Dinner Plans

Leanna, Fredo, and I have dinner plans every Thursday night, at The Marigold Café near the hospital where Leanna works as a hospice nurse. She spends her days changing bedpans and reading Charles Dickens to old men without wives and families to care for them; or if they could take care of them, they’d honestly prefer not to.

Leanna and I have been friends — essentially best friends — since the 6th grade when we got seated next to each other in science class. She asked my name and she showed me her notebook filled with drawings of her dog and I talked about computer games.

We hit it off and stayed friends over the past 10 years — at least that’s how she’d tell it. But, if you look closely, we’re really friends because have similar last names — O’Connor and O’Hannah — we’re friends by proximity. But I never mention that part, she likes the stories more than the facts.

Leanna arrives first, filled with sad stories she’ll never tells us. On the occasions we’ve gotten stories out of her, we don’t have a way out because it gets too dark, too fast. That guy in room 2C who kept crying for coffee, but due to his dialysis and diet restrictions he was only allowed to have lemon water or hot chocolate. So they just gave him water with food dye and told him it’s coffee; he never noticed.

Or that other guy who called her a bitch before having a stroke, foaming at the mouth, and dying in front of her. It’s pretty impressive to keep your faith in humanity when someone’s last words are intense hate towards you. She only tells us the good stuff; the families who leave her thank you cards after the wake and the bearded guy who comes in once a week to play show-tunes on the ukulele for the awake ones.

Leanna: How was work, Dear? (you can almost feel her leaning towards you with sincere, empathetic interest)

Me: Well, I sat in a chair, tapped on a keyboard, and didn’t make any real memories other than that one time I went to the fridge and poured a diet coke that turned out to be too-flat-to-drink. You?

Leanna: The usual things. No one died, so that was good. Although sometimes I do think some of these people would have better overall lives if they didn’t.

Me: Yeah, but it’s a hard to offer murder-as-a-service. People tend to go to hospitals to prolong life, so they might not love the upsell.

Leanna: Oh, of course, of course I’d never suggest we kill anyone. But, sometimes they’re just so…

Fredo passes by the window in a vape cloud with headphones on. We both turn to watch him and Leanna puts on chap-stick instead of finishing her sentence.

Fredo doesn’t have sad stories to share — but his whole life is kind of train-wreck. He works for his dad, Jack Mergman of Mergman Motors; the used car lot on Cavalier Ave. When Leanna and I went off to college, Fredo stayed home to work at the family business and has barely ever left this town. He spent a summer in Texas with his cousins, riding motorbikes and smoking schwag-weed from an apple, but apart from that, “I’m from Wise, Virginia. Born and Raised.” He’s set to inherit the business, so he’s “Vice President of some shit” and spends his days vaping and listening to Metallica until a poor carless schlub errors into their lot.

Fredo: How’s it hangin’, y’all? (Fredo yells over the café, like an asshole — a love-able asshole, but still super loud, dude.)

Us, including some of the Management: Hey, Fredo.

Marianne appears from behind the counter with menus, although she knows we know the menu already.

Fredo: Marianne! How’s the kids? Benji and Geronimo still getting into the liquor cabinet?

Marianna: I don’t have kids, Fredo, and I don’t want them; especially if they turn out like you.

Fredo: Oh, you’re a hoot, Marianne. I’ll have a Mountain Dew and a Reuben.

Marianna: Disgusting. And y’all?

Me: Grilled Chicken Sandwich, extra lettuce, no tomato. And a water, thank you.

Leanna: Oh Marianne, I ate a late lunch, so maybe a muffin? Some kind of pastry, on the smaller side.

Marianne: You got it.

Marianne is such a waitress that it kinda borders on parody. Maybe pastiche is a better word? A spry 44 years old, she doesn’t seem to be hindered by the label. Some waitresses seem sad to be waitresses, but she seems content with life in the café.

