They’re out there, somewhere. I don’t even know what “they” are exactly. Good, bad. Male, female. Self aware or just as lost as the rest of us. But they wander, and I’ve seen them.
Ten years ago, a few years after college and a few years before I met someone fool enough to take my name, I took a job while doing some wandering myself. Like most people unsure what to do with their lives, I had a knack for selling myself short. Bar back. Dishwasher. Busboy. I didn’t know what I was good at and sure as hell didn’t care to find out.
After my first twenty odd years on the east coast I ended up out a ways in New Mexico. The plan had been to hightail it all the way to California but somewhere along the way someone offered me a job. Dealing with car troubles and not the heftiest of savings, a couple months making easy cash didn’t seem such a bad idea. It was a diner gig, fifty miles from the nearest town and only a couple from the nearest string of motels. I stayed at the cheapest one which didn’t matter because I spent most of my time working.
I started off bussing and washing, but the owner found me tolerable enough to be put out front after my first week. I hadn’t waited before but it was slow enough that even on my own I could cover all the tables without breaking a sweat. More tips, too.
My routine set in pretty quickly. Work one ‘til close and head out by nine, nine thirty at the latest. Then I’d get drunk by the pool. Sometimes with another wanderer, usually by myself. I’d pass out until noon the next day and barely make it in time for my next shift. I would get one day off a week, maybe two, but those were the worst. The t.v. in my room had four channels, none of them dirty. And the closest town was not worth a fifty mile drive.
Well, it was a routine. The money piled up pretty quick, as it does when there’s nothing and no one to blow it on, and I rather enjoyed the ritual of it all. I’d chat up the guests who popped in, where they came from and where they were headed. All fine and dandy. But what intrigued me most was how quickly they’d tell me what they were running from. Whether they realized it or not, it usually came pouring out all too quick.
Maybe people love talking to strangers. Or maybe out in the desert, where so many things big and small have come to meet their maker, that need for confession presents itself. Either way I’d listen, and usually get a pretty decent tip for doing so.
Two months in these strangers started losing my attention. The nights of drinking had lost their luster as well but I soldiered on, and I caught myself looking out to the road more and more. What I was running from was close to catching up.
Ten months prior I’d lost my brother and sister in a car wreck. My brother, the eldest by four years, was taking her back to college for spring semester. When they didn’t make it my parents sold the house and headed for Europe. I didn’t blame them for leaving, not even for leaving me. It was like we were all sickened by the sight of each other afterwards. The fact that it was no one’s fault didn’t seem possible.
Ten months crept towards eleven. I didn’t know where I wanted to be a year after their deaths, but I knew it wasn’t at some hole in the wall diner fifty miles from anywhere.
I was mulling this over one slow evening, an hour ‘til close with one guest working on a slice of apple pie. I would have offered him more coffee but I’d just cleaned the pots and wasn’t looking to dirty another. So I let him be and he let me. Whether he gave a tip or not didn’t amount to much of a fuck at this point in the day. It had been a slow one and I wanted to get drunk.
Then a small man appeared at the window. I couldn’t see his car, it’s possible he’d wandered over from one of the motels. Guests had done it before, underestimating the distance between the two. He was just short of five and a half feet, with round little glasses that suggested intellectual. He peered in, looking at the menu on the wall, looking at the guest, then looking over at my sorry ass slumped behind the counter. I stared right back, hoping this guy would just fuck off, but knowing he’d come in and keep me late.
So I turned back to the paper I’d already read half a dozen times that day, waiting to hear that door jingle as he shuffled in. “How late are you open?” he’d ask. And I’d tell him he had an hour, and fuck me I’d have to dirty one of those coffee pots again.
Except he didn’t enter. And when I looked back I could barely see his silhouette shuffling into the night.
Peculiar? Sure, maybe. To an over active mind. I myself didn’t give it a second thought. He probably saw we were closing and figured he’d try elsewhere. Makes perfect sense. Except there was no other elsewhere. I let it go because closing time was coming with drinking time right after.
