Ray Livingston watched the evening approach through the drive-thru window. The cars grew sparse as the sun fell behind the trees. The glowing traffic lights were like terrestrial stars that kept many organized and the outlaws accelerating. His cheeks were like a deflated red balloon. At fifty-three, smoking two packs a day and chewing a tin of Kodiak, his skin became weathered and worn like a Scandinavian fisherman with acne scars. His smoke break wasn’t for another hour, so he nestled a glob of chew into his lower lip and packed it down meticulously until it formed a solid mass and spat the wandering shreds of tobacco out the window.
“Hey,” a voice said from behind him.
Without taking his gaze away from the red light at the intersection the Burger Stop was established, Ray said, “Yeah?”
“What did I tell you about spitting out the order window?”
The shrill, prepubescent voice oozed from the lips of Ray’s supervisor, whom he found to be much too naive for a man in his position. Yeah, one could argue that a fifty-three year old salting french fries, bagging burgers and filling paper cups of soda was someone who had lost their way in life, because how in the hell did they end up here? Ray was not poor, nor did he take the job out of necessity. It just so happened that at his fifty-third birthday he decided to try working fast food. He felt a divide between himself and the working class he was isolated from in his small studio apartment downtown where he spent all day painting and all evening watching horror films. Yet, there has always been an activist deep inside his soul, one that ached to be freed, or at least fed a gracious diet of experience and education. Ray had the education: Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a half-finished masters in International Relations from Georgetown. He loved every second of his education and yet when he finished there was no need for his expertise and thus his part-time hobby of painting became a full-time passion that consumed him.
Even still, there have been many sleepless nights in which Ray sat in bed pondering his choices, wondering what he could do to alleviate the gap between his knowledge and the physical yearning for action. He subscribed to the socialist newspaper, “The Militant” and kept a close eye on one particular column, “On the Picket Line” in which laborers picketing against their employers share their struggles and convey the latest ideas in labor rights. The stories he painted were vastly different from the ones that kept him awake at night. Therefore, he chose to steep himself in the struggle, to sustain the injury of being at the front line. That is why, after finishing his piece of birthday cake and visiting with his two sons and granddaughter that he drove his 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix down Canyon Road searching for any “HIRING” banners. He found one strung over the plastic cheeseburger in front of a Burger Stop and went inside to turn in an application. He had driven past the joint countless times in his years living in this town and not once had he tasted their menu. So, before leaving, he ordered a classic cheeseburger and fries with extra salt and a small Dr. Pepper. He would never order another menu item in fear of receiving the same bowel torment he did on his birthday.
Nonetheless, he was approached at the finish of his meal by the swing shift supervisor who told Ray the job was his, and when could he start? Immediately, said Ray. Excellent, said Toby.
Ray took his elbows off the ledge of the pickup window and turned to face Toby. “I believe you said the next time I spit out of that window, you’re going to write me up.”
Toby shook his head frantically. “No, I said that if you spat out the window again, I’d have to fire you.”
“I could’ve sworn you said a write up.”
“Get your things. Go home.”
Ray instinctively turned to spit out the window, paused, then slowly turned back. “I’m sorry, look, I’ll go out with the hose and spray it down. Honest, I won’t do it again.”
But the line was overused and what little sensibility was left in Toby dwindled at that moment and he shouted, “Get the fuck out of here!”
Ray stared at him and packed the wad of tobacco deeper into his lip and let out the slightest chuckle.
“You find this funny?” Toby said. “You think you can be insubordinate and get away with it? That’s not reality, Ray. Wake up. You can’t just do whatever you damn well please.”
“I certainly can,” said Ray. “I always do precisely what I damn well please. And sometimes it gets me into trouble.”
“Maintain that rebellious attitude, that idiotic mindset, and see how far it gets you.”
Ray said, “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been and I’ll I’ve done is live by my own rules. And I hope you’re happy too, Toby, truly. I hope every day you wake up and you feel deep down that you know who you are and what you want and you seize the day by the balls because it’s all fucking yours.”
Toby rubbed a finger against his temple. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, I just need you to leave. Now.”
Ray had much more to say to the poor kid. He loved him. He wished the best for him and that he would live out the rest of his days in a blaze of truth that would surely ignite everyone and everything that got too close. Perhaps, one day, Toby will sit up in bed plagued by the same twisting knot in the chest, the buzz in the brain, as Ray. Reminders that he was so close to complete annihilation and there was nothing he could do about it, so he might as well excite his passions and forget about the victims.