BEFORE THE DINER
by Timothy Urban
Driving down the interstate with his Uncle Tucker behind the wheel, Mathew stewed over how he was going to get back at that bully Sam Milton. As soon as his uncle pulled into the driveway, he’d jump out of the truck and rush across that yard, moving with the surety of a cop who was about to make an arrest. He’d push through the front door with ease. He’d find Sam sitting at the kitchen table. That bully’s eyes would grow wide, the way eyes of good-for-nothings always go wide in the movies, and he would drag him out of his seat and rough him up and force him to beg for mercy. Mathew was certain of this.
They were riding in an old Ford F-150 that had a bum muffler, which made the pickup whir like a go-cart, announcing itself wherever it went. Uncle Tucker’s truck. It was a stereotype straight out of a Hollywood picture: American flags flapping from the roof, large monster truck tires, and blue and white decals across the sides. He knew Tucker wasn’t much of a watcher of Hollywood films, but if he was, Mathew felt certain that he wouldn’t have much cared about how people perceived the red paint peeling off his hood, or how they shook their heads at the confederate flag threaded through his front grille, and he sure as shit wouldn’t have cared about whether or not a bunch of strangers approved of the decal in the back window with the boy pissing on the word ‘Chevy’.
Conversely, Mathew loved and watched many Hollywood pictures. Although he was only eleven, he’d seen all the old silver screen films: The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, and The Big Heat. He loved the old gritty quality they shared. Modern blockbusters were too polished, too predictable. The old ones were the originals, and unlike the new movies, where he knew the actors’ names, he didn’t know the names of the men who played the old detectives. He only knew their characters. It made them somehow more real.
He loved the hardline detectives who were fierce and intimidating because he wanted to appear as one himself, but the truth was he was a straggly, awkward boy who was anything but intimidating. Still, he felt reassured of his abilities when he thought of himself as being in line with Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade wouldn’t be afraid of punching out a bully. Neither would Mathew.
Sitting inside Uncle Tucker’s pickup, he couldn’t help but feel unique, in a league of his own, an outsider, someone who was observant because he wasn’t part of the normal, everyday routines. Like this truck, he was meant to stand out. He loved that the high wheels made them hover above the passing cars on the freeway, giving them a presence. He thought the loud roar must be daunting to strangers, and for a boy who tried to overcompensate and hide his own fear of the world, being seen as a threat, even if he wasn’t one, was all that counted.
The summer heat clung to his skin in the same way that dust sticks to sweat.
He glared at his reflection in the side mirror. He wished he had a toothpick so he could flip it over in his mouth. His face needed to be serious. He forced himself to scowl deeper, and he thought he looked intense, a man ready for a fight. His eyes lingered on his reflection for a brief moment before he glanced out at the green fields and the blue sky converging into the horizon.
The sun crested above the skyline, showing half its face, across the expanse of farms that lay in every direction. They were riding through the land of cornfields, hay, and John Deere.
Like all good detectives that have brains but lack the means, he had come up with a plan. He’d use Tucker to get to Sam. After all, his uncle had a truck. It was only natural he’d ask for a ride. And since, as was their wont every Saturday, the two went to Maud’s diner for breakfast, Mathew thought he could get to Sam by saying he wanted to take a friend with them. This was unusual, seeing as he never mentioned any friends to his uncle, but nonetheless the older man had been happy to oblige. Tucker was a sucker for an extra set of ears. A real storyteller.
Even with the windows down, the inside of the truck smelled like diesel and stale cigarette butts. In between the seats, stacks of discarded fast food bags, old scratch tickets, and Styrofoam cups were aiming to make a mountain, fluttering slightly.
“Sure is looking forward to a big breakfast,” said Tucker.
“How long you known this friends of yours?”
“It’s sure nice to see you gettin’ on with fellas yer age.”
Mathew rolled his eyes. Outside, three metal silos stood beside an old red barn.
He leaned against the door and rested the side of his face on his fist. He winced as he accidentally brushed the shiner. The bruise burned. The raw skin throbbed with its own pulse.
