by John Hazard
When Weber dictates to Maud, his car’s robot girl, his favorite command is Show Map. He drops his voice to a baritone when he talks to her, but she often mangles his words or argues with him, and it’s hard to win against the cocksure monotone of a device. He hears her cold confidence as contempt, even as he reminds himself that she’s a pro who’s uninterested in feelings, including her own.
On weekends in his white Camry, Weber wanders. Maybe too much, he thinks. He’s 53 and small, not nimble—sooner or later he’ll get lost among killers. TV says they’re everywhere—terrorists, hillbillies, urban gangs, toothless meth-heads of various colors, trigger-happy cops. Danger breeds and lurks; TV and YouTube like it that way.
But here in southeast Michigan, this December Sunday has been peaceful in Saline and Tecumseh and Dundee, all towns where he’s looked at shelved books in the public library for a few minutes before permitting himself to use the men’s room. Restrooms are for customers only, whether or not there’s a sign saying so. He still likes courtesy and honor, dislikes reproof, public conflict of any kind.
Now, at four o’clock, with the gray sky sinking even lower, he tells Maud to
find a restaurant. This time she complies, and he’s waiting for take-out chicken curry, item C9, medium-hot, from the Thai Smile Café, which sits in the acres of a suburban shopping center somewhere in downriver Detroit—Trenton? Riverview? Wyandotte? Boundaries blur, except for the sprawl of asphalt with its yellow lines, paralleled and right angled. Hundreds are empty. They call out, Choose me. Crawl in.
Weber lives in the little house his parents left him in Ypsilanti, about a half- hour west of Thai Smile. There are various homeward routes other than the interstates with all their hostile zooming, sucking his tailpipe and hissing go, go, do more, do more. So he looks at his paper map for comfortable back roads, although he has to be careful—too many choices make him anxious. Sometimes he lets Maud guide him—as long as he’s not asking for an interesting way. Maud doesn’t understand scenic routes or gentle curves or “ample trees” or “sense of spaciousness.” After a some befuddlement and bad guesses, she’d sound cross to him, he might curse, and she’d say “There’s no need for that.” He’s had enough of cold commands.
He sits staring across the asphalt until he notices that the Camry’s console holds his little red Power Shot camera; it’s about the size of a deck of cards. He begins to take pictures of the dashboard’s knobs and dials; with the car in accessory mode, they glow against the gray of the interior. Maybe it would make good abstract art. Suddenly he finds himself shooting the steering wheel’s faux-leather cover. He shoots the glove box, then opens it up to his pills, Kleenex, spare glasses, a squeezy ball for tendinitis. He shoots it all.
At his annual eye exam last week, the optician’s assistant, Trudy, maybe
twenty-five, wore a tight black top speckled with silver stars. The neckline featured a V-shaped plunge, and she’d sprinkled silver sparkles on her upper chest and cleavage. Even in middle age, Weber finds himself surprised by the same old things—bosoms, enhancements for bosoms, the beauty and wonder of birds, but also the blue jay’s shriek that feels like an attack, landfills that look like mountains, waitresses in black spandex pants, computerized cars that talk and don’t break down. Should he have asked Trudy to take a ride in his dependable Camry? Should he woo her with promises of reliability? He’s not sure why reliability isn’t sexy, but it’s a fact he’s learned to live with. Besides, Trudy was young enough to be his daughter, and he was pretty sure she walked on the wild side, big steps, long strides. No sparkles for Weber.
What if Weber’s Sunday were a movie titled Randy Weber of Human Resources? A theater full of strangers. What if people who knew him saw him meditating about the breasts of an optician’s assistant? “Oh, Weber,” they’d think with disgust. Or sadness. Condescension.
“Oh, people,” he’d think in reply, “I was 53 at birth and had no fan base. Did I have fans in the womb? Did those fluids love me? Mother was icy. I doubt she cheered my coming on.”
At work, he heard dutiful helloes as people passed by his desk. Hello, hello.
Marge, his ex-wife, had a mantra: “We are who we are.” Actually, she had several mantras, which Weber called Truth in a Can. Or, Motto of the Month. Marge also liked to say, “How lucky we are,” as if trying to convince herself. And, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Weber suspected she liked her mantras because she’d been a high school cheerleader, had an audience, and those stale cheering aphorisms made her feel young again. Go, team, go.
