The Outsider Ch. 04bycaligula97236©
Chapter 4 - A meal together
The next morning Mike went to the Student Center to buy his usual cup of coffee. He showed up slightly before 7:00, eager to have something better than the brown water they served in the dorm, but also with the vague hope of having a few more minutes of conversation with Ruthie.
She was dressed in a pair of loose-fitting gym shorts and an old t-shirt under her apron. Mike had expected that, because he had been noticing what she wore. The dress was something she put on only once a week, usually on Monday or Tuesday. For the rest of the week it always was shorts and a t-shirt.
He knew that there was a topic he could open with, the English literature class. He decided to attempt to open with a joke, referring to the last line of Somerset Maugham's "Mr. Know-it-all".
"So do you not entirely dislike Mr. Kelada?"
Ruthie blushed and smiled slightly. "No, at this moment I don't entirely dislike Mr. Kelada."
The two students chatted about the class and upcoming assignments. Then Mike asked if it was Ruthie's first semester, to which she nodded to the affirmative. He commented that it was his second semester and then followed up with a question that seemed innocent enough:
"So...what do you think of Davenport State so far?"
Ruthie gripped a pitcher so tightly that he could see her knuckles change color. She hesitated, wondering whether to tell him the truth. Finally she responded, in a voice that was totally unconvincing:
Mike knew that Ruthie was lying about her feelings, but he was smart enough not to press her. Instead he commented:
"For me, this place has its problems. Every place does. In some ways Chicago was better and in some ways it was worse. The whole frat thing gets to me sometimes. And my roommate's a bit of a jerk..."
"Yeah. Mine too." Then, with suppressed rage in her voice, she added: "I fucking hate my roommate! I can't fucking stand her! She's the biggest bitch I've ever met! I hate her! Last night I wanted to...I mean I wanted..."
Suddenly she checked herself...mortified at her own outburst. She turned away to fill a pitcher of half-and-half, even though a full one already was out on the counter. Her hand was shaking slightly. Mike realized that Ruthie Burns did not have anyone to talk to and that there were a lot of issues pent up inside her. That made her somewhat pathetic, but for him that was not much of an issue. He had felt the same isolation plenty of times.
"Don't worry, Ruthie. It's OK to vent. I'm sure my roommate's as big a jerk as yours."
"I doubt it."
"Well, if you have to talk...you know...about whatever's bothering you...you can, with me. You can talk."
Ruthie's co-worker showed up, much to Mike's dismay. The co-worker put on an apron and joined Ruthie behind the counter. Obviously the chance for intimate conversation had passed.
"Ruthie, see you in class?"
In class Mike and Ruthie sat at the opposite sides of the room. Mike had his usual spot near the door: Ruthie had her usual spot near the window. For the first time they felt a bit uneasy in each other's presence, so neither volunteered to talk in class. The fact that Mike was not taking up class time pontificating as usual gave the professor a chance to lead the discussion with other students, many of whom were caught not having read the class material.
Both Mike and Ruthie watched with satisfaction as some of the less responsible students struggled without the protective cover Mike had been giving them throughout the semester. Mike no longer was eager to jump in and help out classmates, not after what had happened two days before. The humiliation he endured by being laughed at was not something he held against Ruthie, but he did hold it against the others. Fine. Let them be caught out. I'm not coming to anyone's rescue today.
After class Mike observed Ruthie going back to the dorm, presumably to have lunch. He decided to catch up with her.
"Heading back to the cafeteria?"
"I'm going that way too. Want some company?"
Ruthie glanced at her classmate. It would be the first time anyone had sat down to eat with her in nearly a month. She was elated that her lonely routine was about to be interrupted, but that prospect also scared her. She took a deep breath and gave him another quick glance.
"Yeah, I guess."
Mike paid attention to what she put on her tray. He was surprised to see that she took nothing but items considered healthy: fruit, vegetables, steamed whole rice, and a glass of orange juice. He moderated what he took accordingly and then wondered to himself: why do I care about what I'm eating in front of her?
