The Earth wheeled majestically upon the comfortable slouch of its axis, slicing dawn through continents, defining day and night with an inveterate precision. North Carolina swept toward the close of the dark hemisphere,promising the sun to its trees and buildings, its trucks and whippoorwills, its rivers, its airports, its dogs and mountains and convenience stores. Kenneth's Quik-Mart stood vigil off Exit 86, the sole outpost of life in sight at this hour of the morning. An Exxon sign towered outside in phosphorescent invitation to the highway traffic; and within, behind the register, sat a meaty figure in a red flannel shirt who was chowing down pecan swirls and reading the Weekly World News, quite alone.

Roy Mathis's world was solid and secure, a world he'd grown up with and expected to die with. He'd lived in the same town all his forty-two years. He had a son and a daughter from his first marriage, and another little girl by his present wife. Roy was an auto mechanic; he only worked at the Quik-Mart on the graveyard shift Fridays and Saturdays, to help with supporting the kids. Roy liked Hank Williams, Jr., and Chevys and tomato sandwiches and army movies. Roy liked his world simple, where everything made sense and it was all taken care of. He didn't need nothing else, not from nobody.

It was about 4:30 when the black man in the Hyundai pulled in. He was Roy's first visitor in the best part of an hour. The Quik-Mart always got a lot of business between one and two, because the bars closed at one and Roy then had to deal with intoxicated hellraisers who were hungry for nachos and beef jerky. After that, things died down until the hunters and fishermen and local morning-shift workers started trickling in around five. During the slow stretches Roy had to mop the floors and clean out the nacho-cheese pot, but mostly,-he just sat. He listened to the police scanner and looked through odd magazines; he ate junk and smoked cigarettes, charging himself for what he consumed without inventing the slightest employee's discount; and every now and then, he fulfilled the intentions behind his four bucks an hour, and got himself a customer.

The black man parked his car at the gas pumps and got out. He was wearing a stylish-looking gray wool overcoat and black slacks. Roy thought maybe he was a pimp or a drug-dealer or something. The man pumped Super Unleaded into his Excel, shivering and breathing vapor in the night air. It looked like there wasn't anybody else in the car, and the back seat seemed to be filled with bags and clothes, but Roy couldn't tell exactly because of the glare on the windows from the lights above the pumps. Roy wished the Quik-Mart was like other places, where you had to pay before pumping after dark. You couldn't turn these pumps on and off from the store, or punch in how much gas somebody could get. People had driven off on Roy before without paying. Fortunately, the black man had parked his Japanese piece of shit where Roy could just barely see the license plate. What state was that? Pennsylvania? Roy should've known no nigger from town went around looking like that. Roy picked up a pencil and tapped the eraser against a piece of scrap cardboard from a ripped-up cigarette carton.

ASN-718, he repeated mentally. Just in case. He squinted to read what that state's plates said. "You've Got a... Friend... in Pennsylvania." Shit. If Roy did, he sure didn't know about him. And that wasn't him pumping gas, either.

Roy slid his pencil over his ear when the black man headed toward the store, breathing into his hands.

"You got some coffee ready for me, buddy?" he asked Roy with a smile, holding his arms against his chest in an exaggerated display of how cold he was. His wire-rim eyeglasses were fogging over.

"Yeah..." Roy answered. "S'over against the wall," he said with a half gesture.

"Oh, thanks."

That sort of pissed Roy off. "Ready for him"? Who did he think he was, anyhow? Damn nigger.

He was slender and clean-cut, probably barely thirty, and he talked funny. He didn't sound like a regular nigger any more than he looked like one -- he talked like a Yankee, sort of educated-sounding, an accent that Roy found offensive in anyone.

Roy couldn't see the coffee maker and the microwave from the cash register because shelves of pickles and canned beef stew were in the way. He watched the black man in the circular security mirror affixed to that corner of the ceiling.

The man's contorted reflection went to the coffee and paused, then leaned side to side, just standing there. Could he not see the cups? There were plenty right there in the dispensers, and they plainly said "Hot or Cold" on them. Assuming this feller could read. Or maybe he was up to something... maybe he was trying to slip something inside of that fancy coat of his.

