If any people could be his people – transient, in love with four-wheeled beauty, they were the Sunday morning car owners at the Devil’s Details, a full-service car wash where the sign read “The Devil’s in the Details!” and from which the Man himself in his pointy-tailed cartoonishness cast his grin upon the devoted.
Mike Elder shared their faith, for there was something in the hum and punctuated suck of the vacuum hoses; the baptism of water jets in the automatic wash line; the thin men, sun-darkened skin, kneeling to polish rims, passing around their master’s grins; the bottles of pink, of blue, of clear fluids that perfumed carpet, soaked leather, spritzed glass. This place Elder knew, and the people he knew, not by name – no, never by name.
He was new to this town, a stranger. As he had come, so he would go. This was his joy.
Until his next departure, the Sunday ritual began after the fall night unloaded its heat and the Macon morning sun came. He would roll out of bed in his tiny, expensive, pre-furnished apartment, check the presence of his soft, side-brushed hair, singed blonde into youthfulness by summer mornings at the pool, and then he would take his BMW to his place of worship. On his first Sunday morning in town he found the Devil; on the second he chatted professional football with the manager; and on the third, he met Malcolm and tipped him heavily.
Malcolm detailed in Bay 3 once the cars came off the machine wash line. Elder quickly determined Malcolm was a good kid, kinda caramel-skinned, who joked and hustled, talked basketball – he was a senior point guard at Macon High – but who could talk the serious things, too: about how tough it was for his mother to be alone, about how he enjoyed the extra money so he could do things with his friends, about doing big things in life, and Elder liked it.
Each Sunday morning was the same. The kid, the good kid, talked and shimmied around the BMW, buffing towel in hand, his muscled forearms searching its contours and annihilating water marks. A tattooed spider crouched on one of those forearms ready to strike, an appropriate symbol because Malcolm had the enviable athleticism gifted to men-boys who receive from the gods their youth and their manhood in equal doses.
Elder approved. Are you a fan of Spider-Man? he asked.
Malcolm gave Elder a corrective stare, and Elder appreciated the wide, forgiving smile. Nah, said Malcolm. It just looks legit.
Elder wasn’t embarrassed and couldn’t be embarrassed because to his mind Malcolm was a younger version of himself, and this was who Mike Elder was: a sort of hustler. Like Malcolm who hustled around cars every Sunday, Mike Elder hustled around the lower 48, town to town, as a virtuoso manager of California Cattle Company restaurants, one of the country’s most successful green steak-house chains.
When corporate out west broke ground on a new location, Elder would wrap up the work at one restaurant and leave it in the hands of a local operator of his choosing. Then, with one last car detail and a lucrative bonus based on percentage, he hit the interstate for a new town, hundreds of miles away. He had opened at least one California Cattle Company restaurant in every major region of the U.S. and now finally the South.
This virtuoso knew the procedure better than anything: he knew the hiring, knew how to get the best-looking wait staff, how to flatter modestly and then reject some of the has-beens, women in the forties and fifties, smokers, high school dropouts whose faces ran low and darkly yellow and lined, because good steak had to be served by sweet pieces of flesh; he knew the kitchen, each spice rub by heart, each inch and shape of each cut, each cooking time and temperature; he knew the décor of each restaurant, the taxidermy, the fauna of the west and of California, up on the walls – the moose, the brown bear, the otters at mock play, the elk, the white-tailed jackrabbit and the desert tortoise in their well-rehearsed place above the bar; he knew the accounting, the overhead, the sales that generated the best money, how the New York Strip had twice the profit margin of the chicken, and how the salmon was only slightly better. All these details so finely hustled in each restaurant.
Until finally, with the synergy fully developed, he was gone.
Four months, six months, eight tops.
No film of orange on his windshield, not a body by his side.
No Facebook friends added, no call home where allegiances were maintained, no vacations. He didn’t need them. Not when the American landscape was his cruise-ship and whole towns full of strangers his dinner parties.
And good thing, too.
He never regretted it, and neither did anyone he met along the way, he told himself. Not the employees. Not the two or three women he bedded at each stop. He never lived in any relationship long enough to breed regret. That was part of his code. Be independent, because he told himself that the brevity and the sex were what anyone would ever really want.
