“I just want you to see if he’s got any pictures of her.”
“And he’d have them at work why?”
“I dunno. Maybe he’s got a wife and he doesn’t want her to see them.”
“Right. So because he may or may not have a wife and she may or may not know he had a girlfriend who is now your girlfriend- God only knows why- he would keep pictures of her at work so some employee can find them and blackmail him or at least spread them all over the Internet?”
Clement looked across their desks at Jeff(1), letting his eyes drift up to the framed 24×36 print showing the anatomy of a chicken. Jeff had found it at one of their first trade shows and paid for the framing himself before proudly hanging it and declaring it ‘an inoffensive display of breasts and thighs.” Now he wanted pictures of another female’s anatomy. “Jeff, you’re an idiot. Not quite a flaming moron but definitely an idiot.”
“Clement, you’re my buddy, my pal. You gotta do this. Womb to tomb, remember?”
“Look, I only met you two years ago at the Cluck-Fest in Seattle.”
“And took me under your wing.”
“ And don’t give me that ‘West Side Story’ crap. Those guys all ended up dead or in ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ which is almost the same.”
“How do you know that?”
“I got culture and insomnia.”
“They got a cure for culture. You oughta go see your doctor.”
“Idiot, you still haven’t convinced me why I should break into this guy’s office to see if he maybe has pictures of the person who is unfortunately your girlfriend.”
“That’s the coolest part. You wouldn’t be breaking in. She’s got a key and she’s gonna give it to me and I’m gonna give it to you.”
“Right. She got this how?”
“She made a copy of it when they were still together.”
“Right. The reason she doesn’t just go to this guy and say ‘Look, freak, I know you’ve got pictures of me and I want you to either give them to me or shred them’ is what?”
“She doesn’t know for sure. She always thought he had pictures but if he does he took them while she was asleep.”
“Asleep? Geez, I’ve been over at your place when she was asleep. Not only does she snore, which admittedly wouldn’t show up in the pictures, but she drools and her hair gets all stuck to one side of her face. Why does he want a picture of that? Unless he’s a freak about hydration.”
“Because she sleeps naked.”
“So what? Women tan naked. If he wanted naked, he could go to one of those tanning places and take a picture over the three-quarter wall with his cell phone. If he was quick, he’d get away with it. Or go to the nude beach. Put the camera in a diaper bag with the lens pointing through the clear part where the changing pad goes only don’t put the changing pad in it. Focus the camera at a mid-range distance so when he sees someone he wants a picture of he just has to push the button and it’s that quick.”
“Wow. You know a lot about this stuff. You do it?”
“Hell no. You think you gotta do something to know about it? I read the papers. I listen to people. I’m still listening to you to find out why I’m gonna do this.”
“She’s really worried he’s gonna put the pictures on the Internet. Like that ‘Hot or Not’ site where people vote on whether your girlfriend is worth it or not.”
“I know what the site is but why the hell would he care what people think of his ex-girlfriend? Especially when he’s married. Or if he’s married. This is really stupid. How come she’s got a key to his office and we don’t even know if he’s married or not? How come she doesn’t know if he’s married?”
“She never asked him. She didn’t wanna know if he was or not. If she asks him and he says he is then she has to know she’s the kind of girl who goes out with married guys. If she knows then she’s a home-wrecker.”
“Holy crap. She shouldn’t have to ask him. There are posts all over the Internet telling women how to tell. And nobody’s a home-wrecker anymore. People figure guys are autonomous and they don’t cheat because they got lured. Guys don’t get lured.”
“Girls don’t get lured. It’s from Bull Durham. This girl is talking to Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon, and she says she didn’t mean to fall for this guy but she got lured and Susan Sarandon says ‘You did not get lured. Girls do not get lured.’”
“The reason he’d put her picture up on ‘Hot or Not’ is if you’re gonna cheat on your wife-“
“Assuming you’re married.”
“You wanna be sure the girl is worth it. You’re gonna get caught and your wife is gonna want a divorce and you’re gonna end up eating dog food from a can for the rest of your life.”
“This isn’t a community property state. Nobody’s gonna end up eating dog food. That’s old people with no pensions. And even if he was married, she’s his ex-girlfriend so for better or for worse he got away with it and it doesn’t matter if she looks like a baboon’s butt. Which I’m not saying she does.”
“Look, just do this. Okay? It’d mean a lot to her so it’d mean a lot to me. She completes me.”
“Holy crap.”