He came out around the shelves with a coffee pot in his hand.

"Uh, this is all there is."

Coffee a quarter-inch deep sloshed against the pyrex.

"Ah, shoot," Roy said, getting off his stool and heading for the coffee maker. "I didn't have no idea it run out."

For a moment Roy felt really bad, and stupid. Instead of taking care of the store, he'd been sitting on his ass reading about the live capture of Bigfoot in Manitoba, and a fat man in France who exploded after eating a pie with a whole cow baked in it. It was supposed to be Roy's job to keep fresh coffee made.

But then, it was just a nigger.

"I can brew you up some more right quick, if you want to wait," Roy said. "It'll just take a minute."

"Yeah, I don't mind. I'm in no big hurry."

Roy nodded, and took the coffee pot from the man and poured it out in the sink beside the microwave. Black crudities remained on the bottom where the coffee had scorched. Roy set it aside and placed a clean pot under the brewer. He opened the drawer beneath the coffee maker and took out a pre-measured foil packet of coffee and a ream of coffee filters. He tried to pull one filter free from the stack, but got two instead. This couple resisted Roy's efforts to pry the worn stumps of his fingernails between them.

Roy heard the man laugh behind him.

"Coffee filters," the man said, grinning. "You've got to hate 'em."

"Yeah, the crazy things," Roy muttered. He had wondered what would happen if he were to put more than one filter in the brewer, together. He was afraid they might filter out too much of the coffee, and it wouldn't taste good. Roy felt like he didn't know too much about coffee because he wasn't a big coffee drinker himself. Even for staying up working eleven to seven, he hardly touched the stuff.

Again the black man laughed, a smattering of muffled squeal which seemed to conceal plenitudes. Roy stopped fidgeting with the coffee filters and gave the man a look that said hey -- I ain't taking no shit.

"Oh, I'm not laughing at you," the man said, his face suddenly dead serious. "I'm sorry. It's just, I used to work for a company that makes coffee filters, and seeing those just reminds me of things. Please, don't pay any attention to me."

"Urm," Roy grunted. With a victorious tug he separated the filters, ripping one apart in the process. Good enough. Roy slid the coffee maker open and threw away the cold, soggy filter full of spent coffee grounds. He replaced it with the single surviving fresh filter, dumped in the coffee, and flipped the "on" switch.

"All right," Roy said, "you want to get your gas took care of while you're a waitin' on 'at?"

"Yeah, okay," the man said, reaching inside his coat for his wallet. He followed Roy back to the cash register. "You do take Visa, right? I saw the sign out there."

"Yeah, I just got to check it in this here book first." Roy grabbed a rolled-up magazine-sized booklet which was stuck down in a dusty can along with various pencils and pens. It contained the numbers of bad Master Cards and Visas. If you found a card that was listed, you could get cash rewards. You were supposed to take the card and cut it in two, and call up the credit card company for your reward money. Roy never had won any, but some of the women who worked days at the Quik-Mart had, between two and three hundred dollars. "And I need to see your driver's license," Roy added. He was lying about this part. He was just curious.

"Sure," the black man said. He handed Roy a scratched Citibank Visa with the name "Nathan K. Putman, Jr." printed on it, and a Pennsylvania license. Roy checked the name and picture on the license, and returned it. Then he leafed through the dogeared annals of bad credit, searching for a match. He thought how he would love to see the look on that nigger's face as he snapped a pair of scissors through the plastic, clipping the wings of that fluttering holographic pigeon. Out the corner of Roy's eye, the man seemed a little bit nervous, biting his lip and looking outside. One of those rewards sure would come in handy. Vicki's mama never bought her school clothes worth a damn.

"Well, looks all right," Roy said, blinking the strain of tiny long numbers out of his eyes. Too bad. He printed out a credit slip for Putman's eighteen dollars' worth of gas and rang up the sale. "I need your signature and license plate number," Roy said. He offered Putman the slip and a blue ballpoint, along with his Visa.

"All right." Putman filled out the form and chuckled. "I can't believe I'm buying Exxon gasoline," he said.

"How come?" Roy asked. "Does your car not run good on it?"

"No, it's not the gas itself," Putman said. "I haven't done any business with an Exxon ever since the Valdez."

