HOLIDAY DINER: BRIAN ALAN ELLIS
FLO IS SWEET, but she’s a hard bitch. The gray-brown, frizz-fried tendrils sprouting through her hairnet holes look as though they’re screaming for vengeance, wanting to escape. Her face cracks when she grins. The black crud between her butterscotch teeth show she’s given up on certain kinds of men. Fifty going on infinity. “More coffee?” she says listlessly to the young couple—Couple of what? she wonders—paying her no mind. “Damn kids,” she mutters, wheezing, placing their check face down on the table. Doesn’t care whether they pay or whether they “chew ’n’ screw,” though she should; she’s got cats to feed, lots of them, those rotten-spoiled feline bitches she loves.
It’s past two a.m. The bars are either closed or are closing, or they’re functioning still—privately, illegally, or otherwise. Most of the diners are open for business, though—being that it’s Christmas time, being that diners never seem to close. And what better diner to be in at this hour, any hour, than Stan’s Holiday Diner, where a woman like Flo is pouring your coffee, so willing to please, as green and red Christmas lights wrapping the wooden insignia above the register flicker faintly.
“It’s nice I finally got your butt out of the house,” Girl says to Boy. “It’s the holidays. You shouldn’t spend so much time alone.”
“I’m in training,” Boy says dryly, poking apple pie with a fork. “Training for death.”
Girl places her hands in the lap of her stylish pink dress. She is fat in places. “You stole that from someone,” she says. “Faulkner?”
“Céline,” Boy says matter-of-factly. “For a writer, you know dick about it.”
“Oh, now you’re being mean!”
“I’m sorry. Did I Oprah-Book-Club you?”
A man, much fatter than Girl, comes into the diner, sweaty though it’s twenty-something degrees out, wearing a disheveled suit-and-tie deal. He waddles towards a booth in the back, seats himself there, picks a menu up in his swollen-knuckle hands, coughs, retches into a handkerchief, and looks angrily at his many options. Flo watches him the whole time. She thinks about that one show, The Biggest Loser, and goes to get his order.
Girl perks up, says, “Oh! That boy I was talking to at the party—the one who works with my sister, right?—well, he’s convinced you’re gay.”
Boy slams his fork down. “Christ!”
Girl says, “Maybe it’s because your pants are always so tight.”
Boy says, “Never mind the fact that everyone is stupid. Couldn’t be that, I suppose.”
Girl chuckles and says, “He tried getting you under the mistletoe all night.”
“Keeps it up, I’ll get him in the ass—and be straight about it.”
Flo and Fat Man look over. Boy gives them a dim, apologetic smile, and says to Girl, “It’s all”—he lowers his voice to an almost-whisper—“it’s all just flesh and imagination anyway, right? It’s like if a dude closes his eyes and kisses another dude and the dude he’s kissing doesn’t have any facial hair, it feels very—”
“Wait! You’ve made out with guys?”
Boy, slinking into his seat, shushes Girl as Flo and Fat Man again look over.
Girl whispers an apology to Boy, and says, “So you’ve seriously—”
“Yeah! A few times. Not many.”
“Saul? Really? But you guys are straight. At least I thought so…”
Boy says, “We are, but when you’re out somewhere lame, like at a party or a club or something, women get all hot watching two guys kiss. Especially if the guys are straight. I mean, the panties just grow wings and take off.”
Girl says, “Maybe my sister’s friend was right…”
Boy says, “Man, people are so fucked. You never hear them go: ‘Well, I’m convinced he’s heterosexual.’ Never.”
Girl smiles, says, “That’s funny. Maybe you should be a comedian. Hey, that could be your calling!”
Boy says, “Yeah, well, I probably wouldn’t accept the charges.”
Fat Man goes over to the jukebox. Flo, standing behind the counter skimming an In Touch, senses this. “It don’t work,” she says.
Fat Man gives her a look. “What do’yuh mean it don’t work?”
“I mean it don’t work. It’s busted.”
“Busted?” Fat Man looks it over. “Maybe all it needs is a swift kick in the ass.”
Flo looks up, says, “Mister, if you touch that jukebox, I’ll give you a kick in the ass.”
“I wanna hear some music. I’m sick of hearin’ those two gabber on ’bout fags.”
Girl sticks her tongue out at Fat Man. He waves her off and goes back to fiddling with the jukebox.
“Too bad,” says Flo. “Go sit down.”
Fat Man, refusing, kicks the jukebox, hard, and a song, “Mele Kalikimaka,” comes on.
Flo slams down her magazine, says, “Goddamn it! What’d I tell you?”
“Oh! I love this song!” Girl begins bouncing in her seat, humming. She says, “I was at a place like this with Saul, recently, and this song came on. It was pretty intoxicating watching him drift in and out of singing it. I think he forgot I was there.”
“You think he’s better looking than me?”
“Who? Saul? What does that have to do with anything?”
“Oh, I forgot you’re only into considerate fellas. Fakes. Tell me,” Boy says, “does my honesty frighten you?”
