Monday, February 22, 2016

THE LOST DINER

Alice strained to hear Cheryl on the other end of the phone, her concentration marred by the clash and clatter of noise. Things were hopping between kitchen and dining area, another Sunday afternoon at the little restaurant in Farrell's Department Store. It was busy, Alice had to work, and Cheryl's timing, as usual, left more than a little to be desired. She was bemoaning some issue with the Yearbook---they were going to have a dedication to some nerd-girl who'd died in a stupid accident and said girl's boyfriend wasn't cooperating. Alice, too, was up to her gills with the project, but the timing was just bad.
“Look, I really can't talk now. I'll call you later, I don't know, maybe tonight. I've gotta go. 'Bye.”
She hung up. Quick-and-easy brushoff. Damn, it was so easy to get rid of that girl when she had something to fret over. Alice found herself wishing, oh-so-fleetingly, that Cheryl would grab herself a job so she'd know what it was like to have to drop whatever it was you were doing in order to be pestered needlessly.
“Yo, Alice!” Hollered Rico from over the fry-o-later. “You done with Social Hour, yet? The natives are gonna be mighty restless!”
Alice flipped Rico a discreetly low-flying bird. He tossed a grimy kitchen rag at her, but she dodged it and tossed it back at him. Goddamn slob, she thought, throwing that greasy thing at me. Not like he had to work out there among the customers or anything.
Alice left the kitchen, hunting for the solace of people who'd behave themselves. Fat Charlie was there in his usual seat, just like every Sunday for lunch. He hunched over the counter, his habitual scowl and his his grey beard like a Sunday afternoon welcome sign for Alice . Of course, the Farrell's Staff knew that Fat Charlie was a pussycat. Alice liked him. He was the head of maintenance at the apartment complex nextdoor and he'd been coming to the little restaurant at Farrell's every weekend since she'd started there and probably long before. Everyone knew Fat Charlie.
“Afternoon, cupcake,” Fat Charlie saluted, a grin widening on his big face. “How you treqtin' that Varsity Letterman'o'yours? Whatsisname, Bill?”
Alice bit her lip and felt the heat rise to her face. She recalled the night before, in Biff's 'Vette...God, was it only twelve hours ago?....how they'd come close, so close, but she'd lost her nerve and told him no, told him it was just too soon. Charlie had to remind her. “Don't tell me, let me guess, “ she said, all the while telling herself, keep that voice steady, girl, “you'll have the Clam Roll.”
“Actually,” said Fat Charlie, “I was thinking about the onion soup.”
“Ah, yes.” making a note in her notepad, Alice smiled. “Highly recommended.”
Fat Charlie returned the smile. As it should be, thought Alice. “We'll get that to you right away, Charlie,” and she sauntered off, making note of several customers Brigitte had just seated in her section; a fortyish woman with three bouncy-flouncy children, two old ladies she recognized---they were her grandma's Bingo friends----and a man sitting alone in the corner.
She racked up the order on Rico's hot line and went back to the dining area. Madeline was setting the woman with the kids up with coffee and her grandmother's friends were studying the menu intently. She approached the man in the corner and slipped into her most presentable smile.
The man seated in the corner was thirtyish, pale, emaciated and looked as though he hadn't bathed or shaved in two days. The three-odd layers of clothing he had on looked soiled, unwashed and old. God, thought Alice, I couldn't go anywhere looking like that.
The disheveled man glanced up at her and then averted his bleary eyes. Strange, Alice thought. She wondered if it was one of those “Hippies” her father occasionally mentioned with disdain.
“Good afternoon, sir, I'm Alice and I'll be your server. May I start you off with a drink?”
The man nodded. “I think so.” His voice creaked and groaned like a rusty hinge. “I'll have a coffee.”
Alice headed back over to the wait station and seized the coffee pot. This guy was really freaky. His face looked like it was going to break open and rain. Gee, pal, she thought, Heaven forbid you should have to smile or anything! You might give those face muscles a little exercise.
She went back and poured the lugubrious customer his coffee. “Like cream, sir?”
“No, just black.”
“And are you ready to order?”
“I think so. I'll just have the hotdog and beans.”
“Okay,” jotting the order down. “Anything else?”
“No,” came the monotone, “just the cup of coffee.” And again, under his breath, “just the cup of coffee.”
“Okay,” said Alice, really having to work at maintaining that smile, now. “ We'll get that right out to you!”
“ Thank you,” the customer droned.
She turned away from him, noticing his vacant stare into some imaginary horizon. An old druggie, she decided. She'd seen enough of these lowlifes in school to know. And she knew they'd probably all end up looking just like this one here.
She hit Rico with the freak's order. Rico busted her chops about not keeping up with the Sunday afternoon pace (such as it was) and she called him a weasel. Alice liked Rico. She knew he was no one her Dad would ever be happy seeing her come home with, but he was cute, he was funny and after seeing that guy in the corner it bothered her to think about Rico. He was always going to do this kind of thing for a living, he wasn't ever going to go to college or be successful or anything and it mad her sad. Sure, she knew he got high and he was a loudmouth, but once you got past that, he was friendly and nice. It disturbed her to think Rico might possibly end up like that guy out there.
She ran back out and attended her grandmother's two friends and they engaged her in some brief conversation. My, Alice, how you've grown since we last saw you! How are your studies going? She didn't have long to long to sit and talk, the woman and her three still needed taking care of. He took their orders and let them be.
Over t the mother's table, the kids were bouncing away with reckless abandon. The mother looked harried and tired. At this point she didn't even seem to be attempting to control them, she was just letting them run rampant. The youngest son had torn a shopping bag apart and was in the act of unpackaging one of those robot Transformer toys. His mother was trying to get the orders together as he slid out of his seat and began crawling around under the table. Finally, the woman put her foot down and scolded him. She looked up at Alice with a weary half-grin. “The terrible twos,” she muttered and the two of them laughed. This opened a short conversation. The woman recognized her from the homecoming game back in November. “I go to the games all the time,” she told Alice. “You're one of the best head cheerleaders I've seen at Brookdale High, and I should know.”
