Did the place sell pie? Larry Delane couldn’t smell pie, so he huffed his gloves: burnt butter, damp dog, the iron-scent of blood. He fought an urge to suck the wool fingertips. Instead, he set the gloves on the counter and slumped onto the stool. Air hissed out of the vinyl. The place was the same—stained wood booths, white walls with apple-red trim, burly men in Carhartt jackets mumbling into their hashbrowns. Even the clock, a plastic Felix the Cat, eyes and tail wagging with every tick-tock, surveying the joint like a lunatic God.
Larry clattered his keys for the waitress, who leaned over the toaster whistling ‘Okie from Muskogee’ but getting it all wrong. He clutched the sugar shaker, tapped it twice. The waitress ignored him, setting four triangles of rye on a plate. He grunted, all piss and saliva, like a moose. This did it. Her whistling trailed, the butter brush in her hand scattering yellow gobs on the stainless steel.
“Well, Larry! Didn’t expect to see you,” she said, her voice a cigarette rasp.
Cassie Henderson—eyes at half-mast, mouth a crooked half-smile. Hidden in her tone was surprise, for sure, and something else—Larry couldn’t put a finger on it.
“Yeah,” he said, “Was hoping to find you here.”
“Been here for years, Larry. I thought you left town.”
“Naw.” He paused, searching for more words. “Job went dry. . .”
Cassie watched him, waiting. Then, flustered, said, “Well it’s good to see you. Been a while.”
He blurted, “I came back,” hoping she’d understand.
Larry ordered coffee and a tall glass of two percent. He watched Cassie walk off to get the milk. An odd one, he thought, her body shaped like a butternut. She returned with the coffee pot and leaned in to fill his mug. Her cleavage, slight but adequate, a hanging garden in that frilly pink number she wore beneath her uniform. She was all smell – grapefruit, Clorox, half-smoked Kools. All the heavy drinkers dry up, wrinkles crawling out to the margins. She was no different. Raisin-faced, yes, cheeks splotched and sunken, eyelids smudged in blue shadow, but also, she was warm light and free cable, a red neon sign blinking ‘vacancy’ on a day Larry needed it most.
They’d had an affair a couple years back. Larry’d been married—still was, really—with two kids. Cassie had recently divorced and sought to distract herself in the bedsheets with a rough ‘n tumble married man. After a few months, Larry got a bout of the guilts and cut things off. Marriage was hard enough without having to explain why Lone Pine Motor Inn was listed on the credit card statement. Never thought to use cash. That lapse cost him a lot of the good feeling he used to carry about self and world. Made him bitter, no matter what he couldn’t rinse the tannins from his tongue.
Cassie wore a ring, but a lot of folks wore rings that didn’t mean a thing. His wife Marlena wore a ring and it didn’t mean a damn thing. Hell, Marlena’s dachshund Minty strutted around with an ankle bracelet that cost more money than Larry’s boots.
Up close, Larry saw Cassie’s lips smeared with chapstick. He wanted to chew it off.
“Long time,” she said.
“That’s right,” he said.
She shrugged. “How’s Marlena? You two still—you know?”
“Just fine.” Larry lied.
“I ain’t surprised by that, the way you stuck it out and all,” she said.
Larry nodded, pulled the coffee towards him.
She said, “You know what you want?”
“I need some time yet.”
“Don’t we all,” she said, then went about on a cup-filling round.
He poured sugar into his cup and stirred, and stirred, the clinking of his spoon like wind chimes on his Doney Park patio. He enjoyed sitting outdoors, on his pine stump, watching the summer squalls roar into town, chimes flailing like mad gymnasts. Sometimes Marlena would stand at the back door, watching him. She never joined him on the patio, bothered as she was by the wind and dust, by the thought that she’d married a simple man. Most often she’d leave him be, having nothing to say, except about cockroaches. Not the big ones—no. The little German ones. She’d call for Larry. Once he was inside she’d run on about the neighborhood. “How come we got roaches but no neighbors?” she’d ask in that reedy voice of hers. He hated when she asked that because it wasn’t exactly true. There were neighbors all over, on five-acre plots between Mount Elden and the Cinder Hills. All spread out, sure, but since Marlena decided she was gated community material and not ‘regular folk,’ nothing pleased her. “I put up sheet rock for a living,” he’d say, “Why’d you marry me if you were expecting gates?”
