Spring 2021, Volume 30

Fiction by Chris Cleary


A cold gibbous moon lingered in the crisp February air over Bensonville. Invisible weight, the threat of a heavy snow, pressed down upon the vacant main street, but as of 9:30 nobody had felt the slightest flurry. Some folks looked out their windows and scoffed at the forecast. They said the western mountains had blocked the approaching front and the town being leeward would remain safe.

Nevertheless, Madison stepped outside the restaurant every thirty minutes to check. On the sidewalk she scanned the skies over the apartments across the street, then to her left above Dot’s Consignment and right above the post office. The globes of illuminated night about the street lamps continued clear. As the steam of her breath curled above her head, she watched for signs. Her eyes were round with distrust.

She lowered her gaze and noted the outline of her body reflected in the window of a parked car. A nimbus surrounded her, a green aura projected by the large mock traffic light at her back beside the front door of Tooter’s. It was there to signal business hours—green for open, red for closed. She had mentioned to her boss that amber might be used in the last twenty minutes before closing, a hint to patrons to start paying their checks, but he abruptly dismissed her suggestion.

Madison turned and went back inside. The small cowbell above the door rang out. Condensation from the heaters streaked the windowpanes. She rubbed the chill out of her arms and checked what few tables she had. The restaurant was not very crowded. It was that time of night when Bensonville teenagers had nothing to do without driving all the way into Lewiston, and even though they had their Twitter, a few still craved personal contact. It was that time of night when a few late-shift workers clocked out and stopped for a hamburger and a beer before heading home. By now she knew most of them by name. However, none of them needed her. She returned to her stool at the counter and resumed work in her book of crosswords.

She was twenty-two and slight, her lusterless brown hair in bangs. She wore large, round glasses that swallowed her face and hid the dark circles beneath her eyes. Her eyes were also lusterless and brown, dormant like those of a taxidermied deer. Her sallow cheeks rarely betrayed a curious blush. She was not prone to smiling. She moved with the quiet determination of a thief.

A dish of meatloaf, green beans, and macaroni appeared in the window to the kitchen.

“Order up.”

She checked the ticket and grabbed the plate.

“No snow yet,” she called through the window.

A disembodied voice answered, “Oh yeah?”

That was the sum of most interactions with the cook. They had nothing in common. Troy was an older man, limited in his expression, his forearms full of disturbing tattoos. She spoke to him only when a customer had ordered something special. “Make the burger for table fourteen well done.” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah.”

She delivered the meatloaf and refilled the man’s ginger ale. She was jarred by a burst of raucous laughter from a booth across the floor. She recognized it as having come from a young man nicknamed Lurch. He had been two years behind her at the high school in Stopes. He was over six feet tall, with a lantern jaw and a conspicuous gap between his front teeth. Across from him in the booth was a paunchy man with long sideburns and a MAGA hat, who kept lighting matches and letting them burn down to his fingertips. The third man, bewildered and mopey, she knew to be her distant cousin. Her family called him Stringsucker for his habit of nibbling the drawstrings of his hooded sweatshirts like pacifiers.

The group was on their second pitcher of beer. Lurch was not terribly intoxicated, only obnoxious. He was one of those people who seek attention in disruption, and Stringsucker was an eager member of the audience. At the top of his voice, Lurch ran through all the teachers he had endured before he graduated, sharing his scurrilous remarks with anyone in the restaurant willing to challenge him. The older patrons looked askance, and the teenagers ignored him.

Madison reached behind the counter for the remote and turned up the volume to the television set mounted on the wall. The commentator was describing the highlights of a soccer match half a world away. She made her rounds, refilling cups of soda and coffee, and then settled down again with her book of crosswords. She bought the large books of puzzles that had appeared in the New York Times. Only challenges such as these could force her to concentrate and block out annoyances. There the words existed in and of themselves, signifying nothing beyond. They had shapes and colors and textures. They had a cadence all their own. They were notes on a musical scale. Cataclysm was a beautiful word, and so were flagellation and holocaust, eczema and exsanguination. As she solved, mathematical possibilities became mathematical certainties. What was an eight-letter word for inclination? She did not know offhand, but she could work around it. The dictionary was a room inside her.

