:: FALL 2018 TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::
Portents, asphalt channels, crossword puzzles, impassioned pleas, familial obscenities, eggs over easy, unknown errands, orange aprons, truck drivers, beaded earrings, entire truths, rock climbing & ears stoppered with wax.
She sat quietly by a window, an elbow propped on a table, her chin resting in her palm. Wanda Zocantemir did not shuffle the tarot and deal premonitions from a deck of cards. Neither did she roll knucklebones out onto a countertop to see what portents might clatter within a ring of knotted, colored cloth. She did not peek at oncoming fate through patterns in coins or books’ pages or mathematics; she polished no crystal ball; she did not drink loose-leaf tea.
Instead, she divined the future from the passage of cars out on the interstate highway that ran contour to the property line of her business: the Breakfast Queen diner, open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner—a squat brick building with orange awnings and wide windows. From the patterns in the vehicles out on the road, from their makes and models, their colors and frequencies, she watched, and saw futures unfold.
A yellow convertible with its top up sped east. An old gray truck with a dented door panel passed it, heading west, up into the mountains. She watched an empty minute of silent road, then saw an old black luxury sedan slow and pull off the highway and drive toward town. She shook her head and muttered to herself in the language she had grown up with long ago and far away. Indications of trouble, she decided—trouble from the kitchen.
An empty road was tricky for the same reason, and she saw only hints of futures; the patterns of cars became only parts of the letters that might form sentences.
Route 8 ran through the town of Yothsville out from far-off desert and river country and up into wooded foothills and mountains, over steep passes and down again into thick, wet forest and then away, at last, along the coast by the sea. One lane of the road headed east, one lane headed west—one long, transient landscape where logging trucks hauled trees, where motorcycles moved in packs. Camper vans and mobile homes traveled slowly, slowly, and sports cars whipped past them where the median broke from a solid line into dashes of yellow. Tourists came in all seasons to hike or climb rock walls in the mountains surrounding the town, or to ski; wanderers and wayfarers passed through Yothsville on unknown and anonymous errands, moving from points in time and space connected by an asphalt channel. If they drove Route 8, they passed the Breakfast Queen, and Wanda often saw them coming.
After the morning rush, the diner slowed down. Wanda sat at an empty booth, drinking coffee. She scratched her scalp beneath her tall bun of long, ash-gray hair. Her beaded earrings clattered softly. She sat with her back to the kitchen, to the bulk of the diner’s empty tables, and worked at a food order without urgency, flipping through the catalogue’s pages with flicks of her wrist as though it were a magazine and she waited in the lobby for an appointment with her dentist. She rubbed her neck with her thumb, her forefinger, working slowly from the corners of her jaw toward the loose skin at her throat. She took long looks at the highway. Her foresight that morning was a muddied stream, a deep breath in through a stuffed nose during pollen season. Growing up, her mother taught her volumes of their family’s traditional obscenities, with something for every specified trouble; Wanda growled a soft curse for use in times of idle, venomous uncertainty. From her experience rather than through prognostication, she wagered that the trouble from the kitchen would appear in the form of the dishwasher, Esther Butte.
A long-haul truck driver waited for his late-morning breakfast at table nine, a two-top. He sat opposite an empty seat and refolded a newspaper to the sports page. Wanda knew him by sight; he stopped at the Breakfast Queen a few times a year while out along his routes. He had two children, and through the traffic Wanda had seen one of them married and content with children and grandchildren of their own grown and healthy, and the other struck instantly dead by a freight train. The other waitress on the clock, LaTrice, made another pot of coffee. From the kitchen, Wanda heard the cooks’ laughter and the tin sound of music from the local radio station, the drone of the running dish sanitizer, the crash of stainless steel in the big stainless-steel sinks.
Wanda and LaTrice both wore the Breakfast Queen’s uniform: a four-button white collared shirt, an orange apron, a white skirt that ran below the knees. LaTrice wore her apron high on her waist and left an extra buttonhole open to show just a little more of her full chest; it’s better for tips, LaTrice said whenever Wanda asked her to see to that errant button, and tips add up. The service bell rang, and Wanda closed her eyes and recalled more of the morning’s traffic: a school bus ahead of schedule, a truck loaded with crates of apples, a van full of young people with all the windows down and the volume of their music high. The order came from the kitchen and she mouthed the words that the cook called out: eggs over easy, toast and hash, order of sausage links and a fresh-fruit side. LaTrice took it from the service window and delivered it to the truck driver, who thanked her in a loud voice.