About a week later I had a rather full night. Luckily one of the other servers, Mary Lou, bothered to show up. A couple businessmen laughed their asses off in one booth, a family of four minded their own at another, and three truckers sat huddled at the counter. For us that meant a full house.
And in the midst of handing out dessert menus I glanced to see what had gotten caught in the corner of my eye. A young woman, no older than twenty five I’d say. She had a nice dress on, a little dusty sure, but cute. A pang hit me as I thought of my sister.
The woman stood for a moment, eyeing the menu, when her attention turned to me. I returned her gaze, and a strange sensation struck that she was waiting to be invited in. It was like that feeling while out on a date and you realize it’s the moment to make a move. Except this had none of that giddy excitement behind it, only a cold dread.
A drunk businessman tugged my shoulder wanting to know if I could refill the toothpick holder and I finally started breathing again. Peculiar. Yeah. Maybe even strange, to the over active mind.
I glanced back, but the girl was already walking off. Perhaps to her car. Perhaps to nowhere.
Towards the end of the night I asked Mary Lou if she’d seen the girl but she seemed more focused on splitting tips than my idle chatter. So I went home and got drunk. A sour drunk, the kind you head into knowing it’s the wrong direction, already seeing the debris in the lanes ahead. And I dreamt of the girl at the window.
The next few days provided no new excitement, although more than once the owner asked me what in the hell I was hoping to spot outside. She wanted to have her camera ready. Then after a week of nothing I decided to let it go. The fact was I’d spotted two people who considered visiting a diner and changed their minds.
Then I saw my third wanderer. A middle aged woman, a tad overweight with graying blonde hair and a limp in her left leg. She wore blue jeans and a red country shirt. Had a wedding ring on. I remember these things because I served her.
Dusk set in as the last guest shoved off. Bob Seger cut in an out from the radio when the woman came shuffling down the road. No car, it was bright enough to see that. Maybe she came from a hotel, or her car sat just beyond the horizon.
Plausible, sure. But why did she come all this way just to stare through the window? Not like there was a steak house down the street, or a pizza joint that might be cheaper. We were it, sister.
But stared she did, and I stared back. And just as she turned to push on I waved her in. She paused, eyeing me, so I waved again. With the second wave she headed towards the entrance and I felt my bowels contract in a way that I would have sworn was fatal.
I didn’t shit my pants, but I’ll tell you it was a fifty fifty chance for a moment. “Evening, ma’am,” I croaked. Cleared my throat. “Sit anywhere you like.” That part came out only a little bit more clear.
She chose a corner booth, furthest from the door, and kept her eyes on me the entire time. I gave her a menu and ran through it friendly enough, but what she understood or didn’t I can’t tell you.
In the end she ordered a ham sandwich, no mustard, no cheese, and a coffee with one sugar. She paid cash with a two dollar tip, thanked me for my kindness, and headed out into the night. Oh and she had a little scar, just above her right eye. As if she’d slipped on some black ice as a child and was left with a life long reminder to take it slow come winter.
By the time she did leave it was about close, and I drank so hard that night that I actually did miss my shift the next day. I got yelled at sure, but this being my first fuck up it was forgotten pretty quick.
I ignored the next couple window gazers, the best term I could think to use for them. And off they would go, no problem no sir. But after spotting a little old Asian man wandering away curiosity got the better of me again.
I spotted a young hispanic man with short hair and a tattoo on his arm that I couldn’t make out. He wandered up, eyed the menu, glanced at the guests, then landed on me. I waved and in he came.
He took the corner booth, ordering a ham sandwich with no cheese and no mustard. One coffee with one sugar. I asked him if he wanted to see a dessert menu, to which he either didn’t hear or didn’t know how to respond. He left a two dollar tip, thanked me for my kindness, and headed off into the night.
And he had a scar above his right eye.
After that I started welcoming the window gazers in rather regularly. I’d even finish their order for them, casually, as if we’d known each other for years. And hell, maybe we had in some nightmare world.
Even when I’d cut them off though, “no mustard, I know,” I’d say, they’d continue right on script.
“No mustard, no cheese, please. And a coffee if you have it. Black.”
