Joseph S. Pete
Craig straddled the stool, hunched over the Formica bar top in the neon-lit 24-hour donut shop as the Talking Heads’ melancholic “This Must be the Place” played in the background, reminding him of all the times it drove him to tears when he was serving in Iraq.
The veteran night reporter covered all manner of crime, murder, fire, arson and madness during those late-night hours. In between assignments, he hung out in the old school donut shop with the laminate booths, listening to the scanner on his phone for any mayhem he’d have to go track down. He could type on his laptop in relative peace, though drunken bar-goers occasionally could get loud and rowdy. It was a good place for sources and tips as it often was filled with cops, EMTs, third-shift steelworkers and a miscellany of offbeat night owls.
“The usual?” Marla asked before ringing up his order in the stodgy, antiquated cash register.
“You know it,” Craig said before asking her about her day and if it finally would stay quiet tonight, “for everyone’s sake.”
He sidled up to his usual seat where he watched the headlights hypnotically pass by on the dark asphalt outside that pane of glass.
In addition to the well-worn comfort of routine and the need to camp out somewhere in between visits to crime tape-cordoned crime scenes, there was also the sustained rush of sugar and Styrofoam cups of dishwasher coffee, which was nothing fancy but got the job done. To keep unnatural hours, you need not only the adrenaline of rushing out to crime scenes in dodgy urban neighborhoods but also a steady percolated drip of stimulation. Otherwise, your eyes sagged, your typing fingers faltered, your weary body ached for the sweet release of sleep.
Craig bit into a chocolate donut and swigged a swill of what passed for coffee there just before his eyes widened.
Headlights blinded him as they drew inextricably toward the glass facade of the mid-century temple to glazed dough rings, waxing bigger and bigger, as large and looming as a blood moon. A sedan older than most of the busboys abruptly slammed through the brick part of the facade, shattering the glass into a thousand little shards. Craig instinctively recoiled and the glass that did pepper him bounced off harmlessly.
Smoke billowed from the smashed-up hood of the car, as patrons screamed and ran about. Metal crunched and screamed. An elderly driver wobbled out as the roof lurched, the load-bearing beams apparently weakened.
Craig went to take another bit of his chocolate donut before noticing the dusting of glass on the glazed frosting. He shook it off, then thought better of it after remembering reading a story about soldiers who were fed ground glass at a chow hall in the Iraq War until their intestines were cut up beyond repair.
Surveying the extent of the damage, he realized he’d likely have to find somewhere new, maybe an all-night Greek diner or other greasy spoon, to regroup and establish a base of operations during these long night shifts. Repairs likely would take months.
But here he was in the center of everything, not responding, not running off to some unknown street or darkened alley.
He put the donut down, adequately jazzed the havoc all around, and grabbed his reporter’s notebook, flipping it open to a blank page and scribbling his pen on the lined paper to make sure it worked. This was better than any sugar high, any caffeine rush. For once, he didn’t have to speed off anywhere, donut in hand and lidless coffee left behind.
For once, the story came to him.
But it was in that moment, when steam wafted off the busted-up hood of the Buick amid the slow-motion tableau of shattered glass, piled brick and panicked cries as the neon “donut” sign blazed like a gaudy lighthouse in the slate black of night, that he realized how everything suddenly could come crashing down unexpectedly at any time. He foresaw how he would eventually get called into a dread conference room and be laid off from his print newspaper job, how his dream of eking out a living as a writer would be unceremoniously stripped from him, and how the paper itself would eventually go under as the younger readers all migrated online, where society stopped valuing paying for news and advertisers no longer coughed up huge premiums that subsidized theater reviews, gardening advice columns and other community news.
In that moment, Craig saw that everything that once seemed as sturdy and enduring as that donut shop’s brick facade could end up crumbled all around him. He saw everything for what it was, with the limited shelf life of a donut that could be consumed right away or discarded as a stale vestige of yesterday morning.
* * *
Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an author, an Indiana University graduate, and a frequent guest on Lakeshore Public Radio. Pete is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee whose writing and photography have appeared in more than 200 literary journals, including The Grief Diaries, Proximity Magazine, Gravel, The Offbeat, Oddball Magazine, The Perch Magazine, Rising Phoenix Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His plays have been staged at the Detroit Heritage Theater Festival and the Salem State University 10-Minute Veterans Play Festival. Like Bartleby, he would prefer not to.