A couple of the girls from Ruthie's floor glanced over at the two students, noting that "Shannon's creepy roommate" was not eating alone for once.
Ruthie badly wanted to talk, but her ability to make small conversation was extremely limited. Mike realized that he had to take the initiative.
"So, have you thought about what you're gonna major in?"
"I already declared. Geology and Spanish."
"You're doing a double-major?"
"Kind of an interesting combination. So you speak Spanish?"
"From your family?"
"My mom. She's from Culiacan...you know...it's a place in Mexico."
"So...that's where you're from?"
"No, I'm from Nebraska."
Ruthie's last answer totally took Mike by surprise. Nebraska? She glanced up from her tray and noticed the confusion on his face. She volunteered.
"That's where my dad lives."
"So, your parents are split up?"
"I guess with that I lucked out. My parents are still together."
Ruthie nodded again.
"So your dad is from there too? Nebraska? Not Mexico?"
Ruthie nodded. "He's from Lincoln. I lived with him when I was a little kid."
OK, Mike thought to himself; that must be why her last name is Burns.
Suddenly she started talking, instead of nodding and giving him one syllable answers:
"I guess I'd better explain all this. My dad was in the Navy when my parents met. He was stationed in San Diego, and when they got together my mom had been in the US just a couple of months. She crossed the border and was here illegally. They got married when they found out my mom got pregnant with me. I think they did it 'cause they couldn't get military benefits for me unless they were married, and I 'spose they also did it because my mom needed to get her residency straightened out. INS couldn't deport her if she was married."
"So, did she?"
"Get her residency?"
"She got a Green Card. She never took the citizenship test. I've tried to talk her into it, but she's telling me that someday she wants to go home, and she doesn't really want to be a citizen here."
"So the rest of your family is in...Cula...uh..."
"They're all still there. On my mom's side. My uncle's here, but that's it. Well, him and his kids."
"...and your dad?"
"He's still in Nebraska."
"Do you ever talk to him?"
There was a lot of anger and bitterness in just that single word. Ruthie's expression changed. Mike realized that something unpleasant must have happened between her and her father, but decided not to inquire further. He changed the subject.
"So...uh...where'd you go to high school?"
"What'd you think of Salinas?"
"I 'spose...I didn't hear too many positive things about it."
"You won't hear positive things about a place that's got nothing good about it."
"Did you like Nebraska?"
"It was a lot better than Salinas."
Suddenly Ruthie became nervous, because she was fully aware that she was not making a good impression on her classmate. Already Mike had been far more patient listening to her than most other people had been. She tried to figure out what she needed to do to look better, to not appear so embittered about all of the unpleasantness she had suffered during her childhood. Finally she remembered an article that advised the reader to try to get the other person to talk about himself in order to gain trust.
"I...uh...Mike...you were like...in Chicago last year?"
"Yeah. But just one semester. I came back here at the end of the year."
"What was it like?"
Mike took a deep breath. That was a very complicated question. There was a lot that he liked about Chicago and especially the university, but the loss of his relationship with Lisa overshadowed all of his other memories.
"I was at a big university in one of the suburbs. It's an hour-and-a-half from downtown, and that's just when traffic's not bad. It was quiet, 'cause it was so far out, almost like a small town. It was a nice enough place..."
"...so...if it was so nice, how come you came back?"
"I had my reasons, but I had to come back here. To be honest, I wish I'd never gone out of state, and I wish I'd never set foot there." He hesitated, wishing he had not just said that. He tried to correct himself: "It's a long story...what happened to me in Chicago."
"No, it wasn't academic."
Ruthie looked down at the table. She began twirling a spoon.
"I guess we both have long stories."
"We all do. 'Long stories' are just a part of life."
Both students finished their meals. Mike mentioned that he had to go to work, and Ruthie replied that she had a class. They got up to turn in their trays to the kitchen. They felt very uncomfortable at that moment, partly because of the very strange conversation that they had just experienced, and partly because they were nervous about saying goodbye. They were uneasy about being together, but subconsciously they did not want to separate.
