by Louis Wittig
Jim Manzlyk did not see the cop car idling under the lamp post in the parking lot on his left. Or his Grand Am’s speedometer, or the blinking yellow traffic light, or the curb. He saw the Taco Bell and when it filled the windshield he slammed the brakes.
Hurtling out of the car he grabbed the restaurant’s locked front door with both hands and jerked back with all his weight. He sprinted around back, praying under his breath and sweating everywhere else. The drive-thru window was dark. Still, he wheezed up to it and peered in. A perfunctory fluorescent bulb hidden deep in the kitchen dropped threads of pale light along the edges of wire shelves and sleeping registers. Jim pushed up onto his tiptoes and wrestled back his breath so he wouldn’t fog the glass.
He needed an angle or shape or clue or anything to surface from the shadows and show him that this was the Taco Bell he had been at two days ago. He would have settled for anything that suggested it wasn’t one of the six other Taco Bells he’d tried since midnight. He just couldn’t tell.
It was at that same time of night, years ago, that Jim had pulled in to a rest stop on I-90 for a Coke. As he waited in line to pay, an old man sidled up next to him and claimed that his brother-in-law swore that he could taste the difference between bottles of Coke.
“Like they were bottles of wine. Can you believe that?”
No, Jim couldn’t. But the old man’s eyes had grown in anticipation of Jim’s answer, so he said the man’s brother-in-law should work for Coke, as a taster.
“Oh, he died years ago,” said the coot, unmoved. “Heart attack.”
This memory floated up underneath the silhouettes of upturned chairs and stacked trays like the ghost images in those Magic Eye puzzles that eluded and humiliated him for a brief period in the ‘90s. Higher on his tiptoes now, Jim’s calves were burning. The thought slipped out that all these places were identical.
He knew that wasn’t true. It had been the day before yesterday, driving down Central Avenue after lunch, when Jim had seen the cheddar orange blur of a Taco Bell roof out of the corner of his eye. It was unexpected and obscured behind a Mr. Subb he knew well. It must have been new. Jim had already eaten, but it had been forever since he’d been to Taco Bell. He turned around at the next light.
Before he got up to the counter he was already thinking he should leave. Just from the walls—lush red and irregular like hand-smeared clay—he suspected that he’d wandered into an unadvertised line of members-only Taco Bells. The windows flared into Mission-style arches with crosses at the top. Between the windows, framed black and white photos of single clouds in desert skies and soulful pottery forced him to consider the alternate possibility that Taco Bell had been bought out by a chain of art galleries. Either way, he was about to head back to the door when he saw the only other customers: Two black kids, boys, one older and one younger, leaning over a table, concentrating on a wordless game of rock–scissors–paper.
“Welcome, sir,” said a voice from behind, jangling Jim. “Is there any way in which I might help you?” The voice had a British accent.
Jim turned around and the man behind the counter put down the lint roller he had been working over his uniform. He looked like Santa Claus’ aristocratic older brother—slimmer, with a cleaner, closer beard—but every bit as sincere; maybe more. His nametag said Gordon.
“We’re serving our complete menu today,” Gordon chuckled.
Jim ordered a chicken quesadilla combo with a crunchy taco: a pure reflex.
“Excellent, sir. You are number 175,” Gordon nodded towards the pick-up end of the formica bar. “Shaniqua will serve you shortly.” Gordon resumed his grooming.
Jim meandered down-counter, running his fingers idly along the condiment station and bringing them up cleaner than they’d gone down. He noticed the two boys weren’t playing anymore. The older one had curled up into a peanut on the seat and fallen asleep. The younger one had disappeared.
“175.” Shaniqua called it out like a nickname she had made up for him. Jim looked up and beheld her. She was so lithe and perfectly proportioned that if she had been playing an employee on a Taco Bell commercial, he would have taken it as insult to his intelligence. She held his tray out to him with elegance. And just as he took it, the small boy darted out from where he’d been huddling behind her leg, vaulted himself up on the counter and shouted, “175!”
He fell back laughing and darted away into the kitchen.
“I’m sorry sir, I could just not find a sitter today. Now let me guess: You’re a hot man.”
Before Jim could stammer, she was sprinkling a handful of hot-sauce packets on his tray. Jim was actually a mild-sauce man, which made him love it even more.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” she asked.
