by Joe Killiany
I usually ate lunch at the mall. It was close by and cheap. Sure, I should've supported the little sub shop across the street, the one run by the nice Indian couple, but their sandwiches were a bit too expensive, the highway often too congested to cross comfortably. Plus the place constantly teemed with customers, no one ever knowing who arrived before whom. Without fail, this lack of organization led to a series of stammered through exchanges, or just as often, my floating to the back of the room until it emptied enough to order without talking about it.
The mall, on the other hand, offered an array of moderately priced if mediocre meals: nothing kicked up the saliva glands on approach, but none of the food induced vomiting. Its prison cafeteria aesthetic didn't add to its draw, even with the neon lights above each station. But, whenever I ate there, I could find a seat alone, sequestered from sullen soccer moms and men in bad suits, simply by avoiding the hour between noon and one. The place was so DC that even if I'd mugged someone in line they wouldn't have bothered speaking to me.
That's why it was odd when the bald guy and I arrived at the same table at the same time.
“Can I join you?” he asked.
It caught me off guard. In the year I'd eaten there, no one had ever asked to sit with me. I eyed the army of empty tables around us, their surfaces so clean they gleamed like blacktop in the desert sun. Why did he want to share? I tried to come up with a valid excuse to turn him down. But, with only a second to think, everything I thought of seemed rude or paranoid.
“Don't worry,” he said reading the suspicion in my face. “I don't talk much.”
He wasn't lying. We sat down and neither of us said a word. In fact, he seemed to forget me the second his ass hit the chair. He just started staring across the food court. A moment of quiet morphed into an uncomfortable silence. I pulled a book from my bag and glanced over the top of it as I looked for my place: late forties, male pattern baldness, a blue polo shirt that had seen better days, and a silver ID bracelet dangling from his left wrist. If he felt my eyes on him he didn't show it; he just sat there, staring. Not that it bothered me. Some people stare. Besides, it implied he didn't want to talk and to be honest neither did I.
But as soon as I found my chapter, I started thinking: is it odd we're sitting here not speaking? Don't I always say I should be more willing to talk to strangers? That I have to get past my social nervousness before I turn thirty if I ever want to accomplish anything?
So I asked where he got his baked beans.
He pointed toward a BBQ pavilion that I avoided. “I eat what I want to eat,” he said, glancing at my California Chicken Salad with equal amounts of confusion and concern.
Apparently he had nothing further to say on the subject because he quickly started staring again. I reopened Zuckerman Unbound and tried to read, but it seemed silly. I mean I was sitting at the table with the guy. I couldn't pretend I was alone even if that's what I wanted. I felt an overwhelming obligation to make chitchat.
I asked if he lived nearby.
“Yes,” he said, his face lighting up and his eyes turning to mine. “Right around the corner. In a wonderful apartment. The bathtub has a kind of gloss on it that keeps it from getting dirty. I forget what it's called. Do you know?”
I said I didn't. He looked disappointed though he didn't say so, just went back to staring. Despite my nervousness, my worry that our conversation would become just that, an actual conversation, which would require me to present ideas and notions, perhaps about things I knew nothing about, his reticence sharpened my determination. I gave it a second to not seem anxious and asked if he worked nearby.
He responded by raising a finger, like he wanted me to give him a second.
“Can't talk sometimes,” he said in a near whisper. Before I could adequately freak out at the statement, he followed it up with, “That's not true. I can talk whenever I want. Why did I just say that?”
I told him I didn't know.
“I'm sorry. I'm just angry right now.”
I asked why.
“I can't say. I'm sorry. If you give me a minute to put it together, though, I'll tell you.”
So he started staring again, only not blankly this time. I could see his eyes working, mulling things over, tinkering with the words he wanted to use. His mouth, a flat line until then, curved upward for a moment and took nearly ten years off his face. But the grin reversed itself just as soon as it had appeared, like Baldy's lips had gained twenty pounds in two seconds.
Finally, he took a deep breath and said the following:
“I'm angry because I went for a walk. And I ended up at this brook. This little river. Maybe it was more of a stream. I took off my shoes and I went in. And the rocks on my feet.” He held out his left hand, palm down, and pushed at it with the fingers of his right hand. “They felt on my feet…they felt good. The water was cold and the rocks going into my feet felt good. I felt good. But then I got out and started walking home and I got that song in my head. You know that song, 'Walking on Broken Glass?' Do you know that song? Well, I got that song in my head and it was telling me that I couldn't like the way those rocks felt. That I couldn't like the way those rocks felt. That I couldn't like the way those rocks felt.”
That's exactly how he said it. Three times. With the rhythm of a skipping record, like some kind of weird incantation, his eyes full of fire, his fists clenched into mallets.
I stood up so fast my chair tipped backwards. Glances from an army of sullen soccer moms and men in bad suits ricocheted off my back. And now it was my turn to stare, directly at my untouched salad, as I told him I had to get back to work. At some point, on my march out of the food court, I dumped my lunch into a garbage can, tray and all.
I hit the bookstore a couple hundred feet away before looking up. Halfway through the fiction section I realized that I'd left my book at the table. I stopped dead and stood in the shadow of a wall full of authors I someday hoped to join. For a second, maybe a bit longer, I thought about going back, for the book and to apologize. I felt like I'd done something wrong but I couldn't say what, or put it into words that made any sense.
So instead I went to a shelf and pulled down a new copy. I started flipping through the pages, intending to pick up where I'd left off, but I never found my place, much less read. Rather, I stared off into space, looking past the bookstore, through its faux mahogany walls, and into the food court, searching for a man who couldn't walk on rocks, sitting alone at a table feeling angry.