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Just Passing Through

Just Passing Through ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Published in Dark and Dreary Magazine.)

The man wearing a bolo tie and cowboy boots got off the bus and went into the small café across the street from the courthouse. He sat at a small square table for two near the front so he could see out the window while he ate. He picked up the menu that was propped between the napkin dispenser and the ketchup bottle and in a little while a waitress came out to take his order.

He told the girl what he wanted and she wrote it down. As she walked away to place his order with the cook, he watched her with an unwarranted interest. She was wearing a dull-looking yellow uniform that was too big for her in the shoulders and hips. She had a long neck and a pointed nose and dark circles around her eyes. Her hair was dyed an unnatural color and looked like a thing that had died.

When she came and put down a paper napkin at his elbow and laid the silverware neatly on the napkin, he smiled at her.

“Is your name really Augustine?” he asked, reading the name off her nametag.

“If I was going to make up a name, I’d make up a better one than that,” she said.

“People call you Gus?”

“Nobody ever has.”

“You live here?”

“No, I live in the south of France.”

“No, I mean do you live in this town?”

“Everybody who’s here lives here. Nobody would be here if they didn’t have to be.”

“I’m here and I don’t live here.”

“If you have any sense, you’ll be on the next bus.”

“You sound disillusioned.”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

“Not very busy for lunchtime.” He gestured at all the empty tables.

“I guess one too many has died from the lousy food.”

“Do you like being a waitress in this burg?”

“No, but I’m forced to stay here until daddy dies and leaves me his millions.”

“Have you got a husband?”

She looked at him with distaste. “Look, mister,” she said, “I serve the food and that’s all. I don’t provide entertainment for the customers.”

“It’s not what you think.”

“How would you know what I think?”

She started to walk away.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “I’m looking for people to appear in a film.”

“A film? You mean like a Hollywood movie?”

“It’s whatever you want it to be.”

“Oh, I get it.”

“Maybe you do and maybe you don’t.”

“I can’t be in any film.”

“How do you know? It might be your chance for a better life.”

“I’ll just bet.”

“I want you to think about it and call me if you change your mind. I’m staying at the Imperial Hotel, tonight only. I leave in the morning. Ask for Mr. Hawkins, room 210.”

“I don’t think so,” she said.

He finished his lunch and left without saying anything else, leaving a large tip. As she went through the dull grind of the afternoon, she was not able to put out of her mind what he had said to her. It was, she had to admit, the most interesting thing anybody had said to her in a long time. Maybe she had been foolish to turn him down without even finding out more about what he was offering.

When she went home at the end of the day, she was more aware than usual of how terrible her day had been. Most of the time she didn’t allow herself to think much, to look past the next small block of time, but something about what the man had said to her made her look closer at the kind of life she was living. She had no prospects, no friends, no family to speak of; she had little education; she worked at a monotonous job that she hated. Her one chance for marriage had come and gone. She had lived in the same miserable town her entire life and didn’t seem to be able to get away from it, no matter how much she tried. She easily saw herself living the same kind of life in thirty years that she was living now.

All evening long she went from one pursuit to another and didn’t seem to be able focus on any one thing for long. She tried reading, vacuuming the floors, washing the curtains, cleaning out the refrigerator, but anything she started she wasn’t able to finish. Finally, at about nine o’clock, she went to the phone and called the Imperial Hotel.

No one answered the phone in room 210. She let it ring thirty or forty times, hung up and called again. Mr. Hawkins must be out, she reasoned. She rang the night clerk and asked if she could leave a message for Mr. Hawkins in room 210. The clerk told her that room 210 was vacant; there was no Mr. Hawkins staying in that room or registered at the hotel. She thanked him and hung up the phone.

The next day at exactly the same time, the man in the bolo tie and cowboy boots got off the bus in front of the courthouse and crossed the street and entered the little café. He sat at the same small square table for two where he had sat the day before. He picked up the menu that was propped between the napkin dispenser and the ketchup bottle and looked it over while he waited for the waitress to come and take his order. When she came and put down a paper napkin at his elbow and laid the silverware neatly on the napkin, he smiled at her. She looked back at him but didn’t return his smile; she thought it best to pretend she had never seen him before.

“Is your name really Augustine?” he asked.

“If I was going to make up a name, I’d make up a better one than that.”

“People call you Gus?”

“Nobody ever has.”

“You live here?”

“No, I live in the south of France.”

“No, I mean do you live in this town?”

“Everybody who’s here lives here. Nobody would be here if they didn’t have to be.”

“I’m here and I don’t live here.”

“If you have any sense, you’ll be on the next bus.”

“You sound disillusioned.”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

“Not very busy for lunchtime.” He gestured at all the empty tables.

“I guess one too many has died from the lousy food.”

“Do you like being a waitress in this burg?”

“No, but I’m forced to stay here until daddy dies…”

Every day the same scene occurred in exactly the same way. The man wearing the bolo tie and the cowboy boots got off the bus over by the courthouse and came into the café and sat at the same table and ordered the same food. She went to take his order and he said the same words to her, the same words every day as though following a script, just as she said the same words back to him.

Every evening at nine o’clock she called the Imperial Hotel to speak to Mr. Hawkins in room 210. Every evening when Mr. Hawkins didn’t answer she called the night clerk and asked to leave a message. Every evening the night clerk told her there was no Mr. Hawkins registered at the hotel and, after the first few times, he began to recognize her voice and hung up on her.

With a faraway look in her eye and a wistful smile, she began telling everybody she knew that she had met a man who was going to put her in the movies and, please, not to bother with giving her a going-away party. It didn’t matter that nobody believed her, because the truth, as only she knew it, was irrefutable, hidden somewhere beneath the layers of disillusion that she had been accumulating all her life.

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp

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