November 11, 2007

E pluribus unum

The revolving door whooshed closed behind me; the warm air of the street shrank to a slot, fanned the back of my neck, and vanished. Confronting the cool festivity inside the Burger King called up a spasm of joy. A primal response, no doubt, to community, voices, grilled beef. At close to three o’clock, the lunch hour rush was long past, but there was an air of conviviality inside, the merriment of those having escaped the elements into a refuge specifically designed, after all, to stimulate and nurture. A little clutch of what appeared to be hospital volunteers, all three wearing melon-tinted smocks and ordering with gusto and gossip, left with trays laden with drinks and food wrapped in colorful tissue. I could have eyed the panoramic menu, backlit and brightly colored, for eons. A garden of edible delights. Steaming burgers bursting with juicy ground beef; mustard and ketchup, perfectly red and yellow, oozing out from their toasted buns. French fries, oiled and crispened, browned and salted, overflowing their crimson cardboard cups. Rich brown Cokes shimmering with sweet effervescence.

“May I help you?”

“A double Whopper, large fries and a large Coke.”

Click, flutter, beep. “Any dessert with that?” Her fingers were poised over the bank of data keys; her expression, hazel and hopeful, as dilated as my appetite. I scanned the purple dessert panel.

“I’ll have a frozen yogurt. With nut sprinkles.”

Click, flutter, beep. “Anything else?”

“A coffee. Black.”

“Will that be all?”

I smiled. “I hope so,”

“That’s five seventy-two,” she said pleasantly and went to round up my goodies. I pulled out my wallet and watched the tray fill. Hands with glossy red nails placed the double Whopper, in its yellow paper wrap, on the tray. Then came fries. A giant Coke. Frozen yogurt with nut sprinkles. Coffee. Napkins, straw, sugar packets, little tubs of half-and-half, white plastic spoon in a sealed cellophane sleeve.

“That’s five seventy-two,” the girl repeated. Once in a while I see that face again. I studied her, the hazel gaze, the warm soprano timbre, what I remembered, once or twice over the next few days, looking for clues. A chink in the presentation. A trans-dimensional flicker. Or was hers just the ordinary human countenance, unknowingly mediating two worlds; an anonymous player in the cosmic opera thrust for the moment to center stage, the only place, really, there is.

I opened my wallet and clearly saw the bills. Two tens, a five and a one. Just enough to pay for the meal, and still have twenty for the tickets to the concert I had driven to Sarasota to pick up. I handed her, unnecessarily, a ten.

“Out of ten.” Click, flutter, beep. Suddenly I knew, to a moral certainty I knew, that I was about to be short-changed. I also knew, after a moment of hovering over an abyss, that I would accept whatever she handed me, no questions asked. Why this feeling came over me, or how long it was in coming, I don’t know. The parable of the unforgiving servant, who had been forgiven everything, yet forgave nothing, came to mind. It was my turn to pick up the tab. Pay it forward. Finding myself in this sacramental moment now, which would probably cost me the concert tickets, in a Burger King, a hundred and twenty miles from home, gave me an unexpected peace. This, it seemed, was why I had come.

“Four twenty-eight is your change.” She placed what felt like bills and coins in my outstretched hand. I closed my hand around the money and, without counting, dropped it into my empty pants pocket.

“Thank you,” I said, and picked up the tray. She smiled, but was already looking over my shoulder at the next in line.

Not delectable, exactly. But about as good as the genre gets. The double Whopper was piping hot and juicy; the fries both crisp and tender, crackling with what the food industry calls conquerable resistance. The Coke… well, it’s a formula, isn’t it. Coke never fails. I swept the tray aside and with trembling fingers dug deep into my pocket, scooped out the money and laid it on the table. I dug deep again, checking for strays. I turned the pocket inside out.

“Four twenty-eight is your change,” Hazel echoed back, click, flutter, beep. I stared at the money on the table. I looked out the window, watching the melon-swatched nurses meander away down the street. A smile like a large unwieldy egret rose up from my heart. I stared again at the table. Four ones, a quarter, and two pennies. Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, e pluribus unum.