“Thank you.”
“I was head cheerleader in 2005,” the woman said.
“Really?” Small, small world, Alice thought. It was a big cliché, but what could you do? It was the truth.
She ran back with the order. “Onion Soup up, slowpoke,” sneered Rico.
“Rico!” She hollered. “Dude, you're being a real creep today!” Rico just smiled a wide smile and bent back over his grill. God, Alice thought, he is being ornery today! She was thinking about how she might get him back as she grabbed the bowl of soup. She ran it out to Charlie. “Enjoy, Charlie.” It was fresh out of a Lipton box, but Charlie didn't need to know that.
Thank you, cupcake,” he saluted.
She ran back to the hot line. Nothing up. “Hot dog and beans up?” Pestering Rico with the most annoying Hurry-Up-For-Crying-Out-Loud voice she could muster.
“Inna minnit,” Rico groused.
“Slowpoke!”
Arrgh,” he grunted. “The lady takes delight in tormentin' me! Hold on a sec.”
Alice's mind briefly went back to Biff last night and he put on good face but he hadn't called her today---was he mad at her? Stupid, stupid brain....
“Dog and beans up,” gruffed Rico, shattering her train of thought. Oh, well, all for the best---get it in gear, girl.
She brought the order out to the shabby-looking man in the corner. He had one hand up to his face, shielding his eyes from most of the other customers. Jesus, Alice thought, landing the plate in front of him. “Here you go....sorry for the wait.”
He didn't even look at her, or even acknowledge her with so much as a “thank you”.
“Fine,” she thought, and headed back out again to find the grilled chicken platter and the tuna melt were up. She ran them out to the two elderly ladies. They thanked her.
Yeah, Mister Creepy-Guy-in-the-Corner, how hard is it to say, “thank you”? She wondered.
One more customer was waiting to be seated. Madeline was off on a cigarette break or something. Alice seated him, poured him a cup of coffee and told him that Madeline would be right with him.
When she got up to the hot line, two of the four orders for the woman and her trio of kids were up. Alice rushed them over. The mother, Brookdale High's Head Cheerleader from 2005, had ordered a clam roll, Fat Charlie's usual dish, she noted. She delivered the food. “Yours will be ready in a minute,” she assured the two older kids.
Damn! It hit her. Condiments! A general formality she'd forgotten to give that guy in the corner. Where was her head today?! She went back to the shoddy man in the corner. “Would you like ketchup, mustard or relish, sir?” She asked.
“No,” he droned. This guy was really starting to spook her. He was eating his hotdog, gripping the bun as if for dear life and he was gnawing on the thing just a touch too voraciously. Hesitantly, she added in her mind. Hesitantly, like he did not actually want to eat it, she imagined, as if someone were forcing him to choke it down at gunpoint.
Catching her bearing, Alice returned to the kitchen and retrieved the other half of the family's order. The boy and girl jumped up and down in their seats. “Oh boy! Hamburgers and french fries! Hamburgers and french fries!” It was nice to know, anyway, that someone around here was appreciative.
And then she had to catch herself. Christ, that was hardly fair. She was allowing that freakazoid to wreck her afternoon, and that was a dumb thing to let happen. Time to visit Fat Charlie, she thought.
“How's the soup, Charlie?” She asked him.
“It's fine, Alice, honey,” but Charlie wasn't. He looked pale. He didn't look well at all.
“What's the matter, Charlie?”
“Alice, what's wrong with that fella over there?”
Alice turned her gaze over to the corner. The creep was coming to the end of his hotdog—which was to say he was almost done jamming it down his craw. The man's skin had gone dark red and it seemed to Alice that his face was shiny and wet. Tears were rolling out of his eyes, which had become tight, black slits. He rammed the last bit of bun with the heel of his hand up into his mouth. His whole body was shaking with tremors.
She hurried to the hotline. “Rico!” She yelled.
“Whaddya want?”
“That guy over there, in the corner,” gesturing with her head, “I think there's something wrong with him. I mean, really, really wrong!”
Rico poked his head out into the dining area for a look. “Jesus.”
The man in the corner drove his fork into the puddle of beans and molasses and bitterly shoved them into his mouth as if it were some herculean task. The fork was making lots of noise, now, as it scraped against the plate. He was attracting a lot of attention, now. The woman who had also been a head cheerleader gathered up her kids and was making for the exit. The two women Alice knew through her grandmother were staring his way, their eyes big and white like eggs.
Rico let out a low whistle. “This guy's gonzo, I think.”
“No kidding.”
“Uh, look, Alice, I'm gonna go get the Floor Manager, you just keep an eye on him, okay?”
“Rico, no!” She cried. “I'm scared! I don't know what to do!”
“Nothing's gonna happen,” he yelled. “Just keep an eye on that guy!”
Rico ran off into the store and Alice kept watch from a safe, comfortable distance. God, she thought, listening to the grating sound of fork scraping against plate, he's going to break something if he keeps going the way he's going. Then the dish shattered.
Alice couldn't do anything but stare in dumb terror—the man took the fork, its tines bent in several different directions, and kept trying to scrape beans up from the bigger fragments of china and shovel them into his twitching, trembling mouth. It was revolting. He was making a horrible mess everywhere, drooling molasses, spittle and ketchup. Alice caught herself. He'd refused condiments. But if that wasn't......
Oh, God.
He had picked up a jagged piece of plate. Alice saw what was coming and tried to force words from her mouth. It was too late for words, though, and he was gnawing on the china. Alice started forward. John Overend, the store's floor manager, was coming into the dining area. The man in the corner bit down on the broken plate. Blood sprayed from the roof of his mouth.
“What are you doing to yourself?!” Alice shrieked. Before the last syllable left her mouth, the sharp tip of the china tore his upper lip and slid upward, running parallel with his nose. Alice's throat tightened and she felt dizzy. Her legs became rubber bands and she collapsed. Seconds later, the booming, soothing waves of oblivion swept in and carried her off.

