“Diner Food” by Costa Koutsoutis © 2013
“Is this really necessary?” he muttered as he stood by the counter, the manager dusting the front of his shirt and coat down with a dishrag, basically just flicking the wet cloth at him really fast, trying hard not to laugh.
I stumbled out the door, tripping on the trash outside, thinking that exact same thing. The diner was still half-full, but I wasn’t in the mood to deal with people. If anything, it was too full. The brightness never bothered me, as long as I could be left alone, and having been going to the Acorn in Queens for the past year or so, they knew me well enough to do so.
Everyone else though, they were another story. People looking for some sort of inspiration and companionship in all the wrong places, deluded thanks to generations growing up thinking that there are no more assholes, just misunderstood souls who are waiting for you to come along so that they could spill their guts to you for either their therapy, your amusement, or both.
Sometimes, I enjoyed reminding them that no, I was just an asshole in a diner working at the counter late at night, and had no real desire to be their friend.
Other times though, it wasn’t worth it. Tonight was one of those nights, when the newest laureate-to-be to come to New York sat next to me, and I, immersed in my sandwich, didn’t notice him take an interest in me. Not the kind of interest that one would have to pay twenty dollars for and wouldn’t normally last more than an hour, but apparently a genuine interest in me, the way Jane Goodall took interest initially.
Suffice to say we didn’t hit it off, and nothing came of our little meet besides me pushing him off his counter seat while the manager came out and laughed, and then advised me to take off for the night to clear this up. Dinner tonight was on him. I guess it wasn’t a total loss, as I decided on a course of action for the walk home.
The wind was picking up, and I felt the vibration in my pocket as I pulled my cap down on my head and pulled my cellphone out of my pocket.
“No, this is me sleepwalking and talking. What’s up?”
“Nothing, I’m walking to the train, going home from work.” She worked night sometimes at a book publisher, other times during the day she was in a sealed room doing stuff for a local TV station, master control or something like that. Combined with my weird word schedule we somehow managed to both have plenty of time together, but also always end up on the opposite sides of town.
“I just left the Acorn, going home to crash.”
“Too bad, I was gonna say if you’d just gotten up or whatever you could come by, I’m free tomorrow.”
The offer was tempting, but at the same time I knew I couldn’t. I proofread for a living, other people’s work coming across my desk at all odd hours sometimes waiting for spellcheck, fact checking, format style proofs, the whole kit and caboodle.
I’d been one of those assholes, before. We both were, entranced with the idea of writing, of being Serious Writers hunched over laptops and gilded leather-bound notebooks in café’s and smoking over typewriters at four in the morning. She wrote comics and self-published poetry when she could but her jobs, which she actually really liked doing, took up a lot of the time that I didn’t. I was sitting on a novel that was in a millionth draft but with a few short stories in some magazines that never made me any money I could justify sitting on it a little bit longer, I’d tell myself.
Regardless there was a stack of stuff to look over tomorrow due by five PM, so I had to sacrifice a night of warmth and nakedness in a wet cold autumn so that I could get paid and afford rent and bills and food.
“You know you could come over if you want, watch me work, help out.”
“You mean get you coffee and Chinese food while you swear and threaten to destroy other people’s work.”
I paused, looking both ways before crossing a street when a single solitary car slid by in the darkness of the practically-empty neighborhood, the one single car I’d seen all night since showing up at the Acorn earlier that night. “Maybe,” I finally said, grinning over my end of the phone. I could almost feel her doing the same thing on her end. “You’re a fucking asshole,” she said, not entirely serious, but enough. “Anyway, if you get some free time, come by my place tomorrow, OK? I’m at the train, I’ll talk to you tomorrow. I love you.”
“I love you too,” I said in to the phone before sliding glass and plastic back into my pocket. My apartment wasn’t too far from the diner, and as I got closer I could hear the ever-growing rumble of the train, elevated subway tracks passing a mere hundred feet away from my windows.
It was quiet except for the subway, even the crickets gone as it’d been getting colder and colder and colder. No cars, no dogs, no wind.
I paused at the side wall of the corner deli.
There it was then, a cough.
Don’t go in there don’t go in there don’t go in there don’t go in there don’t go in there don’t go in there…my brain was on repeat all of a sudden, because I knew, just like everyone knows not to look in the alley, not to look at the noise when it’s just an ugly scrape and grunt and cough.
It had…three? No, there were four there, four arms, long and spindly, grey and slick and shiny. They were reaching out from under the heavy coat, some kind of brown trench coat or raincoat, the blue-grey arms and that smooth, slick no-nose face peering out, oddly confused, like it was drunk.
I couldn’t tell what the high thin ridges raising the back of the coat and the assorted garbage, but they were symmetrical and moving independently of each other, like another set of limbs maybe? I couldn’t see any legs or anything but on a smooth arc, the neck slung the fact right at me, and I could see and hear, faintly, wet flesh un-touching flesh as a slit appeared in that featureless face, a mouth opening up to cough, gasp, a long thing red tongue rolling out like a dog’s.