“It amuses me, if anything.” Girl spoons a piece of pie into her mouth. “Besides,” she says, chewing, “you’re too morbid. You’re, like, a misogynist.”
“That’s where we differ,” says Boy. “You want possession of a person’s soul. Me, I just want something warm to sleep next to every now and then, you know, without much trouble.”
Girl says, “Maybe you should get a dog. Then again, I have seen the girls you go home with.”
A guy who looks like Harry Dean Stanton dressed as Santa Claus comes into the diner, drunk, jingling, knocking into things. The look on Flo’s face shows she’s had it up to here with tonight.
“Saul drinks too much. And he smokes. You into that?” Boy wants to know.
Girl rolls her eyes and says, “Why are you pre-warning? Like, ‘Watch out! Caution: heavy drinker and smoker!’ It’s silly.”
“People should have warnings.” Boy points to Fat Man, says, “Take that slob over there. I bet he’s a shoe fetishist. He watches Internet videos of women in high heels crushing bananas and shit. Probably works as a shoe salesman, like Al Bundy. Or maybe he used to. His wife won’t sleep with him anymore ’cause his boss caught him fucking a pair of lavender pumps in the storage room and fired him. But most people can’t tell that just by looking at him. That’s why he needs a warning.”
Girl says, “Well, Mr. Surgeon General, what should yours be?”
Boy thinks about it. “Basically,” he says, “I’m emotionally bankrupt. I’m like a broken gumball machine. You can keep shoving in quarters, but nothing ever comes out.”
“We’re a lot alike, believe it or not, but he plays the sensitivity angle better. He’s a much bigger faker. Me, I’ve got boyish charm.”
“Boyish charm? More like devilish chagrin.”
Boy says, “I could tell a girl, ‘Hey, I wanna fuck you,’ and be all innocent about it, like a twelve-year-old boy said it. I think that’s the only reason girls put up with me—until they discover the real me, of course. Basically, if I didn’t put on a naivety show I’d have no chance.”
Girl says, “You’ve really thought about this, haven’t you?”
Boy says, “I know. Sad but true. My honesty is almost heartbreaking. So what if I am just an idiot with a low but highly pretentious opinion of himself and others? At least I’m truthful, maybe even passionate about my bullshit. Someone has to be, right?”
“Well, people can like you, but if you dislike yourself…”
“Who doesn’t dislike aspects of themselves? If you tell me you don’t, you’re lying.”
“Satan. He likes all of himself.”
“Your buddy Satan is fictional. He can do whatever.”
“Tell you what,” says Girl. “I’ll write a story about tonight, conversation and all.”
“Sure,” Boy says. “Make me look good in it, will you? A real Hemingway motherfucker.”
Fat Man calls Flo over to his table. He wants to talk to Stan. “Why do you want Stan for?” she asks, and he tells her his eggs are cold and that he wants to give Stan a piece of his mind.
“Don’t know no Stan,” Flo tells him.
“Don’t know no Stan?”
“No,” says Flo. “I don’t know no Stan.”
“What kind of—Stan! The Stan whose name’s on the sign outside. On the front of this here building we’re in? Stan’s Holiday Diner.”
“Ain’t no Stan here.”
“Well, who runs this dump?”
“The man who runs this dump, that’s who.”
“Well then why ain’t his name on the front of the building?”
“This is Stan’s Holiday Diner, that’s why.”
“Stan’s gone. Hooper bought this place from Stan’s son. We just keep the sign up.” Flo says, “You wanna talk to Stan, you best get a shovel and start digging.”
Boy says to Girl, “I bet he goes to McDonalds and asks to speak to Chef Ronald.”
Fat Man looks over. “What’s that?”
Boy says, “What’s what?”
“I heard you say somethin’.”
Girl says, “It was nothing, sir.”
Fat Man says, “Bullshit! He’s grown. He can speak for ’imself.”
“I said, ‘Shit, that Hooper must be a super cool guy’,” Boy says.
“No! No!” Fat Man stands, struggles over to Boy and Girl’s table, says, “Now I’m close enough to hear you right, so tell me what you said—FAGGOT!”
Boy says to Fat Man, “Go fuck a pump,” and then spits at him. Girl screams and then purse-clobbers Fat Man as he goes after Boy.
Harry Dean Santa, looking on, starts singing along to whatever is playing on the jukebox. (Burle Ives?)
Flo, reaching into her apron, shakes her head. She knows what’s coming.
Shots are fired.
Everyone stops and looks.
Flo, the ceiling debris trickling down upon her, the smoking gun in her hand, says to Fat Man, “Sir, I suggest you go sit down and finish your eggs before they get cold.”
Fat Man stammers, “Bu-bu-bu-but—but—th-th-they was—they was al-al-already ccccold—”
“Finish ’em anyway.” Flo’s face crinkles into a sly grin. “Before you get cold,” she says.
Fat Man goes back to his booth. He tries eating but then drops his plate of food. It shatters. Flo looks crazy enough to shoot, and so Fat Man pisses himself before tearing out into the cold Christmastime morning.
