You were thirty-five when you parked your pickup truck in front of that damned diner. A single poor decision that would make you hate yourself for the rest of your life. When you think back to that moment your joints hurt, your bones ache, your teeth bite into your tongue until you taste blood. In this town, even your body behaves in an unpredictable manner.
That’s why you prefer not to think of that moment at all. Anything but that.
But the treacherous memories claw their way through the tiniest chink in your mental armor, and the carefully constructed defenses tumble like a stack of alphabet blocks. You were thirty-five years old. You ordered a cup of coffee and a slice of blueberry pie.
And you stayed forever.
You were driving cross country, from the East Coast to the West. That’s not such a terrible idea when all you have in the world is a rusty ‘39 pickup. When you left to fight in the war, you had parents, a younger brother, a house near Boston, a yellow Ford, and a girlfriend named Lisa. But while you were saving the world from the Nazi menace, your parents died, and your brother gambled away your house and then left to seek better fortunes in California and took Lisa with him. Only the beat-up truck remained. How did they manage to turn a brand-new pickup into a pile of rusty metal in just three years?
The Ford was falling apart and you decided to take it on one last, three-thousand-mile road trip. Perhaps you thought that, at the end of this journey, you might accidentally run into Lisa while walking around on some beach in Fort Bragg, California. Stranger things have happened.
You planned to drive across America but got stuck in its heart instead, all because of the waitress. You remember her eyes—venom-green, clear-blue, fiery-orange; like a swamp, like a sea, like a sunset.
Sometimes you walk into the Double K diner and stare at the girl behind the counter. It can’t possibly be the same waitress. Perhaps it’s her daughter, or granddaughter. Maybe her name is also—what?—Annie?
No. That waitress’s name was Ellie. Ellie. The black hole that has replaced your heart whispers her name.
The black hole is cold. It emits gusts of frozen wind. The black hole is treacherous. If you close your eyes even for a moment, you will be trapped within it like a rabbit caught in a snare; you will fall into it, and keep falling, and when you reach the bottom you’ll be thirty-five again.
“Hey, mister, where’s your license plate from?”
“Those are Massachusetts plates, doll. Who taught you to make such excellent coffee?”
You were never a good liar, but the girl’s blushing cheeks are all the reward you wanted for your awkward compliment.
“I’m sorry, mister, but blueberry pie won’t be ready for another thirty minutes. The long-haul truckers bought out the morning batch—they’re a hungry lot! Would you like to try Ma Gray’s signature pudding instead?”
“I’ll wait for the pie, doll. I’m in no hurry.”
Thirty minutes is long enough to pin your life to this town like a rare butterfly to a wooden pinning block.
You could say: “Screw the pie, dear. To be honest, I never liked pie. The coffee is great, but it’s time for me to move along.”
You could leave a five-dollar bill on the counter. Such a generous tip is well beyond your means, but that girl’s eyes are awfully pretty.
“Have a good day, babe,” you could’ve said as you walk out into the scorching Kansas afternoon and toward your yellow pickup.
Instead you tell her, “I’m in no hurry.”
And now you never have to rush anywhere again.
Someone gently taps you on your shoulder. You open your eyes.
“What do you say, Mayor? I think this is an excellent idea!”
It’s the sheriff. He stares at you without blinking. You have no idea what he’s talking about, but he’s waiting for you to respond.
“Sure,” you say. “Sure.”
There are bits and pieces of memories jumbled in your head. You seem to recall that you knew him when he was a boy. He was a decent quarterback. You were barely a mediocre coach.
The Bay of Pigs. The Moon landing. Sunflowers. An awkward attempt to kiss the unattractive librarian. Lonely nights at the movie theater. Bingo in the evenings. So many lies gathered in the trash bin of your memory.
None of that was real. None of that will be real.
There are two dots connected by the straight line: point A and point B. Then and now. Point A, when you were thirty-five years old with your entire life ahead of you. Point B, when you’re a hundred and your life somehow never began.
Between those points is a black hole sixty-five years wide.
