Friday, March 1, 2013

Slow Morning / Too Late

 Two versions of an exercise I did for a writing workshop:

1. Slow Morning

           A large raindrop runs down the outside of the diner window.  It runs into a previous drop and swallows it, doubling itself.  Soon the pane is covered with drops.  For a moment, one is reflected onto a single crumb on the stained table.
Janet has her elbows on the table, her head in her hands, staring down at the surface of the table, counting the imperfections.  Too many.
She is sitting alone in the Seattle diner.
Where is Bob?
She glances at the clock across the room.  Ten o’clock.  Bob should have been here half an hour ago.  Her fork is teetering on the edge of her empty plate.  Janet moves her elbow and bumps the fork into secure position.  She does this without removing her head from her hands. 
She wants to glance at the door again, but the shuffling waiter has been giving her strange looks.  She should have sat where she could see it without turning.  Her fingers tap on the sides of her head. 
She lets her eyes wander around the room, without turning her head toward the door.  No one else is in the diner except her and the owner and the one shuffling waiter.  The owner has made a point of not looking at her.  The waiter has been shifty and suspicious.  When Fredric told her about this place, he had failed to mention that a wary waiter would be snooping about.  At least there were no customers, as he had promised.
Janet takes her stained napkin and once again carefully wipes her large plate— the center; the rim, all the way around.  She places it in at the seat across from her.  She slowly lets out a deep breath.  Good enough.  She places her hands on the edge of the table.  No.  She wipes the plate again; puts it back exactly.
She leans back.  She begins to turn her head toward the clock again, but stops herself.  Her internal sense of time tells her that only a minute has passed.  Where is this Bob?  She closes her eyes.  She tries to mentally picture his face, but is not sure of the eyes.  She turns to the open purse beside her on the seat and pulls from it a crisp manila folder.  She lays it evenly on thee table before her and examines five photographs of Bob.  One is from his driver’s license, one from a newspaper clipping, and the other three from a discreet photographer with a long-distance lens.  She stares intently at them for fifteen seconds each.  Her mouth moves silently to count the seconds.  Then she closes the folder and puts it back into her purse.  She double-checks to make sure that it will not diminish the accessibility of the silenced pistol.  She wants to double-check the pistol as well, but knows it is not wise, not with that waiter.  She reaches for it anyway.  Biting her lip, she just scoots the purse a fraction closer to herself instead.
She glances at the waiter.  He is cleaning the hallway near the restrooms.  The owner has buried himself in a newspaper.  Janet slips out of her booth and into the one across from her, where Bob will sit.  She mimes reaching out, taking something off the plate.  She stares at the seat where she was just sitting for a moment, wishes she had a mirror.  What will he see?  Hastily she switches back to her original seat, glancing at the door again as she does.  Where is he?
A man walks in the door.
He glances around quickly.  He takes off his sunglasses.  It is Bob.
Janet goes tense.  The muscles in her arms seize.  Her eyes look everywhere but at Bob’s face.
The owner of the diner is nowhere to be seen.
Bob sees Janet and approaches.  He puts his hands in his pockets as he reaches the booth.  She swallows quickly and nods for him to sit.  He sits.
“You’ve eaten,” he says.
Her eyes go the plate exactly in front of him, then back to his face.  He has tired eyes.  “Yes,” she says.  She breathes very steadily.  “I have eaten.”
“I have not,” he says.  “Do you mind?”
Her eyes widen.  “The waiter . . . the waiter’s busy.”
He glances casually, nods.  “Of course.  And the owner?”
She slowly lifts her right her arm toward her purse.  “He knows to, eh, look very closely at something else.”  Now that it is happening, it seems to be happening much too fast.  She rests her right elbow on the back of the booth.  The feel of cotton on leather does not comfort like it should.  Her hand dangles just above her open purse.
He leans forward, over the plate, puts his elbows on the table on either side of it. 
No waiting now.
Janet takes the pistol and places it on the plate, pointing at him.  For a moment, she does not take her hand off it.  Bob’s eyes flicker.  He leans back ever so slightly. 
Janet withdraws her hand quickly.  Bob reaches out, lets his hand descend onto the gun.  He turns it toward the window.  He picks it up, turns it over, examines it; does all this with one hand.  He sets it back down on the plate, butt down, silencer pointing in the air.  He brings up his other hand. 
Janet is very still.
Bob takes off the silencer in a few brief twists.  He holds it up, examines it.  He replaces it just as efficiently.  This whole time his eyes have been always on the gun.  Janet watches him as he watches what he is doing, almost detached from his own actions, and certainly detached from any interaction with her.
Janet swallows.  She pushes a stray strand of brown hair back behind her ear.
Bob makes a clicking noise with his tongue.  “Looks good,” he says.  He puts the gun inside his jacket.  Then he gets up and leaves.  Janet follows him out with her eyes.  The wind slams the door. 
Janet glances at the clock again.  10:04.  The whole thing has taken less than five minutes.
She puts her elbows back on the table.
She puts her head back in her hands.
The rain keeps hitting the window, hitting the window, hitting the window.
Her words with Bob are the closest thing she has had to a conversation this month.

