shit and mete out some punishment, she thought, take out the real menaces, smite theyself some ass, like Uncle Daddy says. Like that one in the white Explorer just almost creamed her. Fucking looked like a storm trooper. Just sauntering across the road. Not only dangerous, he was damn rude.
It’s a real art, driving, Suzie was thinking, and in a town like The Big 404 you got to be sharp. It’s all life in the fast lane round here. Assholes these days don’t learn shit when they’re coming up, just how to work the pedals and steer. Now, truckers are trained right. And because they’re sitting on all that momentum, they’re damn careful about the way they handle their rigs. They don’t do sudden anything less there’s a real reason, the way it slings them around. Not like these fucking four-wheelers. It’s all a trucker can do sometimes to maintain speed and stay in their lane with all the batshit drivers cutting in and out around them, and slamming on their brakes twenty feet in front of them. If they only knew the danger they put themselves in.
Suzie fumed. The rant was a combination of all the nasty things her dad and Uncle Daddy said over the years, and was embroidered to suit traffic conditions. She continued on up Seventy-Fifth Street, as her dad’s trucker buddies used to call it, passed the exit to the Perimeter, and was just at the Henry Ford II exit. A stream of thick traffic merged on the right, doing seventy-five, slowing down to 68 as the flow got heavier.
She passed a billboard: ‘Now Y’all Play Nice – God.’ And another one: ‘$69 to Myrtle Beach – Fly Hooter’s Air‘ with a blond thing in a wet t-shirt and bikini shorts with an owl flying out of her bra. Suzie hated the Hooters billboards. Choice of peanuts or a quick feel, she thought, airline extras being what they are these days. She was starting to get ansty about being at work. It was getting close to Four-thirty, her shift started at Five. They had a big banquet tonight and she need to be there on time. Good thing the traffic doesn’t suck, the mused.
Ahah, a second challenge thrown out to God. Who could resist?
The thought that traffic didn’t suck lasted until she approached the Connector. I-75 North became a sea of waving heat-distorted parked cars as it merged with I-85 North. Bumpercars and leapfrog. A loose average of five miles an hour and the electronic sign, for once accurate, reading 8 Miles To I-20, Travel Time 18-25 Minutes.
She got her first partial peek of Atlanta’s skyline at seven miles per hour as traffic moved over a ridge, hanging on the steering wheel, steering with her chin with her chest draped over the airbag. She made it one mile to the next ridge nine and a half minutes later. And there, the first whole view of Atlanta, five miles up the road.
The city poked up out of the trees like one of those alligator yard ornaments, one wavy segment of spikes along a ridge Downtown, another one a ways over on the ridge in Midtown with several dozen cranes jutting into the sky from the back of its spine. Then another expanse of trees, and then the ridge at Buckhead and Lenox, with its several miles of distinctive skyscrapers topped by half-circles and cock heads and sails fading off into the haze. if you could see far enough, which you couldn’t because of the pollution, you could see Perimeter on a ridge way off to the northeast, featuring the King and Queen buildings.
Atlanta was the Emerald City. In the middle of a forest, every direction revealed a sea of rolling greens that met the sky in a sort of purple gunge of hydrocarbons, but never mind. Green as far as the eye could see. Built on one of the last ridges of the Appalachians, which headed roughly northeast to Canada from there, the city had grown into a narrow line of sharp buildings rising above endless trees, like a giant-sized stretch of split rail fencing covered with razor wire and glinting in the sun.
The city receded behind the next ridge as the traffic moved down the hill from Lakewood. Suzie was proud of the landscaping along the roads. It’s what sets Atlanta apart from other cities. Wildflowers on the verges, bushes and trees at every exit and bank, green everywhere you look. Not like northern cities, which are all gray; nothing growing, nothing planted and taken care of; only gardens of tossed-out trash stirring in the wakes of passing vehicles. Atlanta’s like the forest moon of Endor.
The cars were beginning to move again, past no apparent obstacles. It was all for nothing, Traffic eased up for no reason because it had stopped for no reason. A brake check is all, that’s what her dad would call it. NFR, Uncle Daddy would say, No Fucking Reason. The traffic went back up to fifty-five, but it was thick, ten feet between cars, everybody speeding up together. Past University Avenue, past Turner Field, then past the exit to I-20.
Suzie saw the gold dome of the Capital on the left, and then Grady Hospital, the Auburn Curb Market, a sign reading Jesus Saves on top of a green church steeple, and then the whole of Downtown spread out as thin as a line of coke, one distinctive tall building after another parading by.
But traffic had gotten slow and pokey again going through the Grady Curve, and Suzie got to turn her attention back to the skyline, which made her heart thrill every time she saw it. The black Equitable building with its turned-down white collar top, the 191 Building with its twin towers and cascading back side, the Westin like a pokey-up penis, its glass elevator running up the outside just like a vein. Great view from the top, they’ve got a rotating floor, but it’s got to be a clear day. The food is worthless and expensive, so just look at the scenery and ignore the menu.
She passed the Peachtree Center complex with its Rockefeller-modern prison windows. It held tens of thousands of corporate droids in a dozen blocks of interconnected beige towers linked by hamster tubes lined with shops and food courts. People went in there on Monday and never came out until Friday night, swear to God. Downtown ended with the proud blue Portman building, with skyhooks and handles and crenellations and a spike the size of the Eiffel Tower that lit up at night so you could see Atlanta from the moon.
Traffic slowed even more as the road started through the Marta curve where the subway line ran over the highway. Suzie stopped in traffic and looked up, her foot on the brake. She had always thought the Marta overpass would be a perfect spot for some good poignant graffiti having to do with the traffic. Something like, ‘If you can read this you should have stayed at work until traffic died down.’ No, something better.
She could have got out and walked past Crawford Long Hospital, but the cars started to move slightly as the road straightened out to cruise past Georgia Tech and the Varsity Restaurant. She drove on thru Midtown, where traffic resumed its fifteen mile-an-hour crawl as the road paralleled the west side of town, and then slowed again as millions of drivers got into position for jockeying into position to get into the correct lane before the Connector split back into two major interstates at Brookwood. All at a snail’s pace, a slow motion dance of death.
Whoever designed the Connector through Atlanta had a criminal mind. How else do you explain why they joined two interstates and thrust them right through the middle of town, weaving back and forth around Peachtree Street, the main drag, cutting right through neighborhoods and making a hash out of the already convoluted surface streets? And how do you explain the split? I-85 goes northeast, and I-75 goes northwest, but at the split 75 they’re on opposite sides from each other and have to cross over. If you’re coming north thru Atlanta for the first time, you’re going to be driving on the wrong side of eight lanes, expecting the split to veer off in a logical direction. More accidents happen at the Brookwood split because of last minute lane changes, and it’s all the fault of some highway engineer on speed fifty years ago.
Suzie sped up at last as she started up the exit ramp for Tenth and Fourteenth Streets. She took the access road to Seventeenth, avoiding bottlenecks further on. Then she turned right and drove up the hill to cross over Peachtree Street.
As far as she could see down Peachtree, it was all tall buildings of glass, brick or stucco. Massive construction was going on all up and down the length of the street, cranes and boarded-up sidewalks, pedestrians everywhere, all in business clothes.
Here’s where you’ll see the most uncomfortable looking people in Atlanta, with ID badges around their necks, and clothes wrinkled at the hips from sitting: black, brown and gray, hot and sweaty clothes designed to keep you warm in air conditioning, released from the caves and now steaming in the sun. Suzie noticed the shoes, so tight it hurt to look at them. Those poor people all look stunned, she though. Blinded. It probably takes them all the way home to come out of that stupor. Maybe that’s why rush hour traffic is so horrible, maybe they all still think they’re staring at their computers instead of driving home.
Atlanta’s urban segmentation is drastic. Go one block east of skyscrapers on Peachtree, and there are multi-million dollar homes built a century ago. From the mid-level balconies of the tall buildings of Peachtree, you can look down into the placid back yards of rich people and their pets. Sit on the porch of one of these palatial residences, and you can time the movement of the shadow of some skyscraper through the back yard. Suzie always found it shocking to cross from Metropolis into Pleasantville like that. She couldn’t feel comfortable in either place, and it tended to make her very edgy to be hit with both worlds in the space of a block.
So she always slowed down and cruised slowly down Peachtree Circle and onto The Prado. The lawns and landscaping were mature and well-tended, the houses were set way back and up the hill away from the streets, which were as wide as Peachtree and lined with sidewalks full of pram-toting nannies and maids in uniforms, and buff, shirtless guys jogging with walk-zombies and earphones. She passed them all, vaguely ashamed of her beat up blue Doohickey with all the Mercedes and BMWs and Volvos parked along the curbs, and finally turned into the entrance of the White Magnolia Club.
* * *
October 4, 2007
A word about Atlanta’s exclusive private club scene. And we’re not talking about Atlanta’s exclusive adult private club scene, either. That’s too sordid and corrupt. It might make a great Atlanta-based crime fiction novel, except that it would all be true, and I’d be in real trouble then. No, I want to talk about the private clubs that cost the earth to join just as a way of discouraging the riff-raff. There’s not really much to choose between them unless you like to measure degrees of superiority. Here are a few of their mission statements, right off their websites:
- The Capital City Club has been located on Harris Street Downtown since 1883 and is one of the oldest private clubs in the country. Their motto is ‘To promote the pleasure, kind feeling and general culture of its members.’
- The Piedmont Driving Club, on Piedmont Road since 1887, stands for ‘The promotion of recreation and enjoyment for its members and their families.’
- The Cherokee Country Club, a newcomer, on West Paces Ferry around the corner from the new Governors mansion, wants to be known for its ‘Commitment to the highest standards in dining and member services.’
- The Atlanta Athletic Club, chartered in 1898, has moved steadily away from the hoi polloi (read: blacks) in East Point and now is located in Duluth, way outside the Perimeter in what they hoped would remain white people country. It was motivated by ‘A group of young men seeking a place where they could enjoy indoor and outdoor athletics with their business associates and friends.’
- The Ku Klux Klan, which was created at the end of the Civil War by six bored middle-class Confederate veterans who decided to form ‘A social club – one purely for amusement, centered on practical jokes and hazing rituals.’
- The St. Ives Country Club is new, and insists a little crassly upon its goal, ‘To operate the most successful and highly regarded member-owned club in Metro Atlanta.’
- The White Magnolia Club (a fictitious member of the Rich White Guys Clubs of Atlanta, virtually established in 1896 around the corner from the Capital City Club) puts the same sentiment slightly differently: ‘Its all about us.’
A word about the White Magnolia Club, where Suzie worked. Those readers who know Atlanta might notice that you can navigate using these pages, and not get any more lost than if you used a map – this is modern Atlanta, after all, and everyone gets lost here, even natives from eight generations back. In the interests of accuracy, I’ve gone to great pains to describe the Atlanta I know and love.
But because of the threat of dismemberment, I’m going to have to fudge a few details about certain aspects of this story, despite my scruples about accuracy. So, though you can otherwise navigate by this book, you’re not going to be able to find this particular clubby bastion of white male privilege, though there are lots of others to choose from. And you won’t exactly recognize the garage full of loveable dopesmoking mechanics, though there are plenty of them in Atlanta, too. And if you did recognize these places, I’d have to insist that you’d be wrong. And in case anybody official were to object to my portraits, skewed though they may be and twisted around to serve my own wicked purposes, then I would have to rest on the fact that this is a work of fiction, and I’ve exercised my right to make shit up.
Instead of laying myself open lawsuits and drive-by sprays of bullets, I’m just going ahead and telling you that the White Magnolia Club, as well as Stones Auto Repair, is fictional. Completely. Any resemblance to any other private club or garage has been made to look like a coincidence.
To begin with, the White Magnolia was a private club that only rich southern white men could belong to, and only after membership fees that would buy a house in the suburbs. The Club bowed to the pressure of progressive members back in the ’90s, and now had a couple of Jews, and three blacks, two of them from Africa. The Board of Directors was considering admitting an Indian Indian. But no Hispanics, no Asians, no Native Americans, no women except as wives. Though a son could inherit his daddy’s membership, Mom was out in the cold when her husband died or if they divorced, even if she’d been attending functions for thirty years and was head of the Ladies Auxiliary.
The main qualification was how much money a man had, but plenty of consideration was given to such arcanities as racial and ethnic purity, religious righteousness, college affiliation, voting record, and family connections. It was a good ol’ boy’s club, pure and simple, established for the comfort and pleasure of people who liked to think they ran things.
And it didn’t matter a lick what someone did for a living, as long as his bona fides and checks were good. Members owned garbage companies, peanut farms, cement factories, pulp mills, car dealerships, construction companies, bail bond offices. There were no drug dealers, because most of those were black or Hispanic, but they did have a particularly successful pharmaceutical representative, the head of an HMO and several plastic surgeons. They didn’t have any prostitutes or madams, because most of those were women, but they did have the owner of an employment agency and half a dozen politicians.
The original home of the White Magnolia Club was downtown on Peachtree Street. It was built as a big Victorian house after Sherman came through with the wreckers, and sold cheap by a northerner fleeing back home during the panic of 1873. A bunch of good ol’ boys bought it, and, still rankling from the superior attitudes of those damned Yankees, declared right off the bat that nobody who wasn’t from the South could join their Club.
Progress being what it is, the area got pretty gritty (read: black) in the ’50s and ’60s, and Club members voted to flee up Peachtree to Ansley Park, three miles north, an expensive suburban enclave built at the turn of the last century in the grandest post-Reconstruction style. Typical of development in Atlanta, the lovely old mansion on Peachtree was eventually razed to the ground, and John Portman put up an enormous bronze statue of two naked dancing girls on top of what used to be stately columns and well-tended gardens.
So when they built the current governor’s mansion in 1968, that awful, blocky Greek Revival thing on West Paces Ferry, the Club bought the old governor’s mansion for a song, and completely restored and refashioned it into the grandest private club in the South.
It was built in the Italian Renaissance Revival style, up on the top of a hill, at 205 The Prado, Ansley Park, in the early years of the last century. It was the very finest address in Atlanta at the time, the residence of hot developer Edwin Ansley. It had thirteen rooms, five baths, and the house was dressed with granite excavated right there on the property. After 1925 it was the home of eleven successive governors of Georgia.
Two stories and a full basement, built on top of a rise, acres of land beside and behind it, servants’ quarters and other outbuildings; the place reminded the visitor of an old plantation, including life-size statues of black boys holding lanterns at the end of the driveway. Suzie drove her beat up old car very slowly past them for someone who was already twenty minutes late to work.
The place has seen some renovations, seeing as how the Club has owned the ex governor’s mansion for awhile. They knocked out the various parlors and dens downstairs, made two huge ballrooms out of the space, and commissioned two enormous rugs emblazoned with the club’s logo. They kept the original heart-of-Georgia-pine floors, which could still be seen around the edges of the room, but lowered the ceiling with practical suspended-tile ceilings that were now going gray and getting ugly, but were still a good idea because they hid the pipes and ducts that were installed at the same time. There were now double-paned windows, central heating and air conditioning, hidden speakers, programmed lighting, discrete security cameras, and a courtesy elevator for the more fragile members.
The newest renovation, done at a cost of several millions dollars, converted what used to be spacious living quarters upstairs, and then mostly storage, into a whole bunch of casual dining rooms. They also, while they were at it, converted the ground beneath their prize-winning ornamental gardens into a brand new parking deck; and converted the entire basement into a huge commercial kitchen. This was all several years back, but they still pointed it out with pride.
A set of semi-circular granite steps led up to a set of ancient carved oak double doors, which swung open to reveal a long wide breezeway going through the middle of the building to a covered verandah out back, overlooking the prize-winning gardens. The breezeway was recently renovated into a two story atrium, with white marble floors and a fountain in the middle under a glass roof. You could stand in the hall and catch glimpses of the second floor with all the private dining rooms and lounges. A sign at the foot of the stairs insisted: Coat And Tie For The Men And Evening Dress For The Ladies Are Required At All Times. There Is No Smoking In The Casual Dining Rooms.
At the head of the house were the two massive ballrooms on either side of the breezeway that held up to 250 each, with a luxurious rug, sconces and chandeliers and fireplaces shining with brass. Expensive watered-silk wallpaper patterned with yellow orchids covered the walls of the Ladies Slipper Ballroom to the left, and green ducks and brown hunting dogs decorated the Southern Sportsman Ballroom to the right.
Behind the Sportsman Room was the large dining room: paneled in mahogany, seating just under a hundred, a long formal dining table running down the middle of the room flanked by high backed chairs, with mirrors and crystal glinting everywhere. Behind the Ladies Slipper Room was the pantry, a library, a game room, and a lounge where the wives adjourned after dinner so that the men could stay in the dining room to drink and smoke and have strippers in.
Up on the second floor were a variety of dressing rooms for men and ladies, lounges where the same could sleep off too many cocktails, and private dining and function rooms all named after southern flowers, where from a pair to several dozen could have intimate gatherings.
The basement was where Suzie worked. In the kitchen. Except for orientation, she’d never seen upstairs. And she’d never gone up the front steps. Or seen the gardens. Suzie’s Doohickey never sullied the grandeur because it disappeared from view down an access road alongside the iron-railed fence, and sat in the depths of the underground garage until her shift was over.
The kitchen of the White Magnolia Club took up the entire basement, a massive kitchen in the middle, ringed all around with store rooms and coolers. The ceilings were low, criss-crossed with ducts and pipes and fans. The walls were beige, darkened by steam and cooking fumes, brown streaks running down the walls from daily condensation. The floor was checkerboard tile. The kitchen equipment was all stainless steel: tables, stations, sinks.
As in every large kitchen, a shiny steel table ran right down the middle of the room, with sinks and dishwashing equipment over against the far wall, next to a row of commercial stoves, ovens, grills, deep fat fryers and serving stations with warming lights. The cold prep area was against the other wall, near the walk-in coolers. The corner nearest the door was the butcher shop, and the corner closest to the kitchen stairs was the pastry shop. In back, beyond the coolers, squeezed into a corner behind the trash room, was the employee break room, a plastic, utilitarian place with folding tables and chairs.
The head chef’s office was next to the door, the first thing you passed going in and the last going out, where Chef could sit and scrutinize everyone suspiciously as they hung up their jackets and punched the time clock, took out the trash or slipped a case of food out to their car.
There are several ways to run a kitchen. The General Manager, the Executive Chef, and the Sous-chefs operated under the brigade system, a quasi-military hierarchy devised by the head chef of the French army over a hundred years ago. It’s a rigid organization, where everybody has a boss who reports to a boss who reports to THE boss; where every aspect of the work has someone assigned to perform it the right way. And there is only one right way.
Chef had a recipe book everyone was expected to follow every time. There were pictures of the finished dishes showing exactly how each one was supposed to be produced and plated. There was even a timing sequence, where a particular dish was supposed to take this much time to cook, this much time to cool, and this much time to stand before being served.
You’ve probably seen the brigade system at work if you watch the Food Channel. You might have thought it was a logical, smooth way to run things. Most restaurateurs agree. Any fancy establishment of any size will usually insist upon it as the perfect way to run a restaurant.
But go ahead and take a poll of people who’ve spent time in an army brigade and see if they agree with ‘perfect’. Organized – yes sir. Covering all the contingencies – affirmative. Giving everyone a sense of their place in the system – sir yes sir.
Jail is like that, too. The brigade system is perfect if you want a bunch of droids doing exactly what they’re told to, acting more like cogs in a machine than human beings. But there’s one problem. Cooks tend to be on the independent side of droids, cogs or army types.
The executive chef of the White Magnolia Club was an Italian guy from New York. He’d been hired away from a big-name restaurant several years ago in order to lend a cosmopolitan air to the club, and because the chef before him enjoyed making such dishes as shrimp and grits with hushpuppies and collard greens, rather to the embarrassment of members who liked to entertain northern business acquaintances.
Chef Ricardo was how the staff addressed him. He was 6’4” and weighed close to 300 pounds. Dressed out in his chef uniform with an extra large twelve inch toque hat on his head, he looked just like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Except for his rather long greasy black hair, which kept escaping from his hat and getting into the food.
He was a very strict brigade man, and just as in the army, where the responsibility for everything lay with the chief, the blame for anything that went wrong always fell on the lowest ranking recruit.
So a hair would be found in a member’s food, and would be brought to Chef’s office by a waiter, and he would look at it with extreme distaste and then blame the black cooks who’d worked on that particular dish. He’d come slamming out of his office, yelling commands at the entire kitchen to put down their work and listen, and they’d all stop and crowd around while he came screeching back to the cooking station, his white workshoes squealing, his face red, waving the offending follicle in his fat fist, and getting right up into the faces of some poor group of cooks, shouting at them from six inches away just like a drill sergeant, blaming them all for sloppiness, for health code violations, for being lazy and shiftless.
And they’d stand there with their heads bowed, nodding at everything he said, saying yessir and sorry sir and never again sir, looking steadily at the hair: straight, greasy, and an entirely different kind of black from what grew on their nappy heads.
Nobody dared to point this out, of course, so they just stood and listened and agreed until he got tired of yelling at them, and turned on his squeaky heels to march back into his office, slam the door, and sit steaming while the staff got back to making dinner.
