53. COSMIC FORCES AT YOUR LOCAL WAFFLE HOUSE
Charlotte, North Carolina: October 24th, 2011.
It’s 3 a.m., and the Waffle House smells like Windex and old bacon. Stale coffee ghosts and dreams of cigarettes smoked when you could still smoke cigarettes in places like this.
It’s dead in there. So dead, it might as well be a coffin shellacked shut by a gummy layer of fryer grease. A waitress lays slumped in the back booth, a romance paperback butterflied open on the mole-pocked space between her collarbones. She snores.
The young redheaded girl in the army jacket walks in, accompanied by a man with a weird smile painted on his face, with eyes unblinking and cheeks warm with a kind of insane certainty.
Behind the counter, a husky lady works the flat-top grill. Pale and cakey with makeup. Her hair a spiky, black, mussy mess — like the spikes of a sea urchin stuck atop a sun-bleached vanilla cupcake.
The metal spatula clinks and clangs against the grill. Steam rises. The air grows redolent with the smell of charred potatoes.
The cook says, “You want some hash browns? Smothered, covered, chunked… ahhh, smattered, battered, kicked, punched, licked, fingered, drowned, hanged, I can never remember all the permutations.” Her voice dips in and out of a Southern twang — the accent smeary and sluggish like that of a drunk’s. But other times it pops, instead: sharp, and shrill.
“I don’t want any of that,” Vanth — the girl in the army jacket — says. “It looks like something that came out of a sick dog’s ass.”
“When in Rome,” Charu says, scraping up a glob of chili into the potatoes, “eat as the Romans do.” Suddenly, the cook’s voice darkens. “I assume you have come to gloat.”
“No gloating,” she says, biting at a fingernail. “Just come to collect my prize.”
The cook turns. Oil and glop dripping off the spatula’s end. Her face is sour — a crumpled basketball devoid of its air. “Who’s this?”
“This,” Vanth says, “is Dave.”
“You mean, Dale.”
“No. This one is different. They’re all different, eventually.”
“Hnnh.” Charu gives Dave the side-eye stink-eye. “You intervened.”
She shrugs. “I always intervene.”
“The rules said—”
“I break the rules. You cleave to them. This is how it always is. You knew this going in. I knew it, too. Who we are doesn’t change very much.”
“The world around us, does.”
Vanth smirks. “If we’re lucky.”
“No, if you’re lucky, you little chaos monkey.” The cook sneers, then reaches under the counter and drops something swaddled in a brown paper onto the countertop next to a ketchup and mustard bottle. It bangs as it hits. “My gift to you, little lady.”
With fast, careless fingers, Vanth pulls apart the bag the way a crow opens up the guts of a car-struck possum.
A carpenter’s hammer, exposed.
On it is a swatch of masking tape, on which has been written:
“Hamma?” she asked.
“I didn’t write that,” Charu says with a dismissive shrug.
The potatoes on the grill start to burn.
“So, your friend — Dale — won the challenge. Figured it out.” Charu harrumphs. “I’ll give you: he was an unlikely champion, and yet he persevered. Learned to work with himself rather than against himself. A rare revelation. Too few of these… squirmy squids of blood and meat figure out that they are often their own worst enemies. Though what he’s doing with it these days…” He makes a sound like ennnnnh.
Vanth blinks. “Dale is following his bliss. And you’re still talking. Is there something else you want besides to hear your own voice?”
“No.” Charu leans forward onto her fist. Behind her, the white steam of the grill turns to black smoke. A little fire catches in the cairn of potatoes. “Recognize this place? Didn’t one of your other pet projects flit through here not long ago? Where’s she at, now?”
Vanth scoops up the hammer. “Are we done, now?”
“For now. I’ll get my hammer back. Next time.”
“Whatfuckingever. See you. C’mon, Dave.”
Dave winks, gives a thumbs-up. Says to Charu: “It’s been fun!”
Charu calls after: “You’ve broken reality a little bit, today. A crack in the Firmament and the Fundament. I hope you’re proud of yourself?”
“I am,” Vanth says, firing up a reverse middle finger over her shoulder as she opens the door for Dave, who skirts through with a delirious giggle and a mad skip in his crazy step. She twirls the hammer. Wonders how she’ll use it. She has time till everything falls to shit, till the stars fall, till the trees break. Not much time. But some.
54. THE BARD RETIRES
Doylestown, Pennsylvania: December 23rd, 2011.
Maisie groans as she gets into bed. Sleet tickles the windows.
