Posts Tagged ‘ Fiction ’

Four Poems

No, no, the blog is not quite dead yet.

Should it be?

Ah, that’s an awfully good question.

I guess I’m being stubborn about it. There are worse things in the world to drag my feet over, and refusing to let this blog keel over probably isn’t going to make the all-time countdown.

I don’t think so, anyway.

I don’t know why I’m doing a post. The odds of this blog ever being anything but an orphanage for misfit short stories and poems are pretty grim at this point. And I’m forever hesitant over sharing those things here to begin with, since they really ought to be put through the paces of being submitted to literary journals and the like. Sharing them here always kind of feels like I’m giving up on them.

Actually, I’ve had the feeling that I’ve given up on writing in general for much of the year.

Granted, we’re only a couple of weeks into the year, but things have already escalated nicely in the departments of self-loathing, intense doubt, and anxiety that wears a cunning disguise of being easily distracted (“Tommy Lee Jones does look like Grumpy Cat! Neat!”). It has not been a great year so far for work, and that’s entirely my fault. I haven’t tried to finish the third novel, I haven’t pushed myself to start on new projects, I haven’t taken any chances, and I haven’t learned the intricacies of naked tap dancing (and that last one is really goddamn important).

I’ve been disappointing myself over and over again, and it’s made worse by the fact that I’m aware of what I’m doing every step of the way.

This isn’t going to end with a declaration to do better, work harder. Obliterate a few more brain cells through the magic of frantic creative work. If you have to call this anything, just think of it as catching up over coffee with something righteous thrown in for good measure. I’m well aware of how far behind I am on everything I want to do, and I’m aware that I’m going to be twenty-eight soon. Seemingly in the same length of time it takes me to breathe in and out slowly and only once.

Things need to change. Saying that to myself over and over again isn’t going to make that happen. Whether it’s in the back of my mind as I try to fall asleep, or in a paragraph of an introduction to a blog post a few people will hopefully read. The only thing I can do is be even more of a bastard to myself than usual.

And what I definitely can’t do is let things like being tired of being single, the frustration of having a tenth of the career I envisioned for myself when I was young(er) and (even more) stupid slow me down. I can’t let my love affair with aspects of the well-worn past (even if that past includes things that happened as recently as five or six months ago) fuck me over again and again. And I sure as hell can’t let the responsibilities that are inherent in living a life that is not allowed to include trying to head-butt the TV at thirty miles per hour run my life forever and ever. I have to commit myself to a mild obsession with moving forward, and I have to maintain that thought at all times.

No matter how many days in a row happen to suck with the glorious style of an aging porn star trying to win Miss Universe.

This isn’t a declaration. I’m just thinking out loud.

There is a difference. At least there is while I type this at 2:30 in the morning.

In short, bring on the wrecking ball, bring on the work that I should be demanding of myself day in and day out, and bring on the deranged optimism for things like the ability to let go of those weird artifacts from the past, and the dream of once again having nothing but thousands of miles and dozens of towns worth of travel to look forward to.

That is not, as far as I can tell, too much to ask for.

And if it is, well, fuck it, man, because I’m asking for it anyway.

**********
Vintage Surreal Gangster Cinema

It wasn’t Halloween.
It wasn’t one of those awful goddamn
costume parties,
where everyone would rather just get stoned
and watch vintage Samurai cinema instead.

A man who got fat reading “War and Peace”
three times in a row just decided to show up
in a Snow White costume that wouldn’t have fit
a man even half his size.

A girl in a leather nurse’s outfit.
She doesn’t really dig on the whole saving lives scene.

Tweedledee was there.
Tweedledum was down to a black veil and wifebeater.

The Devil was Legion. Figures.

A higher power believed in the darkness
being able to pick off the lights in various hallways.

But it was a mansion. Plenty of dusty bulbs
to guide the desperate, lonely and frustrated
to the safety of a commonplace bedroom.

Complete with a commonplace view
of some strip of some kind of paradise.

And all the violent weather a person can eat.
More than enough to make leaves and branches behave like ghosts.
More than enough to think you really can be afraid of everything.

The windows were huge, were put in a century
and a half after the house was built and survived
a baptism, and just didn’t fit the rest of the place at all.

But practically no one cared. Anyone who did
was too nervous to do anything but laugh.

And the house band held everyone together with pins and string.
Mostly Rockabilly. A little John Lee Hooker and Blind Lemon Johnson
for when everybody just needed to calm the hell down.

A handsome kid dressed as a man dressed as an artist
who stays away from coffee, booze
and any wooden track rollercoaster.

He’s swallowed whatever he accidently crushed
in his pocket earlier, and he’s starting to forget
the name of the wife he came with.

She left hours ago. Love just happens like that.

Everyone just felt overdressed and old.

But they woke up when the house band played
something they had never heard before.

**********
Here Comes the Next Birthday

I bring you in for the dip,
because I really can move like Christopher Walken
once in an unholy while,
and down you go. Right into the bathtub gin
that tastes suspiciously
like bathtub vodka.

Let’s not talk what year this is,
your original hair colour or
why you think there’s bruises
in the backs of your eyes.

Both of us fell for people,
who found happiness and emotional clarity,
long after they started writing love songs
for the next one on the line.

The gin wears vodka goggles.
Let’s just put it like that,
because it sounds logical
in this part of the country.

I need some logic
in this cold place of a time
that has no teeth,
but plenty of good upper-body strength
and the best running shoes from 1994.

Someone’s gotta load me into the car,
and hope the driver is a cohort of mine
from last summer.

We can’t trust anyone from further back than that.
I don’t know what I’ve said to other people at other parties.

You take a long drink getting out of the tub,
and I can hear your friends laughing. On all fourteen floors.
I still think someone installed cameras in this miraculous joint,
before you moved in, with the three cats, the knives, recipe books,
snow globes and all the sketches you’re not going to finish.

It’s impossible to make love here,
and not feel like someone somewhere is watching,
talking to others over thirty-cent martinis
about where you went wrong as a child.

