That old guy who loiters around the food court seems lonely maybe, like he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He orders lemonade from her at Hot Dog on a Stick, and then takes a seat at the head of a four-top in his navy blazer, three gold buttons down each cuff. The captain of an empty skiff. He never buys a hot dog or a corn dog.
The way the mall ignores him, he reminds her of a ghost—the story they used to tell at sleepovers of that looming Victorian in Arcata. Tenants said a ghost-man seeped out of walls, talked with no sound. A lip reader said he’d come for his son, who’d been playing in the Victorian’s parlor when the north coast waters swallowed his father’s ship.
The old man pulls from his lemonade, the straw kinked over his bottom lip, and she feels the undertow that sucked at her once, how she’d clawed at the ocean floor toward shore air. In the car after, the stale heat blowing, there was no getting warm.
Above the paper towel dispenser, a minute hand lumbers toward five. A clock is a prison is what it seems to her. This five—Friday five—comes slowest. This Friday there will be two house parties. She will need twice as long to get ready.
But at five, hunched over, the old man is still sipping, watching families pass, so she spares him and slides into his skiff with her shift soda, her striped hat in hand. She unpins her hair. She can use the five minutes of rest before her walk home along the highway past gas stations, Red Bull cans and other liberated debris, and always a hitchhiker with a dog on a hemp leash. He offers so feebly to drive her. She sees he needs the company more than she needs the ride. Thinking of her own grandpa—his heart quit right after her grandma stopped recognizing him—she says, “Yeah, okay.”
A few weeks ago, that fulltime Subway worker, Brandon Loma, said he gave the old guy cash for a handle of vodka, and old guy threw in a twelver of Hamm’s on him. “To be sure you have a good time” is what Brandon said he’d said, but Brandon says a lot of things. Still, she can see the old man living through them, flushing at their thanks, smoothing his white wisps of hair. She follows him through the parking lot and is surprised when he stops at a pale blue Jaguar, with its canny sophistication.
He opens the door for her.
Inside, secured beneath the seat belt, she notices her scuffed, white tennis shoes, her chipped, pink nail polish against the leather armrest. The car was recently detailed, she figures, or more likely, the cars of rich people are permanently clean. Outside, the grey twilight is heavy with the pulp mill’s egg stench. Her dad will be leaving the mill soon, his empty lunchpail swinging.
The old guy pulls onto the highway, the radio playing some old guy song, Frank Sinatra, she thinks. It’s too depressing for a Friday just after five. She reaches out and twists the dial to the good station, the one that plays hip-hop.
He looks at her, something slyly feminine coming through. Something coy. She blinks because she wants him to: to reset, to come back. But his eyes have gone dark, and they linger on her.
“Oh sorry,” she says. “Should I put it back?”
The old guy starts humming. He’s humming still when she tells him to take a left at the light, and after she says, “Wait, sir, my house is back there.” She wonders if he is partially deaf. She touches his hand—it feels tacky and cold—but he keeps driving.
She remembers how, when she was a child, her grandpa would drag her into his lap. He’d arrange himself as she was sitting and after getting up, she’d hear the snap of his elastic waistband, feel the heat of his crotch. She wondered if he’d slipped out his penis and then tucked it back in, but she never knew, and she’d hated herself for thinking it.
She begins to feel the thump of her heart. Telephone poles plastered with flyers speed past. The old man accelerates along the highway until, out beyond the lights of town, he turns down an unmarked road.
Kara Vernor’s fiction has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation scholarship, and her writing has been included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions, The Best Small Fictions 2019, and Golden State 2017: Best New Writing from California. Her flash fiction chapbook, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, is available from Split Lip Press. Image: Morning on the Lost Coast, Wendy Seltzer, 2005 (Flickr)