by Mark Lyons
Mark Lyons lives in Philadelphia. He has published stories in several literary magazines, including Evergreen, Whetstone (JP McGrath Memorial Award), Bucks County Writer, Sensations, the Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts, Piker Press, and Wild River Review. He is a recipient of Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships for 2003 and 2009, and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He wrote, edited and translated Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows, Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families, which is published in Spanish and English by Syracuse University Press. He currently works as co-director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project, which works with immigrants and teens to produce audio stories about their lives.
He straddles the round stool, green Naugahyde with a stainless steel rim, rotates ninety degrees to the right, then back to the left, listening. A metal-on-metal low-pitched screech, like a trolley car braking, not a way to promote digestion. He spins the stool seat next to him. That's better, metal-on-grease. He slides over one, has the mauve Formica counter to himself. The place is empty, save for a couple of kids in the booth behind him. Above the pie cooler the round chrome clock, circled with red neon, says three-twelve. The waitress comes through the door from the kitchen. Face slightly over-done with makeup, a bit on the far side of size 14, black apron over white uniform, light red hair held up with a Mickey Mouse barrette, walks with a bounce, like she just started her shift.
"Thought I heard that seat. Coffee for starters? Menu?"
"Black, thanks." Marlene, her name tag above the left pocket of her blouse, starts a fresh pot in the Bunn coffee maker.
He scans the menu. Breakfast. For the Kiddies. Appetizers. Savory Salads. Backyard Grill. Sea Harvest. Vegetarian Selections. Sandwiches. Heart Savers. Sides. Beverages. Desserts. We proudly serve La Colombe Coffee.
He's taken to looking in mirrors, preoccupied with how others see him. Vanity? At sixty-two? Nothing more than a curiosity, he assures himself. How does he appear to others as he moves through the world? So here he is, sitting at the counter of the Odyssey Diner in the middle of the Connecticut hinterland, two hours before dawn, an hour's drive outside his hotel in Hartford, looking in the mirror behind the counter next to the kitchen door.
Marlene is back. "What'll it be, hon?" His brows furrow as he peruses the menu. "Need a little more time? Got nothing but time here."
Hon? Such an intimate word from a total stranger. A habit of diner waitresses, he's noticed. Hon. Like they'd been a couple for years. His wife had never called him that. Want to read the front page, hon? Trade you for the local news. When his daughter was six, he had called her sugar, and she came running. Once, when she was twelve, he had called her hon—she looked at him like he was a fifties father, a historical artifact. He'd gotten the message, kept trying different endearments with her: hey you, sweetie, m'jita (he knew a little Spanish). She'd voiced her disapproval with her silence, you've got to be kidding, so he had given up. He had never asked her what she wanted to be called.
He goes for it. "I'll have the crab cakes."
He has not thought about his daughter for the last month or so. He's learned to do that, keep the switch off. This he knows: his daughter is not dead; she might be in Idaho. A couple of years back he'd run into one of her coworkers from the zoo, who said she'd heard his daughter had gotten a job on a ranch out there, or maybe was just thinking about it. He had a phone number from her last place in Atlanta, dialed it on her birthday (27th or 28th?) three years ago or so, but nobody answered. He did not leave a message on the answering machine.
"Crab cakes, before the crack of dawn." No sarcasm, just an observation. "I was taking you for maybe a waffle man. Any sides with that?"
"How about the collards. And apple sauce."
"Collards?" He sees that she's trying to put this together, proud that she can judge people by what they order. "As you wish. Here? To go?"
He's surprised that she asks, him with his coat and hat off. "Here."
"You got it." She hollers back through the window to the kitchen: "Jake! Claws with sauce and soul on the side!" A plate rattles in the back to signal that the order came through. She pours a glass of water, slides it next to the salt shaker, places a napkin, then the fork and knife.