While the Executive Chef and his team of Sous-chefs, all white guys, thought they were running the kitchen in brigade style, in reality this was a particular type of Southern kitchen, operating under an entirely different system. In a Southern kitchen, the real power is wielded by the two oldest black ladies who work there. One of them was Miss Mabel, and the other was Miss Charlene, and they’d been there since the Club moved uptown. They didn’t decide what the members were going to eat, or what raw materials were going to be ordered, or who was going to be hired or fired, but they assigned and oversaw all the preparation and cleanup, and most of the cooking. Not officially, of course.
Miss Charlene was a pastry cook, and while there was a pastry chef above her, she made all the most popular desserts. Likewise Miss Mabel, who made all the sauces. Together they operated the whole kitchen, and let the highly paid, titled white guys think they were doing things their way. I’ve heard this system called the Black Mafia, but it was much more like a Black Matriarchy, where Grandma can still whip your ass at 83 and absolutely everyone bows to her will.
The fact that a pair of black women actually ran the kitchen was the cause of great anguish to Chef Ricardo, who’d been taught that the Commander in Chief ran things. It was like the way a dysfunctional marriage heads for divorce. Daddy hung out with his buddies and loafed while Mamma and the kids did the work, and he only came out of his office to scream and yell, waving recipes and photographs, prepared to first lecture and then spank the children, who would scatter and hide, beg and plead, and do anything to avoid punishment. And then he’d go back into his office after showing just how big an ass he could be, and they’d come out from hiding and go right back to doing everything the way Mamma wanted it done.
This particular evening was no better than normal for Chef, who was getting to the end of his rope. Suzie easily avoided being noticed for her lateness because Chef was piled off in the corner with his Sous-chef entourage around him, busily taking out his rage on the Latino dishwashers.
‘These glasses are full of spots!’ he screamed, waving a wine goblet by its stem, holding it above his head and turning it so everyone could see spots glowing dully under the florescent lights. ‘I swear to God. Nobody else anywhere in the world has it as bad as I do. How many times do I gotta teach you how to polish? And what happens? The members get a dirty glass, and they complain, and it makes me look bad. I Will Not Have It!’ and he slammed the glass down on the floor, where it shattered with a loud, satisfying kliiing.
Suzie waited until the sudden silence was broken before punching her time card, lest the loud clunk of the machine draw his ire. A Latino porter scurried over to grab a broom and dustpan, but everyone else’s attention was riveted on Chef Ricardo. ‘That glass is coming out of your pay,’ he said to Manuel, the dishwasher he’d picked to blame for the problem. ‘I’ll show you again, one more time, and don’t you ever forget it.’
Chef’s face was red. He grabbed another glass, plucked a moderately clean napkin off his shoulder, held the stem with a corner of the cloth and violently twisted the goblet into the napkin. Then he held it up for display. Suzie thought it looked a little streaky, but didn’t think anyone would point it out.
Chef thrust the glass at Manuel to take, and let go a fraction of a second before he had it. It crashed to the floor. ‘Idiot!’ cried Chef. ‘You did that on purpose!’ Manuel said nothing, but leaned down and began to pick up the larger fragments. Everyone backed away from them. Chef looked like he wanted to take a third glass and break it over Manny’s head. But he controlled himself, and gestured angrily. Manuel gently took a goblet out of the tray and rubbed it dry with his napkin, his bare hands never touching the glass, the goblet coming out of the napkin gleaming like crystal.
Chef leaned close and snarled, ‘You better watch it. I have my eye on you, and you are this close to being fired, my friend. Today.’ And then he spun around with a squeak, and crunched through the glass back to his office, where he slammed the door and sat heavily in his chair, glowering out at the people in the kitchen who immediately turned away and went back to work.
Suzie had edged away from the office as soon as she punched in, and slunk off toward the coldboxes as Chef had stalked back to his office. She’d briefly noticed the schedule posted above the time clock. A banquet for 125 at Seven in the Ladies Slipper Room. Cocktails for seventy-five in the large dining room at Seven-thirty, thirteen in the Camellia Room at Eight, four in the Honeysuckle Room at Eight, six in the Petunia Room at Eight-thirty.
Suzie looked around. Everyone was back to work. There was a knot of cooks over at the stoves making lots of clatter and commotion, with porters scurrying around the fringes carrying trays to the stove or pans to the sink. It probably clearly going to be a busy dinner rush in the Casual Dining room; waiters were already coming in with orders and going out with platters, adding to the air of constant panic.
She went back and said hello to Miss Charlene, who was looking rather displeased. ‘Just find something to do and stay out of the way for now, child,’ she said, stirring a huge bowl of chocolate pudding with her wooden spoon. ‘Go ask Manuel if you can help polish up, how bout.’
Suzie chuckled and Miss Charlene winked, and Suzie walked over and stood next to Manny and grabbed a napkin. Talking and joking as much as they could in Suzie’s limited Spanish and Manuel’s kitchen-functional English, they made short work of several stacked-up trays of goblets, and then started on the silverware while more glasses went through the big Hobart dishwasher.
It’s amazing how peaceful you can be when you’re doing a mindless task. There’s nothing as serene as working at some utterly repetitive, seemingly boring job. Look down. Select a fork. Lift a fork. Place the fork in a napkin between your fingers. Rub back and forth using a little pressure, examine for remaining spots. Chuck the fork into a tub with the rest of the polished forks. Repeat. It was a calming exercise, and Suzie loved it because it gave her a chance to think. The way they polished things was a bit different than Chef taught them. They routinely breathed on the glasses that had already dried in order to soften up the spots, and if they were really on there, a little spit did the trick every time.
When they were finished, Manuel began loading a bunch of pots into the Hobart. Suzie wrestled the tubs of silverware onto a cart and dragged it back to the china closet, and came back for the glasses, and with a nod to Miss Charlene, fixed herself a cup of coffee and stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. She had to walk through the garage to get to the air, and was slightly out of breath when she got to the entrance where the employees went to smoke.
It was getting on in the evening, the air was cooling off, and through the trees, which were still just filling out, she could see the skyscrapers and apartment buildings lining Peachtree, and past those she could see the sky – orange gold and pale yellow, fading to baby blue in the west, with that green at the horizon that says pollution. She wasn’t sure; was that another crane on the skyline? A blue glass building that split at the top into two broad, flat pincers. Like an opening silo.
There was a dual-purpose trash container sitting at the edge of the drive, the top brimming with cigarette butts, their white ends poking up like a big city seen from 30,000 feet. Styrofoam coffee cups filled the can beneath it. The area smelled like a bar the morning after, and the way the wind was blowing, she got whiffs of it all the way back to the kitchen, where she could hear vague drum beats and cymbal crashes.
The noises of a kitchen are distinct, and at a distance they sound like music. All the surfaces were metal, so everything clanked. The floors were wet nubby tile or rubber mats, so shoes tended to squeak as people walked around. Plates clinked, plastic bags rustled, trays scraped over the counters, knives went click click click click scrape clunk. There were the sounds of gas fueling the burners and dripping faucets pinging and fans howling and dishwashers running and refrigerators whining and water spraying. The kitchen made noise even when there was nobody there. Sometimes it was just the dripping faucets. And the click of the time clock.
It was a fast-paced environment; kitchens always are. Aside from unpredictable rushes in the Casual Dining rooms, it took hours to prepare everything for a half-hour’s panic serving a banquet, and then nonstop in and out until the members and guests were fed and they could clean and close. It got so hectic forty-five minutes before plate-up that the cooks got into fights with each other and lashed out at the servers and porters when they got too close.
Suzie was new at the White Magnolia Club, so she was everybody’s gopher while she learned her way around the kitchen. As an apprentice cook, she was learning everything from the bottom up. Because she was white, it was understood that she was training to become a chef. Because she was female, it was understood that she would never rise to Executive Chef, but might make a good Sous-chef down the line. Because she was Suzie, she was accepted by the black and Latino lower-level kitchen staff, and because she was Suzie, she was looked at skeptically by the executive staff. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she liked restaurant work.
She was just going back to ask Miss Mabel what to do next, when the Garde-manger tapped her on the shoulder. The Sous-chef technically in charge of all cold foods, he was a tall thin northerner, with a baseball cap instead of the usual toque covering his thinning hair. He told her to make up two containers of salad mix for the banquet. She glanced over at Miss Mabel, who nodded, and then went off, satisfied. Lettuce was something she knew how to do. She was constantly afraid that one of the Sous-chefs would put her on a station and give her a task she’d never done before and had no idea how to accomplish, like breading shrimp, or a task that was way messy, like breaking ten dozen eggs into a sieve over a bucket, or difficult, like grating fifty pounds of cheddar in a machine that clogged with cheese every five minutes.
Suzie went to get a case of iceberg, a case of romaine, and a big bag of field greens out of the walk-in. She dragged the heavy, sodden cardboard boxes, hoisting them around corners, and finally landed them on top of the triple sinks, two of them filling with water from blasting taps.
When all the produce was stacked nearby, she fetched a beat-up ten inch kitchen knife from a drawer. It would have been nice to have a decent knife, but since she wasn’t a cook, she didn’t have one and had to make do. Anyway, lettuce wasn’t that particular about how sharp your knife was. You could always rip through it rather than slicing it. You could even hack at it and really mistreat it, and still serve it for dinner. But not if Chef caught you.
The sinks were half full, so she turned off the water, then took a head of iceberg lettuce and hefted it. Now for the fun part. With the lettuce in her hand, the core outermost, she turned her hand over, and slammed it in an arc toward the side of the sink. It boomed – how satisfying – and with a big crunch she wrenched the broken core out of the bottom of the lettuce with her other hand and tossed it up on the sink table. Boom, another, and boom, like how you’d do it if you were mashing an enemy’s brains out against a wall. It had a righteous feeling. There was pleasure in smashing cores. Cutting them out the way you were supposed to was no fun.
‘Smashing bruises the lettuce,’ the Garde-manger had told her when he’d showed her how to prep lettuce. ‘You’ve got to core it with your knife.’ And he’d twisted the tip of a huge bowie-looking knife into the bottom of a head of iceberg, using a kind of dance-like movement to cut it out in one slash. She knew she’d never be able to do it that gracefully, so whenever he wasn’t around she went back to the old way and smashed the heads. It was so satisfying.
When she had a case cored and ready to cut, she held down a green head of iceberg and chopped it into slices an inch and a half thick, raising her knife into the air and snicking off whole sections of lettuce scalp. Then she gathered the slices up and turned them to cut them into chunks, sweeping it all into the sink with the side of her knife.
As fast as she could, she swiped another head off the pile and chopped through that, and went for another one, racing herself. Then the romaine, much less satisfying because she couldn’t core it with extreme prejudice like she could with iceberg. She put her knife down and started ripping chunks of lettuce off the core with her hand, making sure they were a consistent size and shape so the Sous-chef wouldn’t complain. She actually felt virtuous about this, because she’d heard somewhere that it’s better to tear than cut lettuce. Something about vegetables and metal knives and oxidation. She wasn’t sure if it wasn’t a witch told her that. Either a witch or a nutritionist.
The field greens only needed to be torn through once, and she threw them into the rinse water on top of the other lettuce. Then she leaned halfway in and stirred the whole batch with both arms until the lettuce was thoroughly washed, and the grit agitated its way to the bottom of the sink.
Then she scooped up armfuls of washed lettuce into the second sink, and swished them around until more grit went to the bottom, and then scooped up all the green stuff and dumped it into the third sink, where it drained for a few minutes, and then tossed it into twenty-gallon plastic Cambros that sat and waited for her to wheel them off to the coldbox to wait for dinner. That was forty gallons, in under half an hour. Suzie’s shirt was soaked and her arms were sore, but she felt a real sense of accomplishment.
Then it was time for another break, so she poured herself some sweet tea and snuck past Chef to go stand around in the evening air. Joseph the grill cook was out there having a smoke. He’d always had kind words to say to her, and Suzie thought of him almost as an older brother.
‘So girl, how you getting on back there?’ he asked as Suzie slumped against the wall and sipped her sweet tea.
‘Alright, I guess,” she said. ‘Except I don’t think I like Chef Ricardo very much.’
He laughed. ‘Don’t pay him no mind, Baby. He won’t last much longer. You see how mad he gets when he don’t get his way. He’s going to wake up one morning and see it’s never going to change, and then he’s going to get hisself another job back up north and leave us alone.’
A black guy in his thirties, Joseph was at the top of his profession working on the grill, and he was a pleasure to watch: his movements were efficient and graceful, his attitude was cheerful, his jokes were wicked. Everybody in the kitchen liked him. The executive staff ignored him.
In a regular Southern black-run restaurant, of course, he could easily advance to the top of the line where he supervised the rest of the grill cooks, or move on to head chef and run everything under the aegis of the old black ladies. But in a fancy brigade kitchen, he was stuck wearing a hairnet and taking orders from the grill chef with the toque because he’d never been through culinary school, and wasn’t white. It wasn’t a condition anyone ever remarked on, but to Suzie it was obvious that the color bar was entrenched in the kitchen. ‘And then what, after Chef leaves?’ she asked.
‘And then we do just like we’re doing now, but with another overeducated white guy telling us how to do things his way. And we’ll do what we always do until he goes away again. See, Honey, we’re always here doing all the cooking and cleaning, and the chefs come and go. If they can’t work with us, they go even faster, is all.’
Back inside, Chef was calling everyone to come help plate up the evening’s banquet. 120 covers, and fifteen minutes to serving time. There were several stacks of plates at one end of the forty foot stainless steel table that spanned the length of the kitchen. Down the middle of the table were pans and containers of prepared food.
Over by the sinks someone had lined up a mess of salad plates, and two Latinos were hovering over it raining Suzie’s lettuce into the bowls, a third waited to toss three cherry tomatoes and a few bits of crudit on top, a forth added a handful of croutons, and a fifth stacked the plates into a coldbox ready to be served. They seemed to be having a good time.
On the other hand, Chef stood silent at the head of the steel table, the Sous-chefs stood below him, lined up according to rank, then the black cooks, and then the Latino porters, all standing there like they were waiting for the music to start at a square dance. The food was laid out in large bowls, pans, and tubs down the line. The upper part of the line was quiet and poised for action, while the lower end was more at ease, laughing and joking while they waited for the show to start. Suzie joined the line at the bottom end, squeezing between two Latino porters. They joked quietly for a minute until Chef barked out, ‘Begin.’
Chef Ricardo stood at the head of the line with his hands behind his back, observing. The Chef de Partie took a plate from the stack, and with his bare hands, artfully arranged precisely five asparagus spears on one edge. Then he handed it to the Rotisseur, who laid four baby carrots next to it, and passed it on. The Poissonnier had a large pastry bag full of mashed potatoes, and piped a crescent of potato next to the carrots. The plate was passed to the Garde-manger, who sprinkled the potatoes with cayenne pepper and passed it on. Then a piece of pork loin slapped down in the middle by the Saucier, and the Ptissier ladled on a sauce of mushrooms and wine, and handed it down to the Grilladin who arranged three barbequed shrimps around the potatoes, and passed it on to one of the black cooks who laid a sprig of parsley between the potatoes and the meat, and passed it to another cook who wiped the rim of the plate carefully with a damp rag, and passed it to another cook who put a metal lid over the plate and passed it to a porter who took the plate and stacked it into a hotbox on wheels.
The cooks reached with bare hands into the piles of food to select an item and dump it on the plate. The guy doing the meat squeezed and slapped the pieces with a friendly gesture between plates. When a tray was empty, a porter with enormous oven mitts brought another one over. They’d dump the remains of the first tray into the new tray, slopping the food into a mound.
The head porter stood by waiting to shut the hotbox when the last of the pork entres came down. Then he wheeled out another hotbox for the filet, while a third box awaited the fish. There was a flurry of porters changing out the vegetables with every entre. A porter waited to wheel the boxes to the dumbwaiter, which another porter would help wrangle upstairs, where yet another porter would open the boxes and hand the plates to the waiters.
Chef walked up and down the line finding fault with everyone, but nobody minded, because as long as he wasn’t plating, his hair wouldn’t get in the food. The moment the last plate was put into the hotbox, everybody broke away from the table like a chorus line peeling toward the wings.
Chef stood around talking to his Sous-chefs, then grabbed his things and went home to yell at his wife and children. And things loosened up a bit. The general manager had already left, Chef left when the plates were served, and the Sous-chefs soon after, leaving the minions to clean up and close.
After checking with Miss Mabel, Suzie grabbed a wet rag and started closing down sections she knew were finished for the night. She cleaned the lesser used of the two griddles with soda water and salt and a big pumice stone, her favorite hotside job, watching the water foam and steam, and enjoying how easily the grease and burnt food scrubbed up off the hot grill, and how shiny it was when she was finished.
Then she cleaned the outside of the walk-in coolers, wiping down the doors with stinky bleach water and making sure the glass was free of fingerprints and grease marks. And then she wiped down the long table, even though someone was undoubtedly going to come along with something filthy before the night was over. And she swept the floor down the alley of stoves, and swept out behind the cold station, and generally did Clean As You Go things.
When everything was cleaned and put away it was well after ten. All the cooks had gone home long ago, and it was just her and the Mexican porters, so there wasn’t a lot of cross-cultural communication, since Suzie’s knowledge of Spanish wasn’t even up to the level of polite conversation. It was Manuel who told her to clock out and go home. Suzie was dog tired, so she staggered over to the time clock, punched out, pulled off her white jacket and fled to her car.
* * *
October 4, 2007
It was ten-thirty when Suzie got to her car. She sat there for a few moments and peeled off her shoes, feeling her feet swollen and throbbing in the night air. She pulled out of the darkness of the parking deck into the yellow-gray night.
Driving through the streets of Atlanta is a pleasure at night. It’s a city of highways and thoroughfares, a city made for transportation, a spider web city. You can get to anywhere from anywhere in this town, which is good because traffic sucks a lot of the time and you need to know your options. From the Morningside edge of Ansley Park to Suzie’s home on the edge of Little Five Points, there are a good dozen ways to get the five miles due southwest. Mapquest would send you south down Monroe to Ponce de Leon, east to Moreland, and south down Moreland to Seaboard Avenue just under the railroad tracks. Thirteen minutes. This time of night, going the direct way was a breeze. During the day, you had to get creative. Suzie had a map on the seat beside her most of the time.
She turned east down Ponce, barely avoiding Krispy Kreme because she managed to convince herself that she was really tired and not at all hungry. If she’d smelled doughnuts she would have circled back, but the wind was from the wrong direction.
Stopped at the light on Boulevard, Suzie checked out the gas stations on the corners . She spotted a couple of dealers – guys in t-shirts and basebal caps standing just inside the parking lot near the phones, staring all the drivers in the face. There was the usual couple of hookers), underfed young-looking women who flounced around in attention-getting skimpy clothes. The place had all the ingredients for a party, with the convenience store right there at the corner selling beer, and all the customers you could wish for pulling into the parking lot pretending to want to use the public phone or pump some gas.
She drove down Moreland thru a silent Little Five Points, the bohemian section, then under the train tracks. There, what used to forever be abandoned factories had just been turned into a modern intown shopping mall. The brand new Edgewood Retail Center – Lowe’s, Target, Kroger, Office Depot, Best Buy; all the modern conveniences a shopping center had to offer. From the moment the first store opened, it created its own micro traffic jams. Suzie hated traffic jams.
There used to be no earthly reason to slow your zip down Moreland after you crossed under the railroad tracks. Now there were two new sets of lights, two sets of left turn only signals, two tails of traffic that would build up at the slightest provocation. If they put in smart lights, the lights were retarded, because they were always red when she came up to them.
Suzie wasn’t used to having to stop; she would always just peel right around the corner onto Seaboard when she got out from under the bridge. Now she had to sit behind someone who was going straight, and wait, and look at the new construction, at where they were digging up the street to put down ornamental paving brick. She sat there and steamed. Even tonight, with an empty Atlanta, she was still stuck at a light behind someone going straight.
She turned down Seaboard when the light changed and traffic moved on. She was now in Reynoldstown, a squirrelly little section of town, nestled along the south side of the tracks west of Moreland Avenue. 150 years ago it was the bloody ground beneath the Battle of Atlanta and soon afterwards it became some of the very first homes of the freed slaves, and now it was mostly half a square mile of old industrial land, and old working-class houses in pretty bad shape, and a strip of tall grass and weeds along the railroad tracks that was filled with movable junk and abandoned cars.
Seaboard Avenue went down the edge of the tracks and ended at the Inman Park subway station, so there were always buses whistling down the street. Suzie’s home was an apartment building from the ’50s, Station Square. A garden apartment kind of setup, which meant it had some trees out the back and grass along the sidewalks out front. Driveways down the side of each unit led to shady and boggy parking in the back, with a dark narrow walk back up to the front doors lining the driveways. It was dark red brick, with rusted fire escapes, windows that wouldn’t open, and doorjambs that showed signs of forcible entry.
The tenants were very mixed. There were single black mothers with several children. There were Latinos three families to a two-bedroom unit. There were Little Five Points punks (her roommates), there were students at GSU willing to commute for cheap housing in a cool area. There were active alcoholics and prescription drug addicts on long term disability. There were very young couples who wanted to live their own life and not have to bow to their parents’ dictates. And there were a bunch of happy-go-lucky twenty-something kids in search of endless skateboarding fun and walls to spray-paint (her roommates).
