Lunch in the Desert Part 3: Midnight Snack
He cracked his eyes open for a moment before he felt them roll back and close. After rallying consciousness for a few more moments he opened them again. His eyes lethargically and aimlessly slid over his blurry environment.
He rubbed them and looked again. Lines and colors began to detach themselves from the formless smear that surrounded him though the shapes they took were unfamiliar and disorienting. He had just woken up but couldn’t remember when he had gone to sleep or where he was before he awoke. As the objects in the room came into focus he noticed a dull ache that seemed to pulse through his entire body, paying special attention to his head. This added to his disorientation but he was young enough that it didn’t overly upset him. He rubbed his head and looked around with an increasing clarity.
He was sitting up in a booth at a dusty old Formica topped table in a restaurant, the booth across from him was empty and seemed further away than it must have really been. The restaurant was dark inside like it was closed and he seemed to be the only person there. The only person there. This thought seemed to echo in his mind for a moment. Then his heart leaped into his throat. Where were his parents? Where was the car? What time was it? What day was it? His insides felt like the guts of a piano; all vibrating strings struck into a tight, frantic hum by the realization that he was completely alone. His skin felt suddenly chilled while his insides churned and clenched.
He pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them grabbing each wrist with the opposite hand until his knuckles were pale. He scanned the room intently now, looking for any sign that might indicate that he wasn’t totally alone, but everything seemed to indicate that not only was no one else in there with him, but that no one had been in this place for some time. He tried to process his situation but his mind remained an insistent blank so he continued to sit there on the cool vinyl booth awash in moonlight from the large window next to it which he then noticed.
He looked out into the sprawling desert all composed of shadows and dim night shades, the land mostly flat, rolling here and there in barely distinguishable swellings of sand that tricked his eyes and gave the landscape an eerie illusion of movement like a sea that only surged in the periphery of one’s vision and stiffened when looked at directly. There were few solid features to observe.
There was the telephone pole that, just that morning, his parents car had hit and dislodged from its grounding leaving it leaning tiredly in toward the parking lot of the diner with some remaining debris scattered across the sand around it, though this did not register as anything significant to the boy. That pole could have been moved by anything at any time. A crooked and weathered telephone pole looked no more out of place in that arid, abandoned landscape than the dry, twisted shrubs near it or the senescent, dilapidating truck sitting away to the right of the lot. The debris around it simply blended in with all the other things that looked forgotten and lost out in the jumble of the desert. The young mind that was observing all this had not, at this point, developed to where those sort of subtleties stand out as clues to be investigated and to make deductions or extrapolations from. He merely absorbed them, taking them for granted as part of the landscape as though they had always been there. Beyond the physical form of his parents he had no idea what to look or hope for.
He moved his awareness back into the dark of the dining room and scanned it again. Taking in the sight of booths and tables and menus and trays he then realized that he was hungry. The sensation of hunger blended into and was dulled by the physical manifestations of anxiety and fear he was experiencing but he isolated it now enough that his desire for food had reawakened.
He released his grip on his own wrists and let his legs slide back under the table into a sitting position and set his palms on the vinyl seat on either side of his thighs. He noticed again that the parts of the booth that he hadn’t been in contact with were cold and his skin prickled uncomfortably as he slid himself sideways across the seat and out from behind the table. His hunger pangs were almost lost again as the sensations of physical cold stirred the rough kneading of anxiety in his stomach but were held loosely in place by his consciousness of them and by the dull hope of food.
He stood up slowly from the booth on legs that felt like they were made of water and steadied himself by gripping the table tops and chair backs as he hobbled across the musty, silent dining room toward the kitchen. He stopped suddenly and gripped a chairback with all the strength in his hand, his eyes widened by the instinct to immediately take in all the visual information possible in order to aid his self-preservation against a newly encountered terror.
He thrilled with his gaze fixed upon two human figures stiffly upright in a booth by the door. They appeared alien and threatening in their unnatural and haunted posture; their clothes completely unassuming to their forms and their visible features harsh yet misshapen and eroded. His joints locked, his body instructing him not to move until the figures moved first or until the moment could be read and understood and then adequately judged as either safe or dangerous. He stood, staring, waiting for the opaque fog of his mind to clear. Slowly the details of the scene trickled in as his mind, thawing from the initial fear, began interpreting the information provided by his still wide eyes.
Their hair didn’t sit right on their heads. Their skin didn’t look like living skin. Their postures did not seem sustainable. They exhibitted none of the subtle movements of life; no breathing, blinking, swallowing or trembling. They seemed very old, too old for the sort of muscle control that would allow them to be so stock still in such unnatural positions. His young mind realized that they must either be corpses or dummies. In either event, while the former possibility held the undefined yet unavoidable fear of the dead, neither seemed to present much immediate physical danger so his body released him for movement and he inched toward the haunted booth combing it again and again for further information with his eyes as the gap between him and the figures closed. He came within arm’s reach, stretched out his hand and touched one.
A crisis was averted and he relaxed a bit though the presence of the figures was still unsettling. Now he observed them with more ease, this new discovery and its uneasy excitement was enough to distract his young mind from all the worries currently besetting it. They looked like indians, like the sort he had seen in cartoons with reddish skin and leather clothing and feathers in their hair with the exception that the alternatingly grim and raucous, warrior like behavior portrayed in the cartoons was replaced with a decrepit, lifeless abandonment which set a puzzle before him that he was more interested in observing than solving.
