THERE’S NOTHING BETTER THAN a spurned, broken-hearted lover—the persistence of the pain, the pointlessness of the desire. Your widow or widower’s too easily resigned, has perhaps steeled themselves against the inevitable, may even secretly rejoice in their black garb like some giddy penguin, but a hopeless lover still hopes against hope or some such nonsense, and he is mine.
I say he because I prefer men, because I once was one, I suppose, or maybe it’s their fondness for the grand gesture—the drunken late-night phone calls that start out pleading and wooing and end up screaming insults, crashing the wedding like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (without his success), or driving all night to Virginia and back to buy something truly lethal from a gun shop that would sell semi-automatic death to Charlie Manson if he could manage the right drawl and talk a little shit. The course of true love never did run true. A restraining order back home is just another speeding ticket on the interstate of life. Stuff it in the glove box and keep on driving because love makes the world go round just a little bit faster.
Which is what I’m doing in a suburban Applebee’s at a table in front of the bar with a fellow named Matt waiting for his order to come. It seems they can’t cook anything because the computer has crashed, and the man who can uncrash it has been on his way for the better part of an hour. Matt is growing increasingly surly with the young waitress, failing to understand why his burger can’t be grilled. Have the flames gone out because the computer’s down? I’m sure she’d find a way if she knew Matt has a loaded gun in his jacket pocket he intends to empty at the furniture store across the road once his ex-wife Melinda arrives at work for the evening shift. Matt and Melinda—isn’t that too cute? I sometimes think couples hook up because of alliteration, thinking it will look good on a napkin at the reception. I’ve put him up to this, whispering in his ear, summoning visions of her and her new lover in his mind. Christopher, Don’t-call-me-Chris. Pooh fan. The bedding manager. I swear you can’t make this shit up. I also put Matt up to the burger. He’s understandably not all that hungry given what he’s about to do, but I like meat.
“Leave him alone, why don’t you?” Selene says to me. She’s sitting on the bar taking sips out of some guy’s frozen margarita with a straw she dips into it, covering the straw with her index finger, holding it over her open mouth like a feeding bird, releasing it, and letting it slide on down. She makes it look sexy. Selene makes everything look sexy. I haven’t seen her in an age. She looks the same. She looks good.
“Why don’t you mind your own business?” I say.
“Business?” She laughs like I’ve made a joke, but she knows I’m not joking. She’s just trying to annoy me, distract me, so that Matt here can think twice, walk out on his burger he doesn’t want anyway, maybe toss the gun in a Dumpster somewhere, and get on with his life.
“What’s his story?” I point to Mr. Margarita. I croon a few bars of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” I know Selene’s type. She gets off on longing.
She laughs. “Cut it out. He’s a sweet guy. Kyle. He’s working up his nerve to call Courtenay in accounting.”
“Isn’t that precious. I suppose you’ve been working her nerve and libido up too.”
“Maybe.” Her smile implies she might do just about anything. It draws you in, that smile. Even me.
I shake my head. “We’re a pathetic pair, you know that? Preying on the stragglers, cut off from the herd, fucking with them for the rush of a little vicarious life.”
“If you want to see it that way. I’m trying to help people find happiness.”
It’s my turn to laugh. “Bull shit. You’re getting off on it. You don’t seem to care that sooner or later most of your desperate lovers end up in my neighborhood with a whole other set of needs. I’m just trying to help Matt here too. He’s got some serious issues to work out since his happiness ended up in the lost and found. He’s looking for a little closure.” I make my hand into a gun. “Bang. Bang. Bang.” I touch index finger to temple. “Bang.”
“Here Zack? Here? At an Applebee’s? What is this going to do for their friendly, neighborhood appeal? Why screw a whole franchise so you can have your sick little thrill? What is it with this boyish fascination with guns anyway?”