I can’t complain.
I’m through complaining.
Through with imagining old loves are still star-struck,
with something I’ve never been able to put my finger on.

Or anything else,
but this isn’t the time, place or sleepy crowd
for dirty jokes that worked beautifully that one beautiful time.

This is the rest of my life,
and I’m just not much of a writer,
actor, entertainer or scoundrel anymore.

I don’t care for cooking.
You can still use a kitchen after it’s burnt down.
My mind is always somewhere else,
and that goes for a lot of things.

It just kind of flies around,
and I leave my thoughts
with nothing but more trivia.

I hate trivia.
There’s a lot of things these days
I’m not fond of.

Your friends.
My friends.
All the people
I wish were here instead.

**********
Dig Your Own Grave And Save

The groom had a bad cough. A really bad cough.
And these eyes that wanted to dress up
as a runaway train.

The bride had buried all of ‘em. Every last doctor
who had ever brought her flowers for every day
they ever loved her for her dangerous temper.

She had to be older than him by fifty,
sixty years. And the wedding reception looked lovely
to me. But I wasn’t driving a car. I wasn’t walking calmly
to the time and place that could have turned out to be
my last night on earth. So I didn’t give a damn
if their wedding made it impossible to drive down Main Street.

I probably could have saved that guy.
This was clearly something he didn’t want to be a part of.

Kept walking instead. I only knew one of the bridesmaids intimately.
I didn’t like the look of those angels with sniper rifles overhead.
Those wings would kill a whole lot of people, if they just decided
to come down the level of mere mortals.

Guess that old lady could call in favors.
The way ordinary people call out the name of the last person
in the history of their lives that would ever rush to be by their bedside.

And I just didn’t want to get involved. I’m still not cautious.
Don’t accuse me of finally playing it safe. Please, please, don’t.

It’s just that I don’t need any more friends.
Not that kind. I’d prefer it if the psychopaths, contract killers
from the class of 2003, and girls who think it’s cute to call themselves
Bang-Shift Betty, all came to me instead.

I don’t have a problem with the people I can love forever,
and only trust three nights out of ten.

I’m just not going out of my way to entertain them anymore.

**********
Baby, You Got a Sick Mentality

Paranoia is realizing
that you’re the only one at the birthday party
who isn’t a doctor,
and then wondering what each of them
might be thinking of you.

I limp,
talk to myself,
add a little more rum to the punch,
cough when I need a cigarette
and fall asleep every time someone tells me
that I’ll be working for their infant son someday.

They could put me away with all that,
and there’s enough of them for me to know
that could happen if I grab the wrong wife’s ass.

Could be for the best.
You know you done screwed up,
when you have to hire a young girl to follow you around
and tell you what you did wrong every morning at 5:15.

And then I’d have to be careful about who I employ.

Last thing I need,
is some kid telling me that I’m living in the past,
and that things are better now than they were twenty years ago.

Shameful or whatever that I don’t really know if that’s true.
I’m scared of hospitals,
and I only ever watch the news
when an upcoming appointment goes missing.

Reading fiction seems to cover everything else,
and I have plenty of friends who balance
keeping me informed with getting over their addiction
to pathological lying.

This is called a compromise.
It’s like settling for finding shelter under a cancerous tree
after the lightning starts to follow you like a cheery bloodhound.

If I turn out to be wrong about something
I can still meet someone who can teach me how to play chess,
and how to play a piano that’s been busted up.
Shipped to more countries than there are winos
making a living by getting people to pay them
not to spray-paint erotica on the sidewalks.

That’s a lot of drunk people with high-school diplomas.

I’ll bet they were just like me, not too long ago.
Probably went to pot when they hit one of those parties
with all those smug doctors and kittenish wives.

Paranoia tells me this,
and it doesn’t even have a voice worth remembering.

You would think otherwise.

**********

After the War: Sample Chapter

I probably shouldn’t even pretend I’m ever going to get around to anything else for this blog besides orphan short stories and poetry.

I know there aren’t going to be any movie reviews on here anytime soon.

All kinds of wild promises have been made, mostly to myself (it just happens to be that I also write and share them with people, because I’m fucking stupid like that), and none of them have been realized.

That’s okay. Writing random pieces about social or political events, random anecdotes picked up and fleshed out from the day to day madness of everyday life, these are fairly small promises in the long run. The only person who really cares about them in the end is me.

I guess it’s not so bad. I disappoint myself all the time, and I seem to handle those punches just fine. There’s no reason in the world to believe I’ll never get around to writing some of the things I’d like to write for this blog. Drunk Monkeys, as I’m sure I’ve said before, gets a lot of that original material now. I’m okay with that. It’s one of the best websites or literary journals I’ve ever worked for, and I’m grateful to have an Editor who is game for just about weird, potentially stupid idea that pops into my head.

There really isn’t a reason to even have this blog anymore. I started it as an excuse to write more non-fiction, and as an excuse to write about movies again. I work for a few sites now that handle both of those things pretty well. I still have ideas and pieces I’ve love to write for this blog, stuff that I don’t think would work anywhere but here, but I still have to get through the work I do as a freelance writer (and it’s rich, fulfilling stuff, I swear to God), poetry, short stories, my third novel (which is repeatedly reminding me that I should have chosen calculus over Percocet in high school), work for Drunk Monkeys or The Modest Proposal, or work I can find just about anywhere else.

I get through all of that, and I’m just fucking tired.

And I don’t have things like acting work to strike a good, healthy creative balance, so I tend to get bored or tired after four or five thousand words worth of work in a given day.

I didn’t want to do a short story this time (I have several ready to go, but my heart really is more on selling them somewhere). I didn’t want to do poetry. That doesn’t leave me with a ton of material that isn’t either somewhere else, in my mind head, or so goddamn wretched an exercise in attempted creativity that keeping it around almost qualifies as self-injury.

It leaves me with the second novel I’m still trying to sell.

I’m not going to run the whole thing here. I’d still like to see it travel the world, find a few people who dig it, and bring me back a few dollars when it’s all over. What I don’t think is any great crime is running the first chapter here. I don’t believe I’ve shown it to anyone. People have seen the first novel, but no one seemed to care for it, so I don’t image it’s ever going to go anywhere.