The phone on Jeff’s desk rang. “Yeah. Yeah. No, sir, we didn’t. No. I can understand your anger and disappointment. I will check with my associate and see what he says but I can assure you we would never have done something like that without checking with you first. Thanks for calling, sir. Bye now.” He replaced the receiver, snatched a half-eaten pencil from the edge of Clement’s desk and arced it into the wastebasket. “Leonard’s Market says we delivered them smoked chicken strips and they ordered plain breaded ones.”
“We don’t sell smoked chicken strips.”
“I know. That’s what I told him.”
Clement pulled a lower desk drawer open and flipped through the files. “I don’t have a ‘Leonard’s Market’ in here. Do you have ‘Leonard’s Market’ in your drawer?”
Jeff scanned the files on his side. “No.”
“So this man who just called and received empathy from you is not even a customer of ours?”
“No. It would appear he is not.”
“Would you like to call him back and apprise him of the error?”
“No. I would not.”
“Did she ask you who you were?”
“You heard it. I didn’t even get to say ‘Hello’. I picked up the phone and he said, ‘You the guys that sell the chicken?’ I said, ‘Yeah’. He said, ‘Frozen chicken strips?’ I said, ‘Yeah’. He said, ‘Well, you’ve really screwed up my week. You know why? You sent me smoked chicken strips again when I ordered the plain ones.’ I said, ‘No, we didn’t’ and we were off to the races.”
“Unbelievable. Almost as unbelievable as you wanting me to break into this guy’s office.”
“You’re not even breaking in. You’ll have a key. She says he never locks the desk or anything. All you gotta do is let yourself in after he’s gone, look through some things. If you find any pictures then you bring them out with you. If you find anything else interesting, that’s yours too.”
“Now hold on. I’m not breaking in anywhere and I’m not stealing anything. The only way I’m justifying this whole thing to myself at all is by saying that since the pictures- if they even exist- are of her then really they belong to her. I don’t do this. It’s not my problem and it’s not my job. I’m not asking for any money to go in and you’re not paying me. Not even with naked pictures. After I’m done, assuming I turn out to be as stupid as you are, you’re gonna take me to Outback for a steak dinner and you’re gonna pay for that and you’re gonna buy one for yourself and you’re gonna sit there while we both eat. You’re not leaving a minute before I do because I am not gonna be fingered later for breaking and entering or entering without breaking. Got it?”
“So, you’re gonna do it?”
“Geez, I don’t know. It’s just so stupid and there’s so many maybes and I could stay home and watch ‘Battlestar Galactica’.”
“Come on…”
“Can you at least find out his schedule and whether or not he is married?”
“Man, I knew it! I knew you were gonna say ‘yes’.”
“I didn’t say ‘yes’; I asked you if you could find out a couple of things.”
“But you wouldn’t even ask me if you weren’t gonna do it. Oh man, we’re like that movie ‘Damon and Pythius”.”
“Right. That makes one of us Jerry Lewis and the other Dean Martin. I’ve heard you sing and your drinking is worse. When are you gonna see the Naked Drooler?”
“Tonight. Right after work, I’m going over there. Tuesdays we have Chinese and watch that cavemen show. She thinks that slacker caveman is hot and I’m not gonna complain. Lot of excess energy if you know what I mean.”
“TMI, Jerry. If you know what I mean.”

Clement looked up at the third floor center window. There was still a light on. The rest of the business park was dark.
“Geez. This guy oughta get a life. Who the hell would still be there at 11:30? You couldn’t make somebody still be working, huh?” He rotated slowly, eyes on the ground, checking in his peripheral vision that no one was looking at him looking at the building. Near his feet was the cardboard wrapper from a pair of one-size-fits-all fishnet pantyhose. He had a garbage bag in the car but the car was three blocks away at the restaurant.
“There could be anything in the world on this.” He kicked the wrapper. “Besides, a guy walking around is one thing. A guy walking around advertising he’s got fishnet pantyhose is something else.”

Clement ripped open a fourth packet of sugar, dumped it into his coffee, and stirred it hard. The waitress reappeared.
“Can I get you something to go with that”-she looked at the pile of sugar packets adding “Sweetie?” Clement sighed.
“No. Uh-no, thank you. I just want to sit here and drink my coffee.” He held up a hand. “And please don’t top it up. If I do think of something I want, I’ll send up a flare.” The waitress set the coffee pot on the table with extra firmness, dropped the bill beside it then galumphed away.
“I see no tip in your future,” Clement said, holding the bill to his forehead. He finished his coffee, placed the exact amount on the table, and pushed out the door heading for 164th Street.