I could listen to her talk all night, even when she’s mocking me. She sounds like an oboe or a cello or something like that. It’s hard to remember the subtleties. But played beautifully. “Not here. Across the street at the furniture store. Don’t worry. Your guy’s got time to hook up with his girl. Maybe the excitement will get them in the mood, so you can indulge your girlish fascination with fucking.”
She makes a mock annoyed face, sticks out her tongue at me, and slinks into the stool beside Kyle. I never tire of watching her move, watching her work. She’s fucking elemental. She leans against Kyle, one hand on his thigh, the other caressing the back of his neck, her lips at his ear, whispering something, brushing his ear. For punctuation, she runs the tip of her tongue around his ear, then sucks on his lobe. He’s visibly shaken, flipping open his phone and calling Courtenay in accounting in one convulsive spasm of action. He thinks it’s bravery, the poor dick. I wonder if Courtenay can hear the lustful pant in his voice. I can’t listen. Selene’s all smiles. Courtenay will come. Courtenay will definitely come.
“Why didn’t you blow him while you were at it?” I ask.
“Men. Always in such a hurry.” She lays a comforting hand on Kyle’s crotch.
“I’m not a man.”
“You could’ve fooled me. So limited in your perspective. Playing with guns.”
“So what happens now? You follow them home, you’re him, you’re her, you’re both. It’s magic. They didn’t know they had it in them. So what? What then?”
She shrugs one sexy shoulder. “I move on. Same as you.”
“Not same as me. I’m at the end of the road. There’s no moving on from here. I’m like that ferryman in Hell.”
“Right. Just doing your job. When Matt there goes off, you’ll love it, shooting innocent people. Your own action movie.”
“I’m the innocents too. I’m not just the shooter.”
“The difference is they die, and you don’t.”
“That’s true. But they’re alive, and we’re not.”
“Is that what makes you so mean?”
“It’s a start.”
Kyle hangs up, beaming with love and joy. This is particularly weird in the near empty restaurant, where the breakdown in food production has left a small disgruntled crowd taking turns giving shit to Anna, a nervous inexperienced waitress not up to the task. The indifferent bartender leans against the back bar reading Camus, no help at all. Maybe I’ll come back for him some night.
Matt grunts, the sound of a decision being made. He’s the most disgruntled of all, and while I’ve been sucked into Selene’s little seduction, I’ve been neglecting him, and he slips the leash. “Waitress,” he calls out, and the frightened young thing appears. “Cancel my order. How much for the tea?” He stands and takes out his wallet. I suggest he sit down, but he ignores me.
Anna says, “I’m so sorry for your inconvenience, sir. There’ll be no charge for the tea, sir. Please accept—”
“I said how much for the fucking tea!” Matt’s got a big, booming voice. Every eye in the place is now on my boy, even the bartender’s. Camus lies face down on the bar. Anna is trembling.
This happens. The living are temperamental, impetuous. If you push them to the edge, teetering on the balance, they can be unpredictable, impulsive. A loaded gun in the pocket exaggerates this effect.
You might think Anna is too young to realize that the one thing she must not do is disagree with him, but sadly she knows this from her abusive father but nonetheless remains stupidly true to her company training. She really, really wants to do well on this job. She needs this job, so she can get her own place. “No sir, it’s free. Please accept our sincerest apologies.”
No? Did she say no? Nothing’s free. Everything comes with a price. Matt puts his wallet away, and out it comes, the gun, sweeping across the place, people screaming, dishes crashing, quite the spectacle, just the thing our boy Matt needs to fan the flame. “I’ve had,” he hollers in a near incoherent wail, “just about enough!”
“Nice work,” Selene says to me. “I thought he was doing this in the furniture store.”
“The best laid plans.”
“That’s mice and men.”
“Us too. A computer crashed.”
“I see that.”
Just then, Glenn, the mid-level manager summoned to uncrash the computer, finally comes walking through the door, bored, long-suffering, clueless. Selene would definitely have to blow this guy to get a rise out of him. But the gun does the trick. He throws his hands up in the air and screams, “Don’t shoot! You can have everything!” and Matt shoots him through the heart.
