This is the first short story I wrote for university. It’s the first short story I’d written for a very long time, and the first bit of writing I showed to people I didn’t know – the other people in my class. I feel I’ve come a long way since writing it, but I still like it and think it has my voice. So here it is.
“Integrity: A name is the blueprint of the thing we call character. You ask, What’s in a name? I answer, Just about everything you do.” -Morris Mandel
When he walked into the diner every head glanced up with bleary eyes, then, uninterested, returned to staring into their cups of coffee. My eyes stayed upon him.
There wasn’t any particular reason why they should do so—he wasn’t extraordinary in looks—but there was a way he moved. He moved like he came from the city; his legs swished stiffly, like scissors. Here in Imogene, Iowa, our strides are looser, wider, more relaxed. He paused in the doorway, silhouetted by the morning sunlight behind him, taking in the tired jukebox, the faded, faux-leather red seats, the tarnished chrome. It no longer bothered me, but I knew the stale miasma of old grease and cheap coffee wafted towards him. For a moment, he hesitated, but after a resigned squaring of the shoulders, the man met my stare and sat in my section.
I came over with the coffeepot. He gave a quick nod of his head and I poured it. He wore a ratty cap pulled low on his forehead, casting a shadow over his face. His dark clothes were almost caked with smog. New York, I decided. As I leaned over to pour the coffee, he noticed my nametag.
“Sage,” he said. “It means wisdom. A good, strong name.”
“What, no hippie joke?” I said with the smile I always reserved for customers who commented on my name.
“It was around long before the hippies.”
“I suppose.” I paused. “What’s your name?”
He looked up and the light fell across him. He seemed to be somewhere in his mid-twenties. Half of his face was covered in a 5 o’clock shadow, but the other half was almost shockingly pale, and with one mole marring a cheek he looked like a ying-yang sign.
He grimaced. “Puck.”
“Like the fairy in A Midsummer’s Night Dream?” I asked, intrigued to discover someone else with an unusual name. Here, everyone was named Jessica, Britney, John, or Todd.
“That’s one meaning, but I don’t think I’m much like him.” He smiled, showing white teeth. As another waitress passed behind me in a pastel pink blur, his eyes flicked towards her.
“See, her name? Sarah. It sounds boring, it’s ubiquitous, and all it means is princess in Hebrew.” I suppressed an un-waitress-like snigger. Sarah wasn’t exactly a princess.
“What’s in a name?” I said with a more genuine smile. He gave a lopsided grin in return, but I had the feeling he’d probably heard that line before.
I took his order of eggs and bacon to the kitchen, watching him from behind the counter. He drew lazy organic designs on the tabletop with a fingertip. His eyes occasionally followed Sarah as she weaved her way among the customers, taking in the bleached hair, the tan, the raccoon’s mask of mascara and eyeliner. She was the opposite of me in looks. I looked down at the cracked linoleum countertop for a moment, biting my lip.
As Sarah sashayed back towards the kitchen, she flicked back her mock-blond hair and lifted her stenciled eyebrows at me. I just smiled back. That eyebrow lift signaled “he’s cute.” I agreed with her, for once; usually her tastes ran to the big, blonde and blockheaded, and so generally her eyebrow lift was met with my nose scrunching up with distaste. We usually passed judgment on the attractiveness of customers to help make the shifts a bit livelier, but this time it felt hollow.
When I returned with Puck’s order, he had torn and folded his Rainier’s napkin into a little crown. He pushed it to the side so I could set the plate down.
“Fantastic!” He exclaimed. He picked up his knife and fork and immediately began eating.
“Do you want another napkin?” I asked. He wolfed down his food, but not messily or noisily. I can’t stand messy eaters, and unfortunately our diner was usually full of them. The sound of the almost violent way people masticated their food always turned my stomach. Usually people tend to attack their food like a hunter descending on their prey. Puck ate his food like a surgeon. Since entering the service industry, I judged people on their manners.
“Uh,” he did not appear to have heard me, but had noticed I was still standing by the table.
