Morning sunlight streams through the wide front window of the Funk, the local all-American diner and favored hangout for Tickuma’s elderly residents. It opened during the height of the disco era and even as the rest of the world moved on it stayed stuck in its psychedelic rut. Everyone knows it as the place with the best burgers in town. I just think of it as the place where I wait tables thirty hours a week for a measly salary and some tips.
Wind-chimes sound as I push through the front door Sunday morning and, as if drawn by magic, a petite woman appears from the kitchen. Brenda, the tiny waitress and single mother with plenty of attitude to spare, smiles at me from behind the counter. “There you are, sugar,” she says. “Oversleep again?”
“A bit yeah, sorry,” I say, still panting from running all the way from the house. Waking up to find I only had fifteen minutes to get to work was not a pleasant start to my day.
“Well you’re just on time,” she says. “But get ready, the morning rush should be starting any second now.”
I nod and head for the restroom where I trade my sweaty, wrinkled clothes for a tie-dyed tee and pair of bellbottom jeans. Yeah, the epitome of style way back when Doug was a fat, noisy baby instead of a fat, noisy adult. The whole mess is topped off with a pair of brutal platform shoes that threaten to snap my ankles on a daily basis.
In the time that I’ve been changing the morning crowd has arrived - every Sunday morning the entire senior center comes down for breakfast. Brenda immediately shoves a pen and pad of paper into my hand and steers me toward the tables I’ll be covering for the day. I take a deep breath and dive straight into the endless stream of senior citizen pancake platters.
It’s three hours later, on the very beginning of the lunch hour, before the first customers that are under sixty show up. Brenda sits them down in my area and I make it all the way to the table before I realized who’s sitting there: Miranda Blakewood, her pair of Barbie-like friends, and her jock-of-the-week. Exactly the sort of people I don’t want seeing me when I look like a complete tool.
Hoping against hope that they don’t recognize me, I clear my throat. “Hey there, groovy dudes, what can I getcha today?”
The jock guy, a dark-skinned gorilla with a permanent sneer on his face, gives me a look like I’m something from under his shoe suddenly trying to chat him up. Talk about an ego boost, right? “Double cheeseburger,” the jock says. “And a strawberry shake for the ladies to split.”
“That all of it?” I ask, writing down the order. When I glance up it looks like Miranda is going to say something but she closes her mouth again when Jockstrap slings his arm around her shoulders.
“Yes, that’s it,” he says flatly. “Now buzz off, disco dork.”
I force a smile as the girls all laugh at the joke, and I walk away to slip into the kitchen. Eric the cook, a short man with a huge beard that more than makes up for his bald head, looks over and raises an eyebrow. “Just a typical day in the life of Jake Barnes,” I say in reply to the unasked question.
That’s how almost all of his questions are because the older cook is practically mute from some accident that happened when he was serving in the army like twenty-something years ago. He took a chunk of shrapnel to the throat and although he somehow miraculously survived, it left his vocal cords a little worse for the wear. He can talk, but it sounds like he’s gargling gravel when he does and, according to him, it feels about like that too.
There’s a shout from the dining room and I flinch. “Brenda,” I say and nod my head toward the dining room. “Gotta go.” Eric grins and mimes a violent death by spatula and I chuckle as I go back to work. The diner has filled up with the lunch crowd and a few late breakfast stragglers, mercifully devoid of more classmates and strictly containing people old enough that they’re at risk of heart attacks from their french fries.
Everything goes like normal until I stop to deliver food at the table where Jockstrap and his lady posse are sitting. I blame the platform shoes of death, although in retrospect there’s a strong probability that Jockstrap could’ve contributed. All I know is one minute I’m turning away from the table, the next I’m face-down on the floor and covered in classic American fast food.
For a few seconds I just lay on the ground, surrounded by pickle slices and broken plates. And then I hear the laughing start. At first it’s just one person, one deep chuckle, and then it spreads and catches onto other people like a contagion until it’s ringing all around me. I drop my forehead onto the ketchup-stained linoleum, half-wishing the floor will just suck me under.
“Sugar.” Brenda makes puffing noises as she kneels next to me and puts her hand on my shoulder. “Sugar, are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” I groan and then push myself up onto my hands and knees. Ignoring the noise around me, I start gathering up the broken dishes and spilled food. Brenda is rambling on about brooms and band-aids but I don’t pay any attention to her either. I always find it easier to just disappear when things like this happen, to let my brain escape to a place where the world is a landscape built of words and light and color. My body works on autopilot while my mind is building worlds.
Ray calls it my happy place. I call her a basket case.