Sure, it could get messy, so he kept that anxiety at a distance every Sunday morning at places like Devil’s Details. The comfort of a clean car, the ever-available tidy escape, salvation on shiny rims. There was always the road ahead, a new creation waiting somewhere in the lower 48. Everywhere was his America.
By the third month, maybe it is that time. But he needs one more profitable week, two maybe and opening up the restaurant to the lunch hour will do it. That’s the last operation phase: open for customers only at night first, make a real ritzy launch, and then promote a new lunch hour.
The best lunch hour to start with is Sunday.
Who will open the restaurant floor then? Who will sell the NY Strip? The first server to schedule for Sunday lunch comes easily to mind.
But Sophia wasn’t the obvious choice at first. So much talk about school, family, and church from that one during the interview, he had to double check her driver’s license. Just turned eighteen, a senior at the same school as Malcolm the detailer. Do you know Malcolm? he asks her. Yes, they have senior English together.
Though young, she defies age and experience. In fact, she’s phenomenal. A multi-tasker. Looks great in the Company’s tight black leggings. The men innocently call her sweetheart in the irritating southern drawl. Yeah, a real Georgia peach. She moves quickly in and out of the kitchen. Sooths angry cooks. How? Most mysteriously with her smile, Elder comes to believe, despite the prodigious gap between her two front teeth which seems to have magical properties; she solicits special requests to sit in her section, produces huge tips, and gets the bartender’s favor because Soph’s customers get their pints poured first, all these things happen because of her lovely imperfection, that dark place between healthy incisors.
So he asks her, but Soph turns down the Sunday shift.
The turn down spawns something. Elder has to look at her a different way. He comes to want something else. Something more than a Sunday lunch shift.
In any other town, any other restaurant, any other waitress, it’s no problem. But this rejection from Soph lingers. He floats into the restroom, the pretense to check the paper products, and yet he examines, in snatches, his dark uniform eyes. They steal seizing glances in the mirror and tell him nothing about himself, but still search for any sign of age because he can’t believe she has values. School, family, church. So, it must be something else. Himself? No, it can’t be. His age is carefully blended into blond highlights. The image still holds. He reluctantly decides it’s a free country, God bless America, and a girl like Soph is bound to have some values originating on Sunday mornings. But who does that? Could it be something else? Something about his influence? Or lack thereof? The questions chisel away at him throughout the evening. Then, Soph ends her shift and Mike Elder can’t help follow the familiar routine.
It flows like a river. Slouch at the bar. Talk about family. Talk about relationships. Not prior girlfriends. Not with Soph. That’s too obvious to older women; to Soph, it’s too foreign. So talk about home. Soften the words.
Homesickness is contagious, even if it’s not real. Where was home? Elder’d forgotten – wiped clean. So he gives her details. Not real details, but he lays them on the bar top like scalpels on a surgical board to see if she’ll lay her emotional body down before them.
He’s testing himself as much as her. He is like a man groping in the dark for his own limbs, to be sure they are still attached to his body. He wants to feel for the edge of his personal miracle. Wants to see if the sun-bathing and the weight-lifting and the elliptical machine-swinging, the obsessive, lurid self-control over drinking and smoking, maintain his edifice.
She is perpendicular to the line of the bar, doesn’t hug it like Elder, lean into it like a cane. Doesn’t lie down for him.
He laughs and says she’s a smart girl. A good girl. This town is full of them, he says. These Georgia peaches.
Soph shrugs indifferently after which Elder can only helplessly ogle the delicious gap of her smile.
It’s the only detail he remembers the next morning when he wakes, so for her next three shifts he asks her again and again.
The answer’s still the same. Soph will not surrender Sunday.
Three nights end, each colder than the last, nights of no’s after closing. Elder breaks his own code and takes the barista from a nearby wine and coffee bar to his apartment, and she tells him the third morning, over her first cigarette, when she’s wearing his favorite shirt, that it’s a good thing she takes birth control.
He realizes then there’s nothing for which he’s grateful.