“Do you want another napkin?” I repeated. “They’re free.” I added, stupidly.
“Yes, that’d be great,” he had chewed and swallowed his food before answering, which I found rather endearing. So many customers yelled at me for more ketchup or syrup, the half-chewed pancakes and sausage looking like maggots in their mouths, bits of egg caught on their chin. Puck had eaten half his meal by the time I returned with a few napkins. He had little crinkles around his eyes; either he laughed a lot or he was older than he seemed.
“So, how and when are you getting out of this place?” Puck asked as soon as I put the napkins down next to his plate.
“How do you know I wanna leave?” I asked, placing a fist on my hip and emphasizing my mid-western twang. “Maybe I’m gonna stay here till I’m wrinkled as a raisin.”
“I know you want to get away from here. I was just like you: too smart for a town or job like this,” he took a napkin and wiped his mouth. I made sure none of my colleagues were within earshot.
“I’m going to college. I’ll leave when I’m finished.”
“No, I want to get out of this whole state. Maybe I’ll go to New York.” I was fishing to see if my assumption from where he was from was correct.
“I’m traveling from there. I guess you can tell. People seem to have a look about them if they’re from the city. Sort of beat down?” He shrugged and smiled.
“But it seems so alive compared to this place.” I glanced around my area and saw that the place was nearly empty and no bosses were around to yell at me, so I slid into the seat across from him.
“Being in a vibrant, busy city wears you down. Sometimes I have to get away, so I start wandering and stop at places like this.”
“Sounds romantic,” I said sarcastically, glancing around at the faded glory of the diner. Compared to him, I felt like a little girl. He had obviously done and seen so much more than I probably ever would. We sat in mostly comfortable silence as he finished the last few bites of his meal. I kept trying to think of another conversation starter, but found myself shy. I opened my mouth once or twice and then abruptly snapped it shut. Puck, staring down at his plate, didn’t notice. When the plate had been scraped clean, he gave me a generous tip and the napkin crown.
“Thanks for the company. Don’t let this place wear you down,” he said with a wink as he left.
I stayed seated in the booth after he left. The end of the conversation had been anti-climatic. If only I could have impressed him, I berated myself, my fingernails scraping along the tacky leather of my seat as they balled up into a fist. In Puck I had glimpsed something of the outside world, a world that seemed so removed from my tiny, isolated sphere. Foolish girlish daydreams of running away with him warred with the pragmatic thought that one day I might be just like him: a mysterious stranger from a big city, experience writ large on my face.
“Only one more year and I’ll get out of here,” I confided to the little napkin crown in my hand.
The next day, Sarah didn’t show up for work, so I did twice the amount of table cleaning. I cursed her as I used two wet rags to draw wet figure-eights on the sticky tables. Sarah had the dubious honor of being the diner manager’s niece, so she could skip out whenever she wanted. Virginia, the other co-worker who usually shared my shifts, was also late, probably due to entertaining half the football squad the night before. That was unkind.
I scowled at the table, annoyed with my bitter morning thoughts. I had half-hoped that Puck would have breakfast here again. Time wore on. He was probably already driving his car—in my head it was a cherry-red Corvette—at exhilarating speeds down a distant freeway. He was long gone, making an enviable getaway from the fair town of Imogene. I, meanwhile, would have to work an extra shift just to get gas money to get to the next town. I sighed, ignoring the ringing phone at the other side of the dining area. Mr. Roberts, the manager, picked it up and held up the receiver to his mouth with his shoulder.
“Yeah, that’s me…what?”
He listened for a moment, glaring at a stain on the wall. Abruptly, the glass he had been polishing fell to the floor with a smash, the shards skittering across the floor.
Her body had been found early that morning in an abandoned warehouse, a dark cavern of broken glass, food wrappers, crushed aluminum cans, and condoms. Her body had been placed on an old recliner. So said the wagging tongues of the diners over the lunch rush. A detective came around the diner later that day and interviewed everyone. He had taken me aside and asked me the standard questions: When did you last see Sarah Roberts? Did you notice when she went missing? Had I noticed anything or anyone unusual? My answers were all vague. As the detective turned away from me and weaved through the tables to speak yet again to Sarah’s uncle, a photo slipped from his Manila folder and landed as lightly as a feather upon the floor.
