A Late Breakfast
Fiction - Second Place
"You know what?" I say. "Let's just go for a drive. Anywhere. Let's just go."
"Philip," she says.
"I mean it. Anywhere. I don't care. How about the airport? We'll take the first plane out. We can watch the planes. Do you want to? We'll do it."
"I'm hungry," she says. "I'm just hungry."
So we're driving some streets and looking for this diner I know, and she starts in on it.
"Do you think God's punishing me?" Carmen says. "I mean, for sinning."
"You know what I think," I say.
"He used to do that," she says. "Punish people."
We pass one of those missing-kid billboards--have you seen me? The kid is a somber, freckled boy with a bad haircut.
"Just once I'd like to recognize one of those kids," Carmen says.
"It's tough," I say.
We find the diner, pull into the lot, and step in. There are chandeliers and plastic plants. We're the only customers.
"We're two people," I tell the hostess. She leads us to a booth by the window and hands us thick plastic menus.
The waitress walks up and pours us coffee without asking. I get interested in reading the paper place mats they have--ads about what nutritional supplements made from bee pollen and raw honey can do for you.
"The beehive is the most sterile place in nature," I say, reading off the paper. Then I see Carmen's look.
A minute later, the waitress is back and wants to know what we want to eat, but the menu has about 250 things on it. "Do you need a moment?" she says.
"Can you still get breakfast," I say.
"You can always get breakfast here," the waitress says. She's mad about something.
Carmen orders a double omelet. I get waffles. The waitress writes it all down and walks away.
Carmen starts in again. "God gets mad just like everybody else," she says. "He can only take so much. I can't go on expecting miracles."
I'm concentrating on digging out a pack of cigarettes from my inside jacket pocket. I get the pack out and gently finger the cigarettes inside, trying to pick out a good one.
"You know, you haven't looked at me all night," she says.
I look up and stare at her for a long minute. When I finally have to blink, I see a split-second flash of her negative image--eyes, mouth, hair--burned against my retina. When my eyes open, I smile at her like I've solved a problem.
I light cigarettes for the both of us, and we stir our coffee and tap our ashes until the food comes. The waitress slides a new ashtray between us like a centerpiece.
When the waitress leaves, Carmen says, "You know New Jersey is the diner capital of the world?"
I'm busy cutting up the waffle, trying to cut only along the lines of the grid.
"Officially," she adds.
The waitress comes by to add more coffee to our mugs. "Freshen you up?" she says. She's in a better mood now, humming something, though it's not the song they've got on the sound system.
"Thanks," I say.
The waitress says, "Top of the day." She hands us our bill and a handful of fortune cookies in cellophane wrappers.
I point out the cookies to Carmen and raise my eyebrows as if to say, "What the hell," but she's busy making a kind of soup in an empty saucer with the contents of our sugar and creamer packets. I notice she's not eating anything.
I take a bite of the waffle and pour some more syrup into the little squares on my plate. "You OK?" I say with my mouth full. "You want your omelet?"
"Do I want it? I ordered it," she says without looking up. Then she says, "My mom saw that new movie. Hated it."
"What's it about?"
She's smashing up the fortune cookies gently with her fist, leaving the cellophane intact. "It's about these people," she says. "I don't know, it's supposed to be good."
She slowly stirs her milk and sugar. I go back to the place mat.
"Bee pollen is often referred to as nature's perfect food, containing all ingredients for life," I read aloud. "About 2 percent of royal jelly remains a mystery to scientists."
Something new comes on the sound system.
"This song makes me cry," she says.
Scott Cech has published several short stories, both in the United States and abroad. He lives with his wife in Baltimore, where he is polishing a first novel.
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