The Difference Between Us
2014 Barrett Winner
1st Place Kalie Humbarger
It had been days since Lionel had made a stop, it was raining, and the station wagon had begun to reek of sweat and piss. You could feel the weight of the musky scent in the air. Twelve jugs sat, filled to the rim with urine, swishing in the backseat. They were his only quiet passengers. Lionel had exhausted his Vienna-sausage-and-cracker supply at this point. He had also run out of urine storage, and he longed for sleep he wasn’t getting. He needed to make a stop, but he wasn’t sure if he was still being followed. He glanced in the rearview mirror. No headlights were visible on the expanse of country road that stretched behind him. But that didn’t mean they weren’t tracking his every movement. No jamming device could solve that issue. The damned government was always chasing him around, and for what? What could he do to stop them when he had no idea what had attracted their attention in the first place?
He was familiar with the area he was driving through now; when he was young he had fished with his father at the state park nearby. This was a small township hidden by the maze of cornfields that obscured most of Iowa. Cornfields were where fictitious monsters hid when Lionel was a child. Now the towering stalks were ominous in the yellow light of his headlights. He feared hidden things, but not monsters. When he was young he lived in a country house out in the fields, with a veranda porch and a tire swing. In the summer the wind carried the sweet scent of sun and grass as it whispered secrets through the fields in an obscure language, which only the grasses understood. He liked to lie in the backyard at night, in the soft glow of the rear porch light, and gaze at the stars. He braved the monsters when they were fictional beings with horns and fangs that stalked among the crops. Now that he was older and he knew what real monsters were, he wouldn’t risk stopping to pee at the side of the earthen road.
Ah, he thought to himself, to be so young again.
The road was changing now. Tall stalks of vegetation retreated from the path, giving way to taller grasses, and the earth turned into pavement. The dimming lights of the dilapidated down-town glistened lazily in the water drops that beaded and ran down the station wagon’s windshield. Lionel saw the scene through the eyes of his nine-year-old self. When the sun was shining and the windows were down. He sat next to his father then, and the radio played “Sweet Home Alabama”. In those times, he had a strong sense that he was a piece of the larger puzzle. Now he was just an outcast on the run. Such a stark difference there was in every aspect of his adult life. Things were no longer about stars, songs, and sunshine. No, things had grown far more complicated.
As he followed the winding road, Lionel passed the post office, the gas station, and the mom-and-pop grocery store before he came across Joe’s Kitchen. After early morning fishing trips, his father had always made a surprise of going to Joe’s for omelets and orange juice. He didn’t seem to understand that after doing it seven times in a row, it was no longer a surprise. He still beamed an I-tricked-you sort of smile at little Lionel the eighth, ninth, and tenth time he pulled into the parking lot at the last moment. Lionel followed that olden path, swinging his car into the lot and occupying a space in the very back. He turned off his car and lights, and waited. When no headlights followed him and the parking lot remained still and dimly glowing from the diner lights, Lionel pushed the car door open and hauled himself out. His joints were stiff from sitting for so long, and popped as he stretched. Glancing around, warily, he quickly made his way up to the diner doors and stepped over the threshold into familiarity.
The booths were the same color as they had been nearly twenty years ago, but worn and reduced to a duller shade. The gaudy linoleum floors seems less retro and more sad now, dirt stained and chipped from years of use. A florescent light had nearly gone out in one corner, and pulsated at random intervals. A short, fat man stood near an ancient cash register, a coffee stain on his shirt pocket and his bald-spot glistening with sweat, while the young waitress sat at the bar in front of him, chattering on. He looked bored and slightly melancholy.
“So then I said, ‘I’m not your little play-thing, Jeb! I have thoughts, feelings, ambitions, dreams.’ I wanted to be a pediatrician once, ya know? I love kids and I could have made good money, too. If only he didn’t force me to drop out of school. I could have worn one of those neat white jackets with a pin on the front that said: Dr. Darcy.” She sighed, leaning her cheek into the palm of her hand dreamingly. The short, bald man grunted, obviously uninterested at the topic in hand. She continued, unabashed, her articulation slow and drawling with a sweet accent.
