Soliloquy in a Cheap Diner Off Route 66

by on Jan 12, 2017 in Short Fiction | 0 comments

3,700 Words

He presses pause and life stops. The trucker in the red and black flannel shirt at the counter is stuck in mid chew of a meatloaf that was never meant to linger. The young woman in the blue jeans and white blouse holds an angry fist over a jukebox infamous for taking payment while withholding songs. Over in a corner booth, the family of four suspends their fight; the parents sitting across from each other stay their call for cease fire with desperate, open mouths while the young twin boys both gaze at their plates like generals assessing their arsenals. A French fry floats in the air.

The brown-skinned waitress in front of Lolonyo wears a powder blue dress and a friendly smile. But Lolonyo sees how her full lips turn down ever so slightly, how her eyes don’t crinkle at the corners. He knows what that means. Lolonyo slides out of the booth and talks to himself, talks as if she can hear, as if she is taking notes with the pen frozen in mid scribble.

“Why is this so complicated? It’s love … it’s universal! It’s the simplest, easiest thing to fall into besides potholes and debt. You would think I could stand up in front of her and announce what the fuck this is. You know, just say ‘Hello Aliza, it’s me, your Lonnie, your Mandingo warrior, your hero. You may not know it, but I rescue you from these black and white checkerboard floors and the dead-end job that’s got you walking back and forth across them. I deliver you from burnt coffee and raw nerves, long days and short tips and I save you from having to serve racist people like that greasy haired dude in the John Deere hat that keeps studying over here like two black people together signifies the sudden resurgence of the Black Panther Party.”

Lolonyo pauses to glance back at the racist at the counter whose look has lost all its surreptitiousness now that he’s fully frozen. He looks like a ferret trying to hide behind a ball cap and a plate of over easy eggs.

“What was I saying?” Lolonyo asks himself. “I mean, yeah, it’s a love affair. And this one starts with a harmless observation. She went for that the very first time, when all this was nothing more than an accident unfolding. You’d think it’d be surgical now that I got some experience. So what is she curving her lip down about? This time all I said was ‘you seem tired’. Simple, clean. Definitely harmless. So why is she looking at me like I’m at her front door trying to sell magazine subscriptions? She can pretend if she wants but I know that look. That shit is as plain as her nametag.”

Lolonyo paces. Aliza is still looking down at Lolonyo’s empty booth in quiet disapproval.

“Maybe you’re being too personal,” he self-advises. “Maybe she isn’t tired, at least physically, even if she’s tired of the lifestyle. So instead of commenting like you’ve spent ten years studying her mannerisms you need to be ordering French toast or some shit like that. Ah! Maybe she thinks you’re accusing her of being lazy or not up to the job, as if saying ‘you seem tired’ to her is more like saying ‘you seem too tired to take my order right and I plan to give you a tip shorter than your manager’s patience.’ That’s probably it. You know how she reads into shit all the time.”

He stops pacing and looks at her.

“So, this time around, what do you read in me?” he asks. Silence answers.

He sighs, sits back down. “Let’s try it again.”

The world reverses. The parents in the corner eat their words, the trucker uneats his meatloaf. A floating fry zooms into a kid’s grip as if potato-to-finger is the new magnetism. Aliza moonwalks back behind the counter.

Again, the world moves forward. Again, Lolonyo looks at Aliza with eyes he hopes says more than “I’m curious about the chicken fried steak” and nods at her slowly. Again, she makes her way to his booth.

“You ready?” she asks with a slight smile, still fake, still practiced.

“Yeah, um Aliza,” Lolonyo begins, making a point to look at her nametag. Then he looks in her eyes, like he always does, hoping one of these times it somehow catches a spark. “I’m Lonnie. I figure that’s easier to say than ‘the black dude over there’.”

“But ‘the black dude over there’ kills any confusion,” she responds the same way she always does. “For all we know one of the guys at the counter is also a Lonnie.”