Roy paused. "The what?"

"You know, the big oil spill off the coast of Alaska last year."

"Oh yeah, I remember that," Roy said. Putman returned the slip, and Roy tore out the yellow copy. "Wadn't that feller drunk that wrecked it?"

"Yeah," Putman said. "Well, actually, he was drunk, but he wasn't the one steering the tanker at the time."

Roy nodded indifferently. "Here's your receipt," he said, giving Putman the yellow copy. "So you mean you don't buy no Exxon gas, just because of that oil they split, up in Alaska?"

"Yeah. I try not to."

Roy shook his head. "Heh," he said.

"I was running on fumes when I saw this Exxon off that exit, and I figured it was either compromise my integrity or walk. But it's good to see Exxon's employees aren't all bad." He smiled at Roy, and gave him a little mock-salute. "I'll check on that coffee now."

Roy had never thought of himself as an employee of Exxon, but he guessed he sort of was. That was a funny idea. He was some character, this boy. Putman came back to the register with a steaming styrofoam cup, relishing the brew heartily.

"Aaah... that's good," he said. "Do you mind if I stand here and drink this for a minute? It feels good to rest and warm up after driving all night."

"Nah, help yourself," Roy said. He rang up the coffee. "'At's sixty-three," he said. Putman paid with a dollar bill, then sipped his coffee and stared at a TV Guide cover. Roy sat on his stool, an odd-legged dinosaur patched up with duct tape, and scratched his beer gut absently.

Roy broke the silence and asked, "How far have you been drivin'? You ain't come all the way from Pennsavania, have you?"

"Yep. I left Scranton before eight o'clock last night, so I've made it about five hundred miles in under nine hours."

"Perty good time," Roy said. "Where you headed to?"

"Bessemer, Alabama," Putman said. "Town outside Birmingham. I'm going back home."

"Huh. You don't much sound to me like you're from Alabam'."

Putman laughed. "You got me there," he said. "I know it. Living up north for years does strange things to a man's dialect. But shucks... I kin still talk like de folks down in Bessemer, if somebody 'uz to aks me to. It ain' dat hard to 'memba, wiv a little bit a' practice -- y' know wut I'm sayin'?"

Roy laughed along with him. Once a nigger, always a nigger.

"I guess I'll stop somewhere in Georgia and spend the night," Putman said. "Or maybe not. I'm not getting sleepy yet."

Roy lit a Marlboro and picked up the Weekly World News. Putman wasn't all that bad, for a nigger, but Roy wished he'd drink his coffee and go on.

"I've been out of work for nearly a month now," Putman said. "I finally decided to head back home, see my family, maybe make a new start down there."

Roy imagined what he might have got fired for. Breaking something or stealing something, lying, being lazy. "Didn't you say you worked in a coffee-filter factory or somethin'?" he asked.

"Well, not in the factory," Putman said. "I was a product packaging coordinator at Hartfield Enterprises, in Wilkes-Barre. They make all kinds of household goods -- paper napkins, plastic utensils, disposable microwave bowls, coffee filters..." Putman took a deep sip, and set his beverage on the counter. "Let me ask you a question, if you don't mind," he said, looking down, fingering the styrofoam cup. "You've heard about dioxin, haven't you?"

Roy thought for a second, flicking ashes off his cigarette. "Yeah... 'at's some kind of chemical or somethin', ain't it? I believe I seen it on Phil Donahue one time. That was what they sprayed on them jungles over in Vietnam, wadn't it?"

"Yeah, Agent Orange had dioxin in it," Putman said, "but dioxin's in other things, too. It's a by-product of chemical manufacturing and waste incineration. 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorobenzene-p-dioxin: That's its full name. It causes cancer and birth defects and spontaneous abortions. It's the number-one most toxic environmental pollutant. Now... would you believe me if I told you there's dioxin right here in this cup of coffee?"

Roy was puzzled. "From what?" he asked, feeling strangely defensive about somebody bad-mouthing coffee he made. "The coffee beans or somethin'?"

"No," Putman said. "From the coffee filters. Any white coffee filter has slight traces of dioxin in it, from the bleaching of the paper. The bleach they use contains dioxin. When you brew coffee through the filter, the dioxin seeps out, and you drink it."