He imagined Marlena’s lithe frame superimposed on Cassie, who had returned to the toaster. He wondered if his mind was deceiving him. Not about body shapes – about everything having to do with love, about how much he used to love Marlena, and how quickly that love got swept away. The silence had already started after their second boy Malcolm was born, but it got fat and hairy these past few months, so that they barely talked at all. When they did it was needles and thread, trying to fix a shirt frayed beyond all hope of repair. Him and his wind chimes, her crying in the kitchen and swearing at the boys, boys who’d long stopped paying mind to their father.
The feelings were mutual there. Kids are only worth it between the ages of one and two. After that they start talking, and soon they’re talking back, and it’s all over. Larry set the spoon onto his placemat and watched the coffee seep into the colored paper – a Rorschach that looked like a map of the world. He felt someone staring on him. He eyed down the counter. At the end was a man, fork full of pancake, gawking at Larry’s boots. When the man saw Larry looking he turned back quickly and returned to eating. Larry clanked his cup. And clanked.
Cassie said, “You can holler my name, Larry. You still remember it, right?”
Larry smiled and nodded, agreeably. “Smoked trout and eggs. Sunny-side up,” he said, “And tell them not to overcook the eggs.”
Twelve years of crispy, chewy eggs. Twelve years of thinking, “C’mon honey, I like ‘em damp and drippy.” Marlena burnt what she touched. Larry never griped, he said hell and let it ride. Ate things that people shouldn’t eat. Ate them up. He might have put his foot down, might have said, “Baby, can you make me something that ain’t burnt?” But he didn’t, and now Marlena was burning someone else’s eggs. Maybe. Or maybe she was just burning. He wondered about that. He should have spoke up when he had the chance.
Larry looked into his cup. There was his coffee, swirling around like a tide pool. He sought for a sign in the spiraling black but couldn’t find any. He sipped the coffee. And spat it out. It was salty. He tapped the shaker on the counter, again, and Cassie hobbled out from the wafflemaker steam of the kitchen. “I ain’t gonna come back now, Larry, if you keep clanking at me like I’m some kind a circus midget.”
“There’s salt in my coffee,” he said. He slid the shaker toward her. She sighed, said, “Pranksters—that new bus boy’s trouble.” She refilled his cup and handed him a new sugar shaker. “You want me to test it?” she asked.
“Maybe,” he said.
She snorted. “Remember that night with all the ants? At the Pine. We were eating – what was it, angel food cake? Left the cake by the TV and those big black ants with the nasty pinchers got in?” She was staring up at the Felix clock, coffee pot angled in her hand. “Wow,” she said, “hadn’t thought about that in a while.”
Larry nodded. “Brownies. We were drunk and eating brownies.”
She began to refill the napkin dispenser, even though it was already mostly filled. “Now how is Marlena for real? You still together and all?” she asked.
Larry thought about telling her. About how Marlena couldn’t even cook eggs. About how Marlena knew of their affair but never said anything. About how Marlena’d been shacking up with her pilates instructor. About the silence that had blackened the moon. About the dog and its fancy fucking bracelet.
“She’s fine,” Larry said, “How about that ring on your finger?”
The kitchen bell dinged and Cassie spun away, pulled toward the bell like a moth to a bulb of light.
Larry stirred and thought about sugar, like bones, dissolving in a pot of coffee. How all the men and women he knew dissolved themselves into others, and how this is a mistake because, afterwards, when it all failed, you couldn’t get yourself back. Down the counter, the grim man with the pancakes muttered into his cell phone, eyes flicking to and fro, syrup glistening on his moustache.
Larry thought about calling Marlena, saying something like, “I cleaned the house and was thinking of you,” but he knew she wouldn’t answer.
