On a Wednesday afternoon, halfway through an unusually damp and cool summer in the city, a woman sits across from a man in the booth of a crowded diner that is designed to look like the inside of a railroad car. Train memorabilia cover the diner’s walls. There is a crossing signal at the entrance and a locomotive bell next to the cash register. The harried waitresses are dressed as conductors, with change makers on their hips. However, this busy theme is lost on most of the patrons who prefer only to order their food and get on with the business of eating. The man and the woman, who are marginally attractive and approaching middle age, are seated by a window. The window looks out on a dirty sidewalk in a less than desirable area of downtown Manhattan. The woman is speaking in an energized fashion, so chatty in fact that her Choo Choo Chili (a menu special) sits all but untouched in front of her.
“It was an accident the first time I did it,” she is telling the man. “I was distracted and pointed uptown instead of down. Something random and accidental like that, but when I realized what I’d done, after I gave those tourists the wrong directions… well I guess you’d have to say I was exhilarated. At the time I had to think about my reaction, about that exhilaration. It occurred to me that I hated them. The tourists, I mean. All the tourists. Maybe even the whole idea of tourism. Given the fact that the entire world is in financial meltdown, you have to ask what normal person can even afford a vacation. I certainly can’t. Not a real one anyway, where you go places and do things. But here they are, in my city, rubbing my nose in their conspicuous consumption, here to see Broadway shows or attend the ballet or meander through some special, well-reviewed museum exhibit. It’s not as if I can afford those things myself. They stuff themselves in overpriced restaurants, ordering fine wine and gourmet items I can’t begin to pronounce. Hey, it’s not like us regular folks wouldn’t like a fancy meal every once in a while too.”
The woman says this last bit while motioning vaguely around her at the unfortunate train décor, as well as the slobbering clientele.
“But”, she continues, “admitting the hatred did something for me. It cracked something open, as if I could suddenly see everything from a very great distance, as if I was using a telescope designed to see the whole world and my place in it. And that’s when I began to do it on purpose, the wrong directions thing. Now I nod cheerfully as strangers ask me for guidance. I put my hand to my chin and squint and make like I really am trying to think out the best possible route for them. But then I lie my head off and send them scurrying off to who knows where.”
“You don’t say,” the man whispers.
The woman is encouraged. He hasn’t spoken much before this. She leans forward in a conspiratorial way and goes on.
“I mean why shouldn’t I send these motherfuckers 60 or 70 blocks in the wrong direction? Really, why shouldn’t I? Sometimes I don’t even wait for them to approach me. I sniff them out on the street, these confused-looking, overfed tourists, clutching maps in their hands, with dim, hopeful smiles on their faces. I waltz right up and ask if they need assistance. And sometimes, if communication is achieved, everything comes together in the most orderly way, as if there really was a plan for the universe after all. You could call it a form of revenge what I do or just a cruel and stupid joke, but I call it my little moment of bliss. My very own state of grace.”
The woman decides to pound the table for emphasis. The silverware tingles and the water glasses slosh. She laughs then, a harsh, gulping noise, like the sound of someone drowning in a pool, but as the silence settles over them she is suddenly concerned. She is, in fact, almost desolate for an instant, worried perhaps that she has done it again, shared too much, exposed herself beyond all measure. But she soon sees it is all right. A shy, crooked grin spreads across the man’s face and then he is half-beaming at her as he reaches out to touch her hand across the table.
“You know,” he says carefully, “in your personal ad you mentioned that you like long walks in winter and the works of Jane Austen, but you revealed nothing of this spirited sense of adventure you possess. I must say I am very, very intrigued. Please, dear, tell me more.”
Bill Gaythwaite’s stories have appeared in The Ledge, Alligator Juniper, Every Day Fiction, Word Riot and elsewhere. His work is included in Mudville Diaries, an anthology of baseball-themed essays. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.