Martin can remember the first time seeing Mac. Not someone he'd ever come across before, he was absolutely certain. It was a painful, naked feeling, seeing this guy at the 7-11 being edged in line by consumers, ignored by Ahmed clerking. There was nothing wrong with him, outwardly, overtly. Not really. Just something that invited open dismissal--maybe awkwardness, the embarrassing bid for quick intimacy. Or need, always scary, sensible on the low edges of all radars.
At the 7-11 the counter opened to both sides--one to the open shelves, the other to the bank of freezers, and there was Ahmed, switching from side to side, register to register, consistently returning to the person in line behind Mac: "All for you? That's all? How about some Jerky Cow for you?"
This guy with a thatch of black hair, anxious, edging tentatively forward and back at the same time, actively trying to catch Ahmed's eye (unlike everyone else who stared anywhere but at the clerk--the counter, the lotto ticket wheel, the Icee machine, anything but at the funny-smelling foreigner Ahmed.)
Martin somewhat desperate himself at the magazine rack, watching the scene at the counter obliquely, pathetically scanning the auto-specialist and bridal issues for anything new, anything at all that could hold his interest at 2 AM, before going back to the apartment where he'd read eveything already.
And maybe that fleeting common desperation being what makes it a close call, Mac's eyes lighting on him. Martin began to move, letting Federation Wrestling Today slide inelegantly from his fingers to the bottom rack as he slipped outside milliseconds from hearing "Hey!" behind him.
The next time he remembered Mac exactly. At the now defunct consumer electonics store. Mac again at the service counter, his eyes avidly following the various salestaffers, busying themselves. "Hey. That pocket radio I bought last week--it's a real good one." Martin cannot imagine; they still manufacture pocket radios? The idea makes a small spot beneath his sternum hurt inexplicably.
He's wandered over to the latest VCRs when the voice surprises him. "It's just I aint ever been able to keep an earplug working don't I know you? I think I met you at the 7-11 a couple days ago." Martin turns to find the guy nervously working a small white earphone, the likes he hasn't seen in decades. "I don't mean to be bothering you," already falling back as if expecting a dreaded but predictable reaction.
Martin blinks. "No bother."
"I've seen you around."
Martin turns away, reaches idly for a price tag. He takes a wheezy breath--a thing he does--and instantly wishes he hadn't. The obvious brush-off. Repentant, he offers "I write for the paper...." but the guy is gone, as if in turning for just the moment Martin has cast him off.
Guilty but relieved at the same time--
The thing was, he never told anyone he was a reporter--not at any social fuction or chance conversation without it being suctioned out. He was mystified why he splurted out to this person. Of all people, not one to impress.
Martin at that time still fairly new to city, about half a year in the protestant upper reaches of the state after decades in the Catholic south. Sort of like Agee buttoning his shirt for Alabama in Famous Men, he told himself to think.
This phenomena of never having seen someone before, and then in your routine activities coming across him three times in a single week. The third being the frozen daiquiri barn in the converted service station on the corner of Breard and Louisville--
Martin standing outside the door, looking down at the newspaper dispenser, marveling how the fold manages to show just the top half of his leader on the proposed re-zoning of the cemetery where Eighteenth street is to be extended to the interstate, while a practically life-sized shot of a child playing in a fountain dominates war in the Balkans.
"Hey, you want me to buy one and get you one too when I pull it out? That way it won't cost you nothing." The black hair again, the scary eagerness.
"I get them gratis anyway. No thanks." Puzzlement. "For free."
"You see it at McDonald's? I do that sometimes, too."
"No, at the paper. I work there."
Confusion. There, as in where? "Where they make the paper? Like print it out?"
"Yeah, but I write for it." More confused looks. "Stories... The stories you read." Pause. "Some of them at least."
"I like the ads."
Great. The guy--Martin doesn't know what to use for his name?--has a styrofoam cup with a cherry-looking slush inside. He holds it like an Icee. Up to his lips, then a mild grimace. "I always wanted to try one of these. It ain't what I thought."
Martin, who considered himself an amateur alcoholic, was intrigued.
Still eager: "You going in there to buy a drink? Here. I'll give you this one."
"No, thanks." "I mean it. Take it." "Uh-uh. I don't think so."
This look. Of absolute sadness, or desolation. As if it were going to cause the guy some kind of breakdown because someone wouldn't take something he offered. For free.
"Uh, no offense meant. Policy, I guess. Catch a cold or something. You know." Martin felt like he had an object in his hand that he was supposed to put in some precise but unknown place.
"I'll buy you one."
"Don't waste your money, OK?" Martin could feel the guy searching his features. Dreading in the silent spaces some familiar life-long routine, borne of cruel elementary playgrounds.
"Another time, huh?" Martin felt his lips moving. It wasn't anything he planned on saying. The immediate effect was the gloom lifting from the guy's whole being.
"You want to go somewhere now? We could go right now."
"No, uh, I've got some work to do. But you know, sometime."
"We'll run into each other sooner or later." (If the last week was any indication.)
Undeterred. "Hey. That's a deal." His arm straight out, like a piston-rod. Martin was forced to shake his hand firmly. And then the guy was in his car, some green bomb from the automakers' dismal seasons of the seventies. He put the cherry daiquiri on the roof to dig his keys out, and excitedly drove off, tumbling the drink backward. He never noticed.
Who was this? What voice made that suggestion, Martin wondered. Himself, he meant.