“He may have ruined that for me, but I surely couldn’t let him continue to shove his fat nose into everything I ever did! It was ridiculous. The way I was forced to tip-toe around my own life, careful not to step on his toes when I wanted to run to the gas station for a gallon of milk. Who are you going to see? Christ!” A sour look pinched her otherwise lovely face. “To think I was valedictorian in high school, and look what I have been reduced to: working night shifts in this diner, wasting my potential. No offense.” The waitress’ short, mousy-brown bob swung with enthusiasm at every word. She had soft-curving eyebrows, long eye-lashes over big, brown eyes, high-drawn cheeks full of freckles, a plain face and a slight frame which slouched now over the counter. Her long legs stretched out from her body, under her apron; her toes pointed to meet the floor. Her fist was balled up under her chin and she looked forlornly at the bald man, who wouldn’t meet her gaze. Lionel had begun to feel uncomfortable, and started backing up quietly to make for the door. His worn, dirt caked New Balance shoes scuffed and squeaked on the old linoleum floor, and the bald man turned his attention to Lionel who stood like a deer in headlights. He had changed his mind about the diner, but now he was trapped. The bald man gave a grunt and a quick, pointed look from the waitress to Lionel, and the young girl turned her head.
“Oh!” She leapt to her feet, her cheeks rosy with sudden excitement. She straightened her apron as she grabbed a menu from the pile resting on the counter. “Welcome to Joe’s! My name is Darcy; I’ll be your server this evening. The special tonight is our signature meatloaf served with mashed potatoes and chicken gravy.” She tucked her hair behind one ear and smiled, approaching Lionel with the menu extended as an offering of hospitality. He took it silently. “But I suggest you skip out on that and try the spaghetti. You won’t regret it, I promise,” she whispered, holding up her palm to shield her words from the bald man. She winked a round, brown eye. Her eyelashes were dark and thick. Lionel said nothing, just stared. He was suddenly aware of his grimy face and sweaty palms. He remembered that he hadn’t washed his hair in five days and that his shirt was stiff with dried perspiration. He probably smelled like a homeless man, he thought. But, he was technically homeless, now, so he might as well act the part. She smiled, still. “Have a seat anywhere you like! I’ll let you look over the menu.”
Lionel cautiously crossed the diner, peering back longingly at the door, then took a seat in rear of the dining area where everything was left to his observation. He propped the menu up on the table so that he was hidden from the short, bald man, and took a napkin and dabbed it on his tongue. He began wiping away the grime on his forehead. Lionel knew he shouldn’t have stopped, but he couldn’t control the motion of swinging into this diner at the last moment. It was like an ancient reflex, like he was being pulled here by some long lost memory that needed to draw him in. A longing for comfort and familiarity—for a taste of that old sense of belonging—had urged him to glance over his shoulder and move forward, despite the suppressed angst that tugged at the edge of his consciousness. Maybe if he sat here, he could feel his dad with him. Perhaps hear him say, Lionel, you’re special and that’s a gift, not a crime. How many times had he repeated those words in his head? Only his father had ever said it, when his mother made his doctor’s appointments and shoved pills down his throat, his father had always told him that there was nothing wrong with him. You aren’t crazy, Lionel, no. You just see the world in a different light than we do. That means that your colors are different than ours, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Lionel nodded now as he ran the damp napkin over his neck. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that. He needed to write that down. He pulled the pen he always carried out of the inside pocket of his worn jacket and jotted it down on a fresh napkin: You see different colors, there’s nothing wrong with that. The waitress popped her head around the menu and smiled. Lionel started, knocking it over and throwing himself back in his seat. He crumpled the napkin in his hand to keep his words from her eyes, feeling both startled and annoyed at her lacking sense of privacy.
