PIT STOP EXISTENCE
by Margery Bayne
“The pay is shit, but money’s money.”
It was the first thing Steve said to Nathan after staring him down when he first stepped into his kitchen. Steve was in his late-forties and pot-bellied, half-Italian and looked it, but seemed as small-town America as much as everything in Berlin, Maryland, USA.
Not knowing what else to say in response, Nathan said, “Amen.”
Steve chuckled and tossed Nathan a crisp, white apron the same as Steve’s except for the missing Jackson Pollock decoration of grease splatters and sauce stains. “Let’s get to work.”
Berlin was boring and gray, all brick buildings, battered wooden siding, and too many antique shops squeezed onto too few streets. Nathan had been heading to where ocean met land, ready to test out the softness of the beaches and the girls in bikinis both, like he had been doing all down the east coast.
But his car had broken down just as he inched into this town, maybe forty minutes by highway away from his destination. His transmission was screwed to hell, it turned out. Was going to take two to three weeks to get the parts and get the work done, and two to three thousand to pay for it all.
At Hal’s Diner, Nathan he was in the back ten hours a day shaking fries in the deep fryer and scooping ice cream into tall glass cups. The Hal of Hal’s Diner was twelve years dead and the place was now run by his daughter, the combined owner / manager / sometimes waitress. Her named sounded like Sarah, but the plastic nametag pinned to her blouse read Cera. She was thirty-three and a bit dowdy with dark hair down in stiff, hair-sprayed curls. She was unmarried, childless, and could pass for half a decade younger if not for the frown lines.
Cera had hired him, no references or applications about it, as soon as she heard his story, a flicker of sympathy in her eyes. “Hun,” she said, “You can work here as long or short as you need.” When smiled at him it was sweet and honest, like a mother’s smile, like Cera was more invested in his future than he was.
Sometimes, when the diner wasn’t too busy, Nathan would find Cera leaning over the lunch counter, chin resting in her hand, staring out the front window like it was the view of something better than Pete’s Hardware. He watched her from the kitchen doorway, but he could probably sit right down next to her with distracting her out of her slump. It was a sort of desperation that didn’t mind being seen and made no attempt to stay hidden.
The second time he saw Cera like that, a week into his stay, he had temptation to ask her what was going through her head. But he kept his mouth cemented shut. It wasn’t his place and he wouldn’t be here long anyhow. He wouldn’t even be interested in Cera’s staring but for its intensity: the way her long fingernails slightly cut into her cheek with the way she cupped her chin, the glazed-over look of her eyes, the stoop of her shoulders, the wordlessness.
But nine days after he got into town the mechanic left a message at Nathan’s motel that his car part was back ordered, and it was going to take longer – a vague, indefinite period stretch dependent on factors far from his control.
Next morning, he flipped row after row of bacon on a sizzling griddle for two hours straight, jerking is hand back every so often when grease decided to spit up and sting him. Steve mumbled under his breath about the fifth person to request changes on his special omelet of the week, because, “It’s not the same fucking omelet without the same fucking cheese.”
“Just get the orders out,” Cera snapped as she measured out coffee grounds into the paper liner and started up the machine. Steve just mumbled his complaints a little quieter and called Cera a control freak.
Nathan glanced between the two and Cera caught him. She nodded her head at Steve and rolled her eyes, making her look ten years younger.
As far as Nathan could tell, Steve didn’t dislike Nathan on a personal level. It’s not like they talked enough for anything to be personal. However, there was a clear disdain Steve held for anyone intruding upon his kitchen, his employer included but Nathan, the outsider, most of all.
When the inevitable lull between the breakfast and lunch rush hit well-timed enough to set the wall clock by it, Steve shoved a plate of chilly fries into Nathan’s hands and shoved him out of the kitchen.
Sure as hell, Cera was leaning against the counter. Some curiosity bubbled up into Nathan’s chest like heartburn. Maybe it was the playful eye roll this morning, or maybe the knowledge he was going to be in Berlin longer than he expected and it would be nice to be on friendly-ish terms with someone.
“What’re thinking about?” Nathan asked, his plate banging against the counter top as he set it down and slipped onto the stool across from her.
She startled out of her position. “What?”
Nathan nudged the plate toward her with his the back of his knuckles, “Fry?”
“Um, oh, no, thank you.” She brushed her hair back behind her ears. “And I wasn’t thinking about anything.”
