A man dealing with his personal challenges.
| “That’s the strange part.” He said out loud, even though he was alone. So he gathered his words together and brought them back inside before they could be plucked from the air. Of course, there isn’t anything a stranger could do with his secrets; a friend could do something with them, hurt him, if they wanted to do so. But he didn’t think his friends would want to hurt him, but strangers, maybe they would, maybe there was a stranger who knew him and was waiting to hurt him by using his words, his secrets against him. But that wasn’t an issue, he was pretty sure he’d pulled the words back before anybody heard them. He was quick like that, he had to be, he’d grown careless with his words, talking out loud like that. He had to make sure no one captured his thoughts. He was a private man who didn’t want to get hurt, he had secrets that others wouldn’t understand, so he kept them inside where they were safe and could hurt no one but himself. He was on his way home. Like some sort of vampire, he worked at night, after the sun went down, stocking shelves at a small grocery store. The store owner knew him; he’d gone to school with the man’s son. That was before the accident, that’s what they called it, an accident.
The sidewalk was wet from the melted snow that had fallen during the night. Water had soaked through his dirty running shoes as he made his way along the concrete. His socks had been wet so he didn’t put them on when he left for work; they were hanging over the vent drying. The sun was warming him just enough to make the day bearable. The winter wind still had a biting chill and he pulled the collar up high over his neck.
The women, they were on their way to their jobs, like normal people, not like him. He avoided making eye contact with the women he met on the street. They knew what he thought of them, they knew which women he liked, which women he found to be pretty. He kept his head down. If they couldn’t see his eyes, they couldn’t see into his soul. His secrets were safe.
He wasn’t ready to go home yet; he wasn’t ready to go back to his apartment. He peered in the window of the all night diner and saw that there was room at a couple of the tables near the front. He pulled on the aluminum door handle allowing the heat of the restaurant to hit him in the face. It felt good to be warm. He sat at the nearest table and a young man of about 18 years old came to his table. He was disappointed that he didn’t get a pretty waitress; he was stuck with this boy. Probably gay, he thought.
“Hi, Can I get you a cup of coffee?" The boy asked the man. His voice was soft, friendly; a bright smile crossed his face.
“Yes, black, please.” The man pushed the menu away.
“Do you know what you want?’
“Yes, I’ll have the western omelet with rye toast.”
His waiter smiled as he picked up the menu and turned toward the kitchen without writing the order on the pad he carried in his hand. The man pulled a spiral notebook out of his back pack and set it on the table. He pulled a pencil out from between the rings and opened the book. The bell on the diner door tinkled.
“What’s up, Keith?”
He turned toward the door. He recognized one of his co-workers on the overnight shift at the store. Jarrod was his name, or Gerald….no Jarrod. Keith didn’t remember seeing him at work that night.
“Nothing. Just breakfast.”
“I guessed that. I’m off this week. My mother died."
Jarrod was large, very large. Keith couldn’t even begin to guess at how much weight was packed onto the five foot six inch frame Jarrod carried.
“Sorry. I didn’t know.”
“That’s okay. She’d been sick for a while, it’s for the best.”
“Sometimes, I guess, it is.”
“So, how’s the food here? I’ve never eaten here before."
“It’s a diner. It’s what you’d expect. Most people survive."
Jarrod excused himself and waddled to the back of the diner, choosing a table rather than trying to fit himself into a booth.
Keith pulled the pencil; out and opened his notebook to a blank page somewhere near the middle of the book. He started sketching the condiments that were aligned next to the wall with a napkin holder and menu.
“That’s not how it looks." Keith said as he swiped the eraser across the page. He realized that he had spoken out loud. He looked around, either nobody heard him, or nobody cared. Keith brushed his long, stringy brown hair back out of his face and returned to the page in front of him. He bit his lip as he filled in the details of his drawing. The book was three quarters full of pencil drawings of the scenes of his life, the break table at the store, little vignettes from around the stock room, and some candid portraits of coworkers drawn from memory. Drawing keeps the demons at bay, as long as he could concentrate on his art, the demons couldn’t rise up and take over. Sometimes, the voices would filter through, but he couldn’t control them. They kept coming at him, reminding him of his inadequacies, his failures. He could hear the voice; it was a soft, creepy familiar tone that slipped through whatever he tried to place in its way. Sometimes, he’d argue with the voice, he’d forget he was in public, that people were around and could hear him. He’d try to get it back, what he’d said, before anybody heard it. But, he couldn’t retrieve the words, the sound, it was out and there was nothing he could do about it, except get out his notebook and start drawing. That would stop the arguing. It would keep the voices away.
