John woke up groggy, with sandpaper eyes. His thoughts were scattered and absurd. He could not remember whether or not he needed to get up. He was lost in the dream, its tendrils clinging to his arms like limp spider webs. He was confused. His confusion made him angry. His anger made him apathetic. His apathy made him pull his pillows over his head. Pulling his pillows over his head made everything dark again and, in the darkness, he felt safe. He felt as if nothing could harm him. He also knew that the darkness would not last.
John’s thoughts were gaining momentum and it felt as if his chest was being crushed by invisible weight. John thought with a shy smile that he might be having a heart attack. In some ways he hoped that it was the case. It would simplify certain things. It would create complications for others, but John would be free. Thinking about this made John feel incredibly selfish. Feeling selfish made John feel indignant. Feeling indignant made John thirsty, so he dragged himself out of bed and made a cup of tea to take into the shower.
The tea made John feel like maybe he would be able to survive the morning. It was sweet and warm and everything that the world was not. The world was cold and gray, literally and figuratively. The world was filled with droning voices and boring people. Ugly, belligerent people. Stupid people. John hated the world. But he also didn't care. He was conflicted, and the hot water pounding on his back only added rhythm to the confliction. There were snatches and snips of songs in John's mind. Lyrical turns. Phrases. John's mind was a jumble. Propaganda. Sitcoms. Commercial jingles. John's mind was junk food and chips. Candy and pretzels. John was halfway dressed when his self loathing began to ebb. It was replaced with resignation. Another day, another dollar. Ed would say it...as soon as John walked into the coffee shop, he would say it. And John would smile, but secretly he would want the coffee shop to explode. Another day, another reason to drink too much. Another day, another genocide somewhere in the world. Another day, another emotional pinball machine explosion.
“Another day, another dollar, eh Johnny?”
Ed was a block of a man. He was tall and solid right down to his brain. He was not a bad person. He was simple. Many times, in fact, John thought it was he who was the bad person for loathing such a poor, ignorant bastard.
The coffee shop was an institution in West Grove. It had been there as long as anyone could remember. It would probably be called a diner by a visitor (if anyone ever visited West Grove). The name of the coffee shop was Coffee Shop. Ed was the owner, his great grandfather had been the first oaf to man its cash register. John was the cook. Waitresses came and went, fluttering like fall leaves. They rotated based upon school breaks and graduations. They were impermanent. Not so, Ed and John.
John was 20 when he started working at the coffee shop. That was ten years ago. The world was a different place then, but the coffee shop was the same. This is the main thing that John hated and loved about the coffee shop. It was quiet for a few minutes as John got his area set. Plate with a big slab of butter…meats organized. Then John went out to sit at the counter where Ed was waiting with a cup of coffee.
“So, how you feelin’ today Johnny?”
“”Good Ed. I feel good. How about you?”
“Oh, you know. The kids are home from school so there’s always something going on at the house. Trevor is gonna be the death of us all, I swear it. That boy has the hellfire in his eye. Came home the other night drunker’n a skunk and puking everywhere. All the time, just smilin’.”
“Yeah, he’s at that tearing it up age, I guess.”
“You weren’t like that Johnny.”
“I was getting up at 5am and standing over a griddle all day. I was too tired to tear anything up.”
“Yeah, I reckon that’s right, ain’t it? Sometimes I forget you never went to school, what with them books you’re always readin’.”
Both men looked up as the bell above the door tinkled. It was Henry. He was always the first customer. 6am. Right on the button. The other regulars would be in soon. John walked back into the kitchen and started on the two eggs and bacon Henry began every day with. Henry never talked. Years ago they had fallen into a pattern. You order the same thing in the same place long enough and people start to catch on. Henry never had been chatty; now he only spoke in grunts. One for hello and one for goodbye. He was a funny old man. Eighty if he was a day. Always dressed in a suit. The pants never quite matched the jacket, but he was clean and dignified. His face was a mass of wrinkles, haphazard lines cut by something harder than laughter. John hit the bell and placed the steaming plate onto the counter. Ed grabbed it on his way around the ketchup boxes and placed it in front of Henry who nodded and picked up a fork.
You didn’t know Johnny when he was a kid, so let me fill you in a little. Almost everyone in town knew Johnny. They knew him for two reasons. He always had the best grades in his class, and he could throw the holy heck out of a baseball. But that was about all they knew. He was quiet, polite, and got in just the right amount of trouble. He was a tough boy to dislike. Maybe that’s why certain things went unnoticed. Like the fact that Johnny always had more bruises than the other kids. Folks just figured he played every game with the heart he played baseball with. But there were other things. Forged notes. Missed class trips. His parents never saw a game. And the town never saw them. Something about Johnny deflected questions.
Johnny was popular with girls his whole life. He was dopey-eyed and handsome in a sloppy way. He was gentle and kind. In some ways, Johnny was the pride of West Grove. No one doubted for a second that he would go to college, throw the heck out of some baseballs, meet a sorority girl, and get married. Johnny graduated with the highest GPA in West Grove history. His valedictorian speech was short. Humble. Everyone wanted their picture with Johnny afterwards, which was easy since his parents were not there to get in the way. When Johnny didn’t go to college, the town was shocked. He’d had plenty of offers. Then Johnny disappeared. Then a year later he was back, with a stoop in his shoulders and calling himself John. He got the job at the coffee shop and a library card and that was that. Johnny was dead. Off the face of the earth. Unless you went to the coffee shop, and even there he was lost in the sizzle of the grill. Just a balding man named John.