Fredo: Okay, Story Time, kiddos; so this guy shows up on the lot today, with four thousand dollars in cash, in his FRONT POCKET, which is a total power-move. I can see it bulging and everything. He doesn’t even wander the lot like most people, he just waltz’s right up to me and says “What can I buy for $4,000?” And, like, you can buy most of the cars we have for 4k. So, I ask, like, “truck, car, sedan, muscle car, what’s your style?” And he looks at me, like, really looks at me with these beady eyes and says “Fast”, but doesn’t even change his facial expression or anything, just “Fast”, like he’s in a hurry. So, I point him to this 2001 Miata, just arrived a couple of days ago, 140k miles, but those things run forever, and he says nothing and hands me the cash from his pocket, rolled up with a rubber-band. No questions, just hands it to me and says “Okay, great.”

Leanna: Woah! Did he look like a bank-robber or something?

Me: No one robs a bank and only has 4k to spend on a car. How’d he get there, did someone drop him off?

Fredo: No, he just walked down Cavalier St. and into our lot. Okay, so, right, it gets weirder because when we get to the paperwork, he hands me a California drivers license. Downtown LA (I looked it up afterwards) and, again, keeps staring at me like a fuckin’ weirdo and I think “This guy is on the run from something, should we take his money? Like, is this blood money?”

So, I go “Okay, let me go run this by my manager” and I go to Pops and I say “Hey, this guy is on the lot, wants to buy the Miata, and he’s got $4,000 in cash and looks like he’s in a hurry” and Pops doesn’t even look up at me, just says “Easy sale. Get him what he wants and close the deal”. So, I go “No, he’s really creeping me out, he just handed me $4000 with a rubber-band” and Pops says “All the more reason to sell it quick and get him on his way.” So, I sell him the car and he leaves.

Me: That’s it? Normal transaction, and he leaves?

Fredo: Yeah, didn’t have to run credit, so I just know his name; James Ulysses Garfield of Los Angeles, California. Even his name sounds fake.

Leanna: And your father wasn’t concerned?

Fredo: No, he said go to the bank and drop it off before it gets too late. He’s not gonna ask questions. I just feel like the guy was up to something.

Me: Definitely up to something. Feels like a scene out of Breaking Bad.

Leanna: Well, if he’s on the run he sure got out quick.

Fredo: Yeah, maybe we could all take a lesson from him.

Leanna: What, crime pays?

Fredo: No, getting the hell out of here. He took one look at this town and was like “oh hell no, I’m not spending another moment in Wise, Virginia.”

Marianne arrives with our food, and offers Leanna a couple of options before going behind the counter to grab a blueberry muffin that we all know Leanna’s not going to eat.

Leanna: Wise isn’t that bad, Fredo. It’s like everywhere else; shops, churches, people, some nice, some not so nice; all towns are like this.

Fredo: Well, I’m gonna get out. That guy did something to me, I gotta get out of here as soon as possible.

Leanna: You always say tha…

Fredo: Well this time I mean it, dude. This place is killing me.

Me: Maybe that’s the best part of shitty towns like this; they kill you sooner rather than later so you don’t have to deal with it too long.

Fredo: Cheers to that.

Glasses clink, Leanna sighs, and we dig in.


The Sensible Choice

“Oh, eat shit, you know that’s unfair.” Jason, looking through Spotify in the passenger seat. The highway and the silence pass at the same speed.

“I’m just saying, you’ve been depressed for years and it never goes anywhere. At this point, just admit that everything is ‘fine’. Everything is always ‘fine’, we’re better than most and not accountable for the sins of humanity.”

Jason looking for the right soundtrack to match the moment; it auto-played The Eagles, but that’s definitely not right. Billie Holiday?

“It’s just, the years go on, and I keep waiting for the rising action. I’m the ordinary person waiting to be thrown into an extraordinary moment. Where’s my Die Hard? Independence Day? I want some action, but instead I’m buying groceries and sleeping at 8:30. When’s anything going to happen?”

“Everything happens everyday! People are born in taxi cabs; get exploded by landmines; released from cages; and donate millions to charities. You’re lucky; our ancestors fought and died for the right to be bored.”

“But that’s just it, man. I feel the weight of my great-great-grandfather looking down saying ‘I toiled day and night so that my lineage would prosper.’ And instead of the America they foretold, we have Memes, earthquakes, and seemingly endless beef. I could be on ‘My 600lb life’ in about 5 years, funded by a Walmart salary and a Golden Corral. I’m jus…”

“I’m sorry you’re not more unlucky, Jason. You’re not special. Please, for the love of god, silence for the next 30 miles. I need a break.”