She did not peek at oncoming fate through patterns in coins or books’ pages or mathematics; she polished no crystal ball; she did not drink loose-leaf tea.
Wanda tapped the tabletop with her fingernails. No cars rode the highway. Sometimes it was empty for long stretches at a time, but on weekends, or during the heights of tourist season, the road was filled almost fender to fender, and there was sometimes too much for her to see; she lost track of which deliveries would be late, or could not quite determine the number of people who would come for breakfast, lunch or dinner, or which would be the troublesome customers. An empty road was tricky for the same reason, and she saw only hints of futures; the patterns of cars became only parts of the letters that might form sentences. Route 8 sat slightly higher than the ground on which the diner stood, and when the road was empty, it was easy for her to imagine that it did not exist at all, that only some long, empty space sprawled between her restaurant and a backdrop of trees and shrubs that stretched from the highway’s far shoulder out into wilderness.
The kitchen door squeaked open. Without need for prescience, she knew by the pattern of the other woman’s footfalls that the dishwasher, Esther Butte, approached.
Esther slid into the booth, sitting opposite her, the lacquered tabletop between them. Esther was young; she was lean and strong. She wore a black sports bra beneath a baggy blue tank top discolored in places—beneath her arms, on her chest—by the dampnesses of dishwater and her own sweat. Slim strands of her dark hair were loose and pasted to her cheek and forehead, while the rest trailed down her neck, tied back in a simple way. She took a deep breath and said hello, and asked how the morning was going, and stretched while she sat, cracking the joints in her spine.
Wanda sighed. She watched the young woman’s green eyes sparkle, and read once again the sealed fate hidden in the Gothic script tattooed along Esther’s collarbones: in vives petram in petram mori. On the first day the young woman was employed to wash dishes, Wanda saw the premonition of Esther’s death in a tow truck hauling a crumpled little red coupe, followed by an old white station wagon with a chrome grille and black-tinted windows. Esther had come to Yothsville to live in the mountains and pursue adventure in the hills and on rock crags, cliff faces, peaks and high ridges. When Wanda first asked about the tattoo, Esther grinned and translated: live by the rock, die by the rock.
Wanda’s vision: somewhere ahead, not far, before the next snowfall. A bright blue-sky day stirred by a smooth, cool breeze. Perfectly white clouds, a warm sun and Esther up among the high places with her lover, a young man who poured beer at the Slow Fox tavern in downtown Yothsville. Purple climbing rope with orange stitching. A high slab of light, mottled rock. Esther’s neck, her shoulders, the script of her tattoo highlighted by a sheen of sweat; she descended a cliff face, and with a soft movement, two ropes joined together came apart, something between them tied just not quite right. In her fall, Esther touched the rock twice: the first kiss broke her neck and killed her, but the second destroyed her down at the bottom of the climb, split her open and spread her out across grass and stone and sand. The loose rope, purple with orange stitching, fell with her and coiled in messy loops around her body like the remnants of strange, broken wings.
She shook her head and muttered to herself in the language she had grown up with long ago and far away.
Esther sat at the booth. Wanda tapped her nails on the table and saw it coming. Esther asked how the food order was going, if she had seen the weather forecast, if she could believe how hot is was supposed to get in the next few days, and Wanda said no, that her decision on the availability of shifts up front waiting tables had not changed, and she smiled, slightly, at the show of surprise on Esther’s face.
“I wasn’t even going to ask about that, Wanda! I just came out to say hi. But since you bring it up and, like, we’re talking about it anyway, maybe I could just be a backup for the gals up front, just for a month, even. When it’s busy.”
“Listen, honey,” Wanda said, “we have had this talk a dozen times already. Do you ever wonder about me? About what I need? It is a person who washes dishes. I admire that you work at getting what you want, but if you want work in this establishment, then it’s dishes for you, and food prep for the cooks when they need it. You’re a good young woman, Esther, and I like to have you here, but there is no room to wait tables.”
Esther pursed her lips, and Wanda said that between herself and Cathy, Maricela, Helen, Giovanna and LaTrice, there could be no such thing as a shortage of help. But, she said, for a good young woman who liked to earn a good wage washing dishes, there could be no such thing as a shortage of hours or paychecks. Truly, she continued, for the right person, there was no end to the work back there at the sinks. She swallowed, and knew that she had not lied, but she thought of the purple rope with orange stitching, and neither had she told Esther an entire truth.