The third floor center light was still on.
“Does he always leave it on? Nobody said anything about that and he doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who thinks he’s the electric company.” The fishnet hose wrapper was still there too and Clement kicked it again. “Now what the hell do I do? I can’t just stand out here all night.” He took a step back and nearly collided with the metal pole holding up the bus stop sign. The semi-enclosed shelter had been removed years before to discourage transients and anyone else from peeing in it.

As he drove along 164th looking for a gas station that still did car repairs, he checked the bus schedule.
“Okay, so the 12 runs all night till 3 then it starts up again at 5. Probably gotta hose out the buses. Geez, this is stupid. It’s like the guy from Apple that always wanted to do things amazingly brilliant and this is the opposite of that.” He parked the car and felt around in the pocket on the back of his seat for an envelope. He found a bowling pencil, bit the end so some graphite showed, and wrote on the back of the envelope “Possible steering problem. Whenever you get to it. No rush. Will call later.” He slipped the car key off his key ring and into the envelope, slid the note through the slot, locked the car and sighed as he shut the door.

The airbrakes hissed and the bus doors popped open, releasing a fart of warm cheese-smelling air. Clement took a step back then climbed aboard. A woman wearing a babushka- she was the cheesy one Clement realized- sat behind the driver; the front of the bus was otherwise empty.
“How much is it?” Clement asked.
“One dollar and twenty-five cents,” drawled the driver. She was a large Black woman and Clement noticed she too smelled but it was more of a fried eggs and old coffee combination.(2) He fished in his pocket and found a twenty, a five, and four pennies. “Then I guess I’d like to buy one of those books with the tickets in it. I’m going to be doing a lot of riding tonight. Aren’t there ten tickets or so in those?” He smiled.
“Are you crazy? We don’t sell those things on the bus. I can’t be carrying around stuff that’s worth money. And I’d have to have change. Uh uh. No way.”
“How about if I just ride around with you for a while? If something was to happen, wouldn’t you feel more comfortable with a man on the bus? Maybe somebody else will think you have the ticket books or some money and try something.”
“First of all, I do this job five times and sometimes six times a week. I do it by myself. Sometimes this lady here rides along with me- after she pays her fare- and sometimes I’m all alone. I’m not just a big girl, I’m strong. Ain’t no one gonna try anything if he’s got brains because I will just take him out.” The woman behind the driver nodded. “Second, don’t think for a minute that I believe you’re concerned about my safety. I think you’re trying to run a line. Now I don’t know if you’re stupid enough to think you’re gonna play me and get somewhere or if you just don’t have any change.”
The woman in the babushka nodded again and said, “Yes, he is a player. I can see this.”
“What I suggest,” the driver said, “is that you take your twenty dollar bill and your five dollar bill and all four of your pennies and you go get yourself a cab.”
“I don’t want to take a cab. I want to ride the bus.”
“Then if you really want to ride the bus take yourself on over to the Bi-Lo Foods and buy yourself some jalapeno poppers and a big bottle of Coke and get some quarters so you can ride on the bus. And don’t be thinking you’re gonna be bringing that food on here neither.”
“That’s right. No food on the bus, Mr. Player.” Both women laughed, Clement climbed down, the doors thwumped shut and he was alone. He looked at his watch.
“1:15 in the morning. Probably been twenty years since I was out on the streets at 1:15 in the morning. And I wasn’t alone. I definitely wasn’t walking along 164th. Why the hell should I be alone now? I should call Jeff and have him out here with me. He’s the author of this goat-screw. I should call him up and at least make him bring me the dollar-twenty-five.” Three cars passed him going either direction in the half-dozen blocks to the store but there were five parked outside. There were bars on the windows and behind the bars the windows were nearly covered with posters advertising cigarettes, beer, and the weekly specials. Despite the number of cars outside, when Clement’s eyes had recovered from the operating room brightness inside he was surprised to see it seemed to be filled with young people. The cashier was young, short and dark, with a pink Red Sox T-shirt and a dragon tattoo. Two young men were reading magazines. Another lounged against the stand-alone freezer case that held Dove bars and drumsticks, drinking a Liquid Charge. Clement walked past candles with Saint Jude and Our Lady of Guadalupe on them, Hudson’s Bay blankets, energy drinks with Cyrillic printing to the hot foods case.
“Excuse me; I have a question about these jalapeno poppers.”
“Which is what?” The question came from a kid- Clement thought of him as a kid although he was probably twenty-five- who was vigorously loosening his dead back skin with a monkey’s claw on a long stick. Clement looked at the cashier.
