“So what do I owe you?” I asked, wallet in hand.
Some kid I’d never seen before was by the cash register. His straw-colored bangs dangled limply over his pale, zit-clustered forehead. He had a lean face mapped with distinctive acne scars, which suggested he couldn’t be more than a few years out of high school.
The punk ignored me. Whether that was intentional or not, I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t like it either way. He was standing right there, not more than a couple of feet across from me, hunched over the counter and reading the sports section of the newspaper that I’d pulled from the squeaky vending machine, just outside the diner doors, an hour ago. I was only interested in the Help Wanted section, now tucked under my arm, and had tossed the remainder of the newspaper onto a haphazard stack on one of the silver-topped stools that lined the counter. I was happy to share the rest of it with whoever might need even more bad news.
“Excuse me,” I said louder. “What do I owe you?”
“Huh?” He looked up from the sports stats spread across the two eating spaces closest to the register and peered through his greasy strands. I couldn’t tell if he was intentionally being passive/aggressive, copping the sulking attitude teenagers love to assume when ignoring adults they can’t be bothered with, or if he was genuinely stupid.
“Coffee and an English muffin,” I over-enunciated, as if speaking to a non-English-speaking immigrant. “How. Much?”
“Oh. Uhh…” He looked around the dining room, a shoebox-shaped throwback from the 1950s building boom, as if he expected to see a visor-wearing accountant pounding out figures on a calculator in a corner booth, ready to tally up the magic number. But we were the only ones left in the diner.
The early-morning breakfast trade was long gone, some having raced off to work while the rest shuffled back home, their ragged collars turned up to block the gray wind. That unhurried half of the morning regulars nursed along their bitter cups of coffee for an hour or two while checking the rarely changing classifieds and warming themselves in the weak camaraderie of folks they used to laugh with in workplace lunchrooms. They’d leave the humming yellow fluorescent lights of the diner, with its steamed picture windows staring out onto the bleak slushy streets, and trudge back to the single-bulbed blank walls and blaring televisions of the unemployed lifestyle that permeated our town. My luck was worse; my TV was on the fritz.
“Uh, yeah, don’t worry about it,” the kid finally stammered.
“What? What do you mean?” I asked, my voice rising. I’m easily irritated these days.
“Well, you know… it’s nuthin’. You don’t owe nuthin’. It’s on the house. Just, I don’t know, just come back later this week when Sulley’s workin’ and buy somethin’ else.”
“Are you kidding me? You’re telling me that I don’t have to pay for this if I come back another time to buy another breakfast?” I felt like a cartoon character, shaking my head in disbelief. Any second now, I’d notice that I had run off the cliff and then stare at the camera, standing on air a moment before dropping off the screen of my non-working television. My life felt like that a lot the past few months. Wile E., that’s me.
He shrugged. “Or lunch, I guess.” Explanation complete, he resumed scanning the sports stats, nibbling absently on a ragged fingernail. I noticed that he had thick lines of black crud edging the underside of his nails, which was not unusual in this area. They were the unsanitary mitts of a mechanic, covered with nicked knuckles and crusty red scabs, not the glowing pink hands of a fast-order cook or food server. Half a year ago they could have been my hands but I’ve had more time lately to manicure my nails and let the cuts heal. I suppose I should have been grateful for his stammering offer, but instead he was pissing me off.
I grabbed the creased pages of the newspaper and snapped them out from under his elbows, stuffing sports with the employment section in my armpit. A small corner of Page 3 ripped off, glued to the sticky surface.
“Hey,” he whined, some kid whose homework was stolen by the school bully. “Why’d you do that? I was readin’ it.”
“Yeah, but I paid for it, just like I’m going to pay for the toast and coffee I ordered. I appreciate the gesture,” I lied, “but I always pay my bills and I don’t like owing anybody anything. So how much is it?”
He straightened his lanky body, unfurling from his hunched position like a snake waking to the world. His fingers, defined by their inky mascara curves, edged forward and spread out on the counter for added support as he rose higher, finally standing a good four inches taller than me. The adolescent philanthropist reached up and brushed the hair off his forehead, like opening a beaded curtain, and tucked it behind his ear. A calculating awareness suddenly flickered in his olive green eyes; there was somebody home.
“What’s your problem?” he asked, not in any menacing tone, but more like a mature therapist calmly probing for hidden secrets.
“My problem? “My problem?” I repeated shrilly, caught off-balance. What was my problem? He’d offered me a free cup of coffee and I wanted to punch him. Before I could stop myself, months of unspoken frustration spewed out.
“My problem is that I have a lot more things to be concerned about than catching flack from you when I’m just trying to pay for my damn breakfast. My problem is being a month late in child support, a week and $300 short of the rent, and not finding any jobs for a machinist across three counties. The car needs a new muffler and my country club membership has expired,” I sneered.
“And now you’re butting into my life. That’s my problem. I just want my life to be a little easier than it was yesterday but it isn’t. And you aren’t helping! So I want you to tell me what the hell I owe for coffee and a burnt English muffin so I can pay and get out there and find a job! Why are you making this so difficult?” My voice caught and I realized I was about three seconds away from crying.
He stared at me, like he had this discussion with most customers.
