Cora was sitting in the Burger King on Route 94 with her coffee and a copy of The Record. WOMAN ADMITS $1.2 MILLION REAL ESTATE SCAM. It was ten in the morning. It had snowed overnight but now it was melting. She was wearing a sweat suit, a Yankees cap, and a raincoat. Her hands shook and she smelled of cat. Outside delivery trucks rolled by and shook the big glass windows.
Cora was worried. Her hours at the A & P had been cut back and her other job cutting hair at the barber shop wasn't working out. The owner drank and drove customers away. "He reminds me of my ex. Always sayin the right things when he was sober, but it was just talk. A weak man when he drinks gets mean. I don't put up with that any more. I learned my lesson. Men don't change." There was no reason for her to stay in Jersey. "I put my house on the market but who knows. I really want to go to Florida. Everything is cheaper down there. I can stay with my sister until I get a job. And it's warm -- I can't take another winter here. I mean, this is only October and we've already got a taste of it."
Cora asked me whether or not I had a cigarette to spare. "Sorry, but I quit a while back."
"Good for you. I wish I could. Maybe when things calm down. My problem is that they cost so much. Nowadays I can't afford to smoke." She gave a snort, shifted herself in the seat, and took another sip of coffee. "Not for nothin, but nobody's got it easy these days. It's like we've used up all of our good luck. My sister lives in West Palm and all she talks about is crime. You'd think she was livin in the city." I thought to myself, the New York City crime rate is much lower than southern Florida's, by a wide margin. Like most people up here, she still thinks New York is Sodom and Gomorrah. Hell, the city is safer than most suburbs these days.
She stopped talking and went back to her newspaper. STATE POLICE TO CRACK DOWN ON TAILGATERS. Her coffee was cold but she kept blowing on it anyway. I thought to myself, hey, she doesn't know me. I'm just another pilgrim with a free morning, unshaved, wearing yesterday's socks, looking for warmth, to be among people, content to be here, even with the so-so coffee and dirty tables. I was going to wish her 'a good day' or tell her to 'take care' but she seemed to have forgotten that I was there, so I just quietly walked away and found a seat of my own.
I had brought a book with me, a short novel by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih titled Season of Migration to the North. It was recommended by an acquaintance who happens to be a teacher and a poet. An articulate and passionate woman, I figured she knew what she was talking about when it came to books. And she was right on -- I was about a third of the way through it and completely engrossed. The black-white sexual relationships reminded me of Naipaul's Guerillas. It's an intricate dance, allowing yourself to be seduced by The Other, then finding yourself repulsed by the feeling of having been had. Such a common miscalculation -- you hear it everywhere, sometimes leading to violence.
It was funny to find myself there, in a Burger King in the wilds of Jersey about to return to Khartoum in my mind. As I opened the book, I noticed Cora was still reading her paper. I wondered what she was thinking.