Lolonyo shakes his head. “All Lonnies have to introduce themselves. It’s part of the Lonnie Code.”

This is when her smile returns, this time warm, this time real. “So what can I get you?” she brings her pen and pad up.

Here is how far he’s gotten. Here is where the improv starts.

“Why not sit down with me to take the order?” Lolonyo asks gesturing to the other side of the booth. “When you stand over me like that, it makes me feel pressured to absolutely make the right choice.”

Aliza frowns. She glances briefly back to the kitchen. “I’m sorry, I can’t. My manager would kill me if he saw me sitting down.”

Her frown is real. So she really wants to sit down. Right?

“So, what else can I get you?” she asks with a smile. And … there it is. The smile that turns down right at the corners and doesn’t reach her eyes, the practiced smile, the fake one. Her shields are raised. Now it’s all business, no pleasure, no progress.

Over in the corner booth, the French Fry War has begun in earnest. The trucker is managing his meatloaf with an aggressive jaw that seems to know how many times he’s chewed that same piece of ketchup-covered carcass. The woman in the white blouse is banging a diminutive fist against the jukebox. The racist is wasting his time stealing glances at people he inherently doesn’t like, maybe hoping the black dude orders fried chicken and watermelon and in doing so confirms all the worthless stereotypes he’s been holding onto as dear and true.

Lolonyo sighs. He presses pause and life stops.

“What was wrong that time?” he asks an unresponsive Aliza. “It was an offer to sit in a booth, not on my face. Even though you’d love that, only slightly less than I would love that.”

Lolonyo rises from the booth, circles Aliza like circling prey. “Oh, I miss that too, and oh, so much. Our sex was vulgar and sweet and salty and a beautiful mess. You, legs in the air, wet as Louisiana swampland. Me, hard as a feudal pike, hell, hard as Feudalism, all grrr grrr grrr. I knew there was a pit in the stomach, but—hot damn—there’s a pit in the bottom of my balls, somehow bigger and wider than the stomach pit, that I swear I didn’t even know existed til you came along and made that shit tingle. We damn near died of dehydration. If you could remember like I remember you wouldn’t be so mouse right now. It was everything love should be, the shit you cling to when love changes into what it eventually becomes. But here we are, before the start, and I can’t even get you to sit damn down. What’s wrong with me?”

He paces back and forth, oblivious to the freeze frame surrounding him. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” he self-advises. “Something’s going on with her. Yawa would probably be able to tell me. Women understand women in ways that leave men scratching their heads. But Yawa’s not here so you’d better scratch your head until an idea bleeds out.”

Silence fills the empty space between his heel beats on the linoleum floor. It’s a metronome, the only true measure of time in a timeless world. Tap. Tap. Tap. And it is fleeting.

“Ok,” he says. “Maybe she only likes it so coy, you know? You know damn well you can’t be direct cause that scares her, but maybe you have to be a bit more straightforward than the hints. I mean, even obvious hints are still hints, right? So how about you play up to that point where she kinda turns serious and then give her a straightforward, clear as day message about what you want on your menu?”

Lolonyo looks at Aliza, so full of silent disapproval. Why the hell not?

He sighs, sits back down. “Let’s try it again.”

The world reverses. Lolonyo is the director patiently waiting for his actors to cue up. Everyone returns to their places, including the French fry.

And … action.

“You ready?” she asks with a slight smile, still fake, still practiced.

“Yeah, um Aliza,” Lolonyo begins, making a point to look at her nametag. Then he looks in her eyes, like he always does, hoping one of these times it somehow catches a spark. “I’m Lonnie. I figure that’s easier to say than ‘the black dude over there’.”

“But ‘the black dude over there’ kills any confusion. For all we know one of the guys at the counter is also a Lonnie.”

Lolonyo shakes his head. “All Lonnies have to introduce themselves. It’s part of the Lonnie Code.”

The warm smile, the real smile, returns. “So what can I get you?” Once again, she brings her pen and pad up.