“Not that I can think of,” he said.
It was true. He couldn’t think of a thing. He felt that his mind had been washed, dried, fluffed and folded. Jim floated back to a corner booth. The dining room and the world outside it—barely distinct through the current of late afternoon light coming in through the window—relaxed as he did. His combo was exactly the same soft, unctuous consolation it had always been and would be forever.
He did not feel like leaving when he had finished. He bussed his tray and refilled his Wild Cherry Pepsi twice and sat, and he still did not feel like leaving. There was no one looking back at him. No glances wondering what kind of hopeless loser finds a Taco Bell comfortable, or thinking he might be homeless.
On the periphery of his hearing, Gordon murmured a joke and Shaniqua laughed. The hush that followed in the subsequent hours that Jim sat, then slouched, then laid there with his back against the wall, arms on the table and over the back of the seat—felt like a quiet dip in a conversation between him, Gordon, Shaniqua and the Yum! Brands corporation. Jim missed a meeting that afternoon, hanging out in a Taco Bell.
Jim never would have combined the words like that, or said them out loud. Nonetheless it was true. Jim believed in Taco Bell. Always had. And in McDonald’s and Burger King and Wendy’s and Pizza Hut and KFC and Arthur Treacher’s and Nathan’s and all their competitors, always and everywhere.
Deep in the flickering ball of Christmas lights that made up the sum total of Jim’s existence, three neurons had knotted. One was a half-second memory of his mother holding his hand and opening a Dairy Queen door. The second one glowed blue with 39 years of commercials, playing and promising in an ever lengthening loop. The last held the chemically coded taste of a perfectly salted French fry.
This little lump was the nub of Jim’s faith that the McRib sandwich would taste as good as it looked on the commercials; that he deserved a break today; that the 11 herbs and spices represented a genuine mystery; that individual locations were part of something larger than themselves, and that chains had discernable personalities; that the high-school girls running the registers upsold you because they wanted you to get the better deal.
It was a difficult faith to keep when staring down urine-draped toilet seats in anarchic bathrooms and surly 17-year-olds who shouted “Have a nice day” as they looked right through you. It wobbled when he opened his Popeye’s bag to find they’d forgotten his biscuits and the only thing he had wanted had been those biscuits. It deserted him entirely after each meal and left him squirming on the toilet at home, feeling like a demon was inflating the spare tire around his waist.
Yet it was never away for more than a few hours. And even while it was gone, the hope that it rested on remained: The hope that somehow these places knew him as well as he knew them. Lolling his head around the dining room it seemed, for the first time, a reasonable hope.
Jim was able to leave only by planning when he’d be back. He didn’t want to ruin the experience by getting sick of the food. He decided to come back for lunch the day after next. When he did, he found the doors locked and the lights off. The day after that it had become a Lens Crafters.
Back in his apartment that night, Jim clearly remembered passing the Taco Bell behind the Mr. Subb on Central, but the only explanation that made sense was that he did not actually remember this, and that his Taco Bell was actually inside one of the half-dozen other Albany County Taco Bells he knew. Traffic was light this late. He could check them out and still be back for SportsCenter.
What snapped Jim away from the nebulous kitchen was not what the officer said, but the officer’s laughter.
Jim tripped backwards off his toes and tried to stammer out that he was looking for a friend. The cop cut Jim off, to tell him how hilarious he’d been.
“Like a pig on two legs with its snout pressed—”
Laughter was coming out of the cop’s nose. When he collected himself, eventually, he made Jim recite the alphabet backwards and left him with a ticket for reckless driving.
Google could only find one record of a Taco Bell on Central Avenue, and it was for a Taco Bell on a Central Avenue in a city in Indiana that Jim had never heard of. He eventually did get an actual person on the line at 1-800-TACO-BELL: a Hindu voice that rounded her vowels into pearls and identified herself as Roxy. Jim explained and Roxy listened so intently, he thought, that when he stopped to breathe he could hear through her, to the tiny sound of phones ringing in the background.
