A McDonald’s in Aberdeen, Washington, 1998
My sisters Anneliese and Sara, my brother John and my mom were getting gas on our way into Aberdeen, Washington, when a man, “the Vagabond” as my mom would later call him, walked up to us. In Oregon they pumped our gas but in Washington that luxury is gone; we noticed the change on the border every year during our exodus north to visit our grandparents. My mom was standing next to our minivan, hand on the pump, looking for a new target for her scowl. Us four kids sat inside, lost in our books and headphones. I was listening to Incesticide by Nirvana and reading The Catcher in the Rye. I was thirteen.
“Hey lady, can you help me out here?” the man walking by the gas station said, asking for spare change, I think, but also making a vulgar gesture. He pointed to his crotch. He had long, crooked dirty nails, and wore stained, loose khaki pants. He wore a paisley button up shirt with bell-shaped sleeves that covered his palms. He was on the fancy side of “Vagabond”, I guess you could say.
When this man appeared out of nowhere, my mom had a new place to direct her anger. My mom looked at his crotch, where he pointed. She glared. “Get the hell away from me and my children,” she said, always using the most dramatic phrase she could find. Her eyes — the reptile green eyes shared by all four of us kids — can look evil, like the villain in every Disney movie.
If only we had our father’s blue.
But the man was not afraid. He looked her in the eye and smiled. He was missing his front two incisors and his face had more wrinkles than my grandpa, except was younger, somehow.
“Oh — go get a Happy Meal, lady,” he said. And he walked on down the road.
We’d thought there was an unspoken rule that you don’t say that kind of thing to an overweight, recently divorced woman, in front of all four of her children. But there it was. My mom got back in the car, huffing her signature sigh, and we sped away into the darkness and mist of a town we knew nothing about. We had just entered Aberdeen, Washington.
We drove around for a little while, examining the chipped paint and the brown paneling of the dilapidated mid-century suburban homes. There was nothing to do.
“What do you want to do?” my mom asked. And I had no response for her. “You are the one that wanted to come here,” she said. By here she means Aberdeen, the birthplace of Kurt Cobain, my hero. It had been my idea. But as soon as we entered the gloomy, misting streets, I wanted to leave. I was there with my family, driving around in our white minivan, completely uncool. A captive.
Kurt was a mirage, floating through the mists of Aberdeen. But my father’s threats of suicide were still ringing in my ear that damp afternoon, equally ghostlike, but real. I’d pocketed that memory away, as best I could. But today it surfaced. First, the words and sobs of my father, laying on the couch in the dark. The police coming to our home, just in time. Then, the words of my mother, telling me angrily, days later, weeks later, months later, that it was my fault.
In the misting streets of Aberdeen, Washington, I, too, dreamt of escape.
About twenty minutes later we pulled up to McDonald’s for dinner, just as the “Vagabond” had predicted.
When we sat down to eat our meals, my older sister Anneliese complained about having to go to McDonald’s again. My mom sighed her signature sigh and took a bite of her thin, limp burger. In one bite, she demolished a third of it. A translucent pickle was sticking out of the other end, and I watched to see whether it fell off or not. It seemed to be stuck well enough with the mustard and light orange sauce that filled the burger. The pickle, for now, was safe.
My sisters and brother and I ate our burgers and fries in silence and watched a woman fill out a McDonald’s application. She cursed and scratched her head, talking to herself. She had short, dirty blond hair and scabs all over her face. I wondered if she could get hired here. Scab burgers, I thought, taking a bite of my cheeseburger and following it with some fries, no ketchup.
My younger sister Sara and I didn’t say anything to each other. We didn’t even exchange a rolling of eyes. Sara wouldn’t go on her fasting diet until next summer, so she ate a cheeseburger and even stole a few of my fries. I know we both thought we were imposters in this town, tourists in a place that really doesn’t want, or deserve, them. We didn’t want the people sitting in McDonald’s to know we didn’t see crazy people like this every day. Or did we? Maybe we understood it more than we wanted to admit.
When we got back in the car, I changed CD’s, taking out Incesticide and putting in Gish by Smashing Pumpkins. I remembered when my sisters and I would play with dolls in the backseat on the trip up north. Barbies and Strawberry Shortcake. We’d play dinosaur songs on the tape deck and sing along. Even my younger brother was too old for that now. Now, I just liked to sit and listen to music, staring out the window and into the mist, daydreaming every scenario in which my life could be better.
We eventually ended up in a hotel room where we took showers and watched parts of a documentary about the origins of vampire myths. They said tuberculosis. I fell asleep dreaming of Dracula and remembered I couldn’t be captive forever.
I woke up the next day.
Kimberly Kaufman is a legal professional living in San Francisco, California. She’s published stories in Metaphorosis and San Francisco City College’s Forum. When not reading her collection of science fiction classics, she’s probably watching Italian horror movies or walking in the fog with her husband and imaginary dog.
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