By: R. Thomas
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]lan looked out the small, greasy window at the new Denny’s, across the early traffic of Cluff Crossing Road. His eyes scanned the fractured pavement that the city should have patched, past the manhole slightly raised due to Salem’s harsh winters. He followed the small gravel road that led to the full parking lot of the new Denny’s. The brick symmetry of the building was pleasing. The late morning was cool and as sweet as a turkey leg, one of those days that just seemed to imply greatness. Before the cold snap that kills off the onions, before rain and sleet pressed down on you, before you felt the Earth’s gravity and the heaviness of snow. It was September and a good month to be alive, to feel the crisp air being sucked in through your nose and into your lungs, mixing with your capillaries and feeding your brain beautiful nutrients. It was a smart location for the new Denny’s because that’s where the last body was found and the Gulliver’s got a good price on the land. The plot overlooked the Stonehenge and from the furthest booth, you could clearly make out the slight edges of Canobie Lake. You could really appreciate Salem from the plastic seats of the new Denny’s. They found the body of the Agnew girl, the nurse, down by the edge of the property and that was that. Whoever had done the killings had stopped, moved on or died, whatever the kinds of people who do those things do when they are done. The town breathed a sigh of relief when the bodies stopped showing up and although the killer was never found, the people of Salem felt a release. Like the families of the dead, they moved on but remembered.
The parking lot of the new Denny’s was starting to fill up with old model cars and newer, cheaper, foreign makes while at Jim’s, the hamburgers steamed and frizzled and fried. The blackened flat top grill was packed with sweating brown meat and Alan turned them over every now and then. Eventually he slid them into a large metal pan full of beef stock to keep them warm and moist. Alan was fascinated by the patterns the congealed grease left on the over-sized spatula as the beef and pork mixture dipped into the slime. That was the process for cooking the daily hamburger special at Jim’s. The patties would swim around in the broth like hippos in some African swamp, grinding into each other and milling around, until their number was drawn, then Alan would toss it on a bun with a pile of fries and hand it across the counter to a dwindling amount of fairly unimpressed customers.
“That fucking new fucking Denny’s man. That fucking pousti Gulliver man. Fucking killing me.” Jim calmly said, pointing with a long knife, dripping with the guts of a deceased, over-ripe tomato. Jim’s name wasn’t really Jim, Alan knew that, everyone in Salem knew that, but it was easier than trying to pronounce a mystifying string of vowels with a few consonants mixed in, so everyone started calling him Jim. Jim was part of the only Greek family in town, which made him kind of famous. That’s why he opened up Jim’s. His business consisted of a ramshackle, tiny framed trailer that had been converted to accommodate a seating area, a marvel of city bi-law infractions. You could squeeze in about twenty-five people if they didn’t mind touching each other, serving up homemade slaw, burgers, fries and a few other classic Greek dishes. The place had been bumping with tourists all summer long, but as the season waned, the khakied folk withdrew, taking their beige dogs and light brown children with them. Then it was all regulars, until the winter broke, and most of Jim’s regulars were dying. The younger, hipper folks preferred some place a little younger and hipper, like the new Denny’s, which attracted a veritable who’s who of local Salem celebrities and city officials. Across Cluff, a toddler tripped and fell face first on the grass. A young mother grabbed the crying child and cradled it, flailing, in her arms as he wailed. Alan laughed, which he usually did when kids fell down, not a vindictive thing, just his natural response to life’s little failures. “What the fuck are you laughing about Al? You want to be over there, hanging out at that new fucking Denny’s,” Jim screamed, spitting bits of old tobacco and ash everywhere. “Don’t forget who butters your bread.” It was Alan who actually buttered Jim’s bread, but he thought wiser about bringing that up, so he continued to admire the field of meat in front of him, dreaming of Flanders Field and the fallen cows that made Jim’s possible. Better days will come, he thought, when the heat of the restaurant made his flesh scream and his rash flair up. He had to think that way. He was young and broke and had nothing to look forward to, so the only option was optimism.
Around 11:45 a woman walked in, more like a girl, maybe fourteen. She had a ragged Death To The Pixies black t-shirt on that reminded Alan of the one his sister Cora used to wear when he was young. Before she disappeared. “Look at that nigger,” Jim whispered, more to himself than to anyone, motioning towards the girl, who was clearly white and just a little tanned from the passing summer. Jim didn’t like black people. “They just look so funny,” he would say on one of his more insightful days. He didn’t really like Mexicans or Indians either. Jim only really liked white people and went out of his way to try and only be around white people. This, Alan thought, was quite odd because most people in Salem didn’t think of Jim as white at all. More like an off-white or mauve. The girl ordered a hamburger, fries, and Coke and handed Alan over a crumpled ten dollar bill which he slipped into his pocket while Jim wasn’t looking. Alan watched the girl sit down. She took the best seat in the joint, the one that overlooks the old Stonehenge. Occasionally, after a mid-summer afternoon rush, Alan would sit in that same seat and watch all the outsiders and visitors and tourists, people that weren’t from around Salem, all gather around the beat up pile of rocks that constituted America’s Stonehenge, sometimes holding hands and chanting ancient Druid texts, other times sitting in silence, just feeling the dilapidated power of the place, pleading and begging for a sign that they weren’t alone in the world, weren’t just made up of atoms and molecules, floating around, occasionally bumping into other bags of atoms, hoping for a mystical message, telling them that everything will be alright and that something, somehow, meant something. Alan enjoyed those quiet afternoons, the smell of burnt toast in the air mingling with Jim’s cigarette smoke. He relished silent contemplation on the utter silliness of life.