“What would you recommend for a reasonably handsome guy who’s trying to keep his physique delicious enough to seduce a quasi-hapless waitress?”

The frown comes almost instantly. “I’d probably recommend deeper, more substantial conversation. You know, overall tighter game. So I’m going to go ahead and give you a few more minutes to look over the menu. Take your time.”

She turns to walk off. They never even made it to the start of the French Fry War. Is that a new record?

He presses pause and life stops.

“Damn, I did better the time I told you to come with me if you want to live. Are you not feeling the playful hintlessness of the approach? Or was it word choice? Did you take offense to me calling myself reasonably handsome or to me calling you quasi-hapless? I guess no woman wants to be quasi-hapless if they can be beautiful, right? Let’s swap the word out and see how it goes.”

Lolonyo goes to reverse the world, but first it blows up.

The diner and all the inhabitants turn into particles of dust dancing in the searing, blazing bright light. It’s the worst kind of blow up, thermonuclear hydrogen fusion, and maybe if he was a hundred miles out he’d see the cool mushroom cloud but he’s at ground zero and it’s too bright here to see shit.

The bright hot light churns into dense gray smoke. Yawa appears in the midst of the hellstorm, walking to Lolonyo through the nuclear fallout. Wearing a black leather jacket and blue jeans, she is dressed to blend in with the crowd she just annihilated. Her hair is twisted into tight Bantu knots. Her eyes have the dark blue smoky treatment and her lips are painted burgundy.

“Did I blow up your spot?” she asks.

“Not funny.”

“You’d love it if you were more into rap culture,” she says. She snaps her fingers and the raw power of an exploding sun implodes, pulling its deadly nuclear energy into a tiny dot before winking out of existence. They stand in an intact diner around frozen inhabitants. Aliza is still turned around, mid-stride in the process of leaving Lolonyo burned. The lady at the jukebox is fixing to get violent about getting ripped off.

Yawa looks around. “Yeah, this is nowhere near as creepy.”

“Have a seat. I’ll unfreeze everything while we talk.”

She sits down across from Lolonyo with a casual plop. The world resumes.

Yawa’s timing is suspect, but before he can get a word out the racist jumps off his stool with a clattering of plate and flatware.

“Wait a cotton picking minute! Y’all see that?” He points at the sitting black people. “Now there’s two of ‘em.”

All eyes are on their booth. Yawa glares at the racist. “Nigga what?”

The racist experiences a break in composure. It probably never entered into his universe of possibility that he’d ever be called that.

“I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to use that word,” Lolonyo says.

Yawa looks at Lolonyo incredulously. “Nigga please.”

The confusion on the racist’s face is quickly replaced by anger. Apparently, racist white people don’t like being called nigga.

“Now that’s the pot calling the salt bl—”

The racist never gets to finish his statement. Yawa rubs her thumb and index finger together. She is literally erasing the target’s vocal cords.

The man’s eyes grow big and panic stricken. He grabs at his own throat. Yawa uses both hands, tapping index and middle fingers against her thumbs repeatedly in a quick blur. The man’s face changes from panic to pain. He runs awkwardly out of the diner.

“I didn’t recognize that last one,” Lolonyo says. “What did you do?”

Yawa smiles. “I imported fire ants to chew out his asshole.”

Lolonyo nods. By now most of the other people have tried to ignore the growing strangeness of all this by staring into their own plates and coffee cups hard enough to divine the future. All except the manager, who is chasing down the racist turned dine-and-dasher currently blazing a trail through the desert. And Aliza, who is inconveniently close to the action and stuck out in the middle of the checkerboard floor.

“Um,” she says, taking a hesitant step back.

Yawa looks up and notices Aliza. “Hey! Look at you!” Yawa exclaims. She looks Aliza up and down. “Bitch, you look good.”

Aliza looks sideways as if trying to find an answer at another booth or at least the hidden camera. She raises a suspicious eyebrow at Yawa. “Do I know you?”