Strangers in the Night blips from the speakers as Jane pulls the aux cable and stares forward.

Cities rise and fall, now the loneliness of Middle America. It’d only been a few states; a few pit-stops; and the whir of a tiny engine. Jane had her eyes on the prize.

Jane liked Jason a couple of years ago; not to say she doesn’t like him now. She likes him fine, but the young man you meet skipping his Medieval Literature class is going to be a fundamentally different person than the one you buy a house with.

Jason was a bartender, or at least had been at one time, before he “got too sick to work” or, rather, “stole someones’ medicine cabinet, lost his grasp on reality, culminating in a very dark phone call from a motel near the airport where Jason scored couple of pills and a brutal ass kicking.” The cops were called, the blood cleaned, the charges tearfully negotiated to “disturbing the peace” by Jane. Privileged, but it was dealt with.

28 miles, the silence hangs unbroken. Jason reaches in the back seat, palming around for chips in the grocery bags, the ruffles.

“They’re in the trunk”, Jane mind-reads. “I think they might be the cooler.”

“Why are the chips in the cooler? And, 29 miles, you broke your own rule.”

“Do as I say, not as I do.” Jane smiles at Jason who takes off his seat-belt and climbs into the backseat of the hatchback. “What else is in this cooler? Did we horde any delicacies?”

Leaving Raleigh was strategic; a change of scenery for Jason, family for Jane. But Jane worried he’d get tired in Montana; he wouldn’t be the first one to go stir-crazy in the woods. A life full of townies, pick up trucks, and going into the “Big City” once in a while to see a show. It’s got a quaintness.

“Get me a popsicle while you’re back there.” Six hours to her mom’s house, her childhood bedroom, but probably a better nights sleep than at a cheap hotel room.

Jason plops back into his seat, hands over the popsicle, plastic already sliced off, and unclips the ruffles.

Jason re-opens Spotify, re-installs the aux cable, and scrolls. “Do you think Pharrell is happy? Like, he can afford to pay naked women to bring him soft drinks on a golden platter, but do you think he’s happy? Fulfilled and all that?” This is a game they’ve always played when they’re bored. Along with occasional celebrity death-matches.

“I imagine he’s wildly more happy than us. Not because of the naked women, but despite them. He sees through them. We could never understand the level of contentment Pharrell wields.”

“Maybe with the amount of musical clout he has, he experiences life through the vibrations of the universe, and naked bodies vibrate better than clothed ones. The butlers are a necessity for his craft.”

Janes looks pricks, “Is that what you want? Naked butlers and unlimited clout?”

“Man, think about what I could do if I had a butler.”


Waking Up

A man wakes up, hungover, in his over-large bed and realizes a moment too late that he’s not alone.

“Good morning!”, she says, big eyelashes hovering a centimeter from his face.

“Oooh, hi. I smell coffee?”, the man mumbles out.

“Oh. Yes, I’d love some! With creamer if you’ve got it.”

Ben gets out of bed, quickly puts on boxer-briefs and steals a quick glance at her while closing the wardrobe. She has a slender build, blonde hair and a scar on her right cheek – a permanent reminder of an acne-ridden adolescence. He doesn’t know her, but there’s a possibility; nope, a certainty. She’s wearing Brenda’s clothes. His right hand tenses up. She can’t wear Brenda’s…

His hand tenses.

Coffee first, always coffee first.

His kitchen was small, but adequate. The coffee maker – a run of the mill $100 Keurig machine from Costco – was probably the most utilized item in his house. It used to be the microwave, but he hasn’t replaced the broken one built into the cabinetry.

Coffee used to be a ritual. You buy whole beans from an expensive, yet ethically-sourced coffee roaster in mid-town; grind them up in The Sharper Image coffee grinder you stole from a former roommate; put in a coffee filter – a brown one, unbleached and made of organic fibers – and measure out the grounds, dump, start the Mr. Coffee. For ten minutes the apartment fills with the sounds of ambient dripping and there’s an exciting smell in the air. You pour yourself a glass and stare at it until the temperature cools down enough to drink it.

