New Fiction: Douglas at the Diner

Sam Chapin

 

         It was 8:59 as Douglas lay asleep in bed. He was on his back with his head turned to the right. His comforter was tucked under both armpits and a book lay open in his right hand, marking the last page he had read before falling asleep. His reading glasses had slipped off his nose but its arms remained clinging to his balding head. His mouth was slightly open and a bit of saliva clung to his lower lip. He was breathing deeply when he was awoken.

           Thud.

            Douglas opened his eyes and was temporarily blinded by the light from his lamp. He squinted as he sat up, replaced his reading glasses with the glasses on the nightstand, and inserted a bookmark into The Disenchanted. He slipped on his slippers and walked to the window, drawing the blinds. The light from the sun overwhelmed the light from the lamp, as he became temporarily blind once again. He squinted out the window, looking for what had woke him. He looked down the three floors to the street and saw, lying on the sidewalk, a dead pigeon. Douglas heaved a sigh, turned off his lamp, and walked into the bathroom.

 

            He switched on the light, looked at himself in the mirror on the medicine cabinet, shrugged, and opened it. He removed his floss, toothpaste, and mouthwash and placed them on the back of the sink. He picked up the floss and wrapped one end twice around his left index finger, and the other end three times around his right. He flossed every gap on his lower jaw, threw away the floss, and repeated the process with his upper jaw. He picked up his toothbrush and toothpaste. He applied the paste to the brush and began to brush vigorously. While brushing, his eyes wandered to the right of the cabinet at a photo of him and an older woman. They were standing on a beach in front of the ocean, smiling. His eyes remained on the photo until he quickly jerked his head towards the sink to spit. After briefly examining his teeth in the mirror, he ran the warm water, put his glasses on the back of the toilet and rinsed his hair and face. He reached behind him for a towel, gently patted his face down and dried his head. After combing his hair, he picked up his glasses and left the bathroom.

 

            Douglas walked to the window and took three deep breaths before bending over and reaching for his toes. He was three inches short but held the stretch for fifteen seconds. He straightened, took three more breaths, and reached down again. This time he was only an inch and a half short. He straightened, took more breaths, and went down a last time. This time he made it, just barely, and held it for twenty seconds. He stood up and walked to the other side of the room where, on his chair, he had laid out his clothes the night before. He put on a pair of light, unpleated khakis, a white undershirt, a green turtleneck sweater, a pair of high, black socks and white New Balance sneakers. He left his pajamas folded up on the foot of his bed. He walked to his bedside table, on the other side of the room, and picked up his watch, which read 9:23. He put it on and shook his arm until it settled on his wrist. He walked to the window and heaved a sigh.

 

            “Okay,” Douglas muttered.

            After a few moments he lowered the window and closed the blinds. On his way out, he picked up his wallet and keys, which were in a dish on the table next to the door. He unlatched all four locks, and left his apartment.

            Douglas stepped onto the street, and looked up. The sky was gray. He turned right and as he walked down the sidewalk he saw people with umbrellas over their heads in anticipation. After walking four blocks, Douglas turned into Maxie’s Diner.

            “Hey, Dougy,” the waitress said as soon as he walked through the door.

            “Oh, hello, Cindy,” Douglas replied.

            “You’re a half hour early this morning. You got somewhere to be?”

            “No,” Douglas said, walking to the counter.

            “Well I’ll get your coffee and corn muffin in a sec, doll.”

            “Thank you.” Douglas took a seat on a barstool. He looked around at the empty seats and smiled. He was the only patron except for a man by the window, reading the newspaper. He took a deep breath and smelled the thick aroma of coffee and breakfast. He released his breath and his shoulders fell and his spine relaxed.

 

 

            “Hey, Dougy-boy! How you doing?” asked the cook as he emerged from the kitchen and stood behind the counter.

            “How are you, Jay?”

            “Alive and well.” Jay looked behind him at the clock on the wall. “Hey, you’re early. What gives?”

            “Nothing. I’m just ahead of time this morning.”

            “Ahead of time? No one’s ahead of time, Doug. We’re all playing catch up.” Jay said, as Cindy joined him behind the counter.

