Jack of All Non Sequiturs

The Uptown Diner, one of those tacky restaurants where everything’s faux nostalgia and sticky. But it’s cheap and convenient to Rosie’s studios: her third floor walk-up and the Delwyn Bros’ Recording Studio where she goes through the motions of bookkeeping to get some session time on the piano.
     And it’s close enough to Dale’s shrink that they can have lunch after his therapy. Not that there’s been much progress since he shipped home. Hard to get anywhere when he refuses to talk like a human being.
     Oh, Dale talks all right. English, even. But snippets from TV and movies, catchphrases. A step up from grunts and gestures, perhaps, but it’s like having a conversation with Forrest Gump—which, depending on Dale’s mood, it sometimes is.
     Rosie pulls a cleaning wipe from her sunglasses case, drags it across the edge of the table. The wipe comes away beige. Arching her fingers, she runs arpeggios on the buckling laminate. Tries not to think about Dale, their impending break-up. She can do this.
     Her index finger snags the seam of the metal band circling the tabletop. She checks the scrape, uncertain about the long-lasting disinfectant quality of eyeglass cleaner.
     A layer of skin gone, but no blood.
     Her hands flutter along the edge of the table again. Goldberg Variations. She gives the chrome strip a wide berth.
     Rosie hopes he’ll be in a Steve Martin mood. Dale tends toward the early years, the “Excuuuuuse Me” comedy albums and SNL’s Festrunk Brothers. Annoying, but manageable. Richard Dreyfuss wouldn’t be too bad; somewhat adorable, yet whiny enough she won’t get sidetracked. Anybody but—
     “Who’s the head bull-goose loony around here?”
     Jack Nicholson. She looks up—everyone in the Uptown does the same; Dale stands in the doorway, backlit by the August sun until the pneumatic hinges hiss the doors shut.
     Rosie half rises from the vinyl banquette—her back clinging to her blouse clinging to the seatback—and waves. He looks the same on the outside as he had before his abbreviated tour of duty. Six-foot-one, eyes and hair sandy brown, football-captain shoulders, confident stride. But inside? A stranger she never promised her heart to.
     When she places her hand back on the table it feels stickier than before. A red smear trails away from her pinky. Rosie fishes another wipe out of her purse as Dale sprawls into the seat across from her. The alcohol burns as she applies pressure to the cut.
     Dale dips his head toward her hand. “In this town I’m the leper with the most fingers.”
     “Good to see you too, Dale.”
     He grins his golden retriever grin. Not a Jack Nicholson smile, for sure. Still, she half suspects the dog might bite.
     Bernice, the window-section lunch waitress, comes over. “Usuals?”
     “Noodle salad. Good times,” Dale says.
     Bernice glances at Rosie. Rosie shakes her head. Bernice puts her order pad away. “Usuals.” Club sandwich, small salad for her; patty melt and fries for him.
     Dale slams his hand on the table. “Sssssstaaayyy.”
     Rosie racks her brain for the dialogue; About Schmidt, maybe? Bernice stops, returns to the table.
     “Ssstaaay.” Dale thrashes his head side to side. “Staaaayke. Saaaanndwich.”
     Bernice glances at Rosie again; Rosie shrugs. “Like that cooked medium?”
     Dale exhales, exhausted, but manages a nod.
     Rosie watches Bernice cross the room, spin the order around to the kitchen. “Dale, that wasn’t movie talk, was it? That was you.”
     Dale nods again, a proud puppy. Then he blinks and the smile goes wrong. “What do you wanna discuss now? My favorite color?”
     The meal deteriorates from there.
     Bernice brings their food but tips the tray and the salad slides off. Rosie’s hand darts out, grabs the bowl as the saucer beneath crashes on the checkerboard tile; Italian dressing splashes up her arm. “Hold it between your knees,” Dale says.
     Small talk goes nowhere.
     “How’s your steak?”
     “Walk softly and carry an armored tank division, I always say. You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
     “Work’s fine, thanks.”
     A busboy stops by to sweep up the broken saucer. Rosie drops her bloodstained sunglass wipe in the dustpan.
     She takes a “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” out of nowhere as a sign to begin the Dear John segment of the conversation. She’s rehearsed it for weeks: You’ve changed blah blah blah I wish I were stronger, a more patient person yadda yadda … but—
     “But I can’t see a future for us.” Rosie realizes she’s been staring at her half-eaten lunch, her hands, the reddish-brown smear on the table. She forces herself to look into his eyes. “I just can’t.”
     She expects a “You can’t handle the truth!” or a “I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.” Even “Get me the President on the phone. We’re surrendering our position in Cuba!” would make twisted half-sense.
     Instead, Dale slams the table. And again.
     Rosie cringes, can’t bear to imagine she’s breaking up with The Stranger just when Dale’s about to really come home. With everybody in the diner staring at them.
     “I want the people to know that they still have two out of three branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad.”
     Rosie rummages in the side pocket of her purse for a ten. “I’m sorry Jack—Dale!—I’m sorry, but good—” She senses rather than sees him pick up the steak knife; the motion is almost familiar. Reflexively, she raises her arms.
     Dale flicks his wrist and the knife flashes between her clutching hands. The blade slices the ten and disappears into the hollow above her sternum.
     “Baahhhggggg,” Rosie burbles. She topples forward—her blouse peeling away from the vinyl momentarily stalls the inevitable—knocking food, dishes, greasy forks knives spoons to the floor.
     “Prizzi’s-freakin’-Honor” flits through her mind, followed by “should’ve seen it coming.” Then Dale singing La Vie en Rose. Then nothing.

   © 2006, 2024; first appeared in print in Flashes of Speculation

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