She asked him how he would rate his experience at Taco Bell: poor, fair, good or excellent? Definitely excellent. She quizzed him on cleanliness and customer safety measures. Excellent. Excellent. Excellent. He asked if all of these excellents would mean raises for Gordon and Shaniqua. Roxy dropped away into silence. After a moment, she admitted that her system did not contain the names of individual Taco Bell team members. Nor could she find any Taco Bell locations on Central Avenue in Albany. But his survey participation was very important in improving customer satisfaction throughout all Taco Bell restaurants. If he would provide his e-mail address, Roxy said, she would like to e-mail him a coupon for a free soft or crunchy taco, for his feedback. Jim accepted only reluctantly.
He didn’t have any use for it. He went back to the Lens Crafters once. He tried on sunglasses, and tried to think of a reason why they would know anything about the previous tenants, until a woman in white coat asked if she could help him. “Just looking,” he mumbled, and hustled out.
On a Saturday, on the desperate chance that Yum! Brands had forced his Taco Bell to convert and relocate, Jim drove two hours to a new KFC in Syracuse and strained to hear an accent over the drive–thru intercom. Peeling away and gunning it out into the wide open range of the weekend afternoon, Jim told himself that these places had been lying to him his whole life. But what was he going to do about it? He had to eat.
A chicken place opened next to Jim’s office. He couldn’t leave the building without passing it, or the button–sized Mexican woman who stood in front holding out $1–off “Grund Opening” coupons. He took one once and carelessly looked her in her needy eyes. Then he felt obliged to eat their mangy popcorn chicken for lunch every day until a rainy afternoon forced her off the sidewalk, after which point he took to walking on the other side of the street.
No place else stuck. Jim’s colon was getting too old for McDonald’s more than twice a week. Burger King had gone the way of the buffalo. Arby’s was a roast beef novelty act. Subway was a refreshing change of pace. Jim felt healthy just for opening the door. Yet no matter how much rehearsed his order in his head—Italian bread, footlong, Italian sandwich, green peppers, extra olive oil—when he got to the front of the line he always blurted out the sandwich type before the bread, and the kid behind the counter would look at him like he was wearing a unitard. Denny’s reminded him how nice it was to be served. At the one on Wolf Road Jim could get a Grand Slam and a coffee, and if they weren’t busy, the waitresses would keep refilling him, without attitude, all night. If they were busy, though, they would stick him at a table in the middle of the floor and it would be like eating pancakes in a crowded hallway, and he could be left there dangling over his empty plate for 45 minutes until they brought him his check.
Rolling out from a Dunkin Donuts lot and onto Madison Ave after dinner one night, Jim’s half-full Pepsi tipped out of the cup holder and spilled on his leg. Irritated by the moisture nipping through his jeans, he clenched his tongue against the roof of mouth and tasted the dull fructose sap lingering there. And it just popped into his head: He was tasting the Pepsi through his skin.
He bantered with the idea like it was an absurd and giddy companion. He could turn his new talent in to a county fair freak show act. Or he and the guy who could distinguish between bottles of Coke could form a superhero team and use their powers to solve soft–drink related crimes.
The chance appearance of the memory of the Coke man choked off Jim’s good mood. He still didn’t believe such powers were possible. He’d seen the inside of a bottling plant on the Discovery Channel once: neatly stacked to the warehouse rafters with stainless steel monoliths hissing and spinning out an immeasurable chain of black bottles. What was ominous about this memory now was that it suddenly came with a fizzling hope that he was wrong, and that each sloshing plastic tub could have more to it than that.
Who was this Coke idiot anyway? A total nut job. A shut–in who assaulted the attention of relatives with preposterous claims. Maybe it was possible that he had, once, gotten a bottle with a half–ounce more corn syrup than usual and being an isolated kook to begin with, had spun out that instant of sensory flux into an ornate delusion, festooning it for the rest of his life with mundane distinctions until it grew to be the only thing that people could remember about him even a few months after he died. Jim was still thinking about this when he blew past the turn for his apartment complex.
And he hadn’t entirely squeezed it out of his head by the time he marched into Price Chopper ready to cook for himself. He stumbled early on in the produce department, forcing himself to search for an unintimidating green vegetable until he realized he’s been there for 20 minutes, and if he didn’t pick up something soon, someone would think he was a retarded employee. He fled the area with a bag of Granny Smith apples. Jim fought the urge to beeline for frozen foods. Things got baffling in the bakery department and he took three redundant loaves of bread. By the dairy section he was in despair. He saw the only thing he could make from the mess he’d gathered were apple sandwiches on paper plates with baking soda on the side. He seized an armload of Hamburger Helper boxes and five pounds of ground beef and kept his head down at checkout.