He watches his head tilt slightly in the mirror, beside the sea green Hamilton Beach milkshake maker. Checking himself out, as if he were looking at someone else. Does he look interesting? Eligible? On the way up or on the way down? Sensitive? Boring? Anything remotely attractive, sexually speaking? Would a woman want to—you know—get acquainted? See anything missing? Would a new wardrobe make a difference? He definitely recognizes the person in the mirror, but feels he should have more of a sense of recognition, like when you meet someone from the past at a party but can't remember his name.
There was a time, a long time, when he could not bear to look in the mirror.
He realizes that he also sees his back in the mirror, a view usually reserved for those walking behind him or sitting behind him in a movie house. Is that bald spot getting bigger? This view confuses him, he spins on his stool one hundred eighty degrees. That explains it: over each booth along the wall behind him is a mirror from table to ceiling, a gold border to add a sense of class. The Greeks do this in their diners these days, especially in the counter and booth area with narrow spaces, makes them look larger, lighter.
He feels suspended between the two mirrors, which reflect each other and him—front view and back—sitting on the counter stool. Like in the fun-house over in Lehighton where he went with his wife and five-year-old daughter way back when, twenty-five years now, their front and back reflected again and again, an infinite amount of times. They—all three of them—dizzy and lopsided by the multiple views, stumbled out of the fun-house laughing and holding hands to keep upright. Then one of them fell—his wife, yes, his wife—and tugged him and his daughter on top of her. He lay there in the pile squinting at the colored lights in the midway, his wife laughing so hard and shouting I just peed my pants, his daughter begging to go back to the magic mirrors, him thinking it doesn't get better than this. He tries to count how many reflections of reflections he can see, each image smaller, like the perspective in a painting, disappearing towards the point of infinity. He gets to seven, squinting now, then realizes he's squinting at Marlene's breasts as she stands there in front of him, coffee pot in hand.
She doesn't seem to notice. Or mind.
"Here's your coffee, fresh as it gets." He nods, she pours. "Your cakes'll be up in a minute."
He watches his right hand stir the sugar. Hands are the first to go, he thinks to himself. Crisscrossing blue veins looking like state highways on a roadmap, wrinkles over pudgy knuckles, those ridges in the nails. Liver spots. Are they called that because they're the color of liver, or are they the offspring of Johnny Walker? His advice to anyone over sixty: keep your hands in your pockets. Or wear gloves. At meetings he realized he had become self-conscious about shaking hands.
The Odyssey is a twenty-four/seven diner in a small town thirty miles off the interstate. No truckers here, just locals and strays. Early Tuesday morning, just him and the booth kids. He does this occasionally—takes his rental car and heads off into the sticks, trying to unwind, taking in the local color—when his job sends him on the road to investigate, quietly, privately, and discreetly, someone's life to determine what level of security clearance they should be granted. He avoids bars, has for five years now.
In the mirror he watches the boy in the booth behind him. The boy is sixteen or seventeen, blond wavy almost curly hair, lanky, either trying to grow a mustache or hasn't begun to shave. Eager-looking, just this side of cocky—he isn't good looking enough to be cocky, but is good looking enough to seem comfortable in his skin. This boy he will call Allen—he likes making up names for strangers, names he thinks fit what they look like, how they move, their voice. Then, after listening and watching, he tries to construct a life for them: Family? Work? Ever committed a crime? Sports? Education? Income? He has often wanted to say excuse me, but what's your name, what's your job, married with family, are you in a softball league, is your income between sixty and ninety thousand?—to see if he was right. No doubt people would consider him a real nut-case, so he has refrained.
What names would strangers give to him?