The second novel, After the War?

I like it. I like it a lot. And I sincerely hope that other people like it, too.

Trying to get the book published is rapidly reaching the point where I may have to go the self-publishing route. I hope I don’t have to, but I will if the times call for it. There are a couple of other places I’m hoping will consider the manuscript, such as Tarpaulin Sky (they want a 20$ reading fee that I don’t have at this moment), before I finally start looking at things like Kickstarter and all the self-publishing options that are available to me.

Not much of a set-up is needed here. It’s about a dumb kid, and what he does when he finally gets a sense of what’s out there in the world. I spent close to a year and a half writing and editing it three times. More could probably be done with it, but I don’t know what that might entail. For now, until further notice, it’s as perfect as it’s ever going to be.

Selling this book is a considerably larger, more important dream than writing something specifically for this blog.

It’s a dream right up there with being somewhere like Central Park on a cool, steady fall day like this.

It’s even up there with getting out of Virginia, and seeing some of the people I don’t get to see as much as I would like to.

I need to make that happen pretty soon, obstacles such as living in the middle of nowhere, and not being able to drive, be dammed.

I live for being in constant motion, and I think I would probably feel a lot better than I have been these past several months. There have been a few trips, but nothing substantial, and that’s what sucks so much about being addicted to something like travel.

It’s rarely enough. It hasn’t been enough in years.

But I need to make it happen soon. I need things to move past me so quickly that I can barely keep up with them. I need to see some of those people I miss. Some of whom I miss more than I can ever describe in writing. Or whatever I think sounds very worldly and compelling after another shot of paint-thinner at four-thirty in the morning.

Because I’m not a clever man. I just think I play one when I think someone’s paying attention.

**********
December 28th, 1997

“Missouri.” Warren said the name again and waited to see if it might develop real meaning. He still wasn’t having much luck with that, so he gave up and hoped his mom would step in.

“Yeah,” Barbara said. Her entire body was turned away from the computer. Her small hands were in her lap, and her attention was entirely on the conversation at hand. That was kind of impressive these days.  “Missouri.” She smiled and pushed some of her long auburn hair back behind her ear. She looked weirdly pleased with herself.

Warren kept going back to the historical implications of this all this. In twelve years, they had gone on exactly one vacation. That had been to Alberta to see family followed by a brief stop into the extraordinary powerhouse of activity and day-to-day life that had been and still was Vancouver.  That had been six years ago. It had also been about that long since even the discussion of going somewhere of interest had come up. Warren had never thought about it much. Some families saw the world, took a thousand pictures and then put them away in a closet for fifty years. Some families didn’t go anywhere more emotionally taxing than McDonalds on a busy Saturday afternoon. His family was in the second category, and he had never really seen a problem with that.

This didn’t include his mom’s recent trip to Vancouver to visit one of her childhood friends. That had been a purely solo, two-day venture.

“I was thinking,” she went on, smiling, “That we might even try to work in a trip to New York, depending on time and money.” She shrugged. “We’ll be in the states for about a week.”

He nodded, not listening to her as closely as he wanted. Missouri. America. That wasn’t just a sudden family vacation to somewhere like Victoria. That was kicking the third dimension in the balls and flying down the road with the fourth and fifth in tow at a couple thousand miles per hour. It was the kind of thing that worked its way into a TV cliffhanger.  Make the announcement, and then back off to let the several dozen possibilities jostle for position.

It was staggering, entirely too confusing for the middle of the afternoon. The more he tried to process it, dumb everything down to a couple of easy sentences, the more it kept crashing and burning in the middle of what was becoming the ugliest traffic of thought disaster in recent history. “When would we be leaving?” he asked.

“New Year’s Eve,” she said. “We’d have to drive down to Victoria, and then take the ferry to Seattle.”

“And why are we doing this?”

She shrugged. For just a moment, she looked like she didn’t know what she was going to say. “Well, some of my friends from the Pet Talk Forum are getting together in Missouri, and I just thought it’d be nice to go and even make a family trip out of it.” She shrugged again, reaching for her cigarettes. “We haven’t had one in years, after all.”

Warren nodded and tried not to make a face when she fired up on of her smokes. There was something in the way she was being so casual about this. Relaxed was not something Barbara was known for by the few people who had managed to work their way into her life. Everything revolved around the concept that the world only had about fifteen minutes of life left in the tank. It was everything or nothing and nothing less than that. She was also obsessively dedicated to making sure every possibility could be seen from a thousand miles away. Anything outside of the routine was to be shot down on sight.

He looked at her. The one great contradiction to all of that were her children. Even at twelve years old, he could see that. Five minutes for a microwave dinner would have her tapping the kitchen counter in mild frustration. But when it came to him or any of the kids, she could stand still for hours and put up with just about anything. Now, she would wait as long as it was going to take for him to answer.

She was remarkable, infuriating and extraordinary. Usually, all at once.

“Who’s going?”

She took a drag from her cigarette, absent-mindedly brushing aside a bit of ash when it fell on the knee of her pants. “You, me, Daniel, Morgan and Kelci.”

He raised his eyes. “Dad’s not going?”

The cigarette took to resting in the ashtray. It would probably burn down to the filter. She turned back to him, shaking her head and smiling. “He doesn’t want to go,” she said. “He’d rather stay behind and try to catch up on work.”

Well, that was just one more thing to wonder about. The idea of Dad not going along for something like this struck him as weird.

“So,” she said, “Count you in?”

He needed to put this conversation to bed. He needed to get outside where things stood to remain perfectly still long enough for some form to come together in all this. Everything really needed to slow the hell down and start making even a little sense. “Sure,” he said. “I mean, I can’t imagine just me and Dad here for a week or whatever.” He tried to smile but couldn’t get everything behind that gesture to come together. “We’d probably murder each other and burn the house down.”

“Probably,” she agreed. And right on cue, she was reaching for another cigarette.