Once this new distraction dulled sufficiently for his hunger pangs to return he resumed his journey toward the kitchen, walking a little more steadily now but with a nagging presence trailing behind him as his mind was not willing to so lightly forget its initial reaction to the dummies and their lingering presence in the room.
He paused as he approached a counter lined with stools fixed to the floor in front of it topped with the same garish vinyl trim as the booths. There was nothing of value in sight. The kitchen area appeared as abandoned and empty as the rest of the diner and all the darker for being further from the moonlight spilling in through the front windows. The boy instinctively looked around before walking behind the counter into the kicthen area as the ingrained matrix of social behaviors instilled in him through countless experiences with his parents, relatives, strangers and myriad authority figures reminded him, regardless of the present circumstances, that this was something he was not typically allowed to do and should take precautions against being caught and scolded should he persist in doing so. He scanned the area behind the counter and saw nothing of interest; bulk napkins for stocking the smaller holders at the tables, silverware, cleaning agents, rags, paper bags of various sizes, and other items typical to a diner with the exceptional of anything edible.
He stepped through an open doorway into the actual kitchen and paused again. Horizontal and vertical planes of burnished stainless steel filled the room: Freezers, coolers, countertops, grills, unrecognizable appliances of various sorts all wearing a bleary reflection of what little light and shadow the room contained. After rummaging through some of the cold, clinical looking cupboards the boy had gathered a couple of buns, some pickles and few packs of crackers. Most of the other food was frozen in stiff, cloudy plastic bags, the heating or preparing of which did not even confront the boy’s mind as a possibility. He stood still in the kitchen nibbling the bread, content to be eating and to feel the food immediately being converted into a comforting energy in his empty system.
After a few bites he began to slowly wander across the kitchen, looking about half interestedly as his increased sense of physical satiety dulled the mental stress of being still inexplicably alone and in mild bodily pain. Now that his metabolism was working again there was a sourceless and indistinct sense of comfort that of course his parents must be coming back and that this was going to be sorted out at some point in the near future.
He paced slowly back across the smooth, worn tile floor toward the doorway but was snapped to a sudden halt again and dropped the piece of hamburger bun he was eating with a bit of it still in his mouth pressed between his clenched molars.
He was confronted with yet another shape of a man, this one slumped into a chair to the right of the doorway he had just walked through. He had passed it once without noticing it on his way into the kitchen as his attention was focused the other way checking for food behind the counter. The relief he had experienced after the diffusing of his previous encounter in the dining room allowed him to approach this situation with a bit more calm, but this felt different. The figure wasn’t stiff like the others were and it’s position in the chair seemed to be appropriate for an object that was, or had been, made of animate tissue.
The boy, with his mouth still half full of hamburger bun, approached the figure but this time he did not reach out for it. His mind worked, slowly turning over this new experience and examining it, trying to make real sense of it. It was surely a man. An old man. He looked at his skin. He looked at his cloudy, unmoving eyes and his gaping mouth. He looked at the wrinkles in his shirt and his scuffed leather shoes resting on the heels with the toes pointing off in disparate directions. The thin, mostly combed but partly disheveled white hair and the strange spots on his skin that he recognized from seeing on his grandfather when they went to see them in Pennsylvania. This was definitely a man and he was dead.
The boy had never encountered a dead man like this. His mother had brought him with her to a funeral once but that was different. That man was wearing a suit and had his mouth and eyes closed and was in a coffin. He looked like he was supposed to be dead. At the time he wasn’t even sure if he was supposed to be sad for the man in the coffin. No one else seemed to be very sad. They were all just eating and talking while the man laid there in the fancy casket like he was just a decoration for the room along with the flowers and ribbons. The main decoration maybe, but still just for show. But this man wasn’t like that. He didn’t look like he should be dead. Which made the boy start to wonder why he was dead and how it had happened and if the same thing could happen to him.
The sudden entrance of unexplained and unmasked death into the situation shredded every bit of comfort the boy had allowed himself. Never before had he been faced with this grisly and alien reality and for it to happen now, to come crashing prematurely into his fragile psyche in the midst of being stranded and alone in this unfamiliar and already frightening place broke something inside him. The rationalizing of this encounter demanded too much from him and the absence of any sort of guidance or reassurance or the mere touch of a well meaning and composed authority figure’s hand on his shoulder allowed him to slip into the void.
He stared at the corpse and the rest of his meal fell from his grip and dropped soundlessly to the floor as his mind assaulted him with a hail of questions he had no answers for and threats he had no security from. The weight and hopelessness of his situation crashed in upon him in total and he reeled from sudden despair. He walked numbly backward, eyes fixed on the slouched shape, heedless of what was behind him, until he bumped into the far wall behind the counter. He slid down it and slumped onto the floor himself, a smaller, mirrored calamity of the shape across the room, not yet dead, but pulled far away into another place.
And then, all at once, as sudden as the onset of the despair had been, came the blackness; a forgetful slumber that fell over him like a leaden blanket and he did not resist it.