She sensed the proximity of a body to hers. She had been oblivious to the bell above the door.

“Excuse me. I’m here to pick up a call-in order.”

Across the floor, Lurch shouted, “Hey! Lee Scarlet!” And pretending to be McConaughey, he waved his fist with thumb and pinky extended, and added, “All right, all right, all right!”

Lee Scarlet ignored him.

“Hamburgers and fries,” he said to her. “Guess you know my name now.”

She already had known his name. She felt her cheeks flush and retreated to the kitchen window to ask for his food. She had caught only a glimpse of the tall redhead clutching his arm.

As she rang up his order at the register, he asked, “You’re Maddie Jump, aren’t you? You were a year or two after me in school, right?”


“How you been?”


He gave her a newly minted fifty. Her arm shook as she clumsily counted his change, and her fingers touched his palm as she placed the bills into his outstretched hand. He smiled. A strand of black hair had strayed across his eyes.

The girl on his arm kissed his cheek and whispered not unpleasantly, “Let’s go, Lee.”

“You take care,” he said to Madison.

“Yeah. You too.”

She closed the till absentmindedly and returned to her stool. The ESPN commentator was now discussing baseball. Patrons chewed deliberately and digested in quiet. Behind her in the booth, the guttural barks of Lurch continued to resonate. She tried to work her crossword, but the lead in her mechanical pencil kept snapping. Every time she clicked it for more lead, she held the pencil up like a knife, stabbing the air. She glanced through the beads of condensation on the windows, waiting for the snow to fall.

She was busing table four when she saw through the front window her younger brother Brandon park the family car across the street outside the apartments. He was small and wiry like her. The day before he had been suspended for stuffing a roll of toilet paper into one of the school toilets and flooding the boys’ room. He had just gotten his driver’s license and now strutted around like a big shot. He took to wearing mirrored sunglasses. She could not look him in the face because she saw only herself. He wore them even now, after 10:00 at night. She prayed he was not going to walk through Tooter’s front door.

It was then she saw her Uncle Ray stepping from the passenger side of the car. Her Uncle Ray was so unlike the rest of her family, unpredictable and beefy, with paws like a bear. Nobody living under her father’s roof could tell him no. Years ago she had tried to do just that as she squeezed herself into the corner of the garage after the rest of them had gone to Lewiston for the day and Uncle Ray had dropped in unexpectedly. Cans of wasp killer and WD40 had fallen from the plywood shelf behind her head and rolled about the cement floor with a metallic rattle.

That was when words stopped working as they should. She told no one why she was so adamant about enrolling in 10th-grade Latin the next year. She worked ahead of the rest of the class and translated the entire book of Fabulae Faciles before starting on Cicero’s Orations. “What in the world you going to do with that?” her father asked. “What about your future?” The only thing she knew about the future was that it was sure to seize her rudely by the wrist. Brandon and Uncle Ray disappeared through the front door of the apartments, and she suddenly realized how heavy the dirty plate she was holding had become.

She hauled the bus pan into the kitchen, placed the dirty dishes into the gray, plastic rack, and pushed the lot into the automatic dishwasher. She punched the red button to start the machine and have the soapy water scald them clean. Then she walked through the steam to the end of the line of racks on the rollers. She unloaded the clean and dry dishes, methodically setting them onto their proper stacks beneath the steel table where Troy could easily reach them. Troy was out back, smoking. When he would come back inside, he would throw his coat onto the rack and thrust his chilled, smoky hands under the food lamps to warm them. She would ask him if it had begun to snow, and he would answer, “Nope.”

She returned to the floor to cash out the customers who were ready to leave. She wiped off the counter and cleaned the condiments on the tabletops. Just a few patrons remained. She went from table to table until she found herself at the booth next to Lurch.

“Hey, over here, darling. We’re going to get one more round before we go.” He pointed at the fat man across from him. “He just come back from the bathroom and needs to fill ‘er up again.”

Stringsucker muttered, “Fill ‘er up real good. That’s one big beer belly.”

“It sure is,” said Lurch. “Hell, maybe you don’t need no more tonight.”

“Screw you,” said the fat man. “I ain’t drunk. You had twice as much as me. I been drinking water mostly.”