“You sure is quiet this morning.”
“Bit of an attitude to boot.”
“So, mind tellin’ me where you got that shiner?”
“Fell off the monkey bars during recess,” said Mathew.
“Sure must have been a nasty fall,” said Tucker.
“It was nothin’.”
He had been walking by himself toward the trees that were on the fringe of the baseball field, where he usually sat during recess, seeing as he didn’t have many friends. Sam had run up behind him and sucker punched him. He’d been caught off balance, moving between steps, when the strike had come. It sent him flailing to the ground. Sam spat at him and told him he’d stay down if he knew what was good for him. Mathew’s fear flooded his belly and throat. He heard Sam yell “This faggot can’t even take a good punch” to his chuckling group of friends.
From the ground, he had watched the group walk away, and a burning hate mixed with shame covered him as if it were his skin. Now Mathew imagined laying a wallop on Sam’s head and watching the boy’s body crumble in on itself. He envisioned pouncing on Sam, scratching at the boy’s eyes, squeezing his thin throat, and watching him cry and plea for mercy.
With each imagining, the punishment grew worse.
He wondered if his uncle could read his thoughts because he was never one for asking too many questions. He was aloof. Interrogation wasn’t Tucker’s style. Frankly, he was the type of man who could go on for hours without realizing you hadn’t said a word. All these questions skewed Mathew’s focus. He just wanted silence, a bit of quiet, before this, his most important confrontation.
In truth, Mathew believed that his uncle was nothing more than a country hick who made everyone else down in Arkansas look bad with his yellowed teeth, stubbly face, and balding head. The southern accent Tucker had picked up during his time in Tennessee didn’t help his case. The long drawl, the minced words, all of it made him seem like an inferior being, at least to Mathew. The dictionary definition of white trash. If anyone could have a fast one pulled over them, Mathew thought, it was Uncle Tucker. So why the hell was he asking so many damn questions?
“What’s yer friend’s name again?” said Tucker, breaking Mathew’s thoughts.
“Sam. And he’s not my friend.”
“Then why the hell we pickin’ him up? My stomach’s roarin’.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“You’s up to no good, Matty. I cain see as much.”
“I thank I’ll just go to the diner. I ain’t about to wait to be seated just to pick up a friend who you say’s ain’t yer friend now.”
“Then you come and fess up to why we be goin’ out here.”
“I just wanna lay out this son of a bitch. That’s all. Okay?” said Mathew.
“That was easy. Didn’t expect you to cave so soon,” said Tucker, glancing at the stern faced boy beside him. “You ain’t gonna be much of a fighter you cain’t even keep your damned mouth shut fer twenty minutes to hold in a secret.”
“Whooey, you got quite the mouth, but I’d gather you got a bark that’s worst than yer bite.”
“You don’t know nothin’.”
“That’s right. I’m just dumb Uncle Tuck. I’m just a crazed old fella who don’t know his damn ass from his elbow, right?”
Mathew grimaced at the dashboard, noting the dust that had accumulated in the vents.
“So, you fixin’ to be a big gun now, huh? Nice to know my brother’s boy’s a fighter.” Tucker tore through a half-eaten Slim Jim that had been sitting in a cupholder. “That ‘splains that sorry bruise on yer face. Take it this boy Sam’s the—”
“Just drop me off?”
“Oh, don’t you worry. I aim to,” said Tucker, grinning with glistening brown chunks wedged in between his teeth. “Don’t take me for one who wants to miss a show. Not ev’ry day I get to see my brother’s boy make an ass outta hisself.”
“You don’t know nothin’.”
“You’s right. I don’t know nothin’. However, I believe I know somethin’.”
“He started it. It wasn’t my fault,” said Mathew, his jaw jutting out as he spoke. “I’m just ending it.”
“How ‘bout you end it over a set of flapjacks ‘stead of rollin’ around like a monkey and pretendin’ to be man when you ain’t.”
Mathew’s hand was on the door handle. “Just drop me off,” he said.
