The Loneliness of the Late-Night Donut Shop
G. L. Eikenberry
As the Chinese proverb says, be careful about what you wish for -- you may get it.
The solitary drunk tries the phone one more time. His thinning hair is plastered to his scalp in greasy random clumps. His suit looks like it hasn't seen a dry cleaner for the better part of a decade. The smell isn't all that great, either. Even over the incense of freshly-brewed coffee and the sweet fragrance of donuts and muffins, his aura abrades the inside of her nose. Nobody answers his call. Tanya's pretty sure she wouldn't answer either if she knew it was him calling.
She's working the counter alone. She's the only person in the shop other than the drunk and, of course, Ev back in the kitchen frying donuts. They wouldn't ordinarily put someone so young on the late shift alone, but she traded with Beverly so she could get last Saturday off, and then Nicole called in sick. Beverly wouldn't feel vulnerable in a situation like this. She's older and kind of overweight.
But for Tanya the same cute features and trim bounciness that make her popular with the boys and busy, if she wants to be, almost every Saturday night make her feel even more exposed here, now, in the creepy, hollow, formative hours of a Wednesday morning. She wants the drunk to leave. She knows he's harmless enough, but his sloppy attempts at conversation make her very uncomfortable. That's the thing about working in a donut shop -- you can get pretty tired of people. Especially the kind of people that show up in the small, tense hours of the graveyard shift. Sure, Beverly says she likes the graveyard shift, but it's different for her.
He doesn't leave.
No one else comes in.
She doesn't offer to warm up his coffee. She usually feels more lonely when she has to be around people she doesn't know. She scrubs down the back counter one more time. Being really alone -- with absolutely nobody else around -- has never been hard for her.
The jerk just won't leave. Any other time of day, on the street or someplace else, with a shave and a shower, he'd probably be just a regular boring guy in a boring eraser-smudge gray business suit, but she rearranges the cups in the dishwasher one more time so that she doesn't have to turn to face him.
He's getting up. Maybe he'll finally leave.
She watches the drunk's reflection in the window as he tries the phone again. Someone has finally answered. Maybe he'll go home now.
"Yeah? Well -- hey, where's Cheryl? Yeah, with that kind of attitude I can see why. I wouldn't want to live there either. Tell time? Of course I can tell time, you -- yeah, well, whoever the hell put you in charge of etiquette for this planet made a hell of a big mistake -- that's the guy that oughta lose his job. Disappeared, huh? Well I sure as hell didn't do anything with your wife. Yeah, well, she probably walked out on you, you asshole -- who wouldn't? Yeah, well, you're so full of -- " He smashes the receiver down and then darts his eyes over to Tanya. She has her back to him, scraping at a spot on her apron with her lilac fingernail. The polish is chipped already, which is okay since she's decided she doesn't like the color.
"So maybe I got a wrong number. I guess the guy was on drugs or crazy or something. I mean, he could've just said I had the wrong number, right? A real basket case, eh? First he gives me hell for calling so late, then he starts whimpering about how I gotta help him on account of his wife's disappeared or something. Er, hey, listen, sorry about the bad language -- "
"I didn't hear any."
"Huh? What'dya say, there, cutie? What's it say on your badge there? Come on over here so I can read what it says. I like to know a person's name..." He just sort of trails off, looking down at his shoes.
"I said I didn't hear any bad language." She doesn't turn around. She wishes Ev would come out with another tray of donuts.
"Yeah, well, I guess I, uh, better get moving." He actually seems embarrassed. Maybe he really will leave. "You shoulda heard that creep on the phone -- I mean, you talk about your wrong numbers -- I must've got another planet or something."
"It takes all kinds, I guess."
"Huh? Hey, let me give you a little advice from someone who's been -- well, was, anyway -- in the business for a long time. If you're gonna make a career out of dealing with the public, you gotta learn to speak up. Aw hell, never mind. Guess I'd better hit the road before it hits me -- take care, eh?"
