Next Contestant

Short Fiction for Guests of the WordFeeder
Sunday, April 18, 2010

The booths were small at Kellagher’s, the downtown 1940s diner that had survived by changing with the times to serve whoever was around. In the beginning, it was mostly blue collar people who worked and lived nearby when the neighborhood was a factory district. Seventy years later, the factories had all become lofts, the customers, young professionals who worked and lived nearby, and somehow, unforgivably, arugula and goat cheese had become staples on a menu Mr. Kellagher, God rest his soul, would never recognize.

It was a busy place, even on an early Saturday afternoon. Cramped and cozy, the low-back bench seats made it easy for customers to hear the conversations behind them, but no one really minded, not so much. Patrons of such places have a certain understanding, in the fine print definition of “diner” and “deli,” that you don’t really pay attention and that, even if you do, it’s none of your business, that everyone’s anonymous, even if they’re not.

“Wow,” the girl with the short-blond hair that had a mind of its own said in a loud whisper, leaning forward to meet her girlfriend in the middle of the table. “He’s cute.” Her eyes rolled discreetly to follow the young man walking past them to the next booth the busboy had just cleared. Her friend, on the other hand, straightened up, turned her shoulders and stared right at him to get a really good look for herself.

“Hey,” he responded instinctively to her making eye contact.

The first girl, stunned by her friend’s boldness, pushed back against her seat, and looked up, as if to apologize, at the unpretentious smile that came so easily to his face. “Hey,” she answered, and he was past her, sliding into and across the back of the seat they shared. Her hands, still pushing against the wide metal edge of her table, the girl with the short blonde hair didn’t want to let go, but she did.

“Poop,” she said to her friend, the two of them sighing in unison as a young woman rushed past them, peeling off her jacket on her way to sit across from the guy with the smile.

“Sorry, I’m late, Tommy.” She was nervous, and a bit out of breath.

“Tommy,” the other girl sitting behind them mouthed the name to her friend. “His name is ‘Tommy.’ How cute is that?!” And they giggled, as quietly as they could.

“Hey, Myrna?” Tommy was surprised to see her. “No problem. I’m a couple of minutes early.” He wasn’t, but it was the nice thing to say. “Is Evelyn coming?”

“Oh, I’m ‘Evelyn.’ Evelyn’s my middle name.

“What can I get you?” Their waitress, who seemed to have materialized out of nowhere, wasn’t wasting any time.

“Uh, what would you like?” Tommy asked his unexpected guest.

“You go first,” Myrna pretended to be looking at the menu card.

“Amateur,” the girl with the short blonde hair mouthed to her friend, mocking the lack of confidence Myrna was struggling to overcome, but then letting the silent expression on her face show the empathy she felt for her. “Com’on, Myra,” the friend whispered to the blonde.

“Okay, uh, I’ll have the grilled cheese and tomato on rye, some potato salad and a lemonade.”

“We only have pink.”

“Pink what?” Tommy was more than a bit distracted, wondering what Myrna was doing there.

“Lemonade.”

“Sure.”

“And you, Miss?”

Pleased to see that Tommy had ordered lunch, and not just coffee, she decided to do the same. “I’ll have the shrimp salad on a soft role and some coleslaw.”

“Something to drink?”

“No. Water’s fine.”

“Watching her weight.” The short blonde haired girl nodded to her friend, the two of them thinking they were superior because they were having milkshakes – instead of breakfast and lunch, something they failed to mention to themselves.

“So,” Tommy didn’t have clue, “what’s this all about? Something going on at the office you didn’t feel comfortable talking ab…”

“No. No. Nothing…” Surprising even herself, Myrna started to become emotional. “..like that.”

“Hey, hey.” Tommy reached across the table to hold Myrna’s hands. “What’s wrong?”

“Jeez. How unattractive.” Myrna wiped away a wannabe tear that hadn’t quite fallen yet. “Perfect for a first date.”

“First date??!” The blonde’s friend mouthed the words, her eyebrows up as high as they would go.

“Shhhh!” the blonde urged her friend to be quiet, even though they weren’t talking out loud, so she could concentrate on what they were saying behind her.

“Pathetic? ..Maybe,” Tommy smiled, “but not unattractive. No. Definitely not unattractive.”

Myrna started a nervous laugh, but only managed to choke a bit in the process.

“Now that was unattractive,” Tommy said to make her laugh again. “…So, uh, this is a first date?” He rubbed his thumbs across the tops of the fingers of Myrna’s hands to stop her from wringing them.

“Well, no, not exactly. But I’ve been thinking about it, hoping you would ask me out… or maybe I would ask you, and you would.. say ‘Yes.’”

