Lester McNab stepped out into the dirty sunshine through the blurry glass doors of the UpTown Mall. After his weekend shift, he smelled of fat from the fryer, which he’d stooped over for the past seven hours at the local ChickenLicken outlet. Still, it was money, although not much. Once Steve got there in the car to pick him up, they’d swing past Daryl’s house and buy a baggie, then go back to Steve’s, get baked, and watch UFC. Then, Lester would watch Steve play X-Box for the rest of the night.
It was Saturday.
He’d got the job at ChickenLicken just after he dropped out of high school a year before. School just wasn’t for him. He just didn’t get the point of all those books, the math, the science. He couldn’t figure out how it applied to him, or to life in Oakview. That’s what really counted, right? What else was there?
Lester didn’t consider himself to be very smart. But, he was smart enough to know that he’d do just like his parents had done. They grew up here. He was growing up here. They’d got long-term jobs here, with benefits and everything. So would he, although since the plant shut down, that wasn’t a sure thing. But what was sure to Lester is that he would die here.
That is, unless something like a miracle happened.
Steve was late, again. The last time he’d made Lester wait for an hour, not answering his cell because he was busy at home finishing a part on Tour of Duty. Steve picked him up, and didn’t even apologize for being late. He just smiled his crooked smile, and told Lester about his game, how sweet it was, how he just couldn’t stop playing until that part was done.
Lester didn’t complain. He wasn’t allowed to complain about anything Steve did. Lester had no car, not even a shitbox like Steve’s. In exchange for rides after every shift, Steve got a free pass on being an asshole. It was an unspoken contract between them. Steve set the agenda, and Lester waited around to be told where he fit into it, if at all.
Waiting around. Lester did a lot of that.
Time seemed to move so slowly here. It was as if Lester’s future was asleep somewhere, lazy, maybe drunk or high, taking its time to get here, just like Steve’s habit of being late, leaving him waiting outside of the shitty UpTown Mall while Steve played his X-Box. Lester never made that connection. He didn’t have to make it. Waiting around was something he was so used to that whatever he was left waiting around for was all one and the same to him. Everything was the same, day after day.
But, then Lester saw him.
The Man In Uniform smiled broadly, his crystal blue eyes beaming across the parking lot into Lester’s muddy brown ones.The sun glinted off of his broad white hat, and the buttons on his uniform. He strode through the broiling cars in the parking lot, unaffected. It was as if he was slightly out of phase, stepping out of a magical world of uniforms, of healthy skin, of pressed clothes, and razor-cut discipline, stepping into the shabby world Lester knew.
The Man In Uniform closed the gap between them almost supernaturally.
“Hey, man. How’re you doin’?” he said affably.
Lester thought: “Is he talking to me?”
“Ever thought of joining up? There are lot of opportunities for a guy like you.”
His voice was like it was beaming down from a mountain. Lester looked up into the Man In Uniform’s eyes for as long as he could.
“How old are you? Eighteen, right?”
“Do you have a job, man?”
“Uh. Yeah …”
“What kind of job have you got?”
“I, uh. I work at ChickenLicken?”
“Yeah? Is that your dream job?” The Man In Uniform chuckled.
Lester chuckled too. He saw it as something he should laugh at because The Man In Uniform was laughing. But, he felt embarrassed too. There was something about The Man In Uniform’s laugh that was unwholesome.
“I bet it isn’t. What’s your name, man?”
“It’s, um. It’s Lester.”
“Pleased to meet you, Lester. You know what this uniform I’m wearing represents, right?”
“I think so.”
“It stands for freedom, Lester. It stands for strength and integrity. It stands for honour, too. You believe in that?”
“Um, sure. Yeah. Cool.”
“So, let’s talk about your job again. You work at ChickenLicken. But, what do you really want to do, Lester?”
“I don’t know. I can’t really say. I didn’t finish high school.”
“No problem, Lester. You join up, and you can finish high school, and then go to college for free. What do you think about that? Then you can do anything you want.”
“Yeah, Lester; really. So, what do you say now? What job would you rather have than working at ChickenLicken?”
Lester tried to stare into those crystal blue, slightly otherworldly eyes again. Then, he looked away for a moment. Suddenly, he saw an image in his mind; the soulful eyes of his dog, Duke. He died when Lester was ten when he got out of the backyard and then got hit by a car. He loved Duke in a way that he never loved anything or anyone. Lester cried and cried when the vet told him that there was nothing he could do.
He hadn’t thought about Duke for years, not since he started high school.
“A vet. I wanna be an animal doctor.” he whispered, looking away.
“No problem again, Lester! When you join up, you can work with animals. You like dogs, like German Shepherds, Lester? We need people to train animals in the Military Working Dog Division; the K-9 division. How does that sound?”
Lester smiled. “You think I could do that?”
“Of course I do, Lester. And I also think that joining up would be your best shot at it, too. You’ve got hundreds of years of tradition behind you when you join up. That’s the advantage, Lester. That’s what you’re never going to get at the ChickenLicken.”
Lester thought about his job. He thought about Frank his boss and about how Frank looked right through Lester as if he wasn’t there. He thought about Steve’s crooked smile and the burning sensation of shame at not be able to say a thing when Steve chose his video game, or a phone call, or a girl, or a TV show over Lester every single time. He thought about the vacant expressions on his parents’ faces, and the thin layer of normalcy that covered an ocean of desperation in their lives.
Mostly, he thought about all the waiting he had to do. He waited for his shift to start. He waited for his shift to end. He waited for Steve to pick him up. He waited for his parents to give him some advice about anything that was important, anything he couldn’t think of himself that would make some sort of difference. He waited for his future to start in a place he’d always been proud to call his home because it always rewarded everyone who worked hard. That was the deal that everyone in this country was offered. Hard work equaled success, and happiness. Lester worked as hard as he could.
But, he was tired of waiting.
“Yeah. I guess you’re right.” Lester said. It was like a weight had been taken off of his chest.
“So, can I get your details, Lester?” The Man In Uniform stepped closer, producing a pad and pen seemingly out of nowhere.
“That way we can set up a meeting at the recruitment office.”
“The recruitment office?”
“Yeah. That’s where I work, Lester. You can come down on Monday morning, and we can talk. I just need to get your name on the list.”
“You’re going to want to get on the list. That way, you increase your chances of getting the right job if you decide to join up. The good jobs are filling up fast, Lester. A lot of people I’ve talked to today have asked about the K-9 division, too.”
A dart of anxiety struck Lester then. There was no way he’d ever get to be a vet here in Oakview. He thought of Duke again.
“OK. Here are my details.”
The Man In Uniform smiled, showing a full array of white teeth.
One day In Afghanistan, a tank rolled over a mine and everyone in the tank was killed. Before that, some insurgents had carried out a rocket attack on a supply convoy, and two guys were killed. Here in the desert, every day could be the last. When the dividing line between a single moment and death is that narrow, the future had speeded up just fine for Private Lester McNab.
The only thing that Lester had to do was wait for it to come.
But, that’s only when he thought too hard about it, which he did less and less. It was easier that way, easier not to think about it. There was plenty here to keep him busy anyway; patrols, holding position at posts for hours on end, setting up camp, packing up camp, loading supplies into the truck, signing for supply transfers.
And the waiting.
There was always that.