In the mirror he sees Allen lean forward, both elbows on the table, and laugh. A nervous laugh, not jocular or irritating, trying to sound genuine and casual. Seated across the table from Allen he sees her, also laughing. She's about the same age, a friend? A girlfriend? Their hands aren't touching but seem to be reaching for each other, so maybe they're in-between. She's somewhat squat, not overweight or big-boned, maybe just short. A couple of pimples on her forehead, none on her cheeks, wearing an over-size green tee shirt, sitting on folded knees, an easy wry smile, voice with a little grit in it. Julie or Julia? If she were blond, spoke with a tad more honey in her voice, she'd be Julia. With that short brunette hair, that voice, she's Julie. Allen and Julie lean into each other, lean away. A dance of eagerness, of shyness? Of possibility?
He inhales the fresh bean aroma of his coffee, closes his eyes and sips, not too hot. The warm brew relaxes his throat as he swallows; he opens his eyes. In the mirror, Julie shouts in a challenging, playful way, "No way! No way man! You expect me to believe that?" Allen nods his head seriously, feigns being hurt. "True story. Very true. All true." Julie now: "Uh-uh. Right. You take me for some naïve twelve year old or something?" Allen: "I hope not." Julie: "Hope what? That I'm not naïve or not twelve?" Allen: "All of the above."
He wants to rotate on his stool and say to the kids that this is the best part, enjoy every second of it. After this it gets complicated. Then messy. Be careful.
Thinking that, he feels pathetic, old.
Jake taps the bell in the kitchen: order's up.
Did his daughter, too, when a teen, sit big-eyed across from some boy in this suspended moment of anticipation, then come home unable to sleep from the possibilities? Has she ever done that since? He wouldn't know.
Marlene brings out the crab cakes and sides. "Lemon with that?" He nods. He squeezes the lemon on the crab cakes, stirs the tartar sauce, salts the greens. The crab tastes salt-sea fresh, not frozen. He got lucky; Monday must be delivery day out of the Sound.
Arnold, he thinks to himself. Anyone seeing me sitting at this counter, three a.m., four hundred miles from home, slightly wrinkled light blue shirt, bald patch, out-of-shape, staring in the mirror, they'd call me Arnold. Shoulders hunched towards his ears, looks like he might have a headache. It's hard to imagine Arnold gut-out laughing. Or dancing. I have not always been Arnold, he would say to them.
Now Allen and Julie are singing to some song on the jukebox, a pulsating drum BOOM dad a BOOM dad a BOOM, shrill rappers (is that what they call them?) over the beat Gotta get-get, gotta g-g-g-get-get-get, get-get ( Whatever happened to lyrics? Melody?) BOOM BOOM! POW! BOOM BOOM!
Allen: "Oh, yeah!"
Silence, finally. In the mirror he sees their hands reach across the table, first a high five, then a knuckle-bump, a palm slide, fingers hook each other. They don't let go, they've been inching toward this. Now, finally. The first real touch? He averts his eyes from the mirror, as if he had walked in on an intimacy he had no right to observe.
Will they let go? Try to hang on? Will those hands become weapons?
Hand-in-hand. His daughter's hands at six months, wrapped around his fingers tightly as she did pull-ups. Thumb wrestling on the corner of the dinner table. Teaching her how to use her hands in soccer (she played goalie, and he taught her how to guard the corners, cut off the angles, when to catch the ball, when to punch it), practicing into dusk, ignoring his wife's calls for dinner. Then, when? Raising his hand as if to strike her, his palms just lingering there cocked behind his ear, enough of your impudence. The terrible power of that. Then that once, finally, his right hand slapped her when she shouted her shame of him, this father of hers whose drunken stupors humiliated her in front of her friends. He remembers only the sound of his hand against her cheek, how it snapped her head over, that side of her face filled with red rage as she defiantly said nothing. He'd put his trembling hand in his pocket, as if to hide the weapon.
The next evening, returning from work, the house was empty. His wife and daughter had moved out, moved on. It had been a long time coming.
He had let his daughter go so easily. Hanging on, what does that mean?
He considers why the kids are at the diner, three a.m. Getting off work at the local MacDonald's or Burger King? They're not dressed in uniforms or work clothes, looks like the kind of clothes kids just hang out in. Run-aways on the road? Too relaxed, not disheveled or furtive enough. Had they been talking on the phone and Allen says to Julie, hey I'm hungry, wanta get something to eat? Do their parents know where they are?
