Sept. 13, Bangor, Maine
This story unfolded during my first night in Vermont, which I think was Sunday. I’m having a hard time of keeping track of the days lately, and I had completely forgotten about this interaction till it popped into my head this morning.
I had driven north out of Waterford, N.Y., along the Champlain Canal. After stopping in Whitehall and talking with lock master Cheryl Lash, I continued on into Vermont. I was excited to be in Vermont. I stopped at the McDonald’s on Highway 7, which is right across the street from the Vermont State Fairgrounds. Sunday was the final day of the fair.
I was minding my own business, writing about my stop in Whitehall, when events overtook me. Bizarre, old-time stuff. Sometimes McDonald’s can be a breeding ground for weirdness.
A silver-haired old lady had been working nonstop, sweeping and mopping and mopping and sweeping since I’d been here. Hours and hours of sweeping and mopping and moving chairs so she could sweep and mop under tables and moving the chairs back into place once she had finished sweeping and mopping.
At some point I noticed a guy ask a couple at another table for a pen or pencil. I thought nothing of it. A minute later, he approached the sweeping-and-mopping lady, tells her not to be embarrassed, and handed her a slip of paper which I assume has his name and phone number written on it.
He told her he’s been watching her. He told her hates to see her working so hard. He told her he’s opening an new store in Whitehall. If she wouldn’t mind the commute, she could work for him.
Naturally, the unusual nature of this interaction intrigued me. I resolved to ask him about it. I seized my chance when he went to the counter to get something for one of his kids. Turned out the three of them had been to the fair and were sitting directly behind me.
I approached the counter and order an iced coffee. Then I introduced myself. Such a thing never seems to happen naturally. He seemed confused by my presence.
Slowly, he got talking. First about her. He said it kills him to see her busting her ass like that. He doesn’t say “busting her ass in a terrible dump like McDonald’s,” but I figured maybe that’s what he means. Said he’d never allow his own mom to get worked like this.
We were waiting for our orders when his 8-year-old son came over, got in his face and delivered the news, “Sissy says she’s going to throw up.” He sent the boy away.
He looked at me kind of funny and asked if I wanted a job, if that’s what this is was all about. I tried to explain my purpose, but who can explain the inexplicable.
Later he asked again if I wanted a job.
Next I knew he was telling me about his cancer. Cancer in five places. All of it steming from a root canal gone bad. A root canal that became necessary when he chomped down on a stray piece of metal while eating ice cream at Friendly’s. A dagger, is how he described it.
He said some weird shit. I guess if I had cancer in five places and was on a cocktail of drugs, I’d say some weird shit, too. He said he likes to plays games with ice cream.
I started to feel pretty bad about the whole thing. I started to wish I’d minded my own business. His kids wanted him, and if he’s on the level, what a mess. Before I was able to work him back to his kids, he told me about the recent phone call he had with a Friendly’s representative, the call where she responded to him telling her about his cancer by saying, “Good! The statue of limitations is three years and it’s been more than three years.”
He said to her, or at least he said he wished he might’ve said: “I wish I could have this conversation in person, so when I cave in your head and knock out your teeth, you’ll say ‘Gee, I wish your fist wasn’t made of steel.'”
Said he never considered suing till then. But now he’s got his lawyer on the case.
I still don’t know his name at this point. He said the mouth cancer is no big deal because the pancreas will get him first. Pancreas, liver, bladder, mouth.
And don’t forget the skin cancer. He showed me a scar on his neck. Said the doctor took it out a month ago, and it’s already coming back. Itches like hell. Said he could it cut out himself, and he probably will.
He’s not sure why this has happened to him.
“I’ve never smoked cigarettes, never smoked pot, and what’s the other one? Never drank,” he said.
Than, in the interest of scrupulousness, he allowed he drinks three beers a year, and then only on the hottest days.
He’s on some experimental drug, he said. The doctors gave him 18 months. That was 15 months ago. He’s 56. When he found out about his cancer, he told his wife to get the hell out. I guess she’s not his wife.
Then Nathan, the boy, mentions Mom’s “scumbag boyfriend.” Nathan and Nathalie, 9, are his second round of kids. God I hope to hell he’s crazy and this is somehow not true or at least wildly exaggerated. Those poor kids. That poor man.
He has told me all this quite within earshot of the kids. Finally, reluctantly, he told me his name is Bob Fitzgerald. That’s what he said.
He said one of his friends had pancreatic cancer. He took the same drug, and it got him an extra eight years. Bob’s hoping for a similar result.
Nathan said he thinks his dad will be dead in three months.
I said if you don’t want to give me your contact information, do you mind if I at least take a picture? He finally agreed. Nathalie doesn’t want to, however. But he cajoled and coaxed her until she complied.
We finally parted ways. I wished him the best.
I came back Monday night, and the woman was working her ass off again. She kept her head down, aslant, as if she needed to be able to see what’s going on beneath those tables.
I wonder if she’ll respond to Bob’s overture. The way she approaches her work with such relentless vigor, almost a religious fervor, it seems like there’s something she derives from this work, something vital, something essential to her survival.
It might kill her to not have this job. Still, I hope Bob Fitzgerald really has a job for her, a nice job, where she’ll be appreciated and well-compensated.
I hope that Bob Fitzgerald has exaggerated his cancer, or that he pulls off a miraculous recovery and beats five cancers all at the same time.
I can hope for this, can’t I?