by Puca Dentata
If you want to see humanity in all its gusto and variations, go to a Dennys restaurant, I always say.
Its better than TV, its better than a novel its better than a circus. Specially these days, when all the teenagers that feel they are the first to have discovered the fine art of sitting around a coffee shop til three in the morning flock here. Odd creatures, but they have seemed odd to me for decades now. That period of time when my own children were at that age is long since past. I thought back then that the kids were going to hell in a handbasket in, oh lets see, Tammy graduated in 74, Chris in 76. Yup, I was at that age all people reach, when you are too young to just let the problems take care of themselves as they typically do, and too old to remember what it was like to be young and not know what the real problems are. Now, these kids appearances dont strike me odd anymore. Oh, I lie, they do but I flatter myself to think I am wise enough in my old age to not be pretentious and accept the fact that styles and mannerisms are fickle.
So I come here a few nights a week with a crossword of the sort that my wife Josie was so fond of puzzling out, watch the customers, and order one of those refillable coffees a dollar-twenty! Can you believe? Used to be that it was a dime or so, and it was a lot better th ah, there I go again. One mental trace and Im off and running my brain down memory lane. Paul, old man, maybe you are not as wise as you tell yourself. How about you stop thinking and drink your coffee before it gets cold. You still need a six letter word for fat.
Theres one I havent seen before. Hes sitting down at the bar that runs along the waitress section about five seats away from me. By himself, too. Drinking coffee like me. Wonder what his story is? Thats why I enjoy this place even if I dont chat with any of the other customers. I enjoy trying to figure out the history of these people. A flesh and blood crossword. Naw, make it up, is more like it. And yes, between you and me, I sometimes cheat at the paperbound puzzles, too. I wish I had some sort of magic score board or some such thing that would go ding! ding! whenever I came close to guessing a person right. Course, that might hurt my pride. If I was often wrong.
The kid just glanced over here, noticed that I am looking at him. He gives me this little half grin that you can take to mean anything. Bet hes practiced it for hours upon hours in front of a mirror, to be sure its right, be sure it makes him look suave and worldly. Hes a small one, those types always have a look if they want to withstand mental infiltration by the big guys. They always single out the little ones. I should know, I was quite a bully in the days of yore. Thought it appealed to the girls. I was a dumb kid, but what are you going to do? This one, with the odd dirty shirt that says Touch My Glowstick and whats a glowstick? he doesnt look like one of the mild ones that we so liked to harass. Probably has a cocky way to his demeanor, too. Small men have a thing in em that always makes them feel that they need to prove they arent as little as they are.
He kids leaning over now, gathering up his articles from the floor next to his seat. Backpack with a million patches for bands with silly names, and a plastic grocery bag. Probably goin home, or somewhere to smoke pot. I know those types, too Its in the eyes. They have this uncentered look that I cant really verbalize. You just know it when you see it. Its like some little beetle is trying to clatter out and eat you, best way I can say it.
I dont look at the kid as he passes behind me, though I sniff for a scent of weed-smoke. You morbid badger, youre almost let down that you cant smell it. Gotta be right, eh? So you can crow, Look at me! I know a doper when I see one! Rest easy, Paul, youre probably right. Ill still give you a scoring point for your guess.
I hear a plastic rustle and turn my head to see the kid settling himself on the stool next to me. He stows his bags under his chair again and bobs his head at the waitress to get her attention. More coffee, please? Least hes polite.
He turns to me and says, Hello. Mind if I join you, sir? I smile at that yup, Sir. He used sir. Nice to hear.
Sure, son. My names Paul. He thrusts his hand out to me to shake, which I do after noticing the nail polish. Hmmm. He doesnt seem gay. And he has a firm handshake.
Oz? I laugh at that, realizing that it comes out sounding corroded. Dont laugh in front of others too much anymore, and find myself becoming a bit self-conscious about it. Vanity? Hah!
Hows Trot and Capn Bill these days? And Jack Pumpkinhead? Im playing with him now. Let me have my games.
The kid gives his amused half grin again, and replies with a delightful snap-back. Theyre fine. Ozma and Professor Wogglebug sent me here to get a chocolate pie take-out.
Maybe I had this kid pegged wrong. If he does drugs, it wasnt tonight. Hes too with the here-and-now, with the snappy comment to prove it. Not many kids know those old books. Just the film. Oh, you caught me. Thought Id tease you about your name a bit, but you called me out on it. Smart boy.
He shrugs. Yeah, my mom used to read them to me. He becomes silent as the waitress approaches with his coffee and he thanks her with a real smile this time. Bet the girls like that. Wonder what they think of the green stripe down the center of his head? Probably go ga-ga. Oh, lordy. My days, it was a nice suit and a fedora perhaps; now it is LifeSaver hair.
So how you doing this fine night? I ask him, while inwardly debating whether I should get pie. His comment gave me a yearning for the stuff. Not chocolate, though. Pecan?
He sits up straight in such a way that brings my eyes back to his quickly. Oh, Im great, man. Great. And he looks great, even if that is not quite the word I might use. His eyes are positively a-twinkle. Now that I get a better look at them, I know why I thought he was on some sort of dope. Hes on something, but it is not drugs. The word I would use is smug! This Oz fellow is positively radiating smugness. Wonder what he has going on that deserves that much self-contained pride?