Are they wondering what the old guy's doing at the counter? Unlikely.
Security clearance. That's what he does, investigates small-timers to see if they are safe bets to work in banks or certain university research settings, or start-up companies with their proprietary secrets—places where honesty and discretion are required. Not big-time government access investigations for the military or such agencies that pride themselves on their secrecy. Access denied, security risk. Limited access. Confidential. Secret. Top-secret. In his reports (also confidential) he writes these final judgments on the top of the first page in 16 point bold red type, so they don't get lost in the text of the details of his investigation. The power of those words. Like everything, he chooses them carefully. Little do they know, these applicants, hungry for jobs, a chance to move up in the world, that this person—this Arnold—is lurking around in the shadows of their lives, asking questions, taking notes, putting it all together. Following the trail. Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Such power over the life of someone he will never meet.
What would his report say if he investigated himself, this Arnold in the mirror? Once had confidential access to his daughter. Access downgraded to limited when daughter turned twelve and his Scotch-on-the-rocks grew to three before dinner; however still welcomed at her traveling team soccer games, being sober during the day. By her sixteenth birthday he had become a security risk; upon understanding that all access had been denied, he had slapped her. Once. Her whereabouts? Unknown. Wife? Found a new husband who kept his hands to himself, did not shout and tee-totaled. Subject goes home to an empty bed, which he would like to share; terror of rejected invitations has prevented him from issuing any. Managed to be a working drunk for twenty years in an organization that investigates such faults—an advantage of working on the road. Five years ago had his last Scotch, staying dry a well of hope and occasionally of pride. When on the road for work and the cravings haunt him out of his sleep, he frequents diners that have no liquor license. Has gained twenty pounds secondary to this habit. Has only casual friends, none of whom ask whatever happened to his family. Likes his work, which gives him an opportunity to know people, of connecting to them without them knowing he knows. Prides himself on his judgment of strangers, which his employer values as well.
Arnold looks in the mirror and massages his right cheek—in the mirror it is the left, his daughter's left—and remembers the sound of flattened furious palm on cheek, her silence. Slap: such a small weak-sounding word. There should be a word for this terrible act that the hand is capable of, a word that conjures up images of destruction, of things never again being the same. Slam: He slammed her face.
He flips over the Oldies But Goodies tab on the Select-O-Matic countertop jukebox, scans the titles. American Pie. The Lion Sleeps Tonight. A Horse with No Name. I Saw Her Standing There. Lean on Me. Louie Louie. You Can't Always Get What You Want.
Louie Louie: D7. In his right pants pocket a quarter, slip it into the slot, push the D button. Then 7.
His body sways slightly, self-consciously, to the Jamaican rhythm.
Lou-ee, Lou-eye, oh no baby
I said me gotta go
Summer, '64. The Kingsmen dressed in their white coats-black pants-Kennedy haircuts strutting on Shindig channel 14, he and his buddy Richie pulling back the rug, getting their moves down, socks sliding on hardwood floor, pretend guitars strumming, getting the rhythm
Fine little girl waits for me
Catch a ship across the sea
Parents up in arms! The lyrics are laden with hidden filth! Bobby Kennedy orders an FBI investigation, J. Edgar Hoover and his minions play the song backward, check for encryption, play it super slow super fast, interview the Kingsmen, their friends, thousands of kids spinning their forty-fives. The Official Report: "The song cannot be interpreted, it is unintelligible at any speed." Just a drunken sailor telling the bartender Louie about missing his girl, he's going home. Ya ya ya ya.
In the mirror Allen and Julie already have the chorus down, singing to each other like they're on stage, doing that rubber neck head-to-side thing that kids do these days.