Mesmerized, I stepped forward and peered down at it. Sarah looked back at me with unseeing eyes surrounded by smeared mascara and glitter. A bruise bloomed on one cheekbone. She was wearing a cheap, plastic crown, set slightly askew. Her hair framed her face in a corona. Her naked body lounged gracefully on the recliner, her throne. In death, despite her dollar-store crown and filthy surroundings, she looked regal. But empty. She wasn’t Sarah any longer. It was like looking at a painting of a long-dead monarch. She came, she saw, she conquered. But she was conquered.
I picked up the photograph, but mid-crouch the importance of the crown suddenly stopped me cold. I stayed there, poised like a bird about to take flight. The cogs of my mind began to spin and my stomach churned. It was a coincidence. My mind suddenly saw the silver sheen of Sarah’s crown imposed over a little folded Rainier napkin nestled in my palm. No. I rifled through my memories of those few hours, frantically searching for any hint. How could I think so low of someone? Especially someone who had been so . . . friendly? So nice? It didn’t fit. But someone did this. This is a small town. He was just passing through. For what reason? No. He didn’t know her.
But he knew what her name meant. He had told me. Crown. Princess.
I turned away from the photograph and stumbled out the back door to the alleyway separating the diner from the only Chinese restaurant in Imogene. Numb, I leaned against the stone wall and slid down it until I was sitting, the hot asphalt burning into my palms.
My mind raced. If it was him, then it could have very well been me they found today. I couldn’t get my head around it. He had spoken to me, connected with me. Was that why he didn’t choose me? Had he been planning to get me, at first? Perhaps it had been like when a child goes to the zoo and pets a piglet and finally makes the connection between it and bacon. He couldn’t think of me as livestock. Or, perhaps he just wanted to kill the princess instead of wisdom. A gruesome image of a dead me dressed in a toga and laurel leaves, holding an aegis and a spear swam before my vision. I barked out a bitter semblance of a laugh.
The mechanisms of my mind whirred and finally clanked to a halt. Eventually I calmed down slightly, though my hands still shook and my heart continued to beat out irregular, staccato beats against my ribcage. For a long time I just sat, my mind completely blank.
When I could think again, I told myself I was just being morbid and ridiculous, but the pit of dread stayed in my stomach. Shaking my head, I shoved myself up, the imprint of the stones dug into my hands and my eyes burned hot and bright.
After a few days, I convinced myself I was spinning webs that had too many holes in them to hold any flies. Sarah had always acted like a princess; some jilted lover had a dark, twisted sense of humor. Deep down, in a tiny dark corner of my mind where I refused to look, I think I knew I was fooling myself.
I never told the police about Puck. I didn’t tell the slick FBI agent that came a few months later either. I pushed it all from my mind as much as possible and I went back to the endless drudgery of bacon and eggs, hamburgers and fries, still counting the days until I received my diploma and could fly out of this tired town.
New York no longer held the same magic. I decided to go to sunny Los Angeles instead. Sometimes, I still took out the little napkin crown and looked at it.
Life went on. I waited on rude customers. I brought innumerable plates and took them away again. Eventually, Puck faded in my mind, becoming instead a vague feeling of unease and danger. But if anyone who looked like him came into the diner, I fled to the kitchen or the bathroom and made someone else take his table.
Graduation passed in a swirl of black robes and red balloons. I had saved enough of the crumpled one dollar notes of my tips to move. At last, the day came where I could quit, and I did. I said my goodbyes, loaded up my battered station wagon with my paltry possessions and waited for morning.
That night, I had a note pushed under my door, a tiny sprig of sage attached to it with a lavender ribbon:
“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
Before I left, I checked, and Virginia hadn’t shown up for work.