Melvin Sterne

The Number You Have Reached

You walk into a diner and the first thing you notice is that there are no customers. There is a long counter stretched out in front of you, a half-dozen booths against the wall, and as many tables in between, but not a customer in the place. The floor is grimy, most of the tables are piled with dirty dishes. You pick the cleanest spot at the counter, right next to the cash register, and sit down. You rest your elbows on the Formica. It is cool and slightly greasy.

The grill is on. There are two pots half-filled with coffee on electric burners directly in front of you. There are cooked link sausages piled on a towel by the grill and crisp, dry bacon stacked on a plate beside them. You smell the meat and your mouth waters. You haven’t eaten in more than a day.

The cook is sitting on a five gallon plastic bucket with his feet up on the counter and his back against the wall by the walk-in cooler. The door to the cooler is open. He is smoking a cigarette. He has a long-necked bottle of beer clenched between his knees. The air above him is hazy. There is a mountain of butts on the floor. He is wearing a tee shirt sweat-stained yellow.

You drum your fingers on the countertop and clear your throat. "Good morning" you say.

"Fuck you," he replies.

"Rough day?" you ask.

"Let me tell you about a rough day," he says rising. You wish you hadn’t asked.

He chugs his beer and flings the bottle through the plate glass window just above and slightly to the right of the faded red letters that say Julia’s Home Cooking. The letters had green and gold outlines, and some holly and berries trim left over from Christmas. Or maybe it was lettuce and tomatoes. The paint was faded and the artwork iffy. The bottle punches through the window and the glass cascades onto the sidewalk outside and startles a cat that was stalking a pigeon. The cat goes one way and the pigeon the other. You think they have the right idea.

The cook makes like he’s going to stab his finger into the middle of your forehead.

"Can I have a cup of coffee and a menu?" you ask.

The cook stops, his arm coiled in mid-strike. He unties his apron and tosses it on the grill, walks into the cooler and comes out lugging a case of beer on his shoulder.

"Fuck you," he says again as he passes, "and your coffee." As an afterthought he pauses and scoops a handful of bills from the till, then stuffs them in his pocket. After he leaves, the apron begins to smoke.

It is Saturday morning, July, and already 95 degrees outside. The clock on the wall says nine. There is no traffic on the street. You have a hangover. Six months ago you left your wife and daughter in Burlington, Vermont. You told them you were going to the store for a bottle of milk and a paper. Instead you drove to New Jersey where you stopped under a freeway and sold the tires off your car for $100. You bought a bottle of Annie Green Springs and a bus ticket to Atlanta. "Hello" you say, but there is no sound except the drone of the compressor in the cooler.

You come around the counter to the grill and pick up the apron, which is smoking but not yet burst into flames. You wipe down the grill with it and throw it away. There is a radio by the grill and you turn the dial to 88.6 Country Proud. Soybeans are down a nickel. The National Weather Service is forecasting another drought. Corn weevils have reached epidemic proportions.

You pour yourself a cup of coffee and it is bitter, so you pour half of it out and fill it back up with milk and sugar. It is bad but you drink it anyway. When you get to the bottom of the cup the sugar washes the burnt taste away. You open the little fridge under the counter and find a pitcher of OJ next a carton of eggs and a white plastic tub full of grated potatos.

There is a mountain of hash browns on the grill and a half-dozen eggs sizzling sunny side up when the first customer walks through the door. He sits down where you were sitting and looks around. Just for kicks you plop a menu in front of him, give the counter a half-hearted swipe with a wet rag, and pour him a glass of water. "What’ll you have?" you ask.

"Waffles" he says.

"Can’t," you reply. "Iron’s broke."

"Pancakes then."

You don’t remember seeing batter in the cooler but you look anyway. "Out of batter," you say.

"What have you got?"

"Eggs."

You serve him eggs and hash browns, throw in a side order of sausage for free. You pour him a cup of coffee but he complains about it. You take his cup, taste it, then pour half of it out and fill it back up with leftover milk from a glass on the counter. Then, while he watches, you fill the cup with sugar until it overflows.

"That’s disgusting," he says.

On his way out the door you say: "Ya’ll come back now, ya here?" You go to the cooler and open a beer. You eat the eggs and sausage.

After a while a very old woman in a blue granny dress and black, square-toed shoes comes in. She is wearing a hat covered with small plastic flowers. She walks with a stainless steel cane. She shuffles to the booth in the furthest corner and sits down, raps the table with her cane, says: "Julius, I’m home." She stares into space. You ignore her.

A minute later two men come in. One is tall and thin, dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and string cowboy tie. He wears a ridiculously small black cowboy hat with a silver Navajo band around it. He reminds you of a mortician you knew when you were a child.