“Well, that’s nice, Myrna. That’s very nice, and maybe we could go out, but…”

“Really, you would have gone out with me, if I’d asked you, …and if you knew it was going to be a date?”

“Well, uh..” Tommy was hedging, not wanting to hurt her, but not wanting to commit either.

“We’ve had lunch together a few times in the office cafeteria.”

“At the big table where we all sit?”

“Uh-huh. …You know, I would say something, you would laugh at it. Then you would say something, and I… And sometimes you’d walk with me to throw out our trays. ..Not the trays or silverware, but the stuff on them.”

“Sure. …Sooo, when you emailed me to meet you here, why didn’t you use your real name?”

“Well that’s the thing, and the reason we can’t see each other.”

“Mer-nuh. Are you breaking up with me on our first date?” He let go of her hands, for effect, and to make room for their lunch plates which the waitress had just unceremoniously dropped down in front of them.

“You know Ralph?” Myra was starved and stuffed a huge bite of her sandwich into her mouth – one piece of shrimp needing help from a finger – having forgotten to eat since Friday afternoon when she’d asked Tommy to meet her. “His carrel is one row over from yours?”

“Sure. Of course I know Ralph. We work on…”

“Well, he thinks we’ve been seeing each other.”

“You and me?”

“No, him, Ralph and me. I was worried he might be looking over your shoulder and see the email, so I sent it from a personal account that doesn’t have my name in it.”

“You have extra email accounts so you can send people stuff without being..” Tommy stopped, shaking his head just a bit to help him regain his focus. “And, you and Ralph is a bad thing, because…”

“Because,” Myrna put her sandwich down, she was that serious. “..because I want to go out with you, but I don’t think you..” She regained her composure. “I’m pretty sure you don’t want to go out with me. Guys like you never do.”

The shoulders of both the girls in the booth behind them dropped, a sad salute to their ordinary friend serving up her heart for all it was worth.

“Guys like me?”

“The smart, funny, clueless ones – the guys every girl wants, but who never realize it, even when you tell them.”

“Myrna, I would go out with you. ..I mean, I might not have ever asked you out, but it’s not because you’re not great or even perfect.” Searching for words, Tommy looked down at his plate. “It’s like my grilled cheese. I like it on rye, perfectly toasted rye so it’s just a little bit crunchy. Most people prefer white or whole wheat because it’s good for you and you seem smarter for ordering it. Personally, I can’t eat wheat bread unless it has nutty things in it, and even then I’m pretty much faking it, but lots of people love it, really love it. I’m just not one of them.”

Myrna thought for a moment. “I don’t like spicy food. Well, a little spicy, maybe, but not so much as to make my head sweat.”

“Myrna,” Tommy was worried she wasn’t getting the point, “the thing is, it’s all about chemistry. Everybody likes ketchup on a cheeseburger, but not on a bagel and cream cheese and lox.”

“Lox?”

“It’s smoked salmon.”

“All this talk about chemistry, it’s just a nice way of blowing me off, isn’t it.”

“So the food analogies aren’t working?” He smiled at her.

“No,” she smiled back. “It’s not what I wanted to hear, but I get the point.” And they both took another bite of their sandwiches. Still chewing, Tommy picked up his fork, reached across the table and stabbed some of her coleslaw, not because he wanted some, but because he knew it would make her feel better.

“You know,” Myra confessed, “it took everything I had to ask you to meet me here, and that was just an email.”

“Hey, we’re all afraid of rejection, but what’s your downside? I blow you off. I think you’re a jerk? Well, first of all, if you are a jerk, and maybe you are, it’s not because I think it.” Myra would have said something, and she was listening, but had way too much food in her mouth. (Experience in these situations, and his mother, had taught Tommy to take smaller bites.) “…Unless it’s unanimous, and then the odds are you probably are a…” Seeing moisture returning to her eyes, Tommy decided to take another tact. “Hey, …”

“What?”

“.. let’s try an experiment. I’m going to ask you a question. Are you ready? Pretend I’m just some weird guy you meet at a bar.”

“I’m ready.”

“Okay, how ‘bout if we forget lunch and go back to may place to make love for the rest of the afternoon?”

“Are you serious?!”

“….No, no. You’re supposed to say something like, ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ and then, uh, I don’t know, something insulting, like, ‘There’s only room for one asshole in these pants.’”

In the booth behind them, the other girl covered her mouth to stop from laughing out loud, while the blonde pointed at her, mouthing “You’ve used that line!”

“Wow, you’re really good at making this stuff up.”

“I’ve had lots of practice, on the receiving end, that is, although,” he had to be clear, “I usually show a lot more class than the guy in that example. …Anyway, so you blow me off, and I’ve left a lingering impression of being an asshole that I’ll never overcome and regret someday when you’re receiving the Academy Award for your breakout performance as a hooker with a heart.”

