Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Old Coke Machine

I'm starting this post off with a funny vending machine picture (the 24/6 label kills me) because the story is a bit sad.

It's a classic time loop tale. A doctor trapped in the same year over and over. What will she try to change to get out? What will she be helpless to repeat?

The Old Coke Machine

The flickering light from the old drink machine gave the only glow in the hallway where she waited. It made her face look red when it should have been pale. She didn’t look up, didn’t see me standing at the end of the hall.

But she never did.

She just sat there huddled in a too big snowboarding jacket that she’d borrowed from her brother. It made her thin neck and round head look almost like a turtle’s, poking out of the dark green fabric like it was her shell. Even her feet were tucked back, under the battered chair, so the only things I could see were her head and that long neck.

I jingled the quarters in my hand, shifting from foot to foot, pretending that I was deciding.

There wasn’t anything to decide. I was going to walk down the hall in my white coat with my stethoscope cold against the back of my neck. I was going to step between Claire and the machine. I’d push the button for Coke and get a Dr. Pepper. I’d ask her if she was waiting for someone.

I was moving down the hall already. My right hand was closed hard around the quarters and stuffed deep in my pocket. I was gripping them so hard my hand shook. The linoleum squeaked under my sneakers, but only a little, my feet were mostly dry now. In an hour even my socks would be dry.

Later Claire would ask how I got my feet wet in the first place.

As I approached I was looking at her, not the soda machine. I could see the three hoops in her right ear. All silver in descending sizes. There were only two on the left but those were almost always covered by her hair. It looked red too in the dim Coke-filtered light. It looked red in the morning too but the rest of the time it was just brown.

I stepped up to the machine and I could feel her eyes boring into my back, through me, fierce green and determined. My feet were cold and the back of my neck felt hot. I fumbled with the quarters but I didn’t drop them. I never did. No matter how bad my hands were shaking. In they went, the rough edges the same temperature as the hand I’d been clutching them in, sliding over the edge of the change slot. The slot was so old that the black plastic had grooves in it from the millions of coins that had passed through it. Inside the coins made flat sounds as they fell onto the other coins inside. My finger was poised over the big plastic buttons, shaking a little, Claire’s stare setting a low tremor through everything. She probably wasn’t even seeing me, not any more than she’d seen the soda machine, but I could still feel it.

I almost pushed the Diet Coke button, knowing I should change something. This one time I could change something, anything. I was afraid though, to change it. What if I calmly popped the tab on the Diet Coke and she said, “No, no thanks, I don’t need a coffee, I’m just going to go home”?

The Coke button depressed under my finger. There was a dull clunk inside the machine and I reached down. My fingers closed over the cold can and I knew without looking that it was a Dr. Pepper.

I could have turned and walked back down the hall. I could have skipped all of it. I did have things to do; it wasn’t like I wanted to keep doing this forever.

“Are you waiting for someone?” I asked when I turned around, my voice too loud in the hall where the only sound was the hum of the cooler in the machine. I leaned my shoulder against the edge, looking more casual than I felt.

Her head pulled back slightly, retreating into the coat. “Not anymore.”

I didn’t flinch. Not at the hollow way she spoke, not at the circles under her eyes. I couldn’t see her hands either; they were pulled back into the long sleeves, retracted and safe. “There are better places to sit. Lights have been going off down here all week,” I said inanely. Her brother was dead and I was telling her about maintenance issues. Very smooth, very considerate.

She stretched her legs out from under the chair. They looked longer than they were, encased in faded jeans that went into deep brown boots at the knee. “I don’t mind.” She straightened her neck, tilting her head to one side to look at me. I could see her eyes moving over the security tag around my neck, taking in the white coat. “Is there anywhere to get a good coffee?”

I popped the tab on my soda absently and nodded, taking a sip. I coughed, holding the can up and feeling stupid. “Damn machine, I wanted a Coke.” Every fucking time and I always forgot. I cleared my throat and kicked the machine with my heel. “Yeah, there’s a great coffee house three blocks down.” There was a faint flutter in my stomach that I couldn’t will away.

She took a deep breath and stood up. Her foot slipped a little on the linoleum and I put my arm out to help. She gripped it hard through my coat and steadied herself. She let go of my arm, still standing close. “So which way is this place?”

I could still feel her grip on my arm and at this distance I could see her eyelashes were matted together with tears. The red rim around her eyes was harder to make out in the low light. “I’ll show you. I was just about to head out,” I lied. I always lied and paid for it the next day with a backlog of reports to fill out. Technically I was on call for another two hours. I always took my pager and it never went off. Even the times I wished it would.

Her eyes narrowed for a second and then she nodded like she’d decided something. “Lead the way.”

She followed me down the hall, walking a half step behind, hands hidden again by the long sleeves of her coat. She didn’t know she was using me. She didn’t know we were going for coffee so she wouldn’t be alone. That we would end up in her apartment so she didn’t have to be alone. That we’d end up in mine the next night. She didn’t know any of that.