It turned out great, actually. The slow sound of simmering meat in his long silent kitchen reminded Jim of a crackling fireplace. Chili Cheese, Double Cheeseburger Mac, Cheesy Italian Shells and Cheesy Hashbrown took their places in the rotation. Each tucked an identical warm, saline blanket over Jim’s tongue, which juxtaposed perfectly with the sweet bite of the Granny Smiths he cut up. So perfectly, that he was sure he was taking his life in the right direction when he decided to slice the apples directly into the Hamburger Helper. The next night he was at Wendy’s.
Jim would have told you that he’d forgotten his Taco Bell right up until he saw the sign. It was almost six. A wall of clouds that had been incipient all day was finally pushing over downtown. The last state workers leaving out North Pearl Street towards 787 flicked their headlights on against the gloaming. Rain was already falling when Jim hurried out of his lawyer’s building onto the alley where he’d parked. As he hesitated in the doorway he glanced over and saw a sheet of copy paper taped to the faded-yellow brick office building across the way, with a hand drawn purple arrow pointing to a service door.
It was the particular purpleness of the arrow that drew Jim down a series of cinderblock hallways, to an old marble lobby, to another arrow, pointing up, taped to the desk of a sleeping security guard. He rode the shoebox elevator to every floor and searched. The hallways were over-carpeted and airless. The opaque windows set in the ancient wooden doors looked like they should have had private detectives’ names stenciled on them, but had nothing. The only difference on the top floor was that at the end of the last hall there was an aluminum–framed glass panel door pouring out white light. And through it was Gordon, standing square behind the register.
“Our first customer of the day! Welcome!” he called as Jim tentatively made his way to the counter.
Shaniqua appeared from the kitchen with her thumb in an accounting textbook.
“What a treat,” she said. “I better plug in the microwave.”
Jim wasn’t entirely speechless. He could order a number seven combo. He couldn’t tell whether either of them remembered him. Shaniqua held a tender, mothering note in her voice as called his number. That could have been the way she always was though. Jim wanted to ask her about what had happened on Central, but not as badly as he thought he would. What he desperately wanted to ask her was how she was, what she was doing with her life, and how the boys were. Of course, if she didn’t remember him, this would make him a stalker.
“This is a strange space,” is what he managed to get out as she was turning back to the kitchen.
“Yeah, it is. Mr. Abdulkawan, he’s the franchisee, you could say he has a different business sense.”
The dining room was a mustard yellow box that had until recently been a waiting room in the office of an ancient and lonely doctor. Three booths huddled against the far wall. In front of them a single table tilted on the uneven floor. The only window was only part of a window, in the far corner, halved by the butt end of a hastily thrown-up sheetrock wall. The counter had never been meant for exchanging anything larger than insurance forms. If Gordon was working the register and Shaniqua calling out orders they would be shoulder to shoulder. Just to the right of the door, the hallway to the exam rooms was blocked by a bank of soda dispensers. A universe of incongruities had been miniaturized in here. To Jim, it was majestic.
He took the window booth, knowing that he should have been panicking. As he ate, he reminded himself that this could be a dream and that even if it wasn’t, he would have to leave soon and this should terrify him. At the same time his head felt so pleasantly, thickly creamy, like a vat of melted cheese being stirred slowly and rhythmically, that all his efforts at reason dissolved.
He was asleep on his arms before his quesadilla was even out of the wrapper. When he woke, hours later the room was dim, except for a small light in the kitchen they had left on for him, and a Styrofoam doggie-bag box perched by his elbow, with a note taped on:
“The door locks behind you. We open tomorrow morning at 8. J”
Jim was back at 7:45. Gordon was already there, scrambling eggs for a special southwest breakfast burrito that wasn’t technically on the menu. Jim returned at breakfast—and dinnertime—for weeks. Neither Gordon nor Shaniqua ever mentioned his nap. They remained bafflingly polite. When Jim got sick of tacos they didn’t mind that he bought in McDonald’s.