Nowadays, you put barely recyclable white pods — made of non-toxic and scientifically-advanced polymers —into a black contraption and press the glowing button. Boom, instant coffee for the 21st Century. This one even has a carafe so he can make coffee for himself and the stranger lying in his bed. It’s a modern miracle.

“My name’s Carissa, by the way.” Sly glance from the woman, red cheeks on the man.

“I knew that. I knew that, for sure. Yeah.” He chuckles a little and she smiles back. “I’m Ben.”

“Well, nice to meet you. Ben.” She looks down at the carpet while somehow also looking at him, “Do you remember where we met last night?”

“Honestly, not a clue. I don’t want to upset you, you seem very nice. I don’t doubt that.”

“Ha, no. I’ve been told that I’m a generic looking person. My first name is actually Rachel, not Carissa. I use my middle name because it adds a air of mystery. My clothes are pretty generic – 60% Kohl’s,3 5% Thrift-store, 5% Forever 21.” She’s pacing around now, “my hair has been cut by the same middle aged, white housewife at a place called Unique Chic for the past decade. I go for a Martha Stewart, pre-incarceration look. I graduated middle of my class in ’09 and I work in an unspeakably grim office building downtown. It’s a whole…”

His coffee pod was still brewing and, while he was hearing most of what she just said, it was all waiting in the queue to be processed by his prefrontal cortex. He impulsively cuts her off, “Well, thanks for the information, Carissa.”

Heavy silence follows, tempered only by the coffee maker’s hiss and the light coming in through his old, one-ply curtains from Bed, Bath, and Beyond.


Honestly, it’s nice having someone in my bed. Last-night-me was somehow comfortable enough to bring a woman home and maybe I should be more grateful for the opportunity.

Walk over, pour myself a cup of coffee, forget, grab a second, pour another cup, fridge, pass the creamer.

“Thanks”, Carissa says, enunciating a bit too much. She stares intently at her host.

“Can I ask where you got your gown?” Ben asks, sounding unsure himself.

“Umm, that hanger over there? It looked unisex. Is that okay? I looked around for clothes after you fell asleep. My clothes were wet”, she points at the wooden, base model IKEA chair in the corner, “but I didn’t expect to have to sleep in someone else’s apartment and I can’t sleep naked.”

Ben turns his head to side like a puppy, looking at a slice of kosher hot dog.

He turns his head back upright, then tilts in back, big stretch, slumps forward and dangles into the chair. “Well, those are my wife’s clothes. Or, err, they were my wife’s clothes – she died in April.”

April. Carissa gathers a sense of time and it’s October. “Oh. I’m sorry. I…”

“No, no, you’re fine. Sorry. You’re just the first to wear it since. Honestly, it’s kind of nice, I wasn’t sure anyone would ever wear them again.”


Carissa suddenly felt awkward. Like she had stepped through the wrong door and ended up in someone’s else’s life when she had intended to get on the Q to Brooklyn. Like those stories on 60 Minutes where babies get switched at birth and both mother and daughter can’t shake the feeling that they’re in the wrong place, wrong family, but can’t express that they feel that way. Something deeply instinctual doesn’t align and they’ll never have a comfortable Thanksgiving. They just cook the cornbread, whisk the gravy, and assume it’s all normal.

“Do you want me to take it off? Let me take it off.”

“No really, really you’re fine. Relax. I’m.” He sat down on the Ikea “workbench” he uses less like a workbench and more like a shitty coffee table.

“Honestly when she died, I was relieved. I loved her, I really did, but we got married young – too young for our own good. She was a good person and I loved her until the day she died and still do, but I don’t think I was cut out to be a husband.”

Silence again. Carissa looked at her feet – hobbit-like, by far her least favorite part of her body.

“Was it sudden?”

“Car crash. The medics said instant, but I’m not sure if that’s true – she was a fighter.”

Ben finished his cup, put it in the sink, and sank into the sofa. She stood and studied the spacious, previously tidy two bedroom apartment.

“Hey, I’m going to be honest here; I don’t think I’m prepared for this kind of conversation. I don’t handle conflict well – at all.”, She looked morose. “I once had a cat who was a piece of shit to me and I just let it outside and it never came back. I faked crying on the phone with my mom twice to throw her off my trail.”

Ben looked up at her and smirked. “You did the right thing. I fucking hate cats.”