“No, sirree. You see, I’s the adult, ‘n I say what goes. Understood?”
The roar of the muffler wedged between them. They passed a blue sign with gas station logos on it. Mathew’s eyes began to water from looking into the wind.
“So I take it that you been gettin’ bullied and such,” a long pause as Tucker licked grease from his fingers, “but it’ll pass.”
In the side mirror, the cracked asphalt receded behind them.
“You know, I used to be a bit of a hothead myself,” said Tucker. “Now, I know that’s hard to understand, me bein’ so genteel,” he stretched out the last syllable as if he were pulling it like a fish on a line, drawing it out some, “but I was, was more a hot head than yer old pops is now. You know what changed?”
Mathew didn’t answer, so Tucker whacked him upside the head.
“Boy, I’s talkin’ here.”
“I don’t know,” said Mathew, rubbing the back of his skull, “What?”
“How nice of you to ask,” said Tucker. “When I was a young’un, not much older than you is, I beat up on a boy. Kid was a real shit fire at school. Cornered him in the school bathroom because, ya see, a bully, he ain’t much of anything you get him alone. I beat his face like I was fixin’ to kill him. And you know where it got me?”
“Juvey. Like a goddamn criminal. Ya see, you fixin’ for a fight while yer angry and you go’n do somethin’ stupid. Take it from me.”
Tucker leaned back in his seat, one hand stretched out on the steering wheel, as if he’d said something wise and the matter was settled. That was that.
In the distance, Maud’s diner was fast approaching. Faintly, beyond that, there was a group of ranches. Sam’s neighborhood.
“You tell yer pa about what you’s was aiming to do?”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“You aimin’ to turn preacher?”
“Boy, I’m a right mind to smack you upside the head again you give me lip.”
“Sorry,” said Mathew, using his shirt sleeve to the wipe sweat off his forehead.
“You aimin’ to do the work of a man, yet you thank you cain act like a child right now. Let me get you in on a secret, you ain’t never goin’ to feel better after takin’ a revenge.’
“You might not, but I will.”
“You thank you hate him right?”
“I know I hate him.”
“You ain’t even old ‘nuff to know the true hate. Child’s hate ain’t nothin’ close to real hate.”
“How do you know? You ain’t me. You don’t know what I’m feeling, if it’s real or not. All you got is your opinion.”
“I got an opinion backed by forty years’ experience you lil’ jackass. You got one that’s barely even left the womb.”
Stupid Tucker. Acting all wise. What the hell did he know? He wasn’t no more than a goddamn gas station clerk who hadn’t made it past the tenth grade.
Adults thought they knew everything.
They thought their experience was the only experience.
Mathew felt certain he’d prove him wrong, he’d show him how he could beat Sam’s ass, and he’d earn respect for once.
He chewed at the skin on his lower lip.
They passed Maud’s diner. The lot was full of cars, and the large sign that rose up high glowed neon red. There were families walking across the parking lot. The diner was small with a silver glistening frame and red trim. He saw the upper halves of people sitting at tables through the windows. He envisioned the familiar faces inside. Men and women as old as they come who hadn’t missed a weekend at Maud’s for as long as they could remember. The booths and the bar and the smell of coffee roasting. He thought of drenching his pancakes in thick blueberry syrup and his stomach rumbled.
“Sure you don’t just want to make the day simple, go eat, start it right with eggs and bacon? My stomach’s fixin’ for a fine meal right ‘bout now.”
“You can. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
“You sure is stubborn,” said Tucker, scratching his forehead, which was dripping with sweat. “Guess we can do it after I watch you make a fool of yer’self.”
“I won’t make a fool of myself. I’m in control.”
“Boy, if you was in control you’d see how stupid you was to wake up early on a Saturday to go beat up some kid who ain’t goin’ to amount to the shit on the back of yer boot. You smart in school, but you dumb as hell in life sometimes.”
“Shut up. You’s one dumb sonova—”
Tucker took a deep breath, his hands had tightened on the steering wheel, the knuckles grown white. Seeing Tucker hold back anger made Mathew’s guts coil. He’d never seen his uncle lose his temper before. He’d only heard stories.
