Breakfast and a Cigarette: A Novella in Four Directions
by Bill McLaughlin,
RAY STUMBLED FROM THE BUS, squinting in the midday light. Inside the station he received directions to the corporate park. Across the road he found a diner and treated himself to a large breakfast; his first full meal in two days. He ordered eggs over easy with whole wheat toast, home fries and a short stack of pancakes. He ate slowly, savoring each bite. He sopped up the bright yellow yolks with the triangular ends of his toast, which were dripping with jam. His pancakes sat in a pool of syrup, crowned with globes of rich butter, slowly melting. The steaming cakes offered only the slightest resistance to his knife and fork. His potatoes mingled with bits of fresh green pepper and onions. The outside edges were browned and crisp, the white flesh inside, smooth and warm.
Breakfast was his favorite meal. Ray would often order breakfast for dinner or lunch. Even at fancy restaurants, Ray couldn't resist a gourmet omelet. Liz would fume. She couldn't understand how he could choose eggs, no matter how ingeniously prepared, over savory sauces, succulent meats and seafood or exotic vegetables, crisp and lightly seasoned. But Ray was a breakfast guy and she long ago gave up trying.
The waitress, an older woman with soft gray curls tucked neatly under a web of fine netting, tacked endearing terms onto every sentence.
“Here ya go, sweetie. How's everything, darlin'? Y'all need more coffee, sugar?”
Normally, Ray would have been embarrassed at such silly and superficial affection. But this morning he believed in this woman. He imagined himself in her kitchen. They were friends really, they just hadn't formally met. Afterwards, instead of paying a check, he would do her dishes, perhaps perform some chore around the house. Then they would sit on the porch with cool drinks and reminisce about the people they knew, the changes life had brought them over the years. They would laugh at stories told long ago and told again. Her southern drawl, thick as his pancake syrup, smoothed him over, took the edge off the tortuous bus ride, nourished him more than the food he ate.
When he finished, the mechanical clang of the cash register cleared away the illusion and he found himself outside, walking east along a busy four-lane highway on the outskirts of Asheville, thinking of cigarettes. He left the highway about two hours later and began following the smooth black toxic asphalt roadway that led past the monotonous clutter of corporate glass and steel sitting recessed on empty, waveless emerald seas. Occasionally a large boulder or elder tree remained to adorn a too-familiar logo. Finally, Ray found the sign that matched his phone bill. He stood outside the office building unsure of what he really intended to do. Each step toward the entrance took him by degrees from his old life and led him slowly, inevitably, toward the new. He entered and found himself in a large sunny lobby, a jungle of fichus and rubber trees. Windows, perhaps fifty feet high, surrounded him, bathing him in a cool, filtered light. He walked to the gleaming mahogany reception desk in the center of the lobby and was greeted cheerily by a young woman. She gave Ray a pleasant smile as she retrieved a strand of straight black hair that had caught on her handless phone set.