“I remember when this place had real live servers,” Edgar snapped and watched the frown lines around Gregory’s mouth deepen.
“I know, Dad,” Gregory said, “you’ve told me enough times.”
Edgar noticed his son’s gaze never flickered from the orange and black-trimmed menu board above them. “I also remember when you used to give a rat’s ass about the things I said.”
Gregory’s shoulders tightened, but he didn’t turn around. Edgar watched the movement under his son’s lightweight jacket. He knew Greg always scrunched up when he was upset and trying to hide it.
“Hey, look son,” Edgar shouted. “Your mother wants to take your order. See her behind the glass partition working the computer. Look, she’s waving at us.”
Greg spun around. “What did you say?”
“I said stop acting like an old fart and lighten up. I just want to reminisce a little and all you can do is think, uh oh—definitely time for the home!” Edgar looked his son in the eyes and spat on the floor.
Greg flinched, opened his mouth, but only sputtered. Both men stared at the glistening glob on the spotless floor. An alarm went off behind the glass partition and a spider-like thing scurried out from a slot under the counter. It squatted down on jointed metal appendages and sucked up the wet spot.
Edgar snorted. “I can remember when they used to have people to clean, hey, I even remember when it was considered disgusting to spit on the floor in public. Why, I even remember when in public meant other people around and music playing over the loudspeakers. Even if it was only crap elevator muzak.”
He glanced around the room, noted the three Halloween cardboard cutouts taped on the walls, and saw only two plastic booths occupied by other travelers. “Hell, those alarms didn’t even faze sleeping beauty back there manning these mechanical nightmares.” He pointed to the only employee at the rest stop, the one sleeping behind the food dispensing machines. “I…”
“Dad, please!” Gregory whispered. “Come on, Dad. Please order. After all, this trip was your idea. You wanted to take a drive to the cemetery.”
“Yep, Greg, it’s so good of you to humor the old man like this, kind of eases the guilt before you send me to the home. Hey, I understand, boy. Peg didn’t grow up around old people. She just doesn’t understand an old geezer around her house. She thinks I’ll be happy stuck in a disguised prison filled with senile fools, drooling mental black holes, and all those nice shiny nurses and cameras to watch over me.”
“DAD,” Greg shouted, finally red in the face. “Please!”
“So, son, you can do more than just get embarrassed. What are you feeling, shame or anger?”
“Anger, Dad. Anger!” Greg said lowering his voice as the other people in the room turned to stare at them. “I’m sick of you trying to make me feel guilty. Well, I’m not feeling bad! I’m not in the least. You are always putting me down, always comparing me to some absurd standard from your pathetic excuse of a past. Peg isn’t just uncomfortable with you around, she hates you! You are making our lives a terrible strain.”
Edgar laughed. “So, Greg, you do have a little spine, don’t you? You actually came out and said hate, and in public too. Good thing the Polite Police didn’t hear you, huh? And gee, I’m a terrible strain, mighty harsh words, mighty tough talk for nowadays.”
Greg sighed, his shoulders slumped and he turned back to the menu. He touched the pictures of what he wanted to order, then touched them again for Edgar, who refused to communicate with machines.
“Ah, Greg. I just want you to see that you and the rest of the sheep are condemning yourselves to an existence of empty, polite crap. Everybody’s nice to each other, nobody has to ever get their hands dirty, but nobody’s happy, either.” Edgar watched his son walk away from him with the tray of food following on wheels. He sighed with frustration. The world was never meant to be like this, he thought. Nobody allowed to complain, nobody allowed to get angry, everyone so considerate of everyone at the cost of everything.
When did we stray so far from reality, he wondered. He struggled to let go of the anger he seemed to feel all the time and followed his son to a booth. “I think I miss the music the most. All there is today is silence, nothing piping through to upset anyone. I can’t stand the idea of having a speaker embedded in your head or else you gotta live with this infuriating silence.”
Greg sat and began to silently eat.
Edgar shook his head. He was sorry that Greg thought him a foolish, wasted old man, but he wasn’t. He wasn’t! He was just tired of living in a society based on lies. “Look, son, I’m sorry I’ve embarrassed you. I just miss the old days.”
Greg picked up his sandwich and took another bite. He chewed, swallowed, and said, “I think I understand, Dad. But anger is so counterproductive. We live in the best of all worlds. Just look around, everything is clean, sanitary, peaceful. There is no need for anger anymore.”