##########

 
She woke up what felt like an eternity later, with Rico, Fat Charlie and John Overend hovering over her. The self-destructive customer, they explained, had been subdued and taken away.
“Look like our girl's gotten a nice trip through the wringer,” said Fat Charlie.
“She certainly has, “ said Mr. Overend. “Rico, I want you to go talk to Peggy. Tell her we're going to let Alice go home early today.
“Hey, sure thing, Mr. O.” He addressed Alice. “Hey, girl, you gonna be alright?”
“I think so,” groaned Alice, although she wasn't actually sure. She still felt like throwing up.
Rico looked really upset and concerned. “I'm real sorry I sent you out there, Alice. I thought I was doing the right thing.”
“S'okay,” Alice told him.
And so Farrell's let Alice go home a little early. Mr. Overend was even kind enough to give her a ride home. She used to think of the floor manager as being a really fussy, bossy son of a bitch, Mister White Glove Inspection himself, but he turned out, on the ride home, to be a very nice man.
“God, that was so awful,” she moaned. Alice was now sure she wasn't going to be sick, but the memory of that horror show was just destined to give her nightmares.
“I know,” agreed Mr. Overend.
“How could anyone do that to himself?!” She wondered out loud. “I don't think I could ever understand anyone wanting to do something like that.”
Mr. Overend shrugged. “There are just people walking around in this world who aren't well. I don't know...something happened to them. They lose their homes or their jobs....maybe their families...sometimes there isn't even a reason for it. They just become sick, I guess. They go over the edge, they lose their heads and sometimes they hurt people. Sometimes they just hurt themselves. They're just people who are lost, that's all.”
##############################

