“Peanut butter and jelly, please,” he asked the waitress, tapping the prongs of his dimly polished fork on a paper napkin like he was punching brail. “Not on the menu,” she said. “We don’t do custom orders.”
He flipped the menu open with a deliberately overdone sigh and ordered corned beef on rye, untoasted. Florescent lights whirred above him behind obscurely transparent rectangles of honeycombed plastic, casting little shadows on his table of the dried up flies trapped within the fixtures. When he thought of how they probably died, desiccated by the light that drew them there, he chuckled to himself.
His coffee was too hot to drink, so he held the thin, white cup by its handle and swirled it, watching the oily curls turn in on themselves against the black. The door swung open, a harsh bell rang somewhere in the kitchen, and the sound of rain poured like whiteness through the diner, pulling threads of steam from his cup.
It was a woman, old and squat. She shook the water from her long, tan jacket and took a stool at the bar. Her back was broad, square and hardy. He watched the faint outlines of muscle shift along her shoulders as she pulled back a grey knitted hat that seemed to hold an inordinate amount of hair. A sweep of silver tentacles fell against her back, like ferns painted in twilight. She lit a cigarette and let the smoke settle in level sheets that drifted slowly and dispersed.
“What’s good tonight?” She asked.
“Corned beef’s been on all day. Joe’s recipe. Takes hours.”
“And a pint, please. Whatever’s cold.”
From his shirt pocket he took the pack of cigarettes and from his pants a ragged and almost empty book of matches. The striking patch was worn bare in the middle where the sulfur tips had chafed it through. It took two strokes to catch a flame, the second one without the patience of the first. He let the orange flare die down, the sulfured fire burn down to the brown cardboard, before he pulled it to the cigarette and with indistinguishable circles evenly burnt the cylinder’s end. Smoke filled his mouth like light and bitter liquid, draped over his tongue and crept down his throat into his lungs. Then forcefully he blew it out and watched the cloud uncurl and fade away.
The woman stared down at her folded hands. They were heavy and striped with scars like a tradesman’s. They were swollen and ringless, and her nails had been cut short. She let the beer slip across her tongue without waiting to taste it.
Suddenly they both noticed a silence. Then a clock ticked away a second and the silence started over.
He sighed again, slowly, narrowing his lips so the breath inflated his cheeks as it left him.
The woman set her glass on the tile counter gently, as if trying to keep the sound of it a secret.
A second passed away. Then another.
He caught the scent of toasted bread and sipped his coffee.
“I ordered that sandwich untoasted, please,” he said, though the waitress was out of site.
“Menu says toasted rye. Said we don’t do custom orders.”
He sipped his coffee, ground the wasted cigarette into the plastic ashtray, and watched the wisps of pale smoke vanish.