            “Wow, Jay, I never knew you were a philosopher,” Cindy said as she poured Douglas a cup of coffee.

            “Cindy, honey, there are a lot of things you don’t know about me,” Jay replied with a wink. He started back into the kitchen, and received a slap on the backside from Cindy as he walked by.

            “Here’s your coffee hon, and your muffin is almost ready. You’ve got to let us know when you’re going to surprise us like this,” Cindy said with a smile.

            Douglas reached for the milk and added a few drops, changing the coffee from black to dark brown. He poured a second’s worth of sugar in and stirred. He glanced back at the man by the window, but the newspaper was still concealing his face.

            “So how’s work, Doug?” Cindy asked.

            Douglas turned back to his coffee. “It’s fine.”

            “It’s fine? Every week it’s the same. It’s fine. Anything new? Anything interesting?”

“I didn’t get a promotion.”

            “Well, that doesn’t sound fine. That sounds shitty. It sounds like things are shitty at work.”

            Douglas shrugged and took a sip of coffee.

            “So, why didn’t you get a promotion?” 

            Douglas put the cup down. “I don’t know. I guess it’s not my turn yet.”

            “Not your turn? Douglas, how long you been working at that office?”

            “Eight years and three months.”

            “Eight years and three months, and how many promotions.”

            Douglas evened the bottom of the knife with the fork on his napkin. “None.”

            “It sounds to me like it’s your turn. Sounds like it’s been your turn for a long time. You’ve got to let someone know that you’re turn has come, and that you need to get what’s coming to you.”

            Douglas smiled and took another sip of coffee.

            “Oh, your muffin,” Cindy said as she rushed into the kitchen.

            The door to the restaurant closed and heavy footsteps approached from behind Douglas. A black man wearing a grey sweatshirt and blue jeans appeared next to him and sat on the stool to his left. Douglas’ spine stiffened. He glanced at all of the empty stools lining the counter, but did not look at the man’s face.

            “Have you had the eggs? They any good?” asked the man, after a few moments of silence.

            Douglas stared into his coffee. “Yes.”

            “Yes you had them, or yes they’re good?”

            “I’ve had them.”

            “They any good.”

            “Yes,” Douglas said, lifting the coffee to his lips. His hand was shaking slightly.

            “I love eggs. Nothing like eggs in the morning. Funny how they’re only good in the morning. Someone offers me eggs for lunch or dinner, no way.” The man perused the menu, quickly turning its pages back and forth.

            “Here we go,” Cindy said, as she emerged from the kitchen with a muffin on a plate. “Get it while it’s hot.”

            “Thank you, Cindy,” Douglas replied, looking into her eyes.

            “We were just talking about your eggs,” the man said to Cindy. “He says they’re good.”

            “The best in the city,” Cindy replied.

            “Is that a fact?” the man said. “Well, that’s quite a claim. They must be some fine eggs to be the best in the whole city.” The man closed his menu and laid it on the counter.

            “You don’t believe me? Order the eggs. I guarantee that they will be better than any eggs you’ve ever had in this town.”

            “And if they ain’t?”

            “Then I will assure you that you are mistaken.”

            The man smiled and leaned forward towards Cindy. “Well then, I’ll have the eggs, scrambled, with toast.”

            “Perfect,” Cindy said. “You want coffee?”

            “No ma’am. Just the eggs is fine.”

            Cindy snatched up his menu and headed back into the kitchen.

            Douglas had been watching the steam rise from his cup, glancing up from time to time towards the man and Cindy. He reached for the milk and added a few more drops to his coffee. He mixed it with his spoon and took a sip. He put the cup back on the counter, carefully aligning it with the ring of perspiration that had formed around its edges on the counter top.

            “What kind of muffin you get?” asked the man.

            “Corn,” Douglas replied, turning his attention to the plate.

            “Would've got blueberry myself.”

            “Oh,” Douglas said, still looking at the muffin.

            “You can tell a lot about a man based on his muffin,” the man said, holding a butter knife in his hand. “For instance you’re a corn man. A corn muffin is the most basic of all muffins. It’s consistent and solid, but leaves no room for surprises. Now take a blueberry muffin. Every muffin is different, so you never know what you’re gonna get. You could get two dozen blueberries, or you could get two. You never know, but that’s why you get the muffin. You know what I’m saying?”