“Dude, I’m not making this difficult. You are,” he stated. “You’ve been coming here for years, right?” I was seething. “Right?” he asked again. I angrily nodded once. “So call this repeat-customer appreciation day. How about some gratitude?” My neck tightened into steel and I gnawed on the inside of my bottom lip as I glared down at the yellowing countertop, trying to come up with some response. I felt my face flushing hot and my chest tightening. How about some f---ing gratitude?
Slamming down two dollar bills, I turned and yanked open the door, never answering or making eye contact with him. As the glass door swung open, an icy gust hit me in the face, making me wince and shudder. I walked rapidly between the rusting parked cars and past the empty storefronts. I almost stopped at the liquor store on my way home.
A few mornings later, I went back to the diner. I would have come back anyway, whether I’d paid or not, just as I’d done for years. While the newspaper dispenser swallowed my quarters, I squinted through the window.
Sulley was wiping down the counter with a damp rag, his belly resting on the Formica while he captured bread crumbs and bits of egg. A dozen people were seated, but I didn’t see the kid with bad skin.
“Hey, Joey,” he called out warmly as I entered. “Where you been keepin’ yourself? Have a seat.”
“Hey, Sul,” I replied and sat in front of him. “Say, where’s that tall kid who works for you?”
Sulley stopped cleaning and leaned in, transforming into a hostile detective grilling a suspect. “What, are you bein’ some kinda smart-ass? What do you know?”
“What? No, I’m … I’m just asking, that’s all. He was waiting tables the other morning.”
Sulley exhaled loudly. “Sorry. Hey, I’m sorry, Joey, I’m still a little upset. I guess you didn’t hear.”
“That ass-hole ripped me off a few nights ago when I was out of town! I opened up yesterday morning and found a mess. He took a hundred pounds of frozen steaks and sausages, a couple blocks of cheese, plus the gun I keep in the office and two days of receipts. Over a thousand bucks in cash!”
“Jeez, Sulley, I’m really sorry. I had no idea, seriously. He … um … seemed like a nice kid.”
“Yeah, I know. Who the hell steals cheese?”
“Did you catch him?”
“No, he lit out of town. That’s the part that really stinks. He’s a neighborhood kid, grew up right down the street from me. Used to play with Nick when he was little. His mom comes in here all the time, for chrissakes, and now the schmuck can’t come back to see her or he’ll be arrested. I tried to help him and this is how he treats me!”
“What a mess,” I sighed, suddenly feeling sorry for all of us.
“Yeah, a real mess,” Sulley agreed, looking crestfallen. Then he suddenly erupted, “And you know what else he did, that son of a bitch?”
He continued, ears practically smoking, before I could shake my head. “He steals my money, my gun, my steaks and then leaves an F.U. note for me right here!” He jabbed the countertop with his finger for emphasis. “He takes everything — but leaves two dollars on the counter! Like a tip! What kind of thief does that? What the hell is he sayin’?”
I realized I was holding my breath and my ears began to ring. It was actually the cook dinging the little bell behind Sulley as he slid two steaming plates under the heating lamps. I took a deep gulp of air and drained my water glass.
“Order up!” the cook bellowed and Sulley yelled “Order up!” to his wife Selma, who was reciting the morning specials at a table not 10 feet away from us. She gave him the stink eye, finished taking their requests, then marched behind the counter.
“I’m too old to be doing this again,” she complained. “I’ve got a hair appointment at 11, remember? And I am not going to miss it!” she spit out before whisking away the omelets.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Listen, Joey, I gotta get back to work,” he told me, pulling out his order pad. “You want the regular?”
“Yeah, that’ll be fine,” I answered. It was hard to concentrate. My thoughts were buzzing, trying to understand what the kid was trying to say, both to Sulley and to me, when I became aware that Sulley was waiting for me. His eyebrows were raised in anticipation.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“I asked if you’re still looking for work?”
“Me? Yeah, kinda. If you count going back to the same places and getting the same answers.”
“You want a job? I need someone I can trust. You ever work in a restaurant?”
“No, not really.”
“It’s simple, even my wife can do it,” he grinned. “Can you start tomorrow morning?”
I paused a moment, looking at my soft hands and gleaming cuticles.
“Sure I can.” I smiled and reached out to shake his hand. “Thanks.”
“Great! Oh, and you get free meals as a perk so don’t worry about the bill today. It’s on the house.”
About Rick Boal
Careers are Rick Boal’s hobby. His collection includes massage therapist, SAG actor, timeshare salesman, comic book distributor and much more. In other words, he is a typical writer. He is currently at work on a novel that is devoid of vampires, zombies, teenagers or any other creatures that might be considered pseudo-dead. He is also happily participating in a superlative Spokane writing group that sings his literary praises and kicks his over-written butt. The group sprouted from the Get Lit! festival a few years back and is called, appropriately enough, "Got Lit?"
About the Contest
The 56 entries we received this year represent a record for our fiction contest. Either the theme — debt — weighed heavily on people’s minds or the unemployment rate just left a lot of aspiring writers with nothing to do but write. Either way, the submissions this year were strong, in addition to being numerous. These stories — about the things that break people, the things that heal them, and some very obedient fleas, among other things — are our favorites.
— Luke Baumgarten, Section Editor