Suzie preferred to park on the street, especially at night. The light was better and people were less likely to fuck with her car. Right next to the Marta station there was a lot of foot traffic, but also plenty of lights and often a patrolling Marta or freight train cop to keep a watch on things. The back yards, however, were a different game. The neighborhood was ideally suited for a bunch of homeless people who spent their working hours in Little Five Points panhandling, and thought of the back parking lot as a shady bower nearby where they could repair to take the waters and rejuvenate themselves.
Begging is very hard work, as anyone will tell you. Panhandling involves subjecting yourself to the scorn, insults and curses of the strangers who pay you, for much less money and much more abuse than you’d stand for in an office job. You have to leave your self respect under a bridge with your gear, and you end up internalizing the anger and hate projected by those with money. You get to feeling really discouraged and sorry for yourself, hopeless and useless, like a failure in life. And you know, projecting a certain air of pitiable failure is what it takes to get a stranger to give you their spare pocket change. You feel guilty for doing it, too, because you know that a simple twist of fate is all that keeps you and them on different paths. There but for the grace of God go I, you think, as the guy in a suit hands you a buck and trudges off to work. Whereas you, with a dollar in your hand, have almost met your minimum daily cash requirements.
There was a gaggle of homeless guys in the back parking lot as Suzie walked to her apartment halfway down the line of two-story brick buildings. She could hear them having a good time, but they weren’t about to get off the wall and hit her up for money, because nobody in those apartments was likely to have any, even on payday.
The complex looked like a Kitkat) bar broken up into six pieces. Suzie’s apartment was a ground floor two bedroom, entered through a hall that had four doors in it, the two middle doors opening onto stairs. The hall was as big as a closet, and not a walk in closet, either. The walls were painted hospital green and lit by a bare swinging bulb, and had a white-painted shelf for the mail and a kitchen trash can full of discarded junk mail beneath it. She tried the left-hand door. It was unlocked, so she pushed it open.
The guys were watching TV. They were sprawled all over three couches, every one a dumpster dream, covered with blankets to protect the duct tape covering the worn and torn places. The beige rug was all grimy tracks; the beige walls were smeared in random drunken collisions, there was an oily, browning smoke ring near the ceiling. The back wall that ran behind the couches was their practice wall, and was covered with spray-painted graffiti. It made the place distinctive.
Nobody cooked, so they had no kitchen equipment except for an old bent frying pan and sauce pot they pulled out of the trash when somebody moved out. However, the microwave saw heavy use. There was a coffee maker, and a kitchen knife with a broken tip. There was plastic cutlery in the drawer and plastic plates and plastic bowls and plastic cups in the cabinets, and under the sink was a giant thirty-pack of paper towels from Sam’s Club). A bottle opener was tied to the handle of the fridge and stuck to the door with a magnet.
In the cabinets were a few packets, but mainly the empty cardboard cases of microwave popcorn, instant hot chocolate, ramen noodles. There was also a pack of filters and some cheap mexican coffee stored in an ex peanut butter jar. In the fridge was a mostly-gone gallon of milk, a mostly drunk case of Bud Light, a mostly empty bottle of ketchup, a thing of eggs nobody had touched for several months and might have been empty. Or maybe not. Nobody wanted to know. The bottom shelf was filled with probably empty pizza boxes, and someone once bought something and stuck it in the vegetable keeper, but there was no way anybody was going to open that drawer until after they moved out.
There were two bedrooms, big enough for a mattress on the floor and a couple of milk crates to hold stuff. Clothes were strewn all over the place in both bedrooms. A towel covered the window in her roommate’s bedroom, for that cave feeling; skateboards were piled in a corner with shoes and stolen signs and half empty cans of spray paint.
A baby spider plant was on the window in her room, with pillow-case curtains open onto the view into the alley, making the most of the dogwood trunk opposite. On the floor were borrowed milk crates holding books and folded clothes, a banker’s lamp trouved out of the trash, a jam jar half full of water, a paperback flopped over at the page she was reading. Her mattress was next to the window. It was a futon, with a down quilt graciously donated by someone anonymous who put a rip in it and somehow just couldn’t live with down flying everywhere. Suzie had pulled it out of the trash, washed it, and mended the rip with safety pins she scavenged from a punk t-shirt she’d made awhile back.
She changed out of her work clothes, kicking them into the corner and looking around for something comfortable, a big t-shirt and some men’s boxers for shorts, and went back out barefoot to grab a beer from the fridge and make Alex push over on the couch.
Alex was her roommate, but he had friends, and his friends hung around all the time, so it was as if five or six of them lived there. Most nights at least one slept on the couch. They were all Little Five taggers and skateboarders with starter jobs. Jason was a bike courier, tall and skinny with pumped up calves and thighs. Demetrius was skinny and tall and black and worked in the kitchen at Mangrove, one of many here-and-gone restaurants in L5P. Philip was tall and skinny and wore his hair greasy and in his eyes, shaking it off with a flip whenever he had something to say so it wouldn’t get in his mouth. He worked in a call center in Doraville that took two hours to get to riding Marta. Alex was tall and skinny and wore glasses, and his hair was thinning at twenty-two, and he always wore shorts, even in the dead of winter. He worked at the new Target just across Moreland in the Edgewood Center, having somehow passed the piss-test, and was fresh from work and still had on his red Target shirt. They all had beers in their hands, and they were all smoking cigarettes. It was like a baby crying in a nursery; when one smoked, they all lit up, and the upper half of the room would turn blue and strobe faintly.
They were watching Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network. Family Guy. They all loved Baby Stewie and Brian the dog, and thought the other characters were pathetic, always nagging and whining and being stupid. But the baby was evil, and the dog was gay and hadn’t figured it out yet. They were watching the show where Death breaks his ankle and lays on their couch for awhile, and they figure out that nobody’s dying while Death’s taking a holiday in their living room, and go out and wreak all sorts of havoc. Suzie came home in the middle of it, but she’d seen it before.
The ads came on and everybody stirred. Demetrius went off to the bathroom, Jason went to the fridge for another beer, Alex looked under the cushions for a lost pack of cigs. Philip scratched himself and settled into a different position. Suzie reached for the remote and bopped around the channels. The late news was on. The guys didn’t bitch because they wanted to catch a glimpse of a hot Latina who did on-the-scene reports, and they lusted after her in the worst way.
The graphic is a quick color sketch of a burning building, and reads Suspicious House Fire in smoking black letters. The guys made fun of the letters, being connoiseurs of typography. Suzie rather liked them.
The headline fades out over the head of a black woman in her early 40s, with short hair cut close to her head like a cap. She’s in an international safety orange suit that clashes with the reds of the graphic.
‘Another house fire in Atlanta last night,’ Whatshername announces, as the picture changes to a shot of roof-shaped flames in the night. ‘Fire crews are seen here at the scene of a house fire in East Atlanta. Firefighters arrived at a house on Trilby Street just after 12:30 a.m. and found a sixty-year-old woman who suffered from smoke inhalation. The woman was treated at the scene and then transported to Grady Hospital.’
The scene shifts to an interview in front of the house. A spokeswoman for the Atlanta Fire Department appears, saying, ‘It’s an unfortunate incident. Early investigations indicate that they did not have smoke alarms in the home.’
Then the scene switches back to the studios while the anchorwoman looks severe. ‘According to police, this is the twenty-third house fire this year.’
Then the graphic changes to a scales of justice symbol, with one pan holding a lease and the other a pair of handcuffs. Big black letters read: Project Ending Homelessness. The anchor wears a brighter expression on her face. ‘It is now against the law to be homeless in Atlanta. New legislation takes effect today that makes homelessness illegal inside the city limits.’ The graphic changes to a scroll with the Homeland Security emblem in the middle of a map of Georgia. ‘It’s the first of several state-led enhancements of the Patriot Act to take effect.’
The scene switches to an interview with a gray-suited politician. ‘This new law will be one we will all benefit from,’ he says. ‘Our great state is one of the first to enact their own Homeland Security laws, part of Georgia’s effort to stop terrorism at the borders. This law will make it easier to find and root out terrorists before they strike.’
Alex looked up. ‘Huh?’ He shook his head, then got up and went to the kitchen for a beer.
The shot switches back to the studio, where the anchor is now smiling broadly. ‘Atlanta is a tourist mecca, receiving over eighteen million visitors a year. The new anti-homeless law will make tourists happy and keep the streets safer. Local residents have been pressing for this new legislation for some time.’
The scene cuts to a town meeting with local white businessmen in suits wearing red buttons that say Stop Homelessness – Save Jobs. They stand in front of microphones with angry expressions.
‘It’s something the people should not have to put up with,’ a lawyer-type says, while others nod agreement. ‘We work here, and some of us live here, and we don’t think we should have to share the streets with people who don’t do anything to help themselves. They’re a drain on the city’s resources. You can’t go outside without having to run a gamut of beggars, and we want it stopped.’
The camera cuts to the other corner of the City Hall meeting room, where obviously poor people in dirty t-shirts are passing out leaflets urging legislators to resist the business community’s ongoing Negro Removal Program).
The voiceover continues. ‘The anti-homeless law is also expected to generate revenue for the City, as those convicted will be fined one thousand dollars, with stiffer penalties for repeat offenders. Critics of the new law accuse the City of taking draconian measures, but backers say it will help identify addicts and others who need help.’
A concerned-looking lawyer comes on camera. ‘This anti-homelessness law was designed to steer the needy toward help. Then, only con artists who pretend to be homeless or disabled will remain on the streets, and the police will be ready to deal with them.’
The anchor comes back on, looking concerned. ‘For more information, call the Homeless Hotline, 1-800-X-Homeless. Now this.’
An ad came on, and Suzie turned to Alex. ‘But there’s a million homeless people out there, what are they supposed to do for food? How could they ever pay a fine like that?’
‘They couldn’t,’ said Alex, and shrugged. ‘They’ll end up serving more time for not being able to pay. I just think it’s funny how this is supposed to stop terrorism.’
‘Yeah, like the homeless guys are terrorists,’ said Philip. ‘Like they’d have the money to build a bomb.’
‘People must be either scared or gullible to think that this is anti-terrorist,’ Demetrius said. ‘It’s just another way to exploit poor people.’
Suzie could see each of them heating up to the subject. It was close to their hearts, since three out of five of them lived from couch to couch and paid no rent. But the news came back on before a discussion about classism in America could get started.
The graphic shows police holding banners and signs, facing other police with cameras and microphones. ‘It was police versus police in the courts today. A group of off-duty policemen who were demonstrating in front of City Hall in favor of new contract concessions were filmed and photographed by police assigned to surveil the demonstration.’ The film shows the expressionless faces of uniformed police staring at the film crew and pointing digital cameras at them and everybody else.
‘The off-duty police captured on film are complaining that the police department violated their First Amendment rights by harassing them. They say they are worried about the threat of retaliation by the police department. Police officials deny that they treated the off-duty officers any differently than other demonstrations of dissent.’ She looks at the camera, doubt appearing in the lines of her brow. ‘We will be covering this story extensively as it develops.’
The graphic is a cute little panda bear eating bamboo leaves, and the anchor is talking about development plans for a long-needed renovation of Zoo Atlanta, in Grant Park. It was a mile from where they lived, but they could never afford the almost twenty bucks to get in, so none of them ever went there. They’d rather talk about breaking in and liberating the animals, and this discussion was more interesting than the rest of the news, so they missed hearing that there were plans to use a portion of the park for a mixed-use development, and that the City was backing the idea.
They also didn’t care to know about other issues even closer to them. In the mail, or rather in the trash underneath the mail, was a notice about plans to evict the residents of Seaboard Avenue and the surrounding area for another development. The notice was from the City and looked like an official document, so they tossed it without looking at it. Also in the trash was the electric bill.
Nobody had any money for the bills, so they figured they’d just wait and pay later. So far they always came up with something once they got the shut-off notice. For months they’d managed to get free cable that they shared with three other apartments. And they didn’t have a house phone because everyone knew someone who had a cellphone. Alex actually had one, but it was mostly out of pre-paid minutes.
Suzie staggered off to bed as the topic changed to tagging, and their plans to put up a graffiti piece in the Krog Street tunnel. They were busy organizing who was going to do what when, who would be lookout at the ends of the tunnels, and which part of the piece was whose to paint. They were arguing about whether the cops and the traffic were lighter at 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday or Thursday, and Suzie knew this discussion would go on all night.
That night she had a dream. She’s at Nelson’s shop. The boys aren’t around; instead there’s a woman, sitting at a table that wasn’t actually there in waking life. The woman has a knife-like object made of inlaid wood and polished to a high gloss. It’s about eighteen inches long and ten inches wide, and looks like a big, flattened pencil tip, made out of different types of wood in different shades of blond, beige and brown. It’s very decorative, but very sharp and pointy.
The woman picks it up and hefts it, then throws it up into the ceiling, the way the boys threw pencils. It sticks up there. The viewpoint of the dream shifts. Suzie’s looking down from near the ceiling, about eight feet up, trailing the knife upwards and watching several people talking to the woman. Then the viewpoint shifts again, and she’s fifteen feet in the air, still waiting for someone to figure out how to get the knife down. And then the viewpoint shifts a third time, and Suzie’s looking down at the desk from fifty feet up. The knife is stuck in the ceiling above her, but she never turns around to look at them, and she’s beginning to get confused about how high the ceiling really is.
And then Suzie’s back at ground level, going over to sit down at the desk and grasp the edges, sort of rattling the table back and forth. She clasps her hands in front of her; like the shape of the knife, like hands in prayer. She closes her eyes and concentrates. And she hears, rather than sees, the knife work itself loose from the ceiling, and drop down right in front of her with a resounding thwack as it sticks firmly into the desk top.
It’s her turn. Knowing that the ceiling was at least fifty feet up, she feels sure she won’t be able to throw the knife with enough force to make it stick. But the woman is no bigger than Suzie, and she did it. And she seems confident that Suzie can do it. So she pries the knife out of the table, feels its weight in her hands, and prepares to throw it as hard as she can.
And then she woke up. The part of the dream that came before faded into the mist as she got out of bed, but she remembered the knife and its beauty and its heft, and the woman, who was familiar, even though Suzie didn’t know anyone like her. Whenever Suzie dreamed about a mysterious woman, she always wondered if it was her mom appearing to her in her sleep.
Suzie never knew her mom. Her dad had raised her, he and his trucker buddies, especially Uncle Daddy, who wasn’t really her uncle. And Auntie Mae, Uncle Daddy’s wife, all through high school when her dad thought she’d be better off with some sort of formal schooling, in case she decided she wanted to go to college.
Suzie wrapped a nearly-clean towel around herself and headed for the bathroom. Alex had his door closed and was undoubtedly asleep. It was only just after nine in the morning, and none of the guys would be awake for hours because they’d been up most of the night. She never knew who she’d find on the couch. Nobody had to work early except for Philip, who had a very long bus ride every day and usually left to go to his parents’ house and get some sleep by Three.
This morning it was Demetrius on the couch. Empty beer cans were everywhere, and butts overflowed the ashtrays. The TV was still on; some morning program. Suzie headed for the shower. Careful to stand in the middle so she wouldn’t come into contact with the slippery gunge at the sides of the tub, she washed her short hair with Suave, the cheapest shampoo in the store. She avoided using the bath sponge that hung off the hot water tap by a string, because it always left the unfortunate user reeking of mildew. Nobody was willing to throw it away because it might come in handy, and one of these days they might get around to throwing it into the washing machine with someone’s clothes. None of them had absorbed any kind of housekeeping when they were living at home. Maybe someday they’d draw straws, and the loser would have to clean up mountains of trash.
She dried off with the cleaner end of the towel, and left her hair to drip dry. Back in her room, she fished a pair of crumpled jeans out of the pile near her bed and an actually clean t-shirt folded up inside a milk crate. There being nothing at all to eat in the fridge, and nothing to do but watch TV and listen to Demetrius snore, she decided she could best spend her morning at the hideout, and headed out.
* * *
October 4, 2007
The wheel wouldn’t turn when she tried to pull out of her parking space. Sighing, she turned off the engine, then popped the trunk, and fished out a bottle of power steering fluid to top up the reservoir. Fluid had been leaking out of it for some time, and the leak was getting worse. Suzie had to refill it every few days now. Nelson had promised to fix it, but Suzie knew that he wouldn’t get around to it until it was well and truly broken and she couldn’t drive. And then he would fuss at her for waiting so long. He’d given her half a dozen bottles from the garage’s stores instead, to tide her over, and she’d already gone through two of them and was beginning to think about the chances that the unit would suddenly fail while she was on the road.
Everything worked smoothly once she topped up the fluid level, and she drove south on Moreland Avenue for several miles past steadily poorer neighborhoods, abandoned businesses and industrial areas. Suzie was traveling through some of the very worst neighborhoods Atlanta had to offer, like Thomasville Heights, where children get arrested for murder, where grandmothers sell crack to feed their grandbabies, where nobody graduates from high school.
Suzie should know. She had attended that high school – Alonzo A. Crim. She was one of only four white kids that went there, and it had been very difficult for her until she started dating one of the lead gang members in school, which granted her a kind of immunity from being beaten up, but meant that there were always a couple of other peoples’ guns in her locker. The romance hadn’t lasted long; the guy had gotten a rather stiff prison sentence for a minor, and was away somewhere in southern Georgia for the duration.
Back when she was just turning thirteen, her dad decided she should have more of a life than he could offer her in the passenger seat of his Peterbilt. So he spoke to Uncle Daddy, who spoke to Auntie Mae, and Suzie found herself in a spare bedroom in Auntie Mae’s house in Southeast Atlanta, going to high school.
She’d never really been stationary before, and it took her many months of adjustment before she stopped feeling the road vibrating beneath her at night. She’d never gone to school before, either. Her dad had home-schooled her, or road-schooled her as it happened, giving her lessons while they traveled up and down the east coast, quizzing her over dinner at a hundred truck stops, making her read aloud to him from the top bunk before turning out the lights in the sleeper. So she was well read, and actually knew a lot more than any of the public school kids her age. There were several holes in her education, however, home-school curricula being mostly geared toward Christians who wanted their personal Lord and Savior teaching their kids. Home-schooled kids were taught that God created the world in seven days 6,000 years ago, and made humans out of dust, and that was about it for science.
Suzie’s major problem with public high school was that she knew a lot of the material already, and got bored, but wasn’t allowed to move on to something more challenging. She had to sit in a classroom full of noisy, surly, ignorant, rowdy black teenagers talking on their cellphones for six hours a day, an environment where the teacher’s first priority was to keep control, and only way down the list was anything ever taught.
Suzie learned almost nothing academic in high school, but she did learn her place as a minority in the black community, and she learned to get along with blacks and Latinos who would as soon beat her up as look at her. High school sucked, but she graduated, and moved on, and never looked back except whenever she went to Auntie Mae’s house.
Auntie Mae and Uncle Daddy lived in a small framed house tucked in between the Federal Penitentiary at the end of Boulevard, the Atlanta Corrections Center, the Atlanta Police Academy, a capacious landfill, and the Intrenchment Creek sewage treatment plant. It was known historically as Thomasville, now with the highest rate of adolescent pregnancy, and vying with Metropolitan Avenue for the highest crime rates in Atlanta.
Go down Moreland until you get to the Starlight Drive-in on the left, the last remaining outdoor movie theater in Atlanta. Don’t turn right because that’s Thomasville Heights, and you don’t want to get shot. Keep going past the drive-in until you get to an old cemetery, Chestnut Hill. It’s not a very inviting place, for a cemetery. It’s old and poor, and past the few graves near the road, it’s completely unkempt. There are trees growing up out of the middle of graves back toward the back, and worn stone markers that have fallen over into sinkholes.
The road through the cemetery gets narrower and fills with potholes as you drive back, until you can’t get any further, and then it disappears into the woods. There’s a trail down to her hideout from there, but Suzie only used it now and then, and the cemetery is really spooky, so don’t even turn in at the gate. Instead, go ahead down another block and take a left on Hillcrest Drive. Find Auntie Mae’s house halfway down on the left, and cut through the back yard down the hill into the woods, where there’s another little trail through the poison ivy into a ravine.
Be sure to watch out for the neighborhood dogs, which run free down in those woods, might or might not have had their rabies shots, and for sure carry poison ivy and ticks on their fur. And be real sure to watch out for the old white guy who lives next to Auntie Mae and sits on his front porch all day with a shotgun in his lap, protecting his property.
If you go far enough down the path, you’ll come to a small clearing where Suzie’s had a hideout for years. It’s on cemetery property, sort of, maybe, but it could also belong to the old corrections center, or the police academy, or even the sewage treatment plant. Suzie never knew exactly whose property she was on, because it was deep woods, and nobody ever went down there but her.
She established her hideout when she was living there with Auntie Mae. High school made her pretty unhappy, and she didn’t have a lot of friends. Auntie Mae was getting old and didn’t use many sentences without Jesus in them. Especially after her dad died, silence and solitude were about the only things Suzie could stand, so she’d taken to slipping down the track behind Auntie Mae’s house every afternoon, even when it was raining, even in the middle of winter when you could almost see her hideout through the trees if you knew were to look.
