Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Saline

Among swollen mirages and the further diffraction of exhaust fumes, hovering glints of windshield and fender shimmer like the chain mail sleeve of a drowned shark hunter, boiled in a thermal current. Sodden palm up, the lifeless arm hangs for miles, terminating in flashing orange barrels, stolid pylon digits that allow but a thin flux between thumb and forefinger. One vehicle at a time idles haltingly around the diesel generator, its clicking billboard (“left lane closed,” “merge right”), and the single roadside worker who boisterously pours asphalt. Beneath his filter mask, the curve of the worker’s cheeks increases. (Mischief!) And then—

A stocky police car boxes along the shoulder and totters at the elbow. When it rolls at last to a stop, opposite the direction of traffic, the driver’s door opens. A moment passes before the officer steps out, straightens his trousers, hat, and tie, admires his gig line, and says hello. The roadside worker holds still. Slowly, perhaps uncertainly, the officer turns back to his car, gropes one hand to the door and braces the other on the roof, then thrusts his head inside. The worker lowers his eyes to the steaming asphalt and feels his bowels lunge. Sucked by an internal undertow, he clenches his rectum and swallows. He rakes the burning grit.

After all, the worker is not employed by the city. He is conducting an amateur social experiment, which is how he presumes to explain it in the event of discovery. “It was inspired, your Honor, by the soda machine at work. It has been so hot lately … yet somebody taped a note to the buttons: out of order, as a joke. I won’t tell who. It was hand written, on notebook paper! And nobody bought a drink.” The worker has set aside five paychecks to rent the necessary industrial equipment. The fishnet orange vest—that, he already owned. There is not actually a pot hole. He desires only to see how far this will go.

The police officer reaches beneath his seat and pops the trunk. He moves to the rear, leans into the gaping cavity. His curse is audible in spite of the sporadic moan of traffic in low gear. After a full minute he gently closes the trunk and chuckles nervously to the worker, “I seem to have misplaced my baton. My … ah, traffic directing tool.” Each man looks the other in the eye.

Imagine this scene on film, the photographer having stepped back to encompass a vista of jellyfish clouds, tentacles drawing forth pollution, the sunken arm that flourishes though dead, the glitter of wetsuits—and in the foreground, framed low and a trifle off-center, two men in uniform (one soiled, the other spotless) whose faces reveal astonishment. But most epiphanies go unrecorded, and indeed, the keen flash that passes between these two men is a private affair. Without another word, through the saline solution of everyday living, each has recognized the other as a fraud. They revel in the bizarre coincidence, for it is a shared fa├žade.

Pouring asphalt, the worker grins. The officer, donning a serious expression, directs traffic with his bare hands.

Epilogue: Near the end of the queue, the author of “Saline,” inconvenienced by traffic, has plenty of time to think. He has approached this story from more than one angle and considered pursuing alternative emphases. A minor change (if not irrelevant) introduces the officer’s character first. Another, perhaps stronger, follows the same plot but establishes both men as genuine representatives of their respective vocations, who nonetheless recognize each other as frauds.

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