The other man is in a wheelchair. He wears a Panama hat and a green Hawaiian shirt with blue parrots printed on it. He has a plaid blanket over his knees. He wears dark glasses. He is older and his face is bony, skull-like.

A kid comes to the door on a skate board, leans in, says "Nasty," then boards away. His hair is orange. You hate the sound of skates on pavement.

You finish your beer and light a cigarette. The old woman raps the table with her cane. The men look around at the mess. After a while you pick up an order pad and saunter over to their table. "Hiya, creeky," you say to the man in the wheelchair. "What’ll ya have?"

"This table’s dirty," he says.

"No shit?" you reply.

You go behind the counter and find a gray plastic bus tub. You pick it up and get a wad of old, warm butter on your hand. You put it down and wipe the butter on a rag. You can still feel it under your nails. You return to the table. You pile the dishes, glasses, cups, and silverware in the tub and wipe the table down. You empty the tub into the garbage. The glasses break. The old lady raps her cane on the table. The kid skates by on his board again. You notice that his orange hair is worked up into shiny spikes. He is wearing a bright chain around his hips. You presume he wants to look tough. You wonder how long it takes him to make up his hair. The men order bacon and eggs.

Somewhere in Appalachia you left the Greyhound with an albino girl named Carol to spend the weekend in a cabin by a lake. She promised that it was beautiful and said it once belonged to her father, but he had sold it to a US Senator from Idaho who lived in DC and used it for a love nest. She said he used to bring his interns there to make home porno movies. She didn’t tell you how she knew this. She had pink eyes. Even her pubic hair was white.

The cabin had one room, no electricity, and no furniture. There was nothing to eat except some beef jerky you found on the top shelf of the cabinet. You fucked dog-style on the floor. You got splinters in your knees. The roof was covered with dead leaves and green mould. The outside boards weathered gray. It leaned to the south.

The lake was pond-sized and scummy. Cattails overran the shallows and lily pads smothered everything else. You paddled around naked in the afternoon in a tipsy rowboat. It was her idea. You tried to make love but the mosquitoes ate you alive. The boat seeped amber water. It smelled froggy. When you ran out of whiskey you walked to town to buy more. You stopped in the bar for a cool one. You forgot your way back. After a while you gave up and bought a bus ticket to Knoxville. You were disappointed not to have found any movies of the senator.

Willie Nelson sings "Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain" on the radio. You scramble the eggs with the shells and burn the toast. You serve it to the two men, but they don’t seem to notice. "We need to talk," they say. They gesture towards an empty chair.

"Would you like a beer?" you ask.

They nod.

While you’re in the cooler you think about the possibilities.

"Things aren’t working out," says the undertaker.

"I guess not," you reply.

"We’re going to have to take a new direction."

"I’m not very good at directions," you say.

They look at each other.

"Do you understand what we’re saying?"

First you nod. Then you shake your head.

You were sleeping in the doorway of a pawnshop near the civic center in downtown Knoxville at two o’clock in the morning when a policeman tapped you on the foot with his nightstick and asked what you were doing.

You told him you wanted to be first in line to buy Elvis memorabilia in the morning.

He told you to move along.

You told him to fuck himself.

He and his partner threw you in the river. Then they arrested you for swimming after dark. It is illegal to swim in the Tennessee River within the city limits of Knoxville after dark. The fine was $50. Your wife paid it. She cried on the phone. She said your daughter missed you. She wanted you to go to treatment. She said her father would foot the bill. You know he hates you. You think he might bribe the nurses to put meds in your food and keep you forever. You think about Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." She wired you a plane ticket home. You didn’t pick it up.

Instead you caught a ride to Tulsa with a methaddicted trucker named Phil. He stopped in Little Rock and wanted you to suck his dick. He pulled his pants down around his ankles and tried to get hard and put on a condom. You ran away with his wallet. He looked funny chasing you down the street and pulling up his pants at the same time. You think it served him right.

"Perhaps we’re not being clear," says the man in the wheelchair. "Let me try a different approach. May I call you Larry?"

You shrug your shoulders. "Sure."

The men look puzzled.

"Your name is Larry, isn’t it?" says the undertaker.

"That depends on who’s asking," you say. "Are you with the IRS?"

They shake their heads.

"Then I might be Larry. I could be Larry."

