Lunch in August

Here’s another short story born out of a Fiction Writing class at Columbia College Chicago. Several people have told me it reminds them of a Larry David piece, which is about as grand as compliments get. It was originally published in the now semi-defunct Ghost Factory.

Behind the counter a small TV was blaring the opening theme of Jeopardy! The waitress’ wandering eyes were making it pretty clear that she was more interested in getting back to Alex Trebek than she was in taking Aaron’s order. “Good-morning-sir-what-can-we-get-for-you,” she monotoned in a bored Southern drawl. Aaron flashed her what he hoped was an ingratiating smile, but she wasn’t even looking in his direction.

Flustered by her indifference, Aaron stammered “Ah, the, um, rib eye steak, I think…” The tall woman snatched up the single-page menu and strolled back behind the counter, pausing to bark, “More coffee?” at three elderly black men silently nursing cigarettes at a table near the door.

The waitress was black too. So were the cook, the half-dozen other customers and, Aaron suspected, every person who had ever set foot in Silver’s Diner of Senatobia, Mississippi. Every person except him, that was.

It had caught him completely off guard. Up north, there were plenty of Afrocentric (that was the proper term, right?) businesses in big cities like Minneapolis and Milwaukee, but an all-black diner in a small town was unheard of. He wasn’t sure why it should make him so uncomfortable, but being in the minority had thrown him completely off track. The steak was a panic order. He was really craving fried chicken, but he just couldn’t bring himself to order that here.

Behind the counter the waitress and a jowly man in a red flannel shirt stared at the TV intently. The waitress was pretty good, Aaron noted as she rattled off a string of questions: “What is ricotta?” “Who is Grace Kelly?” “What is Copenhagen?” After each question the jowly man mumbled, “I knew that one” to her annoyed glance.

Aaron started to relax a bit. What possible threat did Silver’s Diner pose to him? It was a humble little joint, long Formica lunch counter fronting the kitchen and a dozen wobbly wooden tables scattered across a yellowing tile floor. The large picture window next to his table let in a lazy shaft of mid-August light, a reminder of how nice it was to be in an air-conditioned setting after four sweaty hours in his fossilized Volvo. At the moment the only customers were the jowly man, the three ancient smokers and a heavyset younger couple in the far corner talking quietly over their po’ boys. Aaron glanced at the Budweiser clock over the counter. Noon on the dot. If he got right on the road after lunch, he could just make Martin’s place in New Orleans before dark.

The old smokers had roused themselves from their stupor and now seemed to be telling jokes. Aaron caught the tail end of a rising voice just before the table erupted into laughter. The punchline seemed to have something to do with a donkey. Or was it… honky? He wasn’t sure what he’d heard. Did that guy just look at him? He ran a self-conscious hand through his shaggy blonde hair.

There was a jukebox against the wall to his right. Aaron wouldn’t have thought of playing a song for fear of interrupting the obviously sacrosanct Jeopardy! session, but he needed to put his eyes some place. He could just make out the CD covers from where he sat: Otis Redding, Teddy Pendergrass, Etta James, The Commodores, Patti LaBelle. If he’d found a lineup that soulful in a bar back in Minnesota, the place would have become his regular Saturday night thing. Here it just made him feel all the more conspicuous. He shifted in his seat to let the air conditioning dry out his sweat-drenched butt cheeks.

The TV switched to a Mylanta commercial. Right on cue the waitress came loping out from behind the counter with a steaming plate in her hand. At least the service was fast, Aaron had to give her that. She plunked the entrée down artlessly and mumbled, “Need anything else today?” He started to ask for maybe a bit of A-1, but her steely grey bouffant was already bobbing away toward the TV.

“Good lord, that’s what passes for steak down here?” Aaron thought, eyeing the frazzled grey lump of animal product facing up at him from a chipped green plate. This slab of beef looked particularly dead, thick ribbons of fat glistening sullenly amidst the grim flesh. The side salad wasn’t much more promising. It looked like something on a TV with bad color adjustment. The alleged greens salad was more of a sickly grey, the tomato wedge a translucent yellow and the creamy dressing a day-glo orange. He really hoped that meant he’d been given thousand island instead of the bleu cheese he’d asked for.

Aaron sighed and began unwrapping the bundled napkin full of silverware. The napkin unraveled and sent a single soupspoon clattering onto the tabletop. “The hell?” Aaron mumbled, picking up the spoon and slowly rotating it in front of his face. His eyes scanned the surrounding tables in search of a steak knife, a fork, even a butter knife, but there was no silverware to be seen. He pressed his thumb into his eye socket in frustration. He started to stand to ask for a full set of utensils, but the big guy in the corner shot him what he took to be a reproachful glare. Aaron slowly lowered himself back onto the slick vinyl chair. Up at the counter, the game had moved into the Double Jeopardy round.

“What is ‘Heartbreak Hotel’?”

“I knew that one.”

“You so smart, why you don’t answer one before they do some time?”

“I got nothin’ to prove.”

Aaron took an awkward spoonful of salad, most of which slopped onto his plate. The dressing was a too-tangy thousand island, thank God, but it couldn’t mask the intense bitterness of the greens. It reminded Aaron of the way his fingers tasted after picking dandelions as a kid. The old men busted out laughing again. Were they watching his plight? He was tempted to just slap ten bucks on the table and take off, but he really was hungry and he just couldn’t be that rude. Instead, he took up the soupspoon and began slowly grinding it against the rubbery steak, hoping to work a hunk off by erosion. The steak didn’t budge. He flipped the spoon over and tried to penetrate the meat with the handle, but the plate just slid noisily against the wood grain and he quickly gave up.