Wanda had hired another dishwasher a month prior, but for him she had seen ten black cars in procession on the road out of town, and so planned to keep him on the schedule until he learned of his mother’s illness. She would add a little extra to his last paycheck for gas, for his long drive back to the city where he had been born. He would care for his mother while she withered, and sit beside her, asleep in a hospital chair, the moment she died. From there, the traffic was murky but Wanda knew he would not return to Yothsville or to the Breakfast Queen to wash dishes. She had already posted an advertisement in the local paper: “Dishwasher wanted. Flexible hours. Free coffee.”
On the first day the young woman was employed to wash dishes, Wanda saw the premonition of Esther’s death in a tow truck hauling a crumpled little red coupe, followed by an old white station wagon with a chrome grille and black-tinted windows.
Esther stared out the window, at the parking lot. A transit bus lumbered down the highway and she turned to look Wanda in the eye.
“I don’t mean to be a pain in your ass,” she said. “Really. I just need a little bit of extra money at the moment, and I’ve seen how the gals do up here on weekends. And, like, listen: can you imagine all of the truckers and tourists and the local guys when I’m wearing a little white skirt, and the cute orange apron, and the little white shirt—oops, maybe I missed one of the top buttons, too, like LaTrice gets away with—and I’m like, ‘Hiya, hon,’ or ‘More coffee, sweetie?’” Esther put her palms flat on the table and leaned closer. “Business would probably triple around here. I would work that shit for you for real, Miss Z.”
Wanda threw her head back and laughed long and hard. The truck driver at table nine turned to look, his hand paused above his plate, a crust of toast frozen in mid-mop-up of the last of his eggs’ yolk. At the register, LaTrice grinned and penned in another column of letters in the local paper’s crossword puzzle.
“Oh, honey,” Wanda said. “I should almost tell you yes just so to enjoy the gift of watching you learn how hard it really is to be up here working these tables.”
“I’m trying to be serious.”
“And that, too, is precious to me. Esther. My dear. I will make a promise for you right now that if you were still going to be around when I had a single opening here up front, that you would be my very first choice to wear one of these silly orange aprons.”
Esther frowned. “If I was still going to be around? What is that supposed to mean?”
Growing up, her mother taught her volumes of their family’s traditional obscenities, with something for every specified trouble; Wanda growled a soft curse for use in times of idle, venomous uncertainty.
Many people owned second homes in Yothsville, and moved back and forth between the mountains and the city on the coast as seasons and vacations dictated, but for the locals who lived the whole year round in the small town, there were few secrets. Gossip spread like floodwater, rich with even the most mundane details. Wanda stopped laughing. She knew that some folks knew about her; the sheriff of Yothsville did certainly, for she had once used what she saw in the traffic to help find a monstrous man before his atrocities could be lined up and acted out and a young girl abducted from the gas station. The sheriff had strangeness in his blood as well, and knew the value of that kind of secrecy. There were others, too: the old sorcerer who lived in the hills who came sometimes to the diner for coffee. The mailman. The gigantic woodsman, the man who ran the local tavern, some of the animals in the woods and alleyways, among others. She recognized something of herself in all of them: a mutual clandestine pact. And yet she knew that rumor throve. She wondered if others guessed at the way she watched the highway, at the way she was always calmly prepared for the unexpected; she wondered, sometimes, if she gave herself away with loose inflections of certainty, with casual assurances of particular futilities.
Wanda waved her hand above the table and said she only meant if Esther still worked at the diner and had not been romanced away by some job with better pay, and Esther said she only wanted to work at the Breakfast Queen, and wait tables just a little, for some quick money, just something temporary, please, and then she would wash dishes for the rest of her life. Pretty please. Pretty fucking please, you’re the boss, right? Esther said, it would be an easy thing for you to do.
“Esther. We are wearing my patience of this topic down to a very slender thing.”
“So, then: like, just say yes.”
Wanda swore again in the language of her youth—a quick curse against stubbornness and against thick skulls and ears stoppered with wax.
“You are a beautiful young woman,” she said, “but I fear that this has poisoned your expectations in this life. In many ways, you remind me of a very little girl, someone who is used to having the toys and sweets she craves. This is a time where you will need, I think, to make a deal with the fact that you are not going to get the thing you want. Now. Honey. Please. Go and do your job and wash dishes, and leave me alone so to finish this damn food order for the kitchen.”
Esther slid out from the booth and stood beside the table, unable to mask a scowl. Wanda knew without the need for cars or the road or traffic, knew simply by intuition, that which would surely come at any moment: a tantrum, in some form, the realization of a child’s little-girl fury—a small prophecy fulfilled.