He took another bite and added. “I just wish you could learn to enjoy life. The village you are moving to is so perfect, you’re not going into a home like your dad had to. This is just the way it should be, everyone living with their proper group, the elders together in the villages, and the family units together in their complexes. No more of that forced intermingling of cultures, no more ethnic or socioeconomic slurs, no more fighting, no more anger! A good world.”
“You really believe that?” Edgar asked, then started to eat his bland sandwich. He wasn’t even sure what it was, pseudomeat or processed non-dairy cheese. “I’d like a hamburger, dripping grease and covered with mayo, pickles, and fresh outdoor-grown onions.”
Greg shuddered, “Ugh…sounds kind of disgusting. Dead flesh, muscles and fatty tissues ground together, fried in its own carcinogenic excretions, then covered with a vegetable grown in insecticide polluted soil. Thanks, I’ll stick to today’s food.”
Edgar caught a movement off to the side. He turned his head, but whatever he thought he saw had disappeared. “Guess I’m just stuck with my yesterdays, or at least wishing for them,” he said to Greg and began to hum a song from his past.
The movement caught his attention again. This time, he didn’t turn his head. Instead, he waited and it moved into focus a little, just inside the line of his peripheral vision. It was a waitress, dyed red hair tousled and falling out of a ponytail, short-skirted uniform bouncing over long pantyhose-clad legs. He could have sworn he’d seen her a thousand times in a thousand places when he’d been young.
But her type was gone, just like the restaurants, the hangouts and the life he had known. And yet, she persisted in playing on his vision.
Maybe the boy and that bitch wife are right, maybe I am ready for the old folks home. Edgar chuckled softly. They may have cleaned those old age centers up, taken away the stench of piss and shit, and made the residents look presentable and functional—it was amazing what they could do with implants and chips—but when the mind gives up the fight, the only thing left is a senile old fool too dumb to know when to die.
He closed his eyes, then opened them. The waitress was gone, but he could sense more than see shadows moving all over the room. He squinted and the shadows deepened into misty people milling around an old-fashioned turnpike rest stop complete with food stands, canopied shops, vending machines, video games, and huge smelly rest rooms. Edgar sighed and closed his eyes again. He ate that way, eyes closed, shutting out his silent, sullen son and a vague world he longed to see again.
Finally, he heard, “Ready, Dad?”
He nodded and got up, opening his eyes. The shadows were still there and he could swear he could hear noises, people talking, shouting, laughing, sneezing, coughing, and even the crying of a baby.
He rushed to the glass automatic doors that went out into the almost empty parking lot. He was going to leave as quickly as possible. Then he heard her, “Come back now, real soon.”
He jerked to a stop, Greg crashing into him. He turned back and there she was, the waitress, waving goodbye. “Real soon, Honey, we’ll be waiting.”
“Dad, what’s the matter?” Greg asked, stepping back from his father. “Dad, are you all right?”
Edgar went out the door, then asked, “See anything interesting in there?”
Greg’s expression turned to concern, “No…did you? Dad?”
“Of course not, what do you think I am, crazy?” Edgar snapped and walked toward the car.
Greg drove the solar-powered car on the almost deserted superhighway. “It’s funny, what with public transportation so good, you’d think they’d close those rest stops and tear up the roads.”
“Some of us still like to drive, and, as for the rest stop, well, as clean as they’ve made us humans, they still haven’t figured out how to make us give up food and voiding.”
Greg sighed and fell silent.
Edgar looked out the window at the bleak landscape covered with landfills, high-rise cities, and cemeteries. He sighed and thought about how the future had become the present, how man didn’t need the land anymore, what with submersible living and superstructures reaching to Heaven like successful towers of Babel. The Earth was only good for storing the trash and the dead. Edgar thought about ending up in one of the endless graveyards tended by machines, never visited except by fools like himself. He wondered if Greg would ever visit him after he died. Would Greg visit Peg the way he visited Janet?
He had had hopes for that boy. He remembered how like himself Greg had once been, before Peg, success, and children turned him into a modern-day automaton.
“You ever think about your mother?”
Greg turned from the road. “Of course!”
“Ever miss her?”
Greg smiled a little. “Not like you do.”
“Are you going to miss me?”
“Hey, Dad, I’m sorry I blew up back there. You’ll only be a few minutes away from us by metrotube.”
“No, son, I mean when I’m really gone. Will you ever come out here to visit?”
“Of course, Dad.” Greg’s cheek twitched and Edgar knew he was lying, just like when he was a kid.
“Perhaps you will,” Edgar said and returned to studying the road and the occasional tree with yellow and dying brown leaves.
They had been stopped at the cemetery for just a few minutes when Greg said he wanted to return to the rented car.
