The Tactics of a Cryptic Arbitrator

by Haley Newlin

diner pic smallI woke up irritated. The alarm was blaring in my ears, mocking me as I fought to stay hidden under my cheap, Walmart covers.

Get up, I told myself. You have to get up. They’ll fire you if you’re late again. Get up.

For a moment I considered being late. Getting fired meant no longer working that pointless job at Sal’s Diner. It was amazing I still had the job. I was the worst waitress in all of Staten Island. I was continuously late, messed up orders, spilled drinks, most of the customers complained that I was rude, and about anything else that would typically put you right at the front of the line in the unemployment office. Lucky for me, Sal was a pushover.

I used to be a pleasant person, before my writing career went under. I wrote a fantastic murder mystery and after showing my work and being denied by several publishing companies who couldn’t see the true greatness in my writing, I was given a chance by a large publishing company in New York. Things got muddied when they began questioning me about the school I claimed to have attended. See, I never went to college, never had the money to, and just like that, the company dropped me and I sort of gave up.

Now being a cynic, I have a sinister view of the world. To me, we’re all a pathetic, walking joke to someone. We think we have some kind of control, but that’s just part of the joke this vast, bitter world plays on us. You think you have control, then the mat is pulled right from under you and everything that meant anything crashes, leaving every bit of hope, passion, motivation shattered and unfixable.

Ryan, my husband, is the polar opposite of me. He’s always sharing his easygoing personality with anyone within ten feet of him. At first, the bubbliness and constant positivity was refreshing. Now it just irritates me. He’s always smiling for no reason at all. He continuously compliments everyone. Sometimes I see a person and think, okay, this person isn’t attractive, clearly unintelligent, what’s there to compliment? But of course Mr. I’m-always-so-sweet could think of something. He’d compliment what they were wearing or their new haircut. Sure to some people he sounds perfect; to me he couldn’t be more annoying. Ryan is a people person. Our rent payment depends on that one thing about him that annoys me to no end. Ryan’s in sales and his vexatious personality makes him prosper. Jealous of his prosperity in a career he actually enjoys, I sometimes daydream about horrific things happening to Ryan as he goes on and on about his success.

I remember when I was head-over-heels for Ryan. We couldn’t wait to be married. We were young and ready to live our dreams and do it all side by side. This was back before my personality froze solid within me. He was positive that my writing career would take off.  He would say in his salesman tone, “you just have to keep at it and believe”. Instead, I was serving fries and grease-drenched cheeseburgers to truck drivers through the day into early evening. I knew Ryan wasn’t to blame for my failure, but I blamed him anyway and him bringing it up only made me resent him more. Blaming Ryan and the jokester of the world was what I’d been doing. It was easier.

I pushed my thoughts aside and forced myself out of bed, putting one body part outside the covers at a time, stalling the way I usually did. I stumbled toward the bathroom and when I turned the corner, I almost pressed faces with Ryan.

“Anna, are you sure you don’t want breakfast? I can whip up some blueberry pancakes like you used to make.”

I forced a smile and turned away mumbling under my breath, “You couldn’t even toast the bread without sending the whole damn house up in flames. What makes you think I would even let you turn on the stove?”

I hurried back to the bedroom, slipped on my tacky uniform, grabbed my jacket and told Ryan that I was late and would get something at the diner. Ryan looked down at the obnoxious, silver watch he bought, thinking it would impress his customers, and then back at me. “You don’t have to be there for another hour.”

Feeling a little bad, I kissed Ryan’s cheek and was out the door.

I walked to the diner, taking my time. I pushed through the door and the smell of greasy bacon and burnt toast hit me. My stomach followed the smell with a growl. Being forty-five minutes early, I sat down on one of the counter stools and ordered French Toast. With boredom, my eyes roamed the diner until they met the gentlemen next to me, who stared so intensely I started to feel uncomfortable. I turned away from him only for him to move to the stool on the other side of me.

“Is there something I can do for you?”  I snapped.

“Oh sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you there. Well, I suppose I did,” said the strange man eagerly. “It’s Anna, right?”

I turned toward him slightly, raising my eyebrows in question. The man was leaning in and gave me a smile that made me feel naïve. As if he knew something I didn’t.

“You’re my favorite server. I always come in here and ask for Anna. How’s the husband? Still in sales? Still driving you out of your mind?”

I was uncomfortable. Everyone was busy and not at all concerned with me and the bizarre conversation I was trapped in. My heart was beating fast and I was having trouble catching my breath.

“How do you kn-?”

“Like I said, Anna, you’re my favorite server.” His smile widened as he reached for my hand. I stood up. He stood with me and reached out, placing his scar-covered hand on my shoulder.

“I like you, Anna. I can make everything better. I can fix it all. I’m going to fix it all for you.” I looked around the diner and made eye-contact with Sal. I made an expression that showed my extreme discomfort, but the message was not received. Sal continued turning the bacon.

The man whispered, “Tonight Anna. It’ll be tonight.”

I shook his hand off my shoulder and walked away, shooting quick glances back at the strange man. The last time I looked back, he was gone. I went into the break room and called Ryan and told him what he said, leaving out the bit about how much Ryan irritated me. He undermined me by saying it was probably just a joke or a guy with a crush. I pleaded with him, explaining the details the man knew of our lives. Ryan replied with, “You’ve worked at Sal’s for a while. He probably just overheard you talking to the other waitresses. I’ll see you when you get off. I love you.”

Shaking, I stood in the break room with the phone in my hand, listening to the dial tone. What Ryan didn’t understand, is that unlike him, I have no people skills. I don’t talk to other waitresses. Until this morning, I thought the only person that ever noticed me was Ryan.

I spent the rest of the day on edge. Unsweetened teas became sweet, when asked for wheat toast I served white, and I completely disregarded one table altogether. I couldn’t get over the man’s precise details about me and his menacing grin. What did he mean when he said he’ll fix it? What did he mean about tonight?

My day ended at six and I hurried home, still stressing about the encounter with the man at the diner. I kept hearing his words, “Tonight Anna. It’ll be tonight.” I could still feel his hand on my shoulder but with each remembrance of the words, the grip grew tighter.

I rounded the corner to my apartment building. The white building was an array of red and blue lights. I pushed through the neighbors to see a body covered with a sheet. The wind blew the sheet, freeing the person’s hand, revealing a silver, opulent watch. My breakfast was working its way up my throat when I felt someone’s eyes on me. I caught a glimpse of the man sitting in a car across the parking lot. I ran toward the car, but just as I reached it, the man and his Chevy were gone.

A piece of paper with my name scrolled across it was left in the spot where the car had sat only moments before. I picked it up. It had a coppery and earthy smell that made me think of newly turned earth and road kill. I unfolded it. Written in scarlet were the words, “it was all fixed tonight.”


Category: Fiction, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student