Imagine her choosing Weber. “You were a man I thought I could control,” she said twice in their last year together. It was easy to envision her running off with a sales manager at Best Buy, a fast talker who was also a weekend rock climber. “She always did like minerals,” Weber mused. By the time she actually left, there wasn’t much to grieve over, yet he sometimes feels a little sadness mixed into his bitterness.
He stares through the windshield at the long strip of downriver businesses called The Meadows. He thinks of this parking lot as an asphalt stage where myriad forms of humanity move about. Silently he re-names it American Acres:
Thai Smile Café
Priya Cassandra Indian Grocery
Bellagio Hair Studio
Mazgay’s Physical Therapy
Black-eyed Peas Soul Food
The Dollar Store
The Uniform Store
Ducky’s Field of Dreams Sports Bar
The Styx and Stones Intimate Shop
Does anyone pause to consider that below all this blacktop and commerce and diversity, ancient bones are hiding? Sperm whales, ancient relics of the native Wyandots, soy bean particles from the failed acres of a pioneer who prayed to his god, roared at his wife, and beat his three sons when the corn dried up halfway through their first August.
Weber wonders if he appears suspicious, sitting alone in his car, photographing his gas pedal, his radio, and struggling for the right depth of field as he tries to get his blinker stick in focus. He flicks it on—click—and it assumes a life of its own: click click; click click. But the little camera won’t hold its focus; he’s too close.
Any second now the police might arrive. Would they take him in? No, there won’t be cops on a Sunday afternoon, a day for slowing down and buying things. As usual, he’s safe, and by now his medium-hot sauce might be cooling across the pavement at the Thai Smile Café. He imagines getting his curry home, heating it up, watching the sticky rice make a nest for the spicy orange curry—spongy white grains filling with sauce and chicken.
Inside the little eatery two women are talking casually in the kitchen. There are no customers. At the cash register a fifty-ish Asian man raises a brown paper bag. Has the man been waiting? Is he angry? Without emotion he says, “Weber?”
“Are you Andrew Lloyd? Are you the Webber?” He’s playing, but his smile is not sarcastic. It’s jolly, and it’s genuine. “What have you done with Jean Valjean today? Where have you put my Jean?” He starts singing “Bring Him Home” and it’s beautiful, every note a perfect sorrow from this happy man. After a few bars, he stops and laughs.
It’s a weird, naked situation, and Weber wonders how uncomfortable he looks. He’s also aware that a Frenchman wrote that music, two more Frenchmen wrote the lyrics, in French, and a South African, un-musically named Kretzmer, wrote the English lyrics. Andrew Lloyd Webber had nothing to do with it. Randy Weber will say nothing, but he feels his body loosen.
In seconds he realizes that he and the Asian man are laughing together as if they’ve been friends a long time, friends who overlook each other’s mistakes. “It’s a slow Sunday,” Weber thinks, “but this man, so far removed from everything he once knew, enjoys his café. It’s spic-and-span. It’s comfortable. He prospers.”
In this vast plain in southeast Michigan, where glaciers once crawled, Weber will find his way home now. With Maud as his instructor, it’s never as complicated as it seems at first, if only he can make himself trust her. He’ll reheat, eat and be glad. He’ll turn on TV. Ice skating? Soccer? Somebody’s Got Talent? Serial Killers— reality TV or a drama? Either. Anything but the news.
He pauses on PBS. In the Western Ghats of South India, local humans are trying to protect the lion-tailed macaque. Weber mumbles “muh-cock” and tells himself to remember that. They are friendly monkeys. The people of the region originally called them lion-faced because the animals’ remarkable manes resembled those of male lions. That would still make sense, but in the transfer to English, the head and tail got confused, and the label that stuck was lion-tailed.
But that was not malice aforethought. That’s the kind of confusion that can happen to anyone. Besides, Weber doesn’t feel like ridiculing anyone today. He briefly made a friend, he’s home safe, his appetite’s good, and the chicken curry is perfect. Once more it’s clear that he knows nothing, and that’s a relief.
John Hazard lives in Birmingham, Michigan. Now retired, he has taught at the University of Memphis and, more recently, at Oakland University and the Cranbrook Schools in suburban Detroit. His fiction has been published in Baltimore Review, Corridors and South Dakota Review, while his poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart and has appeared widely in magazines, including Ploughshares, Poetry, Potomac Review, New Ohio Review, Shenandoah, Slate, The Gettysburg Review, Ascent, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Carolina Quarterly and Harpur Palate. His 2015 book of poetry is Naming a Stranger (Aldrich Press).