"The Eternal Buzz Machine" by William Overall
Kathy is the 78-year-old woman taking your order at McTasty's. We don't want to see her in her anti-slip shoes and corporate provided visor. She doesn't even know she is in that white room dying. Not yet. Her power to manifest isn't obvious. She is on more dope than her teenage coworkers. Her 86-year-old husband is at home dying on the couch. He takes his nightly piss in a mason jar because he can't get around too well these days. Kathy sleeps next to him like she is already dead but he knows he'll go first. She puts the mason jars out of her mind while she tries to ring up an order.
She can't find the button for extra sauce.
So Kathy has to call over her 31-year-old manager, Brittney, for the fifth time in the last hour and a half. Brittney has been at McTasty's since she was old enough to work. As Brittney scans through the screens of their point of sale system, she sees flashes of every in, every out, and every day that she has spent here, because unlike sweet Kathy, the thing she loves died some time ago and Brittney's love manifests itself into dreams and on her drive to and from work and in the eyes of customers younger than her. Brittney finishes ringing up customer #122 and Kathy takes his money and counts the four dollars out with her crooked fingers.
#122 doesn't think about anything dead or living. He eats what's convenient and he watches what is around. He thinks about his next meal before he starts his present. He doesn't think of white walls or offices beyond his own. He doesn't think much these days but he used to. #122 listens for his number and he listens to his boss and he listens to his clients and his television, but he doesn't know the difference between television and the line at McTasty's. #122 was once very good at dancing and singing, but that was 122 years ago.
#122 takes his tray and watches a young woman through the thin glass of McTasty's big windows. She is with a young man, tall and walking with confidence. The young woman walks with hesitation and fear. He remembers #1 and #2 and #3 as he takes a sip from his diet drink. The two get into a small Ford sedan. Their carriage seems to be well into its twentieth year on the road. The odometer indicates that it could have driven to the moon. The young man gets in to drive and the young woman takes to riding.
Forget Kathy and Brittney and #122. Lets put them out of our mind. Ford “driver” and Ford “passenger” head south towards downtown. The two don't have much to say today. They are still getting to know each other. They have only spent about 48 collective hours together and they haven't had a chance to put the other out of their minds just yet. There is no love, just a mutual problem. An impending death. Which they both plan to forget. This is a death that will be caused before there is a life. An accident. Nothing more than a car crash or forgetting to set an alarm, though some would argue. These two see the simple facts. Which are:
1) Ford “driver” is unemployed and has been shooting tar into his veins for the better part of the last six years
2) Ford “passenger” is in her second year of a four-year school and her extremely conservative parents hold the checkbook to her entire life. Tuition, car payment, housing, etc.
3) These two don't even know each other's last names
The vicenarian sedan makes it to the clinic. The waiting room is just like the one they just left. Cold white light illuminating everything devoured and everything devouring. The two take a number.
A special kind of death is dancing on the white tile, seductively. No one watches it, except for one young woman sitting by herself. She is closer to the front door than anyone else. She wears a tag that says “Julie.” Julie watches the dance with staunch indifference. It doesn't make her feel any way at all. She just watches it like a red light, a stop that we will all move on from. She sees a boredom we must all endure at some point. She is waiting on Trey to pick her up. He is always late though. Her shift ended 30 minutes ago and she is feeling hungry. Her teeth want to kill the dead again. They want to chew without thinking. "Driver" and "passenger" sit across from Julie, but they never see each other. All three of them have erased each other before ever meeting. The two recent arrivals fill the pages on their clipboards and listen to the hum of quiet radio over loud speakers.
Trey pulls his truck in between some yellow lines and pushes his palm into the center of his steering wheel. The vacuum bursts and the red light turns green for Julie. The electronic door slides and she moves through it. She is born again. The thing dancing on the white tile makes its way to “driver” for a lap dance. He doesn't seem to notice. Julie leaves to find death within a bacon cheeseburger.+
+the bacon cheeseburger in this story represents all the pent up rage found in the Trojan horse of youth
Kathy is getting ready to clean out the two-day-old oil from the fry maker but forgets that the machine is on before she stumbles into the tray. Some of the grease hits the container full of new French fry boxes, releasing the dance of death into the kitchen of McTasty's. Kathy screams and turns to run as quickly as her non-slip shoes will move her, but a hard fall reminds her that she couldn't afford the specifications. Ms. Death is delighted to dance with the whole kitchen after a few strong drinks from McTasty's built-in sprinkler system.
#122 is dumping his tray into their signature trash. He sees the start of the fire and hears the flames. Brit runs for the lobby with the other three teens on shift while #122 rushes in. The grease has spread to the pie counter by this point. They all put the two for one out of their minds. The smoke is toxic squared. McTasty's official radio station still plays through the melting speakers. The sounds of happy consumer music get louder and muffled into mostly low mids and bass. It is haunting. It sounds like fire. #122 pushes death to the side. She is stumbling and drunk and his rejection makes her mad and mad and mad. #122 pats the fire off of Kathy's standard black slacks. He cradles her and makes his way towards the direction of where he once knew the door was. The lobby has disappeared. Now he needs a magnetic brain. He begins to cough as he hits the front counter. Kathy moans, “Leroy.” They are both coughing now, but he manages to find the front door, and death screams from somewhere in the back of the kitchen, where she dances sadly, all alone.
Trey and Julie drive by as #122 stumbles out and sets Kathy on the pavement. Trey slows down for a moment and the two of them look at the flames pouring out of the thin glass windows.
“Oh shit!” says Trey.
“Wow! Do you think that lady will be okay?” asks Julie.
“I dunno. She looks pretty old,” he says smoothly before he speeds back up.
“We can go to the one on 31 instead,” he says.
Julie pauses, smiles, and says, “sure!”