The girl must have been hungry, she really plowed the food into her and had a little bit of mayo on the corner of her mouth as she turned and walked out the door and Alan wanted to grab her and turn her around and kiss off the mixture of soybean oil and vinegar, but he just watched her go. He watched the back of her head, her almost grey hair, her exposed black bra strap and smooth round butt shimmy out the door and at that moment, all he wanted was for her to turn back to him and say, “Come with me. Wherever I’m going, come with me” and he would have left and maybe he could feel normal again and escape the days that lie ahead and fast forward all the shitty parts, stopping where he was happy and content and alive with pleasure, like a Newport menthol cigarette. After the tourists had gone back to their normal lives and their shitty jobs, after all Alan’s friends went back to school, working on building something that could be mistaken for a life if you squinted, the true personality of Alan’s hometown would settle back over Salem, like a cloud of mustard gas descending upon sleeping GI’s. “But you’ll never leave” a voice kept saying from way back inside of his mind, from the swampy depths of the deepest fissures of his brain. It was his Father, Burt Crawford’s voice and his Cub Scout leader, Freddy Barber’s voice and his high school football coach Donnie Davis’s voice (go Blue Devils!). Alan shook these bad thoughts away physically shaking his head from side to side, as if the actual movement would help him clear his head. It was Friday and nearly noon. The regulars would show up soon. Alan held his breath as long as he could and waited for the onslaught of customers to replace one craving with another.
Sometimes when Alan would get off work, he’d go for a long walk out around the lake. Past the cabins and camps, past the rental properties that most of Salem couldn’t afford, through the trails where Jane Boroski was attacked, down the long path towards the beach. He would sit and listen to the thick Boston accents, the strange Quebec and Canadian ones and even some European sounds, but not usually. He’d sit down on the old bench, the one dedicated to George Swinnerton Parker of Parker Brothers fame. He’d roll a joint and watch girls run around and swim and flirt with the life guard, Buck Ewan. Alan would pick out which girls he’d like to fuck and which girl he’d like to marry and which girl he’d eventually get caught cheating with, breaking up the new marriage and crushing his young bride. Sometimes he’d see a girl he really liked and if he was stoned enough, he’d walk up to her and ask her some stupid question like “where’d you get that burrito from?” or “do you think the Sox have what it takes this year?” Alan was an Orioles fan. Sometimes the girls bit and talked for a while until it got awkward. Sometimes it got awkward really fast and he took off. Once in a while, before his bike got stolen, Alan would ride out past the Boys and Girls Club and down to Wheeler Ave, by the Massachusetts border. He’d blast down the little hill on Haverpoint Road, through Smoker’s Path, by his old school and look at the neighbourhood. Everyone was gone, moved out or on. His parents left for Concord a few years ago. They didn’t expect him to go with them, so he stayed. There was nothing else to do. 160 Plaisted Circle was where his old Dobie house stood. It was originally made for the GI’s coming home from World War 2. It was cramped but nice for a family of four. There was a big back yard that led out through a damp area into a little park with a swimming pool. Alan would bring his two Doberman Pinchers over to the pool and let kids go wild over the dogs. The town seemed endless then. Things changed when his family was cut by a quarter. Then the backyard seemed too big for one boy. Around dusk Alan would get tired and walk his bike back up the hill to the Grainery, a little rooming house run by a nice old lady named May. Her back was really bent and he had to tie her shoes for her, but she didn’t charge him too much for rent and sometimes she made his bed for him. He’d go up the creaky, old stairs, through the musty hallway, past Gray, who’d always try to sell him old plaid suits. Alan would fall into his bed and dream about work or sex or magnets. Sometimes he’d stay up late, smoking hash and watching videos produced by paranoid old white men who were scared of the future and worried about the technological enslavement of humanity and computer chips being implanted underneath people’s skin. He always found it comforting that people believed that stuff because if people believed that stuff, there was a chance of it actually happening and Alan thought that maybe taking emotion out of the equation could work for humans. Maybe a bit of clinical robotics was what the world needed to get back on its feet.