The only thing was, the small talk never grew. Jim took comfort in the fact that they weren’t any closer to the handful of other customers. From his window booth, Jim saw a young man in a black double-breasted suit attempt to pay for a grilled stuffed burrito with a succession of maxed-out credit cards. He apologized as Gordon handed each one back, confessing first that he wasn’t good at juggling so many cards; then that he was a complete and total fraud; and finally, that he was poor.
“No problem, sir. It costs Taco Bell about 15-cents to make these things,” was all Gordon said. Shaniqua handed the man his to-go bag.
Then there was the old harpy. She came in, ordered, then returned her nachos supreme without touching them and sat back in her chair, sideways, waiting for her replacement like a gray flannel idol expecting a sacrifice. And Shaniqua sacrificed: she came out, put the new nachos on the table and kneeled in front of the old woman. She took the old woman’s nearly transparent hand in hers and squeezed gently.
“I am so sorry,” Shaniqua said. “You need low-fat sour cream. I know how it is. My aunt has high cholesterol, too.”
The woman mumbled for a moment and gazed over Shaniqua’s shoulder; partly embarrassed by the sincerity, partly stunned, as if she was seeing every eye-rolling salesgirl and non–English proficient gas station attendant she had suffered in her excruciatingly long life forming a line behind Shaniqua, waiting for their turn to apologize. Shaniqua held the woman’s hand for ten minutes.
Jim did what he could to pry at the margins of Gordon and Shaniqua’s pleasantries. How was Mr. Abdulkawan doing these days? How long had they been at this location? Their customer-service jujitsu was flawless.
“Feels like we’ve been here forever,” Gordon would say and chuckle. “That’s the way it is with work, right sir?” All he could find out about Mr. Abdulkawan was that he rarely came by.
Not long after he had decided to stop nursing his curiosity, Jim went for a Pepsi refill on his way out. The plastic nozzle coughed as he poked his cup under it, and what came out was still and bitter. Shaniqua and Gordon were back in the kitchen. Jim didn’t feel right bothering them. It stayed broken for weeks.
Gordon was astonished when Jim finally told him. He tipped himself a cup and sipped thoughtfully, swishing and squinting more than he had to.
“I don’t know sir,” Gordon shrugged. “Tastes about right to me.”
Jim took Gordon’s cup and took a swig for himself.
“Are you sure? It’s not even carbonated,” said Jim.
“I could have Mr. Abdulkawan check the hoses when he comes in.”
“But it tastes fine to you as it is right now?”
“It tastes like Pepsi.”
Gordon apologized for the difference of opinion. He reached behind the counter and came back with one of the large-size plastic cups. He presented it to Jim.
“For our best customer,” said Gordon, tapping his high–beam smile. “We really are sorry for the inconvenience. But consider this good for life. Any beverage. Any time. Complimentary.”
Normally he liked these cups, for their durability and how they commemorated meals he would have otherwise forgotten. When he got one of them he always meant to wash it out at home and keep it so eventually he would never have to buy another cup again. Invariably, he only remembered this plan after the cup had been sitting in the car for days and was caked beyond hope with tenacious globules of dried cola. Normally, too, “best customer” would have been the sort of compliment he noticed. Jim took the cup and half–filled it with Sierra Mist, just to be gracious, and left.
He knew that moping for a week and four days was an infantile way of handling it. Exactly how much did he expect from his Taco Bell? Should Gordon and Shaniqua have to wear their hair like him? It made as much sense as expecting them to have the same constellation of taste buds. They would have let him bring his own Pepsi. They would have let him make his own Pepsi in there. When his self-deprecation could make him laugh again he went back to find that it was gone.
It wasn’t hard for Jim not to mention his Taco Bell to anyone. He only came close once. Picking at a plate a of bourbon chicken in the Colonie Center food court he overheard the wad of teenagers at the table behind him throwing straws at each other and complaining. Everything here sucked. Cajun Café sucked. Sbarro sucked. That sushi place was grody. One teenager felt like Taco Bell. Another remembered that there was one at the Crossgates food court. They all agreed on the awesomeness of Taco Bell, but by the time Jim decided to turn around though, they were gone too.
LOUIS WITTIG is a writer and editor who lives in North Jersey. His fiction has appeared on Storyglossia.com, Prick of the Spindle.com, Dark Sky Magazine.com and Wag’s Revue.com. His nonfiction has appeared in Alligator Juniper and the Concho River Review.