Thursday, March 3, 2011

Chapter IX: Coffee and Cigarettes

Bill and Benny rode together in silence. Benny’s bloodshot eyes struggled to remain open. He sighed from time to time and held a hand up to his head.

“Where are we going, Benny?”

“Out. For coffee.”

“But they had coffee back at the hotel. Free continental breakfast and everything.”

“That crap ain’t coffee. Besides, I wanted a moment, just you and me, before Gloria could interrupt. I didn’t want her along for the ride. It’s just us guys out here, and I have some things I have to know.”

Bill nodded his head. “Okay, shoot, what’s your question?”

Benny sighed. “Not, yet. Let me get some coffee first. This place has the best coffee in the world.” He turned on his blinker.


“Yeah. There.”

Benny turned into the parking lot of a gas station with a Shop-n-Snack. “You want anything? My treat.”

“Sure, I guess I’ll have what you’re having.”

Benny left the ignition on as he left the car and walked into the convenience store. Bill pulled his hands into the sleeves of his long-sleeved t-shirt. He turned on the car radio. He moved the dial and found about sixty country station, some station playing some crazy badly produced rock with horrible sound quality -- he was sure this must be a local college station -- and the rest was either preaching or talk radio. He settled on a talk radio station and listened to some conservative loud mouth berate the local mayor for a proposed municipal tax hike on cigarettes and alcohol. He said it was really a tax on the lower classes. The talk show host was crude and rude in his approach, but Bill conceded the man made some sense.

Bill looked up and saw Benny holding two cups of coffee and a bundle of junk food in his looped arms. The big guy was in line and stood still with his eyes closed. Bill knew Benny had to be feeling like crap this morning. He hoped this wouldn’t sour Benny's mood all day, and Bill grew anxious wondering what kinds of questions Benny might ask. Bill was not sure if he should tell Benny anything. It was his history, sure, but it was Gloria’s, too. If the questions were about that, Bill was not so sure he even wanted to talk. He decided he’d be open and honest. That was the best option. He wasn’t sure he could trust Benny, not entirely, but he had felt the man’s past, and knew he was not all bad. In fact, Benny seemed okay from what Bill could tell, with the obvious exception of a slight alcohol problem.

The talk show went to weather, then to traffic, then to news. Bill turned up the dial.

“…another murder. According to sources, the body of Ginny Frazier has been recovered. Frazier has been missing since February 10th of this year. Details are still pending, but all signs indicate this was another murder by the Amputee Killer based on the numerous crime scenes associated with the recovery of this body. More details will be provided as this story develops…”

Bill jumped as the car door opened. He reached out and fumbled with the knob of the radio through his shirtsleeve. He turned it up instead of down.

“Rocking out, huh? Didn’t mean to scare you. Here’s your coffee,” Benny said as he slid into the driver’s seat.

Bill pushed the dial to turn off the radio and then took the cup. “Thanks.” He looked inside the Styrofoam container. The coffee was black. He hated black coffee. “This is the best coffee in the world, huh?”

Benny sipped from his cup. The bitter burnt chicory scent of cheap coffee filled the car. “I think so, anyway. This is the coffee I got hooked on. I know they say Starbucks has the best or those little independent coffee shops. But I think that’s crap. This is the real stuff. The stuff America runs on.”

Bill laughed. “I thought that was Dunkin.”

“Oh, those guys have good coffee, too. Better than Starbucks, anyway.”

Benny tossed Bill a bag full of junk food: beef jerky, a cellophane wrapped cream Danish of some sort, a chocolate bar, and a pack of off-brand cigarettes. “Breakfast of champions, huh?”

Benny smiled and looked over to Bill. He turned around and looked over his shoulder as he backed out of their parking spot. “That’s right, man. Breakfast of champions. It got me through high school and college, anyway.”

They turned onto the highway, traveled a half mile and stopped at an office building. The building had a little concrete reservoir out front circled by a sidewalk and concrete benches and picnic tables. Canada Geese, mallards, and a single black swan swam beneath the spray of a fountain in the center of the manmade pond.

“Want to eat outside?”

“You’re the boss, Benny.”

Benny smiled. “Look, Bill, you aren’t our prisoner, okay?”

“Whatever you say.”

“If you want to go, you can go.”

“What would Gloria say?”

Benny turned his eyes up to the roof of the car. “Hey, man, I’m getting out for a smoke. If you want, you can join me. If you don’t, you’re free to go."

Bill opened his door. “Where would I go?”

Benny shrugged. “Not my business.”