“What is ‘Don’t Be Cruel’?”

“Knew it.”

“You didn’t know a damn thing!”

He wished he’d asked for silverware in the first place, but now enough time had elapsed that he couldn’t do it without looking awkward. Maybe the best strategy was just to pick the steak up and eat it like a sandwich. But that would be rude too, unless he could do it without being spotted.

Sneaking a surreptitious peek around the café, Aaron pulled the paper napkin from his lap and in one quick darting motion snatched the meat from the plate. Under the table his hands haphazardly wrapped the napkin around the steak and jammed the greasy bundle into the left pocket of his jeans. He stood up slowly, trying to make as little noise as possible, and trudged toward the unisex restroom at the rear of the diner, eyes fixed on his own shoes. As the men’s room door swung open, he caught another gust of laughter from the smokers.

The restroom was not half as disgusting as the food and service had caused him to fear, but there was an acrid hint of urine in the air that made the notion of wolfing down the gristly steak even less appealing. He pulled the parcel from his pocket and unwrapped it disdainfully. Bits of white napkin clung to the meat, but Aaron decided the difference in taste would probably not be worth the effort of scraping them off. He leaned over the sink and tried to hold his breath as he took his first nibble. Other than being awfully tough, it wasn’t too bad. In fact, it was downright decent, sort of like a good bar burger. He bit off a larger chunk and caught his reflection in the mirror. He couldn’t help laughing at the realization that he was crouched over a bathroom sink in Senatobia, Mississippi devouring an ugly steak as he hid from a perfectly harmless bunch of black folks. The laughing quickly turned to coughing as he accidentally inhaled a fleck of half-chewed meat. The spasm shook the steak loose from his hand. Aaron lunged to catch his lunch as it bounced off the side of the sink basin. He managed to get a hand on it, then watched in horror as the altered trajectory sent the meat tumbling end over end into the toilet.

Aaron’s eyes burned with hot tears. He wanted desperately to be out of the bathroom, out of Silver’s Diner, out of Senatobia, out of Mississippi and back in his ancient Volvo sailing down the interstate toward New Orleans. There was no salvaging the meal. After a moment’s mourning, he flushed the toilet bitterly, silently cursing whatever ill-fated cow sacrificed its flank to produce that hateful steak. He squeezed a few pumps of garish pink hand soap into his palm and began rubbing away the grease and grime of a long morning on the road. He turned off the tap and was puzzled to still hear water running. He turned in exasperation to see a stream of water trickling down the porcelain sides of the overbrimming toilet bowl.

Aaron was already digging in his wallet as he hustled out of the restroom, past the still-squabbling game show buffs.

“What is ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’?”

“Naw, what is ‘Only the Lonely’?”

“That ain’t even an Elvis song. I knew you didn’t know nothin’!”

“Didn’t stop you from marryin’ me.”

“Yeah, and you hear me braggin’ that one up?”

As Aaron approached his table, he noticed the portly woman in the corner rising from her seat. He picked up his pace, anxious to get out before his toilet transgression was revealed. Just then a burly, bearded man in a grey seersucker suit came bursting through the door, a blast of stifling hot air following close behind. “Hey, Reverend!” the smoking table chorused.

The bearded man didn’t return the greeting, just beckoned them frantically toward the outside. “Hey, y’all come help! Some fool parked in Miss Annie’s space and she had to park back behind the dumpster! She got her walker all tangled in the bushes and she’s like to pitch a fit back there, somebody don’t get her out quick!”

Every eye in the place fixed first on Aaron, then on the pale blue Volvo parked directly in front of the entrance, then on the Minnesota license plate in the center of the grill. “It… it wasn’t marked handicapped…” Aaron murmured, but his words were drowned out by the clatter of chairs as the three old men hustled to Miss Annie’s aid, shooting him dirty looks the whole way out the door. The big guy from the corner table grumbled something Aaron couldn’t hear as he followed close behind.

Aaron opened his mouth to make some kind of explanation to the accusatory waitress and her jowly husband, but just then the large woman emerged from the bathroom saying, “Mona, you got one hot mess back there! Toilet runnin’ over, water everywhere!”

Aaron was out the door before Mona had a chance to respond, two five-dollar bills fluttering to the tile in his wake. The Volvo’s aging belts squealed in protest as he backed out of the space, revealing a few yellow paint chips that might conceivably have once resembled a figure in a wheelchair. He glanced in his rearview just in time to catch five bodies scrambling out of range of his rear bumper. He saw the elderly woman who had been their nucleus throw her mouth open wide under her lemon yellow Easter hat. The transmission clunked angrily as he shifted into drive just in time to avoid flattening the unfortunate Miss Annie. The Volvo lurched forward and Aaron careered out of the parking lot serenaded by a chorus of angry bass voices.

He was almost to the interstate before he realized it was well over a hundred degrees in the car. He hurriedly cranked down the driver’s side window and was immediately slapped in the face by the unmistakable, greasy aroma of Kentucky Fried Chicken. He almost stuck his head out the window and cursed Colonel Sanders’ smug goateed face beaming down from the marquee, but he just bit his lip and pulled onto I-55 already doing 80.

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