The exterior of House of Cluck gave no hint to its dire interior. The smell of dank mop water assaulted the couple on entering, and the curtains were so thick with dust that little sunlight penetrated them. Aloysius’ disappointment was immediate, but Emma, not to be dimmed so easily, brightly ordered the pancake breakfast; her companion rallied with an order of bacon and eggs.
A display of neglected postcards sat on the counter next to the register; its striped, sun-faded cards lined up perfectly with slats in a window blind. A newspaper dispenser stood alongside the relic; Aloysius scrutinized a week-old headline: FORGOTTEN TIME CAPSULE DISCOVERED AT BUILDING SITE. MAYOR PLANS OPENING.
The pair was served their food on trays, cafeteria style, and set off in search of a clean table. Settling at last, Emma (now in full muse mode) took on calculating charm while struggling to free syrup from a plastic pull-tab container. “You know, Aloysius,” she teased, “you’re more adventurous than you think in bringing me here.”
Aloysius held up his pathetically bent fork. “There’s more to college towns than ergonomically designed silverware, Miss Breton. Eating with me is like roughing it.” The ailing utensil was thrust in his hot coffee and swished.
This merited a glare.
He justified his action. “Part of roughing it is sterilizing your eating implements.”
Emma snickered, dropping a glob of syrup on her dress. She dabbed her napkin in ice water to wipe it away. “Better it goes on my dress than my hips,” was her brittle observation.
The friend looked severely at her. “Why do you say things like that?”
She smirked. “Because it’s the only way to wrangle a compliment out of you.”
Aloysius, blushing, glanced around at their unfortunate surroundings.
Halloween festoons of orange and black construction paper hung from the ceiling, yet these did little to lighten the pallor of the place. A jukebox was spotted in a corner, and desiring a different mood, the suitor fumbled for a few coins. He hastily inserted them before getting the lay of the machine; nothing happened. Following another failed attempt with more coins, the troubadour returned to the table dismissively, wishing only to spare his chinked masculinity. “It didn’t have any Brahms or Schubert, anyway,” he reported.
Emma leapt up and skipped to the jukebox without a syllable. She all but pirouetted before smashing a button; How High the Moon by Les Paul and Mary Ford started up. She twinkled back to the table where her companion was obliged to complain. “I’m no good with electrical devices.”
The photographer wielded her knife, affectedly. “Are you one of those people whose VCR clock flashes twelve because you don’t know how to program it?”
“That more accurately describes my bedroom clock since it fell in the floor.”
“Why don’t you buy a new one?”
He shrugged. “I don’t have patience with programming things.The answering machine part of my phone hasn’t been operational for years, but I can’t see replacing it with some contraption with too many buttons.”
“You need a working phone.”
“The rest of my phone works fine.”
“When was the last time it rang?”
“In Chicago. A month ago.”
“You’ve had no calls since?”
He thought on it. “I think maybe I turned off the ringer so I could sleep.”
“Are you so cut off from the world?”
It was sobering to hear it come from another mouth. He answered truthfully, “I never intended to be.”
Emma smiled at the simple confession. “Meeting me is your first step to rejoining the human race.”
Aloysius, pleased by her assurance, let his unguarded gaze meander over the tabletop, up to where her slender finger grazed his knuckle.
“I have an extra cell phone,” she announced demurely, before withdrawing her hand.
She toyed with a cryptic smile and pat of butter on her plate, although her veering into silence was like sound dropping out of a film in a crucial scene. It was comparable to instances in foreign films where subtitles, provided in white text, inconveniently overlay white tablecloths in romantic cafe settings.
Whether Emma intended to finish her thought was supposition, for just then, an ancient looking, darkly attired man staggered through the front door; the couple did double takes.
The fellow wore a sea captain’s hat and coat. Both bore garlands of seaweed. His boney hands were stained purplish-black, either from dye or blood pooling under his skin; and his dingy white shirt, with fungus and other stains around the collar and cuffs, suggested a series of Rorschach tests. What was most curious—even spooky—was the word BLIND written boldly over his forehead. The letters were drawn in felt-tip marker and blurred from moisture.
The decrepit seafarer ordered a cup of coffee and came to sit near the spectators. Not one to disappoint, he consumed his drink in a manner consistent with his unusual appearance. First he raised the cup to his mouth six times without swallowing, turning to face the gawking pair with an automaton’s blank stare each time. On the seventh pass, he slurped the beverage loudly, whereupon the routine repeated. This pantomime went on for twenty minutes and never varied, and when at last the man rose to leave, he smiled again at his captive audience. It was more like looking past them, and further still past the drawn curtains.
Once he was off the premises, an unhinged Emma pushed away her meal. “That was him,” she announced. “The straggler on the road.”
The two rose to leave minutes later, and on walking by the performer’s table, Aloysius spied a jumble of numbers (likely primes) jotted on a napkin: Near misses: .142857, .285714, .428571, .571428, .714285, .857142. On the Seventh Day: .999999
Outside, the day-trippers found a strong wind had blown up in their absence. It racked a few cirrus clouds high in the blustery blue sky.
Chivalrous Aloysius circled to unlock the passenger car door and spotted the mechanical sea captain standing next to the highway. He was planted like a weathervane, yet turned in reaction to the couple’s departure from the lot. The motorist glanced in his rearview mirror to see the fellow’s ear-to-ear grin. To even disinterested onlookers, he might have resembled a corpse. Emma picked up on her companion’s repulsion and dared a look—she quickly regretted it. Grabbing at the dashboard, she yelped, “Drive faster!”
Aloysius was more intrigued than frightened. “I doubt he intends to chase us. The caffeine didn’t limbered him up that much.”
Emma insisted. “It must be a Halloween prank. Don’t you think?”
Aloysius nodded in agreement, though wondered if his nightmares were braving daylight to pursue him.
Chapter Sixteen/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.