“I’m going to go outside for a bit,” Warren said, seeing the chance to get away and going after it with arms open. “I guess we can talk about this some more later?”

“Of course,” she said, “But try not to change your mind at the last minute.”

He smirked without meaning to. “When have I ever done that?” He was close to the front door now. He was almost out.

“Never,” she said, smiling as well. The last cigarette was dead. The new one was lit. “Forgive either my stupidity or insanity.”

“A little bit of both, I’d suspect.”

She smiled, and let a long moment of silence suddenly appear and build up into something conscious. “I think this is going to be a lot of fun,” she said. “Really exciting.”

“I know.” And he meant that. When there was another long moment of silence between them, this one feeling even stranger than the last, he took the opportunity to open the door and finally make it outside. That same awkward silence disappeared the moment the shockingly kind, cool air smacked him in the face. It had to be at least fifty, which was just extraordinary for a Vancouver Island winter. It was quiet outside, too, but it was a different kind of silence. The stillness out here seemed to move with everything from the trees to the occasional car to the distant sounds of someone yelling from the beach. Warren sighed, took a few steps into his backyard and then stopped. He didn’t feel any smarter for being out here. The sudden and honestly quite brutal changes that were suddenly in place didn’t magically dumb themselves down to a sitcom solution.

All the same, it was already a lot easier to think. He didn’t have to look at anyone, and there was more room to move around. Everything here was familiar. Every direction could be anticipated. Every moment was right in front of him. He started up the long drive way to get to the street. Familiar was good. This was one of those times when familiar was absolutely necessary.

He made it to the street in one piece. There were several directions he could take from here. Enough possibilities existed that he stopped again just a few steps away from the front of his driveway and looked across the street at the house in front of him. The lights were on in one of the upstairs bedrooms, and he could see a figure moving around. The ocean was off to the left, just down the street, past the house where the Vietnam draft dodger lived and often went mad on an almost daily basis, past the house with that horrible dog that was very likely going to kill someone someday. He would have to walk past all of those houses and then through a small trail that would take him to a part of the beach where a lot of the aging surfers and unending line of tourists liked to visit. Warren had never been sure why. He hated the tourists and had never been able to understand the appeal of standing on a piece of cardboard and trying to make the ocean listen to reason.

It was beautiful though. Sometimes.

But he didn’t want the ocean just then. The moment seemed to be calling for a long street that would end eventually and offer no other choice but to turn around go back in the other direction. The ocean would be there if he wanted it. This was a night for wandering around, staring at silent houses and glancing in the windows of the occasional car going by.  Nothing was really going to be solved between now and whenever he managed to go to bed, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t worth trying.

He finally settled on turning left at his driveway, putting some automatic distance between himself and the ocean. It was a walk like this that always made him briefly understand the whole thing behind smoking. It sure as hell would give him something to do with his hands. He stuffed them in his pockets and wondered if anyone was out and about this evening. It wasn’t uncommon for everyone in the neighborhood to get together and kill as many hours as possible with whatever was possible. But it was winter, and no one really liked to go outside unless there was a chance of snow.

And it didn’t really snow in Ucluelet. Not often enough to look forward to it, anyway.

The biggest problem he had with a family vacation was the idea that Dad wasn’t going. Not that he wanted him there, but he knew his father enough to know that he wasn’t one to just let his family disappear into a different country for a couple of weeks. He wanted to ask Dad about it, but his work schedule made that fairly impossible. Besides Christmas Eve and Morning he could count on one hand the number of hours he had seen him.

He wanted to talk to him about it a little, but that just wasn’t going to be in the cards.

Oh well, he thought, kicking at nothing but the air. It wouldn’t really solve. He could see where all of this was going, and he couldn’t see himself doing anything but just going with the goddamn flow. That was usually the case. All of this thinking, walking around and watching the world hit replay and start the brief away message all over again was just a lot in the way of distraction. He knew what was going to happen. He knew what he was going to do.

He took the next left and could see a car coming down the road. The actual town of Ucluelet was actually a good five or more miles away. This was just a collection of houses, weird portions of forest and a couple of school bus stops. They called it Millstream, which never really made sense to him. If you didn’t go out onto the main road, down the freeway towards town, you could probably spend the rest of your life assuming that the world had finally come to a complete and comfortable stop.

The car went by quickly. Disappearing around the corner he had just passed. He purposely missed a chance to look in the window and see who it might be. He wasn’t up for that tonight.  Whoever it was, they were probably going somewhere more a hell of a lot more interesting than Millstream.

Another left or right option came at him. He went with right, even though it was a short street and would have him turning back soon. His mind went to the Pet Talk Forum and how it had come from seemingly out of nowhere to stand as the bulk of his mom’s social calendar. Not that she had ever gone out a whole lot anyway, but most of her internet time was spent kicking around that one particular corner. She talked about the members all the time, especially that snake guy. His name was Leonard. There was also Harold, the old man in Denver, Colorado who raised pit bulls and wondered if his daughter would ever call him again. Then there was Ted and Kara, that couple in Missouri. He imagined their house would be the site of this completely random get-together.  Those four were the ones she talked about the most. At different points over the last few months, she had even shown him various pictures of them. Anyone else was mentioned only occasionally. He wondered which of them would be at this thing.

He could definitely imagine writing a story or two about this. He didn’t write very often, but it was one of the few things in his childhood that seemed to get a positive reaction out of other people, so he turned to it when everything else was looking dire. Walking slowly, he felt desperate to stretch things out and take his time. He put aside small thoughts like what would happen when they got there. He tried to focus again on some of the larger ideas. When that didn’t work he just let everything swirl around until he looked up from the ground to see the short road already coming to an end.

Don’s BBQ

I like this one. It’s just never found a home. That could be a question of the right story for the right home, or it could just be that the story is fundamentally terrible.

I’d prefer to lean on the first choice. My ego is a tired, half-drunk animal these days.