“Sorry fer yellin’,” said Tucker, licking his lips as if he’d tasted something nasty. “But if you thank yer man enough to beat a boy up just cause he beat you up, then you cain man up and listen to what I got to say. You’s convinced in this matter, so I’s going to sit in here while you go out and do it on your own. You so grown up then you cain stand on yer own two legs and act the fool.”
The road forked.
Tucker turned down a narrow side road. Up ahead, Mathew could see the cluster of ranches. The homes were dilapidated and in ill repair. There were crooked and bent wire fences in some of the backyards with dogs sitting and looking out at the world through metal wiring. A few barked as the engine revved.
“Which one is it?”
“There,” said Mathew, knowing it based on the image that he’d seen on the computer after doing a search for Sam’s address online. It had been surprisingly easy.
“The grey one?”
“Yeah.” Tickle of self-doubt beginning to swell in his chest.
A section of the roof was covered with blue tarp, the front lawn was wild and long, patchy and dead in certain spots, and the bushes had been trimmed down to stubs.
Tucker parked in front of the house. He turned his key and the loud boom of the muffler ceased. The once vibrating pickup was still. The neighborhood was quiet except for the dogs’ barking. Mathew looked out at the yard, dust and dead grass and a makeshift window made from opaque plastic stared back at him, and a tinge of fear shot down to his rectum. The stagnant heat burned his nostrils. His hand lingered on the door handle, and he could hear his own heartbeat tapping in his ears.
“What you sittin’ around for, tough guy? I’s aiming to see the show, and I’s hoping it would be starting A-S-A-P,” said Tucker. “Or we havin’ second thoughts?”
Mathew opened the door and slammed it shut. He walked in front of the old Ford and ignored Tucker, whom he could see from his peripheral, and focused on the house in front of him. A few paces away he heard someone yelling from inside. The voice was loud and shrill and oozing with cuss words.
At the front door, his hand was up and ready to knock, but he stood frozen. His head swam as if it was drowning. Was he really about to go through with this? Through the screen door, he could see the dark foyer that led to a hallway. He glanced behind him at his uncle’s red truck. Right now, he could be eating pancakes drizzled in that blueberry syrup he so loved.
He was about to turn back, knowing this was an insane idea as soon as it became real, when the front door opened and a woman stood before him in her sweats.
“Who the hell are you?” she said, smacking down her pack of smokes. She was an obese woman who wore a tight t-shirt that displayed all her folds. Her hair was wet and wiry, stretching down past her ample chest and resting on the crown of her gut. She smelled like a vanilla lavender perfume. Her body hovered over Mathew, and he grew small in her presence.
The wind caught his blonde hair, and he wished it would sweep him away.
“What you on my property for?” she said before sucking the flame through her smoke.
“Spit it out,’ she exhaled.
“I’m a friend of Sam’s.”
“Shit balls. I didn’t know my stupid boy had any friends.”
When she spoke, her voice sounded like golf balls were stuck in the back of her throat. Her face contorted, constricting as if it were in pain, as she winced past Mathew at the truck sitting in front of her house.
“Who’s that there? Your daddy?”
“That’s my uncle.”
“Attractive fellow,” she said, smiling and waving at Tucker, who, for his part, returned the gesture.
“Sam and I got a project to do for school. I figured we could go out to breakfast first.”
“Sam didn’t mention anyone stopping by,” she said.
“Oh, he doesn’t know. I figured I’d, uh, surprise him.”
The deception twisted through his throat, strained and weak. She eyed him with something like suspicion. His face turned hot.
“Aren’t you two just a bunch a queers,” she said, laughing, then coughing.
He wanted to run back to the car and tell Tucker to step on it. He didn’t know how those detectives in the movies managed to hold it together as they raided a drug den or got caught in a shootout.
“You should see your face,” said the woman, throwing down her half-smoked cigarette onto the front steps and stomping out the flame. “Well alright, don’t just stand there. Come in and I’ll go get that worthless piece of ass I call my son.”