For the third time, Alice tried to read her book and couldn't get through the first paragraph. Her parents had been good and understanding enough to excuse her for the night, but here she was at two in the morning, unable to shake the day's horror.
She did fall asleep at one point, hours before, but the dream brought her back to consciousness. Now she sat up with the light on, unable to think straight. She knew that, in the morning, when she woke up, the light would still be on.
In the dream, she found herself back in the little restaurant, all alone and facing the bleary-eyed patron while he almost unwillingly (it seemed to Alice) mauled is own face. She was rooted to the floor and her eyes could not turn away from the sight. And the worst part of the dream was, periodically, she kept seeing her own face in his place, being bloodied. It was too much.
Lost, she thought, putting the book down. How lost could a person get? It was terrible. How, in this world she lived in and knew, could anyone have so little respect for himself and others as to do such damage? She did not, could not understand it and she doubted she ever would. It was wrong, she thought, it was all wrong.

###################################

The following Saturday, Alice went back to work at Farrell's. She came in and was tying her apron on when she saw Rico, sifting eggs for the day in a china cap.
“Morning, Rico,” she hailed, but he didn't hear her. She watched him for a moment, toiling over the bucket, separating the eggs from their shells. He looked hard-bitten. Tired. Old. He looked old.
Alice grabbed an order pad and headed out into the dining area to check out the lay of the land. It was like she had landed on another planet. This wasn't Farrell's, this wasn't the same place she'd worked for the past six months, this wasn't anyplace she'd ever consider home.
There were people all over the place, at all the tables, jammed into all the seats, all the booths. She didn't recognize any of them. There was no Fat Charlie, no old Bingo ladies, no head cheerleaders, no nothing. All familiarity, anything that might be counted on, had been drained away.
Everyone looked bedraggled, so thrown-together, so shabby and dirty. All of them, wearing clothes that were too big, too small, dirty, colorless. All rough-skinned, ruddy, baggy-eyed. And they were all staring away. Not smiling, not looking at her, just staring off into space, not looking, not looking.
Alice felt her knees wobbling. She put her hands over her face and instinct, suppressed for almost a week, took over. She screamed and screamed and screamed. When the ambulance arrived twenty minutes later, she was still screaming.

Copyright 1990 C.F. Roberts, 1991 Shockbox Press, 2016 Molotov Editions

I wrote “The Lost Diner” in 1990, sometime after finishing my first novel, HELLO, UGLY. It inhabits that same universe---Alice goes to Brookdale High, and the Cheryl she is talking to at the beginning of the story is Cheryl Kingsley, one of the dual heroines of that book. The dead girl she wants to dedicate the yearbook to, as well as her uncooperative boyfriend, are also integral elements of that story. There have been several related stories that I've written that all fall into what I call the “Brookdale Mythos”---”Old Man Delprete” (published by Susan Jenssen in GOTHICA), “Hannibal Shooting Fish in a Bucket” and “Hannibal and Sandi in the Afterglow” are all part of that cycle of short stories.
I ran “The Lost Diner” in the very first issue of my zine, SHOCKBOX, in 1991. I revised it a little for the blog, not much. I've known other writers, very good ones, who made a point of not running their own writing in zines they published...that was a level of integrity, if you want to call it that, that I never had. Screw it---it was my zine, woefully short on contributors at that point; I was a writer who wanted people to see his stuff and I had no problem running my own writing.
I'm sure Alice survives her ordeal and grows up to be a person of great empathy. Or not. After it saw the light of day in SHOCKBOX, one local reader asked me, “so, is the message of this story that we need to have more sympathy with those less fortunate?”
I shrugged my shoulder and told him, “it's just a bunch of stuff that happened.” He seemed happy with that and I was, too. I'm not gonna be like Bruce Springsteen and get up on a soapbox and fuckin' preach to you. You get it or you don't.


