Whoops (Part 2)
Sun Sep 18, 2022 12:18

Part 2

Every other day, Chuck ate a late breakfast at his favourite greasy spoon diner, the Apollo 11 restaurant. With photos of astronauts staring down at him over his coffee he felt suitably untethered to this terrestrial sphere. His orange juice was rocket fuel, his potato grits, stardust. Inside the dark pit of his coffee cup, plumes of cream took on the spinning proportions of milky galaxies. He was happy living a solitary life, that of an astronaut on a solo mission, gently orbiting the globe. He was uncompromising, both in an artistic sense and and in his private life. He was totally ascetic aside from a few idiosyncratic indulgences. Sipping his coffee, he wondered if his solitude was a hidden compromise, as if he had submitted to the terms put forward by a shadow-self and had come away from the negotiations deeply dissatisfied. Had he not always wanted to be left alone? He had made peace with the status quo of his mental life, accepted it as a state of nature. It had been this way with him for as long as he cared to remember. Comfort was not part of the bargain. Peering up from his plate, Chuck noticed that the young waitress who kept rewarding him with a refill before he’d even ask for another one was trying a little too hard to avoid eye contact. Her dark eye-shadow was out of place in this typical restaurant, on this typical street, on this, a typical Sunday morning.

Between mouthfuls, he fell back into contemplation. Loneliness is inevitable if one stands apart from the flock. Alternate possibilities were tantalizing but he regarded them as siren songs, yet another source of misery of the false hope variety. His life-course followed a trajectory that felt, at least to him, to be strongly pre-determined. It had to be. It was instinctual. Inevitable. He was bound by starting conditions, fatally attracted by a magnetism that guided his every action up until this precise moment. Looking beyond the foggy window in front of him, peering at the souls that walked past him in the street outside, they appeared as amorphous, distorted shapes in the commercial half-light, each one directed by unseen forces, each one part of a larger swell; historical, psychological, religious, moral. He wondered whether each corresponded through spooky action at a distance to some particle dancing in the solar wind that undulates above the Earth’s darkened hemisphere.

For some reason, he found himself recalling a snippet of a past conversation. Nietzsche said that all language is vulgar and Wittgenstein famously stated that what we don't understand must be passed over in silence. Heaven replied that she happened to like vulgarity and silence made her nervous.

—What are you thinking about? asked the waitress.

She was in her twenties, her age identifiable both in her swagger and the way she accessorized. Her hair had streaks of pink highlights in a style that was popular, a short-cropped pixie cut. Chuck had watched her while he wolfed down his omelette and potato grits. She was young and attractive, her skin was perfect, pale and unblemished. He wanted to avoid making eye contact at all costs. At the rim of his awareness, he sensed more resistance than usual to engaging in smalltalk with complete strangers.

—Oh, nothing and everything, replied Chuck, quixotically, to himself as much as to her.

A mental cone of concentration spotlighted his coffee mug and next to it, several empty shot-glasses that had previously contained espresso. In lieu of verbalizing, he narrowed down the reason for his agitation. He had definitely gulped down one too many double shot espressos. Like Balzac before him, Chuck relied on the dark matter as he called it, to keep his thoughts in proper alignment.

—Havenʼt I seen you around the neighbourhood? Youʼre always pushing that shopping cart around, collecting things from the curb.

He noticed half-pursed lips, a childlike mouth and chin, slightly smaller than it should be, yet firm in proportion to the rest of her oval face. It was hardly weak but rather soft and feminine.

—Hoarding odds and ends. It’s just something I started doing. I guess the habit stuck. I’ve always been curious about the things people throw away, especially their books.

That should do for friendly chit-chat. He wanted neither to appear presumptuous or aloof.

Could I get the cheque please? He asked.

—Sure, thing.

He knew her name was Jezebel. He had scanned the quaint, old-fashioned name-tag pinned to the ugly beige vest that the restaurant must have insisted she wear. He watched her saunter back to the cash register while he swallowed a few final drops from his nearly empty cup. Having mopped up everything except for the grounds at the bottom, he flipped the cup back down in a graceful semi-arc and his vision was once again un-occluded. Jezebel had already returned to place the bill beside him and then she paused, wavering slightly, expectant perhaps.