They walked together to a concrete picnic table beside the pond. Bill carefully found a spot to sit that was not completely covered with goose poops. He sipped his coffee and snacked on the Danish. These mass-manufactured food items provided dull stories. This was okay. He took odd comfort in their mundane stories of stainless steel rendering plants, forklifts, and cardboard boxes. He took another small sip of coffee and breathed in the scent. The coffee smelled better than it tasted. To his mouth, it tasted horrible, but the warmth was nice in the morning chill. After finishing the Danish he opened the pack of cigarettes. He had not smoked in fifteen years. Not since right before he and Shelby had gotten married. It was an old habit by that point, however, and he found himself packing them and lighting one up easily. The first pull of smoke went straight to his head.

The cigarette told a mundane story as well. The tobacco’s story was pleasant enough, not all that different from tea, but then there was the addition of chemicals and additives. So many additives. Bill looked at the burning end of his cigarette and marveled at its construction. It was the epitome of modern consumerism: mass produced for mass consumption and mass addiction.

“I don’t usually smoke,” Benny said. “The feds kind of frown on it these days. In fact, they pretty much force you to quit. But sometimes, I like to have one. Reminds me of being younger.”

“And dumber,” Bill said as he exhaled a plume of smoke from his nostrils.

“Exactly.” Benny watched a goose fly by overhead and land in the water with a splash. “But perhaps more innocent, too.”

“Damn, you’re pretty philosophical when you’re hung-over, too, huh?”

Benny smiled. “I’m glad I don’t smoke all the time these days. These packs were nearly five bucks a piece. Can you believe that shit?” Benny lit his cigarette. He took in a deep breath and exhaled. The smile from just a moment ago faded into a frown. He sighed and smoke escaped from the sides of his down-turned mouth. “All right, what’s the story with you and G?”

Bill sighed. “I knew this was coming.” He sucked in another draught of smoke. He held it in a moment before letting it out. His head swam with nicotine. A powerful and not entirely unpleasant buzz crept in. “We knew each other in high school.”

“That’s what you said the other day. My question is: How well did the two of you know each other?”

Bill looked at the tip of his cigarette. A wisp of grey smoke snaked up into the warming morning air. “Pretty well.”

Benny sighed. “I kind of thought so. You were more than just friends, weren’t you?”

Bill shrugged his shoulders. “I thought so. I think so. Still, I don’t entirely know, to be honest. We were together for a while, for over a year, but it wasn’t really official with her, or at least it never felt that way. We were close, but she never introduced me to her parents or anything. I tried to get her to meet mine a few times, but she didn’t want to. I told her I loved her. I even asked her to marry me once but played it off as a joke when she became upset. She wanted to be an FBI agent, said she didn’t want to grow too attached.”

“So you loved her, then?”

“Yes, Benny. I loved her. I think she might have even loved me, too.”

“I think I know what you mean.”

Bill tossed the butt of his cigarette to the ground and smothered the burning embers with his shoe. He looked up to Benny and raised his eyebrows. “You and Gloria?”

Benny looked away. “Shit, man, I don’t know. I really don’t know. There was one night, just a few nights before we picked you up, but it’s like she’s acted like it never happened ever since. In the morning, she was gone. Any time I try to bring it up she gets all--”

“Funny.” Bill said. “She kind of stares off into the distance like she’s slipping into a coma or something.”

“Yeah. It’s just weird. She did that back then, too?”

Bill nodded.

A silence grew between them. The moment stretched on and became awkward. Bill lit another cigarette. “I’m going to take a walk around the pond, okay?”

Benny nodded. He had lit another cigarette himself. He did not smoke it. He just sat there and watched it burn. He had the look of a man lost inside his own head.

Bill walked around the pond. He looked around. There were a few men in business suits walking the sidewalk circle with cell phones plastered to their ears or typing with their thumbs on Blackberries. A pair of women were power walking in yoga pants. They laughed and talked, but as Bill walked by, they grew silent and eyed him suspiciously. They walked as far on the opposite side of the sidewalk as possible.

Bill stopped to look at his reflection in the pond. He would have avoided himself, too. His face was gaunt, sunburned, and peeling. The hair on his head looked unnaturally thin. He thought he should see about taking some vitamin supplements. His diet on the road had not exactly been the most healthy or well-rounded.

Wind gusted. A single white feather floated towards him on the surface of the pond. Bill eyed the feather. He pulled up the sleeve of his shirt and reached down. The movement was impulsive. He had to grab it. His hands touched the fine hairs of the wet feather. Cold water splashed around his grasping hand. The ripples distorted the reflection of the sky. Clouds melted, the sky grew red, and angels descended waving flaming swords.

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