Friday presents a different opportunity. When the doors open, there’s quickly a wait, a line out California Cattle Company door. Something is different that afternoon, the Macon High’s basketball game, a county rivalry game, the last of the season, and special for another reason: it is the “Father and Son Honor Night” where fathers stand with their sons to be recognized before the game. Initially, it seems a trivial ritual to Mike Elder.
But he thinks again. Seating the first customers, Elder thinks about Malcolm, who has an easy grip on life, who hustles the car wash for extra cash: his mother lives alone. Seating the second customers, Elder knows what he will do.
Because he can’t pity himself, for to bring that self-reflective emotion to bear upon his own life would be catastrophic. He places it instead on another, leaves the restaurant in the hands of Soph and the waitstaff, and goes to the basketball game. It is Elder’s first night off in two months. He dignifies his imagination with thoughts of closing ranks with the strong, the hustling, shoulder to shoulder because Malcolm’s a good kid. It’s tough for my mother to be alone.
Elder is late but not for tip off and not for the recognition of fathers. He’s not silly enough to believe he gets the privilege to stand beside Malcolm. He is after all a stranger, but even the appearance of a stranger like Mike Elder who shares a certain kinship, can be a sort of presence. He imagines that a nod and a wink from the stands to the hustler on the court will be his act of redeeming benevolence.
The PA voice booms overhead, calls for attention on the court, and Elder wonders if he will see Malcolm and if Malcolm will see him. He pays for his ticket and scoots between the crowd to get a full view of the basketball court.
Fathers and sons stand on the half court. Elder does not see Malcolm. His eyes rove the benches, the stands, the back of the gym, before coming once again to the mid-court, the center of everyone’s attention…
There he is. How could Elder have missed him? Malcolm stands in the center of the court. He is not alone.
The man stands tall next to Malcolm. This man is straight, correct, no dent in his posture, no deficiency in his pride. This man has no weakness, looks legit. The dark blue coat evenly hued, the spotless peaked cap, his black shoes flashing polish. He cuts the glare of the gym lights in half, his body like a blue blade.
The metal on his chest blazes in the light, like a distant galaxy representing billions of miles of honor and sacrifice and truth and commitment. This man travels the world, knows chaotic violence and personal hardship, physical training, a regimented discipline. His strength is purposeful, a matter of life and death, not vanity or despair. His dark face expressionless, molded by severity, his son’s face just the same, there is no mistaking it. They are father and son, the U.S. marine and the basketball point guard.
Elder must retreat. He backs into the gym wall under the scoreboard which still reads zero. Cheerleaders fall in, spectators fill his place, erasing him from the scene.
At halftime he places himself furtively in front of Malcolm who’s leaving the court for the locker room, thinking an ambush can win back some of the equanimity. What was that? asks Elder. Malcolm gives the second-heart beat look, What was what? You know. The man in uniform. My old man? Guess he made it. It looks like he more than made it, you’re his son. Always was. Yeah, it seems so.
Yeah, and who are you?
Elder went back to the restaurant. He finished the shift during which some late customers came in from the game; otherwise, it grew into a slow night. Soph was in the back, refilling condiment containers. Always working at the details like they meant something.
Undoubtedly, it would be his last Friday night. He would find a manager and have him trained by the following Friday. But before all that, he had wanted to tell Sophia something, something important but he couldn’t think of anything to say. He was alone in the bar except for the taxidermy. Their black eyes leered down at him with empty expectation. At least I’m alive, you bastards. They hadn’t ever been alive in the first place. Just synthetic replicas of those animals they pretended to be. His animal entourage. Faking even their fakeness. Still, the jackrabbit and the tortoise took their esteemed positions at the bar. The rabbit was perched ready for motion, given to flight at any moment, but never giving up to this moment of action. The desert tortoise also pushed his head out with his infinite skepticism of the rabbit’s will.
Elder nodded to them, his eyes unblinking, glassy, motionless. His tongue tingled with no discernible word, like a wishbone stick that falsely promises to find buried treasure for the greedy or hidden water for the thirsty; no, it rather pulled for the liquor bottles behind the bar arranged in neat rows like a choir singing the only gospel that ever seemed to tempt him, underneath the jackrabbit and the tortoise who were never alive to begin with.
Later, he went to bed with his first article of faith: there were some things in the world he could not destroy, and some things in the world he could never build.