This morning she parked her car out front, said a quick hello to Auntie Mae, a slight black woman getting past middle age, her hair steely gray. They had grown kids who lived in a bunch of places. Suzie accepted her offer of something to eat, and wandered down the track with her bag of stuff and a sandwich, feeling pretty positive. She’d beem thinking hard about the innovations she wanted to make to her paintgun, and was anxious to get to it.
The trail crossed a little streamlet and bottomed out, turning a corner and opening out into a small clearing. Dogwoods filled the walls of her clearing, still showing their white bracts. Suzie kept the place clear by hacking down seedlings, and she’d just gotten around to that task for the spring, so there were thin stumps everywhere and she had to keep her shoes on to avoid impaling herself.
Wooden pallets leaned up against the trees on one side of the clearing, for target practice. There was a lean-to she’d made from an old tarp; an old tackle box with duct tape, scissors, various screwdrivers and wrenches and a hacksaw; a wobbly stool she’d rescued from the trash; a small fire pit; milk jugs filled with water; a stack of old paintgun and survivalist magazines; red circular Target signs Alex had swiped from his job; a box of paintballs stored in a gallon sized ziplock; a battery powered radio; and a bag full of spare parts for her costume.
It wasn’t much, but it was where Suzie came to relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, a place to work on the various aspects of her crime fighting activities, a place to dream of glory and a better world.
Her costume had taken her a long time to figure out. What would a road vigilante wear to work? What symbolism was appropriate to an unsung righter of wrongs? Most superheroes wore spandex and boots, and had masks over their heads, or at least wore sunglasses. But the costumes she saw in party stores were silly and impractical. Maybe someone with super powers can afford to wear a suit that binds and chafes, but ordinary mortals have to use common sense.
She’d scratched off one costume after another from her list. Spaghetti-strap evening-gown costumes. Head-to-toe spandex. And forget capes. A bathing suit, some go-go boots and a Burger King crown might do, but the headgear would be conspicuous.
Suzie realized it was a bad idea to be seen actually wearing her costume when she was making a hit. She needed something she could hide under her regular clothes, like Clark Kent, and not too hot, or too expensive, or too hard to get in and out of. So she made the rounds of Atlanta’s many thrift stores and came up with this:
Ankle-length blue faux leather booties that were a little too small; white tights with blue sparkles, that itched; a pair of white leatherette shorts that made her sweat; and from over in the kids’ section, a faded Superman t-shirt way too small for her, with holes in it. And the finishing touch – a pair of beige driving gloves. The overall effect wasn’t bad. But the sparkly bits in the tights chafed something awful, and the t-shirt rode up over her belly button. But she loved the gloves.
After her debut run yesterday, she knew she was going to have to rework her costume, because she was rubbed raw from the tights and already hated the shorts. But it was no big deal, because she had a bunch of spare bits and pieces, most of which fit. She thought she might eventually go with a white t-shirt, put faux bullet holes in it, and stencil a big Q on the front. For now, the Superman t-shirt was kind of cute. And anyway, the idea for the costume was to help her concentrate on her mission, not for show, and she was never willing to spend much time on considerations of mere fashion.
Her main priority was her weapon, which needed work. She just couldn’t shoot straight while driving down the highway, and this was a big huge problem. Out here in the woods, she had no trouble hitting stationary targets at twenty paces, but it turned out to be a lot harder to hit a sixty mile-an-hour pick-up at twelve feet. Maybe the problem was the angle of attack. She was trying to hit the windshield. It should be a simple thing to cover it with paint so that whoever it was couldn’t see in front of them, and would then swerve off the road and stop. Preferably upside down. In flames.
But she hadn’t even come close to hitting the guy. There was going to be a particular angle she was going to have to shoot at, some distance out in front of the windshield, and let the wind carry it in. So she rigged up a water jug on a rope she’d tied to a branch for a swing, back when she was a kid and the branch was much lower, and set it moving.
Leading the movement of the jug with her gun, she pumped off a shot. And it flew past, yards away, the jug swinging, and swinging back, chuckling at her. There was no point leading the swing, because there was no wind to push the paintball back toward the jug. She put the gun down. Damn, she thought. How am I going to simulate gale force winds in a clearing in the woods?
Maybe questioning her aim was going in the wrong direction. Maybe the problem had to do with the gun’s power. It would send a paintball about a hundred feet at about 180 miles an hour, in a little over half a second. That’s 270 feet per second. She read that in a paintgun mag. She was driving at sixty, about ninety feet per second, and that was…Her brain stopped being able to calculate.
She remembered that the whole thing happened so fast that she couldn’t keep up. There was no time to calculate anything. She had felt panic when she was trying to get that redneck; out of control, right on the edge of losing it altogether. She felt so much pressure when it came time for action that she thought she was going to die. It paralyzed her, it frightened her. It left her feeling drunk.
One might wonder if Suzie was sane. She wasn’t doing anything with her life. Just wasting time in everything she did. She was being a loser, steaming with anger and accomplishing nothing. She had this fantasy dreamworld where she was a do-gooder of saintly proportions, but she was actually going around trying to kill people. She was obsessed with her dad’s death, and channeling all her energies into revenge. She just wasn’t doing anything positive right then. Did she aspire to kitchen work? Was she going to make a career of killing traffic offenders? Was she ever going to settle down and be normal?
It was her dad’s death that fucked her up. He was a brave trucker, and he died in the line of duty. A hero’s death. Needless, stupid. And she wasn’t even there at the time and so she couldn’t do anything to help. She’s been lost ever since. And angry. At her dad for sending her away to live with Auntie Mae. At her dad for dying. At the driver for killing him. A driver on a cellphone. Driving in the passing lane.
And so she flings herself into a sudden full-blown rage whenever she sees someone behaving thoughtlessly on the road. A condemning, punishing, murderous rage. And it’s all she can do to make it a cold rage. Because to run hot with that much anger would be to run some idiot’s car into a ditch. Daily.
She needs to anger-manage the feelings away, to turn them into sweetness and light, use that Care Bear magic. But, you know, fuck that. Suzie has chosen to harbor her rage, to channel it. To use it as energy; to achieve something with it. She really needs to avoid taking it out on random people. Instead, she could carefully select the assholes who really deserve to die.
Maybe she really is crazy. Every sane person will tell you that you can’t go taking the law into your own hands. It’s such a clich that it’s obviously true, and she should really just lighten up and get a prescription for it.
But maybe, because it’s obviously true, it might just be false. Maybe Suzie is seeing clearly, and her idea of rough and ready justice is justifiable. Except, not to a judge, and that presents a small little problem, commonly known as 10-20.
Who’s to know her mind? Suzie’s young, she doesn’t know her own mind yet, and by the time she’s old she’ll have changed it on a number of absolute certainties. If it were legal to advocate illegal acts, then one might side with her and argue for taking out the really bad drivers by summary judgment. Except one probably wouldn’t want to give the privilege to Suzie, because she’s operating out of anger, loss, and panic, and doesn’t make good judgments. And because she was such a bad shot.
It wasn’t just her aim. One of the problems with the current weapons configuration was that the paintball came out of the barrel with too much force. You don’t need a projectile that goes 120 feet when you are trying to hit something at a tenth the distance. Suzie had read about sawing off shotgun barrels to shorten the range, and figured it might could help. With a higher-end paintgun, she would have been able to simply unscrew the barrel, but here she was actually going to have to saw it off. So she rummaged in the tackle box for the hacksaw she’d used on the treelets in the clearing, and got to work.
The cut was crooked and ragged when she was finished, but she was happy with the result. The paintball came out of the gun with a Blop now, and merely lobbed through the air, landing about twenty feet away, unexploded. Could this be a problem? Not if it was aimed at something going sixty. The whole thing might work. She held it up and examined her workmanship. Sawing the barrel off made the gun less conspicuous, and she could hold it closer to the door and shield it with her arms. Now she was anxious to test it.
But first things first, she had to do her superhero ritual. She grabbed her bag, the bag she’d had since she was a little girl, that had held all her worldly possessions, that she took with her on every trip with her dad, a big zip-up black canvas travel bag that had a worn See Rock City patch on the side. Inside she found her costume, rolled up and rubber-banded; a small framed picture of her dad wrapped up in a torn section of gray-purple curtain, shiny on one side and velvety on the other; a tube of ammunition, a pocket mirror, and a blue Care Bear keychain ornament.
She put the Care Bear on the stool, and set her dad’s picture beside it, looking at his face for a few moments. Then she turned her back and pulled off her jeans and t-shirt and struggled into her costume, fiddling with the seams of the tights. She felt the blue booties pinch her toes together as she zipped them up, and wriggled into the awful, too tight plastic pants. Then she donned the parts of the costume she really liked, her Superman t-shirt and her driving gloves.
She slipped on her flesh-colored fishnet driving gloves and looked at herself in the pocket mirror, tilting it to show a panorama of herself, head to feet and back. She was stunning. Unsmiling, resolute. She put the mirror down. Suzie Q, Queen of the Road. Freeway Punisher, Highway Avenger, Interstate Enforcer. Vigilante superhero.
She stood facing the sun, arms loose by her sides, her hands forming into fists, a purposeful look on her serious face. A raven-haired beauty, athletic, tall, with long thick hair flowing behind her like a cape as she prepared to go forth and do justice. Except that the sun wasn’t remotely visible through the trees so she was guessing at the direction. Her hair was short and raggedy and hand-cut with scissors, and was copper red, not blue-black. And she wasn’t all that pretty, having her dad’s face. She actually looked waiflike and determined, like a child actor facing down bad reviews.
Suzie picked up her paintgun, turned the same way her dad was facing, brought the gun up and shook it in front of her three times, and uttered a stream of cheap sayings. ‘I swear on the ashes of my father, the evildoers shall be destroyed. Vengeance is mine, so says the victim. Nobody paid for your death, Daddy. They’re still out there, and if I have to kill every bad driver in Atlanta, I’m going to do it just so you can rest in peace.’ She fired her paintgun into the branches. ‘This one’s for you, Dad.’
She breathed deeply and focused on her mission, then stood, gathered the ritual objects back into her bag, put the loaded paintgun in with them, turned, and left the clearing. She repeated her mantra, ‘This one’s for you,’ all the way up Moreland Avenue and down Ponce to Krispy Kreme, where the red doughnut light was on, and ordered two original glazed and a small cup of coffee with plenty of cream, no sugar.
She sat in her car and silently demolished one Krispy Kreme while it was still hot enough to burn her mouth, in memory of her dad, and when they used to sit and do the very same thing before leaving town to go on a run. She decided to leave the other Krispy Kreme until she got on the road good and proper, and it had time to cool off.
It felt like church to Suzie. She ate the host and drunk the wine, and now she could go in peace to love and serve the Lord. She licked her fingers with little smacks, put her gloves back on, started the car, and pulled out of the parking lot, ready to fight injustice and discourteous asshole behavior wherever she found it.
* * *
October 4, 2007
That afternoon her patrol took her up 75 North. It was too hot to keep the windows halfway up, and after a few minutes she leaned way over into the passenger side to reach the crank, driving with her left hand stretched all the way to the wheel, her head barely above the dashboard, steering from the passenger seat. The car next to her honked and she discovered herself drifting into the next lane. Oops.
Traffic hit a construction zone and stopped.
There was no air conditioning, no breeze, super intense sun searing her elbow and leg. No crosswinds, just ionized overheated noxious gases from a million tailpipes. Every thirty seconds the car in front of her would move most of a car length, and Suzie would inch her way up to the guy’s bumper again.
She took her right hand glove off and started in on the second Krispy Kreme, now wonderfully firm and glossy but still lighter than air and still with that crisp fresh-from-the-fryer taste. She sipped on her coffee, and thought of turning the radio on but didn’t, then found a paper bag from Zesto’s, and leaned over to clean up all the junk on the floor of the passenger side.
She could feel sweat pooling behind her knees, squeezing through the mesh of her tights. It was sticky and gross. She hated nylon. She hated polyester. She hated sitting in fucking stopped traffic. Maybe her choice of uniform was interfering with, rather than enhancing her sense of mission. She licked her fingers of flakes of glazed sugar and decided to rethink the whole uniform concept.
Merge Right 500 Ft. Suzie began to feel a little nauseous. She could feel tiny globules of fat on the roof of her mouth. Sugar and engine fumes don’t blend very well. The coffee helped a little, maybe all that cream neutralized the chemicals. Lots of engine fumes.
By the time traffic sped up to normal around the Mount Paran exit, a mile and a half up the road, Suzie noticed with frustration that it had taken half an hour. And then brake lights came on again. And everyone slowed back down to thirty. And then came to a stop.
Suzie and half a million of her best friends sat there, and inched ahead, and sweated. At least Suzie did. Everyone else was using their air conditioning. She steamed as traffic heading south on I-75 went by hugely fast, seventy, eighty, whistling by on the other side of the concrete barrier.
She looked with longing at the lane next to the barrier, wishing for some of that breeze. And it was still only spring. The first thing to go are the tights, she thought. I’ve got to wear shorts in this heat, and in summer maybe I’ll go with some sort of skirt. But the tights thing is only for winter. And I really don’t like wearing shoes when I’m driving, either. Can’t feel the pedals as well, and these shoes are small, and they make my feet hot. All she could think of was the tears of sweat rolling down her neck, her sides, her legs, her back.
Eventually they crossed over the Chattahoochee River, with its soft green hills, and mounds of trees dropping down to overhang the smooth, brown water running under the bridge and bending away in the distance.
Suddenly inspired, Suzie abandoned her fruitless quest, got off at the Cumberland Parkway exit, snaked thru the surface streets to the park, and went to dip her feet in the water, tights and all.
That does it, she thought. She took her keys out of her pocket, bent over, and used the scissors on her army knife to cut the feet off her tights. Suzie sat on the bank and wiggled her toes in the mud, sighing contentedly, her back resting against a tree, sitting in the shade, watching the water flow by.
They held a raft race every year on the Hooch, back in the 70s. Rubber rafts, rafts made of milk jugs and pallets, rafts made of logs strapped together, rafts that immediately took on water and sank, rafts made of cardboard boxes, blow-up pool rafts, bike inner tubes, truck tires, huck finn rafts, rafts made from bathtubs; you name it. The largest party in Atlanta, in May, just about this time of year. Promoted by the radio station that served as the model for the TV show WKRP Cincinnati. 60,000 people floating down the Hooch. 300,000 people sitting on the banks with blankets and coolers. Clothing optional. There were halloween costumes, gorilla suits, swim suits, and half-naked people, all drinking and smoking and eating and having one hell of a time. Of course they banned it. But Suzie wished theyd reinstate it, even illegally. Her dad and Uncle Daddy used to talk about the years theyd gone down the river. Uncle Daddy had a very old, leaky canoe, and theyd put in at Morgan Falls and divide their time between pulling naked women out of the water and diving in themselves to join the fun.
The Chattahoochees water was probably more polluted then than it is now. At least, thats what officials like to say. But I dont know. All the development, all the woods bulldozed and the streets paved. All the cars leaking oil and radiator fluid. All the carpet factories up in the moutains. And all the chemicals the farmers dump on their fields way upstream, and the seepage from piles of chicken and cow shit. Anyway, even if it might be cleaner now, the sewers are older and the population has fourpled, and when it rains, water flows into the sewers, and then into the waste treatment plants, and then overflows from there right into the river, along with millions of gallons of untreated sewage. Its not pretty. Youre not supposed to swim in the Hooch now because the e coli content is so high. Youre really not supposed to eat any fish you might catch. Frankly, you shouldnt even be drinking water out of the tap around Atlanta without filtering it first.
So Suzie just dipped her feet in, after examining her toes for cracks or wounds. And she did spend some time worrying if she could catch anything from the mist that rose off the water, some airborne virus or noxious vapor. Mainly, tho, she watched the cranes and geese that were hanging out between the shoals, and fantacized about a shoal out in the middle of the river, a natural-looking wier of rocks that looked like the Creeks might have caught trout way back when.
On the way back downtown to go to work, the road was doing seventy until she approached the Connector, and then, coming up to the Brookwood join of 75 and 85, traffic stopped. Whoever designed the Connector was a sadist, Suzie thought. Whose idea was it to blend two streams of car energy right through the middle of town?
She took the exit for Fourteenth Street and escaped from the traffic jam that ran from Brookwood to below I-20, all the way through town, twelve lanes of parking lot . Pulling off onto the exit, she was suddenly going faster than all the cars on the highway.
Suddenly, unable to contain himself, some idiot cut up behind her, rode right out onto the shoulder, and zipped around in front of her to take the exit first, honking at her. She was instantly angry, and screamed at him all the way to the top of the ramp, where he turned right, and she turned left. But not before fumbling the gun out of her bag and getting a shot off in his direction. He never saw it, but Suzie left a big psychotic yellow splat on the ramp wall.
A cop drove up the same ramp while it was still wet. He mentioned it in his report.
* * *
She got to work with five minutes to spare. Woohoo. The line cooks were busy; members with small children were arriving for early dinners. Waiters were running in to leave orders and bustling back up the stairs and looking unusually harassed for the beginning of the evening. Casual Dining was in full swing, a plated dinner was set for 350 in the Southern Sportsman Ballroom, there was a buffet for 100 in the large dining room.
Miss Charlene was over in the corner stirring up a big batch of tapioca pudding. Finding it on the menu tonight, most of the members and their guests in Casual Dining would order it, and there’d be none left to eat when the porters raided the pastry cooler with spoons at the end of the night.
Suzie looked longingly at the tapioca, still warm from the double boiler, but she didn’t dare ask for any. ‘Afternoon, Miss Charlene. Are you enjoying your day?’
Miss Charlene handed her a tablespoon. ‘Go on, tell me if I’ve got enough vanilla in it.’ Suzie scooped up a big mouthful and blew on it for a few moments, taking in the rich aroma, feeling her mouth water.
She slid the spoon into her mouth and the taste of hot custard, yellow-tasting solid air, permeated her nasal cavities and wafted right into her brain. ‘Mmmmm.’ More like a purr than a hum. ‘What’s Chef up to?’
Miss Charlene stood back and folded her arms. She almost harrumphed. ‘Oh, he’s off moping around his office again; probly working on his resume.’ To be kind, he could have been doing a lot of things. Maybe he was building next month’s menus, writing kitchen procedures, reviewing timesheets, checking on purchasing orders; researching restaurant trends; other stuff too arcane to mention.
The blinds were open so Chef could look out on his people, but he was sitting back there like he was hiding. His hat was off, his head was bent, his long lanky hair fell over his eyes. He was scribbling something down and not paying any attention to what the staff was doing.
The cooks had seen several chefs come and go in a short space of time. Chefs were hired away from a Hilton or a Marriott, offered a king’s ransom, and promised a royal dominion all their own. But when were handed the keys to the kingdom, they found that all the locks had been changed and the serfs were surly and didn’t know nothing. Few highly trained chefs want to put up with a staff of ignorant layabouts, but if they don’t want to fire everyone and start over, they either reluctantly accept the way things really work, or they leave. The bet was for this one to be gone within the month.
Miss Charlene let Suzie have another spoonful of tapioca, and then went back to stirring the heat out of it. Then she covered it with plastic wrap and wrestled the bowl onto a small cart. Suzie wheeled it off to the dairy cooler, and resisted dipping her finger in it, but made a mental note to come back before it was all gone.
The Garde-manger caught her coming out of the cooler. ‘Are you doing anything? I need someone to chop some onions.’ Suzie protested that she’d never chopped onions before. ‘It’s easy. I’ll show you. Grab a knife.’ And he marched off to the prep table where there was a fifty-pound bag of yellow onions leaning up against the counter. Suzie rummaged in one of the drawers under the table, and found an almost-sharp ten-inch kitchen knife.
The Garde-manger stabbed a hole in the net bag with his knife, and reached out half a dozen onions, then grabbed one, held it down on the counter top, and holding the knife high above his head, came down with a resounding thwack, and the top of the onion flew off onto the floor some distance away. The Garde-manger loved to use his knife like a ninja. Never mind that it dulled every time he touched the steel counter top with it, he wanted to hear it ring out. He looked like he had a few Rambo movies in his collection. And lots of Jackie Chan. He took another onion and decapitated it. And another. Suzie thought how happy he looked.
A Latino porter came by carrying two large, rectangular food storage boxes stacked on top of each other and spanning most of his reach, and tripped on an onion top lying out in the middle of the floor. He recovered, silently, still holding the Cambros. The Garde-manger said nothing, but shook his head as he peeled the onions, like the stupid porters should watch where they’re going.
‘Here, pay attention.’ He showed her how he was holding the onion near the root end with his fingernails. His knuckles were folded over, covering his fingertips and protecting them from the knife. ‘Now I rock the blade.’ This was not like the ninja scalping technique he had used to take the tops off. ‘Not a chopping motion, but a levered motion, like a guillotine.’ He made a couple of thin slices. ‘And see how I’m bringing the side of the blade against my knuckles? I’m using them as guides, and I can make as thin a cut as I want this way.’
He quickly sliced the whole onion into half-inch rings, walking his fingertips back toward the root end. Snick snick snick snick snick. Missing his fingers with the blade every time. Then he stacked the slices. ‘Again, use a rocking motion with the knife. Keep the point down, and swing the heel of the knife instead. It lets you make your precision cuts. If you chop it with the point in the air, you’re just hacking, and you end up with random sized bits of onion.’ He displayed a formerly whole onion, now uniformly chunked, flourishing his hand – voila. ‘Think you can do that?’
