As they pulled into the parking lot, a catchy tune bullied its way onto the stereo, which had been off, advertising Knuckle’s. They were given a rundown of the specials, the deals, the two-for-ones, and official company statements on the status of Junior, who, it claimed, was vacationing in the Bahamas.
“Yeah right,” said Rocket. And then, “Get me six Dark ‘n Dirty’s.”
Helen hesitated. She wasn’t ready to order. She wanted to walk around, stretch her legs. Maybe open the trunk and mill about behind the car. Helen scanned the parking lot, watching people walk to and from their vehicles with either full bags or full bellies. This close to her target, she noticed, and her own belly was surprisingly quiet. Typical. “I’ll tell you what,” Rocket said, finally. “Let’s meet back at the car in ten. I’m going to go sniff around.”
“Deal,” Helen parked the car.
Before she’d turned off the engine the back door opened and let the dog out; she watched him in the rearview mirror, heading over to a group of other dogs by an assembly of parked pickups. She felt relieved. It crossed her mind that he’d agreed to protect her, that by leaving her alone like this he was flouting this responsibility. She got out of the car. The lot was enormous, stretching down the length of the street, and people drove back and forth between the barely distinguished sub-lots faster than she’d moved since exiting I-5. Clever, thought Helen. She walked by a tailgate party, folks gathered around their various TVs watching a broadcast of some sport Helen didn’t recognize, and rowdy whoops rang out above the din of traffic and the continual stream of loudspeakered advertisements as if punctuating their special deals. The frank and familiar atmosphere of the scene took her back. It brought to mind the mindful eyes of her neighbors as a kid, block-watching in the days between television when spectacle had to be teased out of ordinary lives. I think it must have made her homesick, even, though she wouldn’t have admitted to it, would have called the sensation curiosity instead, or even academic interest. Either way, she paused, seemed to reflect, edge a little closer to these parking lot parties, drawn in, and it took a louder sound from a neighboring group to push her past. Helen ambled like this from place to place for a few minutes until a particularly high-pitched pitch for Knuckle’s crawled into her ear, awaking again her gut, which brought her in the direction of a gigantic drive-through hot-dog.
If she hadn’t experienced nostalgia before, one step into the glaring golden light of Knuckle’s Dirty Dogs™ induced a wave of bring-back she couldn’t ignore. Flashes of furious gastrointestinal pain filled her head, Knuckle himself peering over the counter at her with those lascivious eyes that drove her crazy, made her wear loose-neck shirts, made her, finally, eat too many Dirty Dogs to distinguish, now, in her mind, one experience from another. Her mouth began to water. Fortunately, there was no line. It was unusual, apparently, to actually come inside to order.
Helen waited for several minutes as cars were served at the drive-through, orders were taken online, and just about everything was attended to except Helen, waiting in full view of all the action yet somehow completely overlooked. She looked for a bell. Old Knuckle had had a bell. There was no bell. She’d cleared her throat several times, and was gearing up to employ more ambitious tactics when an impossibly cute brown-skinned girl noticed her from behind the counter and looked at her quizzically, as if trying to figure out what Helen could possibly be doing there. She looked out from large dark eyes past a shallow nose riding above full, glossy lips. Her hair was pulled back into tight corn rows that disappeared behind the horizon of her roundish head.
“Is there something… wrong with your order?” The girl was shooting in the dark.
“You could say that,” Helen returned. She felt vaguely indignant, but was too stunned by the girl’s beauty to focus much on her ineptitude.
“Well, but should I?”
Helen was being treated like some kind of endangered animal. The girl’s expression had turned quickly from one of wonderment to one of concern, sympathy, and Helen felt she needed to intercede on her own behalf.
“Look,” she told the pretty little twit, “I’ve been a Knuckle’s customer since day one, so don’t talk to me about should.” Shit. She wasn’t making any sense.
“Uh-huh,” nodded the girl. This last statement only served to affirm her initial reading of Helen. “And how can I help you, ma’am?” She batted her eyes.
“Oh Christ.” Helen realized that she’d do best to simply order her food. “Just give me a Big Dirty and six Dark n’ Dirtys, okay?”