"Are you ticketing today?"
"You bet. Today is pay-dirt day for me."
Ruthie's expression changed, reflecting resentment over the impending loss of her "private spot". Mike noticed, but of course had no clue why she was upset.
"Ruthie, trust me. Those people getting tickets out in the Econ lot are the same ones who spend their lives giving people like you and me crap all the time. They wouldn't give us the time of day. They're not anyone you ought to care about."
"I 'spose not."
"If you want to have some fun, come out there at about a quarter after four and just watch what happens. You wouldn't believe how some people freak about something as simple as a parking ticket. It'll be funny to see, but kinda pathetic too."
"I've got class, but maybe I can get out there...a little after 4:30."
"OK, then if I see you there, I mean...if you want, we can go to dinner after I get off work."
Ruthie nodded, surprised at the dinner invitation.
A few minutes later Mike was out on the lot, with his ticketing machine, eight rolls of receipt paper, an extra battery, and his backpack stuffed with 400 red envelopes. He had to deal with a couple of sarcastic comments from the dispatcher, but true to her word, she had not told anyone about his plan to write 400 tickets in a single afternoon. She pulled out his supplies from under the counter in a market sack. He was grateful, because she had his stuff ready to go and he did not have to wait around.
He started on the cars parked farthest away from entrance because he did not want anyone to see what he was doing until it was too late. Hour after hour the machine clattered away, recording the vehicle information of student after student who blissfully assumed that a meter was the same thing as a "free parking for students" sign. Mike had his routine perfected: he wasted none of his precious seconds as he stuffed ticket after ticket into an envelope and put each under a windshield wiper. He only stopped to change his ticketing tape, and once, about three hours into his shift, the battery of his machine.
By 4:00 he was exhausted, his arm was painfully cramped from holding the machine for so long, and he was dehydrated. However, by then the majority of the envelopes he had brought with him were safely on cars and he had spent five of his eight rolls of ticketing paper. He had not moved as quickly as he planned: instead of averaging 80 tickets per hour he had only averaged 70. However, after four hours already he had written 280 tickets, and he had another hour to push for 350. That would still be a record for the department for a single shift.
As he worked his way up and down rows of cars that he would never be able to afford for himself, Mike had a chance to reflect on lunch with his strange classmate. He thought about her totally unadorned appearance and realized that her speech was every bit as unadorned as her body. Perhaps sometimes she had trouble expressing herself, but when she did speak she was bluntly honest. After having endured the painful breakup with Lisa and dealing with the multitude of phony girls who surrounded him in Davenport, Mike found that extremely refreshing.
He wondered about Ruthie's world, which apparently consisted of Salinas, Lincoln, and Culiacan. A strange combination, to say the least. He put together the clues that she had given him about her past, concluding that when she was 12, something traumatic must have happened between her and her father, something that forced her to leave Nebraska and move to California. The conversation left him with many more questions than answers.
Finally, Mike began pondering something that never would have occurred to him just three days before: the possibility of having a relationship with her. Of all the women in Davenport, she was the one who seemed most within his reach...the only one, really.
Starting at 4:15, Mike could see students running across the parking lot to get to their cars, and hear the cussing when they found out that they already had been ticketed. He kept on, because he still had several rows to go. A young couple got into their car just ahead of where he was working. They were among the few lucky ones who made it to the lot before Mike had a chance to ticket their car. They passed by and the guy rolled down his window:
"Looks like you missed me, asshole!"
Yes...yes...I missed you. No problem. I'll get you tomorrow, Mike thought to himself.
Around the parking lot students angrily pulled out of their spaces, screeching their wheels in a show of defiance. Mike was careful not to be standing out where people were driving by, because he knew from experience that someone could whiz by him and honk or throw something at him. He kept on ticketing.
By 4:30, a steady flow of students was returning to the lot. Many of them started running along the sidewalk when they saw what was going on. Around the parking lot the cussing and the roaring of engines and screeching of tires picked up. A second lucky student got to her un-ticketed car and pulled out. She was an exception.
