The shortcut pierced straight Westbound into Abenaki County, past West Mousam and the on-ramp for I-95, eventually jutting down into New Hampshire. Kauders and I took that road on weekends to avoid traffic. Nobody knew about it. We bought junk at the wholesale lots there (paying no sales tax) just so we could haul it back to Mousam and make fifteen percent on the mark up. The downside was the weirdos and clowns fucking with the transit.
For example, somebody smashed a heap of bottles on the road, then glued the glass sharpside up to spike strip us. They laid it like a police trap just before a stop sign, and about two hundred feet shy of a Hahmwhole SnakShak.
We barely rolled to the Hahmwhole SnakShak — smoking, ragged bits of tire forming a C-shaped trail from the road to the parking lot. Night had fallen hours ago. The moon hung off to the edge of the sky, obscured by something: clouds, the mushroom exhaust of smoke stacks across the river.
I couldn’t stop sweating. Not because of the flats, but too much coffee. I made the same mistake every time I drove across state lines, buying Maxi Brews to stay alert when all they ever did was make me sweat and chew my lips to pulp. Kauders wasn’t built that way. He’d never had a shaky hand in his life. The two of us walked into the Hahmwhole, huddled under canvas jackets with our fists up to our mouths for heat. We tried to make the most of the situation while we waited for the tow truck. The tow truck driver, coming all the way from Kennebunk proper, was expected to take an hour and forty at best.
Everybody knows the colors and contours of a Hahmwhole SnakShak.
None of the fans worked, and a few hung crooked from the particleboard ceiling. The floor stuck to my soles, and bits of Product clung to the chair legs and the tile grouting. Just one employee stood behind the counter, but the employee was attentive and still, ready for us before we had opened the door. This employee was a particular kind of human being.
The Particular Human’s appearance as noted from beyond the Hahmwhole counter: Five feet, eleven inches. Narrow but muscled shoulders. Overweight by anyone’s standards. A strong but saggy chest that took up the slack of its violet t-shirt. Wide, hairless forearms scaled over in dry skin. Medium-sized hands that narrowed at their tips; fingernails painted black. A stomach that strained laterally against the black pants containing it, instead of medially against the buttons and zipper. Hips at once fat and powerful, but sexless. The face seemed as young as it did incongruous with its body. Its cheeks were hollow and gaunt and hung off of the sharp bones of its eye sockets, clinging to its jaw. Its skin looked like the rubber on an expensive Halloween mask. It wore its hair in a tight ponytail capped beneath a black baseball hat. Baby teeth — endless baby teeth stabbing through the gums in rows like a shark. Its default expression was total restraint. Not quite a squint, nor a smile, nor a frown. It looked like a gigantic five-year-old deciding whether to giggle or cry. It looked like an unfinished wax statue, on which the sculptor forgot to include any signs of age or sex. It looked only superficially like a human being at all, except that it looked definitively lonely, standing there, silent, behind the counter.
I asked, “Can I get a Double Mammoth and medium fry?”
“I will get to work on it,” The Particular Human said.
It typed my order into the register but did not tell me how much I owed. I stood, looking at the register’s screen, waiting for a total. I took out my wallet and opened and closed the Velcro, ran my finger up and down the edge of my debit card.
“I didn’t catch the price,” I said.
“Oh. I’m sorry. After 12:30 this establishment doesn’t accept cash or card.”
Kauders slapped the counter. “Like it’s free, you mean?”
“The manager has told me that this establishment, between 12:30 p.m. and 3:00 a.m., accepts as payment, the customer’s participation in a semi-competitive arrangement involving both rules and objectives.”
Kauders let his hand slide down the edge of the counter, back to his side. “Fucking kidding me,” he said.
“Why can’t I use my card?” I asked.
“I — ” The Particular Human stuttered and debated a point in its head, “I guess it is an old and familiar excuse, sir. I do not make the rules.”
I nodded, even though I was pissed, because The Particular Human had a point. Kauders, however, was overexcited and hungry. He’d had enough. Having enough was a state Kauders reached pretty quickly, even without being denied food or breaking down at night.
“Bullshit, kid. I worked at a sandwich place once and I’d throw a freebie here and there to people I liked. I’m not saying you have to like us, but look, we got two flats on the car and need to wait for the tow truck. I’m not saying special treatment. I’ve got cash.”
The Particular Human shook its head. Its face never wrinkled. Its expression never changed from nothingness.
“I’ve just begun this job. I’m sorry. Maybe if I were a little more familiar with the protocol I could make an exception. But as it stands.”
I nodded. I understood that feeling of starting a job and knowing that the axe could come at any moment. In fact, I’d just finished up a job where the axe came at the wrong moment. Also, I’ve always believed the whole thing about getting more flies with honey, so I thought that if I kept nodding the kid would realize we were cool, or I was cool, and cut a deal.
Kauders didn’t feel the same. Instead he snatched a paper cup from the counter and ran over to the soda fountain. I wasn’t good in those situations, probably because I was so shaky. I couldn’t think quickly like Kauders, so I stood nodding at nothing. The Particular Human leapt the counter and approached Kauders; I saw the whole, awful situation unfold. The Particular Human wrapped Kauders up in its arms and made him go limp. Then The Particular Human poured out the half cup of cola Kauders had stolen into the drain of the fountain. It turned around and looked at me, holding the cup to eye level. I was still nodding.
“I’m sorry about the confusion, but I could get in considerable trouble if the manager found out I let a customer steal from the establishment.”
I nodded. Kauders lay on the floor on top of the crusty, unmopped Product.
“I would rather not subdue you as well, as an accessory to this theft. The only way I can justify not doing that is if you agree to participate in the aforementioned arrangement involving rules and objectives.”
