Under the Light of The Rutabaga Lanterns

In a place called Hell, Texas, over there in the western part full of desolation, flatness and fire, a man called Excalibur Bobbs sat in the Hell Diner chewing on a piece of triangular toast

Counter at diner with soft yellow light reflected

The Hell Diner

In a place called Hell, Texas, over there in the western part full of desolation, flatness and fire, a man called Excalibur Bobbs sat in the Hell Diner chewing on a piece of triangular toast slathered with melted butter and cold grape jelly. He was looking over the front page of the local newspaper, The Hell Beacon, as he ate and had his coffee in the quiet surrender of a new day out in that place that sews desperation into a man’s ripped up soul and makes him want to run.

A television was playing in the background somewhere, but the volume was low and lonely, and he paid no attention to it because he was trying to think of something to say to the person who sat across from him whom he could tell was growing more impatient by the second.

“Well. What the hell you call me over here for? It’s so early. I don’t know how you can get up so early. Makes my insides feel hurt and alone and cold just thinking about it.”

Excalibur Bobbs set the newspaper aside and looked across the table at him. “These early morning times are the best times for my thinking,” he said. “There’s no sense in burning up good daylight being lazy in bed.”

“I’m not lazy.”

“You sure as hell are lazy. You’re the laziest one I got and so I’m going to have to let you go.”

The man’s light brown face crumpled. “You’re firing me?”

“Got to. I need people who put in an honest day’s work.”

“But I do,” the man said, panicked and anxious. “I mean… I’ll do better. I swear it.”

“You had the chance to do better, and you fucked it up. How would it look to all the others if I just let you slide on by on your ass while they are all busting theirs to pieces. It isn’t fair. I can’t allow it. It makes me look weak and ineffective as a leader. One bad egg like you could infect the whole carton. Like I said, I can’t allow it. It’s nothing personal.”

The man looked down at the table, and for a moment, Excalibur Bobbs thought he was going to start crying. “But I really need this job. My wife is sick and the kids, they need medicine for all kinds of different shit that I don’t even know what it all is. We’ll be done for. We’ll end up on the streets.” The man quickly crawled out of the booth and looked down at him. “Thanks to you!”

Excalibur Bobbs didn’t watch but just listened as he stormed out, got into his beat-up old truck, and tore out of the parking lot in a cloud of gravely dust. The waitress came by with a coffee pot and refilled his cup. She looked out the window. “I don’t know how you can play with people’s lives like that,” she said.

He looked up at her. She had orange hair, and her lipstick was far too red and heavy. Her nametag read Lucy. “I don’t know why folks like you are called redheads when your hair is actually orange,” he said. “You have orange hair. Do you realize that?”

She touched her head and nervously looked around and then back at him. “Well, at least I have hair,” she snipped. “And you’re changing the subject.” She slid into the booth. “Why do you walk around town acting like God, huh? People do the best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt… You’ve got to take that into consideration. Not everyone can be the same. There’s different circumstances going on in the world.”

Excalibur Bobbs lifted his refilled cup of coffee to his face and sipped. His swallow was annoyingly audible. “None of that wishy-washy garbage flies with me,” he began. “When you take a job, you take on a responsibility and you’re obliged to it. That’s what I pay people for. I don’t hand them a check and say ‘Thanks for sitting on your ass for the last two weeks. Have a nice day.’ Like I said to that young man who just got up out of here… I can’t allow it. If he really cared about his wife and kids he would have worked harder. But he didn’t, and that was his choice, not mine. I merely corrected the situation for the sake of my own livelihood. Believe me, Lucy, he’ll be far better off in the long run with this lesson under his belt.” He winked at her and took another deep sip of his coffee.

She just looked at him and slowly shook her head. Her face was pale, but her cheeks were artificially blushed with rouge, and it made her look like some kind of a creepy sex doll found in the dusty corner of a serial killer’s attic, but she wasn’t ugly, just different. “All I can say is, I couldn’t do what you do. My heart and soul are too soft for that sort of hateful nonsense.”

Excalibur Bobbs squinted and pointed a finger at her as if he was about to lecture her with the most important thoughts that ever cropped up in a man’s brain. “And that’s the whole problem with this damn country… Everyone’s too soft. Nobody wants to work hard for what they get. They just whine about it. They expect a free ride. You can see the collapse of our society right before your eyes. Just take a look out there.” He gestured toward the window with his head.