On the TV is one of those House Hunter shows. Walter doesn’t much like them — he knows they’re fakey-fakey, read somewhere that when the show films the people have already picked a house and most of it is at least half-scripted. Article said you could tell which house they were gonna pick because they almost always picked the unfurnished one.
(There’s something there, he thinks — something about things being scripted, like how maybe everything really is just pre-ordained, written for mankind by some just or unjust spirit. Maybe a God, or a whole host of gods, using us the way we use reality shows: for entertainment that fakes reality. Free will as an illusion meant to amuse and distract.)
(Since retiring, Walter’s had a lot of time to think stupid shit.)
Instead of watching the show, he mostly just reads books. Crime books, often enough. Mysteries. Lawrence Block and the like. (Sometimes, though, he peers over the top of his paperback to see what house they pick.)
He helps Maisie get into bed. She’s not too good, these days. The MS has shrunken her down like a dried apple. Everything tightening up, buckling like a pack animal carrying too heavy a weight. Her joints are seizing and she’s gotten foggy, mentally. Nothing really impairing, just — you know, forgetting lots of stuff.
“Would you have done it differently?” he asks her.
“I dunno. Life. Us. This house.”
“No, of course not, sweetie.” She kisses his hand.
“Me neither,” he lies. “Me neither.”
55. THAT MAGIC MOMENT
New Hope, Pennsylvania: June 13th, 2012.
It takes him a while to find the perfect ten-minute moment.
But when he finds it, he seizes it.
Susannah goes down to a little boutiquey-antiquey town called New Hope, and there’s a moment when she goes, gets an ice cream cone, but then — at least, to Dale’s eye — decides halfway through it to go inside a consignment store. So, she goes to gobble it down but drops it.
The ice cream blob — Dale doesn’t know what flavor but if he had to guess, it’d be bubblegum — hits the sidewalk with a plop.
And then she does a wonderful thing.
Laughs so hard she doubles over.
It’s the first time he’s seen her laugh in a long time.
And he’s been following her.
Which is weird. Stalkery, he knows. But this is his life, and this is what he’s chosen to do with it. He knows she won’t ever want him again, but he still wants her and this is the best way he can have her.
So, she drops the ice cream cone. Laughs.
Then goes inside and comes out with a pink frilly umbrella.
It’s an absurd purchase because the day is sunny and warm. But she’s looking rakish, blissed-out, drunk on life. Across the street she unfolds the umbrella with a pop, lifts her chin, smiles, and walks away.
Dale looks at his watch.
From start to finish, nine minutes.
Dale is hiding. He’s hiding behind a boxwood shrub-wall ringing in the front entrance to a bed and breakfast under repair. Nobody is here today, and nobody sees him, and that’s what matters.
He takes out The Box, and presses the button.
Ten minutes back. And he’s already there, hunkered down by the boxwood. He has a deal with himself: most of himself, the other Dales, the Dales left behind? They can go. They can move on. But he is Dale Prime, and he doesn’t want to move on. He lets that Dale leave. Then he watches the show all over again. Ice cream. Drop, plop, laugh. Store. Umbrella. Fwoomp.
And then she’s gone.
Box back out. Button once more.
This, Dale knows, is now his life. This is what he’ll do until he can do nothing else. He lets the timing drift a little — so that the Dales there when he returns do not form a mounting army, but rather get to go in different directions one by one, going off on their lives to be who they are. Joining up, separating, being who they are or doing what they want. Maybe one will be an addict. One will be the president. Or assassinate the president. Or, or, or. Dale Prime doesn’t care. Dale Prime has what he has.
He has a bag of sandwiches with him.
It is a bag of sandwiches that never goes empty because, even as he eats them, he returns back in time to when the bag remains.
And he can eat the sandwich again.
And in that bag is a bottle of Adderall.
The Adderall keeps him awake. Keeps him happy. Fires all his synapses and soon he’s full of love and adoration.
This is the moment that he will have for the rest of his life.
That’s what he believes, anyway. That he, Dale Prime, will stay here, right here, eating sandwiches, gobbling Adderall, watching Susannah be the perfect version of Susannah. Somewhere along the way he knows he’s going to die — he’ll OD on the pills, he’ll die from fatigue, his mind will give out, and then it’ll be gone, lost, and if he’s still alive, he thinks that he’ll find a way to kill himself. But the drugs also help convince him that maybe, just maybe, he could do this forever, until he’s old and gray and feeble. Maybe somehow he can stay here. In this moment. Micro-naps. Tiny bites. Little pills.
It won’t work, of course.
The other Dales know that.
And the other Dales, well, they have plans.