by Johnny St. Clair
and she’s behind the counter with her back to me, her hair, her right arm outstretched above her head, trying for the pay phone that the manager or owner or cook but definitely boss holds just out of her reach. he lets her feel his weight. when she gets on, she looks down, shifts her eyes. a hand on a hip. she doesn’t say a word. hangs up the phone like it owed her, said nothing.
it’s the only phone in this place, this diner. it’s all red and chrome in here. all black tiles and colorless squares, bright white fluorescent lights and flecked formica table tops. the counter sits five or six guys, out late from the night shift or drunk on lousy beer or both.
i take a seat in the booth in the corner with my back to the wall. it’s late and i’m waiting for a rider and i’ve been up too long. the lights pulse in an electric rhythm and i think i can hear them droning on like i’m in school again when the quiet sinks so low it’s heavy and all that’s left is the hum of electricity and the possibility of a lesson to learn. i watch the lights in the upturned spoon, in the stainless steel cream container, in the greasy shine on the table. the words on the paper placemat seem to loose themselves from their anchors, drift to the right, rise. silverware taps and slides across plates across the room and brings me back to where i am.
she’s working along the counter now. she’s fine. filling drinks, pushing hands away from underneath her skirt, taking dishes away. writing on her notepad with a pencil she had tucked into her hair. ripping her writing from the pad in her left hand with a smooth move of the right, onto the wheel in the kitchen’s window, spinning around. the sounds is like the sweetest song. i imagine what i would say, how my name would sound on her lips, what she would feel like, how she would smile in the morning.
i think i see her smiling when she’s walking my way straight on slowly. i’m thinking about who was on the other end of that phone, and what they were saying, and why her eyes looked like crying. i’m wondering where she goes, what her place is like, and where she lays her head at night. who does she call friend, what is her dream, what makes her laugh. i wanna know about her first time and that time she drank that red wine. i will order black coffee and toast but this girl has me thinking about strawberry pie and ice cream. she doesn’t look up from her pad but once or twice. she walks away and i hold my breath for a moment in her breeze.
behind the counter again the men try to grab and laugh, whisper, lick their lips. her boss smiles sideways and puts a hand on her hip. she’s stonefaced, maybe used to the hand’s weight, maybe a thousand times before. i believe her eyes look through that flecked formica counter into something else. she steps sideways, brushes past, into the kitchen or any place to pray.
she comes back with my plate and her voice sounds new and strange unlike i’d imagined it would be or remembered it from before, when i first heard her with her pad in her hand. she smiles, leans into the table with a hip as i keep struggling with small talk, find new questions to ask, speak quickly to keep her close to the table here. she places a knee onto the booth at first, and i lose where i was, unable to think about anything but her weight, and how sweet it must be, and her leg smooth like summertime in the evening when the sun is about to go down and the wind blows and the sweetest thing is your hand on a girl’s thigh. then she swings her other leg around and is sitting here with me and it’s she who’s talking now and i would concentrate on those words if i could, on that voice, but all i can do is smile up my sleeve.
i ask her where she’s going and she smiles and says something like “baby, sometimes i think all i need’s a bus ticket,” and she says this so sweet and sad like rainy days and i slide down her voice and into her own life with its blue walls shouts worn carpets empty bottles mestizo blanket on the wall scars weak green plants unkept words a little sunlight lamplight undone dishes in the sink mud blood splattered on the yellow kitchen floor crime scene phone hanging wooden blinds banging against cracked white windowpane in the living room brown bookcase unopened books cement blocks old stereo yellow light bulb burning in the hallway cigarette ashes on the floor locked doors no connections.
she’s trying to rise.
her boss yells and the guys at the counter snort and she’s gone again.
and it’s now that i know that it’s me she’s been waiting for and so i make my plan, rehearse my lines, set everything straight i’m going to say in my mind. i’m gonna astound her, walk on out of here with her on my arm and their eyes on us as we shamble into the sunrise. yeah. and so now, in my head, i’m talkin’ all this shit, all cocky with it, because i know i can make it happen. just like those guys at the counter know they can make her. just like her boss. just like i imagine that voice on the other end of the phone thinks it can. but i gotta hold on a minute cuz this is the wrong way. i wanted to be her unsuspected hero.
so i pick up the napkin holder, textured black metal and chrome, white paper, and walk towards the register. she’s there running numbers through the machine and pushing hands away from her skirt. i got that napkin holder, right, take it and bust that big motherfucker at the counter right in the nose. he’s the biggest one there, falls to the ground, blood squirts out, he’s writhing around in pain, you understand, screamin’. the rest look at me, you know, wide-eyed. the manager, he makes a move to do what i don’t know, but i throw the napkin holder at him, watch it bounce of the silver table top behind the counter, tell him to sit down, show the crowd the chrome i keep in my pocket, cuz cab driving can be dangerous, you dig.
and then i look at her and she’s shook, but not like the others. no. like this isn’t all that new to her. not because of the unknown but because of the expected i guess. and i look at her and i try to smile, but my lip is shaking a bit, and i think i’m stuttering, and i say something like “listen, just take the money that’s in there and walk on out of here with me.”
she doesn’t say anything, hits a button and the drawer sputters open. she’s gathering cash and paper, holds it out in a sloppy mess. i got a gun in my hand and the fat man is still whimpering motherfucks on the ground and the manager’s got his hands clasped behind his head in the ground down on all fours. customers at the counter’ve got their hands either up or down on the flecked white top.
“you take it,” i say, “you hold it. you can go your way when you get out of here. whatever. it’s for you, girl. get your bus ticket or something. you know. for you.”
but she’s crying now and she thinks her back's against the wall and “no," she says, "you will never get away with this.”
so i tip my hat and walk towards the door with my hand in my pocket and say, “i thank you very much.”