In-n-Out Burgernow, that was more his speed. He pulled into the In-n-Out on Sunset and parked. In the lot there was a boy in a white paper cap holding a board in front of him like a cigarette girl, taking orders from the cars in the drive-thru line. It was a long lineit was lunchtime, he realized. He also realized he was hungry. He didn't remember when he ate last, though he did know it had been something from the vending machine at the motel.
But his appetite, and his fledgling good mood, evaporated the moment Arthur Rook stepped inside the Xanadu of Southern California fast food. White-capped workers buzzed with efficiency, their red aprons held together with large wicked safety pins; customers casually ordered items that weren't even on the menu (a double-double? a Flying Dutchman?). The restaurant was tiled like a bathroom or a hospital, bright red and clean white, and rows of red palm trees marched across the walls, the rims of the drink cups, the paper place mats lining the trays. Everyone else knew what to do but him; everyone had a place here but Arthur, the out-of-joint socket, the improper cog in this beautifully humming machine. And now he was at the counter and the girl behind it was smiling broadly, and behind her another happy worker was murdering potatoes with a diabolical contraption that was half guillotine, half garlic press. The giant silver handle came down on a naked potato, and it splintered into pale fingers.
"What can I get for you, sir?"
I do not belong in this place.
His eyes flew to the hand-painted menu above her head. Hamburger, cheeseburger. No other options. No one else had ordered just a hamburger or a cheeseburger. Would they know, could they tell, if he tried to fake it?
"Sir?" The girl at the register was stunning. Everyone in LA was beautiful, even the girls at the In-n-Out. It made him sad, and he didn't know why.
Arthur opened his mouth but nothing came out.
"Sorry, I didn't catch that."
The machine was slowing. He, Arthur the interloper, was screwing it up. He had a sudden violent premonition that it was too late for him to escape. He would be crushed by this city, eaten, and then forced to wander it forever: nameless and alone in an undead town.
"He'll have a double-double and an order of animal fries."
It was a girl's voice, behind him: strong and bright and sure. It continued. "And I'll have a two-by-three and a Neapolitan shake."
The voice stepped beside him and smiled, and the lonely Watcher, invisible for so long, was seen at last.
Seen by a beautiful girl a woman. Maybe twenty-five. Tall, like him, with straight dirty-blond hair and wide open eyes and broad shoulders. She had a geometric body, all angles and planes and edges except for her breastslarge breasts that Arthur, at the same time as appreciating the hell out of them, imagined she might have hidden under sweatshirts and oversize flannel shirts for years. The way she held herself now felt new and unpracticed, as if she had only recently learned how to be at ease but had learned it and learned it well. Arthur smiled at her like a man granted his dying wish. The machine around them began to purr again, and he opened his mouth but still nothing came out.
"Don't mention it," she whispered.
That was how Arthur Rook met Amy Henderson. Amy, who would sit down with him at a table in the sun, who would explain the difference between a double-double and a Flying Dutchman and then wipe a dot of ketchup from the corner of his mouth with her left fingertip. Who would teach him how to navigate, how to survive, how to fall in love with LA's charmingly daft willfinding its resolve to exist for its own superficial sake perfectly romantic and not a terminal fool's dying delusion. Who would teach him to fall in love with her. Who would be his friend and his lover and then his wife, who would be his home, who could create life from metal and rubber and wires for the sake of a few frames of film, and who would, at 7:48 on a Friday morning in early October, send ten thousand volts from the tip of the same finger that had wiped the ketchup from his lips through all the chambers of her heart.
Excerpted from This Must Be the Place by Kate Racculia. Copyright © 2010 by Kate Racculia. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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