- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From where he was standing in the kitchen, he was probably the first person in the Rosecrans Avenue branch of McDonald's to catch sight of her. And--ironically--he was probably the only person who had the experience to realize what was wrong about the way she was walking, even though she was smiling and swinging the petrol can like a basketful of summer flowers.
In another time, in another life, Bob Tuggey had been a junior clerk for Deputy Chief of Mission William Trueheart in South Viet Nam; and one evening late in June, 1963, when he was driving back to the embassy after buying himself half a dozen new sports shirts from his Chinese tailor in Cholon, a Buddhist monk had walked across the road in front of him in just the same way, swinging a petrol can. A-tisket, a-tasket...
Bob's Valiant had been brought to a halt a little further up the road by a long military convoy grinding past, and while he had sat smoking and listening to Peter, Paul and Mary, the monk had eased himself down on the pavement less than seventy feet away, splashed sparkling petrol all over his head, and set himself alight.
'The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind ...'
Bob had never forgotten the soft flaring noise of burning petrol, the whirl of ashes from burning robes, the stoical agony onthe monk's gradually blackening face. There had been shouting, arguing, bicycle bells ringing, but nobody had screamed. Bob had heaved himself out of the car, dragging his picnic-blanket after him with the intention of smothering the flames, but three more monks had pushed him away, persistently, with the heels of their bony hands, until their brother had fallen stiffly sideways, still burning, beyond the ministrations of anybody but Buddha.
Bob had doubled up by the side of the road, under that bronze smoky sky, and vomited churned-up chicken and tomatoes. Even today, 'Blowin' In The Wind' made his stomach tighten.
Maybe the smallest of small bells tinkled in Bob's memory as the girl came into view. But of course there was nothing about her that would have put him instantly in mind of a protesting Buddhist monk. She was petite and blonde, with bouncy brushed-back hair that reminded him of Doris Day. Her cowboy shirt was matched with a wide tan-leather belt, cinched tight, and well-fitting 501s.
"Four quarter-pounders down,' called Sally, the ginger-haired manageress. Bob peeled off the greaseproof paper, and pressed the burgers on to the hotplate. Outside the window, the girl was already halfway across the car-park, still swinging the can, her shrunken shadow dancing after her. The sunlight flashed for an instant off the yellow enamel paint.
Bob was balding and overweight and by far the oldest employee at McDonald's Rosecrans Avenue. When his left eye looked west, his right eye looked nor'-nor'-west. But all of the kids liked him, and called him 'Unca Tug'. He was fifty-one next week, a birthday he would have to celebrate on his own. After William Trueheart had left Saigon, Bob had drifted through one menial government clerkship after another, black coffee, brown offices. He had started to drink, a bottle of Ricard a day, often more. Days of milk-white clouds and aniseed. In France one rainy afternoon, in his small apartment in the Domaine de la Ronce, he had tried to commit suicide by gassing himself. What was the point of living, with no prospects, no money, and no companions but a brindled boxer with slobbery jowls that kept chewing the furniture?
All that had saved him was the stink of gas, which (with a stomachful of Ricard) had made him feel unbearably dizzy and sick. He had gone out for a breath of fresh air. Absurd, in the middle of killing himself, but he hadn't wanted to die nauseous. While he was out, the gas had blown up his kitchen, and deafened his dog. The concierge had been furious, and had followed him around for an hour, shouting at him.
"Idiot! You think it's a good joke, to blow up your apartment?'
"Pardon?' he had repeated, again and again. He, too, had been deafened, but only temporarily.
The girl kept walking towards the far side of the car-park. The hot shuddering air made it look as if she were walking through a crystal-clear lake. It was 95 degrees outside which, in San Diego, was exceptional for June. She was walking towards the far side of the car-park with what, by the slow way it swung, was obviously a full can of petrol. Yet where was she taking it? There were no cars parked on that side of the car-park, none at all, and no vehicles in sight on the road.
Bob turned the quarter-pounders over, and took two special orders for cheeseburger grills.
"Sally--fillets up!' called Gino, next to him, all Adam's apple and razored black sideburns. The girl outside stepped with her can over the scrubby row of bushes that separated one section of the car-park from the next.
"Unca Tug, where's those quarter-pounders?' Sally demanded. Bob glanced down. They were almost ready.
"Three chicken sandwiches down!' Marianne called.
"Big Macs up!' said Gino.
"Two cheeseburgers down!' said Doyle.
Bob looked up again and the girl was still walking. She was probably five hundred feet away from the restaurant now. He didn't know why he kept on watching her, but she was so far away from any parked vehicles now, with that can of petrol, and she was slowing down, looking around her, as if she were lost, or as if she had decided that this was the spot.
The sizzle of quarter-pounders distracted Bob for a second. He scooped them off the hotplate and shovelled them into their buns. 'Four Macs down!' called Sally.