Suzie shrank inside. No, she did not think she could do that. The Garde-manger had just taken all of seventeen seconds to turn produce into ingredients, in a show of technical mastery that he’d paid good money to learn in culinary school, and she here was still learning how to hold a big knife. ‘Um.’
He thrust an onion into her hands. ‘You try.’
She grabbed her knife about where she’d seen him holding his, halfway down the handle. It was a steel knife with a three inch blade at the heel tapering down to a point. A white plastic handle, nubbly textured, with indents for fingers a whole lot bigger than hers. All those nubs made it feel wet, even though she’d been wiping it with her apron just a moment ago.
She held the onion down on the table. It was all the could do to stretch her little hand around the grapefruit-sized, slippery, peeled bulb. Carefully putting the point of the knife on the table, she aimed the heel of the blade at the greening top of the onion, and brought it down wobbly. This top didn’t go shooting off onto the floor; it fell over still half-attached to the onion.
Suzie felt very nervous as she put the knife down and tore off the top with her hands. She really wanted the Garde-manger to take it away from her and show her how to do it right again, and was willing to be extra inept in an attempt to exasperate him into it. But he was watching her, keeping up a stream of corrections; cursedly resistant to taking her knife away and doing it for her.
She made a fist over the roots and levered the blade down to rest beside her knuckles, then came straight down through the bulb. She pulled her fist back a fraction of an inch and made another cut, then moved her fingertips back a little and made another one. Not exactly even slices, but she wasn’t in any danger of cutting her fingers. She could see where this might be a nice technique for knife work. The Garde-manger’s breathing down her neck was a little uncomfortable, especially since he was actually breathing down her neck. The smell of the onions was beginning to irritate her, too.
‘I think I have the hang of it now.’ She said, putting the knife down and wiping her eyes with the back of her wrist. The Garde-manger nodded and left, telling her to do three dozen and give them to the Sous-chef. Suzie turned back to the work table, piling the slices on top of each other to cut them into pieces.
Miss Charlene waved at her, so she put the knife down and ran cold water over her hands to dilute the onion smell. ‘Idiot,’ Miss Charlene stated. ‘He’s always got to do things by the book. There ain’t no reason to go chopping through all those onions. You’ll be crying and weeping in a minute. Now you just get hold of Manny and ask him where they got the onion chopper at. Go on.’
Suzie found Manuel. He whipped a metal brace-like contraption out from under a counter, and showed her how to use it. And once she peeled them and got rid of the tops and roots, she had several dozen onions in little chunks in just under five minutes. With no tears.
Suzie put them in a container and handed them off to the Sous-chef, and then made sure to go and thank Miss Charlene for being so kind to her. ‘It’s nothing, girl. You just got to know a few tricks round here, is all. Don’t let them complicate your life if you can help it.’
Chef got up and came out of his office, standing in the door scratching his head, surveying the room. Everybody tried to look a little busier. ‘Hey, you,’ he called out to Suzie, who had another spoon in her hand, ready to taste Miss Charlene’s apple crumble fresh from the oven. She put down the spoon, wiped her hands on her apron, and approached hesitantly. He sure looked like he was mad about something. Maybe the way she did the onions was considered cheating. Maybe he’d write her up for it. Or fire her.
Chef wanted her for something else. It was worse than being in trouble. ‘They don’t have enough help upstairs. I don’t have a problem sparing you. Go be a waiter for tonight. See the Service Manager.’ He was dismissive, almost cruel.
She looked at him in horror. ‘Serve dinner? To the members?’ She’d never waited tables before. She’d always avoided jobs that had anything to do with customer service. And she had absolutely no waiter skills at all. She almost said, ‘You’re shitting me,’ but Chef was not the kind of guy you could say that to.
Chef looked down to see her still trying to organize her protest. ‘Why are you still here?’
‘But I don’t know anything about serving.’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t give a fuck. Someone’ll show you. Now go.’
Suzie felt cold dread slither down her neck and into the pit of her stomach. Impending doom. A cloud of toxic chemicals constantly threatening rain. Why did she always feel like she was on the verge of being fired from every job she ever had? Always the junior member, always the clueless one. And such a learning curve. It’s not like she was incompetent, it was just that she was always in over her head.
She turned around and took the stairs beside the dumbwaiter: narrow, dark, redolent with cooking fumes at the bottom end and cigar smoke at the top. Stand around waiting on them hand and foot with not even a chance of a tip? Act as mute witness to their conspicuous consumption? She said a quick prayer that she not make an ass of herself and get fired.
She came up into the pantry. It was a big empty storage room, with a big gray ice chest and a couple of shelves lining the walls and filled with all sorts of dining room stuff. Suzie went out into the hall looking for the Service Manager. The hall was a dark, paneled place under the stairs with dark shiny floors and subdued lighting. Beyond it was the vast marble and glass breezeway, glaring with lights. The Service Manager was standing in the shadow alongside the stairs with his back to her, looking into the empty ballroom through open double doors.
She stopped next to him and waited until he noticed her. ‘Um, Chef sent me upstairs to help out.’ She put out her hand. ‘I’m Suzie.’
He was a tall, rangy white guy from the Midwest, with soft-looking, saggy skin and sad eyes. He shook her hand briefly, looking over her head, then turned and headed back toward the pantry with her. ‘Ever do this kind of work before? No?’ He looked at her, sizing her up. ‘You’ll do okay. But you need a uniform.’
They ducked into the stairs and went up to the third floor servant’s quarters, a dingy place with trash and dust in the corners. paint peeling from the ceiling, industrial gray carpet, sprung couches not fit to touch ladies’ bottoms but good enough for the staff, and a musty stale smoke odor made worse by the heat of the roof right above their heads.
He looked through a locker just like the one Suzie had used in high school, and fished out a black knee-length skirt, a black vest and a white shirt with tuxedo ruffles on it. From a box in the corner, he produced a black bow tie and a cummerbund. ‘These should fit. Look for a pair of shoes up on top of the lockers there. Then come get me when you’re dressed.’
Suzie struggled into the new clothes. He was wrong about the shirt size, so she rummaged around until she found something smaller, and slipped into a pair of black runners that weren’t half uncomfortable, and didn’t smell at all.
She went back to find him, pulling her just barely too-long hair back into a ponytail. The Service Manager stifled a grimace. He walked her over to a corner of the ballroom where half a dozen waiters sat around the tables folding napkins. ‘Here, you can do this for awhile,’ he said. ”Yolanda there will show you the ropes.’ He indicated a Latina over on the couches filling sugars. She looked up at her name, and winked at Suzie, and the Service Manager left her to find a seat and get to work.
It was six-thirty. The waiters were in the seats the members and their guests would occupy at eight, folding napkins into hats and talking. Suzie sat down between a black gentleman whose nametag said Suliman, and a white woman from North Georgia with her blonde hair in a very long ponytail; the only other white person in the room. Everybody was in tuxedos and vests. They were all sitting up straight, looking good.
The napkins were piled up flat in the middle of the table, and everyone was working off a short stack of a dozen or so pulled in front of them. Suliman taught Suzie how to fold, gently shaking the napkin out and making her do it over a couple of times. It was fairly simple, but it took practice to get it right.
Suzie looked around at the room. The tablecloths had been laid and the centerpieces were placed. Two tuxedoed waiters worked from plate dollies that had been wheeled to the top of the room, setting the tables with one article at a time. The huge ballroom was strangely muffled and quiet, and everybody spoke softly.
‘You can tell a place by the cleanliness of the kitchen.’ Suliman commented, continuing the conversation. ‘The condition of a kitchen reflects on the Chef. It shows how sharp he is.’
Suzie objected. ‘But the customers never see the kitchen.’
‘And a good thing, too.’ They all laughed.
Suzie thought about how clean their kitchen was, which was not very. Not that there were safety or health hazards. Just that there were little corners where things piled up – cookbooks, pots and pans under the tables, bowls and implements, jugs of this and that with runs of dried liquids down their sides; and grotty stuff you didn’t want to know about behind the equipment; and condensation on the walls that had hardened into stalactites near the floor.
The staff at the Club took care of everything that was legally required by the health codes. You bet. They cleaned the grease traps, they hosed off the floors at night, they used bleach to sterilize all surfaces and implements, they used proper temperature control and practiced the required separation of foodstuffs.
It’s just that there was the absence of a Passion For CleanlinessTM kind of attitude in the kitchen. Nobody thought totally sterile antiseptic conditions were necessary. The craze for antibacterial soap was judged to be a bad idea. They held the same standards of cleanliness that applied to their own family kitchens. Chef was working to change that, but he’d been having trouble getting employee buy-in on his vision.
The waiters all looked professional and sophisticated. Suzie felt like an imposter. They all looked like they knew what they were doing, even though they were only folding napkins, and they sounded like they’d seen it all. Everything was new to Suzie. She felt the learning curve loom over her.
A Latina told about a kitchen fire at some club, caused by waiters lighting cans of sterno over the flame on the stove. They all made faces, like they’d never be that stupid themselves.
A gay guy told about a chef in some other club, who was coming around the corner and slipped on a filthy, scummy floor, and stuck his arm into the deep fat fryer. Everybody gasped. ‘They moved that fryer to the middle of the hot side,’ he said. ‘And they saved the arm.’
The descriptions horrified Suzie. Grease traps that had never been cleaned. Range hoods that dripped oil. Rats that came out and waved at you from behind the sinks.
The Service Manager held a meeting at 7:15. They all piled down to the employee break room in the back corner of the kitchen, known as the Kudzu Room, snagging leftovers out of a couple of trays left out for them. Hot wings, cocktail wieners, ham biscuits, and macs and cheese. The Service Manager smiled at the waiters stuffing their faces. He felt benevolent. Suzie ate reluctantly. If she hadn’t gone upstairs, she’d be too full from picking at food to eat the crap they were serving.
Then he began roll call. It was like high school. He was all business, trying to get through his agenda, but he was organizing a troupe of clowns, not a disciplined team of waiters.
The Service Manager spent time ragging one guy he accused of doing everything wrong the last time they’d had one of these gigs. The waiter made a face behind his back. There were about twenty waiters, most of them temps. Suzie didn’t know any of them. She felt lost and friendless.
The Service Manager was busy looking for the function sheet. It was a different world to Suzie. A waiter put his head down and went to sleep, another waiter read a book, several shared baby pictures. One waiter took his copy of the function sheet and tore and folded it into a paper pincer schoolkids tell fortunes with.
The Service Manager patted his pockets. ‘Does anybody have a copy of the function sheet?’ They handed him the pincer. There was an uproar, and several waiters crumpled up their copies and tossed them at the Manager. Unperturbed, he went over who had what tables, who was whose partner, who was responsible for filling the salt and peppers after, filling the sugars after, cleaning the lounges and bringing all the plates out of there after. He assigned Suzie to partner with Yolanda after leaning down to whisper something to her. Then he straightened up and addressed the troops. They pretended not to listen.
‘We’re going to light the candles at 7:45. Then we’re going to ice the water glasses and we’re going to start at the top of the room and work back toward the pantry. Everybody got that?’ Nobody said anything. So he repeated it, and repeated it, until everybody was repeating it with him. ‘Start at the top and work back.’ Then he repeated it some more. And then everybody got up and filed upstairs to the banquet.
Yolanda came over and said hello. Yolanda had her hair in a thick ponytail high up on the back of her head and it swished attractively when she walked. She was about thirty-five and trim. Lively, quick, smart. You could tell from looking at her face. And competent.
‘OK. You’ve never worked here before? Let me show you the pantry while we have all the time in the world. Once the guests are seated it’ll be nonstop.’ Suzie wasn’t sure if she was being ironic.
They stood in the middle of the pantry. It was 7:23. Yolanda pointed her finger at a pantry sink, next to the dumbwaiter. Lined up on the sink were colored plastic glass racks; she pointed to each one. Wine, water, big bulb wine, highball, tumbler, coffee. ‘Don’t mix them up. They run them through the dishwashers in those racks and it messes up the count if you put stuff in the wrong racks.’
She pointed to a bunch of plate dollies in the corner. ‘Extra plates,’ at a rack full of black bus tubs. ‘Silver.’ She neglected to refer to the giant ice maker, or the coffee and tea boiler, or the rack of metal coffee pots and steel water pitchers.
Yolanda turned on her heel and walked out through the galley. On one wall was a drink dispenser over an ice chest, and a refrigerated table with dressings and sauces covered with plastic wrap with spoons laid on top. ‘Salad unit.’ She went on, pointing. ‘Emergency stash of silver, condiments, pitchers, staging area for your tray.’ Under the table, ‘Tray.’ She didn’t bother to point out a narrow work sink with water pitchers lining the counter.
Once out of the pantry itself, there was a short corridor crammed full of dispensers and assembly stations; a hot, airless galley.
She pulled out the function sheet and showed Suzie a plan where thirty-six tables were spread evenly through the ballroom. Each had a number, and every group of three was a different color. There was Yolanda’s name in red, with a question mark for her helper.
It was hurry up and wait. Suzie decided she liked the look of the waiters. Everybody had such nice manners in their tuxedoes. They seemed noble, dedicated, watchful, resourceful, obliging, accommodating. They looked like delightful people to spend an evening with. They did not look like servants. They didn’t act like servants.
They were very gracious with each other. Among servants, everybody has dignity. They stood around waiting, and spent the time telling tales on other waiters; talking about famous bad waiters, bragging about how much food and drink they could imbibe on the sly, listing things people have gone home with.
It impressed Suzie that there was no end to what a slick waiter could do. ‘Half bottles of wine are nothing,’ one of them observed. ‘How about opening up the liquor closet and having a buddy out back with a van?’
At 7:45 the candles were lit, a lone black fairy flitting to each table with a grill lighter. Then it was hurry up and wait some more. The waiters sat at the tables, ready at any moment to spring up and act like they were doing something should a guest or the Service Manager walk in. But the guests were still in the bar and out in the silent auction room.
They went into the pantry where a table had been set up in front of the ice maker. Large oval platters were spread out, water goblets were set up a couple of dozen to a tray. A couple of waiters threw a slice of lemon into the bottom of each glass. Three waiters scooped up the ice and poured it over the glasses. The ice went everywhere, but mainly it filled the glasses to the brim. Waiters were lined up with smaller trays, and bAllenced them at the edge of the table with one hand, grabbing glasses as fast as they could and packing them on.
In moments the oval platter had only loose ice cubes on it. They lifted the platter and dumped the ice into the sink, then put more glasses on, and started again. Waiters took trays full of iced glasses, marched up to the top of the ballroom, and laid them out on the tables, working back toward the pantry. It was like worker ants. Then waiters filled up pitchers with tap water and went to the top of the ballroom, filling each glass, going in a clockwise circle around a table and working their way back.
Yolanda came to stand with Suzie, and they stood in the doorway of the Southern Sportsman Ballroom admiring their work. Circular tables were set up in rows throughout the ballroom, thirty-six tables crammed close together, covered in white linens, formally set. What had been an empty expanse of beige and green rug was now picture perfect and ready for action.
Suzie thought it was a gloomy place. The drapes were closed for the banquet, and the chandeliers were turned down low, and the light disappeared into the dark green and brown wallpaper. And the heavy dark green velvet curtains right out of Gone With the Wind. And the huge cabinets full of guns and rifles. The ducks and dogs wallpaper. The rug. The candles on every table glittering. The acoustical tile ceiling disappearing above them. Suzie recalled her dream. It would be easy to plug a pencil into the ceiling here.
It was after eight. Diners began drifting in, standing in bunches, holding drinks and handbags and wraps. The men were in black ties and tuxedoes, the women were in evening gowns. Mostly black dresses, some color. Some quite dowdy. Some fat. Most skinny and blonde or brunette, or older and stouter with dyed hair piled up on their heads. Dripping with jewelry.
Only gradually did they find their tables and sit down. They’d bought seats for the exorbitant sum of $2,300 each, which was for a good cause, and tax deductible. And they were all discussing the things they’d bid on at the silent auction.
A bunch of waiters gathered in the pantry for a big cart full of plastic-wrapped bread baskets that made their way up in the dumbwaiter. A couple of waiters ripped off the wrap, kicking any bread that fell to the side of the room. Other waiters waited patiently in line with their trays while baskets were unwrapped and handed to them, and they skipped out to the room to start at the top and work back. Then a bunch of waiters opened a coldbox and brought out tray after tray of little ramekins full of butter, which other waiters transferred to their trays and dashed out to start at the top.
The guests ran through their bread and drinks at an appalling rate while they waited for their dinners to be served.
At each table there were ten people. The wives were all differently dressed, and spoke softly with their heads close together. The members themselves looked like clones. They all had short hair on balding heads, most of them wore glasses, most of them were running to fat and looked uncomfortable in their tuxedoes. They even seemed to be all the same height. It was very WASPy.
Suzie shadowed Yolanda fretfully.
One guy stood in the middle of the floor drinking with his buddy. ‘Her brother is my business partner,’ he nodded toward his wife.
The other guy munched on a roll. ‘I’m working all weekend.’ He sounded proud.
‘I can’t do this,’ Suzie whispered to Yolanda.
Yolanda slapped her on the back and said, ‘Yes you can. It’s not hard. You’re lucky your first time’s just a banquet and you don’t have to take menu orders. Come on.’ Yolanda led the way back to the pantry, bouncing as she walked, swinging her ponytail.
The salads were up. They’d been plated and put into racks down in the kitchen, and the food elevator brought them up. Waiters brought the trays out and removed the plates onto big oval trays, waiters grabbed them and marched them out to tray jacks covered in tablecloths stationed around the edges of the room. People were sitting down now in a hurry, crowding in the door. Waiters were going around the outsides of the room and cutting through clear spaces, with radar out to avoid hitting any guests.
Yolanda squatted down under the edge of her tray and slid it off the table onto her shoulder, then rose up and stalked off to the banquet room. Suzie followed her, impressed, and helped her pass out salads. Then they went back to the pantry for more.
The guests started to eat. Some of them. Some were not even seated. Some were going back out to have another drink. Some were standing around talking. A lot of them were doing this. Some were already eating. Devouring the bread. Gnawing at the salad.
The diners never saw the staff. They pretended they didn’t notice when a plate went missing right beneath their eyes. They pretended not to see a waiter walking behind them with a loaded tray. They pretended they had the automatic right of way when it came to crossing a room. They were loud, and they were petty, and they may have been the best and the brightest, or the richest and most powerful, but they ate like pigs.
Most of them were sitting and eating at this point, and now the waiters hovered, lining the walls, two of them assigned to three tables, doing tag-team waiting, seeing if anyone’s wine glass was empty, if anyone was done with their salad, if they were running out of bread or butter or water, if they’d dropped a fork or a napkin. The empty salad plates got whisked up, the wine glasses got topped up, more bread got eaten. People got up and wandered out to the bar or the bathroom.
Some lady got up and made a speech. Raising funds, a good cause, hard work, blah. They clapped. The waiters couldn’t do anything while this was going on, so they stood there, trays clasped to their chest, or hands behind their backs against the wall, or hiding in the pantry. Some guy got up and made a speech. The guests clapped. The waiters stood stony-faced. They didn’t have to clap. They weren’t foolish enough to sacrifice a couple of months’ wages for the privilege of being there.
Neither were the members and their guests. They earned the price of a ticket in less than a week, some of them in a couple of hours. It was only a hardship for them because they were already tapped out anyway, just paying the bills for their opulent lifestyle. But it wasn’t like they couldn’t afford it, strictly speaking. And it was expected of them.
When you make tons of money, you’re expected to live at a certain level, attend a certain number of functions, have a certain circle of friends, belong to a certain country club, go to a certain church, send your kids to certain schools. The more money you have, the more you are obligated to live according to everyone’s expectations, the more people have hooks in you to compel you to follow a prescribed path. Suzie was glad to be poor.
She fantasized herself in their place. Put a slinky evening gown on her and get someone to do her makeup, and she could fit right in with the crowd of rich philanthropists, social climbers, and party animals. She heard the same jokes she heard from her friends, they talked about the same topics. They were as insecure and dependent on what others thought of them, and as directionless and self doubting as she was.
They pretended to know it all and to be in control of their lives, but once they’d had a few drinks, they started talking about their problems, gossiping, grinding axes. They sounded just like the black cooks downstairs, just like the boys in the garage, just like Auntie Mae and her friends. The only difference was how they’d been raised, and what they felt entitled to think of themselves.
Suzie’s feet stuck to the floor when she went into the pantry. Squidge squidge. This was evidently better than a slick floor, which could pull your legs out from under you, causing you to drop and break every dish on your tray.
The hotboxes were arriving in the food elevator, and so the rush started all over again, except a little slower because the plates were hot and heavy. It was a madhouse in the pantry. Suzie, standing there unsure what to do, caused two almost-collisions and a pirouette. Waiters reached for plates and brought them over each others’ heads, and turned until there was space enough to lower their arm and put the plate on their tray. They scurried and danced around each other, grabbing things and dashing out, talking to other waiters who were answering back without stopping. Suzie kept her eye on Yolanda and waited for a break in traffic.
