Martin can remember the first time seeing Mac. Not someone he'd ever come across, he was absolutely certain. It was a painful, naked feeling, watching this guy at the 7-11 edged in line by consumers and ignored by the clerk. There was nothing wrong with him, outwardly, overtly. Not really. Maybe awkwardness, the embarrassing bid for quick intimacy. Or need, always scary, detectable on the low edges of every radar.
And there was Ahmed, leaning from side to side, consistently addressing 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. About to say something requiring eye contact, you could tell.
Martin somewhat desperate himself by the magazine rack, obliquely watching the scene at the counter, scanning past the auto-specialist and bridal issues for anything new, anything at all that could hold his interest at 2 AM before heading back to the apartment where he'd read everything already.
It's a close call when Mac's eyes light on him. Martin instantly lets Federation Wrestling Today drop as he slips outside milliseconds from hearing "Hey!"
The next time, at the now defunct consumer electronics store, Mac again by the service counter, his eyes avidly following the salestaff busying themselves. "Hey. That pocket radio I bought last week--it's a real good one."
Martin: they still manufacture pocket radios? The idea causes a small spot beneath his sternum to twinge inexplicably.
The voice catches him over at the VCRs. "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.
Martin blinks. "No bother."
"I've seen you around."
Martin turns his back in the process of searching for a price tag. He takes a long look, examining the terms critically, as if he were really going to buy something.
After a moment guilt edges in. He begins to speak, in a kind of offering, "I write for the paper. . . . "
But the guy is gone.
Relieved, but annoyed with himself at the same time---
The thing was, he never told anyone he was a reporter--not at any social function or chance conversation. Never volunteered it. 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 a longish spiel 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 routine activities coming across him three times during a single week. The third being the frozen daiquiri barn in the converted service station on the corner of Breard and Louisville---
Martin outside the door, looking down at the newspaper dispenser, marveling how the fold manages to obliterate his leader on the proposed re-zoning of the cemetery where Eighteenth stands 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." A look of 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 a kid with an Icee. Up to his lips, then slowly follows a mild grimace. "I always wanted to try one of these. It ain't what I thought."
Martin, who considered himself an amateur alcoholic, is 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."
Then this look. Of absolute sadness, or desolation. As if it were going to cause some kind of breakdown.
"Uh, no offense meant. Policy, I guess. Catch a cold or something. You know."
His eyes venture; at Martin's silence he imparts this: days he drove parcels around town for a small local concern which owed its existence to the inexactitudes of the US Post Office. Nights he drove the streets still, victim to a merciless curiosity that allowed him at most a few hours of sleep before work--and driving--again. Every third or fourth day this led to a crash, wherein he would sleep eighteen hours straight, leading to another dismissal from his job, followed by begrudged re-hirings, result of high turnover (low pay) and Mac's uncanny knowledge of locations within a city numbering system that defied all possible variations of human logic.
Of principal familial relations, Mac has one each: mother, father, brother, sister. The degree of contact with each varies. Mac is short for MacArthur, first name, some joke of his mother's that escapes him.
The make and model of his current vehicle change frequently, a habit that depletes his (low pay) finances and necessitates periodic address changes as well. In his personal library is a used blue book, circa two years past. The auto magazine section of the public library is known to him. Dealers are continually surprised by his grasp of arcane facts: Monday-built statistics, air-bag suffocation-death rates, option variations on a 1972 Pontiac Catalina.
"Look, you want of these, heck--I'll buy you one."
"Don't waste your money, OK? I just wanted to check the paper."
Martin detects the anxiety at conversational lapses, some familiar routine dating to cruel playgrounds. Mac shifts from foot to foot.
"Another time, huh?" Martin felt his lips moving. It wasn't anything he planned on saying.
The immediate effect was gloom lifting from Mac's entire being. "You want to cruise somewhere? 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 past 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 Mac was in his car, some green bomb from the automakers' dismal seasons of the seventies. Placing the cherry daiquiri on the roof to dig his keys out, he excitedly drove off, tumbling the drink backward. Never noticed.
Who was this? Whose voice made that suggestion? Martin wondered. Himself, he meant.