“My question- for the man who works here- is how fresh are those poppers?”
“You think he’s gonna poison people who come in here? You think he’s gonna have a job very long if everybody comes in here and gets the food and dies or has to get their stomach pumped? You think that?”
“I think he’s probably very conscientious. I also think people have busy lives and busy nights and sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the little things. Like when the last time was the poppers were changed.” A kid in a sideways Cowboys cap stepped forward.
“Those poppers are so fresh, man. I ate those poppers myself. I’m still standing here, right? You don’t see my hermanos taking me to the hospital.”
“The gentleman in the pastel Red Sox jersey- does he talk?”
“He don’t have to talk to a pendejo like you,” Monkey Claw said. The other young men laughed.
“Damn straight.” Clement walked to the cold drinks case and took out a Yoo-Hoo and a Coke. He placed them on the counter beside the register then added a cherry Hostess fruit pie. He handed the cashier the twenty.
“Two-fifty in quarters, please.” He studied the cartons of cigarettes on either side of the cashier’s head in a great attempt to avoid either making eye contact or turning to see what the men behind him were doing. Silently the cashier rang up the drinks and fruit pie, placing them in a bag, the quarters in two piles and the remainder of the change on the counter. Clement heard footsteps moving towards the back of the store, a door opened and shut. There was a strong smell of cologne as someone leaned past him to add something to his bag.
“I wasn’t kidding about the poppers being fresh, man. A gift,” said a voice in his ear. Clement scooped up the money, dropping it into his pocket, hefted the bag onto one hip and walked to the door. Pushing it open with his free hand, he turned in the doorway.
“Good night, gentlemen.” As soon as he was out of sight of the door, he took the poppers out and dropped them into the trash. “Geez, you’re stupid. Why the hell would you go into a place like that when you see there’s a million cars out front? Since when do you drink Yoo-Hoo? And why would you get cans of something?” He looked down the street for the bus or the group of young men. Neither was coming so he ripped open the fruit pie and began eating it, carefully peeling the wrapper down as he ate so as not to get any of the crumbs on his jacket. “I can feel my arteries hardening right now.” He cracked the can of Coke and tipped his head back, feeling the acid and caffeine running down his throat and rushing into his veins. A car slowed as it passed him, the passenger-side window sliding down.
“A little something for your poppers, man.” A small lidded container- grape jelly- hit the sidewalk beside Clement’s shoe and burst open. He continued to drink, refusing to look at his shoes until he could no longer hear the car. Most of the jelly had missed him and he used the cardboard from the fruit pie to scrape off what hadn’t. He drained the remains of the Coke and put the empty can, the pie wrapper, and the full can of Yoo-Hoo into the trash on top of the poppers. He walked the four blocks to the bus stop trying not to rub the last bits of jelly off his shoe with the back of his pants leg.

The light still burned in the third floor window, Clement noticed as the bus passed it again.
“Holy crap. He must just leave it on all night. That means I wasted the last three hours trying to get on the bus then riding on the bus.”
“You don’t usually ride the bus, do you?”
“No,” Clement said without turning around.
“I ride the bus a lot.”
“I ride the bus because I don’t drive. You wanna know why I don’t drive?”
“I don’t drive because my brain isn’t wired that way. When I was born something happened and the wiring doesn’t work so I can drive. I can ride the bus though. I ride a lot of buses. You don’t usually ride the bus, do you?”
“You drive, huh? What kind of car do you have? How many windows does it have? Do you push a button to make them go down?”
“Are you counting the windshield and the back window?”
“No. Those never move do they? I mean they’re not supposed to.”
“Then I have four windows.”
“And do you-“
“Yes, you push a button to make them go down. You can push a button to make the roof open too and you can push a button to heat the seats or to move them around.”
“Wow. That must be really nice you can warm the seats. Bus seats are pretty much always cold and they never open the roof unless there’s an accident. You can open the hatches in the roof of a school bus but not a bus like this.” The bus passed under some streetlights and Clement looked at the reflection of the person behind him. Then he turned around and looked directly at him. The man’s knotty hands were pressed against the window and the dim lights of the bus emphasized his prominent veins. One leg swung free and the other was wedged in the corner of the seat nearest the window. “Surprised you, huh?”
“Um, yeah. I mean, yes.”
“Don’t feel bad. It ain’t the first time. I bet you was wondering what some little kid was doing riding around on the buses this time of night.”
“Yes, I was.”
