oliver stared at the rare treat he had allowed himself - the big mac and fries with a medium coke. it looked quite substantial compared to his usual bowl of vegetable soup, and he was glad he had bought the medium coke to wash it down with and not a small coke as he had originally intended.
he always stared at his food for about a minute before he bit into it, whether he prepared it himself, as he usually did, bought it and took it home, or ate it in a restaurant,
oliver had read many articles of pop psychology in the newspapers over the years, and he knew that this was because his brain was “wired” to be on the alert for rival predators who might wish to seize his freshly caught bounty.
now, for the first time in his life, he actually felt the gaze of a “rival predator”.
the harmless looking young man at the next table, whose existence had barely registered on oliver when he had sat down, was staring at him.
oliver had pretty good peripheral vision, and he had no doubt that the young man was indeed staring at him, though making a comically obvious effort not to appear to do so.
did he, oliver, have something on his clothes or in his hair? he quickly looked down at the front of his shirt and jacket and saw nothing. he glanced even more quickly down at his fly. he did not think it was open and it was not.
as unlikely as it seemed that there might be anything in his hair, he ran the fingers of his left hand through it as casually as he could.
perhaps the young man thought he recognized him? ah - that must be it. of course he did not really know oliver, because hardly anybody did.
oliver turned and faced the young man . he looked right into the young man’s eyes - right into his thick glasses - because he caught him staring right at him.
morley was stunned. this was the last thing he had thought might happen. he did not know what to do.
he heard himself saying - “excuse me”. that was safe enough. then what?
the man morley though of as “gorbachev” looked at him with no expression except mild curiosity.
“yes?” “gorbachev” asked. “what can i do for you?”
morley’s brain was an uncrossable burning desert. but he had to say something.
“um - you wouldn’t happen to have a spare packet of ketchup would you?”
“no,” oliver answered with a straight face. “i don’t use ketchup myself.” he laughed. “you see, i pretty much live on tomato soup and vegetable soup so when i come in to a place like this, the last thing i want is ketchup. in fact, one of the things i like about the big mac is that it doesn’t even have a slice of tomato in it. just two all-beef patties, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions, with a special sauce.”
“i see,” said morley. here i am, he thought, having a conversation with a serial killer about slices of tomato.
“but,” oliver went on, “if i had purchased a sandwich with a slice of tomato, i would have been happy to give it to you.”
“thank you,” morley said. “that would have been very nice of you.”
“i thought i saw some packets of ketchup on the counter on my way over,” oliver continued. “so i don’t expect you should have any problem.”
oliver wondered if the young man was incapacitated in some way, but as he did not see a cane or brace or any indication that he was, it was not in his nature to say something like, “what, are you crippled?”
so he just smiled politely at morley.
was the guy laughing at him? morley felt a sudden spasm of rage at his own doofusness.
“you know,” morley blurted out, “i didn’t really want any ketchup at all.”
“oh?” oliver asked, still politely, “then what did you want?”
“i - i thought you looked like someone i know.”
“oh.” oliver looked a little disappointed at so anticlimactic an answer. “well, there is no harm in that. they say everybody in the world has a double.”
“but you don’t really look that much like him - this guy i know.”
oliver nodded, and there the conversation might have ended, except that morley suddenly got up and moved to oliver’s table and sat down across from him.
“have you ever heard of larry landsdowne?” morley blurted out.
oliver had almost gotten his big mac to his mouth, but he put it back down. “yes, he is a serial killer.”
“how much do you know about him?” morley asked.
“i saw a show on channel 8 about him. “ oliver looked at the big mac in his hand. would it be rude, he wondered, to take a big bite while the young man was questioning him.
not that the questioning bothered him, or even struck him as curious. like the conversations he had, or tried to have, with telemarketers, it was a nice respite from his tedious existence.
“i don’t know much else,” oliver added apologetically.
“are you interested in serial killers?” morley asked.
“yes, i am.”
“really?” morley suspected that oliver’s calm demeanor was standard for serial killers.
“yes, i am, but i am more interested in missing children.”
“oh.” morley noticed oliver looking at his food. “don’t mind me. go ahead and eat your burger.”
“thank you.” oliver took a big bite.
“i’m writing a book about larry landsdowne,” morley announced.
“really?” oliver replied, after he finished chewing. “that is interesting.”
“do you read true crime books?”
“no, i don’t read books much. i read the newspapers. “ oliver smiled. “that makes me kind of old-fashioned, i guess.”
“you don’t read books at all?” morley asked. what am i doing, morley thought, having this stupid conversation with a serial killer? and why is he going along with it? why doesn’t he just tell me to get lost?
“my mother had some books and i read those,” said oliver. “books by agatha christie and ross macdonald and james patterson.”
“james patterson!” morley exclaimed, “he is my favorite. especially the ones he writes with howard roughan and michael ledgwidge.”
unsuspected by themselves, the conversation between morley and oliver was being closely watched by another patron of mcdonalds.