I drove away from my life on a wide-open summer day. High, wispy clouds washed across the wide East Texas sky. My sister had been dead for two weeks, and I hadn't been in a car since the accident. Christina Faulkner was only days away from giving birth to our son.
I got in my 1980 piece of shit Ford Escort and drove east on the interstate until I found another interstate. Then I drove north. I drove until the engine started knocking. I limped it to a garage on the frontage road. From the shadow of the garage, I saw a smily Perky's marquee standing tall on the other side of the freeway.
(To my young son: May you never encounter the sort of problem to which Perky's is the solution.)
Dave the Perky's manager—a heavy, huffy man with blistery cheeks and a feral strands of hair—hired me on the spot. During my first shift, the next day, I ducked behind the bakery counter and called my parents to tell their answering machine I was alive—I shouldn't have said “alive”—and to tell Christina because I couldn't do it myself. I slept in the back seat of my car, the same place where my baby was conceived, until I saved enough tips for a rented 400-square foot studio shithole to call my own.
Newton's first law: Objects at rest stay put, unless a force comes along.
I sent my first paycheck to Christina. I suppose it was my way of breaking up. I couldn't find to strength to call her and say I loved her like our first sip of whiskey, but maybe not like the mother of my children, and not like a baby. And that I couldn't be there, near her, or near the scene of the accident, not for awhile. I couldn't even apologize. I wasn't sorry. I was lost.
I kept sending checks but didn't hear from her for over a full year, until the next autumn. She sent me―care of the restaurant―a fuzzy blanket imprinted with faded, colorful drawings of elephants and bananas. I held it to my nose. Downy mostly but crunchy in spots, it smelled like maple syrup, mixed with vomit. I cried like the baby who'd puked into it. My son, my son, my stinking puking crying son hundreds of miles away and me, here, knowing that I could go back home but also knowing I wouldn't, not yet.
A couple months later, Christina Faulkner sent two small socks with green stripes. These, too, contained information. Christina Faulkner had written “outgrown” on a piece of blue masking tape and wrapped it around the socks. Those socks hung alone on the wall in my apartment, tacked on the wood paneling over my bed.
Outgrown. I understood what she was telling me: He was old enough to have outgrown something.
She mailed me strands of golden hair. I almost overlooked the gossamer threads in the thin envelope, but I didn't. Half of a person's genes end up in his baby's cells, and hair records history, so I looked closely at the hair trying and wondered how sharp your eyes would have to be to see your own twisted staircase inside your baby's hair. I nearly went cross-eyed.
Another time, a pacifier. I put it in my mouth and rolled it around with my tongue, tasting for familiarity. I tied on a thin red ribbon and dangled it from my rear view mirror.
Those totems from a lesser god became relics in the tiny shrines and stupas of my heart. I treasured them like the holiest of objects and asked them for guidance and sanctuary. The way a shipwreck survivor in the movies desperately spins the tuner on an old wireless, listening for words among the static. And after he listens for long enough, he starts to hear something, even if it's not real.
It was all physics, all of it. When a murderous speed freak neglected to take his lunchtime speed and then nodded off behind the wheel, so his car like a projectile dove into the median and launched from the other side, airborne briefly, before meeting another car head-on, all physics. Inelastic. Bodies in motion, bodies at rest. My body in motion, walking slowly away on the asphalt shoulder. My sister's body at rest, forever.
Every Perky's shift began in the break room, where old cigarette smoke accumulated like invisible storm clouds. So did the ghostly musk of old coffee, weak and stale, that escaped cheap styrofoam cups and, by some process probably unknown to scientists mad and straight, became vaporous. No vent, no fan. Just old particles.
There were other, parallel stenches in that chamber. Sticky sweet mold from abandoned baked goods in the never-emptied trashcan. The heavy perfume of a heavy breakfast waitress named Tammy, a scent left to fester since the beginning of her first shift which must have been 20 years ago. A room of infusion and mephitic echoes. Waiters and waitresses sat at the table for years, complaining and getting older, picking at the formica, farting. The punch clock ticked, and people clocked in and clocked out. Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk.