“Not yet,” Yawa says. “But we’re gonna be lifelong friends, even if you get a little jealous cause you know your man be checking out my ass like it’s that yum yum. Maybe this time it’ll start with a cup of coffee. C’mon, hook a bitch up.”

“A … cup of … coffee,” Aliza says nodding slowly to get through the encounter. “Sure.”

Aliza retreats behind the counter. Yawa leans forward. “This is where you’ve been hiding? You running it back?”

“You must’ve heard me call your name earlier.”

“Naw, son. I could feel your energy from two planets away.” She holds out her hands, welcoming Lolonyo to complete the thought. He stares at her.

“I got my drink I got my music … I will share it but today I’m yelling …” she continues.

He doesn’t get it. Aliza comes back with an empty cup and a small bowl of plastic half-and-half cups. She pours Yawa some joe as fast gravity allows and leaves even faster.

“Guess that song’s not out yet,” Yawa mutters.

“Are you done playing?” Lolonyo asks.

“Yeah, shit, now that you done killed my vibe,” she cracks a grin.

“I didn’t mean for you to hear me,” Lolonyo confesses. “But now that you’re here, can you help me? What’s wrong with her?”

Yawa looks at Aliza, now safely behind the counter, with confusion. “Whatcha mean? She look fine to me. Damn, nigga, didn’t you just hear me compliment her?”

“She’s not responding to my advances. Doesn’t matter if it’s honest or clever or funny or angry. She shuts me down every time.”

Yawa dumps two cups of half and half into her cup. “Stop trippin, dude. We both know that’s not how this works,” she says, stirring the coffee with her finger.

“No, Yawa, you misunderstand. This is eight hours before we really met,” he taps the table with a long finger for emphasis. “This is pre-origin.”

Yawa stops stirring her coffee, coolly regards Lolonyo with smoky eyes. “In their video game terms, they would call this ‘new game plus’. You know the cosmos wasn’t designed for that.” She sucks coffee off her finger.

“How hard can it be? How wrong can it be?”

“Fool, we can’t create serendipity.”

“We are serendipity, Yawa. That’s what we do: create circumstances and force fate to where and how we see fit.”

Yawa smirks and her playful eyes dance. “You know that’s like the complete opposite of serendipity?”

Silence answers. Yawa sips her coffee.

“A better question,” she asks leaning closer. “Do you know how long you’ve been here trying?”

“Doesn’t matter. This is my life and it’s not ending anytime soon.”

“Only a second at a time.” Yawa shakes her head, looks out the window at the barren, arid landscape. “Can you believe that dude described a unit of time as a cotton picker? Seriously, what the fuck?”

Lolonyo’s unconcerned with the racist. He has lived with him for some time now.

“Do you have any suggestions I can use, Yawa?”

“Yeah, go up eight hours and get with Aliza like you’re meant to. Do it the right way.”

Yawa speaks of the “right way.” The “right way” would erase Lolonyo’s original memories of Aliza. The “right way” is bullshit.

“I could see if we had long lives together,” Lolonyo says. “But your right way won’t let me see the end coming. I won’t be able to stop it.”

“Stop what?” Yawa asks. She’s baiting.

“You know what.”

She leans in. “You mean what’ll happen when these people fully embrace the network they’re gonna create? When they wholly immerse themselves into the worlds they’ll build with math and art and cel-shaded graphics? You really think you’ll be able to save her from her own diseased mind?”

Lolonyo’s ire rises, his anger flashes. “Do not call her diseased.”

Yawa smiles her perfect white teeth. “That’s what addiction is, isn’t it?”

“Bah,” he says, batting her question away with a hand. “There are plenty of places in this world for her to enjoy, beautiful places. We’ll live in the Caribbean, in a villa on Cayman. This time I will show her Kilimanjaro. We’ll sail down the Congo, walk the Kalahari. She won’t get stuck in their web.”

