by GRAHAM ROBERT SCOTT
朝州式鱼头锅 by Alpha | Flickr
The Special Special Special Not-So-Special Deal
The lip-pierced young woman at the Carry Out counter frowned when he asked for the special, skimming a scrap of lined yellow paper kept under Plexiglas, tracking her progress with a jagged index nail, before telling him with a tone trained in empathy but edged with boredom that the special had sadly expired several days earlier, whereupon he called his wife and, following furtive discussion, now cupping his hand over the wrong part of the phone, explained to the lip-pierced hostess that they had meant the Special Special deal, prompting an oh, that’s different and another consultation of the lined yellow paper before the hostess replied, this time, do you mean the pizza? and his wife, still on the line and able to hear, hissed no, for God's sake, not the pizza, that has too many carbs and how many specials-called-specials do they have anyway?, to which the husband had no reply and now fidgeted as his wife rifled through mailers and the hostess toyed with her hair and another gentleman joined the queue behind him, already
checking the time and sighing, as though this might speed things up, and the husband considered in a rare moment of illumination how acclimated he had become to a world where the ritual or symbol of a thing had become more important than the thing itself, until at last his wife returned to say the Special Special Special, and the husband, forgetting at once the fruit of his introspection, repeated her phrase, to which the hostess cocked her head and, eyes in a squint, asked the root canal?, which naturally conjured a sputter of shock from the phone, and from the man, too, who looked around and exclaimed isn’t this a restaurant?, and the hostess laughed a practiced laugh and prattled a pat answer—indeed it was a restaurant, but they’d fallen on hard times and diversified—whereupon his wife, loud in his ear, tried one more time, husband echoing to the hostess the Special Special Special Not-So-Special Deal?, counting out specials in his head to ensure they tallied right, after which the hostess asked you mean the soup? and his wife said YES the soup and the hostess said we’re out of the soup.
For the three of you still reading local newspapers, squinting through bifocals at smudgy print, I’d like to report on the recent water board meeting. I’m afraid, however, that I didn’t go this month. And you didn’t either. If we’re being frank, and let’s be frank shall we?, you wouldn’t have noticed its absence in the paper had I not just now pointed it out. Even when I covered water board meetings, seats for the public went empty. Sometimes the seats up front did, too. Once it was just me and Katie Lang, board member. After several minutes of joking about how there wasn’t much we could do without a quorum except each other, we went at it on the front table. (For the record: her idea. I took some persuading. What if someone walked in? But no one did.) Searching online the other day, I found the footage, a multimedia needle in the district’s archive haystack. Had we considered the camera’s location, we might have approached that agenda item from an entirely different angle. Fortunately, no one watches these. I know. There’s a counter. That video has one view: mine. The typical district resident thinks about the water district only when she can’t get clean water, and once the problem’s fixed, she forgets about it. Sure, there’s been the occasional crowd. Once some bright-eyed activists whipped up a mob to protest waterboarding. Fifteen minutes of beautiful confusion, that was. In time they drifted away, yelling mostly at each other, nobody intrigued enough by deferred maintenance to stick around. No one cares. And since readers don’t care, the newspapers don’t either. They used to, out of principle, when it was an affordable luxury to send a pen and notepad to anything boasting an agenda. But Craigslist killed the classifieds. This killed budgets. That, in turn, killed civic coverage. Flash-forward, and now you haven’t a clue what’s happening around you. Sometimes that boring local government stuff matters. Chino Municipal once proposed jacking industrial sewage rates up three-hundred percent. This was in the late nineties. No crowd showed to protest, just one angry industry president, a guy I’d called that afternoon for comment on the agenda. (Which I had to read to him.) He squirmed until the item came up. At the entirely unnecessary microphone, he clenched a crumpled, palm-stained paper and stammered that water was the highest expense his steel mill had after human resources. Unable to price like his rivals, he'd have to move or close, lay off a couple hundred people. Water board didn’t give a shit. Treasurer laughed. Said companies always have money for this kind of thing. Rainy day funds. Hidden pots and pockets. Post-gavel, in the hallway, the industry guy sat on the floor, shaking. His mill closed six months after the rate hike, along with an operation that washed linen for local hotels and three other companies. Seven-hundred-and-twenty jobs, all told. Is something like that happening at your water-board meeting? No idea. Maybe they’re humping on the table, maybe they’re screwing you. Maybe you'll find out later, but it won't be from me.
Graham Robert Scott grew up in California, resides in Texas, and owns neither surfboard nor cowboy hat. His stories have appeared in Barrelhouse Online, Necessary Fiction, Hobart, and others.