I arrived to find Colleen, the least tolerable of the born-agains, reading the Harrisonville Gazette in the break room. Colleen had been busted proselytizing to the breakfast crowd on three separate occasions, so Dave punted her to the graveyard shift.
“Oh my goodness,” she said, slapping her palm on the paper. “I have been crying erroneously.”
She clucked and nodded. “The darnedest thing.”
I unscrewed five mucky, half-empty ketchup bottles and lined them up. I unscrewed five more and balanced them upside-down on the first five. The line of bottles ran like a fence down the middle of the formica table, me on one side, Colleen on the other.
I had searched far and wide in my heart, which is so flawed and not so big, and found no love for Colleen, nor any interest in her thoughts and fears. Furthermore, in the darker regions of my heart, in the same heart that houses both good and evil, intentions noble and less so, and which again is not big, I had discovered contempt and irritation for her.
Colleen, a woodpecker of Christ, she of frizzled white-blond hair and sanctimonious disposition, stole tips.
“Stories about dogs in trouble always get to me,” she said. She poked the paper with her index finger. “I don't know why I'm so sensitive, but I am. I tear up and weep like Hagar over Ishmael. Yes! Like Hagar. Here I thought this was a news story about dogs drowning but really it was about two lost children.”
I said nothing. Ketchup moved slowly: A non-Newtonian fluid.
“Children with dog's names,” she said. “Who names their kids Bingo and Banjo, anyways? The news was intentionally misleading me. Not that I don't care about children. I do, sure. But dogs. Dogs really get to me. But I don't like the media.
“I don't feel well,” she continued. “Don't know how I'll make it to dawn.” She yawned and lifted her arms over her head. She looked around the room as if there were something new to see.
“Don't feel well. Don't like the graveyard shift. Not at all. Nothing good happens after midnight.”
I had tried so hard not to speak to her, but Colleen was savage and cruel, and I'd never liked her.
“Me neither,” I said. She snapped to attention.
“Do I look pale?” she asked. She always looked pale; she wore pasty makeup that turned her cheeks chalky white.
“Syphilis,” I said at last. “Your paleness.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Maybe it's syphilis.” I tapped the bottom of an inverted bottle.
“It's not syphilis.”
“Sounds like syphilis,” I said. “ You should get checked out.”
“They say boys always have sex on the brain,” she said, “and I think that's true.”
“As long as they don't get syphilis on the brain,” I said. “Because that's where it kills you. You really should get checked out, Colleen. Syphilis moves into your head and you lose your marbles. Tertiary. And then you'll go and spread it all over. Everywhere you go.”
She stood up and the thin and shaky table wobbled. The bottles, the non-Newtonian fluids, stood firm. Glob, glob.
“I do not believe that is how syphilis works,” she hissed. “You are ignorant and you have no friends.”
Colleen slammed the door behind her, and I had the stinky room to myself. Her friends were sanctimonious blowhards. I lit a fresh cigarette. On the back of the break room door was a giant purple circle with Perky's written in yellow cursive scrawl across the middle.
“Be happy!” it demanded in tilted capital letters running across the bottom of the circle. “Smiles are infectious!”
I didn't have anything against Christians in general. My family was full of Christians. Lots of my friends in high school went to church, even Christina. Nothing wrong with Jesus. I thought briefly about apologizing to Colleen, but then I decided to let it go. Weren't they all about forgiveness anyway?
The break room door opened and Dave stuck his fat head through.
That's me in 20 years, I thought, managing a Perky's, courting a heart attack.
“You got another one.”
I caught the puffy yellow mailer he threw to me.
“From your secret admirer, ha ha.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
“Air conditioner's shot.”
“I thought it was hot in here.”
“It's not hot in here, bub. Got a cooler full of dry ice in the back. And more after that. Ya put it near the uptake. The restaurant stays cool, no matter how steamy it gets outside. HVAC is comin' in the morning.”
