We met at a Waffle House outside Memphis. Ben was coming from some
little town in Missouri where his father had mined lead and I was
coming from Nashville where I'd been visiting my sister. Christmas
break was over—his life put on hold again, an ex-wife and two
kids left behind. I had no life other than the one that went with me
wherever I was.
We sat at the counter and talked to the cook, a friendly man who asked
what we did.
"We're graduate students," I said.
"I'm a dishwasher," Ben said.
"You're not a dishwasher, you teach college students. In a few months
you'll be a doctor."
"Nobody's calling me doctor. I'll never be a doctor." The cook tapped
the counter with a fat hand and turned back to the grill. "I've always
been a dishwasher and I'll always be a dishwasher," Ben said. It
irritated him that I couldn't just let him be a dishwasher.
"I wonder if you'd enjoy telling people you were a dishwasher so much
if you knew that's all you'd ever be."
"You're making me insane already," he said, but then he took my hand
and held it on his leg and we watched the cook scrape grease off the
grill, break frozen meat patties off a stack.
After a few minutes, he set our plates in front of us, smiling at Ben
with a shake of his head. A look that said, women! I picked at the
orange cheese on my sandwich. Ben squashed his burger down with one
hand and ate until it was falling apart.
He missed the place he used to wash dishes, the Four Leaf Clover or
something, how all he'd had to do was make dirty things clean. How, at
the end of each shift, he'd been too tired to think. Now we were tired
because we had too much time and too little motivation to fill it with
anything other than drinking at the bar where we went to get away from
the university, the university people and their university talk. They
didn't even trust us enough to put phones in our offices. Ben played
Johnny Cash on the jukebox, Jimi Hendrix and Tom Petty for me. Thursday
night was steak night and, in accordance with local custom, we put on
our nice pants and combed our hair, sawed into the slabs of meat that
filled our plates. We liked how the waitresses called the little bowls
of iceberg green salads. Ink pen, we'd say. Tuna fish. Raise up. Then
we'd say of course no one wanted to hang out with us, of course we were
alone, and we were happy.
But all of that was coming to an end. We had four months left and
already it felt done.
In the parking lot, he lit a cigarette. He smoked the cheapest
cigarettes he could buy, brands I'd never even heard of. I bummed one
and we stood there leaning against his old-man car: American and
boat-like, a car he insisted had been nice when he'd bought it. We
still had another four hours to get to Hattiesburg, a town ninety miles
northeast of New Orleans, though we'd yet to go there.
He was thirty years old and already a failure: a family left behind,
mother and brother dead, reliving traumas he would never get past. He
didn't even want to get past them any more. Before we'd left for break,
he'd told me the story he'd not been telling me for years. I offered to
kill the man but he was already dead, had died in a four-wheeler
accident years ago. In the place he came from, there were more
accidents than seemed possible: caves giving way, motorcycles and cars
smashing into walls and careening off embankments, the people trying so
hard to die before finding it wasn't as difficult as they'd imagined.