A guy pulled up to Mike and tried to hand him the ticket that was on his car.
"You can take this back. I'm not paying it."
"Yeah you are."
"I'd like to see you make me."
Mike shrugged his shoulders. "You won't get your grades if you've got unpaid tickets. So you can threaten me all you want, but you'll still be paying it."
The guy tossed his ticket on the ground and drove off.
With just 10 minutes to go, Mike glanced towards the Econ building and saw a dark-haired girl in shorts and an old t-shirt sitting on the grass. His heart jumped. So she had come after-all. He waved at her and she waved back.
Ruthie watched the spectacle of students running past her and people roaring their engines in anger as they exited the lot. It turned out that Mike was right, it was kinda fun to watch the rich crowd get theirs for once. As much as she still lamented the fact the area no longer would be deserted in the afternoon, she did have to admit that it was nice to see people that she hated being inconvenienced and not being able to do anything about it. Oh, how she wished she could have treated those spoiled beauties in the coffee shop the way Mike was treating them in the parking lot!
A few minutes later Ruthie accompanied her classmate as he returned to the Parking Enforcement Office. The office was located in the corner of a huge parking garage, a new structure on campus that nearly everyone considered an eyesore. However, in a world dominated by personal transportation and the need to accommodate all those machines, such structures were a part of life.
Mike gave his classmate some further explanation about his job and some trivia about parking on campus. She commented that she was somewhat surprised by how angry many of the students were upon seeing their tickets. He explained that for some students, parking illegally and avoiding tickets was something of a game and they resented it when they lost. Many others simply felt that free parking was something they were entitled to and that in issuing tickets, Parking Enforcement Officer # 036 was violating their rights. They had been using the lot for two months without paying, so the sudden change was an outrage.
"You have to understand how obsessed people become about 'convenience issues' such as parking. That's why some of them get so pissed when they see me. According to them, I'm taking away their rights. But that's just too bad, 'cause they're not supposed to be in that lot anyway."
Ruthie commented: "You know, I've always found it weird what 'rights' people fight for and what ones they don't. Last year in my school, they nearly had a riot when they took out the candy machine. I mean, there's all this other shit going on there...the gangs and all the cutbacks and having to be scared for yourself every time you walk around in the halls...but nobody ever said anything about any of that. You take away the candy machine...and everybody got pissed...you know...that they took away their right to buy candy in the school."
When Mike nodded in agreement, she added an observation that surprised and impressed him:
"I wonder if they do shit like that to us on purpose. Getting us to worry about the little shit, so we don't have time to worry about the stuff that really matters. I always wondered that about the whole candy machine blow-up. I mean...if everyone was fighting over a candy machine, then they could cut our lunches and nobody would say anything...and that's what they did. I'm thinking the candy machine was a trick they pulled on us to keep us under control...just like parking..."
"Yeah, like parking...you know, you've got all these people stressing about their cars and guess what? They're not thinking about stuff that really matters."
"Maybe that's true, but the big problem around here is that there's simply too many cars. There's no room in the world for all the cars and we keep adding more."
"I wouldn't say 'we', Mike. 'We' don't make those decisions."
"No, I guess you're right. But 'we' accept things the way they are and don't try to change them."
"Yeah, and just how's anybody gonna want to change anything if it's all the same shit on TV and on-line and on radio? They've got us beat. There's nothing anyone can do about it."
"I don't know. I'd like to think that's not true..."
"Mike, look at yourself. You're helping Admin control people's behavior. I mean, maybe they're people we don't like and who don't like us, but you're still trying to control what they do. That's what you're doing for a living. It's what we're all doing, 'cause we have to. They've got us beat."
Mike didn't agree with Ruthie, but still, he was very impressed. At age 18, already she was thinking about "the big issues" in life. She had a mind of her own and was able to intelligently analyze the world that surrounded her. She could think, and given the chance, she could talk. Her mind was not full of pop culture and shallow socializing and status symbols. There was nothing phony or vain about her.