He asks for the bill.
I’ve been watching them. Grubby, tired. Eating slower than you’d expect from bony, glass-eyed ones like these. Beneath the patchy beard and mask, his eyes twinkle like fresh pennies. Like mine. Impossible, and I know it, yet I’m transfixed by the invisible weight hunching his shoulders, familiar grimness clenched in his jaw. Austere stillness found in cornered spiders and predators waiting to pounce. The boy’s brightness gleams through his smudged coat of unbathed weeks. Pink cheeks cut the tarnish.
I waddle behind the counter, slow since it’s the lull before bars close and hooligans start lusting for bacon. Resting on my elbows, I tally their order from memory: basket of fries, a bottomless cup of coffee, and a lemonade I’d refilled twice on the diner’s dime. My candles might cost more than my cake, but the mind’s sharp from years of nights with Sajak and Trebek, gulping jars of Nutella with a spoon when I should’ve been finding companionship, maybe love. Planting roots. Wisdom displayed on the bare mantle and walls of my musty, rented room.
I punch in the order and the register jams, like every other damn time. I hiss all the things I’d like to do to Mr. O’Neill, his tight wallet, and his seventh wife who, big surprise, got the morning manager job I deserved despite never working a day in her life. Somehow she’s the laziest one yet, which I never thought I’d say after Number Four. No, instead I get another season rising at sunset to sling coffee for folks who don’t want it known they exist, then trying to sleep after ten hours on my feet sweating like a heifer on a hamster wheel, daylight bleating through janky blinds I can’t afford to replace. I slam the side of the register with the heel of my hand and the chit judders free, streaked and bleary. Scanning the diner, I pluck a well-earned wedgie, subtle and quick, then wander towards their table, straightening cutlery and flicking crumbs to the floor off vacant ones. I present the bill facedown to the man with a fistful of probably-stale pineapple candies.
Thanks, he says, eyes averted. Hesitating to check the damage.
Don’t worry, I say, nudging it closer. I took care of you.
Thanks, he says again, hesitating a moment longer before sliding the candies to the boy and snatching the bill, cradling it behind cupped hands like I wasn’t the one who rang it in. Inscrutable panic deep in his eyes knocks me through a wormhole: I’m sixty-seven and seventeen in the same breath, overcome with no-tears shampoo and disappointment, flashes of tiny hands and distant, tinkling laughter. I’m staring at his trembling fingers clutching the crumpled bill. Dirty nails, knuckles swollen and red.
You okay, ma’am?
Blinking hard, I smile wearily at the boy. He looks like him, too, beneath the grime, the chips and holes in his cautious grin. How I imagine he would’ve, anyways. Though if you asked me to bet a slow night’s tips, I wouldn’t.
The bell over the door clangs and a wave of college drunks crashes in, swept by riptides of cheap beer and failed conquests. I wait for them to settle in a corner booth then pass by, dropping menus and mugs, splashing them full without asking like the Ken Jennings of caffeinating assholes. The bell clangs again; a ball of grimy, crinkled bills and sprinkles of small change holler like cannon fire next to the mostly-empty basket of fries, the mug streaked like gas station porcelain. A crumpled napkin sags in the dregs of the third lemonade.
I glance out the window at the parking lot; the glistening, humming street crammed full of emptiness. In another world – a fair one, if such a thing exists – I could’ve been clocking out at dawn and heading to their place for breakfast, having coffee poured for me, then strolling hand-in-hand with the boy to a school he hates, chatting about the little girl who drives him crazy. I just wish I’d been told sometimes chances come once, and fairness is illusion fueled by the desperate. In reality, the only fair comes around in the fall, the sparkling midway luring booze bags from the diner like half-priced domestics for a few nights, at least. I like that fair. I believe in it.
The clutch of drunks are hungry and fading, their booth a nest of sloppy three a.m. chaos I get paid the bottom legal dollar to wrangle, plus tips. Sliding a pad from my apron, I brace for omelette orders no self-respecting human would sniff without a pistol pressed to their temple; drop my weight on my good hip and poise my trusty ballpoint. Forcing a smile, I patiently scribble garbled orders with one eye and watch out the window with the other. Like any good mother could.
Stephen Ground is a short fiction writer, poet, and screenwriter based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he’s co-founded Pearson House Films. After graduating from York University, he moved to a remote, isolated community in northernmost Saskatchewan, filling years of long, dark nights by reading books and trying to write one. His work has appeared in From Whispers to Roars, Sky Island Journal, Typishly, and elsewhere, and is a 2021 Best Small Fictions nominee. Find more at www.stephenground.com.