Sometimes you walk into the Double K diner and stare at the girl behind the counter. You want to ask her just one question, but you order the awful swill they call coffee instead.
Why ask the question when you already know the answer?
You close your eyes as an old man and when you open them a moment later you’re thirty-five again.
“Listen, babe,” you say. “What if I don’t wait for the damn pie? What if I drive away, get on the road right now, in my fine yellow truck?”
“The pie is delicious, mister. If you don’t try it, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”
“What if I like life-long regrets? Maybe collecting them is my hobby. Maybe I’m a regret connoisseur.”
“Then you should go, mister. It will be an outstanding regret. Pride of your collection.”
You get up. You should leave a tip, but you have no change and a fiver is way too much. When you grasp the handle of the front door, she calls after you.
“I’ll tell you what’s gonna happen, mister. You’ll get into your broken-down Ford and you’ll keep pressing the gas pedal until your foot falls asleep. You’ll drive fifteen hundred miles in something like thirty hours. Fresh air and an open road: It will be the happiest thirty hours of your life. You’ll drive your truck to its death, like messengers did to their horses on the Pony Express in 1861. It will be a worthy end for this clunker. You’ll arrive in Fort Bragg, California and head straight for the beach. There you’ll find large pebbles smoothed by the waves over thousands of years, the whisper of the ocean, the cries of seagulls, and the most stunning sunset you’ve ever seen.
“You’ll decide, right there and then, that the time has come to begin anew. After all, you’re good with your hands and with your brain both, more than can be said of most people your age. You’ll think that maybe you should move to New York and try to make it big in advertising.
“That’s when they’ll show up.
“It will be an incredible, impossible coincidence. If you happen to be a card player, mister, you’ll know what I mean. It’ll be like being dealt a straight flush in the game with the highest possible stakes. Three to seven of clubs. Imagine yourself, holding those cards, trying not to show excitement, to keep your poker face. Fanning the cards slowly, carefully, arranging them out of order: six, three, four, seven, five. All clubs. You won’t believe your eyes. Your hands will shake. The greatest windfall of luck in your life, and the bitterest disappointment, because all of your opponents will fold their cards, one by one, before the betting even opens.
“Yeah, mister, this will be the most useless straight flush in your life. First you will hear the familiar laugh. Then you will see the pebbles that your brother Charlie is tossing into the ocean. Then you will see him. Charlie will not have changed at all. He will have laughed like a man who never faced death. And Lisa—Lisa will look even better than you remember. You loved her long hair, but the new, shorter cut will make her even prettier, will make it impossible for you to look away. They will kiss, and that kiss—believe me—will tear a hole through your heart. That kiss will strike true where the German sniper missed.
“This beach, this ocean, this sunset—it will be all for them, with you merely a bystander, a card drawn by mistake. Perhaps, you’ll think, you should have never returned from the war.
“You will reach into your pocket and draw a Colt—the same one you used to shoot two krauts point blank during a battle in ‘44—a fine weapon. You will draw this Colt faster than one can say matryoshka, a stupid word you learned from an old Russian doctor. You won’t aim. It would be ludicrous to aim at your own brother and at the woman you love. You’ll simply fire, again and again, at the sunset, at the ocean, at the pebbles, and at the seagulls.
“Charlie will die instantly, before he realizes what’s happening, a smile still on his face. He will be buried with that smile, and will rot like that, smiling as California worms feast on his flesh.
“Lisa will die slowly, painfully. She will die staring right at you. Tenderness, multiplied by the three hundred and seventeen minutes of happiness from the first night you shared together, divided by ninety-nine thousand seven hundred and twenty-three minutes of loneliness—that’s what her gaze will look like.”
The waitress—Ellie, was it?—goes back to wiping down the counter as though you aren’t there, as though you’ve never been there at all.
You slowly let go of the door handle and ask, trying to feign indifference: “What did you say, doll?”
“I said pie’s ready, mister. Maybe you should stay awhile? Unless, of course, you’re in a rush.”
“Bring on the pie, doll. I’m in no hurry.”