“Hi, Darcy again! Have you decided what you would like to eat?” “Augh… umm…” Lionel stammered. All these important thoughts were swimming in his head and she wanted to talk about food? This was a diner, of course. But he never was good at talking to strangers, and he had been in the middle of a thought. “Spaghetti it is, yea?” Darcy beamed while she folded up the menu. She didn’t seem to ever stop smiling.
Lionel searched for his words. She turned to walk away without writing down his order. He didn’t like being spoken for, even if he couldn’t speak. “Um, yes, the spaghetti,” Lionel blurted. He’d meant to sound firm, but instead he sounded feeble. She looked over her shoulder as she walked and winked again. “I got it!”
Her apron swished as the turned the corner to step behind the counter. He heard the bald man speak, for the first time, in a hushed tone. His voice was heavy with a foreign accent and his English was broken. Lionel didn’t recognize the accent, but it sounded eastern European, perhaps Romanian?
“That man, he is very strange, no? He look like he take no bath in week.” Darcy’s smile faded momentarily, and instead she looked pained. Then her smile returned.
“All the better we feed him, then. Who knows what kind of journey he might be on?” She jotted something down on a piece of paper and passed it into the kitchen through the small order window.
“Order up, Chuck!”
A grunt of recognition came from the unseen cook, and Darcy laughed.
“Come on now, you haven’t seen any action all night!”
Lionel lingered on her words. Who know what kind of journey he might be on? He felt a tinge of something in his stomach at her words, and a bit of regret at his annoyance. Appreciation, he thought, I am appreciative. Maybe this was all he needed. Perhaps now he could leave having found some piece of mind that would help him continue on this hard road. But any attempt to move found him welded to his seat.
He sat and listened to pots clank, the clock tick, Darcy‘s gum pop, and the bald man’s heavy breathing. He took the salt shaker in his hand and turned it over and over. He could hear the salt crystals shift inside. Time passed easily here. Then the door squeaked. Lionel looked up.
Two men entered the diner, wearing long, dark jackets and hats that were pulled down close to their eyes, shading their faces. They seemed to step in near synchronization. Darcy leapt up to meet them.
“Hi, my name is Darcy and I’ll be your server tonight. Our special this eveni—“ “We’ll take two black coffees and we’ll seat ourselves, ma’am.” The taller man took a menu from Darcy’s extended hand and stepped around her. The shorter man followed. “And please do make them black,” the shorter man asserted, taking a menu from her hands, as well.
Darcy stood frozen in her spot momentarily, obviously shocked at such curt treatment, then tucked her hair behind her right ear and turned on her heels, making her way to the kitchen. She disappeared behind the swinging doors.
Lionel felt frozen all the same, but out of fear. They had found him. They must have spotted his car in the lot. Oh Jesus, he had to get out of here.
The men held the menus to their faces, glancing over them but murmuring to each other at the same time. Lionel crept from his seat, leaning low to avoid being seen. While the bald man had his back turned, dusting off old picture frames that said “voted best in Iowa,” Lionel darted behind the counter and through the kitchen doors. Frantic, he broke into a run. His dirty sneakers squeaked on the linoleum as he rounded a corner. In the smallest fraction of a second, too fast for even shock to set in, he felt his entire body slammed right into Darcy, who was carrying a pot of coffee. It poured down her white apron in brown, murky streams like tentacles twisting and reaching out, further and further, for something they couldn’t grasp. The pot shattered into tiny fragments on the floor. Lionel threw himself back. His face burned, and he felt tethered to his place, though the urgent need to flee tugged at his chest.
“Oh! I’m sorry, oh God, I’m sorry!” Lionel stammered over his words, unsure of what to do with his hands. He gestured, then threw them to his sides. He tugged at his jeans. Darcy may have been overbearing, with her constant chatting and tiresome smiling, but her kind words had warmed a part of him that had long grown cold.
