Convergence by John Spaedt.

A gray-bearded black man sat at the diner bar watching the short-order cook fry up a pork belly’s weight of bacon on the flattop.  The cook—she was probably 40 but looked over 60—never worked without a cigarette burning in an ashtray on the counter.  They were alone except for a couple of high school kids at a far booth. 

“You in here early,” she barked at him over the rising sizzle of the bacon. 

“Yeah.  Told you it was my last week,” he said.

She turned from her bacon, took a drag from her cigarette, returned it to the ashtray, and went back to the flattop.  “Aw, that’s right,” she shouted.

The kids leaned toward each other over the table.  The sun lowered into the west window, turning the whole place an unbearably bright yellow. 

“Shit.  I need a damn last week.  I been down south about every Sunday night now, trying to hit it” she said. 

“Casinos?" he asked. 

“Yeah.  I don’t be goin’ crazy.  I was doin’ the lottery but that’sbullshit.  Two dollar. . .five dollar. . .free ticket.  Then scratch your free ticket and what do you get?  Don’t get nothing.  I was buyin’ ten of them at a time.  Not no more.  Hell naw.”

She’d taken all of the bacon-slabs off the flattop and the place turned so quiet you could hear the sleeves of the kids’ hoody’s rustling against the smooth table as they leaned in close: new in love.
The cook had a gold tooth, and a powerful body, as though full of taught springs, and stare of fearlessness. The old black man leaned back in his plastic stool, “You know the lottery ain’t nothing but a tax.”

“Yup,” she said, as if she had known all along.

Just then, a church organ burst forth into the little diner, and its airy tone bounced off the brown laminate booths, shot up from the amber tile floor, swept out and returned from the long wall of windows.  The two kids in the booth flinched.  COGIC shouting music: ‘Yes Lord’ in ab.  'Man, this the only song that thing knows,' she thought.

“That was Mayor Willie got that going?” the man asked.

“Lottery?  Naw.  Was Mr. Cohen,” she said.

“Yeah.  Senator Cohen.  He’s alright.”

She lit another cigarette and immediately moved to cradle it in the ashtray, only to find she already had one burning. “Shit,” she said, snuffing out the cherry of the one she’d just lit, careful not to damage it.

“My boy got himself locked up in 2-0-1 last night,” the man said.
“Again?  I swear to god if my boy do like that, he’d wanna be in there.  Otherwise, I’d grab his knobby head—,” she stopped, shaking her head as if to rid herself of the thought.   “Nuh-uh, don’t even wanna think about it.”
“All these thugs.  Don’t understand a damn thing,” he said.
“Man, I ain’t scared of those motherfuckers.  Stupid-ass parents shoulda’ slapped ‘em upside they heads before they got that way.  I mean, not you.  Sure you did what you could.  It’s the schools got ‘em that way.  Let the teachers slap ‘em like they did us.”

A man walked through the door and sat down at a booth.  Despite the heat, he wore pants and a great coat.  He had a balding, pinkish head, cannonball shoulders and dark, intense eyes.  He placed his elbows on the table, entwined his fingers into a large ball under his chin, and sat staring straight ahead.

“Well, sorry about your boy,” said the cook.  She was also the waitress, but was unaware of the new customer.  “Maybe do him some good.”

“Yeah.”

The jukebox quit, leaving the quiet of still air in its wake. “Excuse me,” the bald man’s voice exploded in the cook’s head. The waitress shot her head around, startled, then looked back to the man at the bar: “Why didn’t you tell me he come in?” He just gave her a puzzled look and pulled up the paper. She didn’t wait for an answer.

“What you need?”

“I would like a cup of coffee.  Black.” he said.  He spoke with a malicious over-enunciation. 

“Alright.  You want anything to eat.”

“I would like a cup of coffee.”

The sun lowered below the horizon, and the diner turned the dark yellow of tar.  The waitress poured a cup of burned coffee into a soapy coffee cup, mouthing to the man at the bar, ‘What the hell is wrong with that man?’  He offered an uncomfortable laughing grunt and buried his head back into the paper.  The whirring of the air conditioner intensified the silence in the stead of his guttural discomfort.

“There you go,” she set the coffee down in front of the man.