They waltzed out to the first table, and laid the plates down clockwise. They served the hungry table first. They’d eaten every scrap of salad, and weren’t being very talkative. One of the members looked a little miffed about something. The girls hoped it would keep them from eating each other.
They were in a good mood at the second table. One of the members was telling the others some story. The wives listened rapt, smiles smeared on their faces. Like the rest of the room, the evening had started out in the bar, and would end there.
They were also needy. ‘Waitress, I need some steak sauce.’ ‘Waitress, I need some mustard.’ ‘Waitress, I want some more bread.’ ‘Waitress, I need another napkin.’ ‘Waitress, get me some more wine.’ Ketchup, pepper, mayo, sour cream, another fork, more wine.
The third table was different. The men were discussing business in low tones, then breaking out into knowing grins and nods. The wives drank and gossiped about what they heard at the hair dresser’s that afternoon.
They broke it up when the food came out. One of the men, a pudgy guy with glasses and short sandy hair, took notice of Suzie. ‘Who do we have here? A new waitress. What’s your name, Darling?’ She told him. He winked. ‘Suzie, eh? That’s nice. I’ll call you Suzie Q.’
Suzie froze up. Suzie Q was her superhero name. It was her dad’s nickname for her. It was her CB handle. She felt a stab of fear. How could he know? But then he started singing the old Credence Clearwater song in a low tone. ‘Oh, Suzie Q.‘ Another member, a fat guy with sandy hair and contacts joined in, louder. They both sang to her, the one with the glasses winked. ‘Baby, I love you, Suzie Q.’ Diners at other tables paused and looked in another direction.
Suzie relaxed. ‘Just Suzie, please.’ But they were off, and whenever she approached the table, the two of them sang or hummed or whistled, and the other men sang along. The wives began looking daggers at Suzie, so she stayed away to avoid setting the wives off.
The waiters spent much of their time leaning against the wall with their hands clasped. They spoke quietly among themselves, sharing observations and comments on the scene. It was obvious to Suzie that they considered themselves the superior beings in the room, and the diners domesticated animals. They were more graceful and dignified than most of the privileged guests who wandered in front of them all evening.
The guests behaved like brutes, drunk and slobbery. They acted like squirrels, diving into the food and stuffing their cheeks. They pecked at the food, preening and making nuisances of themselves like cocks roaming the yard. One guy was like a bull in a china shop, careening from table to table into selected bare shoulders and staring down into cleavages while bending over to talk to the men.
And then it gradually became a constant in and out as plates and glasses were emptied. Every now and then, Suzie had a quick hand put out to stop her from taking a plate. ‘Thanks, Sweetie, I’m still working on it,’ a woman in strapless silk would assure her.
Waiters took trays full of dirty dishes and glasses into the pantry, put the trays down on the bus table, scraped food off the plates with the silver, then tossed the silver into a bus tub, stacked the plates by size in another bus tray, emptied the glasses into a slops bucket and inverted them into their proper racks. Then it was back out for more dirty dishes.
Every now and then an edible piece of the main course came back, big enough for someone to grab it off the plate and pop it into their mouth. Everybody did that at one point, relishing their favorite part of the meal. A tomato from the salad. A chunk of beef. An uneaten pastry. A shrimp.
Squinch squinch. Suzie’s feet stuck to the floor and slowed her down as she walked. It was getting worse every time she came through the pantry door.
Dessert was served, the same clusterfuck in the pantry followed by a dramatic entrance into the dining room. It was like being crammed with a troupe of actors in a tiny dressing room, exploding onto the stage with all those lights and the audience hanging on their every word. It creeped Suzie out.
The end was in sight. Some of the diners didn’t wait around for dessert, but headed back to the bar. Several women left their handbags and their wraps lying on the floor next to their table, or slung over the back of their chair, and only fetched them an hour later, when they’d had more than enough to drink and needed to be off home to bed now.
The waiters had developed quite a rapport by the end of the night, not even needing to speak to each other in order to coordinate every little thing. Everybody treated each other with the utmost respect and courtesy, ignoring the diners, looking down their noses at the lack of breeding. They couldn’t wait for them to go home.
Every time it slowed down even a little bit, the waiters complained that the members weren’t eating fast enough, that they wouldn’t go home; complained about their feet, their fatigue, that they weren’t being paid enough. Suzie’s feet hurt, her back hurt, her shirt collar was too tight. She had sore knees. She scarfed down a plate of uneaten chocolate cream cake that came back. Some plates weren’t even touched. Everything got tossed into the trashcan. Tons of food. Hogsheads of drink. Suzie thought of the waste and cringed.
Some guests dawdled over their dessert. Some changed tables to chat. Some came back from the bar with fresh drinks and went to talk to someone they knew. The waiters discretely whisked empty plates and glasses away. People left for the bar in droves after dessert, and soon the ballroom was almost empty of diners. All the shiny women had departed. Most of the waiters were in the pantry. They cleaned up whatever they could while the diners were still there, and then stood around with their hands behind their backs. Looking pointedly at the members. Who ignored them.
Several tables evidently intended to stay all night. The members gathered at a couple of tables in the back and undid their jackets and loosened their ties. A strolling bartender came around pouring brandy and taking bar orders; a server went around with more coffee. Cigars were whipped out and lit. Ashtrays appeared. The conversations got louder.
‘Come here, honey,’ called the wiseass singing member she and Yolanda had served. ‘I want to talk to you.’
Suzie turned around, dishes piled up in her arms, and gave him a put-upon look.
He waved her off. ‘Go put that stuff down and get back here.’
She came back, wiping her hands on a napkin, and stood at the other side of the table facing him. ‘Yes sir?’
He took his cigar out of his mouth and rolled it with stubby fingers. He was sitting back on his chair, its front legs off the floor. His jacket was off. His starched white shirt tugged at the buttons, showing triangles of skin over his belly. It looked like he was using those Georgia Bulldog suspenders as straps. ‘Oh, nothing,’ he said. ‘We was just wondering what a pretty little thing like you’s doing working with all these colored waiters and Mexicans. We ain’t never seen you round here before.’
She laughed, surprised. ‘Are you for real?’ Can I be hearing this? she wondered.
He puffed up, then, looking around at the other men, sat straight in his seat and brought his fists to his chest. ‘I sure am for real. Missy, I’ve got the world in my pocket.’
She didn’t know what to say. She really didn’t like interacting with these people. So she made a flippant remark and grinned. ‘Oh. I thought you were just happy to see me.’
‘I certainly am,’ he agreed readily. ‘Want me to show you?’
She backed away, flustered. ‘Gross.’ Everybody laughed. The guy guffawed. Suzie felt queasy. She hated having strange men come on to her. She couldn’t bring herself to flirt back, she couldn’t scream at them to get away from her. She decided to be rude. And they loved it. Whatever. She sighed in resignation.
‘I’d need a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass,’ she misquoted from some movie.
The whole room broke up. Suzie turned around without looking to see how the guy took it. And went to find Yolanda.
Yolanda was taking a break in the servants’ quarters upstairs. She was standing next to a clothing bar where various uniform parts were slung up on hangers, watching herself smoking a cigarette in a cracked mirror. She looked green in the glaring fluorescent light. A big bottle of similarly green mouthwash sat on the sink in the corner, next to an industrial-sized trashcan on wheels, festooned with cleaning supplies, a broom and mop sticking up out of the can.
Suzie stormed in. ‘Oh my God, they’re sexually harassing me in there.’ She clutched her arms and paced up and down the room. Yolanda moved to the open window and stood taking quick puffs of her cigarette and waving the smoke out nervously.
‘It’s not that bad,’ she reasured Suzie. ‘They’re not very drunk yet. And we’re done now, anyway. They’ll go back to the bar in a minute, and we can finish up and go home.’
‘Jesus, I don’t like serving. It’s so much safer in the kitchen. You don’t even make tips, do you?’
‘Well, the members are not allowed to tip us, but they do. Some of them are pretty generous.’ She took another drag. ‘It helps.’
Suzie shook her head sharply. ‘Yeah, you couldn’t pay me to do this job. I hate being at someone’s beck and call.’
Yolanda shrugged and tossed her cigarette out the window. ‘Let’s go back down. Oh yes, the Manager told me to remind you to bring your uniform back clean.’
When the guests were good and truly gone, they closed the doors to the ballroom, and then the waiters broke the place down.
They scurried out like roaches, antennas quivering, and picked over everything on the tables until there was not a speck left. In no time flat, the remaining plates and glasses were clinked onto trays and taken to the pantry; the centerpieces and candles were lined up on a sideboard; the tablecloths were stripped off the tables, separated into top and bottom cloths, and piled into linen baskets to be taken to the chute in a closet under the stairs.
The tables were ugly underneath, round plywood tops on a single spindly metal leg. The room was still elegant, with mirrors and wood and crystal and stuffed stag heads and guns displayed in huge cabinets, and a very large rug. But it looked shabby.
Suzie saw no more of the guy with the glasses. Or any of the members. Or their wives. She helped wash down the counters in the pantry, and polished clean glasses and dishes when they were sent up from the kitchen. And then she trooped downstairs with the rest of the waiters and clocked out.
* * *
October 4, 2007
Driving home, Suzie decided to go down Piedmont. Then she decided to cut down Ponce, and lo and behold the red ‘Hot Now’ light was on at the Krispy Kreme, so she swung into the parking lot and around into the line at the drive through. ‘Two Krispy Kremes, please.’ She left them in the bag to cool a little, and decided to take the long way home. So she got in the right lane to turn down Boulevard and sat at the light, checking out three hookers flouncing and prancing around the corner gas station. They all seemed to be eighteen-year-old white girls, but Suzie had seen them up close before, and it was like looking at grandmas.
The light changed and she turned onto Boulevard. Suzie cruised slowly down the street. Which was just hitting its stride in the warm spring days. People clustered on the sidewalks late into the evening, wearing their party-best t-shirts. From spring to fall the street and its curbside were the preferred chilling place for blocks of eighty year old apartment buildings with no air conditioning.
There was always someone with nonreflective dark skin dressed in nonreflective black clothes crossing the street, away from the street lights, going slow, not much minding the traffic, expecting the drivers to be looking out for their sauntering asses. So Suzie looked out. And every time she looked at one of the guys standing on the corner in a huge t-shirt and a baseball hat, he stared back, started forward from his post, and said, ‘Hey Baby, yo. What you want?’
Suzie had her hand in the Krispy Kreme bag and was gingerly grasping a hot doughnut, its still-molten frosting burning the prints off her fingertips, pulling it valiantly apart despite the pain, willing half the doughnut to surrender. It came away, tearing moistly, ragged at the edges. She held it in front of the steering wheel. Steaming, fluffy inside, the slight crunch of the fried surface, sweet sugar frosting. A taste like no other. Not cake doughnuts. Not crullers, not honey dipped, not anything sold at Dunkin’ Donuts. Not like beignets, either. The Krispy Kreme taste sweet and sinful but positively angelic in its lightness. What an addiction; better than heroin. Better than sex.
Licking her fingers and reaching for the other half, she found that she’d already inhaled it without noticing. So she grabbed half of the second doughnut and promised herself to take her time. 200 calories of fat and sugar apiece. But worth it. And besides, Suzie was a little thing, and burned off whatever she ate. Maybe when she hit middle age she’d blow out like a fat little doughnut with sugar icing. But for now, her attitude was – let’s just do full-fat and never mind the silly lo-carb fad.
She decided to cut down Auburn Avenue and go past Martin Luther King’s boyhood home, the most popular Park Service site in the country, a national shrine. Nobody out this time of night, of course. Nice street of houses. Built as the homes of Jewish merchants after Reconstruction. Then after the 1906 race riot, they fled to the suburbs and it became the homes of middle-class black businessmen, of which there were plenty in Atlanta a hundred years ago. These were big houses, with back staircases for the servants of the former slaves who’d made good.
All up and down the street you could point to things and say Martin Luther King hung out here. He climbed the old oak tree over on the crest of the hill as a child. He ran errands for his mom over there to this used-to-be store. It was kind of cool to be driving past a shrine late at night. She felt holy as she cruised slowly through the neighborhood eating the last of the Krispy Kremes like the sacrament it was.
She drove down the hill into an industrial section. The original developers of Atlanta laid out the city according to stature. The rich white people got the high ground, and the bottoms were left for the blacks and industries. She drove thru the industrial section, past abandoned factories and factories turned into lofts, and down to the railroad tracks at Krog Street.
These were the same tracks that went by her house, to Decatur and points east, one of the main lines through the city. There was a major train yard above Krog Street, running from the back of Oakland Cemetery to the back of Seaboard Avenue, a mile and a half. The CSX Intermodal terminal. Hulsey Yard.
The rails rule in this part of Atlanta. The train was here first, and the roads have always had to go around. If you want to cross to the south of the railroad lines in this part of Atlanta, you’ve got Hill Street, or Boulevard, or Krog Street, or Moreland Avenue. And that’s it in two miles of city streets. If you live nearby you put up with clanking and wrenching and chugging and whistling all through the night. It gets to be comforting. Especially the rippling thunder of a hundred trains being knocked back a few feet by the engine, car by car.
The Krog Street tunnel was unoccupied by pedestrians but had plenty of traffic going through it. Suzie had hoped to find her roommate and his crew skulking around bravely tagging their selected spot in the tunnel. It didn’t look like anyone had put up a fresh piece, but it was hard to tell, because the tunnel was randomly lit rows of pylons, painted with graduated phases of the moon by some long gone tagger, with pedestrian walkways on both sides.
The walls of the walkways were covered with panel after panel of graffiti. Cartoons, exploding words jumbled up like snakes, a noble painting of Robert Mitchum. The portrait was starting to crack, but nobody had capped it with their mark out of respect for the artist. There was a cute little grinning pillow ghost saying, ‘I love you too, Cabbagetown’. There was a tribute to ATEM RIP 1981-2004, there was a salute to Adult Swim, a runaway cable hit proud to be from Atlanta. And there was the usual rivalry between taggers. One would slash through another guy’s work, and then that guy would go around dissing the first guy’s work, and it was like dogs pissing on a hydrant.
It was a wonderful, colorful place of great sociological import. Public art. She wanted to put something up there herself. But she was just a toy; her abilities were not up to the standard of the Krog Street tunnel; it was like trying to make the New York art scene when she was still practicing folk art. Of course, it’s been done, but she lacked all confidence.
So she turned left on Wylie, and paralleling the train tracks to the back of Seaboard, snaked along Walthall, Hardee, Kensington, Holiday. All named for Civil War commanders of the Battle of Atlanta, which happened right there beneath her. Now it was old, rundown houses. Workingclass black folk’s houses for the past hundred and fifty some odd years. Old trees. Cracked pavement. Cars on blocks. Most lights were out, some televisions flickered. It was quiet, peaceful, and home.
The boys were there, watching the tube and looking pretty much the same as they had the night before. Suzie wasn’t sure if any of them had changed clothes.
‘I came through Krog Street,’ she started.
The boys exploded. ‘Man, the cops almost got us,’ Jason yelled.
Demetrius swore. ‘I left my gear behind, they was that close to getting me.’
‘We didn’t hardly get started,’ Philip explained.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ she said. But they weren’t listening.
Demetrius had been using a thin cap to outline his script. They were on the east wall of the tunnel, halfway down, and they were covering Dopez’s tag, because Dopez had shorted him on some pot the other week, and Demetrius was still mad about it.
‘Fuck, man, I was putting it down smooth. And the fucking cops came out of nowhere and turned their lights on.’ He made those rap hand movements, short jabs of stiffened fingers, rather resembling the inlaid knife thing Suzie dreamed about.
‘You wouldn’t believe how loud a siren sounds in there.’ Alex tugged at his ear.
Philip stood up, shaking his head to clear the hair out of his eyes. He towered over the stretched-out figures in front of the tube. ‘Hey, man, gotta go. I’m tired of talking about this shit. Gotta fucking two hour bus ride in the morning. I’m going home.’
Alex lobbed an empty at him. ‘Hey, man, this work shit’s getting bad. When you gonna quit that job and get some rest?’
‘I don’t know, man. I’m getting pretty sick of this gig. Maybe they’ll fire me.’
Demetrius called out, ‘Hey, dude, get me a beer on your way out, willya?’ Philip tossed him one from the fridge, then went around the backs of the couches and out the door.
Alex turned to Jason. ‘Shit, man. Philip should just quit his damn job and get something around here. Target’s hiring. And Kroger. And Best Buy. And they’re still opening stores in the complex. It’s just across the fucking street. What’s he taking the fucking bus for?’
‘Maybe there’s a girl involved,’ Jason said, and they all laughed. Philip with a girlfriend. Any of the guys with a girlfriend. Taggers didn’t have girlfriends. They were mostly loners, losers; the kind of guys who needed to be off by themselves because they had the social skills of computer geeks with only half the brain power.
Their whole passion was tagging. They were a tight crew of artists and renegades who would go anywhere and take any risk in order to get an illegible scrawl up on some wall or overpass in indelible paint. True immortality, made all the more true by the fact that it got scrubbed right off, and all the more immortal because the act was a felony and they knew guys that had wound up in jail.
The conversation turned to the fucking cops again, which Suzie found rather boring, because they weren’t talking about how they were going back out later tonight, but sounded like they were blowing it off permanently. They sounded like a bunch of kids making excuses.
The news was on, so she called dibs as she grabbed the remote, and switched it on.
Whatshername the anchor is on, looking businesslike in her dark suit, just starting to go gray at the temples, bathing-cap-length curly black hair lacquered down tight. She’s not smiling as she announces the top story.
A burning building graphic, slightly better drawn, with more details and straighter lines. Suspicious House Fire is written in big slashy black letters. ‘Another house fire in Southeast Atlanta,’ she begins. ‘This one on Haas Avenue in East Atlanta. The cause of fire is under investigation.’
The picture shows a dark street, fire engine lights flashing and people scurrying, the remains of a house glowing in the background. ‘Three people were transported to Grady Memorial Hospital tonight after being severely burned in the latest suspicious house fire. A three-year-old child, a fifty-four-year-old woman and a forty-five-year-old man suffered burns on their hands, face, chest, and back areas.’
The camera cuts to Gloria Morales on the scene. The guys leaned in. She’s got on a tight-fitting black suit, with flashing long black hair and deep sensual eyes. There’s a hot-pink handkerchief in the breast pocket.
She’s interviewing the neighbor, a black woman in her forties who is appalled and horrified at what has happened right next door. The neighbor starts crying. ‘I don’t know what’s going on or why all these houses and places are burning down. I don’t see why stuff keeps burning down all the time,’ she sobs, while Gloria nods uncomfortably and eyes the camera man.
The next graphic is a Delta jet coming in for a landing. ‘Airport officials allowed our news cameras onto the anticipated new Fifth Runway today. We join our roving reporter Maurice Black for the story.’ The camera shows a shot taken from the chain-link fence around the airport’s perimeter. The reporter faces the camera, standing in the sun. He’s tall and skinny and black, and his mustache makes him look like Tyrone Power.
‘You can’t tell any more,’ he says, ‘but this used to be a neighborhood in Hapeville .’ He gestures at the hill behind him running off into the distance. He points at his feet. ‘You can still see the streets and curbs of the neighborhood.’ The street runs off into the distance where it’s buried under a drift of dirt. ‘In all, 280 homes and businesses were acquired by the City in order to assemble the space needed to expand the airport.’
There is one tree left in the gently rolling red landscape, and it shades the construction trailer. It’s 420 acres of Georgia clay, bulldozers everywhere leveling it out as fast as possible. Visible in the distance are several huge cement plants, with conveyer belts running gravel thousands of feet to the hopper. Cement trucks line up and roll off toward the Fifth Runway, under construction.
The camera comes back to Maurice squinting in the glare. ‘One of the major pieces of the airport expansion project is this,’ he waves at the barren earth. ‘The longest runway bridge in the world. It’s costing Atlanta $160 million dollars to build the bridge tunnel, part of an estimated $5.4 billion dollar project, which will take a decade to complete.’
The camera pans over the ex hills and streams that are becoming runway. ‘During the past year,’ he continues, ‘teams of construction engineers have rerouted two major tributaries of the Flint River, and used huge earth movers to move almost 19 million cubic yards of earth. That’s enough dirt to fill the Georgia Dome six times over. They’re building the runway embankment as tall as a ten-story building in some spots.’ He moves to the close. The anchors talk about how big the Georgia Dome is.
A new graphic comes up. It’s a fanciful drawing of a computer-age jail, all antennas and dishes, glass and chrome, bars and lasers. ‘The City unveiled the latest weapon in its arsenal against crime today. The Straight Path Center For Rehabilitation.’
The scene is a shot of a rambling building, under renovation. The kudzu has been peeled back from the structure and men are up on ladders painting it white. Whatshername continues, ‘It’s taken two years and thirty two million dollars to renovate the old Atlanta Work Farm. The facility has been equipped with the most advanced, state-of-the-art technology, and will enable corrections officers to efficiently manage the well being and security of up to five hundred homeless people, control their access to resources, and monitor their progress as they work toward becoming productive members of society.’
The camera shows a ruined outbuilding, covered in kudzu, which runs to the horizon and covers the background trees. ‘The first task of the formerly homeless clients will be to clean their own house,’ she says with a smile in her voice. ‘The renovation of the facility is ongoing, and requires the reclamation of a landfill that operated on the site for many years.’
