On the Gravel Shoulder, Franchise

now that he was crisply re-figured at a bus stop on the same gravel shoulder, now that he had earned the insignia, wore the uniform of red and gold, a gold peaked cap over still tangled hair, now that he was raised
in freedom to a higher life, shared its world-overcoming charter to recast the laws, whether optional, suggested or compelled, now that he was free
to set the under-girding tasks, display the curated menu, direct his staff, purchase the regulation patties at four inches across, a quarter inch thick, secure the parallel supplies, place his order with Palace Packers
on North Avenue, with Empire Bakeries downtown at discounts negotiated at the transnational level, now that he was free to deploy
these  mixers® and fryers®, these sandwiches®, salads®, drinks® and combos®, now that under firm direction he was free to think®
speak® and  move® in gray evening, in red morning, in sunshine, in storm, whether she answered his calls, looked out
her window, opened her door, asked him to stay or go, in full command
of a new outlet beside the overpass, set with parking for 33 cars in decent lighting and ease of access, its long glass doors opening onto a serried array of tables, counters, dispensers and stations, prepped in fullness for the twelve minutes in play, at his desk beside the fryer
below a cork board of motivating dicta, at his station for the weighing, counting, slotting, color coding, sound mixing and spacing of every component under his care, living from the inside out the power of franchise in its vast growth, expansion and great fortune
as it swelled up in great heat, from the heartland, pale
it’s true he had turned pasty pale through summer and winter, like she said
speaking freely over the breakfast combo he had placed nervously but with a flourish on the table, her fork scraping the Styrofoam, making it squeak, she looked to him
like an illustration from a story book his grandmother used to read from, blonde tinted hair tied up behind in gold petals it seemed, with slanted fairy eyes, as she ate quickly but neatly, then pulled a brown suede jacket over a plain white
blouse and black skirt, the outfit of a factory girl, then drifted out the door in fogs of lipstick and leather, she was right
he should get out more, take more breaks, but how could he now that he was fully installed in the grand design, which he couldn't explain, not true
franchise, its empire, the methodical loins of its displacements, its thundering hooves
trampling the path of free market forces under the lash of bankers' logic and all-natural reason, in the parking lot
that afternoon after the rain had stopped, she leaned back on her rusted green Honda with its dented roof, foraged through an over-burdened black leather purse reeking cosmetics, chocolates, misplaced dampened papers, greened-over coins, foraged
like a forest gatherer with small pretty hands, to uproot breath mints or lip stick or keys, but her hands
were slender, fine, pretty, the keys she held
seemed out-sized, like keys to the city, as she turned to unlock her car strewn inside with old binders from hairdressers' school, novels, sweaters and fliers, she had nothing more to say, she said
not turning back, he was too messed-up, she said, then singled out the right key, opened the door as if cars, doors, locks and keys had just been invented, not yet well tested, struggling
in behind the wheel as if into space just then discovered, starting the engine in apparent surprise, then turning the steering wheel like the wheel
of a seagoing ship she drove away, but how could she know
that sailing, driving, walking, speaking may be freedom but not franchise, not justified, purified, magnified under the rule of the precise efficient
image, shape, color, sound compelling a forecastable response, levered by the logos of logos on the free fulcrum of his station beside the fryer, how could she know
curled into the corner of her white couch, in the clutter of an apartment just off the highway, among the disarray of drawers, boxes, lamps in odd corners, where nothing worked as projected, with blunt objects
she opened letters, with inverted pyramids she rounded what was sharp, the color of sex was blue, she said, red the color of sleep, under a mirrored ceiling
they slumbered on her waterbed that December day as its sealed-in tides pressed him against her, fluids still sticky on his fingers, the room suffused
with the ripe sea pong of natural flows, unnatural sprays, but the holiday
elapsed, with no right of return to her pungent Palestine, he was sent away to await
recall, no appeal, method, procedure or protocol answered unless she did, unless she pulled her blue
Chinese robe around her cooling freckled flesh, gathered back her thick mane of tinted hair, settled on the couch, picked up the phone and spoke, but she would act
without accounting or forecast, her slender fingers turning the pages of a magazine, her cell on the cushion beside her, at any hour
she might call, open or close her doors, her building discovered now in clearing, now in fog, in plain vinyl siding, address unmarked, unaccountable, inaccessible to vigils at any hour, yet however long the night in the morning
he returned to the hours of his franchise under its red, black and gold, under its tessellated roof, its towering signage on the high pole visible from the highway, kept in rotation
the menus, the kitchen in order, for breakfast open at seven, clean-up at the approach of midnight, fully in play for extended hours by the overpass on the outskirts, at his desk
beside the fryer, in the detail of his uniform, beneath his declamatory cork board, in the cool freedom of his franchise
he compiled the numbers and procedures, the highway receding in view of the window, a concrete band fastening westward, the countryside suppressed, the city erased, abandoned
projects, industrial plazas holding to the same concrete line as his franchise by the overpass, by the landfill, its cycling dump trucks, the soaring above of correlated birds, if she could have been there with him
from the beginning, before the service road was laid down in parallel to Route 64 and the river, before it was made to turn away, skirting the lagoon, running under the overpass, beside the landfill, before there was any
franchise, any overpass, warehouse, driveway, off-ramp, when there were only fallow fields, in the early spring still damp, beaten down by the retreating snow, if she could have known
the original freedom he knew of gravel shoulders, empty fields, in jeans frayed at the bottom, rain-blotted leather shoes, in black t-shirt, hatless at the roadside, left without instruction, the sky a rounded crystal over a time-clock turning ground, how naturally
she could have walked there with him on this unremarked road, both natives after all, both left in place
to improvise under the turnings of distant spheres too vast and obscure to be thought, if he could have found
the first or last word to say about how it was to be in these set aside places, enclosed by surrounding empty fields, between the walling
of highways, under the impositions of trucks and couriers on their manufactured course, if he could have found a way
of tracing the circle drawn around them both, making clear how pressed in, surrounded, cornered, yet how uncreated they were, if she could have witnessed
with him in vigil at the bus stop when the bus was late, or in the commissary of the convenience store trading for papers and tobacco, peering through the gaps
in the chain link fence trellising empty fields without end, or closed in by razor wire and exhaust, ritually
lowering their heads to the demands of traffic, by the gas station, in the sunlight, as if they were the first or last to stand there, if she could have felt
the expanse of this air, chill in the spring as if the sky were grudging in its heat, little to spare for these marginal junctions, until the summer and its fire
unhinged obliterated the city already removed, burned down to the skin, immobilized, silenced the road, made it hard to know from what direction, for what reason
the smoke and traffic descended or dispersed, if she could have walked there with him in some sense
freely, the stones rattling and resettling beneath their feet as they stepped as if in the dark, in some sense freely, undirected
unincorporated, off-trail, though following closely the gravel shoulder with undetermined end, if she could have seen what it was like, but now all that
was gone, those fields, those roads, those days, lost now, overcome now, with no going back



M.W. Miller has appeared in Malahat Review, Capilano Review, Georgia Straight, Danforth Review and Dalhousie Review. He recommends the UN Relief Agency.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Sunday, January 29, 2023 - 23:07