"How much, though?" Roy asked. "Enough to hurt you?"

"According to government standards, no," Putman said. "It's a tiny amount, supposedly not measurably hazardous. But it's there." He lifted his cup and gently shook it around. "I just don't know how they can be sure that that little bit won't add up and kill people, on down the road. And what difference should it make, how little there is, when it would be so easy just to leave it out? They're taking chances for no good reason."

"You got to be shittin' me," Roy said with a gust of cigarette smoke coming out his mouth and nose.

"No." Putman reached inside his coat and pulled out a wrinkled square of brown paper, which he handed to Roy. "This is a piece of coffee filter paper before it's bleached. Coffee filters could look like this, and they'd be fine."

It looked like paper from a grocery bag, only smoother and thinner. "Huh," Roy said, returning the square. "Well, why in the devil don't they start makin' coffee filters like that?"

"That's what I've been wondering for the past two years," Putman said. Lines of frustration appeared on his young face. "I've been collecting data and coming up with all kinds of strategies to try and get Hartfield to make some changes, but they've all got their heads stuck up their asses in management. Every one of them. I finally got to make a presentation to the chairmen of the board, and I had figures and diagrams and prototypes and everything, to prove it to them that it would be so much nicer for everyone if we could just make brown coffee filters. Then their marketing advisors spoke up, spewing out every reason in the world why I was wrong."

"Like what?" Roy said.

"Like, it would be an admission of having willfully sold poisonous coffee filters for decades, blowing the dioxin hazard out of proportion, and destroying our public image. It would jeopardize our accounts with the firm that manufactures the bleach. It would interfere with Hartfield's contract with Maxwell House on the new Filter-Paks, which are coffee and filters pre-packaged together, you know, so you don't have to fumble around pulling the filters apart."

Hmm, Roy thought. Some of those might be good to have.

"And it would confuse the consumer, who, market surveys tell us, likes his coffee filters white." Putman paused. "Seventy-one percent of those surveyed said they would not use a brown coffee filter. A lot of them said they'd be afraid it was dirty. 'Dirty'! Can you believe that?"

"Well, if people don't know no better," Roy said. "But if they understood, you know, about that dioxin, they'd be glad to get brown 'uns. People need to know about things like 'at, 'cause they shore can't do nothin' about it theirself."

"You're right." Putman drank some coffee. "I think corporations have a responsibility to inform and protect the public. But they use the consumers, they keep them in the dark and rob them and rape them. Let sleeping dogs lie, they say; and when the business has a problem exposed, it's cover-up-your-ass-as-best-as-you-can. The media educates the public about MSG and sodium and cholesterol, and that's the only reason why companies have got around to doing something about those sorts of things. Thank God for the news, because the corporations and the government sure aren't going to take care of us."

"Yep..." Roy agreed. "Shore don't look that way."

"And you know," Putman said, "when the public does learn about something that's going on, the companies still try to fool us with a bunch of smoke screens. Like when people started turning against sugary cereals, and Sugar Smacks became Honey Smacks, and Super Sugar Crisp became Super Golden Crisp, but they've got exactly the same ingredients as before. And this is one of my favorites: Have you ever wondered why regular-size cigarettes are called 'King Size'?"

"Yeah, I have," Roy said with a faint smile. He held up his smoldering Marlboro. "They say 'King Size' on 'em, but the longest cigarettes are the 100's and the 120's."

"Right. Well, the first cigarettes on the market were really short, like Camel regulars, or Luckys. Then word started getting out that tobacco might not be so good for you, so one of the companies came out with the longer King Size, advertised as the new, improved, safer cigarette. They explained that since the smoke had to travel a longer distance from the end of the cigarette to your mouth, a lot of the tar and nicotine would get filtered out by the middle part of the cigarette. Which was true -- if you only smoked it halfway. And people bought this new King Size cigarette believing it was better for them, when actually they were just smoking even more.

"Ah, hell!" Roy said in delight.

"It's true. Eventually, some bright person thought of putting an actual filter on the ends of cigarettes, but the 'King Size' name stuck. 'Filter Kings."' Putman chuckled.