“That’s okay. I’m not a kid on the outside but on the inside it’s a different story.”
“I’m sorry. I feel like I-“
“Tut. You’re not the one dropped me on my head. People just assume that if your brain never growed up then none of you did.”
“But how do you know?” The old man laughed.
“I’m retarded; I’m not stupid.”
“I didn’t know people could say that anymore. I thought we were supposed to say mentally challenged or something.”
“If it’s you, you can call yourself whatever you want. Besides even retarded I’m probably smarter than you. You see, I know without even looking at my watch that it’s just about 3 o’clock. We’re almost to the end of the route and, since it’s just about 3 o’clock, the driver is gonna be shutting this bus down and locking her up.”
“Then what do we do?”
“Whatever you want to do. The driver usually goes home and has some breakfast and makes love to his girlfriend. I’m going to go home and go to bed by myself. Although if I was younger I could go home with a girl. I’d probably be pretty popular with the girls since I got fixed a long time ago and can never be a daddy.”
“How are you getting home if the buses have stopped?”
“My brother’s going to get me. He gets off work about 2:30 and then he comes by and gives me a ride home. Sometimes I sleep at his house. Sometimes I go to my house and feed the animals and then go to sleep. Sometimes I go to sleep and then get up and ride the bus some more. I’ve got a hamster and a real cute cat. She’s just like me. She got fixed when she was younger too.”
“How do you know the driver uh sleeps with his girlfriend?”
“Because I’ve got a nose. When he gets off the bus he smells like aftershave and stinky old man and when he gets back on he smells like Ivory soap. And he gets back on the bus real slow like he can’t imagine a worse thing he’s gotta do.”
“Maybe he just takes a shower anyway.”
“I’ve seen her picking him up. She has a pretty blue car with four big windows and then two littler windows in the back ones. She has to turn a crank to roll the windows down and I don’t think it has one of those heaters for the seats you were talking about in your car. No hatches in the roof either.” The old man put the straps of his bag over his shoulder and turned back to Clement. “What about you? You going home to some woman or to feed your animals?”
“I don’t know. My car is broken. That’s why I’m on the bus.” The driver pulled to the side of the road and parked. There was a yellow truck with hoses and lots of brushes on it and behind it sat a well-maintained but not quite collectible blue car.
“Well, now there ain’t any more buses till 5 o’clock. You’re gonna get awful cold sitting out here for two hours. It won’t even be light.”
“I wonder if the bus-cleaning people would-“
“Nope. I tried that one time and they won’t allow anybody to ride in the truck with them. I even told them I’d ride in the back with the brushes and they said it’s against the rules because it isn’t safe.”
“I’d ask you to come with me but I don’t know you and my brother gets pretty mad when I bring someone home from the bus and I don’t know them.”
“No, no, of course I can’t go home with you. Your cat might get upset, your brother would get upset and who knows what else.” The old man laughed.
“Nice of you to say that. Can you call somebody to come get you? A cab or some friend of yours?”
“Maybe I will. I’ve got a friend who owes me some favors.” The old man saw his brother at the end of the aisle and sped up.
“You take good care of that car with the warming-up seats and the roof that opens,” he said, squeezing Clement’s arm.
“Yeah. I will.” Clement climbed down from the bus, watched the driver get into the blue car and watched the old man get into his brother’s Jeep. “You know what? I’m going to call someone. I’m going to call my good friend, Jeff. Then Jeff can drive me over to his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend’s office and he can either sit in the car and wait for me or he can hold my hand while I go through the drawers to find the pictures that aren’t even there. And if there’s a gun in the desk then I’m going to shoot Jeff with it after I beat him to death. Because I spent the whole night out here when I could have been home eating Fiddle-Faddle and watching BattleStar Gallactica. Now where in the hell-?” In one pocket, he had a ten, a five, and three ones. In the other pocket was a bus ticket, three dimes, and seven pennies. “Holy crap! Where’s my phone? Oh Lord, whisper to me that I didn’t lose it somewhere and I just left it in the car. Please tell me that.” He looked in both jacket pockets again and his pants pockets. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I’ll find a payphone and call Jeff. I don’t need speed-dial; he’s my old buddy, Jeff.” He looked at the change in his hand again, dropped it back into his pocket, and started walking.

The bus had stopped in an industrial area; the workshops, warehouses, and concomitant businesses were all shut for the night. Clement had reached 172nd and Mill before he saw the first lights spilling through the windows of places that were open.