2. Too Late

            John’s late and he knows it.  He forgot his coat on the way out the door and is still cursing himself under his breath about it.  It is Sunday morning and he is not going to church.  His mother would not be happy if she could know.  He has to make an awkward half leap to get over a puddle at the edge of the curb.  Then, too suddenly, the glass door of the diner looms before him, rivulets running across the flaking yellow letters.  He takes a breath before he opens it, even though it means that much more rain will soak into his disordered hair.  He straightens his shoulders decisively and pushes through the doorway.
At once the full force of the diner hits him, old and cheap and blaring, bursting in a thousand directions at once.  A child is screaming in a booth, his parents insisting that he finish his meal.  A teenager is looking everywhere but at the girl across from him.  The lights are piercing too—who needs glaring ‘80s style lights at this time in the morning?  From somewhere in the back, a cook’s shouting bites through the clamor of dishes and the sizzle of grease.  He can almost feel his shoes sticking to the floor.  The smell of burnt burgers hits him.  Too much salt in this place.  He is thirsty already, and he just walked out of a downpour.  He is dripping all over the dirty tiles beneath his feet, of course, and he sees little puddles under the rest of the customers as well.  He drags his eyes off the floor and looks around for Cindy.  To his left, a hefty waitress with blank eyes clatters a tray of what must be pancakes down on a table.  To his right, an elderly man is unaware, as he gestures, that his elbow keeps coming precariously close to sending his milkshake to the floor.  The clock hanging in the middle of the room catches and holds John’s gaze as it is about to fly over the buzzing room once more—twenty to eleven; he’s a solid ten minutes late.  Figures.
He pushes on, deeper into the diner, unconsciously biting his lip.  An old woman is rustling her newspaper heartily and won’t stop.  The usually pleasant smell of coffee is overwhelming in this high of a concentration.  Where in this hell is she?  He tries to focus, but his head feels like an anvil.  The bathroom doors jump up in front of him; he has gone too far and hit the end of the crooked row of booths.  He turns around and—
There she is.  Cindy sits in the nearest booth, facing him, her head barely above the back of the booth.  No wonder he hadn’t seen her.  He always forgets how short she is, even though she’s two years older than him.  Two years?  Yeah, that must be about right.  Her face is forcefully composed; her expression does not change when she sees him.  She just blinks.  One of her hands holds up her chin.  The other rests on the edge of the table in front of her, fingers tapping lightly but insistently.  An empty coffee mug stands off to one side, atop a folded newspaper, like a solitary medieval keep surrounded by barren fields.
Now something must be done.  He can’t just stand there like a deer in her headlights.  He takes a breath and reaches the booth in one stride.  He slides in gingerly, feeling her eyes on him the whole time.
            “You’re here,” she says.  She sighs.  “Good,” she adds.
            He shifts his neck so it cracks.  “Yeah, yeah,” he says quickly.  “I got your call.”
            She blushes.  “Last night?  I don’t know what—”
            “No, this morning.”
            She throws a glance over at the empty coffee mug but doesn’t say anything.
            “You look really tired.”
            She shrugs.  “I’m okay.  You?”
            He doesn’t want to admit that his head is killing him.  “I, uh . . .  I’m doing okay.  Yeah, fine.”
            She raises an eyebrow.  “Late night?”
            Yeah.  But they’ve been going out three weeks.  Since when does that give her the right to question him about where he goes or how late he stays up every night?
            A truck going by outside on the street throws water up against the door, yards away.  For a moment he watches it run down.