This was written six or seven years ago, and then edited a couple of times over the years. The source material was a diner I happened to kill about five hours in. God knows why I was trying to pass that kind of time. A good deal of my life is spent in transit, and just waiting around for the traveling show to pick me up. That can be fun, and it give me ideas like this one, but it can also be a little on the exhausting side sometimes.

I wouldn’t trade it for anything, of course. I try to keep my regrets to an absolute minimum. Anything that gets material out of it almost never leaves me feeling as though I was wasting my time, or should have done something different. That kind of thing can age you horribly if you’re not careful, but I’m a lot better at taking care of myself than people give me credit for.

There’s something safer about submitting work to magazines over just throwing it on a blog. I’m already assuming the worst, but I do remain hopeful that people will find something worthwhile in whatever I’m trying out here. That’s a good mix of self-loathing and ludicrous optimism if you ask me.

Enjoy the story. Give me some thoughts on it. I’m a sucker for those.
**********
Don’s BBQ
By Gabriel Ricard

When her nails dug into the rag so much that her thin digits were touching each other through the material, Maggie decided that it was time to stop, take a deep breath and get her shit together. This whole line of thinking was ridiculous, and she wasn’t going to let it bother her. Not today. Jerry, Elizabeth and Tom, Martin and any combination of his construction worker buddies. Everyone else. All of them were counting on her. The same way they counted on her every day. There was definitely some level of comfort that could come out of that. A need to continue as if everything was all right. Washing the same spot on the counter for the seventh time, she couldn’t help but laugh a little. Really, what would they think if they walked in and found her sobbing over something as silly as one of the coffee machines breaking down?

Most of them knew it was an ancient, shitty machine anyway. In fact, it was a miracle the other one hadn’t collapsed, too. Which meant it was still there in the first place. Coffee was still an option to anyone who might be interested. Maggie knew that it just meant she’d have to put a little more effort into making sure everyone got enough. There was nothing wrong with a little extra effort. On top of that, everyone was well aware that the two machines were in desperate need of replacement. No one would really be all that surprised to find out that one of them had finally died off. Hell, they’d probably have a great joke in mind when they heard the news. She laughed again, finally moved on to another portion of the counter.

She nodded. She felt better now. A little, anyway, but she still felt better.

The door opened quickly. As though someone was actually in a hurry. Maggie smiled. Only two people opened the door like that everyday, and Rick didn’t come in until lunchtime. She looked up from the counter, ready to turn the day around as quickly as possible. “Jerry, one of these days, you’re gonna break that—”

She stopped immediately, when her mind told her a thousand times in about thirty seconds that it wasn’t Jerry. A run through of all the regulars, which usually wasn’t necessary, but sometimes came up in circumstances like these, also told her that it wasn’t someone she knew.

The stranger, who couldn’t have been much older than nineteen, remained at the door, looking around as though he was the only one there.

Maggie barely managed to keep herself from frowning. Whoever this kid was, he didn’t match up to anyone she knew. He didn’t even look one of those jerks from the college a few about ten miles away. It wasn’t tourist season either, the only time of the year when it was absolutely necessary to deal with anyone outside of her trusted group. Beyond college and tourists, the number of newcomers was almost non-existent. There was, after all, a Pancake Kingdom franchise on the other side of the parking lot. They had more food and better prices. People who were willing to take that in exchange for a cold, impersonal breakfast experience went there instead. It had been like that for almost a decade now.

Once again, she could feel her hand squeezing the rag.

The stranger finally stopped glancing around, devoting a moment of his time to the post cards, twelve countries and all fifty states, the small stuffed animal collection of famous cartoon characters, and the humorous posters. Obviously, the family pictures on the bulletin board straight ahead hadn’t caught his attention yet. He looked straight ahead to Maggie and smiled. “Are you guys open? I didn’t see a sign or anything.”

Again, Maggie found herself forcing her smile to stay in place.  Of course, it’s open, she thought. You fucking idiot. She kept all this to herself. She had to. Imagine how Tom and Elizabeth, just to name two, would react if they walked in and found her screaming insults and obscenities at some stupid kid unconsciously looking to fuck up what was already amounting to a very difficult day.

They’d probably want free coffee!

She laughed aloud at this idea, without meaning to. “Of course we’re open,” she said to the stranger, immediately trying to play off the mistake and doing a pretty good job of it. “Why don’t you have a seat, and I’ll take your order.” In one well-practiced motion, she grabbed the pad of paper and pen from the register and walked out from behind the counter.

The stranger, the idiot kid with thick, stuck-up glasses and a wardrobe that consisted entirely of faded black, took a seat at the booth to his right.

Maggie noticed him setting a book down on the table. He slammed it onto the table in such a way as to cause one of the creamers to fall out of the little bowl. As a reflex to that, her left hand was suddenly doing it’s damnedest to snap the pen in half.

“So, what’ll it be?” she asked, still smiling through all this uncalled for and admittedly very minor tragedy. If Don were alive, he’d know how to handle this arrogant little shit. “You’re a skinny looking guy,” she went on, bringing up some of the bullshit conversation she utilized during tourist season. “So, I think you ought to go for the deluxe pancake breakfast. That’s two pancakes, two eggs cooked however you want, three strips of bacon, three sausages. You also get your choice of a side of toast or a plate of hashbrowns.” Her pen, no longer in a death grip of any kind, tapped relentlessly against the pad of paper. “And, of course, the whole thing comes with your choice of milk, orange juice, apple juice, water, coffee, sweet tea, or soda.”

The stranger nodded through all of this, his eyes never leaving the menu. Finally, he closed it and held it up for her to take. “That sounds just fine. With toast, whole-wheat, if that’s possible, coffee and orange juice, and,” he paused for a moment, “Eggs scrambled.” He inched the menu closer towards her. “Thank-you.”

She took the menu and returned to the safety of the area behind the counter, which was also the kitchen. She went to work quickly, with everything but the toast in its beginning stages in less than two minutes. Everything was made right in front of the customer. An element Don had decided to go with twenty-five years, three months, and sixteen days ago. Something she took a tremendous amount of pleasure in presenting to all of her friends. The little jerk, he probably didn’t have the ability to appreciate such a thing. She was tempted to cook up the regular pancake breakfast, just to see if he’d been paying even the slightest attention.