“You think I dress like a hooker? …Just kidding. I mean I do, sometimes, but not on purpose.”

“…Look, the point is, you asked me to have lunch with you – Saturday lunch at a great diner. I’d be a fool to say no, but even if I did, even if I blew you off, maybe didn’t even respond, it doesn’t reflect on you. You’re great. If we don’t go out, if we don’t date, it’s probably nothing more than chemistry.”

“That we don’t like the same cheese,” Myrna smiled at him, realizing he was everything she thought he was, maybe even more.

“Yeah,” thinking he’d pretty much wrapped that up, “something like that.”

“But I like you.”

“Sure you do. (So much for the wrapping it up part.) I like you too, but it’s not the same as being in love.”

“I think maybe it is. ..I’m excited to see you in the hallway. Everyday, when I first get up in the morning, the first thing I think about is you. You’re the reason I look forward to going to work.”

“Well, uhh..” Tommy didn’t know what to say, and then thought he did. “Myrna, it not me, not me exactly. We don’t even really know each other. It’s the idea of me, I mean, someone like me, not exactly of course, just someone that you love and who loves you back.”

“Tommy,” Myrna was almost pleading with him, “how do we know if we haven’t spent any time together? Maybe we do have chemistry?”

Tommy was quiet, because it was a good question, and because he saw the hope in her eyes.

The girls in the booth behind them were staring at each other in anxious anticipation, the blonde sucking mostly bubbles from the bottom of the tall glass in front of her.

“Okay,” he said boldly, “fair enough. Let’s try something.”

“What?”

Tommy reached across the table, taking Myrna’s hand. Sliding with her across their bench seats, they stood face to face on the vinyl tile floor at the end of the table. Slowly, carefully, but not the least awkwardly, he pulled her toward him, and kissed her, not just once, but twice and a then a third time for a little longer, touching her lips and cheek ever so lightly as they pulled away, right there at the diner. “…Well?”

Mryna was slow to open her eyes, but looked into his when she did. “…Yeah. Yeah, I see what you mean. …I like you, but the chemistry just isn’t there.” It was something she needed to say before he did. “

“And I do like you.” And the thing is, he wasn’t kidding.

“Wow,” the blonde’s friend looked a bit sad when she said it, “He really is perfect, isn’t he?”

They were quiet, but only for a moment. “I’m, uh… I’m going to leave. I’ve… I’ve got someplace to be.” Myrna reached across her seat for her jacket.

“Sure.”

“Thanks for lunch.” And she started to walk away.

“I’ll see you Monday, won’t I?”

Turning back, she smiled at him. “Are you kidding? You’re the reason I go to work,” she smiled, turned and headed for the door, pausing when she got there to touch her lips, but refusing to take a last look at the end of her first and probably only date with Tommy. Taking a breath, Myrna pushed on the door.”

“Oh, hey, Mryna.” It was one of the guys from accounting she’s almost hit on her way out.

“Sorry, Jack. I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Nah. Missed me!” And he kept walking, but then stopped and turned around. “Hey, Myrna. I’m on the way to meet up with some friends for a beer. It’s one of those sports bars with screens all over the place. You could almost get jock itch just from reading the menu, but it could be fun. Want to come?”

In the diner, Tommy had sat back down to finish his sandwich, the formerly melted cheese having turned into a slab of… of something he decided he’d rather not eat. Fortunately, there was still some potato salad left. Sitting there for a second, looking across the table at nothing in particular, his hand came to his face and touched his lips.

In every life, there are moments when you either act or risk letting something really special pass you by. For the blonde in the booth behind him, this was one of those moments. Her friend could tell what she was thinking, and encouraged her. “Go for it.”

Springing onto the floor, she moved quickly, fearing Tommy might be getting ready to leave, sliding onto the bench seat across from him. “Hi.”

Realizing that she was from the booth behind him, Tommy looked around at the blonde’s friend smiling back at him. “Hey.”

“Hey,” the other girl answered, nodding her head up and down for some reason.

Turning his head first, and then his shoulders, Tommy stared at the girl with short, confused blonde hair, unable to look away from her aquamarine eyes. “Do I know you?”

“Not yet.” And she paused. “Judy. …My name is ‘Judy,’ and before this conversation goes any further, I want you to touch me. There’s something I need to know.” Sliding her hand halfway across the vintage Formica table, she extended her forefinger, hanging it out there in the air, pointing toward him.

Thinking for a more than a second, Tommy answered cautiously, his right hand flat, his finger rising off the table as he moved it forward, first inches, then a hair’s breadth away from hers, both of them focused on the point of… contact.

-wf

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(I write the WordFeeder blog.)  All rights reserved.
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