 

           

            Douglas nodded and took a bite out of his muffin.

            The man laughed and placed the knife back down onto a napkin, next to the fork.

            Cindy walked up to the counter from the kitchen. “Here you go. The best in the city.” She set the man’s eggs down on the table in front of him, and remained standing with her arms crossed.

            The man pulled his plate towards him. He picked up his fork and scooped up some egg. He brought it to his mouth and began to chew. 

            “So,” Cindy said. “Am I right, or am I right?”

            The man swallowed. “These, ma’am, are some damn fine eggs.”

            Cindy smiled and gave a curtsey. Jay emerged from the kitchen.

            “What’s the verdict?” Jay asked.

            “He’s a believer,” Cindy replied.

            Douglas turned his head towards the window. The man with the newspaper was gone.

            “So what’s your secret?’ the man in the sweatshirt asked.

            Jay laughed. “You think I’d tell you? Come on now. We didn’t get the reputation of the best eggs in the city by telling everyone the recipe.”

             The man smiled. “No, I reckon you didn’t.”

“How’s the muffin Dougy?” Jay asked.

            “Good, thank you,” replied Douglas, as he took a bite.

            The man chuckled. “Can I ask you two a question?” he asked, his mouth full of egg. “Is he always this talkative?”

            Douglas’ face reddened as he took another bite of his muffin.

            Jay and Cindy looked at each other, and then to Douglas. “Douglas has been a costumer of ours for years,” Jay said. “He’s a good friend of ours.”

            “I don’t think anyone has ever been so polite to me in all my life,” Cindy added. “Being a waitress you can imagine some of the assholes that I’ve had to deal with, excuse my French.”

“Well, that’s fine,” replied the man.

“Can I get either of you anything else? More coffee Douglas?” Cindy said.

“No thank you, Cindy. I’m all set for now.” Douglas looked up at Cindy and gave a small smile.

Cindy smiled back and returned to the kitchen with Jay.

Douglas looked at his watch which read 10:00.

“What time is it?” The man asked.

Douglas looked up at the clock in front of them. “10 o’clock.”  

“Oh, right,” the man replied, looking at the clock. “Time flies.”

Douglas looked into his coffee. “If you’re having fun,” he muttered.

The man turned and looked at Douglas. “What did you just say?”

“If you’re having fun,” Douglas repeated more loudly, his voice shaking slightly.

“Well, I’ll be. You made a joke.” The man smiled. “Time flies if you’re having fun. You know, every time I’ve heard that said it’s been when you’re having fun.”

Douglas shrugged and took a sip of coffee.

When I have fun, time flies. If I have fun, time flies. Do you see the difference? Now me, I am going to have fun. I know it. There ain’t no doubt in my mind about it.  But you ain’t certain. ‘If I’m having fun,’ you said.  There is a chance that you’re not going to have fun. You ain’t certain you’re gonna have fun at all.”

      Douglas looked back to where the man with the newspaper was, and there was someone new: a woman with brown hair and glasses was reading a menu. Douglas quickly turned back to the counter and swiveled his stool so that his back faced the woman. He hunched over the counter and held his coffee in both hands. He took a sip.

The man looked at Douglas and then at the woman by the window. “Did you hear what I said?”

“Yes,” replied Douglas, in a low voice. “I’m never going to have fun.”

The man smiled. “What’s the matter? You know that girl or something?”

Douglas shot the man a look and he stopped smiling.

“Whoa, okay. I get the picture. I’ll drop it.” The man looked back at the woman who was still looking through the menu.

“Don’t look,” Douglas said. “Please.”

 

         

       The man turned back to Douglas, looking concerned. “All right. I’m sorry, friend. I won’t look.”

        Cindy came out of the kitchen, heading towards the woman by the window.

“Could I have the check please?” Douglas asked as Cindy was walking past.

“Sure, hon. Just let me get this lady’s order first,” she said, moving away.