“Dry ice,” I said. “Okay.”
“Listen, bub. If it starts to heat up out there on the floor,” he said, “even in the middle of the night, call Doug. He'll put some more dry ice. There's a whole goddamn igloo back there.”
“Table of six, bub. I can hear your tips evaporating.”
Things don't make sounds when they evaporate, I thought.
“Okay,” I said. I took one drag of the cigarette I'd lit when Colleen left and stubbed it out. I tucked the new package into my backup apron.
“Fred, do you really believe Satan is your god?”
Colleen sounded calm and practiced, and her hands didn't quiver and neither did her voice. She relished this moment. I froze, my dishrag on the table. She lorded over a corner table of seven high school students. One of them, Fred, wore a black shirt that screamed “Satan is My God!!” His bloodshot eyes held steady with Colleen's.
Was he high? Probably. Who cares, anyway. I'd be high and happy all the time if my sister hadn't died and I didn't have a kid. What kind of god would take my sister and leave a woodpecker like Colleen?
He nodded with the same grin. It was heinous.
“Praise Satan!” He held his arms over his head, palms flat and outward. He laughed a hard laugh.
“If that's what you believe, Fred,” Colleen said, “then when you die, you will be abandoned in a desert of fire. For a thousand years you will be lost and alone. Burning. Flesh can be fuel. Fred, an army of scorpions will sting you incessantly. They will follow you and there will be no escape and no respite and no mercy.”
I looked at the window behind Fred's table. During they day, the windows afforded a front-row view to the traffic flowing from Joplin to Kansas City, and Kansas City to Joplin, and the great fields on the other side of the highway and Kansas, big broad Kansas, somewhere past that. At night, though, those windows become shadowy amber mirrors of the inside of the restaurant.
I watched Colleen's face in the reflection.
But it wasn't Colleen as I knew her. I had a hallucination of high verisimilitude: I saw Colleen with arms raised with silvery, footlong nails, her eyes white and wide, surrounded by bright orange fire and cackling while everything around her burned, burned, burned.
I blinked and the picture vanished.
“Freak,” Fred said. He stood up, walked past her and left the restaurant at a rapid clip. His friends followed. Colleen bit her bottom lip. She looked in the window and saw me looking at her in reflection, and her face turned hard and cruel. She glared at me.
“Syphilis,” I whispered.
She hissed at me, and walked away.
I looked again at the window. This time in the reflection I saw my sister, in the glass, doubled over laughing, slapping her knee, right behind me. She wore the green shirt and jeans she'd been wearing on her last day alive. She pointed and laughed and laughed and laughed, then mouthed something I couldn't hear. It was “Good one!”
I snapped around to see if she was really there. She wasn't there. And when I looked at the window, her reflection wasn't there, either. I sat down, steadied my hands.
Jamie and Prissy arrived at two wearing sweats, like usual.
“Hey Buddy,” Prissy said, squeezing my arm as she walked by. Jamie offered a thin smile.
“The usual, gravedigger,” Jamie said. She had a low, smoky voice.
They wore sweats that hung loose on their small hips. They danced at a 24 hour juice bar called The Circus about 20 miles away, closer to Sedalia. At juice bars the dancing girls weren't just topless; they didn't wear anything. I'd never been to The Circus.
They counted tips at the table and made small talk about the news, or movies, or cars―they were partial to muscular Shelby Mustangs, Jamie to the 1965 and Prissy to the 1968―but they never talked about work.
“Not supposed to be so humid tomorrow,” Prissy said. Prissy had short blond hair that always looked matted. I think she wore a wig at work. Jamie ran her finger across the window making a horizontal stripe in the condensation. Streaks like wet paint fell vertically, like the teeth of a comb.
“It's always humid here,” Jamie said. “But we can pray for a breeze.”
Prissy made an “o” with her lips and blew at her friend. Jamie laughed. Prissy laughed, too.
