Afterhours

Motor oil dripping off the dinner plate should have stained my uniform. The ugly, salmon dress molded to my hips and I knew a nametag sat squarely on my chest but I couldn’t bring myself to look down. I kept reaching for a zipper, a button, some place where it could come apart, but I was always interrupted.

Amber sludge slipped down the back of my arm and I could feel the smell pooling in each drop, plastic bags sagging under the weight of murky water and dying goldfish. The clang of the door opening was met with the clang of the plate on the counter, and a woman walked through dressed in head to toe pleather. Naturally, she glanced at the red booth that matched the color of her skirt, molded to look like pleats without the swish. I let out a “be right with you” and watched the way she gathered the sound in her hand.

It occurred to me that I knew her. I must have seen her at the grocery store.  She must have been wearing sweatpants and I must have been wondering what she was wearing underneath them, and remembering this, I reached again to see if there was a space for my dress to be put on or off. I must have stood in line holding a carton of eggs, letting the situation unspool onto the floor, delighting in the fact that I could do this without her ever knowing. But yes, this was her. She knew.

The diner was an island in a vat of black paint. I knew I hadn’t always been here, but I can’t remember ever slipping in or out. Neon tubing snaked from floor to ceiling and there was a buzzing under each table, under each something-stained mug. My right hand scuttled to the stack of greasy menus at my side, and as she watched me do this, she sighed, long and theatrical. “No. I’ll have the usual.”

With this command, my entire body swiveled towards the door behind me, sloppy machinery, full speed ahead with one clockwork thought: “breakfast, breakfast, breakfast.” The kitchen, where I must have been before, was in a frenzy. The refrigerator cord was chewed through the center, order wheel overrun with yellowed pieces of paper, tacked one over another, clamoring for attention: “yesterday’s newspaper and the cake recipe buried with mom,” “something that’ll stay hot for the ten-hour car ride and a reason to get through it,” “anything but more of this…maybe some hash browns.” I ran my fingers through them, leaving grease stains in my path.

Various metal and plastic parts filled every drawer and spilled from the oven’s gaping mouth: half of an alarm clock, a tin mug of Barbie shoes, some melted into each other, and what looked like a car door with the words “fuck you, Jonathan” keyed into it. The can of motor oil was turned on its side, splashing daintily onto the floor with little lapping sounds, neatly avoiding my patent leather heels. I gathered some in my palm and poured it into a deep stock pot, the closest thing to a skillet in sight. I could hear her, my maybe-last customer or last chance, drumming her long, red nails on the table. The sound picked up slowly, and I felt the blood in my body, or whatever replaced it, swelling and receding at her will. I felt and suppressed the urge to yell “just a minute, darling” over the tapping.

Breakfast. Yellow. She just needs something. “Just a minute darling!” There was a small red pocketknife wedged into the spice rack, so I slipped it into my palm and stood before a barstool. I could see her in my peripheral vision, twisting pieces of her hair and pinning them up with corkscrews that sat like peppermints by the entrance. I pulled the knife through the seat cushion and watched it bloom fat and buttery on either side. It came up in pieces, light and hollow, crumbs scattering all over the floor. I cut pieces of the pleather cover for “bacon” and let these all sit in the oil, sputtering and changing, curling their toes, I salted and worried over them, scrambling for a fork with the other hand. I poured a tall glass of orange dish soap and found two glassy marbles that sat suspended in it like ice. Her tall boots clicked across the floor, getting closer and closer. The kitchen got smaller and smaller, my breath thumping against the walls and shaking everything so it clicked together, almost-magnets never quite sticking. She rounded the corner: narrow eyes outlined in black, long gloves that exposed nothing but those deep crimson fingernails. She cocked an eyebrow at the mess of foam and plastic twisting under my spatula, and I could feel hot, oily tears welling in my eyes. The smell was becoming overwhelming but she didn’t seem to notice. The junk around me multiplied. “What do you want from me?” I gasped, throwing the spatula down, wiping my hands up and down my skirt, willing something to make a mark.

She just laughed, low at first, then loud and apologetic, her face becoming softer, her face becoming mine for just a moment. She held two hands before her, “Try your luck.”  My hand moved without permission to the right one, then my other to the left. We stood like that for a moment, a frame from the world’s most cramped slow dance. “Very good,” she cooed.

When she unfolded her right hand, a perfect, brown egg was nested in it. She took it up, cracked it against her hip, and poured the contents into her left hand, where it bubbled. A yolk beat in the center like a teenage heart. And over the hiss, this tiny, messy miracle, she whispered: “you’re gonna have to break a few rules if you wanna make an omelette.”

 

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