“Wait, son,” Edgar said reaching into his jacket pocket. “I’ve been saving this for you ever since I found it in a container last year.”
Greg’s eyes lit up. “Why, it’s my old smartphone!”
He grabbed the small portable unit from his dad’s outstretched hand. He opened a compartment and took out the cordless buds and slipped them in his ears. “Hey, do I look as cool as I did when I was eight?”
Edgar nodded. “You sure do, son. Cool.”
“Shame batteries are outlawed, I wonder if I can find an energy source to make it work? I had tons of music and movies stored on it.” Greg smiled. “Boy, I sure would like to hear those songs.”
Edgar fished out a holographic photo and handed it over. “You find all sorts of stuff when you clean out a lifetime.”
Greg’s expression softened even more and he got a faraway look. “Wow, me and my first car. The old shitmobile.”
Edgar laughed. “Yeah, those manure-driven babies weren’t around all that long, thank the Lord. But they were efficient little stinkbombs.”
Greg put the picture in his pocket. “You know, Dad, sometimes the past does look good, probably better than it really was. But this world is a good place.”
Edgar nodded and rested against Janet’s gravestone. “That’s because it is your world. My world is in that picture and all around us right now. When you don’t fit in anymore, you have to move on.”
Greg looked sad. “I wish you could see that you are wrong. This planet is big enough to be everybody’s world.”
They walked back to the car, neither breaking the silence that had formed. On the drive back, Edgar found himself thinking very little of his late wife and a lot about the rest stop.
“I’d like a coffee,” he announced.
Greg sighed. “Dad, we have to get back.”
“Come on, son. Humor an old man with a weak bladder.”
He watched Greg grind his teeth.
They turned off the road and back into the rest stop parking lot. Except for two cars that had obviously left, the same few cars were still there. Edgar wondered, if he walked up to them, would they be covered in dust?
They went inside and the shadows were gone. Edgar fought off the feeling of disappointment. What had he expected anyway, a welcome wagon?
Greg walked up to the counter to punch in two coffees. “Want any dessert, Dad?”
Edgar thought for a moment, then said, “I’d like an apple pie a la mode.”
He sat at a booth and waited, not sure for what, when he suddenly saw her, plain as day.
“Hi ya, Honey,” she said. “Glad you could make it back. So few do any more, but it’s a slow time. In a couple more decades, we’ll be swamped, just you wait and see.”
Edgar sat there mesmerized. As he stared at her, he realized he was hearing music, music decades old, from the turn of the century when he was young. It was Boulevard of Broken Dreams. It all started to sink in.
The waitress was standing in front of him, pad and pen in hand. “Well, Doll,” she said. “What will it be, processed pie with sonny-boy over there, or the real thing forever.”
“Am I dead?” Edgar asked.
She laughed. “Hell no, Sweetcheeks.”
“Then, am I dying, is that why I have a choice?”
She shook her head and few strands of her rich, red curls tumbled from the scrunchie.
“Well then, what’s going on?”
She shrugged. “Hey, I’m just a waitress, came here about thirty-five years ago and took the job. All I know is, if you can see the past, you can get there.”
“This is the past?”
“Well, it’s a rest stop on the way to the future.”
Edgar looked over at Greg, who was still at the counter. He smiled. His dour middle-aged son, who was always in such a rush, could never make up his mind when it came to desserts. He’d be there another ten minutes without Peg nagging him to hurry.
“How do I join you?”
She smiled a sweet, crooked grin. “Just order what your heart desires.”
Edgar thought for a moment, then said, “A stop from reality, with a juicy, rare burger smothered in pickles and fresh onions.”
She wrote furiously and asked, “Mayo?”
“Nah,” he said. “Hold the mayo…this time.”
The room suddenly filled with a crowd of people, souls just like himself, who had tired of humanity’s schizoid race to assimilate as well as segregate. The music tempo changed. The Beatles sang Twist and Shout as several people around him got up and began to dance.
Edgar ignored the dancers and watched Greg turn and look for him. He felt a pang at leaving the only living soul who mattered to him.
The waitress put her arm around him and said in a soft voice, “Don’t you worry, his kind always comes back when they’re ready. After all, he’s a chip off the old block.”
Edgar nodded and walked up to his son. “Greg, I know the most you can see is a shadow that you won’t accept as real, but I’ll be here waiting when you finally decide return someday. And Greg, I’ll make sure the desserts are fresh for you.”
He wiped at his eyes and turned away from his son, who was obviously searching the huge empty room for him.
Then Edgar walked back to his table and ate the first real burger he’d had in forty years.
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