They were terrific friends. Sometimes I thought they would kiss in the booth, but I'd never seen them. I wished they would, not for my own sake but so Colleen could see them and know that the world was against her. Then maybe she would lay off about all the ways Jesus was going to hurt you if you weren't good.
I drank a cup of coffee in the break room and saw my spare apron hanging on the hooks. I fetched the package and at the same time wished it would go away. I couldn't resist any more: I tore into it like a raccoon on a chicken, digging for the heart. A small package, wrapped in onion skin paper.
It was a small outfit with blue and white stripes, something where the top covered a kid's shoulders and his legs would've stuck out the bottom. The back was smeared with a wide yellow stripe.
I unsnapped the snaps and a clean diaper fell out.
The outfit came from a kid who shit his diaper, and the shit launched up his back. Christina must have changed him and took some damp wipe and wiped away the shit from his back and his neck and threw away the dirty diaper. The most common thing in the world. I squeezed the soft diaper.
I'm coming home, I said to the silence and the dark. I'm coming to you.
I had another vision, this time in the window behind Jamie and Prissy's table. I stood at the head of a big wooden farm table and instead of Jamie and Prissy sitting on the sides, my sister sat on one side, and Christina Faulkner and a beautiful baby boy on the other. I loved Christina then, I really loved her like that. Jamie said something from a million miles away.
In the vision, I wore a button-up shirt and a clean tie. My reflection grinned like the devil, and my ghost sister waved at me again, her fingers tracing rainbows in the air. Christina Faulkner, radiant, shrugged her shoulders and she had forgiven me. She winked, and held up the boy before she started to laugh. Soon we all laughed and it was glorious and terrible. Our better selves, better because we were not battered by speed freaks and machinery and physics and sunlight and retreat.
I released the coffee pot and gravity pulled it to my foot, and I cried out.
“Sorry,” I said, bending down to pick up the pot, upended and spilling. It had spilled down my leg, which was burning like hell.
“You gonna make it, buddy?” cracked a voice from near behind me. Two young men sat in a booth behind me. I could smell the liquor oozing from their pores.
“What I get you,” I mumbled.
“Easy does it, buddy,” said the other one. They were about my age and each had dirty hair and bad skin. They ordered breakfast sandwiches. I went back to the kitchen, put in the order with Sylvio.
“Don't I know you?”
“Don't think so.” Jamie balanced a dinner knife on her index finger. A lever, a fulcrum, an intent.
“Brad, who are these ladies? Do you know?”
Brad looked at them, looked at their piles of singles, and looked down at the table.
“Yeah I know 'em. That's a lot of money,” he sneered.
“Tips,” Jamie said.
Brad wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He grinned.
Colleen stopped me on the way to the kitchen.
“There's no juice. No juice in the main fridge? I have to get it from the walk-in. Restock the juice if it's low. Unless you're too busy humping your stripper friends probably at the same time in your filthy mind.”
“Syphilis,” I said.
Another window, another hallucination. My sister and me, sitting at the kitchen table just before we got in the car and left. We'd been going to go see a movie. We were late. But in the mirror version, in that broad window, my sister said, “come on we have to leave now or I'm not going,” and then we popped up and left. On time. When we were on the road, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the speedfreak's car cross the median and smash into a car behind us. Inelastic.
“Oh my god!” the mirror-me, the me-in-the-car, yelled.
My mirror-sister-alive-and-in-the-car turned in her seat to stare out the rear window. “That could have been us,” she said.
“Thank god it wasn't.”
“Yep,” she said, pulling over on the side of the road. “We should see if we can help.”
I knew something was going terribly wrong: There were more people—more copies of me, and my life—in the windows than there were real people in the booths. I didn't mind. Better to be surrounded by them, even if they weren't real, than be in the same room as the woodpecker. I winked at Christina, at my son, at my sister. Window after window after window, there they were. Thumbs up, everybody.
“I'm quitting,” I said out loud, but no one could hear me. It was time to make my move.