“Here you go.” The waiter slid the plate on the table. Keith took a sip of the black coffee, gulped it down and thanked the waiter. Putting down his pencil as he reached across the table to retrieve the plastic ketchup dispenser, Keith noticed that the bottle was close to empty. Unscrewing the top, he pushed the knife in the neck of the bottle and fished out what ketchup he could before spreading it over the top of his breakfast. He stabbed a piece of the omelet with the fork and popped it in his mouth. He sat the fork on the edge of the plate and returned to his drawing. He worked on both his drawing and his breakfast, going back and forth, taking a bite of eggs before grabbing his pencil and adding to the drawing. His art held his attention, but the breakfast gave him a reason to stay, it kept him out of his apartment. He wasn’t ready to go home yet, so he would nurse the breakfast. Right now, he wanted to be out among people. Later, after the breakfast was gone and the drawing was done, or near done, and he’d tied up the table long enough, he’d pay his tab and head outside, hoping to find a reason to go anywhere other than home. But, there wouldn’t be a reason to stay away, so he’d go home and try to crush the voices that would tell him how he’s wasted his talent and wasted his life.
He scratched his head. He needed to finish his food. It was time. He took the final bite of eggs and pushed the pencil back into the binder of his notebook. He closed the book and slid out of the booth. His waiter brought the check to him, saying that he could pay at the register on the way out. Keith found two crumbled dollar bills in his jeans pocket and tried to flatten them before he dropped them on the table for the tip.
“How was everything?”
“Good.” Keith answered without making eye contact with the gray haired woman running the cash register. He passed her a ten dollar bill which she dropped on the till as she made change. It was one of the old style cash registers, the operator had to know how to make change. She passed it to him and thanked him with a smile. He forced a thin, weak smile before walking out the door.
He continued his walk down the street until he came to his apartment. He lived on the second floor and loved it, or loved it as much as her could love anything. His neighbors ignored him and he returned the favor. As he pushed the key into the lock the door opened. That was odd, he was sure he had shut it before he left. He reached inside the door and found the light switch and pushed it up. The light came on in the living room. He could see straight through his apartment into his bedroom. Everything looked normal. The television was still there. He looked on the floor; there was no pile of loot stacked near the door. He’d heard that burglars would pile what they wanted by the door to make an easy escape. Leaving the door open he walked through his apartment checking the bathroom and kitchen. There was nobody there and nothing seemed to be missing. He sat at the kitchen table and unscrewed the cap on the bottle of Dewar’s he kept to help him sleep. No need for a shot glass today, he took a long pull on the bottle. A second. Then a third. What the hell, he took a fourth. And, for good measure, a fifth. That should shut down the brain, he thought. He walked to his bedroom, pulling off his clothes as he walked leaving a path of dirty clothes. Naked, he climbed into his unmade bed pulling the blankets over his torso.
Beside his bed was a night stand that held the odds and ends of his daily life. Pencils with the erasers worn to nothing, ATM receipts and an unopened package of three condoms rested in the top drawer obscuring the .38 revolver his grandfather had given him years earlier, before he died from the cancer that had ravaged his once powerful body. Keith pushed the debris aside and cradled the gun in his hand.
The gun felt comfortable, familiar from all the target practice he’d had with it as a boy, supervised by his grandfather at the abandoned gravel pit at the end of the dirt road that ran past his boyhood home. His fingers wrapped around the grip as his trigger finger slipped through the guard. He scratched his nose with the barrel. As he brought his knees to his chest the barrel of the gun dropped over his parting lips and between his teeth, he could taste the gun metal as he pressed it into his mouth and closed his eyes. The room was dark. The voices were silent.