“How do you know that this world around us has the same appeal as the ones that loom online in the future? It’s a place you can’t pry into.”

Yawa is right. Their virtual realm is a layer his people can’t penetrate, can’t understand.

Meeting Aliza at the right time, the memory wipe, it’s unthinkable. He would literally be doing it all again for the first time. Only he’s changed—subtly, slowly in those incremental ways everyone changes as they go through life, whether he’s conscious of it or not. What if it that alone made it different? What if it wasn’t as good?

He looks at Aliza, wiping a counter down, completely oblivious of her future, the happiness they’ll have. He looks back at Yawa.

“The memory wipe is too much of a risk.”

“That’s what life is, Lolo. A series of risks, some that pay off well, some you take a loss on. You ready to stop hedging your bets?”

He shakes his head. “Not yet.”

Yawa nods appreciatively. “She’s worth it. I can’t blame you, even if it’s a fool’s errand.” Yawa smiles. “And it’s not like I can talk. Remember all them years I spent trying to save Tupac?”

Lolonyo grins. “How can I forget? You called it your ‘ambitions as a ridah’.”

“Riiiight,” Yawa says. There’s a quiet stretch of silence. She puts her hands on the table. “Need anything before I bounce?”

Lolonyo looks over at the vacant counter. “The racist. Places set.”

Yawa presses a button and the people jump jarringly to exactly how they were before she arrived. Everyone is frozen in place. Aliza’s back is turned and she’s stuck in mid-stride, heading back to the counter.

Yawa interlaces her fingers. “You should be good. You want the Cheshire or the Sauron?”

Lolonyo shrugs. “Give me the Sauron.”

“My favorite too. Aight, deuces.”

She throws up the peace sign. Slowly, slowly she disappears from view until nothing can be seen of her save her two smoky eyes. They blink once, blink twice and they too are gone.

Lolonyo is left alone in a frozen world. He stands up and walks around to face Aliza. Even in her disgust she’s beautiful.

“You leave me too soon,” he whispers. He gives her a peck on her cheek. He sits back down and the world reverses. Lolonyo is the director patiently waiting for his actors to cue up. Everyone returns to their places, including the French fry.

And … action.

Again, the world moves forward. Again, Lolonyo looks at Aliza with eyes he hopes says more than “I’m curious about the chicken fried steak” and nods at her slowly. Again, she makes her way to his booth.

“You ready?” she asks with a slight smile, still fake, still practiced.

“Wait,” she says. She points her pen at the coffee mug on the other side of the booth. The coffee’s still steaming hot. Burgundy lipstick smudges stain the rim. “Did Clara wait on you already? Is there two of you?”

Ah Yawa. Because of her, the improv starts now.

“Clara didn’t wait on me,” Lolonyo says. “You know why? Because you’re my waitress, baby. And the thing you don’t know is, me, I’m the one you’ve been waiting for.”

Aliza grins her famous “yeah, ok” grin, reserved for infomercials where the car wax withstands getting lit on fire and when she hits an overcrowded nightclub where a hundred dudes lob tired ass game like molotovs.

“I think you may have me confused for the woman whose mouth has been on that mug. She’s the one you’ve been waiting for. Now, are you going to order?”

Lolonyo sighs as she frowns. It was worth a shot.

He should get rid of the coffee cup. It’s got another woman’s lipstick on it, after all, and Aliza does have that slight but fierce jealous streak.

Nah. It stays. Serendipity’s important. Some things are truly cosmic, bigger than him, no matter how small they may seem.

What was he waiting for? This was his life and it wasn’t ending anytime soon.

He presses pause. And life stops.

James Beamon is an IT guy with a writing problem. He’s been in the Air Force, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and knee deep in narrative and none of that excuses him from having to provide tech support to his wife and son for their various devices. They currently live in Virginia, where you can find James either chasing down book deals or chasing down enemy snipers on Battlefield 1. Check out what he’s up to at http://www.fictigristle.wordpress.com/.

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