“Okay, Wanda. Okay, sure, but, like, what-the-fuck-ever. I thought you might look out for your employees from time to time.”
She swallowed, and knew that she had not lied, but she thought of the purple rope with orange stitching, and neither had she told Esther an entire truth.
Esther stalked away and kicked the door to the kitchen open and disappeared into the sounds of the radio, into the voices of the cooks. The kitchen door squeaked as it swung back and forth, softer and softer, until it came to stillness. LaTrice shook her head. The truck driver at table nine pushed his plate away and loosened his belt. Wanda closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. She drew in a long, deep breath and held it, and exhaled slowly.
LaTrice cleared the truck driver’s plate and walked it into the kitchen. When she came out she stopped at Wanda’s table before going to settle his bill. “She’s talking a whole lot of shit to the cooks back there,” LaTrice said. “Sure, she’s a hothead, but she knows better. Ought to. Gilberto’s being cool, but Edgar is egging her on like a motherfucker.”
Wanda growled a litany in the old language.
In the kitchen, Esther worked the sinks and the spray hose and the big paneled dish sanitizer that spat hot water and yawned steam when its doors were opened. Esther banged dishes in the sink. She was mid-sentence when Wanda entered; Edgar the cook saw the Breakfast Queen herself as she pushed the kitchen door open, he saw her deep scowl, and his grin evaporated.
“—like she even knows me. Like, she’s some kind of crusty old fortune-cookie bitch who thinks she knows about your own life even better than you do, and she always talks just like she’s always so fucking right about everything—”
Esther stopped, and turned to look over her shoulder. Her eyes widened.
Wanda Zocantemir’s first instinct was toward a loud, murderous wrath, the likes of which had not been seen at the diner since a day years prior when a deliveryman—guilty that morning already of the incompetencies of tardiness and stupidity—accidentally backed his truck into a polished vintage automobile whose owner had stopped at the diner for coffee and a slice of pie.
The sheriff had strangeness in his blood as well, and knew the value of that kind of secrecy.
Wanda pointed at Gilberto and Edgar and demanded to know if there was anything in the kitchen that would burn or spoil or otherwise turn to horseshit if left unattended while they enjoyed a compulsory coffee or cigarette break. They shook their heads and hung their aprons on a hook by the kitchen door. Wanda turned her pointed finger—still outstretched and reemphasized with gesticulation—to Esther.
“You. Young lady. Let us have us another small chat a little bit more, right this very moment.”
“But I’ve got dishes—”
“You can hop promptly up an ass with those dishes. Now. Look me in my eyes, you insolent girl. I have barred idiots from this place for tamer insults than what you show me. What, Miss Esther Butte, is your real problem here?”
“I am so sorry—”
“Stop. Slower. Let us take a deep breath together.”
Esther hung the spray hose on its hook above the sinks. The sanitizer finished its cycle and became silent, as though complicit in Esther’s disrespect. Esther turned and leaned against the sinks, her legs crossed, her arms folded over her chest, her head hung low.
“I am so sorry, Wanda. Oh, goodness. I am so out of line, even saying something like that, but I didn’t think—and even with Gilbert and Ed here, I’m just so sorry. It’s just been, like, a weird week—”
“Esther, honey. You don’t want to wait tables here. Not really, not the way someone truly wants to do something. Do you understand what I mean? As a painter is called to gouache or oil? As a musician is called to fiddle or harp?”
She wondered if others guessed at the way she watched the highway, at the way she was always calmly prepared for the unexpected; she wondered, sometimes, if she gave herself away with loose inflections of certainty, with casual assurances of particular futilities.
Esther nodded. She said that obviously she did not want to do this her whole life, washing dishes or waiting tables, and quickly she added, glancing up, that of course she did not think there was anything wrong with such a life. She said she wanted to be outdoors. She wanted to teach children how to garden. She wanted to work up front on the busy shifts for tips; she and her boyfriend were just trying to raise a little extra money over the next few months.
Wanda tapped her foot. “You’re behind on rent. Oh!” she said. She snapped her fingers. “Sweet angel. He has made you pregnant, but you do not want to have the child. Oh, honey, I can’t believe I didn’t see it.”
“No! Wanda, no. No. I am not pregnant.”
Wanda hummed and clucked her tongue. She wondered what she had seen in the road, why it was not clear. She recognized a taste of her morning, the uncertainty, the frustration of illegible omen, but she knew, of course, that there was no child unless it was only just the newest union of egg and sperm, because she knew Esther did not have that kind of time left.
