It’s a hot afternoon in Southern California and I’m parked at a Burger King near the freeway. I’m here to get a slushy.
Yes, their frozen ice confections are not the greatest in the world, but there’s a coupon involved so we’re making sacrifices. This particular Burger King looks like the result of an artist’s relentless pursuit of tepid weirdness. The advertisements in the windows are faded from the massive amount of sunlight the place gets hit with daily. There’s an additional door next to the usual double front doors for no discernible reason. Inside, the place is stuffy warm and dead quiet. The interior construction feels like the inside of a child’s toy. The counters and walls are all connected and appear to be made with one sheet of plastic. Easy to wipe down.
When I go up to order, I feel like a child.
Slushy acquired, I make my way over to the large drink buffet. Because I don’t know what else to call it, the term buffet is being used here generously. The size of the drink buffet is well beyond the space that the meager selection of sodas needs. Perhaps they planned on adding more options but didn’t for artistic reasons. As with any “take what you need” situation, there is the challenge of trying to reach the vital straws and napkins one requires. Despite the decadence of an afternoon slushy, which we all know indicates a man of copious wealth, the Cashier denied my request for a straw at the counter. She points me in the direction of the drink buffet. For those of you who rightfully believe in conspiracies, her straw denial is critical for what’s about to happen next.
I grab a straw.
Okay that was a little anti-climatic, but it’s important to know I already had the straw.
As soon as I obtain the straw, a wild Old Man appears. He wears what I wore in college. Open, button-up shirt, t-shirt underneath and khaki shorts. There’s even a well-worn backpack. The Old Man offers his help, which is not unusual, but upon seeing the straw clutched in my fist, he backs off. Good play on his part, I don’t want the hassle. I chalk him up as someone who gets it.
The sun-baked parking lot maliciously wafts heat at my slushy as I exit the Burger King’s palace. The place just smells. If the Queen of Britain has a summer palace, I decide the King of Burgers should call this joint his “I’m hungover and sick” palace. That’s why it’s easy to wipe down. My car has managed to heat up since I left it five minutes ago, so I roll down the windows. Reposing in its cup-holder, the slushy melts provocatively but I refrain from slurping it all right there.
From the corner of my eye, I see the Old Man hustle out of the Burger King. He’s cool, I think. The Old Man approaches my car. I must have dropped something, I think. The Old Man gets to my window. I hope it wasn’t my wallet, I think. The Old Man asks me a question.
“Can you help me?”
I reply, “What do you need?” He’s someone who gets it, I think.
“Can you give me a ride to the nearest gas station?”
No, I think. My slushy will melt.
The fact that this is my first reaction makes me feel guilty. I grew up in the Church and remember hearing the parable of the Good Samaritan. You know, the one where there’s an injured guy by the road and all the well-off people step over him, but the Samaritan, a good person, stops to help. My guilt compounds after I recall how baffled I was when I first heard it that anyone could possibly ignore a person in need of help.
However, I don’t recall Jesus ever telling a parable about the Samaritan and the Slushy, so I feel I’m off the hook.
“No, sorry, I’m going the other way and there’s no gas stations.”
Sounds reasonable enough, right? It’s not the truth at all, there’s two gas stations with easy drop off points on my way home, but I don’t want to deal with that. My slushy will melt. Unfortunately, the Old Man doesn’t hesitate to change his strategy.
“I work at the hospital over there.” He points to the large university hospital complex across the dry river. “You can just take me there.”
Well, shit. He makes a good point. That would be pretty easy, but in order to do that, I’d have to let him in my car, and there’s a tiny voice in the back of my head insisting this isn’t a good idea. I’m lucky to have that voice because the other, louder voice, the one speaking for the slushy, has been rebuked by the Old Man’s logic. I put myself in his shoes. He seems legitimately stuck. Even though it’s part of the 90 mile glorified strip mall that is SoCal, this Burger King franchise is isolated because it’s surrounded by the freeway infrastructure. If I was the one stuck here, I’d have a hard time making my way in either direction too. We’re taught to do unto others as we want them to do onto us, but the little voice in my head, the stubborn one which got bored in Church a lot, refuses to let this happen. The last thought I have, perhaps in a desperate search for a reason to say no, is that my car is messy and I’d have to clean off the seat.
“I just can’t do that. Sorry.” I say convincingly.
The Old Man gets upset. “You can’t help? I don’t believe it.”
His sudden turn in demeanor shocks me out of my naivety. If he has more to say, I don’t let him finish. I drive off. Only after I go under the freeway overpass do I start to feel safe. The radio plays classic rock and I try to listen.
We make decisions. Sometimes we know the severity of the choices. Other times we can only speculate and hope for the best. I don’t know if the Old Man actually needed help or if he had ill intentions for my petite, masculine body. I don’t know what would have happened if I had let him in my car. Maybe he would have given me money or made me the heir to his fortune. It happens in movies. What if he was the Burger King, incognito, stuck at his Hungover Palace after a wild night of deep fried debauchery? Think of the stories he could tell.
But what if he had tried to hurt me?
I leave a CD out in my car for a specific purpose. In case of emergency, I can fit my finger through the hole and jab someone’s neck with the edge of the disc. Perhaps it’s a fantasy to think any of us without proper training could defend ourselves against the hardened criminal tactics of Old Men and their ilk, but it gives me some comfort knowing that I can be lazy about putting my CD’s away. Of course, in the event of a real emergency, I’d probably just get out of the car. My car is special, you can’t be more than average height or weight or you won’t fit in the driver’s seat. Best of luck to all the tall, fat carjackers out there. Well, maybe “best of luck” isn’t the right word. “Get stuck in the seat and end up on youtube” feels better.
Perhaps the most bizarre part of this experience is how little it affected me. Granted, I’m writing about it, but I am no more afraid of parking lots or Old Men than I was before. One would think after a potential brush with death there could be some kind of impact or change or epiphany but there’s simply none of those feelings. Except for the end, most of the encounter never felt scary. Like the Burger King where it happened, the incident is rather banal. Yet there remains something about it that fascinates me. Maybe the real terror isn’t in the event itself but in the power I had over the situation. I could have let the Old Man in my car. I could have escalated the danger for myself. I had that power. There’s a French term for the phenomenon one may experience near a high ledge, “L’appel du vide”, or the call of the void. The feeling that one wants to jump, not from a self-destructive standpoint, but from a curiosity to see what would happen. In my case, this feeling is the call of the Old Man. I still wonder what would have happened. The not-knowing haunts me a little.
When I get home, the slushy is mostly melted. I slurp it anyway.