I haul the tray back into the kitchen and promptly dump the whole mess into the trash bin. Eric is standing over the fryer, his forehead furrowed in concern. When I go over to the sink to start washing off, he clicks his tongue sympathetically. I comb a few pieces of shredded lettuce from my hair before turning to him and joking dryly, “Lady Luck is still pissed that I didn’t return her calls, I guess. That woman sure holds a grudge.”
Eric starts laughing - a raspy, grating noise because of the scar tissue clogging his vocal cords - just as Brenda comes into the room. The next second he is on the receiving end of her patented death glare. “He’s hurt and you’re laughing at him?” she hisses angrily. Eric knows better than to try and defend himself; that always just makes her worse.
She berates him for another minute or so before she slips into ranting in her native tongue. I have no idea what that is though and the one time I asked her what her race is she just said, “A little of this, little of that.” I figure it’s some sort of oriental though because when she gets really peeved she sounds like a kung fu movie on fast forward.
Brenda only leaves me alone when she’s satisfied that I’m capable of putting a band-aid on by myself. I don’t waste my time pointing out that I only have a grand total of three injuries, all of which barely qualify as scratches. I’d have a damaged pride too if that poor thing hadn’t gone into a coma years ago.
Mostly I just want my day to be over before anything worse happens.
Pretty much the rest of my shift is spent cleaning up my mess, which I just know will be coming out of my paycheck. There goes all my money this week, provided my boss doesn’t just fire me. It’s nothing short of a relief when my replacement, a pregnant girl only a year older than me named Amelia, shows up and I’m free to go home.
Of course it’s less exciting when I get home to find an empty house and a tower of paint cans with a note taped to them.
Me and the boys will be gone til tomorow. Paint the house wile were gone
I groan and slump against the living room wall. I’d forgotten he said something about having me paint the house over the weekend. Leave it to Doug to wait until the last day to actually get the paint for me. Well there’s nothing for it.
Once I’ve changed into a ratty tee-shirt and a pair of jeans with a hole in the knee, I turn on the stereo to music I actually like and get started painting the living room. It’s not the greatest way to spend an afternoon but it’s nice not to have to deal with the idiotic Cro-Magnons that normally follow my every move just to be able to insult me.
I’ve primed one of the four walls when I hear another voice suddenly singing along with the radio. I smile and glance over my shoulder to see Ray in the hallway, watching me as she sings and doing a funny little dance along with it. “How’d I know you’d show up?” I ask with a laugh.
“Because I always do,” Ray answers simply. She comes in and sits down on the floor in the middle of the room, looking around curiously. “It’s about time you repainted the place. The pea soup color was horrible.”
“The new color’s horrible too,” I say, gesturing at the paint cans beside her. “Something along the lines of muddy dandelion.”
“So we can add interior decorating to the long list of things the Slug is bad at,” Ray says sarcastically. “Is this your project for the day then?”
“Try all week,” I say. “This is just the first room. I get to do the entire house.”
Ray stands and peels off her jacket. “Well we can’t have that,” she says. “I still have to get your measurements for your tux or I’ll never have it fitted by next weekend.” She picks up a paint roller and flashes me a big smile. “Where do I start, boss?”
The painting goes a hundred time faster with Ray helping, even though she’s about as much a nuisance as a help. Still, her energy is contagious and it keeps me going. She sings along with the radio and dances around with the paint roller, getting just about as much paint on the drop clothes as the walls. An hour and a half later we’ve just finished up the first coat of the main floor and we settle down on the floor to a dinner of peanut butter sandwiches.
“So did you say you’re putting me in a tux?” I ask uncertainly.
“You’re the one who wants to look like prince charming,” Ray says. I’d called her immediately after making plans to meet my princess at the dance and while she seemed generally disapproving of the idea, she’s still being supportive. “Trust me, tuxes are much more princely than a suit and tie. Especially your ratty old suit.”
I’m still a bit leery but I nod. “Alright, you’re the fashion expert. How are you getting this tux? You’re not buying it, are you?”
“Of course not,” she says. “I’m not made of money. But I have connections.”
“What about you? Have you gotten a dress for this thing?” I ask. I have to admit to being curious. I’ve never actually seen her in formal wear before. It’s always either her eccentric skirts or her drama costumes, which are usually only just slightly less bizarre.
“You’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you?” Ray answers with a coy smile and then takes an enormous bite of her sandwich.
“That’s not very fair,” I say.
Ray shrugs. “Sucks to be you then.”
I toss a piece of bread crust at her in protest. “So are you just going alone then?”