Nathan just shrugged off the edged defensiveness of her tone, feeding himself a couple of fries dripping with greasy toppings. A silence deepened between them until Cera finally snapped, “What?”
When Nathan didn’t immediately reply, she walked away, past the kitchen doors, down a little hallway that led to the restrooms and her tiny back office. Soon, lunch patrons started wandering in with a tinkle of the bell tied to the door. Nathan dropped the leftover half of the fries into the trash and slipped back into the kitchen, waiting for orders.
“I want to apologize for snapping earlier,” Cera said later, during the pre-dinner lull. “It’s not the kind of boss I want to be. Just because you called me out on daydreaming.” Her shoulders are slanted down, and she grimace-smiled in this way that was sheepish, like being caught in a daydream something to be embarrassed about at her age.
Nathan raised an eyebrow in response. He didn’t need to voice a thing, because she had been waiting to burst, like a kettle on the edge of boiling.
“It was never my big dream to run the diner,” she said, “I had my own ambitions. And they weren’t here.” She sounded surprisingly not bitter about all of this, as she laid it all out with the shrug of one shoulder and a soft expression on her face.
“Then, why are you here?” He put a special emphasis on the word, at once weighted, yet somehow unbiased. Here wasn’t bad, but it could be suffocating. Seven states between, but Berlin wasn’t unlike his home: full of warmth and familiarity. A friendly embrace that had, somewhere along the way, turned into a choke hold
“I grew up in this diner. More than my childhood house, even. But my dad died, and I had the option, sell it or run it myself.” She shrunk herself down some more.
“So you did what your father would’ve wanted,” Nathan said as he dishtowel-ed down the front counter.
“No,” said Cera with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “I did what I wanted. I told you, this was my home. My dad would have wanted me to live my life even if that meant the death of his legacy.” She sighed for maybe the fourth time this conversation and wrapped an arm around herself. “It’s what I wanted. I know. I’m a conundrum, right?”
Nathan blinked, and his eyes were stinging, so he bowed his head and scrubbed at an imaginary spot. It hadn’t been three months since his dad had passed, but his death hadn’t latched him down like it had with Cera; it had unleashed him. But it was true, however, you can never really get anything you want.
Over the next few days, Cera mined out some of the truths behind Nathan’s life during their free moments. About how Nathan was nineteen years old, but halfway to twenty, as if his gangliness hadn’t given away his youth. How he grew up in a small town similar to this one but bigger. His mom had left them way back when he was little. He couldn’t remember her and he honestly wasn’t upset about it. He insisted, as Cera made doe eyes at him and looked like she was ready to give him a hug and encourage him to cry on her shoulder. But it was true. He didn’t have the energy to spend caring one way or the other about a woman who hadn’t cared enough about him to stick around.
Nathan told Cera about his dad, about the lung cancer that stole the life right out of him as Nathan sat through it for over five years, waiting for the awful inevitable. He talked of the funeral, of the overwhelming mass of well-wishers, of how lost and alone he was, wandering about an empty house and finally tying up all the loose ends, scrounging together what was left of his family’s money, and driving straight out of town one night without bothering with any goodbyes. He talked about the places he had gone to since then and the girls he met there, who usually ended up being girls he screwed. And he wasn’t sure how delicately to put that. Cera was worldly, but he was never sure if he were talking to a friend or to a mentor or to something else entirely.
Cera let a few more things slip too. “I wanted to be an actress. It sounds so silly now, thinking just because I got lead role in a high school performance meant I could take on L.A. or something. I know it wouldn’t have worked out, but…you never know. There is a whole other life out there that I could have lived.”
“Yeah,” Nathan replied. “Lamenting about throwing your life away following unrealistic acting ambitions and regretting selling your father’s diner…”
Cera huffed out a single laugh. “I guess so. But still, maybe I would have met someone special. Instead of just sitting here wasting my life.”
They locked eyes for a moment and nothing broke away. Cera laid her hand gently on his arm. That was where it started.
He didn’t know how it happened, but they were stumbling through her bedroom door, mouths hot and frustrated against each others’. He didn’t recall how they took the staircase or what street her house was even on.
Nathan had never been with an older woman before that night, but it was nice, all gone the awkward fumbling of youth. Cera took enough command, knowing what she wanted, what he wanted, and they moved together.