Roy extinguished his cigarette thoughtfully. "So they said there wadn't no way they'd fix them coffee filters? That shore does piss me off, to think them companies'd do somethin' like that."

"Mm-hmm," Putman said. "They politely told me my proposal wasn't feasible, and they asked me to leave. But I wouldn't. I started begging the CEO to think it over just once more. I asked him please to stop doing analysis on consumers' color preferences, and try some research on what dioxin does to their cancer rates. I asked him to stop worrying about unit sales and profit margins, and just try to have a little bit of decent human sympathy. And you know what he told me?"

"What?"

"He said, 'Mr. Putman, this is a business -- a perfectly legitimate enterprise whose purpose is to make money. If you want sympathy, get yourself a dictionary and look it up between swelling and syphilis.' Can you believe anyone could be enough of an asshole to say something like that?"

"Shit..." Roy said.

"After that, I just blew up," Putman said. "I really wasn't thinking. I looked the CEO straight in the eye, and I told him, 'And if you want me to keep listening to your bullshit, you can look between my legs and suck my dick.' And I said I quit before they could fire me."

"'Ar you go," Roy said with admiration. "'At's what them son'bitches need to hear."

"Yeah, it felt good at the time," Putman said, "but it was pretty dumb. That was three weeks ago Tuesday, and I don't know what I'm going to do. Money's running low, and I've got my ex-wife and a little boy in New York to support..."

Roy nodded. "I got to make child support, myself. It can be rough. You just hang in there."

"Thanks." Putman smiled and took a sip of coffee.

"Uh..." Roy said, "is 'syphilis' spelt with a 's-y'?"

"Yeah," Putman said. "Yeah, it is."

"Oh."

"Well, I hate to have taken up so much of your time," Putman said, pulling his coat close around himself, "but, I don't know... all along, I've been wondering what the average American out there would think if he knew about the dioxin in the coffee filters. I don't mean to be lying my personal sob story on you, but it's just good to tell somebody, just to let people know." He took a gulp of coffee. "Now that I'm warmed up, I guess I better be hitting the road."

"Wait," Roy said. "Why don't you keep a tryin' to tell people? You ort to go tell the news about what happened to you, or go work for a differnt company or somethin'. You might still be able to get them coffee filters made right."

Putman looked down and shook his head. "It's too late," he said. "You know what I saw on the world news last night? It was right at the end, you know, where they have the light human-interest story. They were talking about these new, brown coffee filters."

"Ah?" Roy said, not believing.

"Yeah. Peter Jennings was laughing, like, 'Why are these coffee filters brown? We'll tell you.' And they showed how this hippie health-food outfit in California had just come out with these 'Natural Brown' coffee filters, which they said made your coffee taste better, because of the 'natural paper.' You get more 'natural coffee flavor.' These coffee filters have caught on, so now the big companies have decided to start making them, too. Not one mention of dangerous chemicals or dioxin. And nobody's afraid of these brown filters being dirty. Just a bunch of smiles and jokes about yet another yuppie fad in the oat-bran America of the '90s-'what will they think of next?' Not even Peter Jennings knows what's really going on." Putman sighed. "I guess I didn't, either."

Roy then felt a peculiar awareness of his situation, that he and Nathan Putman were the only two human beings alive in the whole dark world. They were like chieftains, nobility, gathered privately in this bright and silent citadel of Slush Puppies and Skoal, to discuss grave matters of which the sleeping commoners knew nothing. They stood above, and alone.

"After seeing all that load of crap, I couldn't take it any more," Putman said in a merry tone, despite his words. "I packed up my things and left. I had to get out, away from Pennsylvania, away from big business, away from coffee-filter politics. I wash my hands of it, and leave it for people with a little less conscience."

"You know," Roy said, taking the pencil from his ear, "this reminds me of a story my papaw told me one time, that I've always liked." Putman nodded, apparently knowing that a papaw was a grandfather. "When Papaw was young, he was workin' one time for this feller at a farmers' market, a sellin' apples. The man always put his littlest apples down at the bottom of a bushelbasket, you know, so you'd just see the big 'uns on top and think they was all big. Well, Papaw, he didn't much care for doin' that to folks, so when the feller wadn't a lookin', Papaw'd put big 'uns on the bottom, and little 'uns on the top."