“No!” Douglas shouted in a whisper. “Please. May I have my check now?”

Cindy looked at Douglas with the same expression that was on the man’s face. “Are you all right, Doug?”

Douglas took a deep breath and looked up at Cindy. “Yes. But I need the check. It is urgent.”

“All right. I’ll get you your check. Don’t get your panties in a bunch.” Cindy went to the cash register.

Douglas remained with his back turned towards the woman. He still had the coffee in both hands, but was not drinking it. His left leg was fidgeting.

Cindy put the bill down in front of Douglas. “Here you go. As if you needed it. You know you get the same thing every time. I would have thought you’d have remembered by now. See you soon, Dougy.” Cindy squeezed his shoulder and walked off towards the woman.

       Douglas reached into his back pocket and withdrew his wallet. He opened it up and dug in to the main compartment. There were two twenties and a dollar bill. “Oh, for crying out loud,” Douglas muttered.

“What’s the problem,” the man said. “Don’t have enough?”

Douglas shook his head. “I need change.”

“Well, I might have what you need. What you looking for?”

“A ten and two fives.”

      The man took out his wallet and looked inside. “Well, it looks like today is your lucky day.” The man took out two fives and a ten and handed them to Douglas.

“Thank you.” Douglas took the money and handed the man a twenty. He put one of the fives on the table and put the dollar from his wallet on top of that. He put the wallet back in his pocket. “Have a nice day,” he said to the man.

“You too. It was a pleasure.” The man held out his hand, but Douglas did not see it. He turned the other way and started towards the door, walking sideways with his back towards the woman. He had almost reached the door.

“See ya, Douglas!” Jay yelled, sticking his head out from the kitchen.

Douglas froze.

“Douglas? Is that you?” said the woman by the window.

       For a moment Douglas remained standing still, his chest heaving up and down. He then slowly turned around, his face looking down at his feet.

“Oh, hello Lauren.”

     Lauren got up from her seat and walked over to Douglas. “It’s nice to see you outside of work for a change,” she said as she held out her hand.

      Douglas reached for her hand and shook it twice, firmly.

“Do you live around here?” Lauren asked.

“Yes. I live three blocks that way.” Douglas pointed to the left side of the diner.

“Really? I live four blocks that way.” She pointed to the right.

      Douglas pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his left index finger. He was still looking down at the floor, but peered over his glasses at her from time to time.

“Do you have somewhere to be right now, Douglas?” Lauren asked. “Do you want to sit and chat for a bit?”

Douglas picked his head up and looked at her. “Well, I was going…I was going to…”

“Don’t worry about it. Maybe some other time. See you Monday.” Lauren smiled and turned back towards her seat.

       Douglas looked at her, and then turned to the man at the bar. Both he and Cindy were looking at him, and quickly turned their heads away. Douglas turned back to Lauren. He wiped his hands on his pants, and took a deep breath.

“Actually, Lauren,” he said, walking over to her by the window. “I do have some time.”

“You do? Are you sure?”

“Yes. I have no commitments.” Douglas stood, looking down at Lauren across the table.

“Well, would you like to sit down then?” Lauren asked, after a moment.

“Yes, thank you.” Douglas pulled out the only other chair at the table and sat down, facing Lauren. He picked up the napkin that lay on the plate in front of him and put it on his lap.

Cindy approached the table. “You just can’t get enough of us, can you Douglas?” She put a glass of water down to his right.

“Thank you,” Douglas said.

“You decide on what you want yet, honey?”

“Um…I think I will have the fruit and yogurt and a poppy seed muffin.”

Douglas looked at Lauren and then turned his head towards the bar.

“You want any coffee?”

“No, just the water is fine, thank you.”

“How ‘bout you Dougy? You want anything?”

Douglas turned back around. “I’ll have a blueberry muffin, please.”

Cindy smiled. “Okay, see you guys in a tick,” she said and she walked back to the kitchen.

“So,” Lauren said, “do you come here often?”

“Every once and a while,” Douglas replied. He took a sip of water.

“This is my first time. It’s funny, I walk by it almost everyday, but I never come in.” She looked at Douglas. “And you’re here. What are the odds?”