The life that flashes before Glenn’s eyes is not so pathetic as you might imagine. He deserved better than he got certainly, but in the end there was something poignant about it, beautiful. In the end, they’re always beautiful. Death is life’s most intense moment.
Meanwhile, Matt’s blazing like a Roman candle, adrenalin sloshing through his veins like a flood through a storm sewer. He’s killed someone but not the right someone, so he still wants to kill someone, but there was something about the release when the bullet slammed into Glenn’s chest that filled a hollow in Matt’s chest. He’s killed a man. The hard part is over.
“Gimme your phone,” Matt says to Kyle.
Selene whispers urgently, rubbing his trembling limbs to calm him, “Do it, do it, do it,” until he does.
Matt calls Melinda. I lean in close to listen. “I’m at the Applebee’s across the street. I want you to come over here right now and bring fucking Christopher with you.”
“I will do no such thing. Must I remind you that there is a restraining order—”
Matt puts the gun to Anna’s head and hands her the phone. “Tell her if she doesn’t show up with Christopher in five minutes, I’m going to shoot you. Tell her I already killed someone I didn’t even know.”
Anna says this as best she can. Her fear is like falling into a dark pit, falling so fast she’s afraid her heart will stop. She’s been there before, she knows the territory, but this time she finds something down there like a polished stone, the size of a goose egg, and hard, impenetrable, indestructible. She hefts it. Matt’s not the only one who’s had enough. Matter of fact, I’d say Anna here has quite the head start on him. Since she was a child, before she could speak or remember. Broken heart? Big fucking deal. A calm comes over her.
I point out the tray full of ketchup bottles sitting on the bar beside her. She was cleaning them, something she could do without the computer’s approval. She hands Matt the phone with one hand, grabs a bottle with the other, and swings it in a vicious arc, smacking into Matt’s temple and exploding in a cloud of red glass. He falls to his knees, firing wildly, and she hits him with another and another.
Selene wraps her arms around her and pulls her away. “Enough,” she whispers. “Enough, enough.”
Anna kneels sobbing in the middle of the dining room. Courtenay dazedly walks through the door and sees her, dead Glenn on the floor, and Matt covered in ketchup and blood. Kyle springs from his stool and takes her in his arms, comforts her as everyone waits for the police and the ambulances. Melinda and Christopher don’t show. They’ve called the cops instead. You can’t blame them. What’s Anna to them? Anna’s life?
Matt’s carried off to the hospital. He’ll probably live, go to prison. Nobody wants to die in jail. Not even me.
“What are you still doing here?” Selene asks me. “Your boy just left.”
“I don’t like hospitals.”
“Yeah. They keep people alive there, give them hope.”
“They shoot them full of drugs and tell them lies. They die anyway. Looks like you’ll have a good time tonight.”
The cops are questioning Courtenay and Kyle together. He has his arm around her. She leans against him. Selene caresses one cheek, then the other. “Aren’t they lovely?” she says. “They might really last.”
Kyle and Courtenay are told they can go, and they head for the door arm-in-arm. She’s going to spend the night at his place. She wouldn’t feel safe otherwise, she says.
Anna is sitting at the bar beside the tray of ketchup bottles, waiting. When the cops asked her if there was anyone they could call, she said her father. He comes through the door as Kyle and Courtenay go out. I sit down beside her.
“Leave her alone, why don’t you?” Selene says to me.
“Mind your own business,” I say, and she does, running out into the parking lot after her lovers. The three of them drive away, looking for happiness. Anna stays here with me. We watch them go. I put my arm around her shoulders, squeeze, a little too hard and bony, the way her father does when things get out of hand, as he likes to put it, and go too far. Here he is, standing at the bar, waiting to take us home. Things might not go so far tonight. Not far at all.