There were more things that he hadn’t told her, ones that taunted him in his dreams, even when he was collapsed and content on her bed, the loose ends of her hair tickling his bare shoulder. Memories slipped inconsequentially together, piecing together a bigger story.
Dad had been sick and stubborn about it. He was tough, a carpenter his whole life. His hands were calloused and he was missing the thumbnail on his left hand from a hammer stroke gone wrong. Sickness was something that was dealt with by a couple of Tylenols and Coke and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. If it where drastic, a day or two in bed.
But he didn’t get better this time. He probably wouldn’t have gone to the doctor if it was just him, but he had a son to take care of. Dad got diagnosed with lung cancer two months before Nathan finished eighth grade. The treatments started up soon after that, long doctors’ visits, translucent orange bottles of pills spilling over in the bathroom cabinet, even an IV line that Nathan was taught to put in the thick veins of his father’s arms by a nurse who came to visit them at the house a couple of times. It was a strange and dizzy mess of things all jumbled together that summer.
Nathan didn’t tell Cera how the cancer had sucked his little two person family dry. That despite all types of medical cocktails, his father was only withered away more and more until he had to stop working. He became pale, his once thick arms became thin, and brown hair, the same shade as his sons, fell out. How Nathan quit the lacrosse team halfway through his sophomore season—he had been good, college scholarship good, if he had stayed at it. His teammates all groaned at him, for they were on track to the championship, and while Nathan wasn’t the star player, yet, he was a starter and a damn good one at that. Coach didn’t say much, because he knew why, that Nathan couldn’t attend daily practices when he had to get an after school job as a cashier at the supermarket, had to count out his dad’s pills every day, had to snip out 50 cent coupons for canned soup and boxes of cereal, and accept charity-ridden casseroles from members of the local church with a certain brand of humility.
He was only sixteen when he had to accept that not only did his dad have cancer, but terminal cancer—that very soon he would be an orphan. He didn’t tell Cera that resenting all the hardships he had to go through for his father turned into resenting his father himself, the weak skeleton echo of the human being he used to be.
Because Cera loved her father.
“This was wrong,” Cera whispered when they both woke up the next morning. Her naked body was curled up flush against him and she didn’t pull away.
“It’s not like I didn’t want it. It’s not like you took advantage of me. I’m an adult,” Nathan replied in slow mumbles as he watched the blades of the ceiling fan cut through the air.
“You’re only nineteen. You’re just a baby.” But she snuggled closer to him and he bit back his snarky retort about her not thinking so last night.
All day at work, she avoided eye contact and directed her orders only to Steve, who interpreted this as a hostile attack and became more grumpy than usual. But Nathan stayed around to have dinner after his shift ended and after that just sat alone at a two person table in the front corner by the window, watching the people wander down the sidewalk outside.
“You’re off the clock,” Cera interrupted him as she poured coffee to refill his mug. “You don’t have to stay here.”
He looked up at her slantways. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Nathan stayed to help her close up without being paid for it. He offered to walk her to her car; she offered to give him a ride. He didn’t say anything when she turned the wrong way out of the parking lot, and they ended up in her bedroom again.
Cera’s fingers were splayed across his bare chest. After the fourth or fifth time, it had become normal, comfortable. Nathan had checked out of his dingy motel and sort of moved in with her. He was still living out of a duffle bag, but it was a duffle bag on the floor of Cera’s closet rather than a motel room with peeling wallpaper and a moldy smell.
Nathan blinked at the clock. “We’re gonna be late to work.”
“I’m the boss.”
“I’m not. And Steve will beat me with a spatula.”
Cera sighed. “Yeah. He would.” She rolled out of bed and Nathan watched her pull her panties up her legs, pass the little dimples of cellulite at the top of her thighs and clasp on her black bra with arms pretzel-twisted behind her back. He could feel the cold beside him with her body gone and it was like a wound in his side.
“You coming?” she asked, glancing her eyes over her shoulder.
Nathan shifted so he was sitting up against the headboard, the blankets pooling in his lap.
“You’re beautiful,” he said. He wasn’t sure when his definition of beautiful included love handles or the three gray hairs he had spotted by her temples last night.
A skeptical expression ran over her face, one that said she didn’t think he was lying, but
she didn’t believe him either.
Cera dropped Nathan off two blocks away from Hal’s, around the corner. He arrived to work five minutes later than she and no one was the wiser.