“Geez, my feet are killing me. I didn’t know I was gonna walk a marathon or I’d have dressed for it.” He patted his stomach. “Easy, easy. You need some coffee and some food and you’re gonna be just fine.” He looked at his watch. 4 a.m. “You just have to find someplace to kill an hour then you can use your bus ticket and go home and what? Call into work sick for a start. Then find my old buddy, Jeff, and beat him to death with my shoe.” Ahead he saw the welcoming sign of a Shari’s(3) and he limped through the doors and stood, swaying a little, beside the “Please wait to be seated” sign. “That’s what I told him. I said, ‘I don’t care what your old girlfriend used to do. I’m not doing that and if you want to break up with me then that’s just fine.’ I happen to think some things are private and shouldn’t be shared with other people. I mean, don’t you think so?”
“What did he want you to do? “ The young woman wiping down the counter and the older one arranging pies in a glass case noticed Clement leaning on the sign. They stopped talking and the younger one came over to him.
“One for breakfast?” Clement looked around.
“Yeah, just me.”
“Expecting anyone else?”
“No. If that’s okay.”
“Doesn’t matter to me. I just asked because if you were expecting a lot of people then I’d put you at a bigger table. If it’s just you then you can have a double.”
“Could I have a table by the wall instead of in the middle of the room, please?”
“Whatever you say.” She winked at the older woman who had stopped moving the pies and had taken up the rag and spray for the counter. “You wanna be able to keep an eye on the door, too?” Clement heard the older woman snort.
“That’s not necessary. I just find that some restaurants have more of a draft in the middle of the room and since I just came in from outside I’d prefer to be warmer rather than colder.”
“Is it cold? What is the weather like out there?”
“Oh, yeah. That’s funny.” Clement settled against the back of the booth and she was back with a menu. “We’ve got breakfast all day and we also have pies.” She licked her lips and rolled her eyes up as if the list was written in the air. “Banana cream, coconut cream, lemon meringue, cherry meringue, cherry rhubarb, blueberry rhubarb, strawberry, and peanut butter banana.”
“Are you ready?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“I want two strips of bacon, crispy, and two eggs over medium. I want them firm but with the yolk just a little runny so I have something to sop up with the toast. I do not on any account want sourdough bread so if you go back there and you’re out of whole wheat then I want hash browns instead and I want Tabasco sauce for the hash browns. I wanna start out with a big cup of coffee and some cream.”
“Geez, okay.” She put the order slip on the wheel above the pass-through and went back to wiping down the counter.
“So? What was it he wanted you to do?”
“Come here and I’ll tell you.”
Her voice became inaudible for a second then Clement heard the older woman say, “Ewww! I don’t blame you! I’d break up with him too.” The younger woman laughed.
“Well, he says his old girlfriend did it all the time and it isn’t any big deal.”
“Do you want to do it?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t really want to break up with him and if she did it all the time then maybe it’s just me and I need to grow up.”
“That’s what we say all the time, isn’t it? Some guy will beat a girl black and blue and she’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s just me’.”
“He’s not like that. He’s really nice.”
“Well, it’s up to you.” Clement closed his eyes and let his weight sag against the seat and the window. He smelled the coffee and heard the chink of the mug as it was set down but he didn’t open his eyes. Some time later he smelled the rest of his breakfast but it became part of a dream in which he was chasing pigs and trying to put Tabasco sauce on their tails to keep them from flying away.

“He’s been like that for about an hour. He looked okay when he came in- maybe a little weird- and he gave me his order and he was kind of grouchy and then he just fell over. I thought maybe he was asleep.”
“It’s not food poisoning. I can guarantee it’s not food poisoning because everything is made fresh and he didn’t even eat anything. Caroline brought it over and put it down but his fork is even still clean. See?”
“He just fell over like that and I thought well maybe he’s taking a little rest and then he’s gonna eat and then he never did. I waited and waited and I thought I didn’t wanna call 911 if it wasn’t really an emergency and then thank God you guys came in so I asked you to look at him.”
“You did fine, ma’am. That’s one of the reasons we like to spend time in a place like this; if we’re out here then maybe we can help somebody.”
“Yeah, it’s got nothing to do with actually consuming food. Lucky for us.”
“I’m gonna need you to step back, ma’am. If this gentleman passed out here, there could be a lot of different reasons for it. There’s a lot of unusual people walking around this time of night. You probably see that every night.”
“Well, we know it’s not food poisoning. He might be on drugs or something but he didn’t eat anything and you can see his fork is clean.”