Before she could stop herself, Madison blurted out, “I doubt that.”

Lurch guffawed, and Stringsucker glanced over to make sure it was okay to join in the laughter. The fat man flushed, reached across the table, and jabbed Lurch in the chest. Then he turned to Madison and squinted his eyes.

“Don’t you sass me, girl. I tell you I haven’t had that much. There’s a tap underneath. Why don’t you taste it yourself?”

The phlegm in Lurch’s chuckle rattled over the voice of the ESPN announcer. The fat man had not released her from his squint. Words failed her. She looked at her feet and slowly backed away from the booth. She nodded tentatively and retreated to the counter to bring out three new mugs from among the glassware.

She was filling the third mug when she looked up to find a young man standing at the booth. The television set blaring just behind her, she could not hear his words, but he towered over the three of them like a linebacker. His hands were fisted on his hips and occasionally flew savagely into their midst, slapping the air or pointing to the fat man between his eyes. She could not tell how long his harangue lasted, but the affair ended with the three of them rising from the booth. They shuffled to her at the cash register. She was not able to figure out their tab before Lurch threw down a handful of crumpled bills onto the counter and walked away. The bell above the door tinkled as the three of them left. She flattened out the creased bills and began to put them into the till.

“That wasn’t right what he said to you. But his daddy got life in prison when he was just a kid, and he weren’t taught how to treat a lady.”

The young man smiled. He seemed terribly pleased with his gallantry.

“Thank you for getting rid of them,” she whispered.

“I suspect you get that kind of trash in here some nights.”

She nodded.

“My girlfriend and me been in here before, but we ain’t heard nobody say anything that low down.”

“Well, I sure appreciate it.”

He glanced back to the two people sitting at his table and softly laughed. His laughter oozed confidence.

“I guess you’ll be closing up soon.”

She glanced at the clock on the wall.

“Less than thirty minutes.”

“You probably need to unwind. My name’s Eddie. I’m here with my girlfriend and a guy from work, and after this we’re going into Lewiston to a place that stays open a little later. Augusta Ale. You heard of it?”

She nodded.

“My friend, he’s from Russia and don’t know too many people here, but he’s real nice. Between you and me, he’s feeling like what you call a third wheel. You want to meet us there?”

She did not reply.

“Well, you think about it.”

She cashed out the remaining patrons. When the owner arrived to pick up the receipts for the night, the Russian lumbered over to pay. He struggled to put his down jacket on over his red and white track suit. He was young, about her age, an awkward fellow with heavy eyebrows, a button nose, and a modest smile. She thought him handsome in a blundering kind of way.

“Hello. I’m here to pay,” he said as he pulled out his wallet. His accent made his voice as soft as honey. “My friend Eddie is…what is the word?…pryamoy…direct.”

“Is he?”

“He told me to introduce myself. I am Gatch.”


“That is what they call me. My real name is too hard for them to pronounce.”

He spoke his surname. The syllables, run together quickly, were so clouded she could not see his name distinctly.

“So.” He nodded, hesitated, and then finally asked, “Do you want to meet us later?”


Her response was spontaneous. It came from deep within.

“Oh, very good! We will have fun.”

He paused again and, at a loss for words, decided to conclude with an awkward handshake. She reached forward and lost her hand in the immensity of his paw.

She took the Bensonville Avenue out of town. The car’s heater droned in the darkness. She leaned forward toward the windshield and looked up into the sky. She held her breath and dared the snow to begin to fall, but the forecast was still inconclusive. On the outskirts of Lewiston, she stopped for a traffic light. While she waited, her mind suddenly flashed back upon the boxes of her crossword. She realized the eight-letter word she had been looking for was velleity. Half of her brain must have been working on it all this time. She gripped the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles began to hurt.

She slowly became aware that the traffic light had been glowing green upon her, but her foot remained frozen on the brake pedal. Then she turned her car around and headed back into Bensonville.




BIO: Chris Cleary is the author of four novels: The Vagaries of Butterflies, The Ring of Middletown, At the Brown Brink Eastward, and The Vitality of Illusion. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Broadkill Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Oddville Press, Evening Street Review, Belle Ombre, North West Words, and other publications. His short fiction has been anthologized in the award-winning Everywhere Stories.