Written by Nicole Mousicos
Art by Edward Hopper
He sat alone between the salt and pepper shakers. Full to the brim. He’d asked to fill them while he waited. For what, exactly, he wasn’t too sure. She wasn’t going to call him, and neither was he going to call her, so he waited in a space between, somewhat like space itself, all sound swallowed up and scrubbed into blackness. He could have sat there all night, hat on, and become as angry as he pleased. That, in itself, was a freedom—not having to listen to her explanations or manoeuvres. He could have sat in his suit with the salt and pepper shakers and stewed like the coffee by his side, given to him by the obviously perturbed waiter, since he still hadn’t decided on what to eat. His request to fill the shakers, too, had been met with a strange glare, and there he’d thought he’d be doing the waiter a favour.
There was always too much pressure at these overnight diners, he thought. What did one eat at eleven o’clock in the evening? It wouldn’t even be that time because the food needed to be cooked, too. So, what, he ordered a burger, it took about twenty minutes or so, and then the time would be half past? A half-hour away from the next day? Would he even be hungry for his breakfasts, he thought, at eight o’clock in the morning sharpish, as they’d been for the past twenty years? Oh god, why wouldn’t she call?
He slumped forward bitterly, fermenting like vinegar.
He was down to the part of the cigarette where he might as well have started chewing. But it was the last in his pocket, and he was determined to make it last. The quicker he got his sister home, the quicker he could start on the others—an unopened packet of Lucky Strikes and Pall Malls, a gift from a friend, though how he’d gotten it he could not say.
“What do you think they put at the end of matches to make them light?”
He sighed through his teeth. “I have no idea, Cassandra.”
She pointed to the fella just opposite, refilling the salt and pepper shakers.
“Maybe he knows. Should we ask him?”
“No, he looks deranged.”
“He does not. Don’t be such a snob.”
“I’m not being…” He sighed, feeling the urge to put his head in his hands. “It doesn’t matter. Can we go home now?”
She moved her attention back to the matchbox, having ignored his question. Why he had to be the mediator, he had no clue. In his mind, he was back at his parents’ house, drinking eggnog and finishing the game of cards with his father. He was back, smelling the roast turkey in the oven, the heat from the fire flushing his cheeks.
“I need five more minutes. To think.”
He checked his watch. “Right, five more minutes.”
Most of the time, when she heard people speak, she wondered whether they knew how boring they were. Her brother, she thought, was one of those truly boring people. Her father and herself were maybe the only interesting people she had ever met. On and on her brother would go, wanting nothing but what he saw at the end of his fingertips.
Truthfully, she did not see her mother as boring, only difficult. Every time they argued, she would forget the reason a couple moments in. Whatever they owed each other, clarity was not one of them. But they were similar in some ways. Quick to defend, sensitive without reason. At times, when they screamed at each other, she saw her own eyes staring back at her. Perhaps they had been put on the same earth to test each other.
Her father had always used her brother as a second parent. Her brother was older, with a woman he planned to marry and a job he intended to keep for the rest of his life. She still lived at home. She had been frustrated with her mother’s excitement at having her brother over for Christmas—her mother’s favourite, naturally—and she had somehow known that one wrong word out of her would end in tears. She was exhausted, though, and her brother was on his last cigarette.
Suppose home had to be a haven for some.
It was a bad idea, he thought, to take the night shift. Everyone was so depressed. One guy had asked to fill the salt and pepper shakers. A man and a woman had come in, too, speaking and stopping and speaking some more until the man in a low, commanding voice shut her up and they left.
Just like that, another set of customers gone, leaving another table to wipe down. He enjoyed the monotony of the job—a sense that he never had to do much, simply set himself on autopilot. Life was easier, he thought, when you didn’t have to think about the fact that you were living—the what and the how and the why. The body could do what it needed to, and so could the mind, travelling behind the walls of the diner and beneath the bottom of the glass he was cleaning.
Oh, to have his whole life set out this way. That would be perfect.