It’s late at night, or very early in the morning, depending on how you want to look at it. Under the eternal glowing lights, day and night meet to merge into a rotation of shift patterns, on and off. The security guard holds open the door under the golden arches, an impassive Saint Peter beckoning lost souls in to salty salvation.
I pass under his blank stare, with a tipsy smile of radiant thanks, to join the zigzagged queue of road maintenance workers, partygoers and teenagers with nowhere else to go. In the booths either side of the tiled counter-bound aisle, customers consume their compact meals alone or in small groups. The hum of a group of hooded youths’ hushed words is punctuated by shrieks of drunken revellers that bounce against the walls. Like tiny islands with their own dialects, chatter fuels the undercurrent of sounds. There is no music, not here, or in any of the other mirror image restaurants that spring up on every street.
After placing my order, a choice I will undoubtedly regret tomorrow, I watch a slim server named Mafelda checking a large batch of fries dripping hot fat. An automated supply of burgers emerges over the top of a counter pushed by a hand seemingly disconnected from any being. The chubby little paper ovals are shoved to sit with their familiars until an order is up. The servers joke with each other in between bored calls of “Next please!” The thought of clocking off shining behind their eyes.
Moments later, my food is folded into a brown paper bag and dispensed with little vigour, sauce sachets thrown as an afterthought. I turn to seek my own booth and settle to an empty one by the bathrooms. Sipping a coagulated milkshake, I assume the intent stare of other lone diners on the meal ahead. I am halfway through a mouthful of slim fries when my gaze lifts to a voice asking, “Do you mind if I join you?”
I survey the new arrival to my island; he’s baby faced but good looking, well dressed in dark clothing and incredibly perky despite the hour. I wonder if he’s on something, and if he has any left. I raise one shoulder, “I’d be delighted”, half mocking the formality of his introduction and trying to calculate his aim at choosing this occupied booth over any of the others.
We offer tidbits of information about our evenings, before he reveals he’s a trainee detective with the police. I burst out laughing, “But you look about twelve!” His quick smile removes any doubt of offence, as he shows me his identification. Intrigued with the prospect that he’s legit, I fire every question at him that bubbles into my head to which he enthusiastically responds. He doesn’t have a Luther style coat, he has not yet broken down any doors and avoids my insistence about reported police stashes of illegal substances. He knows his new position sounds impressive, but any arrogance he may have is scuppered by his can’t believe his luck answers.
Huddled over our trays, he asks me about myself in between the layers of questions I’ve stacked before him. I wonder how good his interrogation techniques are, film images mentally flickering. In my wine-fuelled state I believe my countering powers of deduction are excellent. Without directly asking, I find out he has a girlfriend, where he’s from and that the police station is around the corner. I knew the last fact before our conversation began, but still count the remembrance of it.
He picks up that I mention a current relationship twice, jokingly assuring me he won’t try anything. So I decide to flirt, without aim. It’s strange the ease with which people open up when someone appears genuinely interested. Under the tacky bright lights the best and worst of anyone is accentuated.
We finish, crumpling our wrappers and slurping the last sugared liquids, leaving behind the forever open doors and walk into the night. A drizzle has just started and we quicken our pace. Of course we are going the same way. We actually are, not one of those quick lies that strangers say to prolong a conversation. Though I get the feeling he would have walked me as far as possible.
The roads are comfortingly busy, even now, as we turn down a tree lined side street that is home to the station. He exaggeratedly exhales and looks at the building, its single light a beacon among the leaves, “Well, this is me”. Not very subtle, detective, I think. “I’ve got another eight hours before my shift finishes,” he says. “Shame,” I reply, “but if I find any intriguing clues I know where to go, at least.” There’s a pause. Though we have long since realised nothing could go further in any direction from this chance Friday night meeting, it feels like we’ve skipped a step.
We exchange numbers, out of social custom, though it’s doubtful that we’ll speak again. Perhaps another dreary morning I’ll meet him over quick calories, like Brief Encounter but with more cholesterol. Or, more likely, I’ll think of him the few times I’m drunk and desperate enough for greasy burgers.
Image credit: Junk shop in San Francisco.