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

THE AQUARIUM

Christmas time arrived early for Tom Greenholz, in the late Fall when the air was crisp and bitter, the ground was hard, the trees were stark and the snow powdered all the lawns in town like a sad confectionary mishap. He killed himself in the coat closet of his little apartment alone on a Sunday night, just before Finals.
It was hard for him to reach a decision on how to go about it. Oh, he knew he was going to die, he'd figured that out weeks ago. His primary concern was the kind of message he wanted his departure to send.
His first, generous impulse was to send a note to his mother and father, telling them not to blame themselves ad infinitum, it had to be. The more thought he gave this, though, the less the idea appealed to him. Did he care whether they laid the blame on their own heads? No, not particularly. Life was a series of beatings, Tom thought, which people had to adapt to or recover from or escape in their own fashions. Let them find their own way, as Tom himself was doing.
Spite, widespread spite, was his next idea. He touched on the notion of leaving short, angry, maybe cryptic messages to everyone—his roommate, his girlfriend, his professors and again the parents...he found a shivery delight in the damage he might leave in his wake, the number of lives he could bruise on his way out. He mulled this last over for days and days, liking the taste of it. In the end he dismissed it as silly, though, showboating of the worst kind. It was all bulky, unnecessary.
Silence, finally, won out. Better, Tom thought, to leave a parade of questions behind. He would sink from life wordlessly, leaving few tremors in death. That would be the best.
The last thing he did before he went was tend to the fish. Tom owned a small tank of fish; a carp, a black moor, an albino catfish and an algae-eater. He sprinkled their fish food over the surface of the bubbling water for the last time and relished the little animals in their simple, unblinking pleasure. Their world was a box, a tiny walk with invisible walls. Had it been since they were born? Did they see those glass borders and wish they weren't there?
He watched them for a few minutes more and was done with them, pleased in the knowledge that his roommate, Danny, would no doubt care for them himself. Danny was that type; a humanitarian, a real litter-picker-upper.
Tom fingered the row of books above his bed: The King James Bible, Edgar Cayce, L. Ron Hubbard, Frank Herbert, Norman Vincent Peale, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Love, Hate, Help, Acupuncture, the How-to of Carpentry, Getting Unstuck, Getting Functional, Getting Headaches. He picked up the cross beside the bookshelf, the gold cross, his last year Christmas present, that last, glowing gift from the parents upstate. It made him sad to look at it, to touch it, but then again, it didn't make him too sad.
He brought it into the closet with him.
Danny, that studious lad, had been gone most of the weekend. He was out on the lake with some curly-topped, porcine Economics major who dressed in pink and purple and who would probably make an easy, eager lay if one told her the right set of lies. Tom was alone, thankfully alone, and it took him most of Saturday to rig up the pulley system.
He shut the door behind him, pulled down the noose and tightened it around his neck. In the dark of the closed closet he kissed the cross he couldn't see and dropped it. He heard it land, puff, somewhere in the carpet.
Kneeling on the little stool, he pulled with his whole body on the rope. Up. Up. Tighter. The pulley was paying its way at this point. He had succeeded in lifting his body at this point, and worlds away, his head was throbbing, pulsing. This was it.
The pulley locked into place. The rope stayed. With one final thrash he punted the little wooden stool out from under him.
Suspended, dangling, Tom felt the world dribbling away and he had a vague sense that he was floating, in the air or maybe deep below the sea. Otherworldly. Drifting, not breathing, swaying.
His throat and lungs seized up, objected. Wait! His rationale tried to override his will, wait! It's almost over, this is the worst part, almost over and then his mind's eye tumbled through a crystal cascade and it was outside the main hall of the university last week, first snow of the season, and he and Rebecca were all rough-and-tumble in the leaves and the pastry powder snow. They were rolling over and over and down and there were his fish, endearing in their soft, mindless way, kissing the water, staring off to the sides with their bubbly, dull eyes. Next it was sunset, sunset, orange embracing gray embracing blackish blue and he and his father were on Cape Cod, sitting on a jetty together, skipping flat, smooth, purple stones over that rolling frothy ocean. Next, Christmas, early morning Christmas, but it was a five-year-old's Christmas, another town, a house with a higher ceiling and the teddy bear-speckled pajamas clung to the sleep-stiffened boy and the pile of presents was was mountainous under the pine, the looming, blue-green pine, new and stunning in its child's eye luminescence and the ornaments that hung from the branches seemed old, ancient, good.
In the dark, Tom clawed at the pulley but its workings no longer made sense. It was like a crazyquilt of alien braille, indecipherable. He banged at it for a minute and he cut his knuckle and then the world began to spin, fast, as if it were going down a colossal drain---his legs kicked in the dark to find the edge of the stool and then went weak. The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow and now all was dark and he felt the last particles of air escape him and whirl up and away to the surface, playing and winding like butterflies until they were gone. Then the black closed in with its warm mitts, muffling everything.
 Originally Published in BLIND IGUANAPRESS circa early 90s. Copyright 1991 C.F. Roberts, 2016 Molotov Editions