But no, Don most certainly wouldn’t approve of something like that. It had always been him with the soft spot for the ones who were only planning to stop in a single time. She knew that if he were with her right now, he would scold her for even trying to hold those thoughts back. “They shouldn’t be there at all,” he’d say, probably a dozen times after the stupid kid left. “A customer is a customer is a customer,” he’d go on, before leaning in slowly to kiss the top of her head the way he always did. He always knew she had a good point in gathering more of her solace from the usual faces. But still, in the end, he was right. She still couldn’t accept the idea completely. It was rarely possible. Being alone made it worse. She flipped the bacon and pancakes, moved the sausages a bit to prevent sticking, put the bread in the toaster, and flipped some the eggs over.

Even with her back to the door, even with the food half-done, in that stretch of time where it was bad idea to turn away from them, she couldn’t keep her eyes from moving to the door when she heard it open. The way the door opened was instantly unnerving. It once again failed to remind her of anyone she knew.

The toast popped up. Maggie set the pancakes and eggs on one side, making sure that neither item touched each other, and then proceeded to set the bacon and sausage on the other. The toast went onto another plate. Grabbing a coffee mug and glass from the shelf under her, she filled the mug to the top with coffee, and then did the same with the orange juice. She was right to feel this way, too. Just who the hell was this woman in sweat pants and a tattered college t-shirt? There had to be some sort of connection to the Jazzercise building three doors over. But that place didn’t open for another three hours! There was no fucking excuse for this! “Be with you in a minute,” she managed to promise. The two plates of food were set down on the counter, followed by the orange juice and coffee. She was going to let the kid get up and take the food himself.

He did without complaint. Maggie took note of his face, the possibility that he thought she wasn’t being fair. She didn’t see anything outright but still decided that in tune to his character, he wouldn’t leave a tip.

With the first undesirable out of the way, Maggie readied herself to face the next one. She imagined that this one would quietly despise her too, for the hate crime of making her wait a whole two minutes. Turning around, she found the woman seated in the booth across from the other one. If only one of her friends would show up, this would be a lot easier to get through. She didn’t think anyone should have to suffer this much so early in the morning. Unless they had a sense of humor that ran to car crashes and grim stuff like that.

Where were they anyway? It was five-thirty. At the very least, Martin and his crew were in around this time.

The rag was put away in an effort to get rid of anything that made it seem like her mood wasn’t that of a gracious host and warm old friend. This wasn’t the time to fidget with something to the point where everyone was staring. Don would hate that. He’d roll his eyes, put a hand around her waist, and remind her that she was absolutely hopeless at times.

She picked up the pad of paper and pen once more and walked around to the table. She smiled. The second time around, it was making the corners of her mouth hurt. “Morning,” she said. “What can I get for you today?”

The woman studied the menu, but only for a second. She set it down and looked up, offering a smile that struck Maggie as unrepentantly insincere. “Just a coffee please.”

“Just a coffee?” The words came out with their mild surprise before she could pull them back and change the tone a little. Maggie scribbled down the ignorant, time-wasting order, hoping it would make this cow believe that everything was just fine. That it was perfectly reasonable to just waltz in and not only get her hopes up with the promise of being someone she could rely on but to arrogantly use up her valuable time and energy on such a pointless fucking order. She wanted to point out the useful attributes of the four nearby convenience stores. Why, you could get a goddamn coffee there and drink it wherever the hell you wanted to. You could live the dream of true freedom, and you’d get it without bothering a waitress who had better things to do than take this from some dumbass bleach-blond cunt.

“Not very hungry, I’m afraid,” the woman replied. “I don’t think I have a whole lot of time to eat besides.”

Maggie was glad that she had already written down the order. She could feel a slight tremor running through her hands that was getting stronger by the minute. Enough that if she had to write down the order now, she would probably punch a hole through the paper with her pen. “One coffee coming right up.”

“Melissa,” she said, as though anyone really cared. “My name’s Melissa.”

Maggie nodded. “What a wonderful, simple name,” she said, walking back to her area to fetch the coffee. How could people like this even exist? What right did they have? She started to pour the cup.

“Can I get some more of that while you’re over there?”

She nearly dropped the pot. It was that goddamn kid again. Again! She glanced behind her shoulder to see him leaning over the counter with the mug in his hand. What kind of person drank coffee that fast? As thoughtless as he already was, even this guy could have had the decency to take a little breather between cups for her benefit. But, no. Of course not. “Just a second,” she said, setting the other cup aside and turning around quickly to take his.

The little asshole released the cup before she could take hold of it herself. She tried to scoop it up in time, but she missed it on the second try and watched the cup explode into roughly a dozen pieces on the floor.

“Jesus!” He jumped back.

As though it had all been an accident! For a second, Maggie was positive that she was going to kill him. To hell with the bitch drinking her coffee, watching the whole thing as though it was some kind of free show. But she didn’t take advantage of the thought. The second passed, and it was possible, though barely, to smile yet again and pretend that idiots came into her diner all the time and destroyed her personal property. “Oh, honey, it’s perfectly okay.” She kneeled down and began picking up the chunks one at a time. “Perfectly okay,” she repeated. “If you just give me a minute,” she went on, dumping a handful into the adjacent garbage can. “I’ll make sure you get a new cup.”

“I-I’d like to pay for it,” he said. He “I really can’t believe I’m that clumsy and stupid.” He laughed. “God, what a day.”

It came out in a whisper. She looked up to see him setting some money on the table. A twenty. Probably twice what the cup was really worth. Fine, she thought, taking the money and stuffing it into the left pocket of her jeans. Let him pay whatever the hell he thinks is necessary. Between him and the coffee-drinker in horrible looking clothes, and all of her time they had taken away, forty dollars would just make it in the way of a decent tip. Even if it wasn’t enough to pay her back for destroying any chance she had at a good day. She wondered if the whole thing was related to karma somehow. She tried to think of some awful mistake she might’ve made at some point in the recent weeks. Nothing came to mind though, and when it became that much more obvious that none of this was deserved, she found it more important than ever that these people leave as soon as possible.

