By Marc D Regan
Aromas that normally comfort Craig and elicit complaints from his empty belly now nauseate him. Bright sunlight hurts his head. He secured the rearmost booth earlier when the diner doors opened, ordered a coffee and drained several cups, but has no money to pay.
Where are his grandparents? Sam and Ginny Nesmith are never late—are they?
Craig’s knowledge of his grandparents’ habits is outdated. Extended absence can create unrealistic expectations. He knows time has continued to pass, and still his mind insists that the people and places of his old life remain the same, as if, there, time halted.
Here, time is a steamroller, and two years have pulverized the twenty-four-year-old.
His waitress Suzie, a twenty-something blonde with a western rancher’s twang, materializes with a carafe of hot, weak coffee. “Another refill?”
Craig, already suffering from serious caffeine jitters, doesn’t want more, but he nods. Maybe, if he continues to hoist the diner mug, he will be allowed to stay. “I’m waiting for the rest of my party,” he tells her again.
“No worries,” Suzie replies, turning to leave.
“Do you know the time?” Craig asks.
She checks the register. “Ten past eight,” she says, flashing a smile.
His “party”—it makes the imminent rendezvous sound festive. Craig feels anything but. Perhaps a poor attitude after two years away, but last night’s sad hours weigh heavy on him.
And the “party” isn’t late: they scheduled the breakfast for nine.
Craig has fifty minutes to kill sucking watery coffee and watching.
Cheery customers talk across tables and eat greasy food, and Craig both resents and pines for their unburdened spirits. Things have soured for Craig, and not only since he left his paternal grandparents hours earlier and embarked on a fraudulent night. His decline started over a year ago, and he had wanted to be honest with them, but standing outside that fancy restaurant, facing that perfect couple, the lie just tumbled from his mouth: I’ve got a place. A block from here.
His grandparents didn’t look convinced. Dear, his grandmother said, we’re happy to get you a room at the Stained Glass Inn. Then we can meet in the lobby. In the morning.
No, no. I’m all set.
Craig lives in a shack on a communal parcel of land, a two-hour drive from this small western town. Forty acres populated by pot-growers, misfits, and people with assumed identities. No electricity or running water. He owns no car that is “in the shop.” No stimulating job. He spewed fabrications and his grandparents nodded politely. After the fancy French meal they retired to their hotel room like normal people do; Craig wandered like a stray dog, broken, lost.
And now he feels hung-over, though he doubts he is. His last slug of Thunderbird was yesterday afternoon. Some eighteen hours ago.
As dishes clatter, potatoes sizzle, and the diner booths fill, Craig replays yesterday’s hazy actions—prying himself from the stoop of that condemned building, stumbling away from a crew of faceless drunks, trying to sober up in a rank restroom. Some gas station with clogged toilets where people had taken to using the sink. Foul but he had to wash off the reek of cheap wine. Vague images: frigid water splashing his face and hair; a grungy mirror; lips and tongue stained from bum wine. Still he looks as if he sucked charcoal.
He pledged to himself that he wouldn’t drink, and he didn’t—for weeks. Until yesterday.
Craig recalls sitting in dead weeds behind a minimart, guzzling to-go coffees and a mini five-hour energy drink, and then—nothing. He “awoke” to arranged cutlery, a basket of fresh bread, a flickering candle. Lights dimmed and talk hushed. Soft jazz, volume low.
Yeah, he was saying. It was a practical joke. A coworker dumped ink in my coffee. I wasn’t paying attention, and…stained tongue.
Oh no, said his grandma, her sculpted hair too perfect to be real. Eyes as blue as forever and brimming with love. His grandfather’s jaw shone like polished steel.
Craig had fallen, rolled far from their manicured tree.
And how did he get to this upscale restaurant?
His grandfather scowled. You reported him, I hope. His imposing black horn-rimmed glasses had been replaced by wire rims. His ever-thick hair was whiter than Craig had seen it, slightly longer too.
Naw. It was a prank. Was he slurring?
You could have gotten sick, dear, said Ginny Nesmith, her lips a respectable muted red.
A sip’s all. Then I realized.
“More coffee?” Suzie’s query brings him back to the morning, the bustling diner. She stands beside him, eyes clear and hopeful, lips set in that permanent slight grin of hers, her freckled nose balancing her face. She blows a stray fall of hair. Craig wishes now, as he has on his monthly or bimonthly visits to the diner, that he could run off with her, learn to be alive again.
Suzie’s look says she knows that, as she pours his umpteenth cup of coffee. “Think your friends are still coming?”
“What time is it?”
“Oh.” She leans, checking a patron’s wristwatch. “Eight-thirty. Give or take.”
“They’ll be here at nine,” Craig tells her. “My grandparents are prompt.”
Her grin blooms. “Grandparents. Nice. I’ve only seen you alone. Well.” Her attention sweeps populated booths. “My other customers await.”
He watches her scurry off and then leaves the booth and shuts himself in the men’s room. The mirror reveals exhaustion, unfixable hair, and grime on his new dress shirt. Far worse than at the posh restaurant last night. “You and your fucking pride,” he says to the guy in the mirror. Pride kept him from accepting his grandmother’s offer; pride condemned him to a night outdoors.
He washes his hands and face, arms and neck, slicks his hair—with a hand. What he’d give for a hairbrush, a toothbrush. His breath must be atrocious. Seeking quiet, he sits in a stall. Not for long, what with the diner now so busy, but he needs a minute or two after last night.