Lou-ee, Lou-eye, oh baby
I said me gotta go
Ya ya ya ya
The lead Kingsman shouts OK, let's give it to 'em RIGHT NOW! That incredible guitar solo, thirty seconds of pure rhythmic rip pounding stick this up your ass FBI we are your worst nightmare!
Allen's right hand wails on his air guitar left hand shoots up and down the invisible neck. Julie shouts, "Give it to 'em RIGHT NOW!"
In the mirror Allen and Julie glance over to the only other customer in the place, sitting at the counter, who must have put on Louie Louie. The both nod, almost imperceptibly. All right. That song's all right.
Once, on a car trip to Oregon, somewhere in Kansas, to keep awake his wife flipping through the radio dial to find some music, on came Louie Louie. They taught their ten-year-old daughter the chorus which they sang all the way to the next truck stop.
"Dessert?" says Marlene. He feels uncertain; sometimes the easiest decisions are the hardest. "May I make a recommendation? Homemade blueberry pie; it's a short season, berries just came down from Maine. Get 'em while you can, nothing better, take my word for it."
"Sure, why not?"
"You won't regret it."
Regrets. Everyone has regrets, he thinks. Most of them small time, venial. Usually dormant, they awake as reminders, brief sad twinges: missing his daughter's championship game when she was fourteen (as he glances at women's soccer news in the Sports Section), not asking that woman out for coffee—the one he met at the bookstore (as he unlocks the door to his empty apartment). Then there are the mortal regrets, haunting, lurking, judging. Unspeakable. They enter without knocking, demanding penance: Look me in the eye.
Interesting, he does not include Regrets in his reports. That may be the essential question, no? How to investigate someone's regrets? Would he recommend hiring someone who has no regrets? Just venial? One mortal? Two? With or without penance? When is penance paid in full? He realizes he has never asked himself that question.
"Vanilla ice cream on that?"
"Sure. Can you warm up the coffee?"
In the mirror Allen and Julie look relaxed, leaning back in their booth, arms stretched out across the table, meeting each other half way. The chatter of kids trying this boy-girl thing on for size. Julie: "Oh pul-leeze! Cut me a break!" Allen, acting over-genuinely generous: "OK . . . Just this once, but you owe me big time."
Cut me a break. Forgive. Absolve? He imagines knocking on his daughter's door, wherever that is. What could he begin to say before saying I'm asking—begging—can you find a way to cut me a break? If she knew he hadn't touched a drink in five years, could she stay around long enough to consider it, to hear him out? Could she find a way? Could he bear to hear her out? What if the pardon is denied?
In his line of work, once a security risk, always a security risk.
Marlene is right about the pie: ripe mix of sweet and sour, berries not over-cooked, still pop when he bites down, crust crisp on the bottom. Ice cream a perfect counter-balance to tart. He wipes his mouth with his napkin, burnishing his teeth to remove the blue stain.
She hands him the check. Meal, coffee, dessert, taxes: $12.85. Diners: the world's best-kept culinary secret. He leans towards Marlene, a conspiratorial lean that she seems to recognize. She leans slightly into him.
"Do me a favor?" He's whispering.
"Anything to please our customers."
His chin gives a subtle nod behind him, the kind of nod a practiced auctioneer would notice. "I'd like to pay for the kids' feast. Can you add it to my bill?"
Marlene gives off an equally subtle nod, he guesses she had some teen kids once. Probably don't live in the same town anymore. "Fine." She manages not to smile, but her eyes betray her joy in participating in this minor conspiracy. She adds up the two checks, lays the bill on the counter.
He drops two twenties on the mauve Formica.
"I'll tell them a benefactor has picked up their tab after you're on your way."
Definitely has kids, he thinks. "I'd appreciate that. Keep the change."
The air in the parking lot is pond fresh and clear, a hint of pink on the eastern edge. As he pulls away in his rental car, he sees the silhouettes of Allen and Julie framed in the window of the Odyssey, leaning into each other.
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