“Now, sir, I’m going to check your pulse and your breathing. I’m not arresting you. I’m not going to hurt you. I just need to make sure you’re alive and that you’re all right.”
“He isn’t dead, is he? I mean he wasn’t snoring and maybe when I saw he wasn’t snoring I should have called 911. I’m going to be so fired if he’s dead.”
“He isn’t dead. He has a pulse. It’s a bit slow but that’s to be expected if he’s been here and out as long as you say. He seems to be breathing fine so I’m going to try to wake him up now. I need you two ladies to step way back. If he is on drugs or might be having some kind of mental issues then we have no way of knowing what might happen when I try this.” Caroline took one step back. Susan went behind the counter, took up a coffee-pot and started topping up the customers who were watching but trying to pretend they weren’t. “Sir, I’m going to need you to try to wake up now.” He reached over and gently shook Clement’s arm. “Josh, let’s see if we can sit him up a little bit. If we end up carrying him out of here it’s gonna be a lot harder with him partly under the table like that. Is there anybody at the table behind us? Okay then reach over the back of the seat and see if you can get under his right arm and I’ll get under the left one. We’ll lift on the count of three. Ready? One. Two. Three. He’s sitting up but he still didn’t wake up. This guy is really out of it.”
“I say we get a pan out of the kitchen and fill it with warm water and stick his hand in it. Always worked before.”
“Sir, I need you to try to wake up now. I’m going to gently tap the side of your face and then I’m going to shake your arm a little bit more. You’re really starting to scare these ladies and that’s not fair. They’re trying to do a good job of serving people breakfast. They’re going to need this table and they need to be able to pay attention to their work. It’s hard to do that when there’s something like this going on. The breakfast rush really starts at six and this place is going to be packed.”
“What time did you say it was?”
“Don’t try to stand up, sir. We’re not quite sure what happened to you.”
“What time is it?”
“It’s about five minutes to six. What’s your name? Do you know where you are?”
“My name is Clement Powell and I’m in hell, obviously.”
“Well, he’s awake and talking but he seems disoriented.”
“Not necessarily. I wake up in hell every day; Why shouldn’t he?”
“It’s not hell, Josh. It’s just Five Corners. Sir, can you tell me why you think you’re in hell? Did you have anything unusual to eat or drink this evening uh last evening?”
“I had a cherry fruit pie and a Coke. They tried to give me some poppers but I didn’t want them. I didn’t think they were fresh.”
“With the jalapeno and the cream cheese and the grape jelly. A Mexican kid gave me some poppers and I didn’t eat them and he threw grape jelly at me and it got on my shoes.”
“Sounds reasonable. I like mine with ranch dressing but yeah grape jelly would be all right.”
“Sir, why did you say you think you’re in hell?”
“Is he really gonna be okay? Because if he’s really going to be okay then I should probably go help set up tables or top up coffee or something.”
“It looks like he’s going to be okay. His eyes look okay. If I need any more help, I’ll call you.” He smiled. Caroline picked up the other coffee-pot and joined Susan in her rounds. Their heads were together almost at once.
“I didn’t say I think I’m in hell. You asked me did I know where I am and I said I was in hell.”
“Oh, yeah. Why are you in hell?”
“If you’d had a night like I have then you’d know. If anyone had had a night like I’ve had. I just want to go home.”
“Is there some medication you’re supposed to be taking? Would you like me to have Caroline bring you some fresh coffee so you can take it?”
“No no. There isn’t any medication. I haven’t taken any drugs. I had a Coke hours ago and I haven’t even had any of this coffee. I just want to go home. I want this night to end.”
“Why don’t you go home? Why are you sleeping in a Shari’s?”
“Josh. Did something happen, sir? Is that why you couldn’t go home?”
“Yes, something happened. The damn buses quit running. It was 3 a.m., I was in the middle of nowhere, the bus driver went home to sleep with his girlfriend, the old man went home to feed his cat, and I had no change. Again. I’m going to get two quarters and tape them to the inside of my shoe- as soon as I’m done beating Jeff to death with it- and then I won’t have to worry about it.”
“Susan, could we get a fresh cup of coffee over here? Maybe one of those sticky buns?”
“I’d like one of those sticky buns.”
“You can order your own breakfast. Just sit over there. I want to talk with this gentleman a little more. Cream? Susan, cream too please.”
When they had dressed their coffee, Clement said, “Look, it’s nice of you to get me coffee and a pastry but I really just want to go home. Okay? I’m tired. It’s been a long night. I just want to go home. You said it’s six so that means the buses are running again. I have a bus ticket so I’ll just pay for my breakfast and find the nearest stop and go home.”
