Image courtesy of Victor Juhasz, first published by Sleeping Bear Press.
He looks out over the city and thinks of death. Somewhere down there in the pit of this valley someone’s dying, curled into a ball in that dead end alley next to Ralph’s Surplus maybe, or leaning lopsided with a Lucky Strike still smoldering between veed fingers.
“Donut?” the counter clerk asks.
He pulls his gaze from the window. She’s pretty in a homely way, with curling brown locks that look entirely unmanageable, and a determinedly defiant jaw. Her skin is caramel brown.
“A dozen?” she says. Her eyes are bright somehow, like the lull in a storm when you can see lightning so clearly without having to endure its lash.
“Coffee,” he says.
He squints at a menu that makes no sense. “Black?”
“Half,” she says without batting an eye. “My dad’s white.”
An intense embarrassment overcomes him. His tongue twists, looking for words.
“I’m just joshing with you,” she says. “You want sugar in that coffee?”
He nods mutely. She turns and drains coffee from a stainless steel urn into a Styrofoam cup. He watches her move, the way her hand goes to the swell of her hip. She’s been on her feet too long. Her hip aches, there in the hollow beneath the ribs.
He can’t help but think of the pain his wife endured in those final months after they gave up on chemo. He can’t help but recall the pain his son expressed this morning. Another argument, another slugfest, only this time he’d landed a punch, a real one.
“One lump or two?” It’s the clerk.
“No,” he says. It’s the shortest answer. She fits a lid to the cup; she slides his coffee across the counter.
“A dollar-fifty-nine,” she says.
He digs through his pocket for change. Three quarters, a dime, six pennies. It’s not enough.
His thoughts go purple, a throb like the swell growing on his son’s pudgy cheek. Death, he thinks. Death of flesh, death of love, death of dignity. He’s stared into the black eye of a gun a couple times, but hasn’t been able to make that coward finger squeeze.
“I can’t…” Words fail him. A rope constricts the pit of his belly, fibrous strands poking from a smooth weave. Coins clatter to the counter.
The clerk slides them onto her palm. She opens the register, deposits them.
“It’s okay,” she says in a voice gone quiet. “The shit isn’t worth what they charge anyhow.” Her teeth are far from straight, but they remind him of his wife’s.
She touches his hand. “Rough day?”
He looks at her fingers, the knuckles weathered, fingernails chewed to stubs. She has her own problems. Still, he can’t help it. He nods. He meets her gaze. For just an instant it’s like staring into the barrel of that gun, only it’s light inside, not dark. He thinks of that time he helped his wife plant a black walnut sapling where the elm came down. He thinks of their gloved hands touching.
And then the moment is gone. “Thanks,” he says. He takes the cup, feeling its warmth, thinking how muted it must be compared to the boiling liquid inside.
Life he thinks, turning from the counter. The clerk swivels her attention to the next person in line.
Stephen Ramey lives in an 1870s Victorian home on the edge of New Castle, Pennsylvania’s Historic North Hill District, overlooking a Pizza Hut and two wonderfully complex church buildings. His short fictions have appeared in the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Bartleby Snopes, Pure Slush and Caper Literary Journal, among others. He edits the annual Triangulation anthology from Parsec Ink and blogs about that process at http://www.stephenvramey.com
Read our interview with Stephen Ramey here.