Thats good. A young man like you should be happy all the time. I frown at my words. They sound old and tasteless even to my own ears. I drink my coffee. Its tasteless, too. Probably in sympathy.
Oz is silent for a moment, and I wonder if he is calling me names in his head. I hazard a glance, but there is no guilt on his face that would answer my fear in the affirmative. He turns his head in my direction, I dont think he even noticed that I must be looking sheepish right now. I see those little insects in his eyes again.
Yeah, well. Its about time. He swings his head back around to stare out the window again. Reminds me of these toy machines I saw in a toy store a while back, movements paced at an internal beat. I wait for him to continue but he has started to chew his nails. So I remain silent, the only sounds the laughs and low murmurs around us and this plastic-chipping noise as Oz gnaws.
He sighs and perks up a bit. He looks at me again, and the jerky-fake persona is gone.
You see, man, my girl left me and things were bad. Very bad. I love her. He stares at the crossword puzzle next to me. Hey, cool. I never would have the patience. Though once a month would be nice, if I could handle a pen right. Would beat pacing. He snorts and tosses back more coffee while I look him over quizzically. I decide that Id rather hear about the girl. That I can understand, the other is too confusing to even acknowledge. Who wants to discuss crosswords when one can warm themselves on idle talk of young love?
What was the girls name?
Willow. Is, not was. His entire face turns into a warm mush as he says her name. But all is well now.
He sure doesnt talk much. Answers the question as if air was something to be guarded with bared teeth. A waste of wordage might cause starvation.
But he surprises me by continuing. See, I left for awhile. Things that needed to be taken care of. I came back, and she had already found someone new. A girl named Tara. Oz shakes his head at the apparent strangeness of it. I could SMELL her, man. I lost it. I left again.
He looks at me and smiles. He has the whitest teeth I have ever seen.
But I took care of it. I came back and traced down Tara to ask her to understand. Told her how much I love Willow. Shes this quiet little thing. Nice, and sweet, and humble. She didnt want to stand in the way of me and Will. Oh, yeah, she was hurt, she cried, she told me I ruined my chance by leaving in the first place but she accepted it after a bit. She had to. She had nothing like me and Will had. Wills meant to be my mate. Oz smiles down into his empty cup serenely.
I hate to break the kids obvious pleasure, but I have to ask, Are you sure you did the right thing?
He turns to me and arches his brows. Whats done is done, man. Willow and me are going to have a new start. It will work this time. Those skitterings are back in his eyes. I dont like it and wish he would look away, because I cannot.
Does she know about this? Your Willow? I hear the words faintly, but he is still looking at me. Thrall. Im in thrall because I almost understand his eyes. I wonder if Im talking about knowing he talked to Tara or if she knows about his eyes. Im not sure, Im not sure.
Nope. I got back into town this afternoon, hunted down Tara, got something to eat, heading to Willows after this. He grins. I should go soon. I got her a gift.
He leans over and unzips his pack to pull out some bent flowers. Awww, theyre ruined. But Willow was always one to appreciate the thought, no matter what the actual gift looks like. This Oz kid is almost no, is crooning to the flowers. But I have something else, too.
He buries his nose in the flowers and twists sunny eyes up to meet mine. I can see the corner of his grin around the edge of a bruised leaf. I cant believe I took it for indifference. For faint amusement.
They are so easy to crush. So easy to snap and bend. He twists a head of a daisy. Just like Tara.
I think I am talking to someone who has lost all sanity.
Oz looks at me through narrowed eyes which are all too easy to understand now that I have found the right word to fill the spaces. The insects are agitated now. They have been interrupted, those roaches, and they scuttle for the corners morosely now that they realize someone sees them. But like with any roach, I wish I could pretend I dont see his eyes. They make me want to brush at my skin. To look in the mirror to be sure I have not been infected with with him.
Oz is standing now, stuffing his flowers into his bag. He knows I know. What can I do? I am just a man who has looked at eyes that saw me as prey a moment ago, so what can I do? Nothing. Do I stand up and try to stop him?
Because I am an old man and dont want to deal with this. Because I am now mourning the loss of a bit of my innocence if one can have that at the age of 67. I am losing another friend, albeit one not of flesh and blood. Coming to this restaurant. I wont come here again. Am I selfish? God, I dont care. It was my simple pleasure. And now it is gone, too. So I will let this boy go and not say a damn thing to anyone, and it will be my punishment to those that felt this too should be taken from me.
Oz picks up his plastic bag and hurries out into the night. My eyes have followed his face all this time without faltering and I continue to watch as he hops into a battered van and leaves the lot. And until the tail lights are out of view. Only then do I turn back to the bar. Even though my brain has been keening in outraged panic this entire time.
His other gift.
As he picked up the bag I could not help but notice the wet slosh under the rasp of plastic. And plastic is not completely solid to the eye. This one was brown, but I could still understand what my traitor eyes were whispering to me.
My eyes saw a human head of a girl in that bag.
And as I sit here clutching my crossword paper with both hands so hard that the ink is smearing my sweating palms black, I wonder, What will this Willow think of her gift?
No, I will never look at a stranger again and try to rope the creatures that lope through their minds. My game is done.