“No big deal, it was pretty cold anyhow. I wasn’t making a new batch for those jerks out there.” She paused wiping at her apron to jerk her thumb toward the front of the restaurant.
Lionel nodded, awkwardly making his way around her. His feet slipped in the glass and coffee that pooled in ruins on the floor, but he pressed forward. The back door was in sight.
“Are you leaving already?” Darcy’s face was troubled. “You haven’t even eaten yet.” She seemed to eye his travel-worn, dirt-encrusted clothes. If she was speculating on how long it had been since he’d eaten something that didn’t come from a can in the driver’s seat of his car, he thought, she’d never guess. He examined the look of genuine care smeared across her pursed lips, wide eyes, and furrowed brow, and thought how strange it was that she didn’t ask him why he was sneaking out the back door, only if he was going.
“Yea, I… I have to go,” he put his hand on the knob.
“Well where are you going? It must be something awfully important to walk away from a good meal.”
“Ma’am, I can’t tell you that.”
“Well why not?”
“Because I don’t know yet. Please. I really must go.” He wondered why he hadn’t just left yet.
She lowered her voice and stepped closer to Lionel.
“Is it because of those two men out there?” Her voice was barely a whisper, thick with accent, but Lionel’s eyes widened in horror.
“Shh!” he hissed. “For the sake of me, and for yourself too, be quiet!” He lowered his head and spoke softly. Her large, doll-like eyes stared intently as he spoke.
“I don’t know what they want. I don’t know why they’re here. But I do know that they’ve been following me for days, and now they’re here, so I must go.”
“Well, I’ll just march right out there and tell them to leave! You were here first and I will not see a good man such as yourself be harassed!” She stamped a heel in frustration.
“No!” Lionel hissed. “You can’t let them know that I was here! I don’t think they’ve seen me yet, I must go while I still have time.”
He turned for the door again.
“Wait!” Darcy whispered, and she rounded the corner and disappeared. He grew angry at himself for not having left already. Why did he stay around to answer questions! He didn’t know this girl, this Darcy. She had said kind words about him, but did that justify risking his life?
What is wrong with me, he thought to himself, shaking his head. He turned to leave, hand on the door knob.
“I’m coming with you.”
Lionel whirled around and there stood Darcy, with a white styrofoam carry out box and her daisy-printed handbag.
Lionel stood in stunned silence for a moment.
“You… You what?” She nodded in consent. “Oh, no, oh, no no no. You can’t. You absolutely cannot.”
“Well how are you going to eat and escape at once?” She asked.
“Eat! Who is worried about eating at a time like this?!”
“If you must go I insist that you get a meal. If this means I need to drive while you eat, then so be it!”
In the front of the diner Lionel could hear voices, their tone sounded urgent. There was a heated discussion going on, he had to leave now,before it was too late! They were probably already looking for him.
“Fine! Come, but hurry!” He said, twisting the silver knob and flinging the door open. She led the way ahead of him, darting around the corner of the restaurant and into the darkness beyond. Lionel hurried to follow. He could hardly keep pace. In the dark he saw her white apron swishing, and followed it into the yellowy light of the parking lot. “HEY!” He heard someone shout behind him. Without turning to glance he bounded toward the station wagon, which Darcy had already leapt into, without asking if it was his car or not. Four steps, then three, two, and one; he was there. He flung open the car door and threw himself into the seat without a moment’s hesitation. It was muscle memory, like pulling into the diner; like hiding in the back of the dining room; like clinging to people who gave him validation and acceptance. He knew that as Darcy sat in the passenger seat beside him as he threw the car into drive, holding onto a container of warm spaghetti and smiling at him with those bright eyes, which never seemed to stop sparkling. In twenty minutes of aimless driving she didn’t question him about the stench of the car, or the bottles in the back. She no longer asked where he was going or who he was running from. She only hummed along to the radio tapped her shoes on the dank carpet on the floor. Eventually, she asked:
“So how about that spaghetti now?”