—I don’t mean to bother you, but aren’t you a writer?

Rummaging for loose change in his pocket in order to leave a tip, he glanced up to meet her eyes. There was recognition there beyond the dark, sad-eye makeup that concealed a look of native intelligence. It had been years since anyone had recognized him. He bore only a passing resemblance to his dust-jacket photo inserts and had rarely agreed to be photographed in other situations.

—You are him. I mean, you’re you. Chuck Glass? Can I call you Chuck?

Startled, he ventured that very few people knew of his work.

—Really? Whatever. I’m a total book snob. I’ve read all your books. You’re definitely something of a cult figure in the gothic horror genre.

—Thank you. I’m flattered.

—I can’t believe I’ve served you for so long without recognizing you. You come in here pretty regularly, don’t you?

Chuck had in fact been coming to the diner for several years but Jezebel had only been working here for a few months, he reckoned. Given his tendency to sleep well into the afternoon, her shifts rarely lined up with his visitations.

—Is my secret safe with you?

—Yes, with me, and my local book club, she replied.

This remark gave him pause.

—May I sit down? Jezebel asked.

—Are you sure your other table’s wonʼt mind?

She scanned the mostly empty restaurant to be sure she wasn’t neglecting the other customers, and when she was sure she wasn’t, he nodded his head, consenting.

—Your novels are a little spooky. I mean, their violent. Jekyll, especially.

He got a better look at her as she sat down in front of him, squeaking into a chair. He looked at her briefly as she spoke, in-between staring down at his yolk-stained, bone-white plate, which reminded him of a childlike drawing of the moon.

—Life is a little spooky sometimes. Wouldnʼt you say?

Could she tell he was uncomfortable carrying on this conversation? As if in self-defence, he lit a cigarette. The waitress and the other clientele ignored this faux-pas, a blatant health-code violation.

—Can I get a refill? It might help me to be more lucid. I don’t want to disappoint my only fan, taking a drag but being careful not to blow smoke in her direction.

She poured him another cup out of the decanter.

—I’m just floored to be serving one of my favourite writers.

Floored? Didn’t she know any other verbs? The double-meaning was apparent to him, at least, given that he couldn’t help but focus on several dark slivers embedded in the tiling underfoot.

—Thanks, Iʼm sure your book club won’t hold me in such high esteem.

—Thereʼs no book club. I was making that up.

—A capacity for invention?

“Look at her. Look at her. Why can’t I do this?” A plaintive inner-monologue punched holes in all his executive functions. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from his fork and spoon, lonely shipwrecks on his plate.

—In my experience, its the only way to get by. I write a little on the side too. Nothing published, yet.

—Interesting. A fan and a fellow author.

He was on auto-pilot now, just like at book signings where he had been forced to make polite conversation with all-comers and still muster the occasional witticism when called upon.

—I’m reworking my first manuscript.

—What’s it about?

—Vampires. Actually, Bloodsuckers is somewhat of an influence on it.

—It’s very flattering to hear that I my work made such as strong impression on you.

There was never an escape hatch when he needed one.

—Would you look at that? There I go again…talking another customer’s ear off. I don’t want to hold you hostage, but it really was an honour to meet you. Your work was a salve to a young, slightly mixed-up teenager.

—Never meet your heroes! He blurted out.

She looked vulnerable now, somewhat surprised. He managed to smile, sure that he was co-ordinating the crows-nests in the corners of his eyes, contracting his mouth and cheek muscles into a wizened expression, hopefully not a grotesque or creepy one. What was happening? He seemed to have skipped a beat in the discourse, anticipated a neat conclusion, having already forgotten a sizeable chunk of the backstory. Who was this woman? She was a fan of his. Yes, and she was a waitress at one of the few places he deigned to frequent. So what if she had an agenda. Why the cynicism? He tried to say something encouraging. Be a mensch, he told himself.

    • Cont. Redjeans, Sun Sep 18 12:19
      —In my experience, literary heroes are better left behind the curtain. Now a proper smile. There you go. She’s not upset. She smiles back. For the first time he sees her. It’s a gift of clear-eyed... more
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