The fluorescent lights buzz like a fly trapped in the empty promise of a glass window. The bzzz echoes through Thumb’s skull as he pushes greasy burgers across the grill on his graveyard shift, as he collects crumpled bills from the fingers of the customers, as he mops and mops and mops the eternally sticky floors.
97.5, the country oldies station, crackles through the Waffle House speakers from 10 PM to 6 AM and after, probably, but Thumb has never worked a day shift. Maybe the place crawls out from under the long, dark shadows during the day, but from 10 to 6 it more closely resembles an abandoned amusement park or a small town bus stop late at night: spooky, silent, empty as a tomb. Except a tomb shouldn’t be empty, should it, and neither should an amusement park or the breakfast joint where Thumb spends every weeknight.
It’s not clean. Thumb wouldn’t eat here. Flies and grime collect in the window sills, which look like they’ve never been dusted. The bathroom almost never has toilet paper. When he’s working, he wipes down tables, he scrapes the grill, but he does not go much above the bare minimum, even though the unkempt appearance makes his skin crawl. He prefers tidy, everything in its place, but he doesn’t want to attract attention to himself, good or bad.
The bell above the smudged glass door dings open. A man and a woman walk through and take the booth furthest from the register. They look like they’ve been driving all night, maybe the night before, too. The man is dark haired, so pale he’s almost translucent, purple circles like plum colored bruises beneath his eyes. He’s wearing scrubs but he doesn’t look like any doctor Thumb’s ever seen. The woman has bleached blonde hair that she’s twisted on top of her head and little pieces frizz out like a halo. Her eyes look empty and there’s a hole in the shoulder of her thin red shirt.
Thumb sighs, collects his grease stained order pad, and walks over to their table. His limp is always worse at the end of the night and it’s nearing four. He feels their eyes on his bum leg and he resents their gaze. He knows how he looks: a bit broken. His stocky frame and short stature make him look vulnerable. He’s considered tattoos but he likes being unidentifiable, a chameleon. He can be a clean cut young man in a suit and tie. He can be frightening, a sharp glint in his eye.
Coffee? Thumb asks when he reaches their table.
Thumb nods back. Ready to order or need a minute.
It’s his mantra. It’s not even a question. He finds that if he says it flatly, a statement, readytoorderorneedaminute, people are more likely to go ahead and tell him what they want.
“All star special,” says the man who looks closer to dead than alive, in Thumb’s expert opinion.
“Bacon or sausage?”
“Bacon. And I want the eggs crisp.”
“You?” Thumb says to the woman. Up close, Thumb sees that she has green eyes.
“I’ll do an omelet,” she says. “Please.”
She closes her eyes like she cannot possibly muster enough energy to make another decision. Whatever kind most people order, she says.
“Hashbrowns?” Thumb asks.
“In the ring?”
“Sure,” she says again.
Thumb doesn’t like her tone. Not hard to tell when someone is talking down to you. But there is something about her. Those green eyes. He wants to stand there, in front of her, and ask her inane questions until his shift is mercifully over and he can go home and go to bed.
Thumb retreats behind the counter to the grill. Omelet, eggs, hashbrowns. He gets the edges crispy brown but not burnt. He’s good at this. He loads the hot plates onto his arms, returns to their booth. They’re hunched over their table, talking in hushed voices. She has a canvas tote bag on her lap. Thumb traces the outline of something stacked, crisp in the bag, with his eyes. His fingers twitch. It’s money. She is holding a tote bag with stacks of green bills rubber banded together in her lap. He can’t see inside the bag, but he knows. He is never wrong about this sort of thing. He isn’t surprised. He took this job to avoid trouble but it always seems to find him.
She notices him eyeing her bag and shifts her body away from him, just slightly. He sets their food down in front of them and backs away quickly. He doesn’t want trouble but the thing is. The thing is. Stacks and stacks of money would solve a lot of problems. He wished he knew how much was in the bag. Fifty thousand? Ten thousand? Would it be worth it, what he wanted to do, had done before, was capable of doing?
The clock reads five and the couple is still sitting at the table. They’re whispering, voices like static, indecipherable and irritating, and this bothers Thumb. He wants to be in on the scheme, he wants to be part of it, too. But mostly he wants them to leave so he can go home at 6 AM and shut his eyes and forget about the stacks of money pressing against the fabric of that tote bag, almost erotic.
“Hey. Can I get some more coffee?”
It’s the girl. Her voice is raspy and he can’t tell if it’s from lack of sleep or love of cigarettes or just how she speaks.
He picks up the pot of coffee with the orange handle that indicates decaf and carries it over. He likes playing little tricks like this.
He pours the thick black coffee into her mug wordlessly.
Thumb nods, returns the coffee to its machine, and leans against the counter behind the register. Maybe if they notice him standing here, they’ll take the hint. The tote bag is beneath the table now, between the girl’s feet which are clad in ugly brown clogs like something a nurse would wear.
He needs to take a piss and he needs to get away from the temptation of that bag of money. Thumb unties his apron and pushes into the bathroom which smells like bleach. He considers himself in the mirror. He looks tired. Not as tired as the girl with the money on the other side of the door, but tired. Much older than his thirty years. His dark hair looks slept on, rough. His stubble masks the scar on his cheek, the crescent like a dimple inflicted on him. He splashes tap water on his face and tries to make a decision. Will he, won’t he? He could start a fire, grab the money, hit the road and never turn back. He could clear their plates, bring them a check, let it go.
Thumb hears a knock on the door.
“Just a minute,” he says.
“Let me in.”
It’s the girl.
Thumb, curious, unlocks the door. She pushes the door open, walks in the bathroom, pulls it closed behind her. She does not have the bag of money. Thumb wonders where it is.
“You disappeared,” she whispers.
Thumb’s back pressed against the sink. This was an amateur move, he thinks, every cell of his body vibrates with regret, never trap yourself, never get yourself in a room that you can’t escape from, when the girl with the green eyes hooks a finger onto the collar of his shirt.
His thoughts stop running. For a second, it’s quiet. He’s safe from the buzz of the lights and the sticky counters. She pulls him towards her, or maybe she pushes herself towards him, and suddenly it is hands in hair, hands on hips. She bites his bottom lip and he pulls her closer to him. Closer.
Five minutes or an hour or his entire life, he isn’t sure how much time passes and doesn’t care, she pulls back.
“I know it was decaf, asshole,” she says, but smiles. She turns, slips through the door, and Thumb is alone again. The door closes quietly behind her.
Stuart Pennebaker is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. You can find her writing emails about books: https://disconapbooks.substack.com/ or on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/stuartpennebaker/.