The Usual

by Braxton Younts

Winter sunlight broke momentarily through the clouds, then was obscured again. George¹s stomach twisted with deep nausea pangs. Dehydration allowed his lips to temporarily stick to his teeth when he yawned. In bed he tried to remember the items on his mental to-do list. Nothing came to mind directly. When he rearranged the pillows and turned on to his left side, throbbing pain squirted through his head and down the front of his face. George called in sick. There was no way he was going in today. The mail always got delivered, with or with out him. He slowly dressed himself in faded blue jeans and black t-shirt, and staggered barefoot to the kitchen.

George fried the last three slices of hickory-smoked bacon in a non-stick skillet. Slathering slices of plain white bread with mayonnaise and placing bacon between each slice, he assembled a comfort sandwich. Mom had made these fattening breakfast treats for him when he was a boy. The more slices of bacon the better and always heavy on the mayo, he remembered. Now that he was twenty-four, the rich Southern food traditions he'd brought with him to Seattle were beginning to express themselves along his waist. With shaky hands, he filled a trusty pint glass and chased the bacon sandwich with a guzzle of tap water. Afterwards, his head felt like last Halloween's jack-o-lantern, hollow and full of cobwebs. Socializing and a bit of caffeine would stimulate his noggin, he reckoned.

Out the door, first stop: coffee. Around the corner and two blocks south was Tully's. A couple of cups of coffee and a thorough perusing of national affairs should set him straight. George relished his second cup over the Seattle Times sport page. The Supersonics had won their second straight at home. His alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill, was ranked fourth in the men's NCAA basketball standings. Things really weren't looking too bad until Megan, his ex-roommate, crept in from the damp sidewalks. She was more than just a roommate. They had rented an apartment, shared everything from expenses, to sweaters, and the last straw, chlamydia. Six months ago she called it quits and moved out. They hadn't spoken since. He could run away from her, but couldn't escape the sordid memories. At Christmas, while visiting her hometown, Los Angeles, Megan had slept with her childhood sweetheart and brought a sexually transmitted disease back to their bed in Seattle. George ducked out the back door while Megan waited at the counter for a double latte to go.

George skedaddled to the nearest bus stop and hopped the 71 express to downtown. He sat by himself and stared out the bus's window. The freeway traffic ground to a halt and high-rise office buildings rose through the February mist as they approached the center city exits. Each passenger looked solemn. Strange how twenty people could be in such close quarters and appear so disinterested in one another. Although he lived in a populous city, interacting with hundreds of people daily, loneliness still existed. Suddenly, an elderly Chinese woman squealed and vomited down the front of her blouse. George averted his eyes. The bus pulled into the Convention Place station, and as soon as possible, he disembarked, and then strolled up Pine to Broadway.

Along Broadway, the aromas of Americanized teriyaki and bakery fresh pastries melded with acrid auto exhaust. The sky was cloudy and it started to drizzle. Fishing his keys out of his front pocket while entering the post office, George walked to his mailbox. He hoped some booty was there: a letter affirming his writing prowess. He kissed the brassy key, counted to three, and slipped it in the lock. This rite of good luck he practiced didn't affect fate. No letter of acceptance from a publisher was found; the caverns of his box yawned empty again. Completely bare; not even a measly coupon book or misplaced letter addressed to a previous box holder. George reluctantly stepped back out onto the sidewalk, saddened, but not overly surprised. The 'precip du jour' had become a steady, drenching rain. George found the nearest independent record store and took sanctuary. Rain droplets on his spectacle lenses didn't make album titles easy to read. He mostly just stared blankly at them, languishing through punk titles, trying to look busy. Eventually skies cleared and George resumed his sidewalk rambling.

From one street corner to another, George dallied along, checking out the ladies. College girls late for class, green-haired homeless teens, and work-a-day mothers with briefcases, he lusted for them all. His mind wandered in and out of their bedrooms.

When a towering 250-pound black man marched by abruptly, George assumed the worst and slid his hand around to guard the wallet in his back pocket. It was a conditioned response. A thug would try to catch you off guard if he was going to take your wallet. Nothing could be farther from the truth: the would-be pick pocket was only in a hurry to catch the bus, and it was George's paranoid edginess that caused the delusional sneak attack. Personally, he had nothing against African-Americans; but growing up in the rural south, whites and blacks didn't mingle. All his preconceptions were based on distorted television journalism and the racist jokes harbored in intolerant communities that perpetuated negative stereotypes. Guilt stoked high anxiety, and flu-like body aches made him wince. The streets began to clog with afternoon commuters. There was no time to waste. George recomposed himself and hoofed it to the bar for happy hour and gallivanting.

En route to his favorite drinking establishment, he looked around. Recent gentrification had transformed the quaint working class neighborhoods into yuppie compounds. Young, high-tech gurus had bought inexpensive real estate, spruced it, and resold it for profit, pricing the poor laborers out of the market. Luxury apartments were erected where family-owned diners and neighborly auto shops once stood. A cozy coffee house on the corner, George remembered, had been forced out of business by corporate coffee chains. The city was eating him, slowly consuming his sanity. In every latte he discovered a disturbing memory. The eyes of each pedestrian conjured dark emotion. They all looked alike, George thought, walked the same. Soul and individuality had been sucked away. He needed to get out of the city badly. He imagined speeding along a strip of black top in a '55 Chevy under the Arizona dessert sun--destination unknown. But George left his dreams unrealized, resigned himself to the gloom of Seattle and temporary jobs.

Arriving at the bar a bit winded, George pulled open the glass door and entered the warm, familiar depths. Pinball games tucked against the back wall sang and flashed. Four grimy booths flanked the left-hand side of the room, while a small horseshoe-shaped bar dominated the floor space. Six or so patrons, all male, leaned into the bar top, seduced by the contents of hearty pint glasses. George positioned himself at the stool nearest the door. The bartender smiled, diverted her attention from a smoldering cigarette, and asked, "The usual?"

2001 Braxton Younts. All rights reserved.