She turns away for just long enough to grab the cloth so she can clear the counter where he was sitting.
He's gone. She didn't hear the door -- but then she wasn't particularly listening for it. At least he's gone. She can relax and read her magazine.
"It takes all kinds, eh, Ev?" It takes all kinds -- Beverly says that a lot. No answer from the kitchen. Probably he just didn't hear.
"You want some coffee or something back there, Ev?" Still no answer. She isn't supposed to leave the front empty, but what if something's happened to Ev?
"Hey, Ev, you okay back there? Ev?"
The kitchen is empty. Ev only works for the place, but from the pride he shows, always cleaning and polishing everything, you'd think he owned it. He hardly ever takes a break. Even if he did slip out for cigarettes or something, he'd never leave, even for a couple of minutes, without letting her know.
She checks the back door -- the kitchen gets pretty hot with the fryers and the oven going full tilt. He could have stepped out back for a minute to cool off or have a smoke.
No sign of him. The parking lot is empty. The street is totally deserted.
Somewhere deep inside her something begins to boil over. Her skin goes all clammy. She's beginning to feel bees buzzing around inside her head, the way she did one time when she was little and she got lost, making a wrong turn on the way home from the library. Everything looked kind of familiar, but she didn't know how to get back to where she belonged. Lost. Abandoned.
She looks up and down the street. No one. Nothing. Absolutely nothing moves.
So what's so unusual about the street being empty at three in the morning? She squeezes the anxiety down into a little knot deep in her throat and forces herself to go back into the shop.
The fears, the stories her mother worries her with, always have to do with people -- burglars, perverts, motorcycle gangs. Evil, sleazy, twisted people -- never the lack of people -- never emptiness -- never loneliness. How can nobody hurt you? What can nothing do to you?
She waits. The time is marked by the sound of her breathing. Nothing -- absolutely nothing else. One, two, five, ten minutes. No one comes. She moves to the big plate-glass window to stare out at the empty sidewalk. It might as well be a painting.
Nothing moves. After an eternity a little puff of wind stirs up an eddy of candy wrappers and dust, but after a few quick heartbeats it's gone. It never happened. The silence, the emptiness, seeps into the shop like a syrup. Breathing becomes difficult.
Movement of any sort is now nearly impossible. It's 3:38 -- the bus will be along in another three minutes. It's always on time this hour of the night. The next time through the route at 4:38, the driver will come inside just long enough to get his coffee -- two creams, no sugar.
Or maybe he won't. Maybe she'll lose her job, but she has to do it. She has to do it while she can still move. She struggles against the suffocating entropy to pull on her sweater. She has to leave. It's not really her fault -- she could at least lock up if they'd trust her with a key. She peeks into the back. Still no sign of Ev.
She waits. Three, four, five minutes. Ten. She can see the big clock in the shop even from across the street at the bus stop.
3:52 -- still no bus. Nothing. No one. She could go back inside and call a cab, but it won't do any good. Nobody will answer.
There won't be anyone. No one on the phone. No one on the street. No one to make real her fears of attack along the two interminable blocks from her own bus stop to her house. No one to offer comfort. No one to speak the words that might relieve the pressure building against her chest -- her lungs, her heart.
The world has emptied itself --
-- shaking off the people like so many fleas.
G. L. Eikenberry (email@example.com) is a frequent InterText contributor who works as a freelance information systems and communications consultant in Canada. He's been writing fiction for more than twenty years. His work has been published in a wide (often obscure and mostly Canadian) variety of hard-copy publications as well as in electronic media.
InterText stories written by G. L. Eikenberry: "Eddie's Blues" (v3n5), "Reality Error" (v4n2), "The Loneliness of the Late-Night Donut Shop" (v4n4), "River" (v5n1), "Oak, Ax and Raven" (v6n2), "Schrödinger's Keys" (v7n1).
"The Loneliness of the Late-Night Donut Shop" appeared in the 1994 edition of the Best-Of-Net-Fiction anthology eScene.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 G. L. Eikenberry.