The Particular Human pulled out a marked-up sheet of construction paper from behind the counter. It started reading in a bored, rehearsed voice.
“The rules are as follows: when I say ‘go’ we must talk and keep talking for an hour. Pausing for more than two full seconds counts as not talking. We can talk about any subject or subjects, and can change subjects as often as we like. We must respond, in some way, to one another’s comments. Which is to say that a total non-sequitur, if not justified, counts as a disagreement. If, however, one of us disagrees with the other, then the disagreeing party must give the other a belonging of the disagreeing party’s choosing. A belonging is anything on your person. The objective is to receive as many of the other party’s belongings as possible within the hour. I will assemble the hamburgers and drinks you ordered and hold it so that it counts as one of my belongings. Do you understand the rules and objectives?”
I nodded. While I nodded the Particular Human placed some pre-wrapped hamburgers into a bag. He came back to the counter.
“Ok. Ready?” he asked.
“Should I talk first?” I asked.
“That sounds like a great idea,” The Particular Human said.
“What do you want to talk about?”
“Let’s talk about your food.”
“You can’t have it. No matter what. I will never give it to you.”
“That’s not fair.”
“That is a disagreement. You must give me something of yours.”
“What? No. But you’re saying you won’t play right.”
“We can say whatever we want. That was also a disagreement. You must give me something else.”
“Wait, let’s clear up the rules.”
“You are disagreeing to giving me your things. That is another disagreement.”
“I’m not disagreeing, I’m saying wait.”
“That is another.”
I stopped myself from saying no again. I looked down at myself to think of what I could give.
“By the time I finish this sentence you will have gone two full seconds without saying something, which will count — ”
“Are you an adult or a child?”
“That is immaterial to the conversation.”
“So you won’t agree to answer?”
“My comment on the immateriality of the question is an answer.”
“So you disagree that it doesn’t count as an answer?”
“You didn’t make a statement. I can’t disagree with a question.”
“You agree that you are an adult.”
“I agree that that is an entirely possible statement.”
“You’re not agreeing with the statement.”
The Particular Human paused for a half second, then tossed its hat to me.
“You’re a child.”
“At heart, anybody can be a child.”
“I’m going according to the definition of children as human beings who haven’t reached maturity, which in this state is the age of eighteen years old.”
“You are refusing to answer my question about what you think about my previous statement. You must give me something.”
“The way you say that means you disagree that my statement was an answer to your question. You have to give me something.”
The Particular Human shook its head. It handed me the bag of food.
“You can have the food. Not because you won the game, but because I’ve realized that it is a very imperfect game to begin with. I will have to tell the manager. We are done.”
“Do I still have to give you things for the disagreements I made at the beginning?”
“That seems only fair. You disagreed four times, I believe.”
I gave him three pennies and a nickel out of my wallet. “What an awful game.”
“It has potential. Maybe I misunderstood the rules. I will have to check with the manager.”
While we had been talking, Kauders woke up. As the Particular Human handed me my food, Kauders scooped up a piece of Product and pitched it at its back.
“I want my fucking soda,” Kauders said.
“Here you are. A medium soda is included in the meal you ordered,” The Particular Human refilled the paper cup with cola and set it on a table.
The Particular Human returned to its place behind the counter, staring again at the windows to the parking lot. I took the Double Mammoth, cold by that point, to a table near the front door, and ate. Though I knew The Particular Human wasn’t paying attention to me, I got shaky at the thought that it could see me.
I felt horrible and sick and icy cold on my skin. Outside, there wasn’t anything to see except garbage flipping end over end. When I looked hard down the road, I could see a little bit of moonlight glinting off the broken bottles. They were still glued in spike strip formation, now decorated with big hunks of shredded tire.
“Did you put that glass there?” I asked The Particular Human.
It didn’t realize I was talking to it at first. It fiddled with the register then went back to looking attentive.
“Hey — you. Sorry, but you don’t have a nametag. Did you put that glass down on the road outside? Did you see us get that flat tire?”
The Particular Human’s shoulders slumped a little at that. Its head craned forward a hair, like the weight was too much.
“I thought we were having a rather reasonable time here,” The Particular Human said. “And I even gave you the food, even though the game didn’t work out as expected. And this establishment doesn’t except cash or card between 12:30 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. anyway. And I have let you sit here and wait for your tow truck, even though your friend attempted a theft,” The Particular Human’s thin, contourless lip started to quiver then puff outwards over its chin. A hitch came into its voice. “Still you accuse me of foul play, twice.”
“Now, hey. I understand. I’m not trying to be ungrateful. I just don’t see anybody else around.”
“You ask me that question twice, after the other questions you have asked tonight.”
“Well, we were playing for food. I wanted to win. I wasn’t trying to get mean on you.”
“And you won’t even ask me my name.”
I nodded, even though I didn’t know why. My stomach hurt and I felt nervous. I looked at The Particular Human’s chest again for a nametag.
“Your name — ”
“Because my name tag broke.”
“I know. I didn’t even know what to call you — ”
“Because the manager hasn’t showed up for his last three shifts. There is just me. And I am not even familiar with the protocol.”
The Particular Human began to tremble, its belly hiccupping. It made a sound I had never heard before. Like a sigh or a rasp. A sound of deflation. It didn’t move from the register, but held out its left hand, palm up, shaking.
“Couldn’t you just, couldn’t you just?”
I nodded. I nodded.
MIKE SCHOCH lives in Belchertown, Massachusetts, where he attends the MFA program at UMass Amherst. Before escaping to grad school he worked as, among other things, a butcher, antique-hauler, janitor, bellboy and, most recently, pizza delivery boy. He especially disdains jobs with “boy” in the title.