“One sugar, if you have it.”
Sometimes I’d tell them I didn’t have coffee, or that the ham had gone bad. They would thank me for my kindness and leave, just like that. Hell of a diet.
And just as I settled into my new spot in the outer limits, they stopped appearing. Or he, or she. One person or a thousand, I still don’t know. But they stopped. And for some fucked up reason I was disappointed. Maybe I had expected to find an answer, that it was all a coincidence or prank. Or maybe I just wanted a clear glimpse at the other side.
After a month more of nothing I decided it time to move on. I gave my two weeks which the owner took worse than I would have guessed, and started puzzling over where to head next.
Then my sister visited, a year after her death. I was in the middle of serving this couple, the woman sending her burger back for the third time. Part of me wanted to tell her there’s no way she’s getting a burger safe to eat at this point, but most of me did not give a shit. So I took it back a fourth time and watched as the cook slapped a new patty on the ground and rubbed his boot on it for good measure.
As I came back out with this fouled piece of beef, there my sister stood at the window. She wore a tattered hoodie, none that I recognized, blue jeans and sneakers. Beat up ones that looked familiar but I could not be sure. I slammed the burger down in front of the woman so hard I nearly broke the plate, but she didn’t say anything and if she did I didn’t hear it.
I waved my sister in. There might have been a slight smile, or smirk rather, but my heart was going so fast my vision had blurred.
She went to the booth, the furthest one from the door, and took a seat. Part of me wanted to hug her. Another part wanted to retrieve a meat cleaver from the back and open her skull. I decided on neither and took a seat opposite her.
“Evelyn,” I said as I sat, my body shaking so badly that even my teeth felt numb.
“I’d like to order one ham sandwich. No mustard, no cheese, please.”
“Evelyn is that you?” It looked like her alright, except for the scar above the eye. It sounded like her too, I thought as the tears formed. They felt odd running down my still numb face.
“And a coffee if you have it. Black.”
It couldn’t be her. Could it? The real Evelyn had died in a car crash. Bad one. The one you don’t identify a body from. But here she sat, and I saw details my memory had already begun to lose… the bump in her nose, slight gap in her teeth. It had to be her. Except for the scar.
“Evelyn, how did you get here? You’re dead. You died, Evie.”
“One sugar, if you have it.”
And I grabbed her. I grabbed her so hard I saw her wince. So it felt pain.
“She didn’t have a scar, you fuck,” I spat as I started shaking her, so hard I hoped to break her neck. The guests all stopped to watch but I didn’t care.
At some point we were pulled apart, me landing on the ground and crying so hard that my ribs hurt.
Evelyn pushed through the crowd, I could smell her breath as she crouched down. Foul, dark. Like something that had subsisted off of ham sandwiches and black coffee for a couple hundred years.
“Good luck in California,” she said in a voice not my sisters, something not at all human. Then she kissed my cheek, a kiss so cold I could have sworn frostbite would form.
She rose to her feet, thanked me for my kindness and headed for the door. I don’t remember her leaving but I do remember Mary Lou pushing away the gawking customers.
“You never invite them in,” she scolded as she brought me to the back. Before I could respond Mary Lou produced a photo from her wallet. The girl in the dusty dress.
“My daughter,” she said as I took the photo. “Gone sixteen years this August.”
“You ignored her.”
“I ignored it. Your sister’s the first one you recognized?”
“What does it want?”
“Coffee and a sandwich. Beyond that I don’t much care to find out.”
Mary Lou gave me the money I was owed and sent me off. I drove far that night, but not towards California. A cheap parlor trick that lived off caffeine, deli meat and human misery had seen to that.
Before leaving I asked Mary Lou why she hadn’t stopped me… all those times I’d let it in. Her answer didn’t mean much at the time. My drinking’s gotten worse since then, bad enough that the woman fool enough to take my name wasn’t fool enough to stick around. And I think about all those wanderers that I’d waved in, and all the other beasts that followed over the years.
“It only feeds if you leave something out for it.”
Bio: Growing up in Northeast Ohio I recently moved to Southern California after graduating college in 2012.