The camera’s back on her. She looks up and smiles. ‘Now this.’
The ads came on. The guys grabbed for the remote to switch to MTV, but she ended up with it and took it to her room, changed out of her clothes and into the same t-shirt and boxers she wore the night before, and came back. She wanted to watch the news, but she wasn’t fond of ads, and liked to save up things to do while they were on, so she could miss them.
However, her timing was off, for she had to sit through one for an on-line university. ‘This is a man with a masters degree.’ The scene showed a guy in a suit getting into a Lexus. ‘This is a man without a masters,’ illustrated by an unshaven guy in tennis shoes standing on a street corner, rattling a cup. ‘Which one do you want to be?’
Then there was an ad for Papa John’s Pizza. The guys loved the pizza ad. They knew people who worked there, and were full of tales of what really goes on the pizza that gets delivered to your door.
Whatshername is back on, this time smiling with confidence and an air of authority. ‘Downtown Atlanta was much friendlier the day after a controversial new law went into effect.’ The shot panned over the north end of Woodruff Park, where usually there’s a bunch of homeless people sitting on the wall and benches in front of a curved block-long cascading fountain. The scene shows empty seats, shady and clean, the water plashing gently beyond, reassuringly. ‘The streets are safer for visitors today. Police say that panhandlers are going somewhere else now that it’s a crime to be homeless in Atlanta.’
The guys bristled. Like there was any place else to go.
The cute little panda graphic appears over the anchor’s shoulder. ‘Plans for the renovation of Zoo Atlanta were revealed today in a ceremony on the steps of City Hall.’ The camera focuses on a trim, serious-looking little blonde woman, spokesman for the Zoo. She stands in front of a giant map of Grant Park, accepting keys to the park from some gray-suited official. The key is oversized and plastic, and they do some clowning around with it before making speeches.
Fast forward to a uniformed policeman handing the same blonde woman an envelope. The anchor’s voiceover resumes. ‘In an unprecedented move, the Atlanta Police Department announced that it would lease some of its land in Grant Park to Zoo Atlanta for its expansion. This land, adjacent to the zoo, was the former site of the police horse barracks, and has been unused for some time. Plans call for an update to the Ford African Rain Forest, home of the late Willie B.’ The camera shows footage of a pair of gorillas grooming each other, sitting in the sun up on a hill.
Whatshername smiles at the camera again as the little panda graphic appears on her left shoulder. ‘The Zoo Atlanta expansion comes on the heels of the new Conservation Action Resource Center, a five million dollar grant by Turner Broadcasting that will use cartoon characters to educate kids about real animals.’ It was the previous newsworthy item about the zoo. They’d gotten a lot of mileage out of it.
She turns to her co-anchor, the middle-aged white guy with distinguished graying hair. ‘You know, there are a lot of changes going on in Grant Park. New exhibits, new animals, more parking. It’s going to be an even better reason to come to Atlanta. I know my kids are really excited about going to see Magilla Gorilla when the zoo reopens.’
The co-anchor nods bashfully. ‘Actually, I can’t wait to go see Yogi Bear, myself.’ They both laugh gently, and the anchor turns to the camera again. ‘Stay tuned for a look at tomorrow’s weather,’ and they cut to another round of ads.
Suzie bounced off the couch to go to the bathroom, leaving the remote. Alex grabbed it and switched to MTV. When she came back into the room, she plopped down on the far end of the middle sofa and swung her feet up on the cushions. ‘So, I’ve been thinking. How hard is it to tag a railroad overpass?’ She’d never really done any graffiti. She’d just listened to their tales. But she was considering plans of her own. And the guys made it sound so easy.
They discussed hooking onto the railing with their knees and bending over backwards. With practice, you could paint anything upside down. Jason was all about basic rigging. He had a bag of climbing gear he’d stolen off a construction site. According to him, you could get farther out if you were attached to something, and you could stay upright and mobile.
The other guys made fun of him. As far as they were concerned, the vital factor was the risk, the danger. The native abilities of the human animal. Like the time two of them held Alex by the ankles while he tagged the railroad overpass on North Avenue, behind Ghetto Kroger. They acted like commandos in an old black and white war movie, dedicated to blowing up an enemy outpost.
They inspired Suzie with their tales of peril and glory. If they could do it, she could too. All she needed was a plan and some spray paint. But she didn’t just want to leave her name. She wanted to do something wonderful. Suzie was a girl with real aspirations. It didn’t matter what situation she found herself in, she got into the job at hand with a religious zeal somewhere to the right of a Methodist . Working on a garbage truck (a temp job, lasted three weeks the cool shit people throw out, you’d be jealous), working for a week solid on her Auntie Mae’s falling-down back porch, working on awful jobs, thankless tasks, menial labor: she always did as good a job as she could manage. Where other kids would slack off the moment the teacher’s back was turned, Suzie would sit at her desk and doggedly complete her assignment. When the manager had her stacking cans on aisle three, she made sure the labels all faced the front.
Suzie was a hard worker, proud to do a good job, and hoping that her efforts would be noticed and rewarded. Not for one moment did it cross her mind that her willingness to work hard was like carrying a big sign: Abuse Me. Suzie still believed in a world where hard work and ambition were rewarded, where she could draw herself up by her own bootstraps.
The world she actually lived in was one where the lowest common denominator ruled, where mediocre was acceptable and outstanding was suspicious. The cooks at the Club didn’t like it that she ran around doing as much as possible. They were of the pace-yourself school, and knew that if Chef saw them doing more, he’d expect more to get done on a consistent basis. They were always cautioning her to go slower, take more time, stop multitasking.
When it came to graffiti, her particular version of the Puritan work ethic ensured that she would not be content to scrawl her signature on a wall. She wanted to do something important. A work of art. A statement. She wasn’t in it for comradeship and a sense of belonging, the way Alex and his crew were. She wanted more than just glory. She wanted to bring her message to the world. Missionary zeal.
‘Cuz I’ve been thinking,’ she said into a lull in the conversation, which by this point was all about tags they’d done in dangerous circumstances, some of it believable. ‘I want to do something special.’
They all looked at her. A tagging virgin, a toy, and she wanted to do something special. It suggested that their stuff was not special, was in fact a waste of time, and that they’d be better off quitting their loser lifestyles and getting real jobs. At least, it suggested these things to them, because they had all internalized their parents’ disapproval, and as time passed they began to wonder what exactly they were doing in their twenties riding skateboards and spray-painting walls. So they gave her a bunch of shit for wanting to do something special her first time out. And turned their attention back to the TV.
‘But no. I’ve been thinking,’ she insisted. ‘I want to do Surrender Dorothy. And I think I’ve found the place.’ The guys all knew the story. They were unimpressed. So they watched some rap guy grabbing his crotch on TV and ignored her.
Years ago, when Suzie was little, she and her dad were coming back from a run to New York and had just reached DC. They did a trip like that every few months. Driving around the Beltway through Bethesda, coming around a bend, there up on a hill above the trees was a brand new, gleaming white fairy castle with gold spires, dominating the landscape. The new Mormon Temple. They’d spared no expense. It was breathtaking, magical, inspirational, and then it disappeared behind the trees as the road shifted its viewpoint.
Suzie was just waking up from a nap when she heard her dad say, ‘Well, I’ll be damned. Lookit, honey.’ And she rose up from her pillow bunched up on the console between them, bAllenced on an unsteady elbow and pulled herself upright by her shoulder belt. There, on an overpass, with the fairy castle looming beyond, someone had spray-painted ‘Surrender Dorothy’ just the way it looked in the Wizard of Oz, menacing black letters written into the sky above the Emerald City. The sight affected her deeply. It turned the startling beauty of the fairy castle into malevolence, and she loved the thrilling intellectual-emotional disconnect this gave her. It felt funny in her tummy.
So it was now her gold standard for doing something special. Whatever she wrote, it had to have the impact and poignancy of The Wizard Of Oz meets the Mormon Temple, it had to have the import and mystery of skywriting above a Munchkin city. Like a billboard with two ads that switched back and forth, it had to be able to turn into something else. Something more meaningful than a bunch of indecipherable letters spelling out a nickname. Graffiti with a message.
That was her ideal for public art. But when she was out driving, Suzie’s impulse to write on things was responsive to her immediate environment. When she was going south on the Connector, she felt like changing the T to a D on the Diet Coke billboard opposite Grady Hospital, for example. She longed to get up there and point out the subliminals on the Jack Daniels sign with a big magic marker whenever she passed the Buford Highway exit northbound on 85. She wanted to lob balloons filled with red paint onto the Hooter’s Air billboards wherever she saw them. A Cheerleader Free With Every Meal.
And every time she caught sight of the Atlanta skyline looming out of the trees in the distance, no matter what road she was on, she wanted to find a good spot and painstakingly recreate the Wizard of Oz tag. Because Atlanta was so beautiful. So magical. So shiny. So unexpected in the middle of endless forest. Such a beacon to anyone stuck out in the sticks with no hope of change in their life. You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night, step into the sun, step into the light.
What more appropriate tribute to the capital of the South than to call it the Emerald City? Maybe millions of Atlantans would see it, sitting stuck in rush hour traffic, and fall in love with the idea, and start a drive to rename the town. Maybe the newspapers and TV stations would make a big deal of it, maybe callers to the Vent would pick it up. But maybe not. Never underestimate the inattentiveness of commuters.
If nothing else, she knew she could count on making converts of the truckers. They’d call it the Emerald City. Even after her efforts were sandblasted off, they’d call it that, and every trucker in the country would come to know it that way. Not The Big A, not Hotlanta, not the Horizon City, not the Phoenix City, not the ATL, or A-Town, or the Big Peach. Not even The 404. From that date it would be known as The Emerald City. Because it was so right.
‘I think I know where I want to put it,’ she announced when another ad came on. ‘The railroad overpass right before Pryor Street, over the northbound Connector.
This generated protests from everybody. ‘No way you could do it,’ Alex said. ‘It’s right there on the Connector. You couldn’t go up there without being picked up by a dozen traffic cameras.’
‘Yeah, the cops’d see you from the road,’ added Philip. ‘You’d never even get started and they’d be closing in from both sides of the train bridge.’
‘Besides,’ Demetrius pointed out, ‘it’s a metal train bridge, and it’s rusty and dark. Even if you did manage to get something up there, nobody’d be able to see it.’
‘And,’ Jason pointed out, rather smugly, Suzie thought, ‘you’d never be able to reach it. And you don’t know the first thing about rigging.’
They sat and made fun of her for awhile, the idea of a little thing like her trying to scramble around on a complicated tag against height, visibility, cops, and other technical difficulties. She didn’t mind their abuse. They all ragged each other to death, like they were family. The idea of her failing her ambition amused them until the show came back on, and they left her alone after that.
It was how she felt about coming up short on her ambition that she minded. She sat there and stewed, and thought, and fumed, and puzzled, and got tired despite the furious activity of her brain. She went off to bed right after Futurama.
* * *
October 4, 2007
The wheel wouldn’t turn when she started the car up the next morning. More power steering fluid. Her brakes had started pulling to the right when she slowed. Hot air blew out of the vents when she turned on the air conditioner. The engine sometimes overheated, always when she was in traffic. And the clutch was starting to slip. All multiple hundreds of dollars if she were to take her car to a regular mechanic. Luckily, she had Nelson, but she couldn’t take all of these problems down to him at once. He was way too busy to tend to more than one thing at a time. She had to do triage on her car every time she went to see him, presenting only the most urgent symptoms for consideration.
But first, she had to make a quick trip to the hideout in order to rework her costume. She’d already tossed the tights, and immediately found the plastic shorts intolerably sticky. She passed a cheap curbside sign on her way down Moreland. Get Ur Message Across. This started her thinking. How are the perps on the road supposed to know she was trying to teach them a lesson?
If only she could carry those roadrage.com signs that said, Get Out Of The Fast Lane, Moron, and I Hope That Cellphone Gives You Cancer. But she didn’t think it was a good idea to be flashing cards while aiming, and she didn’t want to call attention to herself. If only she could shoot a pamphlet at them. If only she could stuff a message into the paintball, or spell out Roadhog or something in paint on the side of their car.
She sat in the clearing and deliberated. But mosquitoes interrupted her thoughts, and when she checked the clock it was after One, so she looked through her bag of spare costume parts, and in the end, never minded all of it and put on her Superman t-shirt. Then she made a dash for Riverdale.
She got to Nelson’s, and found that half the boys hadn’t shown up. It was just Nelson and Cindy and Nathan. And two black women dressed in black pants and white blouses, standing next to their car, fuming. Suzie nodded when she came in through the back, and they gave her measured looks, and then slowly nodded their heads.
Nelson was rushing around dealing with a pickup in the southeast bay, behind which sat a red minivan with its hood up, hooked to the air conditioning machine. The women’s car was a black Volvo sedan. It was parked in the south bay at the moment. There were no cars over the oil change pits that spanned the southwest and northwest bays, and Nathan was just backing up a white SUV onto the emissions ramp in the northeast bay. Cindy went rushing around bringing new clipboards out to Nelson, consulting with him about the price and extent of repairs, checking to see how he was handling the women.
The two women were standing around their car, waiting for something. Suzie couldn’t tell what stage the relationship was in, whether they were just talking with Nelson about what was wrong and what he wanted to do to fix it; or whether it was a later stage there was something wrong with their repair, and they were back in the shop trying to get him to make it right. Or it could be that they’d been in on a daily basis, asking why it wasn’t ready, being told that it was a part they were having trouble getting; or that it was another part than they’d originally thought, or that it was something else entirely. Or they could be regular customers, and know damn well they’d have to stand over the boys to get the work done right.
Suzie hung out behind the emissions console, where Nathan was entering the SUV’s information into the system. Nelson came back to the console, muttering, and picked up a computer cable from the back of the machine. He dragged it over to the women’s car, and draped it over the edge of the door into the driver’s side.
‘Will this fix it?’ one of the women asked.
Nelson nodded and said, ‘Let’s hope so,’ and ducked into the car to plug it in somewhere under the dashboard. He stuck his head out. ‘How long has the check engine light been on?’ he asked accusatorily.
The woman shook her head. ‘I don’t know,’ she admitted. Nelson frowned, and ducked back into the car. The woman was muttering now. It sounded like an inventory of car parts. Nelson continued to fiddle with her car, then stepped back, went over to the console, pushed some buttons, and read some results.
Then he went over to the women and had a conversation Suzie couldn’t hear a word of. He stood there, towering over the women, bending down to achieve eye contact while he told them something they plainly didn’t want to hear.
And then he walked off to work on someone else’s car while they talked it over. He moved like an alien, lurching and correcting, his head swiveling, his eyes staring. Suzie wondered what was going through his mind.
Suzie started feeling uncomfortable when the women meandered over to where she was perched on the driver’s side fender of the Goat with her bare feet bouncing off the tire. The woman whose car it was looked to be in her early forties, little but strong, her hair tightly pulled back into a bun; someone you wouldn’t want to mess with while she was serving you a hot plate of food. Her friend was younger, plump, and had a nice smile, which she displayed whenever she spoke.
The friend had on a Red Lobster nametag that said Latonya. Together they all watched Nathan punching up results on the console. Latonya kept asking what it said. She was squeezed into a small corridor between the front of the Goat and the back of the slick and greasy toolbox that formed one of the internal divisions of the garage. The owner read them out: ‘Complete, complete, complete, incomplete, incomplete, incomplete, incomplete…’
Latonya wanted to know what was complete and what was incomplete, and the woman began to read out the categories. Nathan reached out and turned the monitor away from her. ‘What does it matter?’ he grumbled.
The woman had been waiting for an opening. ‘Well, it’s reading more incompletes than before you replaced all those things.’ She turned to Suzie. ‘Why don’t they just tell a person that they don’t know?’
Suzie smiled carefully. ‘It takes weeks sometimes,’ she said, thinking she was making a joke, feeling more and more uncomfortable as it became apparent that she’d walked into the middle of a dispute.
The woman stared back at her for half a minute, and then she started a litany, her voice low. ‘It’s not supposed to take weeks. I’ve been home from work for two days now, trying to get this thing to pass. I can’t afford to be out of work.’ Latonya nodded fiercely, smiling.
Suzie reconsidered her smartass remark, but the damage had been done. The woman continued, ‘I don’t see why they don’t just come out and tell me they don’t know what’s wrong and can’t fix it. Why don’t they tell me to go take my car to a real mechanic so I can find out once and for all what the matter is? All I’m getting is maybe it’s this and let’s replace that, and I’m tired of it. I can’t pay $374 for this. That’s what I make in a week. I can’t afford this.’
Her voice was rising steadily. Nathan was not looking at her, and when Nelson came up, he wasn’t looking at her either, but treating her as if she was a tank of compressed gas standing on the shop floor.
She was looking for a fight, and saying things loud enough that pretty soon the boys wouldn’t be able to pretend they weren’t hearing. But she wasn’t really willing to escalate her complaints. She’d already learned that Nelson and Cindy thought of her as the problem, and she wasn’t a million percent sure they were cheating her, but she was real suspicious.
However, there was her car, in the hands of a mechanic, and it’s never wise to piss off the guy holding the keys. Suzie could see her fighting with herself. She’d been taught not to cause a stir, but she felt she was being ripped off, and in order to complain she had to face down a whole shop full of white people.
She turned to Suzie again. ‘I should take it to a real mechanic, someone who can tell me what’s wrong with it for real.’ She turned back to glare at Nelson. ‘And what about taking the lottery tickets out of my glove compartment?’
Latonya grinned, her nice smile at odds with the anger she must be feeling. ‘Whoever took them should let us know if they hit.’
The woman scowled. ‘I mean, I didn’t know they’s a bunch of thieves here.’
Nelson fiddled at the table for a moment and went away, not listening. The next time he came up, he looked her in the eye while she gave him shit in a low voice. ‘But you know you got to get those wires,’ he interrupted, in a reasonable tone. ‘You knew it when you come in here. That other fella told you you’re gonna have to get wires. So don’t be yelling at me cuz your car didn’t pass.’
She snarled at him.
Suzie looked down at the ground as Nelson slunk off to the other end of the garage. There was a handful of bright shiny pennies on the floor. Some of them were face up. So she got up off the edge of the car, and bent down to pick up the heads. She gave one to the woman. ‘There’s a lucky penny for you.’
The woman instinctively tried to smile, but all that happened was that she drew her lips tighter over her clenched teeth. She looked down at the penny in her hand. ‘This won’t do me no good. I need thousands more of these to pay for my car not getting fixed.’ She threw it back onto the ground.
Suzie looked; it was tails. She said, ‘Excuse me,’ and ducked between Nathan and the woman. She slipped around the SUV up on the emissions rack, and made her way to the southeast side where a water fountain sat wedged into a spot between the office window and the door to the customer waiting room.
The fountain was coated with dust and grime, crusty wherever the water splashed. There were bunches of keys on the splash guard. Sets of keys, labeled keys, loose keys, keys that had been there forever. There was a half-empty bottle of bright green dye the boys would put into the radiators instead of flushing them, when the old fluid wasn’t convincing enough. There was a clipboard with the details of some car on the ticket.
Suzie shifted a couple of wayward bunches of keys, picked up the clipboard, and used the edge of it to depress the slimy button so she could get a drink of water. After letting the water run cold, she drank her fill, and spilled a little into the palm of her hand to wipe on her brow and the back of her neck, and then walked over to the door to hang out and look at the sky.
Suzie loved watching the sky. It was from driving with her dad all those years. What she loved the most when she was little was lying on the passenger seat beside her dad while he drove through the night. She’d plump up her pillow and put her arms behind her head and look out at the stars, her little feet pressed up against the glass, watching the sky move as he steered through an invisible landscape. Once she was older, she noticed the countryside more, but still, looking at the sky at night was always her favorite thing.
Watching the sky during the day was a close second. Landscapes take miles to change, sometimes hundreds of miles. The forested slopes of Mississippi are a lot like the forested slopes of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. And that gets just a little tedious. The little farms were always at the same places on the road, and a break at a truckstop was always the same number of hours from the last one.
But the sky. The sky changed every few minutes, every few miles. And she used to watch it hour after hour all day long. She watched the sun arc from one side of the windshield to the other. She watched fronts rolling in from the northwest; she watched thunderstorms build up on windless days over one spot and stay visible until it was dark; she watched pretend thunderstorms puff up over a parched countryside and blow away laughing in 85 degree heat. She watched the purple gunge thickening on their approach to big cities. She watched ex hurricanes come stomping through the countryside. And she watched day after day of blue sky and searing sunshine, where nothing changed except the angle of the sun. On those days she watched the hawks and vultures circle.
That day’s sky was gathering clouds, starting off with hazy white filaments high up in the blue; thickening, lowering, and darkening as the hours passed. Could be a hundred-mile area of rain. Could be a line of thunderstorms. Could be it’d all fade out as the sun went down. Suzie hoped for rain, for a good rousing thunderstorm with heavy downpours and some really close lightning. So she stood outside for awhile, looking into the cloud for hints of the weather to come.