Mathew looked back. Tucker waved for him to go on. He wished his uncle would stop smiling, he knew it was mockery, he knew Tucker was thinking “I told you so.” He hadn’t expected it to go this way. He’d been so certain he wanted payback, but he suddenly wished he was sitting at the diner listening to one of Tucker’s stories about his time in boot camp before he was discharged from the service. He yearned to hear him talking about all the characters he’d been with in those days. He didn’t care if he had to listen to him spew pure bullshit, like the time when they were at a cookout and Tucker was telling a group of people that he’d seen Bush in Little Rock before the war and had actually stopped to talk with the man. Anything, as long as he was away from her, would suffice. He was even willing to sit through tales of Tucker’s UFO sightings for the nth time. Really, anything at all would do.
“You coming?” said the woman, standing in the hallway.
The inside of the house smelled of stale Cheetos and the floor was covered in dirt and discarded laundry. Pictures on the wall hung crooked. One of them looked like a skinnier version of the woman. He eased forward, slow like a detective on the scene of a crime, and felt a chip crackle beneath his shoes. The crunch nearly made him jump. The TV was loud, coming from the living room. To his left, the dining room was swept in darkness, everything in it stared back at him like a ghost, dark figures covered in dust and hidden from light by the drawn curtains. He felt like spider legs were crawling on up his spine.
“Sam, get your fucking ass out here before I—”
As soon as heard her swear, he fled. It felt like a shotgun was aimed level at his back and he couldn’t run fast enough. The truck seemed to stretch farther away as his legs quickened.
He lunged into the old Ford and slammed the door shut. Once inside, he hunched down and peered over the armrest. Sam’s front door swung in the wind. For a moment, Mathew felt as if he were completely alone in the world.
Then Tucker chuckled.
“Your ass shot out that front door faster than a man who has just been caught banging the sheriff’s daughter by none other than the sheriff hisself,” said Tucker, twisting the key in the ignition.
“Leave me alone.”
“What’s a matter big man? Thought you was about to lay a whoopin’ on someone.”
Mathew felt the tears well up under his eyes. The back of his throat was raw, and he knew that if he talked he’d start crying. Regardless, a tear escaped against his better judgment. Tucker’s face softened with pity. He squeezed his nephew’s shoulder, his grip was strong but reassuring.
“Hell, let’s get out of here before that pleasant woman moseys our way.”
Tucker pulled down on the gear shifter and made a jerky three point turn. Mathew’s chest felt like it was about to explode while he anticipated seeing that woman prance outside. Sure enough, the front door stopped swinging and two figures emerged in the entranceway. Mathew’s head was still level with the armrest, so he could just barely see out the window. The truck sped away, but he remained hunched down. He held his breath.
“Sit up. They cain’t see you now,” said Tucker.
Mathew exhaled. Glancing out the back window, he saw the large woman holding Sam by the collar of his shirt while they drove off. He’d avoided the shootout, and he was fleeing in this, his getaway car, without detection. No one from school would have an inkling as to what he’d done. His peers would never glean that he’d had the balls to show up at Sam’s house, and they’d never know that when things got too real he’d tucked tail and run.
An acrid queasiness settled in his gut.
When Sam’s neighborhood was far behind, he turned around and looked at Tucker, waiting for the gloating, the mockery, and the air of superiority, but his uncle kept his peace. All Tucker did was glance over and arch an eyebrow. The sound of the muffler’s roar swelled between them. Their eyes met. Mathew wiped sweat from his face, and he cleared his throat, as if he were attempting speech.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Tucker, slapping his shoulder. “I’d rather get breakfast too.”
About the Author:
Timothy Urban holds a B.A. in Writing, Editing, and Publishing from Emmanuel College and an M.A. in English from Bridgewater State University. His work has appeared in Wising Up Press’s anthology View from the Bed; View from the Bedside, The Smoking Poet, and The Bridge: A Journal of Fine Arts. He currently works and resides in Taunton, Massachusetts.