Lucy looked out the window but all she saw was a flat land full of emptiness, sparse trees, pale gray ghosts of wind, a lonely road beneath a cold blue sky intersecting lonelier streets in the forgotten downtown of Hell, Texas – littered canals of century old red and white brick, bowed walks, empty parking spaces, For Lease posters in dusty windows of sun-stained glass.

“I think you’re wrong, Mr. Bobbs. The problem isn’t there’s too much softness. There’s not enough.”

He scoffed at her remark. “What is this. A commercial for facial tissue?”

The door jangled and a couple of young ranch hands in blue jeans and with cowboy hats atop their heads came into the diner. They were laughing to themselves and smiling about something.

“I’ve got customers,” Lucy said, and she got up out of the booth and snatched her coffee pot up. “You think about what I said, Mr. Bobbs. I’ll be back around to check on you.”

He watched and listened as she went over to where the two young men sat and put on her waitress show. There was some laughter, a womanly squeal when one of them tried to pinch her ass, and then she strutted back behind the counter and stuck a ticket on the silver wheel there and yelled out to some invisible cook in the back, “Order in the window, Clyde!”

When Lucy returned to Excalibur Bobbs’ table, she topped off his coffee and sat down again. She looked at him and she could tell he was thinking deep things but not things of true or romantic substance. Lucy considered him a scoundrel, but at the same time she was attracted to his rugged straightforwardness, the steel blue eyes, the sandpaper scruff the colors of a gloomy, yet soothing day in the Scottish Highlands, her long ago homeland that she sadly regrets leaving nearly every day.

She watched his desert-colored lips as he spoke. “Why is it folks don’t order dessert after breakfast?”

“Huh?”

“I was just wondering why folks never order dessert after breakfast,” he repeated. “We do after lunch. We do after dinner. Why not breakfast?”

She gave him a look that blatantly revealed she was confused by his question and wondering why he even bothered to waste her time with such a mundane subject. Instead, she wanted him to open up his heart and offer her a night out with a nice dinner and maybe a good movie over at the Hell Theater. She wanted him to touch her and love her.

“I suppose because so much of breakfast is like dessert,” Lucy answered. “And they don’t ever put it on the menus.”

“But what if a man just has eggs, some meat, and some potatoes? You would think some dessert would be in order after a breakfast like that.”

She sighed and twirled her hair. “I don’t know, Mr. Bobbs. It just is what it is. The world is full of mysteries.”

He grunted and looked at her for a moment. His eyes fell to the point where the shirt of her pink uniform parted and revealed the upper curve of her pale, freckled breasts. He wondered what the rest of her body looked like.

He glanced at the watch strapped to his wrist. “I suppose I better get going.” He slid himself out of the booth and stood. He retrieved his wallet, flipped through some bills and threw the money down on the table. “I’ll see you around, Lucy.”


The Prophets of Profit

Excalibur Bobbs pulled his run-down Toyota sedan the color of faded red wine into the same spot he always parked in on the side of the square, squat, and unimpressive building. The driver’s door groaned as he got out. It didn’t fit properly so he had to slam it. He walked around to the front and put a key into the lock of the glass and metal door. He moved inside and went directly to the alarm pad and touched a few numbered buttons. Then he watched to make sure the green light illuminated indicating he had properly deactivated it in time.

Before going back to the tiny office to count out and ready the two tills for the new day of business, he paused in the dim light and quiet of his Hell Dollar store and took a deep breath. The plastic smell of foreign-made discount retail merchandise for the oblivious masses filled his nose and pleasantly spilled into his guts. He walked up and down each aisle to make sure everything was in order. He meticulously straightened some laundry detergent bottles that were slightly askew and ran a finger across some of the shelves to check for dust.

Excalibur Bobbs went to the office and unlocked it. He reached for the company vest that hung on a hook near his desk and put it on. He switched on the store’s stereo system so that customers could bathe in soft, soothing shopping music, sterilized so that it would never offend. Once he got the tills prepped, he took them out to the front counter and inserted them into the cash registers. He carefully pressed some buttons so that the day’s sales would be properly recorded.

Once he was finished with that, he went to check the condition of the public restroom. It was clean and he was satisfied with the flowery aroma. Before he went out, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror there and paused. He stood before it proudly and straightened the plastic nametag that read Excalibur Bobbs, and beneath that, Store Manager. He leaned forward and gently kissed his own grinning reflection. “I am somebody,” he said, “And I am powerful.”

THE END


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