And because she also wanted to avoid those two women. Nelson came up to finally deal with the van waiting for air conditioning. Suzie wandered back to the fountain to get another drink. ‘Are you having a bad day?’ she asked said as she walked past him, feeling how put upon he must feel with customers ragging on him.
‘Yes, I’m having a bad day.’ He looked at her and made his chin quiver, half joking.
Cindy came up asking about some part she needed to order. Nelson twisted a dial on the freon machine, then flipped a switch. A kerchunk noise occurred, and a whoosh of moving gases. He seemed satisfied, picked up a wrench, and stuck his head into the engine compartment.
‘Are you having a bad day?’ she asked Cindy.
Cindy grimaced. ‘It’s not that horrible.’ She nodded toward the two women. ‘Some people are never happy, though,’ she said, looking at Nelson protectively.
His head came up again. He looked wise and mischievous at the same time. ‘I told them they needed to go ahead and get the wires.’
Cindy turned to Suzie. ‘It’s a Volvo, what do they expect? The wires are a hundred bucks to us. To us,’ she repeated, because Suzie knew their markup was somewhere from half again to double the price. She turned back to Nelson. ‘I got an awl change.’
‘Give it to Nathan.’ He finished tightening something. ‘Yep. Those women don’t got the sense God gave animal crackers.’ Nelson waved the wrench. ‘It ain’t gonna pass no matter what we do until she replaces the damn wires.’
Suzie walked off and returned to the wooden table to rummage around for a recent newspaper. She didn’t want to be involved in a standoff. Both sides thought the other was wrong. Nelson thought the woman was just trying to get out of putting money into her car to pass inspection, and she thought he was ripping her off.
And they were both right. He’d replaced one thing after another on her car, telling her he was trying to save her money in case the smaller things would make a difference. When they didn’t, it wasn’t his fault if she wouldn’t pay for more parts. According to Nelson, you could never tell what was the real reason a car wouldn’t pass. High emissions levels could be caused by a dozen different things, especially in the newer cars with all those damned sensors.
Sometimes it came down to replacing everything until you found whatever was wrong. And on older cars, you reached a point where nothing was going to cure their dread dusease and you just had to accept it. Then it was a matter of getting the owners to pay the legally mandated $600 in repairs, and then the car passed by default.
There was a third way, and Nelson was the master of that. King of the falsified emissions test. If you approached him the right way, you could get him to sell you a genuine fake emissions certificate, guaranteed to pass scrutiny at the Department of Safety .
But these women didn’t ask him the right way. They got all pissed off about how much it was costing, and asking him was he stealing shit out of their car, and he was offended, and wouldn’t have passed their car if they’d have been sweet as pie. Not after that.
Nelson finished refilling the minivan’s freon, then went to check on Nathan’s progress failing the SUV. It had failed, as expected. The guy had known it was going to fail, and was desperate for a miracle. He was visible now, pacing in the parking lot in front of the office, poking his head around the corner like a sentinal every time he made a turn.
Nelson went out to talk to him, and came back a few moments later. Suzie and the two women ignored each other. Suzie was feeling awkward. She was automatically on Nelson’s side, but she didn’t like to see them so angry. So when they approached her again and started complaining about the way things were run around there, she searched for something to say that would make the woman feel less victimized, and remembered something Nelson had said. ‘Some cars never pass. It’s that ”Service Engine Soon” light. It’s planned obsolescence. The car companies…’
The woman looked at her sharply. ‘Ain’t no car company messing up my car. It’s happening right here, this place where don’t nobody tell you what’s wrong and you just have to keep shelling out money.’ She had her arms folded over her chest, her chin out. Her eyes were squinted down into slits. She was as angry as she would have been in the restaurant if one of her customers walked out without paying the check and the manager took it out of her pocket.
So Suzie gave up trying to make her feel better, and retreated to her car parked in the back lot, where she found a few bits of paper to clean out of the back seat, and inspected the Lake of Doom simmering in the sun the sludge was lime green and purple that afternoon. The clouds were a little darker now, a few miles closer. It definitely looked like rain. Maybe it would hold off until she was at work. Maybe she could avoid having to drive through a downpour.
Nelson was taking to the women, standing next to the emissions console and slouching down to their height. ‘I tell you what,’ he said earnestly. ‘We still got the parts we replaced. What we can do is, we’ll just take the new ones out and put in the old ones, and then you can take it somewhere else, and we won’t charge you.’ He straightened up and smiled at them. ‘How’s that sound?’
The woman looked like this was not what she wanted to hear. But it was something. So she nodded. Nelson said, ‘Good. It’ll just take a minute. Why don’t you go sit down in the waiting room?’
But they didn’t budge. Cindy had already been out to tell them they had to wait in the customer lounge for safety reasons. Liability issues. DOT rules. But they refused. They wanted to watch their car in case someone stole something else out of it. So they stayed.
Nelson went off to fix whatever was wrong with the pickup in the southeast bay. Nathan pulled a car into the southwest bay for its oil change. Then he pulled another car behind the women’s, blocking the door. ‘Pop the hood,’ Nelson called, and the hood went up, and both boys bent their heads and ducked into the engine compartment for a look-see.
Suzie wondered how long it was going to take Nelson to replace those parts in the woman’s car. She wondered if she was going to get her air conditioning done this afternoon. She wondered if Nelson was going to have any time for her at all. Suddenly weary, she picked whatever parts of the paper she’d managed to gather, and climbed into the front seat of the Goat. She fiddled with the radio knob hopefully, but the battery wasn’t connected, and there was nothing coming out of the speakers. The women stayed away from her once she was in the car.
She flipped desultorily through the paper, uninterested beyond the headlines. There was a picture of babyfaced Ralph Reed on the front page, up to no good in Georgia these days.
Bird Flu blah. West Nile Mosquitoes blah. Fed Says Rates Must Rise Soon. Bush Vows More Resources Against Iraqi Insurgents. Soccer Moms Urge President To Bring Home Troops. Cost Of Hurricane Damage In Gulf blah.
There was a long article on the airport expansion project, starting on the front page and continuing in the business section. Suzie’s attention was drawn by the picture of the new, unfinished runway bridge over I-285. The caption said it would be 1,200 feet long and 500 feet wide. The largest airport construction job in the world at the world’s busiest passenger airport. The picture showed trucks and cars barreling down 285 into a concrete canyon maybe a hundred feet high, the crews walking around at the top look like dots on the scaffolding. Cranes hovered over the scene.
On the front page of the business section was a graphic showing the yearly salaries of Atlanta’s richest CEOs, ranging from a paltry three million to over forty million dollars. Topping the list were the heads of Home Depot, Coca-Cola, Georgia-Pacific, Scientific-Atlanta, healthcare giant Aflac, and BellSouth, all giving their bosses over ten million a year. Nineteen other firms paid their heads relative pittances, a few million each, including Southern Company, Coca-Cola Enterprises, Equifax, and SunTrust Banks. Suzie felt jealous.
She threw the paper down in anger and got out of the car. Nothing to read. No news. Just this crap. She wondered how many members of the White Magnolia Club were on that list.
Nelson was still working on three cars at once. Right then he was doing something to the SUV that failed the emissions test. It was pulled out of the way in the back parking lot so Nathan could still get cars in and out for inspections. The women were still there, still waiting, still standing around looking discontentedly at their car, still blocked in. Cindy was running in with more oil changes for Nathan, who was going back and forth between the oil pit and a green VW in for an emissions test.
It felt like she’d been there for three hours. The clouds were closer, the sun was covered by thicker fuzz and giving out less heat. The breeze was stiffening and getting half a degree cooler every ten minutes. Suzie’s hair began to blow about her head as she stood at the wooden worktable, taking it all in. She was incredibly bored. There was nothing she could to do straighten up, or to help out, or even to break things if she felt like it. She could lean, she could perch, she could sit, she could walk around. Or she could leave.
But she still hadn’t said more than four words to Nelson, and she really wanted him to recharge her air conditioner. So she waited some more. Like in high school, those last ten minutes of class that took an hour to pass every day. Was it Algebra class? Or History? One of them was interminable; she used to sit there convinced that time was actually passing slower than normal, trying to devise tests to catch it.
The ladies edged into their car as Nathan moved the one that was blocking them in. Suddenly they started up and squealed the tires as they backed out into the parking lot. Nelson didn’t look up. Suzie caught a glance at Latonya’s face; finally the waitress Can I Help You smiley face was gone and she showed frustration and anger. The older woman’s face was in shadow, but her silhouette was squinched up and hard. She drove around the building, and when she got to the road she stood on it. The car screeched like an angry buzzard.
Work went on in the garage. Nelson added some kind of fluid to some intake in the SUV’s engine. Nathan started it up and revved it with a lead foot. Black smoke billowed and hurled out of the tailpipe. Suzie picked her way through the wind-whipped smoke to the back of the shop where they were. Nelson wrenched away a plastic duct that lay worm-like on top of the engine and threw it on the floor, out of the way. Nathan came by and stepped on it. Suzie heard it crack. Nathan looked at her and grinned: it was okay, that piece wasn’t going back on anyway.
The engine was filthy. Oil had sprayed up into the hood over time and the color scheme was a dark green gray blue with russet overtones. It smelled like fried oil. Not french-fry oil, like at Suzie’s job, more like the burnt oil of crushed dinosaurs. An intensely organic inorganic odor. Congealed fumes. Suzie’s nose wrinkled up in an effort to filter out the larger airborne particles of liquid pollution.
Nelson had his hands full. The car wouldn’t pass, the guy was going to pay him extra personally to get it to pass, and so he was trying all the little tricks he knew. Just like he did with the woman’s Volvo. But the guy was treating him like a god, and so if the tricks didn’t work, he might could do something a little bit irregular with the emissions computer.
Suzie peered into the engine compartment from a safe distance. ‘What happened with the women?’
Nelson had a ratchet in his hand, detaching some device on the side of the engine. ‘They didn’t want to wait.’ He sounded unconcerned.
‘You were going to leave them there until closing, weren’t you?’ She’d suspected that this was his intention by the way he’d told them it would only take a minute. Nothing only took a minute in Nelson’s shop.
‘And then I was going to tell them to come back tomorrow. The nerve of them accusing me of stealing from them. I never done a dishonest thing in my life, I swear to God.’ He stood up straight, brought himself to his full height, and swung his fists to his chest, the ratchet like a little flag in his hand.
Nelson liked to play innocent. He could work himself up. But Suzie looked him in the eye, and he grinned. Cindy came out of the office with a clipboard. A Camry having trouble starting. Nelson looked at the clock. 3:35. He shrugged, sure, still time to get a part and get it in there before quitting time. Cindy went back into the office, and he leaned back over the engine.
‘Um, Nelson, I don’t guess you have a few minutes to give me some freon,’ Suzie observed, feeling like a junkie.
He stopped, stood up, and turned to face her, stricken, the ratchet limp at his side. ‘Oh, baby, if you had picked any other day. I’ve got two men out and we’re just overrun with customers.’
She sagged. ‘Well…’
He slung his arm around her, engulfing her shoulders. ‘You know I’ll take care of you. You just come back tomorrow and we’ll fix your car first thing.’ He squeezed her tight. ‘And then we’ll go off and ride around, just you and me.’
Suzie gave in, hung around for a few minutes longer, and then got in her car and left, Nelson coming after her at the last moment for a quick squeeze and a sorrowful look before heading back to try something else on the SUV.
She felt frustrated. She felt beaten. She felt hurt. She felt neglected. Mainly, however, she felt hot. Sticky. She felt the sweat blooming on the skin of her arms and neck the moment she got in the car. She felt she would never get the air conditioning to work again.
But once she was out of the parking lot and moving, the breeze kicked in immediately. The sky to the north was as dark as twilight and deep brown purple; black under the clouds near the horizon. The wind was lovely; cool and strong, fresh smelling with that ozone tinge that speaks of lightning. Or of smog.
* * *
October 4, 2007
Suzie got on I-75 going north. On the way out of Nelson’s she had retrieved the paintgun from under her seat, and now had it stowed in easy reach between the seat and her door. It had a full tube of ten paintballs, the same blue as the color of her Superman t-shirt, which was wet under the arms and down the back.
Traffic was moving along briskly, whizzing past on the left at eighty. Suzie drove in the slow lane fiddling with her paintgun. The sky was getting to be the color of road tar in the distance. She could see little purple scud clouds flying by overhead. The leaves of the trees on the side of the road were turning their lighter, absorbent bottoms to the sky in anticipation. Spank me, they whimpered.
She could see a car coming up in her rearview mirror. It was a black Mustang, weaving in and out of cars in the middle lanes. It was doing nearly a hundred miles an hour, flying right up to the back of a car, then violently swerving left or right to get around. No signal. Passing cars like a roach crawling across a chess game.
Suzie put on her signal, checked her mirrors, twisted her head to look over her left shoulder, and then moved over two lanes , pausing to look again before moving the second time.
Driving 101: It is unlawful to cross two lanes in the same maneuver.
Traffic was approaching the exit to 285 now; trucks were piling into the right lanes to go around the city. People were starting to make last minute lane changes. Cars were beginning to put on their brakes as uncertainty spread. She checked her mirror. The Mustang was coming up fast in her lane, and would be pulling past her in a moment. She got the gun ready in her lap, pulled back on the pump, and loaded a ball. The Mustang closed on Suzie’s rear bumper.
She could see the driver clearly in her rearview mirror. It was a teenager. A very young white boy with a sharp chin, a baseball cap on his head. Chomping on gum. Wearing a cigarette between his fingers, steering with one hand. Playing his hip-hop loud. He was still behind her, apparently deciding whether to pass on her left or right. Then he made his move, casually swaying to the right to avoid the passing lane and possible notice by radar-wielding cops.
Driving 101. She quoted the Georgia Driver’s Manual from memory: It is unlawful to weave from one lane of traffic to another in order to move faster than the flow of traffic.
Suzie was still in the act of raising the gun when he pulled past her. He never looked at her, never slowed. She shot at his car, even though she knew as she squeezed the trigger that she was going to miss.
But didn’t it feel good to be taking action. Not to just sit there and let a dangerous adversary go free. To do something to correct a wrong, even if it was futile. Weaving was the cause of traffic tie-ups. It was the number two cause of accidents on the highway. It was rude, dangerous, and showed a remarkable lack of respect for other drivers on the road. Also, it’s stupid to dis someone with a gun.
The shot went wide. Instead of going through the open window and smacking the kid upside the head, as she’d intended, it hit the door post and splattered all over his rear side window. The Mustang continued on down the road, weaving through ever-narrower holes at 95 miles an hour. An old guy in a white Isuzu pickup was the only witness.
Crazy motherfucker got away, Suzie fumed. Goddamn new drivers, disregard all risk and just drive fast because they like to. She felt deflated. There went someone who really needed to be taught a lesson. And she had to let him go because she didn’t have a police cruiser at her disposal and could never dream of catching him in her Doohickey. She hit the steering wheel with her fist, her gun lying impotent in her lap. Why do I have to put up with such rinky-dink crime fighting tools? she wondered.
But this pointed up her thoughts of the morning. How were the objects of her notice supposed to learn? How were they supposed to know that she was shooting at them to teach them a lesson? How could she make them understand that she was only trying to get them to slow down, to move from the left lane, to stop driving like it was bumpercars? The sign idea would never work, because most of them never looked her way. She had to come up with a way to deliver an actual message with her punishment.
It started to rain. Dark clouds filled the sky. Travelers switched on their headlights. The first fat drops splashed onto her windshield from the slate gray clouds. Fat raindrops splashed onto the windshields of all the cars traveling with her. Fat raindrops splashed onto the greasy road surface. The road grew instantly slick with water and oil. Urban salad dressing.
A line of fuzzy air appeared a couple of hundred yards down the road as the sky dumped its load on top of them. Trees vanished beyond this line, the road grayed out, tail lights disappeared. Drivers switched on their windshield wipers, then flicked them to high as the skies opened. Everybody panicked.
In Atlanta, three drops of rain and people forget how to cope. It gets even worse with snow. Brake lights came on everywhere; traffic slowed to sixty-five. The real problem with Atlanta traffic is that nobody wants to go slow except old people. So there might be rain, it might be the middle of rush hour, it might be construction, and people were still trying to get ahead of each other so they could get where they were going as quickly as possible.
Driving 101: Most rear-end collisions are caused by following too closely. When following another vehicle on any street or highway, you must stay far enough behind to enable you to stop if the other vehicle suddenly slows down or stops.
Suzie slowed, and paid attention to the road. Visibility sucked, and killing people had to take a back seat to safety.
The old guy in the white Isuzu pickup a quarter of a mile behind fumbled at his belt for his cellphone. He was incensed, red faced, pissed off and righteous, and too excited to punch the numbers. But finally he reached 911. He had to shout to make himself heard over the holey muffler he was too cheap to fix. ‘Someone’s shooting at cars on the highway…My location? I-75…Going north…Just inside the Perimeter…I’m coming from Griffin, why do you ask?…Oh, I see. No I’m not on the north side of Atlanta. I’m on the south side. Approaching the airport…Yes, it’s raining…Anyway, someone in front of me is shooting a gun at other drivers…Yes, I saw the gun…It looks like a shotgun, like a sawed-off shotgun…Well, I can still see the car. It’s blue…The shooter? Well, I’m not sure, I didn’t get a good look at him, all I saw was the gun…Yes, he had it raised above the passenger seat, shooting out the window…No, I don’t think it hit the other car…The driver has black hair…I can almost see the license plates. Let me get closer.’
And the old guy, doing his duty, veered out into the passing lane without checking his mirrors, nearly pulling into the front of a truck full of Mexican workers, who honked and shouted at him. But he had the cellphone to his ear and didn’t hear them. He drove furiously in the pouring rain, stepping on the gas until he was going twenty miles an hour faster than he ever traveled.
The truck sure was hard to control at that speed. But with a lot of luck, and skills he’d forgotten he possessed, he got close enough to Suzie’s bumper to read off the license tag. ‘Okay, I’ve got it…HSC-710…Yes, I’m sure.’ He peered at it again, several times, squinting to make sure he got it right. ‘Yes, definitely, I’m certain…HSO-770…Uh huh, Georgia plates…I think it says Fannin County. Or maybe Fayette. It’s a little smudgy. It’s raining pretty hard…I don’t know…No, I’m not wearing glasses. Why do you ask?…I don’t need glasses. I’m positive about it. I’m looking at it right now and it’s as clear as Christmas. 430-LKO…Okay, sure…It’s starting to rain hard.’
‘Damned operators,’ he muttered to himself, tossing the phone onto the seat beside him and slowing back down to a safe speed. All the good he tried to do and nobody appreciated it. That was the last time he was going to put life and limb at risk for anybody. He’d been thoroughly distracted by the fruitless conversation, and the pressure of responding to official questions made him very nervous. Besides, he hated it whenever anyone implied that his eyesight was going. He slowed even further and put on his flashers, trying to calm his jangled nerves.
It was really starting to rain hard now. Water pounded on the windshields and road surface, and splashed back into the air as fine mist, creating instant fog and reducing visibility to a car-length or less. People sat up next to the wheel and craned their heads to peer over the water piling up at the bottom of their windshields. Traffic continued to slow to allow for the rain, but was still doing fifty, except for the old guy, who was doing close to thirty.
Suzie slowed, too. There was a lot of water on the road, and more coming out of the sky every second. Rain poured onto the road from nearby embankments and crossed six lanes of traffic in search of a storm drain, which was blocked by the sheer volume of water lined up waiting to go into the sewer. Water pooled on the road. Suddenly tires started to loose traction.
Suzie felt her wheels slip, and, realizing she was starting to hydroplane, took her foot off the accelerator and let her car slow to thirty-five. All around her other cars did the same, except for the fools in the fast lane who insisted on passing even in a downpour.
More than a mile up the road, right beyond the exit for Central Avenue, the newly-licensed teenaged driver hit a sheet of water doing seventy-five. He was in the passing lane at the time, taking the tightly packed, slow-moving cars as a challenge and veering ever more sloppily around them. Hitting a sheet of water at seventy-five miles per hour is like jumping off a bridge. Water, being relatively incompressible, yields slowly to oncoming forces, and above a certain speed, yields as well as concrete. There was almost an inch and a half of water under his wheels, and the boy’s tires were giving a good imitation of Jesus scaring his disciples out on the Red Sea.
Driving 101: When hydroplaning occurs, there is no friction available to brake, accelerate, or corner. A gust of wind or a slight turn can create an unpredictable and uncontrollable skid.
The kid felt his car start to slew around, hit his brakes in panic, and spun around like an ice-skater impressing the judges. He whanged against the fender of a gold Dodge Ram in the next lane, and then went twirling into the barrier wall. He bounced several times, leaving ragged black scrape marks on the concrete, and finally stopped facing oncoming traffic, his hood crumpled and torn, his radiator blown, his passenger side caved in, his front tires flat, his airbag activated, and various other dents and blemishes covering his car. Including some fresh blue paint, streaking in the rain.
An hour later, Suzie crawled past the scene, one of a thousand cars and trucks who had to sit stopped on the highway in the pouring rain, waiting for a chance to snake past what would come to the notice of investigators as the first official incident involving the Atlanta Sniper: fire engines and ambulances, police cars with blue lights, police cars with red lights, police cars with orange lights, a very destroyed black mustang in the left shoulder, and news copters circling.
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