“I don’t know. I guess not very good.”

They both took a sip of water.

“So you said that you live three blocks that way,” Lauren said, pointing. “On what street?”

“I live on Eighth and Baker.”

“How long have you lived there for?”

“Nine years,” Douglas said. He reached for the water but did not pick it up. He put his hand on the table.

“That’s a long time. Do you like it here?”

“Yes, I do.”

The man at the bar laughed, and Douglas turned around. He was talking with Cindy and they both were smiling.

“Is something the matter, Douglas?” Lauren asked.

Douglas turned back around. “Oh, no. Everything is fine.” He smiled a small smile. “So, you live four blocks that way,” he said pointing.

“Yes. On First and Gordon. It’s right by the park, as I’m sure you know. I’ve lived there for three years. It’s funny how we’ve never run into each other until now. But I guess there are hundreds of other people that you don’t run into that live around here. I guess it’s not that funny.” Lauren took a sip of water.

“Well, I think it’s pretty funny.” Douglas said. He gave a small laugh, but stopped abruptly. He reached for the water and took a sip.

“So, how are things in accounting?” Lauren asked.

“Things are fine.” He looked up at Lauren who was looking back at him. “Oh, Charlie got a raise.”

“I heard. That’s great for him. How long has he been working there?”

“One year.”

       Lauren looked at Douglas. He was lining up the salt and pepper shakers with the ketchup and sugar containers in the center of the table.  “Well, I thought you should have gotten the promotion.”

       Douglas took his hand of the hot sauce and looked at Lauren over his glasses for a moment.

“You deserve it way more than Charlie. He only got the promotion ‘cause they think he’s some kind of hotshot.”

“Yeah, well, he’s a good accountant,” Douglas said with a shrug.

“So are you, Douglas.”

Douglas smiled.

“Here we go,” Cindy said, appearing from behind Douglas. “Fruit and yogurt with a poppy seed muffin for the lady, and a blueberry muffin for the gentleman.” She put down the dishes in front of the two. “You guys all set?”

“It looks great,” Lauren said, smiling at Cindy.

“Thank you, Cindy,” Douglas added.

Cindy looked at them both, smiled, and turned back to the kitchen. The man approached the table, giving Cindy a nod as he walked past.

“Well, goodbye again, friend,” the man said, putting his hand on Douglas’ shoulder.

        Douglas turned and looked at his hand. “Oh, goodbye again.”

“It was a pleasure.” He raised his other hand to Douglas, which was holding a blueberry muffin. The man gave a nod to Lauren, and walked towards the door.

“Who was that?” Lauren asked, after he had gone.

Douglas watched the man walk past the window. “I don’t know.” All three of them took a bite of muffin. It was raining outside.

      Lauren set hers down. “What were we talking about?”

“Um, you were saying––“

      Douglas watched as a car sped past the window, its tires screeching.

Thud.

“What was that?” Lauren asked.

      Douglas stared out the window for a moment, got up and rushed towards the door. He pushed it open and looked to his right. The car that had gone past the window was speeding off, down the street. Two blocks down, something lay in the intersection. He ran to it.

      He slowed to a walk as he reached the body. The man lay motionless, with his back to the pavement and his eyes slightly open. His blood mixed with rain as it flowed down the street, into the sewer. Douglas stood, three feet away, looking down at him. Lauren approached running from behind.

“Oh my God. We need to call the police. Douglas?”

Douglas surveyed the body with his eyes, keeping his head still.

“Hello? Yes, someone has been hit by a car. No, I don’t think so. Yes, he is. Because blood is pouring out of his head, that’s how!”

        Douglas pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. He looked down the street, to where the car had disappeared. He looked up as a pigeon swooped down towards him. It landed next to the man’s head, and walked around it. It bobbed its head and continued down to the man’s hand, which lay limp next to his body. Scattered around it were the broken pieces of a blueberry muffin. Douglas watched as the pigeon pecked at the crumbs, and heaved a sigh.

 

Author Bio:

Sam Chapin is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

Photos: Lert; Timothy Boyd; Royal Rivers (Flickr - Creative Commons).

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Painting by Edward Hopper
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