“Of course,” she answers like that was common knowledge. “I figure I’ll just pick up a guy or two once they see how much more amazing I am than the girls they brought.” She gives me a strange look. “Why so worried about me, Casanova? You’re the one who has to win over his mystery princess.”
“I don’t have to win her over,” I say confidently. “I’ve already done that. We’re soul mates. It’ll be an instant connection.”
“Oh yeah, right, of course,” Ray says but I can tell she’s just humoring me. The next thing I know something wet and sticky hit the side of my face. Stunned, I look sideways to see Ray holding a paint brush and wearing an innocent expression. I stare for a full minute and then laugh.
“You’ve started it now, Nejem,” I say. I grab the nearest paint brush and swing it, speckling her with goldenrod paint at the same time she brushes a stripe across my chest. Laughing, we quickly degenerate into an all-out childish paint war.
By just after nightfall the living room is finished and Ray and I both have a decent coat of paint on us as well.
“It’s gonna take like five hours to get all this paint off,” Ray says, wincing as she pulls her fingers through her speckled hair.
“You started it,” I remind her with a shrug. “I’m more concerned about how I’m going to get these paint spots off my glasses without scratching them.”
“Switch to contacts,” Ray says knowingly. “It’ll save you a world of trouble.”
“But it won’t save me anything in my bank account,” I say.
“Well we’re getting you a pair anyway,” Ray says confidently. “You’ll need them for the dance. Your glasses will not look good over the top of a masquerade mask.” I cringe at the thought but I nod. There’s never much to gain by arguing with Ray when she’s set her mind on something. Besides, she has a good point. “Now c’mon, I need to get these measurements done tonight or it won’t be finished by next weekend.”
I reluctantly stand still and let Ray wrap me up in measuring tape. She writes down a long list of numbers that I don’t understand but which make me feel a little self-conscious. It isn’t like I’m obsessed with the way I look or anything, far from it, it’s just kind of freaky having a bunch of numbers assigned to my body parts and all. For a second I kind of understand why dress sizes trip girls out so much. Besides, it isn’t like I need a list of numbers to remind me I’m a tall, lanky beanpole of a guy.
“Alright, babe, I think that’s all I need,” Ray says, rolling up the tape between her fingers. “We’re going to make you look like a regular Prince Charming for this girl.”
“Thanks, Ray,” I say. She seems a little surprised when I grab her and pull her into a hug, but she returns it anyway. “I know you think I’m being crazy about all this but I really appreciate you helping out so much.”
“Of course,” Ray says and she laughs. “You’re my best friend and I love you. Why wouldn’t I want you to be happy? Or at least make some grand dramatic gesture in an attempt to find that happiness? Even if you are completely and utterly insane.”
“Well still, thanks,” I say.
Ray pulls back and then giggles again. “Wait a sec, hold still. Some of the paint from my hair got on your face. Whatever you do, don’t lick your lips.” I freeze, resisting my body’s immediate urge to lick my lips just because I was told not to. Stupid reverse psychology or whatever that is.
Ray stands on her tiptoes and grabs my face in her hands, rubbing her thumb across my lips. It feels weird but at the same time it feels kinda nice. Her hands are soft and it’s good to have my face touched for some other reason than to punch it.
I open my eyes, not realizing that I closed them, and see that Ray’s face is hovering just a few inches from mine. She looks strange for a minute, like she’s concentrating on not throwing up. But then she grins and ruffles my hair, dropping back to the flats of her feet. “Welcome back, dolly daydream,” she says playfully.
“Shut up,” I say, shoving her shoulder and shaking off that weird feeling in the pit of my stomach. “It’s been a long day, I’m tired.”
“So you fall asleep the moment you’ve got something to rest your head on?” Ray asks and chuckles. “That’s just lazy. Alright then, let’s get this stuff cleaned up so you can get some sleep.”
“Hardly,” I grumble. “I’ve got an essay to write this weekend and I’ve got to start it tonight. I’m painting the upstairs tomorrow night and I have no idea how long that’s going to take me.”
Ray hums sympathetically. “Alright well try to get some sleep and I’ll pick you up tomorrow.” She kisses me on the cheek, coming away with a spot of paint on her nose, and then leaves. I close up all of the paint cans and wash out the brushes, and then call it good for the night. No point putting it all away when I’m just going to have to break it out again tomorrow.
A long shower manages to get most of the paint off me except for a few streaks in my hair. Then I drag my school books up onto the bed with me and set to work. After a long day of manual labor there’s really nothing more stimulating than essays on Elizabethan history. (Please note the sarcasm.) Which is why I barely make it halfway through my paper before I fall asleep.