by Chris Milam
You can learn a lot about a man by what he spreads across his wholegrain English muffin. If he uses butter, he is delusional and uninformed. The good trumps the bad in the mind of a rube. Same goes with jam. Your head says healthy because it’s a jar of fruit but your bloodstream says don’t do it, don’t you dare allow that viscous chameleon into my home. But the man in the blue-checkered shirt drizzles honey on his muffin. He shows restraint, he understands. His pouring hand is elegant; I wish my hand mirrored his: pearl white with an indoor-coddled sheen, fingers thin and expensive like a pack of imported, black market cigarillos. He’s never busted his knuckles in a steel factory, changed a timing belt in air as cold as a family court judge, or punched walls, people or anything that stood in front of his constant anger. He doesn’t have to apologize for living a privileged life. His destiny didn’t involve decades of fucking up.
We both eat the same breakfast, and when I asked the waitress if it was raw and unfiltered, she said of course it is, honey. She grinned at me or her remark. I’m not sure.
His wife is dead. Sherry, the waitress, said it was cancer, maybe a heart attack. She couldn’t remember but she knew the wife was gone. It was sad, she told me earlier in the week, one minute you’re in love and comfortable, watching the late news together in bed, then kaboom, you’re crawling to the same diner at the same time every morning, eating the same meal, in the same booth, with the same hurt face. I nodded but didn’t explain that him showing up every day illuminates his resilience. He rose above death and a gutted, soundless house. He collapsed then glued himself back together like a broken toy soldier. I didn’t tell her that I only come here because of his story. That the collar of pain is neither blue nor white. I never mentioned that seeing him with his tucked napkin, his glass of orange juice, his defiant grace, his hunger to stay afloat, all of it gives me hope. Watching him, mimicking him, becoming him. He is a lesson disguised in sophisticated discomfort.
I tell her I’ll pay the old man’s bill after I’m finished eating. When she lets him know with a kind, southern-steeped whisper, he swivels his head and flicks that beautiful hand of his at me. No problem, I wave back. Sherry smiles at us then skips to the next table, a young woman dining solo with a lavender scarf tied fashionably around her neck. There is ache in her slumped posture. A lonely poached egg stares up at her.
The widower takes a bite of honey-kissed muffin. I do the same. The place is silent except for the chewing and the suicidal rain bashing itself over and over against the dirty diner windows.
Chris Milam lives in Middletown, Ohio. His stories have appeared in Lost Balloon, Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, FlashBack Fiction, formercactus, Train Lit, Molotov Cocktail, Ghost Parachute, JMWW, and elsewhere. He was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2018. You can find him on Twitter @Blukris.