"Uh-huh," Putman said, smiling.

"So then this big rich woman come up to Papaw one day, and she just starts a raisin' Cain and says, 'I bought me a bushel a' good-lookin' apples here the other day, and when I got 'em home, there was just a bunch a' scrawny 'uns at the bottom.' And he said, 'I'm awful sorry, ma'am.' And she goes, 'Did you fill up these here bushels?' And Papaw told her he did. So she starts a hollerin' and carryin' on, tellin' ever'body how she's a gonna show how this here boy's been cheatin' people. She went to takin' the apples out of one a' them bushels. Now, Papaw's boss wadn't there right then. So that woman gets to the bottom of the bushel, and there sits the biggest and pertiest apples in the whole bunch. That woman was tickled to death. She apologized to Papaw for hollerin' at him and bought her two more bushels, not wanting her money back for that other bushel nor nothin'."

"How 'bout that!" Putman said.

"Yeah, but see, then Papaw's boss found out how he was a fillin' them bushels, and he didn't like it a'tall. He didn't want people seein' just them littlest apples when they was buyin' 'em. So he fired Papaw. But that woman come back there later, askin' for Papaw, and when she found out what happened, she got Papaw's name and found him. She offered him a job at the paper mill her husband run, and Papaw ended up workin' there for years, until he went to the war. So you see," Roy said, pointing at Putman with his pencil, "things could still come out good for you, and for ever'body, if you just let the right people know what you've done."

Putman smiled and looked at Roy for a long time without saying a word.

"Thanks, buddy." Putman extended his hand, and Roy shook it. "What was your name?"

"Roy. Roy Mathis."

"I'm Nathan. You've really given me something to think about, Roy. Maybe I shouldn't give up yet. Maybe it's my responsibility not to."

"They'd put you on TV, I guarantee it," Roy said.

"Yeah, we'll see, we'll see." Putman emptied his coffee cup and tossed it into a trash can by the door. "It was nice talking to you, Roy. You're a good man."

"Well, I shore hope ever'thing works out for you, there."

"Thank you," Putman said, putting a hand to the door. "You know, it sure is good to find what I was looking for, without having to use a dictionary." He laughed. "Between Scranton and Bessemer."

"Yep," Roy said, smiling.

Putman pushed open the door. "Bye, Roy," he said, holding up a hand.

"We'll see you later," Roy said. And he hoped that we really would.

Putman got into his loaded-down Hyundai and ventured again to the blackness of the highway. His license plate still lied to Roy as he left. He wasn't going back to Pennsylvania.

After a moment, Roy got off his stool and ambled over to the coffee maker. Plenty of brew in the pot, still steaming. Ready and waiting. Roy lifted the pot and emptied it in the sink, making the pipes sizzle. He took the thick stack of coffee filters out of the drawer, and turned them over in his hands. Gleaming white, only to become a soggy brown mess thrown out with eggshells and the morning paper. Roy lit the filters with his cigarette lighter and burned the shit out of them. He threw the flaming papers in the sink and held his breath. Roy wouldn't have any more coffee ready this morning. Not for nobody.

He walked to the door and looked outside. His world was different now, a bigger world where not everyone took care of what they were supposed to, and you couldn't just sit back and hope that they would. Roy would do his best to help out, even if Jacob couldn't get that bike he wanted, and Vicki would have to do without new shoes. It was more frightening, more uncertain, but it was also more real.

North Carolina wobbled nervously beneath Kenneth's Quik-Mart, reluctant to face the coming day but quite unable to turn back. The Earth stumbled on through its drunken orbital stagger, drugged out and crippled, its rainforest lungs strangled for hamburgers, its aquatic veins clogged up with petroleum, its ozone skin lacerated by deodorant. The planet barely kept step in its ancient promenade, a vulnerable lump of dirt, water and air suspended bare in nothing, forever caught between light and dark, between order and pandemonium, between brilliance and stupidity. And surely one day each precarious balance would collapse, and the world would freeze over or burn away or altogether come gasping to a stop; but for now, every second, there was someone somewhere just waking up.

Fancy Renerings