When the last of the coffee cup pieces were in the garbage, she grabbed another cup and stood up to get his refill. Until they left, she still had a job to do. She touched the pot and stared at it for a moment. It was empty. She wasn’t entirely how that could have worked out after pouring only two cups of coffee. She casually wiped away a couple of tears that were running down her face. The rag was gone, leaving her with the only option of clenching her fists. This was only a minor problem. Compared to everything else, this is not worth getting upset over. Hoping to minimize this latest crisis, she turned around. The nosy little bastard was still standing at the counter. He couldn’t just sit down and wait to be called, could he? “I’m afraid I have to make a new pot,” she announced, loudly enough in case the other one needed to know this as well. “If you’ll just have a seat and wait, I’ll bring it to you.”

He didn’t move at first. “I really am sorry about the cup.”

He sounded like he meant it, but really, you just couldn’t be sure about these things. Turning away from him again, she waved him off. “It’s not a problem.” She filled the machine with water and replaced the filter. “Heck, I’m willing to bet I’ve got a million of those things.” She was drawing on memories of Don now, what he would say during a tragedy like this. She wasn’t ready to draw on memories of him like that. Not when tourist season was a good three months away. “One just isn’t going to matter.”

When she finally moved back to facing him, she saw that he was back in his booth, staring at the rest of his food that was now, most likely, rigidly cold. Oh well. Serves him right.

Her gaze moved onto the woman, Melissa, who, apparently, took forever when it came to finishing a simple cup of coffee. She didn’t even have a newspaper, she was just laying around and taking up space. All for a buck twenty-five and, probably, no tip!

Where were they!

Honestly, what if Jerry, Tom and Elizabeth, Martin, or the others came in and found that they couldn’t have the seat they wanted. All because some jackass invaders that were acting like the place was theirs and not hers. She couldn’t imagine that any of them would want to stay when faced with something that annoying. She didn’t want to imagine that. Not when they had become more crucial than ever to salvaging the day. Twenty-five years of her life had been spent working here, living in this small restaurant, and this had never happened before. Even on the slowest of days, at least one or two could be counted on to show up, if only to just grab a quick cup of coffee.

The door opened. She didn’t need to look to know that she was going to be let down again. The sound still didn’t match anyone she knew and needed at the moment. Since karma was out, she couldn’t use that as an explanation for why this was happening over and over again. Still, this had to be a test of some kind. An examination by some kind of great power to see what she was capable of. She finally looked to the door.

Oh god. She watched as they took a seat at the booth farthest away from her, without even a hello or good morning. It was a couple! Two more people! Two goddamn more!

Melissa raised her hand. “Can I have my cheque please?”

“Hold on.” Maggie knew her reply was close to a growl, but she didn’t care. She was too busy trying to figure out why these people weren’t in bed doing whatever it is that disgusting couples like to do. She watched the man, who appeared to be a good couple of decades older than his female companion, stare straight ahead to her. He grinned. Maggie had a feeling that he was drunk. Just barely six o clock in the morning, and this guy was drunk.

“Two coffees,” he said. The girl laughed, he whispered something to her, and she stopped. “And some eggs,” he added. “Just some eggs.” The girl started giggling again, and he didn’t try to stop her this time.

Maggie bent over to grab two more cups. The pot had been ready for a while, and she remembered that the fucking kid wanted some more as well. She poured some into all three.

“Excuse me.”

She turned around to face Melissa so quickly that she nearly dropped the pot again. Her glasses slipped a little down her face from saving it. “I know, I know.” She took a deep breath, though her body rejected most of the effort. “If you’ll just give me one moment.”

The clumsy little shot approached the counter as she said this, his wallet in the palm of his hand. “I think I’ll just get going,” he said. “Can I have my cheque as well?”

Before the coffee pot could continue to be a risk, she put it back on the burner. She was just going to have to throw one of the three cups away. “Yes, yes, of course.” She picked up each of the two remaining cups. “Just hold on.” She walked past them. They were glaring at her now. Maggie was sure of it, even with her back to them. Let them. It wasn’t as though either of them were ever going to come back. She set the two cups down at the far end of the counter, as close to the ugly drunks’ table as possible. “I’ll be back in a couple minutes with your food,” she added.

His arm around the ridiculous girl, the man frowned slightly. “I have to get up?”

No, she thought. Please, sit there. Don’t move. Make it as easy as possible for me to throw these at you, you fucking asshole. Surprise, surprise, she didn’t say any of this. She couldn’t. There was absolutely no possibility that she could force herself to say something polite and forgiving. Her legs more or less did all the work, carrying her back to the register to get rid of the other two. Behind her, she could hear him getting out of the booth.

“Don’t know who the fuck you think you are,” he said.

Maggie remained at the register. She wanted to take care of those who wanted to leave before asking him and his giggling twit of a lady friend to get the hell out of her restaurant. “Okay,” she whispered, picking up her pad of paper to consult the order itself, even though she knew all of the prices by heart. She flipped it open to Melissa’s idiotic order and pointed at her. “You had the coffee.”

She nodded. “Yes.”

“1.45.”

Melissa nodded and reached into her purse.

While she waited for the moron to find a whole dollar and forty-five cents, she turned to the clumsy kid who tried to buy her off with a lousy twenty dollar bill. She flipped a page in the note pad. “Yours comes to 8.79.”

The clumsy kid, the first of the strangers to attack her day, pulled a ten from his wallet and set it down on the counter. “Hold on,” he added, smiling. “I think I have some pennies.”

“Hurry the fuck up and take my order, bitch.”

The girl laughed.

Maggie ignored him once more and moved onto Melissa while she waited for the clumsy kid to find four stupid pennies. She was still searching her purse for the money.

“Jesus Christ on a crutch,” the drunk cried. “What kind of Days Inn bullshit is this?”

The girl scolded him mockingly.