While nothing illegal was going on, people wouldn’t approve if they knew. Small town gossip was like poison, Cera had said. Nathan agreed, having enough of prying eyes and whispers in his hometown as the poor kid whose only parent was dying of cancer. It wore on you, and it didn’t matter if they were sympathetic or scandalized.
“Y’know,” she said to him another night of the many he stayed to help her close up without being on the clock, “You don’t have to stay here all the time.” By “here” she meant “with me” because they had fallen into an inseparable routine of work, sex, sleep, repeat and Nathan’s life being spent in her house, in her car, and in her diner.
He answered, “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.” Her expression seemed sad and touched simultaneously, but at least she believed him this time.
Sleeping with the boss had its perks, like when she scheduled both of them off for the whole weekend. They got drunk on wine late into Friday night and made out some. Around three in the morning, they feel asleep together for the first time without the precursor of sex.
Nathan woke up with a pounding at his temples. Reaching out with his eyes screwed shut he found Cera’s side of the bed empty.
Downstairs, Cera was cooking scrambled eggs while wearing a purple robe and fluffy slippers. Nathan slumped into a seat at the kitchen table and stared thankfully at the glass of water and bottle of Advil set out for him.
“Finally awake, sleepy head,” Cera said, too cheery and loud as she dished eggs onto his plate. He grunted in response, stabbing his fork at his food and shoveling the eggs into his mouth. They were dry and under-salted, not like Steve’s. Nathan realized then, he had never eaten Cera’s cooking before.
He devoured his plateful before looking up. Cera was sitting across from him, chin in her palm, elbow resting on the table, just watching him.
Nathan shifted and looked down at the swirling grain on the table top. There was only so long someone could suffer that stare. Especially for someone like him, who wanted to skirt around the edges of life, unnoticed.
He said, “Why did you do this—this weekend thing?”
Cera blinked and drew back, breaking the moment in a way that Nathan was aiming for.
“Can you ask me that again tomorrow?”
This evasion was the opposite of romantic pledge about hearts or commitment he had anticipated. All the things he thought a woman of her age to want, but that he couldn’t give in his pit stop existence.
He had misread her. Cera was dedicated to Hal’s. Only the remaining hours were for him. He was the one who had given his life up to her.
“Can’t you tell me now?” he asked.
“Why couldn’t you have just waited?” she said, then told him.
She had gotten a call from the mechanic at the dinner when Nathan couldn’t be reached at the motel. The part was in. His car would be ready by Tuesday.
“Oh.” He couldn’t look her in the eye.
She was up and around the table, her hand hovering by his shoulder, then his jaw, but never touching. “It’s okay. I always knew this was temporary.”
The night Nathan had left his hometown, he had sat on the hood of his car, just taking in the sounds and rhythm of his neighborhood as it slept.
All the things he had deemed worth of taking were jammed into boxes and duffel bags in his trunk and his backseat, clothes mostly and a few albums of family photos stuffed in the bottom where he wouldn’t run into them too easily. The rest had been thrown into a dumpster around the block: the yearbooks from all the days in school that he was never invested in and the lacrosse stick that had become a useless key to unlock a future that was now out of reach.
He had told no one he was going to leave. He was nineteen and adult in everyone’s eyes here. He was supposed to pick up the pieces of his father’s prolonged death and get a full-time job, maybe take a few classes at the local community college or go to trade school, work the rest of his life, get some money, then get married and have a kid, or have kid and get married. Either way worked here, but both of them came to the same result. It meant you would be trapped, once you let done even a single anchor, and that was the end. A stalemate.
He refused to get stuck here.
The steering wheel had been smooth under his hands as he drove down the main street, away from the house that had once been his home, past the turn that lead to his high school, past everything. Once out of the town limits, where the road was open and empty and the speed limit went up to fifty, he pressed down on the gas pedal with only the vague knowledge that he was headed south. That was all he needed.
It had been immature, running away. Not a solution for anything. But Nathan had given up his childhood to be a man, in turn he was dumping adulthood to be a teenager. It was the fairest trade he could come up with.
Cera woke up slowing beside him on the last day of their weekend break, her face buried against his arm so he could feel her lashes against his skin as she blinked slowly.
“I could stay,” he stated. Her lips twisted against his skin in what he guessed was a smile.
“And what? Continue with this secret fling until we’re discovered or it gets boring? Work at my diner the rest of your life? Hell, Nathan, I’m doing that and I don’t like it.”