Bob lifted the metal tray of quarter-pounders on to the counter and, as he did so, he saw the girl lowering herself crosslegged on to the concrete. He frowned, trying hard to focus. His eyes weren't so good at this kind of distance. He always wore his glasses when he went to the movies, or to San Diego Stadium to watch the Padres. But as the girl turned herself slightly to twist open the petrol can, he instantly interpreted the meaning of her gesture and it was then, in a thrill of total horror, that he connected the buoyant determined walk to nowhere in particular--a-tisket, a-tasket--with the yellow can swinging, and the dignified crosslegged posture, and the terrible composure with which she reached out to turn the screwtop.
His ears heard the spitting of cheeseburgers, and the chattering of Girl Scouts. But his eyes saw a burning Buddhist monk.
"Oh Christ,' he said.
"Unca Tug?' frowned Gino.
"Two fillets down!' called Sally.
He dropped his spatula. It rang on the hotplate, bounced to the floor. 'Hey, Unca Tug ...' Sally began.
But Bob was already shouldering his way past Gino and David, jarring his thigh on the edge of the worktop. They were shouting at him but their voices just sounded like a deep blur. 'Unncccaaa Ttttuuggggg ...' He hoisted the bright red fire-extinguisher off the wall. For Fat Fires Only--Jesus! Then his shoulder had collided with the emergency exit at the back of the kitchen and he was out in the heat, in his Mcdonald's hat and his flapping apron, carrying the fire-extinguisher like a quarterback heading for a touchdown.
He circled the restaurant, awkwardly hop-hurdling the low chainlink fencing at the side. Oh please God don't let her, oh please God don't let her.
His sneakers slapped loudly on the hot tarmac. His vision jumbled. Hunh! he panted. Overweight, unfit. Hunh! hunh! hunh! He heard a soft explosion, scarcely audible, poooffff! and a woman scream. He saw orange flame wagging in the breeze like a burning flag. His heart was bursting; the hot air scorched his lungs. But then he was crashing his way through the crackling dry bushes into the next section of the car-park and there she was, sitting right in front of him, on fire.
She was still crosslegged, but sitting rigidly upright. Her back was arched, her hands stiffly clenching her thighs. Her eyes were tightly shut; nobody had the willpower to burn with their eyes open. Her blonde hair was already blackened, a thousand ends glowing orange like a burning broom. Flames poured out of her face. She must have poured most of the petrol down her front, because her lap was a roaring nest of fire.
"Hold on!' Bob screamed at her, although he didn't know why. He banged the fire-extinguisher against the concrete, and it started to spurt out foam. He directed a jet of foam straight at her face, then at her legs, and kept on squirting foam at her until the last flame had been smothered. There was foam, steam and oily smoke, and an overwhelming smell of burned flesh.
Five or six people were running from the shopping mall toward him. Some children were crying, and a woman was screaming, 'Oh, God! Oh, God!'
"Call an ambulance!' Bob roared, almost hysterical. Spit flew from his mouth. 'Call a fucking ambulance!'
He turned back, off-balance, gasping, to look at the girl. She was still sitting upright, although all of her hair had burned off, and her face was corked black like a nigger minstrel's. She was shuddering with pain and shock. The skin on the back of her hands had burned through, and the bare bones were exposed.
"It's all right,' Bob told her. He knew better than to touch her. 'Just stay still, try not to move. The ambulance is coming.'
She opened her shrivelled eyelids, and stared at him with milked-over eyes.
"You bastard,' she whispered. 'You bastard. Why didn't you let me burn?'
"It's all right,' he reassured her. 'You're going to be fine. Do you want to lie down?'
A curious and shuffling crowd was already gathering around them. Bob heard a teenage kid say, 'Shit man, just look at her.'
"Would you go away, please?' Bob demanded, with a stiff sweep of his arm. There were tears in his eyes. 'This woman's hurt. Would you please just go away?'
Nobody moved. Somebody even knelt down and started taking photographs. But when Bob looked back at the girl, she had stretched her cracked scarlet lips across her teeth. She was staring at him as if she could have damned him to hell.
"Bastard,' she repeated. Then she coughed, and coughed again, and suddenly vomited up a bibful of blood and blackened lung and unburnt petrol. She fell sideways, trembling, and then she lay still. Bob would never forget the sound of her hairless skull, knocking against the concrete.
With an odd genuflexion, he laid down his fire-extinguisher. By the rivers of Babylon, I laid my fire-extinguisher down. In the distance, he could hear the yelping of a siren. He didn't know what to do. He didn't know what made him feel worse: the fact that he had tried to save her, and failed; or the fact that he had tried to save her at all. Nobody had ever looked at him with such hostility before, nobody. If looks could have killed, he would have been lying beside her, burned to death, just like she was--and his soul, too, would have been blowing in the wind, like smoke.