“This is the autumn of my mind,” Keith whispered beneath the bubbling of the fryer.
Keith kept his thoughts to himself a moment. Ryan, the manager of the Arboles Road McDonalds, was too young to know that the building they were standing in hadn’t always been a Golden Arches. Keith grabbed hold of the fryer basket; it spattered hot oil onto the back of his liver-spotting hand. He shook the fresh batch of fries slowly to life.
Turning to the window that oversaw the parking lot, Keith studied the trees lining the property, shedding their leaves into the gutters. They arched toward the sky the way they always had. Sure, maybe they were a little taller than they had been back when this piece of land had been a vacant lot beside the local DMV, when Keith had rode his bicycle through the field, on his way to school.
When the Burger King had been spit up onto the land one November weekend, another suburban outpost in Keith’s little L.A. suburb, he didn’t have time to mourn the loss of the field. Instead, as a beginning artist in need of subjects, he took to the place like a second home. He never really bought anything, he couldn’t afford to, but he’d scrounge up seventy-five cents for a Coke, bask in the comfort of the air-conditioning, and take out a pad of art paper and scratch a pencil into a fresh page for hours on end. He did this as years came and went, art school started and ended, jobs and girlfriends and houses and weather patterns and employees that manned the counter all came and left again.
“I used to hang around here,” Keith said out loud.
He was speaking less to Ryan and more to the row of trees. The human eye had trouble keeping up with the pace of the falling leaves, shedding onto the blacktop, blowing onto their cars, into the gutters. He’d have a clearer view of it all if it weren’t for the Halloween ghost decoration Ryan had hung in the window. Still, all around the white-sheeted figure with the big open BOOOO mouth Keith could still watch the leaves fall. He thought maybe he could make an excuse of it, go out and ‘sweep the lot’ before close. He replayed the sentence in his head: ‘I used to hang around here.’ Anyone who’d overheard the comment would likely think that they were just the memories of another wispy old man, a ghost still lingering in a place where he once belonged, not the once promising sketch artist he had been.
“I don’t remember you hanging around here,” Ryan said.
“Before your time.”
“How long ago?”
“Oh,” Keith started blandly, the way he always replied when he didn’t want to commit to an answer. “Back when college still seemed like a charming idea. An idea I might entertain some day.”
“So, back before the Civil War.”
Keith smirked. Ryan was only twenty, and to him, the idea of managing a McDonalds had lost its charm a year ago. Still here he was, handing out bags of low-value chow to former classmates finishing college and beginning real careers.
“How long you been the boss here?” Keith asked.
Ryan grabbed a bag containing two cheeseburgers and two small fries and handed it out the drive-thru window to a set of restless hands inside a waiting car. He followed it with a small Coke dripping syrup and a bottle of Dasani that shed cold sweat.
“YOU HAVE A GOOD EVENING” he shouted over an SUV’s engine. It turned and drove off. Ryan turned back to Keith.
“Been here a year and a half.”
“Has it gotten old yet?
Ryan looked at him sideways. Rather than stand still, he went to the fry bin to scoop and freshen. Scoop and freshen. Even this late in the day someone would come along and buy these things. They always did.
“How do you mean, old?”
“You know,” Keith said. He began to restock a napkin holder. No one would say he wasn’t keeping busy. “You know. While your friends have all gone off to college, started having frat parties, making out with their girlfriend’s girlfriends… has the idea of being ‘the responsible one’ gotten old yet?”
Ryan’s mother had been single and generally angry. It taught Ryan well how to mask his emotions. But to a professional trained in the art of scooping and freshening, one would see that Ryan was performing his duties with a little more aggression than usual. Scoop, toss, scoop. Toss.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I like my job fine.”
“What about you old man?”
“I told you before, careful with the old man stuff. I could have you busted for ageism.”
“No one but the ghosts here to hear it. Bawl all you want.”
“I’m only 48. I still play centre in two local basketball leagues.”
“Whatever. You’ve been around a few years. Any regrets?”
Keith looked away from the fryer, into the dining room. It was one minute before eleven o’clock; the bag Ryan had handed out the window would likely be their last. Keith could almost hear the vacuum of silence night would bring.
Keith had been staring absently at an obscure corner of the dining room. A long series of benches came together there. A few small tables butted against one another, easily pushed together to accommodate larger families. Back in the Burger King days it had been an arboretum, full of fake dusty plants. Directly across from the spot, Keith had once sat for hours milking his 75-cent soda, drawing, drawing.
The drive-thru had provided a fresh stream of cars and faces, coming and going in various states of hunger about to be relieved. Next door, hopeful drivers were taking their tests on the track that ran around the DMV building. There had been a payphone right outside; it rang loud enough that he could sit inside and receive calls if he wanted to. The Rodney King riots had just happened. Nichole Brown and Ron Goldman were still alive. Nirvana were talking about a new album, soon to be released on cassette. This Ryan kid hadn’t even been born yet…
Keith shook from his trance.
“Dining room’s closed. Why don’t you go give it a sweep before we head out, space case.”
Keith nodded. He quietly walked back to the broom closet; a familiar upright broom and dustpan hung on respective hooks. A definitive ‘clack’ sounded behind him; Ryan was pulling the drawer from the register. A thermal printer spat out a long roll of thermal paper to announce the day’s sales. Keith entered the empty dining room.