I slid across a booth and climbed up on a table. They cheered for me! I picked up the bottle of ketchup on the table smashed it against the glass. Old, recycled ketchup and glass sprayed. The window barely cracked. My sister laughed, and so did the baby.
I retrieved a heavy chair and swung like I'd never swung before, with the swing I'd always wished for in t-ball, when I was a kid.
A glorious swing of such power and momentum that it can shatter the barrier between who you are and who you wish you were.
The window shattered, and the spray of broken glass seemed to hang in the air for too long. But instead of Wonderland, I saw cars in the parking lot, the same humdrum parking lot.
Something was unfolding behind me. Smoke everywhere: Smoke on the ceiling, smoke marching from behind the bakery counter, smoke belching from the door to the kitchen. And then: blaze, on the back of a booth. Plastic melting, black smoke.
The restaurant had emptied. A fire was making its way out of the far kitchen door.
I saw fire and thought of Colleen, hell-woman. Where was she?
Then I was in the kitchen, through the door that wasn't on fire, coughing: Diego and Sylvio, gone. Smoke spilled across the ceiling. Sylvio's grill, burning brightly. I crawled to the break room: Spooky, and stinky, and empty: No Colleen: Lights flickered: She was real, she was real, she was real. She was a demon but she was real. And my eyes stung, and everything hurt.
Juice. She got on me about the juice.
Cool, heavy vapor drifted out of the cooler when I opened the door, and darkness crashed over my brain. I covered my mouth with my shirt and under the heavy mist I saw Colleen's feet and ankles and calves, covered in white tights, askew on the floor like the Wicked Witch of the East with no magic shoes, no power to her name.
The heat began to pulse against my back. I pulled Colleen's feet then scrambled over her thin body; her eyes were closed and she looked peaceful, almost beautiful. One hand lay on the backup bags of dry ice; dark blisters had formed on her tip-stealing fingers.
Not wholly evil! Not wholly small! To that sky, in the parking lot, I thought: I saved a goddamn Holy Roller, you goddamned nonexistent big fat nothing, and the least agreeable one to boot. Colleen had been born again, again! I'm not totally sure how I got her out. Smoke, and the strength that appears in a crisis.
The purple Perky's sign on top of the restaurant blazed. I sat on the berm that separated the parking lot from the parking lot of the motel next door. Colleen sprawled next to me like a child.
She cried out and clamped her hand over her eyes. “I have secrets,” she howled into the night.
“I am sorry, so sorry. Please forgive me.”
Then she opened her eyes and saw me, and wiped her eyes with her undamaged hand.
“There's something wrong with you.”
“There's something wrong with you,” I said. “You steal.”
“You'll burn,” she rasped, her forked tongue visible to me there, in the sultry night, under the blaze of the high pressure sodium lights. She rolled over and hunched up on all fours, close to my face.
“You don't believe, but you will one day, you will you will.”
“You're welcome,” I said.
I buckled the onesie into my empty passenger seat. Then I was on the overpass and had a choice: Drive south, drive home, return to where everything went wrong and try to move forward in a different direction. Or drive north, away from Christina and my son and my sister's grave, drive farther away.
North. Of course, north. North forever. Colleen had taught me: I wasn't ready for a child. I was still far too cowardly.
I thrilled to watch that conflagration called Perky's in my rearview mirror, like a retreating beacon in Hell. I knew the sun would come up I would be driving, just driving.
With the pacifier in my mouth, I prayed to my son: Give me the strength, son, to go far enough away that I come back to you. Every day brings me closer to you.
Then I prayed to the listening night: Thank God for the darkness and for cars, and thank God for the horizon, and thank God for highways, thank God for highways, and thank God for highways. Amen.
STEPHEN ORNES writes from a shed in his backyard in Nashville, Tennessee. His fiction has previously appeared in One Story, Vestal Review, Arcadia, and elsewhere. He's also a science writer. Visit him online at stephenornes.com