“You’re going to get home but why don’t you eat a little bit of that bun and have some coffee and tell me more about you and Jeff. Did you guys have a fight?”
“No no. Jeff is a friend of mine. We’re not mad at each other. I’m not mad at him. I didn’t mean what I said before. I’m tired and I’ve had a frustrating night and he’s just the person I decided to blame it on.”
“Why were you riding the bus at three in the morning?”
“I dropped my car off at the repair place and then I decided I wanted to go somewhere to think. I don’t drink and I wasn’t hungry and a former girlfriend of mine was always bitching at me for driving everywhere instead of riding the bus so I decided to see what it was like to ride the bus.”
“You’ve never ridden the bus before?”
“Oh yeah, years ago. But I hadn’t done it lately. I didn’t know what it was like now. It’s pretty nice. The seats are better.”
“What time did you get on the bus? You want more coffee?”
“Yes. I got on the bus around 11:30, midnight.”
“Why so late? Isn’t that kind of an unusual time to be dropping off a car?”
“Well, yeah. See I hadn’t really decided if it was bad enough to go in. I wanted to drive it around, think it over. As I was driving along, I thought, ‘What the hell are you waiting for? You want to wait till you have to be towed in from somewhere?’”
“At three in the morning?”
“Exactly.” Clement laughed. He sipped his coffee and wiped his mouth with his napkin.
“Okay, here’s the thing, Mr. Powell. Your story is kind of odd. Actually, it’s very odd. You haven’t done anything though except ride on the bus and fall asleep in the Shari’s and that’s not illegal. I don’t think you meant to fall asleep here; You don’t seem to be homeless. You really scared the young lady there and I think it would be very nice if you gave her a big tip. If there had been something wrong with you, she might have saved your life.”
“Yeah, if she’d actually called 911.”
“So, you’re letting me go home?”
“You can go home but I don’t feel comfortable just waving bye-bye from the door there. Is there someone you can call to come get you?”
“Yeah, but I really hate to bother anybody. They’ll be on their way to work or getting ready to go to work or stuck in the drive-up line at Starbucks and it’ll really be a headache. I’ve got a bus ticket. Can’t I just take the bus?”
“Josh can come back for his hash browns and we’ll give you a ride to the bus stop and wait while you get on. The guys at the transit center will make sure you get on the bus at that end. Which one are you taking home?”
“The um 19?”
“There aren’t many riders on the 19 at this time of day so it will be easy for the transit folks to keep an eye on you and make sure you’re okay. Josh?”
“Geez, I didn’t get the hot sauce mixed in yet. I’m gonna come back and they’ll be greasy and the hot sauce is gonna slide right off.”
“Okay, now, the nearest stop is a block and a half. Sorry you have to ride in the back.”
“It’s not the most comfortable but you clean it out, right?”
“Oh yeah, we hose it out every two hours. You see the game last night? Or were you already riding the buses?”
“No, I didn’t see it.”
“Then you probably didn’t have any money on it. Did you?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“These effing guys. They’re favored by seven so I’m thinking, ‘It’s a touchdown and an extra point so how hard can it be?’”
“So what happened?”
“I’ll tell you what happened.”
“We’re almost to your stop, Mr. Powell.”
“What happened is just when they’re lined up and they’re ready to make the extra point some crazy bit- um lady runs out onto the field naked and starts trying to tear down the goal post.”
“I thought they had those special goal posts you can’t tear down.”
“I said she ‘tried’ to tear down the goal post.”
“Here we are.”
“So what happened?”
“Well, there she is as naked as a monkey’s butt and they’re trying to take her off the field but they can’t show them trying to take her off the field because, of course, she’s naked and they go to a commercial and they come out of the commercial into the middle of another game.”
“Did they win? Did you get the seven points?”
“Hell no. It took the whole heart out of the game. They lost by three.”
“That’s too bad.”
“You’re telling me. That was fifty bucks I had to eat.”
“Well, that’s why they call it gambling, right? Is this my bus?”
“Yes, it is. This will take you right down to the transit center then you get on the 19 and you’re home. Are you picking up your car today?”
“I hoped to.”
“I’d recommend getting some more food and sleep before you try to drive anywhere. I don’t want to have to come look at you again.”
“Nice meeting you.”
“Yeah. Good luck with the team.”
“Yeah. It’s up and down.”
“Take care of yourself, Mr. Powell.”
“Oh, I intend to.” They watched him board the bus then signaled left for the Shari’s.

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