            She sighs again.  “You smell like a hangover.”
            He tries to laugh.  “Look I’m sorry I had to cancel.  Or sorry it was so last minute.  Sorry if that was a problem, for you.”
            Her lip curls up a little.  “You had to?  It was a problem for me?”
            “You’re the one who called at 2:30 in the morning.”
            She is silent for a moment.  “It just strikes me as strange, John, that you would value your spur-of-the-moment drinking night thing with your college buddy over your planned-for-a-week nice dinner thing with your girlfriend.”
            He can’t see the front of the clock from where he is.  “You say my name like you hold it against me, Cindy.”
            She blinks.  Her eyes—her big hazel eyes that he thought were so sad and beautiful the first time he saw them, the first time he saw her—look owlish now.  There is a little thread of bloodshot color, in the corner of the left one, which her eyelashes keep trying to cover up, unsuccessfully.
            “What?” she asks at last.
            “You use my name like . . . like a leash to try to pull me around.”
            Her mouth opens and then closes again.  She rearranges her hands on the stained surface of the table.  “I was trying to get your attention.  You look like you’re not listening to me.”
            “You listen like you’re not looking at me.”  He whips off the goofy, habitual inversion before he can think to stop himself.  They irritate her, he discovered some time ago, but his mind had gotten wrapped into the pattern, and sometimes his tongue followed too fast to correct.
            She slaps the table.  “John!”
            He starts.
            “Do you even care?”
            His eyes go to the back of the clock again.  “About what?”
            She pulls herself up and puts her elbows on the table.  “About me!  You remind me of Nathan.”  As soon as she says it she puts her hand over her mouth.
            His eyes go wide for a second, but then he slouches back.
            “Not usually,” she says quickly.  “I mean, not really.”
            Too late.  A pretty waitress hurries past, and he lets his eyes follow her legs.  “Don’t worry about it,” he says.  “I think we’re done here.  You’ve said what you wanted to, right?  I remind you of your dead-beat cheating ex-husband.  Because I cancelled a date.”  He reaches over and turns the empty coffee mug upside down on the newspaper.  “Check and check mate.  Very well done.”
            Her face contorts.  The rain on the window throws odd patterns of light and shadow on her face.  Then she sets her teeth.  “You know, you sound like him too, when you talk like that,” she says.  “You don’t want to take responsibility for anything.”  She scoots defiantly out of the booth and stands, looking down on him.  “I knew it would come to this.  I knew it.  I knew it last night when I called at 2:30 and there was nobody home.  I guess you were either still out drinking and ogling strippers or you were crashed in your bed drunk out of your mind.”
            He notices the black circles under her eyes for the first time.  “Whatever you say,” he says.  He can’t do anything to stop her now.
            She looks around, like she’s trying to find words, like maybe she could grab some from the amused faces in the neighboring booths.  However, they are silent, and she doesn’t find any, and she strides off past him toward the bathroom.  As the door marked “Ladies” swings to behind her, she calls, “Don’t be there when I get back!”
            The cook is shouting from the kitchen again.
            John stands and lets a long breath out.  He walks past the newspaper woman, past the old man’s shake, still balanced, past the teenagers avoiding each other’s eyes, past the child in rebellion, past the dripping coats, through the puddles and the wafting smell of grease being burnt.
            He curses her, curses himself, curses the diner, curses Seattle, pulls his collar up around his chin, and walks out the door, back into the rain.

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