The girl smiled wide. “Ma’am we have a special for the next five minutes on-”
“Listen sister, I know what your specials are. I’m not interested in your specials.”
The smile vanished. “Suit yourself,” the girl shrugged. But as she went about preparing Helen’s order, she continued to recite the special, as if she couldn’t stop herself, as if she were compelled to utter the words and wouldn’t feel comfortable until she did. “If you order 5 or more Dark ‘n Dirtys in the next 5, no, 4 minutes, you get a free Softer-Serve Puddle-Munch Cream Cup.” She spoke the words just loud enough for Helen to hear. They trickled into her head and pulled her eyes toward the girl, who began, as she spoke, to slip out of her short, Dirty Dog skirt, and unbutton her striped, form-fitting blouse. Helen looked on with some amusement, ogling the PYT like she’d been ogled by Knuckle. The girl dragged the Dark n’ Dirtys across her chest before depositing them in the buns, and wagged her ass as she walked from the Dog Pit™ to the Condiment Corner™, grabbing napkins and knives.
“You think you’re really something, don’t you?” Helen asked with a smirk. She had this little vixen’s number.
“Excuse me?” the vixen replied.
“Strutting your stuff around this grease pit. I mean, it’s not like I don’t appreciate it, but-”
“I’m sorry, did you just say ‘strutting your stuff’?” The girl chortled a bit.
She crossed her arms over her small, assertive brown breasts; raised her voice. “If by strutting my stuff you mean filling your stupid order, ma’am, maybe you have the wrong impression about what kind of business this is.”
Helen looked around to see if anyone had heard, but the bright clean counters stood emotionless against the disturbance, allowing it no purchase, no texture for its smoke to cling to. Knuckle’s had changed. If anyone had noticed at all, they were minding their own business. The other employees went about their tasks quickly and efficiently. Helen seemed to be the only person standing still, in fact. Even the girl who, just a moment before, had been staring her down from across the counter, was now busy bagging the food and ringing up the total on her handheld. She was fully clothed.
“Thank you,” the girl smiled. “The charge has been deducted from your account.”
Helen was handed a large bag overrun with roaming ads, the glittering surface chewed up and choking on all manner of mysterious necessities. She looked up to meet the girl’s eye, looking for some explanation, but stared instead into the dark, dreaded hair on the back of her head.
Interfering like that is strictly prohibited, of course, but I couldn’t help myself. Helen ordering a Dirty Dog was a reunion of sorts. I felt like celebrating.
She continued to stare as the girl re-entered the never ending need for drive-through assistance, her form bending seamlessly back into the ballet of food-bin-ticket-takes and order-up-hand-outs. Helen turned around reluctantly and walked back out into the weather-controlled rest-stop parking strip, a bit bewildered. Maybe Rocket was right, she was thinking, maybe Knuckle’s had become something altogether different than she’d remembered. Being served by a girl the age she’d been when first a patron was only part of it. The gloss of the packaging was new, too – the slick presentation, the sterility. Helen wondered if perhaps even the Dogs themselves had been cleaned up. She sniffed the bag, but a seal prevented any scent from escaping into her nose. She looked around to get her bearings.
In the distance she saw Joan’s car, and by it what appeared to be not one, but three dogs. Rocket had made friends. She clutched the bag, hoping they weren’t hungry. She set off across the lot, passing the parties she’d passed before, finding some new ones that had sprouted up since she’d been by, and watching as cars packed full of people pulled away. She obviously felt pretty comfortable there. Her gait had loosened up a little, and the food bag swung at the end of her arm just a few inches farther than normal, indicating ease. Out of her impossibly predictable Neighborhood™ she could take deeper breaths, get more oxygen to the brain and more blood to the body – in fact, I’m convinced there was a Zarabarbaric bounce to her step, there, strolling across the pavement with her bag of gut-busting grease.