The man in the wheelchair pulls a pistol from under the blanket and you lunge for it. The two of you tumble onto the floor. You have almost pried the gun out of his hand when the undertaker crashes a chair across your back. Unlike the movies, the chair does not break. Your back does not break, either, but it hurts like hell. You flip the pistol away from the wheelchair man with what you think might be your last, dying breath. The undertaker kicks you and you feel something snap in your hip. He straddles your back and pounds your head with his fists. You force yourself onto your hands and knees and find a steak knife on the floor miraculously close to your left hand. You jab the undertaker in the meaty part of his thigh. He rises like a shot. You expect something bad to happen but nothing does. The undertaker skips out the door. Creeky rights his wheelchair and hefts into it. One wheel wobbles wildly as he leaves. The old woman beats the table furiously with her cane. In sports, the Mets beat the Cardinals nine to three. Daryl Strawberry hit two home runs.

You stagger to the door. Your hip hurts too bad to run. Outside, the boy with the orange hair sprawls on the sidewalk. His skateboard is upside down. The wheels are spinning. Creeky’s wheelchair lies on its side. One wheel has fallen off. There is a trail of blood leading to an empty parking space. A black Lincoln trailing blue smoke peels around the corner.

You look at the orange headed kid.

"Gnarly," he says. He sits up. He is wearing a dog collar. His face is scratched.

You remember that you are on your way to Seattle. You think it might be a good time to leave but you can’t resist the temptation to snag a six-pack of beer. It might come in handy. When you come out of the cooler a policeman blocks the door.

When you left Little Rock, you hitch-hiked north to Saint Paul. You thought a change of scene might do you good. In Saint Paul you worked two days at a farmer’s market. They paid you in cash and vegetables. On the second day you emptied the till and hopped a west-bound freight. You took a crate of oranges with you. The next night, in Cheyenne, a hobo climbed into your boxcar. He told you his name was Willie and he was a famous bluesman. He said he had a hundred-dollar harmonica, but he wouldn’t show it to you. He did show you pictures of his family. "They understand me," he said. His wife had a boyfriend, but he slept on the couch in the winter when Willie came home. You said that was kind. You took turns throwing oranges at cows grazing near the tracks.

You told him about your daughter, Angelina, and how she loves you unconditionally. She brings you beers from the fridge. You taught her the labels so she could tell one brand from another. You tell her "bring me a Tecate," and she brings you a Tecate. Your wife does not approve of this. Willie nods sympathetically. While you are sleeping he steals your jacket and most of your money. You wake up in Bonners Ferry and are lonely.

The policeman asks you for some ID and you tell him about Willie and the train ride from St. Paul. He is not impressed. They fingerprint you at the lock-up. You tell them your name is Jefferson Davis and you are a US Senator from Idaho. They bring in the old woman but she can’t identify you. They ask if you’ve ever been arrested before and you think about telling them about swimming after dark in the Tennessee River. You decide not to tell them. The cops are perplexed. Since you didn’t leave the restaurant they can’t bust you for stealing. The café owner doesn’t know you from Adam. He says he hired a fry cook named Larry to run the breakfast shift. You claim you were beat up by a man in a wheelchair. Nobody believes you. They bring in the pistol, ask if you know anything about it. You tell them you know it is safer standing behind it than in front of it. They charge you with destruction of property. They take your shoelaces and your belt.

You tell them you know your rights and you are entitled to make a phone call. You swagger when you say this. They take you to a pay phone in the hall. You think it is about time to check in with your wife and tell her you are all right. You call collect. You get a recording. The number you have reached is no longer in service.

"That’s odd," you say.

You call your father-in-law in Camden, New Jersey, but he won’t take a collect call. You know he is a cheapskate so you call him again on your dime. It actually costs two dollars for the first three minutes. "Robert," you say. "It’s me, Sid. You’re not going to believe this, but I can’t get through to Susan." He hangs up. The guard looks at you. "I see," you say. "That bad. A whole week, huh?" You cover the mouthpiece and say to the guard, "Storms back east, phone lines are down."

Across the hall is a door with a little window of reinforced glass in the middle of it. Inside you see the orange-headed kid talking to a couple of cops. They have emptied the kid’s pockets and you see some CD’s, some change, and what looks like a tube of glue.

"Well," you say, "I’ll try again later. Tell her I’m in jail in Pocatello and I need her to post bail."

When you hang up the cop says you’re not in Pocatello.

You shrug your shoulders.

He asks if you want to call anybody else. You can’t think of anybody. You have twenty cents in your pocket. A local call is twenty-five.

 * * *

Melvin Sterne was born in Georgia, raised in Louisiana and Texas, and currently makes his home in California. He earned his BA in English at the University of Washington and his MA at the University of California at Davis. His fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in South Carolina Review; Kaleidoscope: International Journal of Literature, Fine Arts, and Disability; Blue Mesa Review; Mochila Review; Willow Spring; In Posse Review; Amarillo-Bay; Watchword (issues Four and Five); Furrow; and Insolent Rudder. He also publishes the occasional poem and essay.