I pushed the elevator buttons with my thumb, looking at her out of the corner of my eye. She leaned casually against the edge of the car, smaller than ever in that coat. But she always looked small, felt small, even if I was only four inches taller I always felt too big, clumsy and strange around her like some looming giant. “I need to get my coat, can you wait for me at the admit desk?” I asked when the door finally opened on one.

Her eyes narrowed taking in the busy front desk. “I can wait.”

Idiot. This was where she’d waited to find out where he was, to get to the ICU too late. She had already moved toward the desk though, shoulders high around her ears. There was no calling her back, no asking her to wait somewhere else.

I went to the locker room. It was empty but I always felt grateful that it was. No one around to ask why my hands were still shaking or why I was leaving early. “You shouldn’t be doing this,” I told myself, hanging up my lab coat and trading it for my wool one. I wrapped my scarf around my neck a few times; it was windy down the side street to the coffee shop. “All this is going to do is distract you.” I knew that. I did. But seventeen times I’d found myself on the sixth floor because the soda machine in the break room was broken, seventeen times I’d walked down that hall and gotten my soda. Seventeen times I’d met Claire.

Claire who was going to leave me two months before everything repeated again. She’d leave me and then it was just a countdown, fifty-seven days until the year started over. Fifty-seven days until I stroked out again. Paralyzed in my bed, or in the hospital, with my mother looking over me, or with Claire slamming a door in my face.

Dead no matter where it happened.

If I didn’t end things sooner.

It didn’t really matter. Whatever I did I’d end up starting again, on that same damn Friday shift, working on Mrs. Horowitz, convincing her that she wasn’t going to die if we put her under anesthesia. I convinced her every time. Seventeen times now and she always lived.

I took off my sneakers and pulled on my galoshes. They were pink with white polka dots, possibly the most hideous present my sister had ever given me. But they were waterproof and had good traction so I wore them anyway. I even got a pink scarf to go with them.

I left the locker room with my briefcase in one hand and my hat in the other. I nodded at Gale, the new receptionist. She nodded back and continued reading her magazine. Did she already know that she was going to file a sexual harassment suit against the chief of staff?

I had to touch Claire’s shoulder to get her attention. It felt fragile. “Ready?”

She jumped a little and her eyes were bloodshot but still green and bright. “Let’s go.”

She slipped on the sidewalk in front of the ambulance bay. This time she didn’t let go of my arm. I could feel her fingers through my coat like I was tethered to her.

We walked in silence and my mind raced ahead. I could just have a cup of coffee and go. I could walk away, get in my car and go home, look at those papers on anticoagulants. Call that doctor at Hopkins about his stroke research. I could go home and work on my problems.

Leave and let her sit in a coffee shop by herself before she started planning her brother’s funeral.

Our booth was in the far corner. No windows, but it was warm and cozy in its way. I pulled my gloves off with my teeth and stuffed them in my pockets before I took my coat off. “The coffee’s great and the pie is better.” I said, hanging my coat on the hook at the end of the booth and holding my hand out for hers. She shook her head. A short jerk, side to side.

She wasn’t taking it off until much later. “What kind of pie?” She asked with a look that didn’t mean to be sly.

“I like the French apple.” I said, sliding into the booth and blotting my hands on my slacks. I could at least keep myself in check until she asked me to go home with her.

Claire’s cheeks were red from the cold and her curly hair had been whipped around from the wind. It was hard not to look. The waitress came and saved me from staring.

“Small cappuccino and a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie,” I said, watching the blonde’s face as she wrote it down on her pad. Her nametag was crooked and the clasp was coming loose on her sliver bracelet. I could see where the silver coating had rubbed off and was showing brass against her wrist.

“Coffee and a slice of the French apple,” Claire said in her clear voice. It was the brisk tone she used when she felt she was being interrupted.

“Coming right up,” the waitress said, moving off to another table.

“I thought you liked apple.”

I turned back to see that sly look again. Claire had unzipped her coat and was leaning on the edge of the table, her chin propped up by one small hand. She’d just had her nails done, short but perfectly manicured. My eyes slid down to open neck of her shirt and then snapped back up. “It’s not the only thing I like.” It always felt like a line even if I hadn’t meant it that way.

But she smiled, that breathtaking smile that could make me forgive anything. That could make me forget anything. That could make me do this when I knew she would leave. “That’s good to know.”


  1. I love all the little details. In the first half, before you actually establish the time loop (in the story) you do a great job of establishing that it has all happened before, but at least imho, it feels more like a daily grind thing. IE whoever fills the coke machine always places the Doctor Pepper in the wrong place and he pushes that coke button hoping, hoping just once that he the guy who filled the machine would get it right.

  2. Ah, well... what I was hoping to imply was that the main character is the only one who knows it's a time loop. Hitting the button for coke and getting the wrong drink is just a way of accepting the inevitable relationship with Claire.


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