Craig sits on a public toilet and relives the pathetic scenes of the previous night. The chilly evening pinching his exposed neck, nose, cheeks, and ears. The tarmac resisting his footfalls as he trudged dead streets and lightless alleys. A moonless sky punching murky hollows in the world. The residual tang of filet mignon, baked potato and broccoli souring his tongue. Late October nighttime odors—wood smoke, rotting foliage, vehicle exhaust—tweaking his sinuses, and his ears ringing with stridulating crickets, a rough-running truck, a complaining hound. Low temperatures constricted his lungs—and challenged any hope he still possessed. Life whirled at that late hour, and Craig was a severed limb stuck in the dead eye of a storm—seldom had he felt so forlorn.
Craig knows he’s to blame. Whether it’s due to the solitary toking, the tripping, or merely innumerable solitary hours spent in a crumbling cabin on the side of a fir-infested hill, it is his fault. He just can’t say I’m in trouble, scared, dying.
Having just reclaimed a booth he feared he’d lost, Craig startles.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”
“Twenty minutes,” he echoes.
“Till nine,” Suzie adds. “Your coffee must be cold.”
“I’m wired enough.” Craig coughs laughter.
Her large pale-green eyes shine like moons of compassion. “Well, Craig, you hang in there.”
As she rejoins the breakfast ruckus, Craig goes inward, returning to previous night’s futile search for warmth. The piercing sadness. How long can a night be? But as the night progressed, time slowed. Minutes elongated. With no watch, the wait for daybreak was agonizing. He huddled under old cardboard, but the earth leeched body heat and kept him moving. At least it didn’t frost.
He pictured himself hunkered behind that dumpster, his fatigue generating photos of folks sleeping on street-side heat vents. Steaming grates in the sidewalk. In Chicago. Or D.C. Sad people. Dying of loneliness in a throng of vital bodies. Craig awoke in a three-foot wide space between concrete buildings. Like a stray dog. Or a rat. Then moved to the diner. To await his last chance for familial connection.
Now he spies them through the diner window, morning sun flaring off their rental in a lot across the street. His grandmother smoothes her skirt; his grandfather checks the knot in his tie. Craig, hyperconscious of his filthy, mussed appearance, doubts his ability to eat.
“Is that them?” Suzie again flanks Craig, coffee pot in tow.
“I’m a mess,” Craig answers.
“Love’s not about appearances.” Suzie beams as his overdressed grandparents enter the noisy diner. “Welcome,” she says as the Nesmiths reach the back booth. Her small palm finds Craig’s shoulder, and rests there.
They meet her enthusiasm with polite smiles—smiles that wax grim as they behold their fallen grandson.
“Coffee?” Suzie says when they’re seated across from Craig.
“Please,” says Sam Nesmith.
“Coffee and menus, then.” Suzie’s all grins. As if these were her grandparents.
Craig only fully notices Suzie’s gesture when, after giving a light squeeze, she removes her hand. A keen grandmother’s eye, however, misses little.
“Very nice,” says Ginny Nesmith, scrutinizing Suzie’s departure and return. She eyes the cheerful young waitress, pouring coffee, passing out menus. When Grandma grins everything brightens, as if a lamp were lit in a dull room. Craig’s body calms, muscles softening as his hope revives—until Sam’s voice says: “What happened? To your clothes?”
Craig’s eyes lock on his grandfather’s; his whiskered jaw is paralyzed.
“What’s her name?” says Ginny.
“Suzie,” he answers, never breaking eye contact with Sam.
“Did something happen, Craig?”
Craig’s lips fall apart.
“Is everyone ready to order,” Suzie asks.
Craig’s ready, has been for hours, lifetimes. Not because he’s famished, or possesses any appetite, he’s simply rehearsed this act of ordering countless times since arriving. Still, the night behind him has so depleted his reason that he misses his grandparents ordering, until it’s his turn. Suzie, chipper as ever, eyes shining at Craig, nods and jots his order on her pad. “Fantastic,” she says.
“She’s lovely, dear.”
“I’m concerned,” says Sam, a finger moving his glasses closer to his hazel eyes, his white hair so clean it glows. Now Ginny also surveys her grandson.
Craig scans for Suzie—she can save him, sit beside him, pretend to be his girlfriend. But she’s vanished, and his grandparents wait. “My roommate,” Craig says, his tongue on autopilot, and he laughs, eyes diverted, head shaking. “That clown mistook my clothes—” he pokes a thumb at his mucked up shirt “—for dirty laundry and threw them in with his work clothes.” A pause. “He works for Mr. Router.”
“Mister…” says Ginny, her brow wrinkled in confusion.
“A septic company?” says Sam.
Craig shrugs. “They’re the only nice clothes I have.”
“Bachelors.” Ginny giggles.
Sam Nesmith’s jaw tightens.
Suzie comes with a fresh pot and a benevolent countenance. “More coffee?”
“Please,” says Ginny, “I have to ask. Well, you two seem close…?”
Craig has never seen his grandmother so giddy with joy.
Suzie mirrors Ginny’s delight. “Well—yes.” She gives Craig a dazzling smile. “In fact, we met right here. This booth. I think of this as Craig’s booth.” A glance behind her. “Ah. Your order’s up.”
When Suzie has delivered their meals, and is gone, Sam says, “Well, if she doesn’t mind your sewer-stained shirt, how can I complain? Eat up!”
Craig does, and a meal never tasted so good—until the dinner Suzie prepares for him two weeks later. That meal is heavenly, and the dessert is beyond his sweetest dreams.
Once Marc D Regan wandered the US. Then he wrote songs and performed in a band of musical deviants. Now, nestled in remote northern California, he creates fiction and abstract art. His work (prose and art) has appeared in Microfiction Monday Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, and other publications.