Ryan had dimmed the lights. It would give still-hungry customers the message before they even got to the building, but it would also make it harder for Keith to see. The kid couldn’t have known that. Keith swept at the stone tile, scooping discarded napkins, receipts and bits of whatever that had once been form into the dustpan. He peered under the corner that had once been his hangout. It was clean. He crossed the room to the long bench row and its butted tables.
As he leaned under the long bench row, Keith squinted. Something was out of place. In the corner, white powder had been spread about, like someone had dropped a bag of flour. Keith swept at it. There was too much. He leaned in little closer; bits of wallpaper and actual wall were hanging loose, like something inside had been chewing at the drywall.
“Ryan, have we got rats?”
No answer. The kid was counting.
Keith turned back. He knelt down. Oh, that didn’t feel good. Despite all his activity and love of sport, he had old-man-knees. Some guys his age were already dead and others well on their way. A creaky knee was nothing to complain about.
Keith ran his finger through the powder. Definitely drywall. He leaned his head under the bench, low enough so that his ear touched the floor. There was a hole wide enough, deep enough for a man to crawl into. Deep inside, light was coming thru. Maybe from a parking lot light? How had no one noticed this?
Keith thought to stick his arm in but that was a good way to get it bitten off by whatever was living in there. The broom handle was out of reach. So he did the next most logical thing.
He stuck his head in.
It looked like the inside of a wall. Stud beams and dusty aluminium wire casings ran like small ribbed pipes. Beyond that, he couldn’t quite tell, but it seemed a larger room existed. And that’s where the light appeared to be coming from. Well, he’d come this far.
He started crawling right in.
His black work pants were no doubt gonna need a trip through the washer after this. His shoes banged as he slid through the hole in the wall; inside it was just framing and cobwebs, typical wall stuff. With all the upper body strength he’d maintained, Keith pulled himself forward. He hadn’t realised it yet, but he was following a familiar old scent. He could the light clearer now, and that it was coming from a room. He slid thru the wall, tumbled onto brown stone tile and quickly got to his feet.
The first thing Keith recognised was the arboretum of fake plants. A tinted glass roof leaned to one angle was designed to give guests the impression that they were sitting in a real greenhouse. It was a thing in the late 80’s/early 90s; people wanted to feel ‘back to nature’ even while stuffing fried food in their faces. Keith took in the rest of the room; the brown and orange décor was like a year-round sense of autumn. The Burger King, as best he could see, looked just as he’d left it.
Keith dusted off his clothes and crossed the room, moving slowly, certainly, toward the kid at the booth that had always been his favourite place.
A pad lay on the table. A pencil scratched busily into a fresh sheet and on it, a representation of the pepper tree standing in the corner of the lot. Keith looked up at the tree outside and the green electrical box in it’s shade; a big #1 sticker had been plastered to its paint job, something from a motocross shop. The kid was getting all this: nature combined with man’s ugliness. The pencil scratched maniacally. A basketball sat on the corner of the table.
Keith stood stock still in the arboretum for a moment. Of course he’d seen Back to the Future and believed that, if time travel were possible, he could very well fuck up the trajectory of whatever was to come with one false move. The kid was Ryan’s age, and he’d spotted Keith, staring. Outside the window behind him, the row of trees were still green with summer. People drove around the DMV taking their driving tests, clinging to their steering wheels, afraid to make a mistake.
Keith wanted to say something, an encouraging phrase to offset the doubts of the kid’s family, parents, friends who didn’t see what he was doing as having any value. They wanted him to find a job with a public institution, pick a career, start a family. Keith knew what it looked like to be 21 years old and still drawing all day, every day. And at 31, at 41, and soon 51. But how to instill all this in the kid without spooking the horse?
Now in front of the kid’s table, he slowly opened his mouth.
“Don’t quit,” he stuttered.
The kid said nothing. Keith quickly turned and went back across the restaurant. He ducked into the arboretum and sat at a table.
This was his reward, he thought; not getting to talk to his 21 year-old self, but to feel this table once more, to look up into those dusty fake plants, to soak in the old brown and orange décor that felt like perpetual autumn and smelled like the thick odor of frying animal fat which the Trans Fat movement would eventually forbid. He wanted to order something, but it felt a little invasive. Even dangerous. After all, what if he got food poisoning? Could he tell the ER doctor “I got sick off a burger I ate in 1993?”
Keith waited for his moment. Then, with one long ducking slide, he dove under the corner table. His shirt slid through a slight patina of white dust and he glided right thru. Moments later he was dusty again, but tumbled back onto the tile of the McDonalds.
Ryan’s voice echoed from the back room. As the manager popped into sight, there was Keith, brushing the last dust and cobwebs from his pants.
“You almost done? Register’s counted, just gotta throw out the trash.”
Keith snatched up the idle broom and dustpan. “I got it.”
“Nah, I’ll get it. You finish up whatever you were doing.”
Keith set the broom and dustpan aside.
Outside, in the parking lot, Keith still owned the car he’d had since he’d got his drivers license. Some things just fit right and don’t need replacing. Ten minutes later, when the alarm was set on the building, he and Ryan parted ways. Keith went to his old car and popped the trunk.
He dug out a pad and pencil he’d left there years earlier. Other pads had come and gone, been filled up, a few had even sold.
Now Keith walked to the corner of the building where an outdoor table sat with decent overnight lighting. He flipped open to the page where an outline still existed, one of a nearby tree and an electrical box that bore a faded #1 sticker on its tired paintjob. He had started it so long ago and it was going so well, until the moment an old man suddenly interrupted.