The Shine Journal

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The Distance from A to Z

 

by

 

Danette Brogno

 

 

Finding a woman is difficult, but Neal remembers to appear casual, relaxed. He's heard women like confidence. There is a hulking, two-ton weight on the back of his skull, but he can master the difficult, the extreme. Put him in a tank of sharks and he can make snappers of them all. It's the mundane that gives him nightmares and sucks all the confidence out of him. Now he waits  in a compact, knotted-pine restaurant at work on his second beer. Tables surround him, and they are full. All plus one. Single in the many. He likes words, but they don’t keep him cozy at night.

   

Neal is not disposed to nostalgia. Nevertheless, he observes the eatery through the forced memories of home and the pub his parents ran: a dark, cave-like place filled with smutty smoke and the stale smell of fried meat. Hidden in a corner booth, he would study there after school and watch the patrons. One in the many, alone.

 

The familiar familial ghosts haunt him: “Hello Mum! Hello Dad!” They work the bar; they serve the customers. A lifetime away, they still hover on the outskirts of his life with their demands, as if he had all the time in the world. “Take that ale over to Ted, dear. Wipe off the counter, there’s a good boy.”

   

What to say about Ted? “Uncle” Ted, his dad’s mate, a perennial bachelor, was a pariah at family gatherings with his cheap sweaters and gold chains, a legend in his own mind. Ted was an altogether different kind of ghost, possessed by a cache of “men’s magazines” (as he called them) and whiskey bottles.  Neal hated him. It took a superhuman effort now on his part to obliterate the image of the man from his mind so that only he, Neal, remained. The exertion of this memory leaves him shaken, even now an invalid newly recovered from a wound. 

   

A gasp of cold air from the entrance sets Neal's heart aflutter. His breath quickens and the panic rises in his throat. Oh, why did he pick this restaurant?  Yes, yes, he read that it was “edgy” and somewhere to be seen. But is he up to it? His headache worsens; he skipped lunch. He pops an aspirin. 

 

Her scent, woods after rain, infuses the air and floats his boat. The click of her maiden sandals on the hardwood floor grows louder; she enters his space. He’s alight with anticipation. His hearing is better. He’s better. Collected. Calm, now. He stands. He greets her. She sits. He dares to hope. 

   

Joyce smiles to herself, studies the menu, the room and, finally, him. “This is a surprising choice,” she says.

   

“Is it? I understand it’s very popular.”

   

“Do you believe everything you read?” She smiles in a warm way. “And, then there’s, well, the hunt theme, the bugles, the guns, the decor, the ambiance. The vibe.” She said this last word with emphasis.

   

Neal ponders her statement and is filled with electricity at the mere sound of her voice.  He is not paying attention to the words. She is beautiful. His expression has altered, he is sure of it for her eyes widen and the first chink of uncertainty appears in them. 

 

“Everything all right? Don’t get offended. I didn’t mean anything. I meant .... I don’t know what I meant. Just trying to be clever, I suppose, without being obvious.” She hides behind her menu for a time. And, when she’s ready, she peers out over its top. “I just thought it funny we’d end up in such a meat market since you’re a vegetarian.”

 

Neal is astonished she remembered he doesn’t eat meat. At this moment, the salt shaker has significance. Should he hand it to her in a ritual of sacrifice? Would she take it as proof he is untouched, cleansed of ulterior motive? Oh, she is a goddess!

   

“I’m staggered you remembered my profile,” he manages.

   

“You must have liked mine and be OK with my eating habits.” Joyce relaxes, a bit. “You must be open-minded.” She studies the menu again. The waiter arrives, and she announces, “I’ll have a steak.”

 

What is it in her voice? Neal wonders. It sings! He’s out of body, out of mind with desire, not sure how to proceed. She, meanwhile, devours a breadstick.

   

The evening rolls on. She giggles and digs in like a miner when her dinner is served. He has another drink, an aborted one she’s abandoned.  He watches the stain of blood at the corner of her mouth, the shredded flesh, the errant tongue. He falters. 

   

“Coffee?” he asks, suddenly hoping she’ll say no. Alas, she wants dessert. The evening is at a checkpoint.

   

Joyce touches his hand and kisses it. “Hmm, salty. I feel really lucky tonight.” She thinks her Uncle Ted would be proud of her.

   

Neal wonders if she’s ever truly been hungry.

 


 

Bio: I am a writer living in New York, where the inspiration for fiction is rich.
Motivation: The understanding of others and self is at the bottom of everything, isn't it?

 

Image by:Mateusz Stachowski

 

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Jennifer StakesJames Eric Watkins 

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