The lineup at Jim’s was really a spectacle that Friday afternoon, a microcosm of Salem. Older white people who loved wet hamburgers. Also Cary Villa, Bob Villa’s nephew: strawberry milkshake and onion rings. There was Sandra Wilson, whose daughter Lara worked at the Rink: chicken fingers basket, there was Glen Fitzsimmonds, who once went to jail for killing his neighbour’s cat: two pogos and a large glass of milk. The cat deserved it. Then there was Eddie Fisher: Two piece cod and chips. Alan didn’t think Eddie was crazy. Eddie was always talking about what happened to him on his way to Boston in the winter of ‘67, driving his grey AMC Rambler Wagon with the wooden panels down the 101 towards Newton. His cousin, Charlie got called up to play with the Bruins and he got Eddie a ticket. The Bruins were riddled with injury that season. Centermen, Ted Green was hurt, so Charlie was in. That was months before the big Phil Esposito trade, so the Bruins needed some scoring. Eddie had his foot heavy on the pedal and was navigating the dark corners of the 101 like a champion, weaving in and out, passing cars on the shoulder, throwing empty cans of Pabsts at the Gordon Lightfoots, a term Eddie invented for slow drivers. He was making pretty good time to until around 6:13pm when his car stopped. The exact number of curse words that spewed forth from the man could never have been calculated, although, when drunk enough, Eddie would try to repeat the barrage. That’s why he can’t go into the new Denny’s anymore. Eddie scampered out of his ride and popped the hood of the AMC. It was still in fine shape. He examined the American craftsmanship. Everything was in place. He removed the dip stick, checked the oil, wiped his oil covered hands on the back of his jeans, and looked angrily to the sky. His body felt electrified and numb as a bright flash of blue light destroyed the heavens. He smoothly levitated up into a shiny metallic disc, and Eddie slowly shit his pants. The last thing he remembered was thinking that they’d never let him through the gates at the Gardens. When Eddie came to, he was sitting front row center, watching the Bruins get walloped by the Montreal Canadiens, 6-2. He had a full beer in his hands, was missing both pinky fingers and his pants were mysteriously free from both shit and motor oil. The Bruins would later go on to be eliminated by the Canadians in the sixth game of the Conference Finals. The score would be 6-2.
Eddie handed Alan a twenty with three fingers and Alan slid the twenty into his pocket “New Denny’s man. Don’t like that. Not one bit” Eddie Fisher said. Alan smiled and motioned for another customer to take his place. He had about seventy dollars in his pocket.
Whenever the lineups would get too big at the new Denny’s, Jim’s got the spill over. This usually happened on Sundays or holidays. The crowd would shuffle in, disappointed that they couldn’t order a Grand Slam Breakfast or a Moon Over My Hammy or an Ultimate Skillet.
As the afternoon wore on, something started to fester inside Alan. He didn’t know why he was stealing from Jim, who, although a racist and a homophobe, a sexist and a dimwit, hadn’t really treated him that poorly. Even though Alan was only allowed one fifteen minute break during an eight hour shift, Jim wasn’t an actual slave driver. Alan could have had it worse if he was born in Nigeria or Algeria or probably any country the ended in geria. He was allowed to think and dream of change. Still, something was eating at his stomach, and his back. Something was creeping up his spine.
The line of customers petered out, and Alan had the counter to himself. The sound of chewing had ceased and the slurping of sugary syrups had relented. The bills were paid and the ten percent tips were collected, half of which went to Alan. Jim started to break down the kitchen and the sound of scouring and scrubbing broke the peace. Jim was muttering under his breath about the UN and terrorism and different propositions. The sound was getting louder and louder, the scraping of metal Brillo pads on filthy pans increased second by second. There was a cloud of flat top cleaner steam that flooded out of the kitchen and into Alan’s nostrils and he just stared at the new Denny’s, with the polished cutlery and clean, freshly pressed linens that were such a mystery to him. Slowly, all the noise started to fade, to drift off to some place where outside stimuli goes when no one is paying attention to it and Alan’s legs began to vibrate. At first he thought there was an earthquake or he was having a seizure, the kind where your brain gets fried, but he was still aware that he was aware. His legs started walking on their own and his arms began swaying as he walked out from behind the counter and towards the door. He was being pulled towards the new Denny’s, with its lovely, brightly lit bits of flair and large yellow sign and sweet young servers. Alan heard Jim yell. His hands mechanically undid the knot of his apron. He watched as the dirty thing arced across the air and hit Jim in the face. The welcome bells clanged as he left Jim’s for the last time, welcoming Alan out into the cool September air. The bells seemed to signify something of importance. Alan walked across Cluff Crossing, his feet were careful to not trip over the fractured pavement and slightly raised manhole. He felt the cold metal of the door handle on his hands as his pinky fingers dissolved. Something slipped Alan a menu and as he was guided towards a swelling large booth, he slowly shit his pants.