“You trying to make me leave, Cera?”
“No,” she said quite firmly. “You have nothing to stay here for. Just think about it. You know you aren’t going to stay.” She shifted and snuggled her head into him. “Now, shut up.”
She was right, but… Cera didn’t understand that staying somewhere voluntarily wasn’t the same as being stuck.
“Hear you’ll be leaving soon,” Steve grunted partway through the first hour of shoveling out pancake stacks and omelets the next morning. “Well, just wanted to say that you weren’t completely horrible to work with.”
Cera stuck her head through the kitchen door. “Hey, table nine still needs its food.”
Steve just waved her off with a flick of his hand. “It’s coming. Tell them to wait a goddamn second.”
Cera glared at him, then her eyes slid over to Nathan by the fryer, and their gaze locked for an impenetrable moment. Steve coughed.
“Well,” she said, eyes snapping back to her cook. “Hurry up. Please.”
The door of the kitchen swung shut with her exit. Steve was watching him.
“Better get on that order,” Nathan piped up for excuse of not having anything else to say.
“I’m not stupid, y’know. I know what’s been going on between you two. You’re easy to read. Might as well been banging on the lunch counter.”
There really wasn’t much Nathan could say to that, so he didn’t say anything. Steve didn’t seem angry, just stating the facts in an exhaustion that curved over his shoulders. “But it’s over now.” The relief carrying in the lint of his voice held volumes, enough to shoot Nathan into the defensive.
“We weren’t doing anything wrong.”
Steve arched up an eyebrow as he expertly flipped an omelet on the skillet with the twist of the wrist and a spatula, giving Nathan the impression that he entirely missed the point.
“It’s not like she’s my little sister,” Steve said. “Hell, she’s a grown woman. She can do whatever—” he coughed and smirked, “Whoever, she wants. You can to, for all I care. I’m just saying, it’s better not to get attached to something you can’t have.”
Nathan knew as Steve said it, it was one of those all encompassing proverbs that tied up everything that was hanging loose, often unsaid and usually untouched. Maybe even the pieces of his life. His dad’s name taking its place on cold granite; Cera’s hands, nails, trailing his skin; the armchair his old man withered away in now empty; Nathan’s blue car, rusted bumper and all. A steering wheel, a gray motel room, his old house sold to an unknown family, his duffel bag taking up space in a closet. Street lamps glancing off of large glass windows, a sports jersey discarded on the locker room floor, the Hollywood sign on its hill, chili fries.
The phone rang in the office and though the sound was muffled by the walls, and probably would have been ignored or even unheard in hustle of shoving out orders, it seemed to scream out.
It didn’t ring a second time. Cera stuck her head through the doorway. She gulped visibly and said in almost a whisper, “Nathan, your car’s ready.” A sigh, the door shut, then swung open again. “Dammit, Steve, table freaking nine. Can they have their food sometime today? Jesus Christ!”
When she disappeared again, Steve glared at Nathan like this was all his fault, but Nathan just threw down the dishtowel and went to find Cera in her cramped office, dabbing under her eyes with a tissue.
“I’m not crying,” she stated without a waver in her voice to betray her.
She slipped him an envelope of cash over the desktop, her fingers curling convex with unneeded force. It was the rest of his pay in cash.
“You’re rushing me out,” Nathan said.
“We had a weekend for goodbyes. No use drawing it out. Rip off the band-aid,” she said. “Steve can handle himself. He did it before without you, and he can damn well do it again.”
“Glad to feel needed.”
“I admire you, Nathan. I never got out of my town. But you did yours. I am not going to be what stops you now. I don’t want you to be stuck like me.”
She stood up and leaned forward a little across the desk, then paused, as though thinking better of it, and straightened herself up, rolling her shoulders back deliberately.
“It was nice to know you, Nathan… I never want to see you again.”
He was going sixty down yet another highway, anchorless, drifting towards the horizon, but it felt like he wasn’t moving at all.
About the Author:
Margery Bayne is a librarian by day and a writer by night. She is a published short story writer and an aspiring novelist in the areas realistic and speculative fiction. In 2012, she graduated from Susquehanna University with a BA in Creative Writing. In 2017, she placed second in the Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Writing Contest. She is currently pursuing her Masters of Library Science. In her time not spent reading and writing, she enjoys running, origami, and being an aunt. More about her and her works can be found at http://www.margerybayne.com.