Cassie brought out his breakfast. He sliced open the ripe, rounded yolks and they pulsed out onto the smoked fish. He slathered the plate in ketchup and Tabasco. He flaked off a piece of trout, stabbed it through with a triangle of yolky egg and slid it into the ketchup. Yolk dripped down the tongs of his fork. He thrust the fork in his mouth and tongued the mass. It tasted all wrong. The fish—rotten, gangrenous. The eggs tingled like iron, cold and sharp.
His whole life, Larry was just trying to be a guy. A guy who did things a guy was supposed to do. Get hitched. Have children. Buy a truck and a sturdy house. Build a patio in full view of the mountains. But he couldn’t figure it out. Those tinkling chimes reminded him how fragile it all was.
Earlier that morning Marlena demanded that Larry be gone, gone, gone when she got back. Gone for good. She’d had a P.I on Larry in the Lone Pine days. She knew; she’d always known. She slammed the door and Minty snarled from her purple princess bed in the corner.
Alone, Larry spooned a thick gob of butter into a frying pan, lit a match. He whistled to Minty, who yapped at him till he shook the treat bag. She came running. He grabbed her by the pleated nylon collar and whispered to her, said she’d pay the price for all the hurting.
As the butter sizzled on the stove, Larry lifted Minty by her rear paws, lifted her skittering nails off the tile floor, and spun. Around and around they spun. She whined. Larry yee-hawed. Minty’s legs dislocated from their sockets. Larry kept spinning. He grew dizzy from spinning. Minty’s tongue lolled, her head fighting inertia, trying to turn, to see who was doing this thing to her. They were in the kitchen. They picked up velocity. They were in the living room. They picked up velocity. Larry was a young man, recently married, standing outside the pet shop with his wife. They held hands. She pointed at the little brown lump curled in the wood shavings. He shook his head—he wasn’t a dog person. She insisted. Minty’s legs were soft handles, like wool mittens too long in the dryer. Skin slipping off, they spun, spun, spun. And with a final emphatic dip Larry smacked Minty hard against the wall. She deflated, splashing the Rand McNally world map, a red smear across the south Atlantic.
Larry carried the dead dog into the kitchen. Her little bones crackled and warm organs bulged and slipped in the sack of skin. He butchered her like a rabbit, placed slices of her in the brown, smoking butter. The smoke alarm went off. Larry pushed the meat around the pan. He added more oil. He poured zig-zags of oil across the stovetop. He turned on all the burners. The fire would spread. And anyway, it was time for breakfast. He got in his truck and drove downtown.
Larry stirred his coffee. Stirring and clanking. He looked down into the black surface and watched it spin. “Hey,” Larry said to Cassie, “I miss the sugar and the ants.”
Cassie, eyes dulled, nose longer than Larry remembered, tapped the Tabasco bottle hard, twice, on the laminate. “Larry, I’m sorry. But I’m married,” she said, holding out her ringed hand. “I got my own sugar now.”
Down the counter, the man cut his pancakes into rough squares. Cool air rushed in as the front door clanged open. Larry closed his eyes. He imagined the two police officers, stiff and serious, standing on the floor mat, next to the gumball machines, eyeing the place. Caricatures, really. One of them nodded at the pancake man, who had called them. Larry knew how it had to be. He knew why they were there. Just look at the blood-trail.
Larry flicked his eyes and fixed on Cassie as she topped his coffee. He smiled at her, a warm, honest smile, unlike any smile he’d made to anyone.
She said, to the officers, “Can I help ya?”
Larry set his coffee spoon on the cold hard counter.
And as the boot steps grew closer and more-assured, the click of the holster snap, the rattle of the cuffs, Larry imagined Cassie leaning over, gazing down at him, her teeth coated in yolk, her pupils fidgeting like black ants. But it wasn’t Cassie. It was Marlena. And Marlena was leaning in close and saying, “Spin me, honey, Spin me, honey, Spin me!”
Justin Bendell is the fiction editor for Gulf Stream Magazine and an MFA candidate at Florida International University. His nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Confluence, Sojourns, Florida Book Review, and Nine Cent Journal. He lives with his wife and two fat rabbits in Miami Beach.