Just ten minutes passed. The waitress sat smoking at the bar looking at the open kitchen, the large griddle she’d fried the bacon on, an open waffle iron, an empty skillet on an unfired eye. The color of everything suddenly began to glow (she’d have thought of Van Gogh’s paintings if she’d ever seen them). Then, she realized her friend at the other end of the bar wasn’t there right now. She turned to look over her right shoulder and saw the kids were gone, too. As she slowly twisted her head back she the bald man met her gaze from behind the bar, his coffee cup gripped at his side.

“Sit still there, and listen.  I want to tell you a joke,” he said.

Sensing sincere evil from his intonation alone, the waitress mustered her fight: “You need get the hell outta that kitchen.”

“Shh.  Listen.  You fucking Christian: you will love this,” the bald man said.  The waitress's body tightened.  Her heart raced and she looked at the steak knife warbling under the greasy dish water behind the counter.  But, as she was about to move, she went limp.  For the first time in her life, she froze. She looked again for her friend at the bar. ‘He’s in the back. He must be calling for help,’ she thought.

"Who goes to church alone but leaves with everyone?" asked the bald man.

A sudden crash of shattered glass, then the loud pop of the halogen bulbs overhead. Darkness. She heard a strange clang, like a ceramic bell being struck by a flesh-and-bone clapper.  The coffee cup clattered to the floor at her feet, and she felt the warm, milky mixture of coffee and blood trickle down her face.  She heard the bald man’s booming voice, as though from down a long corridor: 'You fucking Christian: Jesus Christ does.  Jesus Christ, you cannibal.’  
His face came close to hers, as her vision narrowed to a mere pinhole on reality.  From the other end of the world, he asked her, ‘Can you see it?'
And she could:  a flurry of fat, dirty-white flakes.  Snow.  She lived her whole life in Memphis, and she tried to remember the last heavy downfall like this.  But it’s summer.  I’m in the coffee shop. That can’t be right.  In the spaceless, infinite gap between her and the world the snowflakes floated down so softly but didn’t land on anything.  Naw, that ain’t snow.  

Another crash as her head slammed against the bar and she crumpled to the cool tile floor.  She saw her trembling hand in front of her head and tried to touch the flakes dancing around her.  As darkness swirled in around her, she saw the man’s face inches from her own.

‘Now you know,’ he said. ‘Death has a bearer.’

Almost gently, he laid his huge body on top of hers, pressing her stomach, her breasts, and her face to the floor.

From another world the jukebox rang out again, playing the only song it knew:

I'm trading my sickness

I'm trading my pain

I'm laying it down for the joy of the Lord... 
Ten more minutes passed.

“I ain’t seen nothing like that,” the black man says, shaking his head. “We was just talking—just talking. Then she started acting crazy. . .you know, shaking and foaming—damn.”

He is telling this to a paramedic in the parking lot of the diner. She comforts him. She tells him strokes happen suddenly. She tells him there was nothing he could have done--these things come out of nowhere.

John Spaedt graduated from the University of Memphis with a B.A. in English and Philosophy, went on to earn an M.A. in philosophy from Memphis, and finally went to The George Washington Law School, leaving after a year in order to save himself from becoming a wealthy lawyer. He now works odd jobs and writes. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee with his wife and two cats.

7 comments:

Robin Billings said...

Death Visits The Diner Lady - good one!

Andrew Hilbert said...

I really enjoyed this one. Awesome story. Here's to mucho mas!

Anonymous said...

Didn't see any of that coming. A story with two hard turns in 300 words. Nice!

ajhayes2 said...

Chock full of images drawn deft and sure:forty but looked over sixty,grey bearded black man, sun turning the place an unbearably bright yellow, cigarette in the ashtray subtly marking time and the whole thing just keeps puting that electric tingle of "somethings coming" electricity down your spine. Then the double payoff. Wow. All that, and more in only that short amount of words. Cool.

Rob Kitchin said...

Nice and tight with a couple of wicked twists. Great little scene.

David Barber said...

Really enjoyed this one, John. Appreciate you doing the extra work on it. As already said, a couple of great twists and some very descriptive writing.

Well done!

Moiz Ali said...

John, get in touch! I miss you!