But as she drew closer to the vehicle she tensed back up. Not only, Helen noticed, were there two additional dogs in Rocket’s company, but each dog had an owner in tow. She’d either overlooked them before, or they’d just arrived. Either way, it was not a pleasant surprise. She marched on, resigned to make the most of this encounter. They were obviously just a pair of tailgaters, she told herself, talking to an overly gregarious dog. She tried to relax. Rocket would make introductions and she’d be fine. Couple of friendly tailgaters and they’d have a nice chat while she ate—not sharing—and wave her off when it was time to go. She was now just a couple rows away. As if hearing her thoughts, Rocket turned around to mark Helen’s approach. She smiled. He stood as she came near. Making no eye contact with the visitors, she bent down to greet the animal, and just as soon as she’d reached sub-human form he rebuked her with a loud bark.
“Rocket!” she scolded, rebounding to an upright posture. She looked around. The dogs had come to attention but their men stood idly by, seeming confused.
“Rocket,” she repeated.
He held his ground, growling.
“Rocket it’s me,” she said, trying to sound firm. She looked back at the men, modestly built, but scruffy, logos ripped off their clothes. “This is my… I mean, we’re…” This wasn’t happening. She dug in her pocket for the car keys, pulled them out, and shook them in the air between herself and the strangers. Helen didn’t know why she felt the need to explain herself. In their silence, the men somehow seemed more in control of the situation. They oozed authority despite themselves. Of course, they weren’t being barked at either, which probably meant something. A still moment passed with Rocket stiff-set in silent aggression and the two gruff men looking concerned but still not compromising their distance. They glanced down at their own dogs, who glanced up at them. There passed between them what seemed to Helen some kind of mutual shrug, and finally one of the men took a small step forward.
“Joan?” he asked, squinting.
Joan? If it hadn’t been unbearably bright in the lot she’d have assumed he couldn’t quite make out her features. His head kind of danced back and forth as if he was trying for a better view.
“Um,” Helen began. Her mind bent with the various ways she could respond. They’d obviously never seen Joan if they could even for one instant make this mistake, but that left any number of options open. Did they recognize the car? This particular possibility alone was enough to merit some amount of politicking, since if she just drove off without explanation they’d surely call it in, have her picked up, and her plan would be ruined. She imagined being dropped off at home by the police, Jack thanking them and immediately telling himself nothing had happened, hoping to squeeze some juice out of the predicament, store some Buzz for the morning commute.
“Not exactly,” she finally said.
The man smiled, repeating, “Not exactly, eh?”
Rocket’s growl grew deeper.
“Well, I’m her neighbor.” She was trying to buy time. Every time she eased closer to the car she was rebuffed by a small but potent bark, and though the two new dogs were as yet unmoved, their silent presence menaced.
“I see,” the man said. The second man began tapping his foot. The dogs stood at attention.
Needless to say, I was ready to go in. We could have people there in less than five minutes. I didn’t like the look of those dogs, and the men, though evidently related somehow to Joan—who I’ve never liked—didn’t seem too friendly, either. They seemed impatient, sketchy. They looked around too much. Helen was preoccupied, for obvious reasons, but I was paying close attention to these creeps. We ran their images and came up with nothing, but that didn’t mean they weren’t crooked.
Before I could flip the switch, however, Helen caught sight of herself reflected in the car’s window, and realized she had her AS-Mask on. Of course! Christ. Rocket didn’t like the mask. She reached up to pull it from her face and it came with some difficulty—the thing had gotten comfortable up there—but soon released its grip and fell into her hand.
Seeing this radical transformation, Rocket whined; his tail began to wag. He seemed a little suspicious, but when she bent down he broke from his aggressive stance and lavished her sweaty face with licks.
With this the whole mood changed. The nameless dogs eased off, the first man visibly relaxed, and the second one stepped forward, smiling. “Hey, you’re Jack’s wife. Jack from TV.”
Helen sighed. Nodded. “Helen,” she said.
“Jack’s pretty good.” He nudged Number One. “You watch his weather reports?”
“Jack. Right. The Weatherless™ guy.”
“Exactly. Man, those are some damn good reports.”
“Sure,” said Number One, but he seemed less interested. He kept looking at the car.
“So, anyway,” Helen began, “we were just, me and Rocket here, out for a drive.”