No one at the register said a word. Maggie heard him say something else, but she couldn’t make it out.

“Don’t, honey, stay here.”

That time it was the girl, and she sounded serious. Maggie did her best to pretend that she couldn’t hear him getting out of the booth. She kept her gaze locked on the customers who were eventually, god willing, going to leave. She also kept her breathing steady, enough that she could focus on the people in front of her. It was starting to become difficult.

“Oh, here we are.” The clumsy kid produced four pennies and set them down on the counter. “Sorry it took so long.”

And he offered another one of those goofy looking smiles. Maggie was starting to find the expression repulsive looking. ”It’s–”

She never got a chance to finish. The drunk was with them now.

“What the fuck’s your problem, lady?” He asked, his voice rising with each word. He pointed at his lady friend sitting in the booth. “Me and my girl here are hungry as a motherfucker and you’re standing up here with these goddamn idiots.” He gestured towards Melissa and the clumsy kid. “These stupid bitches that can’t even count money.”

He had a point there, Maggie thought. But she didn’t want to tell him that. Really, she wasn’t sure what she should say. It had always been Don’s job to deal with the crazies, the heavy drinkers trying to make everyone else’s life as difficult as theirs, the disgruntled losers constantly on the verge of violence.

“Hey, man,” the clumsy kid said. “Just chill out, okay? I’m leaving now, and I’m sure she’ll be happy to—”

The drunk took this in for about two seconds, before pushing the clumsy kid into the table of the nearest booth. “Fuck off, punkass. No one asked you to say a goddamn thing, so just keep your fucking mouth shut.”

Maggie jumped back and fell against the wall, knocking over the framed picture of some Irish castle Don had loved on their second to last vacation. She couldn’t do much about her crying now. It moved as seamlessly as breathing.

The girl he had come in with was on her feet now, walking quickly towards them. “Mark, honey. It’s not worth it now, come on.”

He turned on her. Puffing himself up like a parrot, in such a way as to suggest that she was next. “Sit the fuck down, Jane.”

Though Jane didn’t move, she didn’t say anything else either. She folded her arms and stared at the floor.

“I’m calling the police,” Melissa announced, reaching into her purse. She had the cell phone out for about a minute when Mark knocked it out of her hand. Her reaction was to jump back a step like she had been electrocuted, the same way Maggie had a second ago.

“You’re not gonna do a goddamn thing,” he shot back. “Except pay for your fucking food and get the hell out of here.”

The clumsy kid had finally pulled himself together by this point. He simply stood there, back against the table, and watched the scene in awkward youth silence.

Mark had his attention back on Maggie. Pitiful, dull-eyed hate flowed from him like a broken fire hydrant that had better things to do than give up the only thing it knew. “Lazy bitch,” he muttered, one hand on the table.

He said this as the door opened. Maggie looked to see who it was only because they might do something to help her. Regular or otherwise, she didn’t care at the moment.

It was Martin. Behind him were two other men. They worked with Martin in some way, of course, but it took Maggie a second to remember their names, as they only appeared with Martin for an occasional lunch.

Everyone, including Mark, paused and looked at the three new entrants. Mark was the first to speak up. “Take a seat and the lazy bitch over here,” he waved a hand at her. “She’ll be with you when I’m done talking to her.”

Martin grabbed him by the neck of his shirt, whirled the two of them around, and shoved Mark into the door. He kept his hold on the shirt. His companions moved aside to make this possible. “I think it’s time that you hit the road, buddy.”

“Fuck you.”

Without releasing the shirt, Mark glanced at his two employees. “Guys, will you do me a favor and take this guy out to his car.”

They did this without saying a word and without giving Mark a chance to pay for the two coffees.

Jane waited until they had both left before following. Her footsteps were slow, fearful. She stopped at the door. “I’m really sorry about this,” she said, her voice a whisper. “Mark’s going through a rough time right now.”

Maggie didn’t reply. She just nodded slightly and tried to wipe some of the tears away.

When Jane left, the clumsy kid reached for the money he had placed on the counter before and pushed it closer to her. “Keep the change,” he muttered, before turning to the door and walking out.

Her hand making the bare minimum effort to cooperate, she picked up the money, opened the register, and placed the money in the appropriate slots.

At long, long, long last, Melissa produced two singles. “I was trying to find exact change too,” she explained. “The last thing I need is more nickels, dimes, and pennies.” She laughed nervously and put the money on the counter. “So, don’t worry about the change or anything.” Another nervous laugh, and she started for the door. She stopped with her hand against the glass and glanced at the post cards. “I noticed those coming in,” she said. “They’re really cool. It’s a good touch.” She pushed the door open and disappeared into the dull, steady beam of light that was streaming through the glass to cover almost everything in the room.

Maggie thought that Melissa had only said that in the mild hope of getting to take one home. That or just stealing them outright. She tried to stand up straight, without leaning against anything, but it wasn’t feasible.

The two friends’ of Martin stepped back in. They were sharing the same smirk, the same feeling of a job extremely well done. The taller of the two nodded in Martin’s general direction. “All done, Marty, man.”

Martin sighed. “Bill, not the Marty shit right now.” Effortlessly, with the skill of someone who knew the area flawlessly, he moved to stand next to her behind the counter.

She jumped, though just a little bit, when Martin put an arm around her shoulder. She needed the gesture, without question, but she didn’t know if she was up for anyone touching her. She settled into the arm, while accepting the fact that the more she did this, the more she was going to cry.

He was here now. He was here. And he was going to make everything okay again.

“You alright, darling?” He squeezed her shoulder and moved the arm around her for a full embrace.

Closing her eyes, resting her head against his broad, comfortable shoulders, Maggie let out a single loud sob.  One thousand, eight hundred, and twenty five days of hell on earth, and she had earned a good cry, as far as she was concerned.

He continued holding onto her, gently running a hand over her head. “Shh,” he said. “Shh. It’s okay, now. Everything’s going to be just fine.”

“Oh, god, Don,” she replied. She was shaking so much that she couldn’t keep the hands on his back perfectly still. “Oh god.”