by J.R. Lindermuth
Open All Hours has never before been published.
The buzz of the whiskey dwindled and, with it, Tim’s courage evaporated.
Shoulders hunched, he sipped at the coffee which had gone cold and wondered how he could get back the nerve to go through with his plan. He exhaled a breath foul with the remnants of alcohol, coffee and the food he’d forced himself to eat. The weight of the gun in his jacket pocket and his failed resolution combined and seemed about to topple him from the stool on which he sat.
“You want a refill, hon?” a female voice intruded on his thoughts. The waitress hovered, coffee carafe in hand.
His cup refilled, Tim swiveled on the stool and glanced around the diner. Two o’clock in the morning and the place was still too busy for his purpose. A trio of young women – dyed hair, excessive make-up and suggestive outfits revealing their trade–occupied a booth behind his seat. Despite their occupation, they were restrained, talking quietly as they ate and minding their own business. Two black men sat in another booth at the far end of the diner.
In contrast to the women, they were loud and boisterous, earning occasional sour looks from the waitress and the owner. A dockworker, tired from his shift, slumped in the last booth to the left, half asleep over the remains of his meal. Two stools down from Tim, an elderly man shuffled through the pages of a newspaper.
Too many people for his purpose. How much longer did he have to wait for the diner to empty out? Some men are born to prey on others. That’s not me, Tim told himself. It’s only circumstance has brought me to this.
Tim had been coming late to the diner for more than a year, taking a meal from a seldom varied menu, exchanging salutations, pleasantries and the occasional joke with Mac, the owner; the wait-staff and other regulars. Yet he knew none of them save by first names and familiar faces and they knew no more of him. He and they shared a relationship, but it was without depth, with only transient value.
The diner food had sustained him and he supposed he’d even enjoyed the camaraderie during that period. Things were different now, though. He’d had a job then, and a future. Now with his unemployment insurance run out and no response to any of the numerous applications he’d filed, Tim had no hope, no future and no money left to pay the bills which still arrived without interruption.
The water in the coffee urns bubbled. The neon sign in the window, Open All Night, flashed in reverse on the tiles next to the urns. Ruthie, the waitress, smacked her gum as she passed Tim, her arms laden with steaming plates of food for the black men, her sneakers slapping against the stained, worn linoleum. The old man snorted and called for a refill of his coffee. One of the street women giggled aloud over some unheard joke.
A young man came in and took the stool next to Tim. Longish brown hair, greasy and uncombed, small dark eyes behind thick-lensed glasses that looked at no one yet took in everyone around him. He wore a faded Army jacket with the patches torn off and wrinkled chinos. The man leaned over the counter, one dirty-nailed hand drumming on the surface as the other plucked a menu from the holder. He coughed as though something were stuck in his throat, glanced at Tim and then quickly gave his attention to the menu.
Tim pulled back the sleeve of his jacket to view his watch. As he checked the time, the diner door opened and the beat cop came in, right on schedule. The cop nodded to Tim as he passed, heading straight up to the register where Mac waited with the officer’s cup ready for pick up. The young man bent over the menu, murmuring to himself, not wanting to be seen but making himself an object of curiosity.
The officer paid for his coffee, strolled back to the door, nodding again to Tim as he went.
“Whadya want, hon?” Ruthie asked.
The young man raised his head. “Reuben and a Coke.”
“Said, no. You got a problem hearin’?”
Chastened, Ruthie slapped her pad shut and swung away without response.
“Easy, pal,” the old man said. “Her job to ask. You don’t want the fries, all you got to do is say so.”
“Mind your own beeswax,” the young man snapped. Swinging round, he glanced at Tim. “You got a problem, too?”
Ruthie brought the sandwich and the man gave it his attention. The black men left and were soon followed by the street women. A cabbie ending his shift took their place. Tim finished his coffee and looked around. Counting himself, Ruthie and Mac, there were six people left in the diner. Based on voices drifting out to him, the cook, his helper and the dishwasher remained in the kitchen.
It was time. He’d have preferred to have no customers as witnesses, but a desperate person didn’t always get things the way he wanted. There was a knot in his stomach and he felt a tremor in his fingers. Take a deep breath. Steady yourself, man. This isn’t what you want to do.
A sound distracted him. Shifty-eyes. The man stared at him. Had he said something? But, no. The man turned away now, his attention on Mac who had opened the cash register. It was then Tim noticed a bulge in the man’s jacket pocket. A hand went in the pocket, drawing out…
Tim saw the man’s fingers wrapped around the butt of a pistol as the hand slipped out of the pocket. The man was still focused on Mac.
Asked later, Tim couldn’t explain his actions to anyone, including himself.
“You coulda been killed,” Ruthie told him. “That was the bravest thing I ever seen, you jumpin’ on him like that. You’re a real hero, hon.”
Mac, the cops who came and took shifty eyes away, the other customers, everybody praised him and Tim couldn’t wait to leave the diner and avoid the fuss. Mac slapped him on the back, called him a hero and said Tim had a free supper as long as he wanted. Tim didn’t consider himself a hero. He didn’t know if he’d ever come back here again.
Two blocks away from the diner he darted into an alley and tossed his gun into a dumpster. Afterward, though he still had no job, no hope, he felt better about himself.
Some men are born to prey on others. He knew now he wasn’t one of them.
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