by Maggie Nerz Iribarne
A quiet Tuesday morning at Buzzy’s. The owner, Merv, looked up as James entered. His face paused at first, clearly not recognizing the gaunt, hairless replacement for the once-familiar regular. His expression cleared in what James interpreted as recognition.
James imagined the conversations of everyone he encountered, Did you hear James Schmidt got a really bad diagnosis? Those poor kids. Poor Rebecca.
“Hey, man,” Merv said. James appreciated that Hey, man. Hey, man spoke volumes. Hey, man was not crying, not prayers, not a pep talk, not a sad look. Hey, man meant I respect you, you’re still the same. Merv pointed James to his favorite duct-taped vinyl booth, the one he used to sit in when the kids were little. Merv set down a menu, poured hot coffee in a chipped ceramic cup.
“The usual?” Merv asked, not jotting anything down.
James nodded, sitting, feeling bones poking through the seat of his pants, watching Merv walk back to the counter. He envied the diner man. He could live in oblivion. Worry about the mundane.
James knew he would probably cough so hard later he’d throw this breakfast up. Cancer, his old adversary, was hell.
No matter, he thought, laughing a little, restricting the chuckle, not wanting to cough. He laughed because, at the end of his fifty years of life, this was what he wanted, to go to this dumpy diner and order some eggs. He smiled at the absurdity of it all. The absurdity of living and dying at age 50.
While he waited for his order, he allowed his mind to flash back to times spent here with his girls, bringing them when they were babies. Rebecca worked on Saturdays and James had the kids to himself. His wife left in a flurry of instructions, competing with the blaring cartoons on their den TV. “I got it. Yup. No problem,” James called back to her, waiting for the door to shut. When she left, he dressed the kids in all the wrong clothes and strapped them in their car seats.
They made such a mess. Food dispersed all around them in small clumps and specks, buttered toast smashed into the stained carpet. James tried to clean up the best he could. Once, he even brought a plastic table cloth, a tarp, to put under the high chair to catch some of the mess, but that was more trouble than it was worth. To entertain and keep the kids quiet, he drew stick figures on the paper placemats, telling stories about his childhood, the big red barn, mowing the seven acres of land, playing hide-and-seek with his siblings.
The memories brought quiet tears, not crying, just overflow. James enjoyed their warmth, the release of them. He didn’t wipe them away. He looked down at his red, chapped skin, his missing fingernails splayed out on the blank placemat. He thought it would feel good to draw the barn again, so he took out a pen from his shirt pocket, began sketching. Focusing on the lines, outlining the big door and the side window, adding in the shapes of orange tiger lilies that had grown wildly on the side. He wished he’d brought colored pens.
Merv appeared with the eggs. James felt a tinge of disappointment, noticing the Italian bread on the oval plate, not rye, and that the eggs, fluffy and yellow in his memory, were tinged with brown.
“Thanks, man,” he said, pushing, forcing resolve, clearing his throat and preparing to eat. His fork plunged into the eggs, moved the food to his mouth. He slowly and deliberately chewed and swallowed, resisting the urge to gag. He hadn’t felt hungry in weeks, but he was going to enjoy this, no matter what.
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Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 53, living her writing dream in a yellow house in Syracuse, New York. She writes about teenagers, witches, the very old, bats, cats, priests/nuns, cleaning ladies, runaways, struggling teachers, and neighborhood ghosts, among many other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work at https://www.maggienerziribarne.com.