Esther sighed and said that the money was for a trip. For new gear. That she and her boyfriend were planning a road trip to rock climb all throughout the mountains around Yothsville and beyond, and they needed money for gas, for groceries, for beer. She said that it was to be a sort of pre-honeymoon, a bachelor and bachelorette party combined for just the two of them because, yes, they were going to get married, they had just decided. Something small and quick—signatures at a courthouse. She said she had looked into getting some other part-time job on top of the dishes, but nothing paid right, that there was not enough time, because they wanted to go on this trip before the fall, be married before the winter’s first snow.
“I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but between our rent and the other bills, we have to do something kind of crazy because there is a lot of stuff we would really need,” Esther said. “Like, Miles’ ropes are pretty old and so we definitely need to buy a few more, which are kind of crazy expensive, and I need new climbing shoes, and some of the routes we want to do need some gear we don’t have and it adds up so quick you wouldn’t believe. I don’t know how much you know about rock climbing, but—”
“Ropes,” Wanda said. “Ah.”
“Well, yeah. Probably, like, two new ropes, at least, which would be, like, a couple of hundred bucks for just those, believe it or not.”
Wanda knew. Purple ropes with orange stitching. She had made mistakes with her knowledge before: once, as a girl in her village of cobblestone streets and wide, open fields and herds of goats, and not long after her first premonition inspired by a caravan of wagons, she had told someone their future. She had dearly loved her aunt and uncle. They ran a small dairy farm, and Wanda foresaw him killed, kicked to death by a cow, his face caved in by one strike of a hoof. She told them both which cow it would be, and begged them to slaughter it, or sell it off to a neighbor. The uncle only laughed and patted her head and complimented her dress and the braids in her hair and said that she ought to be a painter, such was the strength of her imagination. That next morning, her aunt found him half-sprawled in the hay, his head a mess of blood and the fluid from within his skull where he had crumpled and slumped into his milking pail. The aunt denounced young Wanda publicly as a witch and then drove herself insane with paranoia and superstitions of self-harm. No one in the village would touch Wanda, or look her in the eye, so her mother and father took her away on a path toward a new continent and a life estranged from everything they had ever known, all of which Wanda began to foresee along the very roads on which they traveled.
“Hey, Miss Wanda?” Gilberto said. He poked his head into the kitchen. “We were having coffee like you said, but a couple of cars just pulled in, you know, maybe an early lunch rush—Sunday and all. You want us to get back in here?”
The sanitizer finished its cycle and became silent, as though complicit in Esther’s disrespect.
She nodded, and the two cooks came and put their aprons on and washed their hands and attended to stovetops and cutting boards. Wanda moved to stand in the doorway. She looked out onto the Breakfast Queen. LaTrice wiped down table nine and reset the silverware. Through the windows, in the parking lot, she saw a family spill from a minivan, a couple stretch as they shut the doors of their sedan, a young person rummage in the bed of their parked pickup truck. A pair of motorcycles pulled off Route 8 and slowed onto the diner’s gravel parking lot. She checked the clock on the wall above the front door—time, certainly, for an early lunch. She desired, suddenly, for fresh flowers in water glasses on each of the Breakfast Queen’s tables.
“Wanda, I hate to beat a dead horse about this, so this will really be the very last time I ask, and then I will never ask you again, I promise: can I please have just a few shifts up front waiting tables? For only a little while? Is there any chance?”
Esther Butte, or Esther the Beaut, as Wanda had heard some of the cooks say when Esther was not around. She looked at the young woman, saw her eyes, wide and open as the day. She saw her again in the vision of her own mind’s eye, Esther broken open and bright red among the rocks, orange-stitched purple rope laced around the wreckage of her body.
Wanda played with an earring and waited for the bell on the diner’s front door to ring. What could she say? That each of the women who worked the Breakfast Queen’s tables needed every hour they could get to support themselves, their children, their families, all of whom had more future in store than Esther? That it would not be worth the time invested to train her? That perhaps it would be a small kindness to deny Esther the hours and so deny her the wages that would buy the rope that would fail her, and so give her just a little bit more of the taste of life?
Wanda wanted to tell her to mind her knots, or to stay with both feet firmly set upon the earth, but ah, so: here was her morning’s venomous uncertainty. She saw a memory of her aunt’s wild face and the slashes all along that woman’s arms, and so instead Wanda only shook her head, and said, “No, honey. There is not.”
William C-F Long is a fiction writer living in the Pacific Northwest. A graduate of the writing programs at the University of California, Davis, and Pacific University, he endeavors to tell stories steeped in both beauty and strangeness.
Lead image: Shotstash