“Just out for a drive, huh?” Number One liked to repeat things.
“Yeah, and we just, you know, stopped in for some Dirty Dogs.” At the mention of this she realized that her hunger was back. It was angry. Rocket was evidently thinking the same thing, and bumped her Knuckle’s bag with this nose. She reached into the bag and pulled out a few Dark n’ Dirtys for Rocket, who seemed ecstatic. He bore through the wrappers and set to wolfing down his dinner.
“So you’re saying Joan didn’t…uh,” he glanced at Number Two, “didn’t send you here?”
“Send me here?” said Helen. It was her turn.
“Yeah, you know.” He nodded toward the car.
Rocket, paying no attention to the conversation, nudged the bag again, and Helen looked down to realize he’d finished what she’d given him and wanted more. She complied. Left now was her single Big Dirty, growing, she thought with exasperation, colder by the minute. She knew from experience that they were near inedible when cold. This would have to be avoided at all costs.
“Listen, fellas, I hate to kill this delightful conversation, but we’ve really gotta get going.” Helen brought her keys to the door and unlocked it. “We’ve got a long drive ahead of us.”
Number One stepped forward and put his hand on the door, holding it shut. His dogs stood at attention while Number Two folded his arms, no longer smiling. Jack, she guessed, only got her so far with these two.
“Thing is,” said Number One, “this car is ours.”
Helen looked at the vehicle. It was a nice car. A new car. Luxury, leather, etc. etc. The options. This sort of thing didn’t normally matter to her and she hadn’t paid close attention, but now that she gave it a once-over, she could see that it was a highly stealable item. Twice in the same night, even, she thought, smirking.
“Um, no, it’s just that… well, yes,” she had an idea. “I actually just stole it from Joan earlier tonight.” She had no idea if this would work. “I don’t know what kind of thing you’ve got going with Joan but the fact that I’m here, now, is totally random. I walked into Joan’s house earlier tonight and grabbed the keys and just took it.” She paused. “And the dog.”
“No shit,” Number One said, a smile beginning to fight for some airtime on his smudgy face. “You just walked right in.” He looked over at Number Two, who was shaking his head as if to say the same thing.
“Yep. And I gotta tell ya, it didn’t look like Joan was anywhere near heading out, if this was supposed to be some kind of pre-determined meeting place.” She looked around. The tailgaters hooted and hollered, little kids running around in the buff, chasing dogs. She could see why Joan might pick a place like this. A lot to actively forget.
Helen looked down and saw that Rocket had finished his food and lay on the pavement, obviously content, in a daze even, probably suffering exquisitely.
“Hey, look, I don’t want to interfere, here, guys.”
“No, you know, I’m just really hungry, and I’m trying to get into the city.”
“Yeah?” Things were relaxing again.
“So I’m thinking, maybe-”
“Well we’re heading into the city,” said Number Two, completing her thought.
“Really? Do you think you-”
“Why don’t we just go ahead and give you a ride?”
This was too perfect. She didn’t even have to drive! Before any further discussion could confuse the clear picture she had of the following five minutes of her life, Helen opened the back door to Joan’s car, dove in, and tore the wrapping off her Big Dirty. Steam rose mercifully off the glistening tube of meat. Rocket climbed sleepily in next to her, but she barely noticed. Her teeth burst the hotdog’s skin, and memories flooded her head as the salty juice flooded her mouth. It was disgusting. The dirty dark block where she’d befriended Knuckle himself flashed before her eyes, and as she chewed he smiled at her, winked, and punched her in the gut. Her stomach turned and twisted and she writhed a rhythm in keeping with the even clenching of her jaw as she chewed. A high-gloss exterior, she discovered, couldn’t destroy the inherent evil of her favorite food. As the car began to pull away, she stuffed the last bite into her mouth and closed her eyes, her head against the glass. She was vaguely aware that the two men had split up, and in the front seat sat Number One and one of the dogs, but such details were beneath her concern at the moment. She dove into the strange sensations punishing her GI tract, and thought about someone she hadn’t thought of in a long time: herself.