“Jesus, lady, you been packin’ this whole time?” Boy wants to know.
Flo says, “Have to. Never know just who you’ll run into. ’Specially this late. Some rough customers out there. Takes all—” A cinderblock comes crashing through one of the windows. “Son of a—” Flo cocks her gun, says, “Be right back,” and goes out after the assailant.
Boy hurries to the broken window, looks out, sees a Volvo station wagon—engine revving, tires screeching—taking off as Flo bustles down the street busting off caps.
Curious, Harry Dean Santa tries getting up out of his seat to look for himself, but his drunken legs won’t hold. After several attempts, he gives up and goes back to singing. “Jingle Bell Rock.”
“That—that—” Flo is at a loss.
Harry Dean Santa pipes up: “Pederast!”
“Pederast! That’s what he was, a g.d.—” Flo pauses, says, “What’s a pederast?”
Harry Dean Santa shrugs. “Read it in a book once.”
“Books ain’t no good. This right here”—Flo raises her gun, looks it over—“is all the literature I need. Point this sumbitch at someone and they’ll tell you any damn story you wanna hear, guaranshitteed!”
Girl says, “I think a pederast is someone who molests children.”
Boy says to Girl, “Like your old therapist,” and winks.
“I went to a therapist once. He said I was a little high strung. Short-tempered, you know? Shit, now take my advice—male therapists only wanna do two things: take your money and get in your pants.” Flo turns, sticks her head in through the kitchen doors, shouts, “Karl! Get out here, boy! I need you to clean shit up!”
Girl is through with it. She stands, puts on her coat, scarf and gloves, and says, “We’re going!”
Boy says, “Look at the bright side. Now you’ll have a good ending to that story.”
Girl isn’t amused. The look she gives Boy promises a hell of a car ride home, a silent gaping wound.
Boy nods, puts his coat and all that on, leaves six dollar bills, three quarters, a dime, a nickel and six or seven pennies for their armed waitress with the hollering hair and shoddy teeth, and follows Girl out.
Flo is counting the register till, ready to close up for the night. Karl has gone home. Harry Dean Santa is asleep in a booth, snoring. “Christ!” Flo looks up from a stack of twenties, says “Uncle,” and goes over to the jukebox. “The Little Drummer Boy” dies a slow, droning death as the plug is yanked out.
A bouncy, rotund man in his sixties comes into the diner. Flo greets him: “Hooper! Nice to see ya! What brings you out this hour?”
Hooper, shivering, blows into his hands, says, “I left somethin’ behind in the office. Came to get it.”
“Park it and have some coffee, first.”
Flo pours Hooper some coffee. He thanks her. She says, “That’s the spirit. Always workin’ so hard. Tsk, tsk.”
Hooper sips his coffee. It’s good. He says, “How’s it been tonight?”
“Slow,” Flo says. “Been slow all week.”
Hooper asks about the window, the gunshot in the ceiling, all of it. Flo tells him what happened. Hooper nods, says, “Well I’ll be! A cinderblock?”
“This calls for a drink!” Hooper takes a flask from out of his shirt pocket, raises it, and says, “To the holidays!”
“Always somethin’ with this place.” Flo takes one last sip before handing Hooper back his flask, says, “You could fill up a book, if you ever wanted to.”
“Someone should really make a novel out of it.”
“Nah. Maybe a movie.”
“A play, at least.”
“To think of it,” says Flo, “nobody’d actually pay to see what goes on here. That’d be dumb. We get it every day for free, and more than anything, it’s a real headache.”
Hooper says, “I think you’re right. Let’s call it in. What do you say? I’ll come in first thing ’morrow afternoon to get that window looked about.”
Flo motions to Harry Dean Santa, says, “What about him? We just gonna leave him here over night?”
Hooper smiles, says, “Sure! Why not? Santa needs his rest, just like everyone. This here’s a holiday diner and, gosh darn it, we’re gonna have ourselves a holiday!”
Flo, gathering up her things, pauses, says, “Hey, didn’t you come to fetch somethin’?”
“Oh, you’re right,” says Hopper. “Now, what was it?” He tries remembering. “Oh hell! It’ll still be there, whatever it was. Nothin’ ever really changes ’round here.”
“Hell, I know it,” says Flo, leaving, wondering what kind of shit her cats have gotten into.
Hooper takes another sip from his flask before placing it back inside his shirt pocket. He puts on his coat, searches it for his keys, finds them, goes to lock the front door, pauses, takes one more look at the lit diner, smiles, shakes his head while brushing the light switch with his hand, and Stan’s Holiday Diner goes dark—except of course for the Christmas lights, red and green, wrapping the wooden insignia above the register. Those continue their flicker. They never stop.
BRIAN ALAN ELLIS is the author of three novellas, three short-story collections, a book of humorous non-fiction, and Something to Do with Self-Hate, a novel. His writing has appeared at Juked, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Electric Literature, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and Funhouse, among other places. He lives in Florida.