Mind Under Matter

Official website of John Amaruso
Writer, Author and Actor

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"Dead Men"
is the debut feature short film written by John Amaruso and directed by R​ob Martin.

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is the debut book published through Amazon by John Amaruso.

A cocktail recipe book infused with short stories is a must add to your collection for the at home or professional bartender. 100% original, these cocktails were crafted with over 1,000 miles worth of bartending experience behind them.

You can purchase the book here on Amazon
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Featured Short Story


When you think of Industry Park, you think of Pudgie's Roadhouse. A few miles down the road from my house off the interstate, between Willderman's Bakery and the new Dunkin Donuts, it was a local icon and staple, the must visit for any out of towner. I remember as a kid Pudgie's Roadhouse was my mom's bargaining chip for my younger brother and I. If we were good - brushed our teeth, cleaned our rooms, did our homework - she'd lug the minivan and down to Pudgie's famous Sunday Brunch. We'd scarf down unlimited pancakes topped with choice of melty maple, strawberry or blueberry syrup, bottomless crisp hash browns and bubbly mimosas. It made any Sunday the best day.

And while most of the tourists partook in the Sunday Brunch day festivities, it wouldn't happen for me until years later, during my first day under the tin red and white roof as a then employee of Pudgie's Roadhouse.

“Don't let Peter see that.” Steve said as he slipped the drink on the service bar.
“Are you sure it's okay?”
“Your first day?”

I looked around for someone to stop me.


“Pudgie's tradition kid. Nobody leaves their first shift without a buzz.” Steve walked the length of the bar. He said over his shoulder.
“Bring it in the back and throw it in a mug.”

At the time Steve was Pudgie's longest serving bartender. Behind the marble counter top, he knew the ins and outs, which regulars came in and why, and most importantly, which managers would let what slide
Avoiding anyone in a position of authority, I kept my head down as I broke through the barn doors of the back of house. I'll never forget the clink and clatter of silverware and dishes banged and tossed on the sleek metal wash station. It reminded me of last summer. The smell of fried fish and skinned potatoes. Stains of cranberry and ketchup blotted aprons. The lukewarm soapy water sopping my hairless forearms in a lather. On autopilot, a whole shift as a dishwasher at Bluewater Yacht Club could go by and I'd all but forget I was at work.

Mindlessness is a privilege. Others would argue being the face of a restaurant or business is more so. While an argument can made to affirm both, my step up in the restaurant world left me feeling empty. I couldn't help but pine for the good old days. The nostalgia deepened, roasting like a plate of burnt toast I served my first table. Peering into the grinning face of my little league baseball coach Coach Tim and his wife Miriam over slopped plates of mashed potatoes and gumbo, it seemed more of a sentence to suffer everybody's face but your own.

But really, like most people who worked here, this was just a side gig. All of us just waiting until something better came along. While I was still probing my coworkers for their motives, I was in hot anticipation of buying my own car. I had my eye on a Jeep, one of the old school ones with the detachable roof. While I didn't know much about cars, I knew girls liked guys with jeeps, and at eighteen years old, that seemed like a legitimate reason to want one. This job would be my ticket. But first, I had to get through my first day, and as Pudgie's tradition prescribed, I'd do it with a buzz.

As I took the sip of the dark brown in my mug, I choked on the burn of rye in my throat. Whiskey. I hate whiskey. It reminded me of New Years Eve tenth grade when I, so bold and muscled by beer, boasted I could finish thirteen shots of Jack Daniels – the number suggesting the age I lost my virginity to alcoholism – before the clock struck midnight. I'd do this all the while sitting down, just to make sure the drunk would hit me all at once like a champ. A champ I was. I finished all thirteen shots. I stood up. I high fived the football team. Two minutes into my victory lap, I stumbled, knocked over an expensive DVD collection (yes, DVD's were once expensive), and smashed head first into the pool table. Onto the floor, I was fifteen and I had a hard head.

I finished wiping Coach Tim and wife Miriam's table when the glass door slid past the black felt mat and struck the bells and chimes hanging over the front doorway. An older gentleman shuffled one dress shoe after the other. A newspaper rolled tight between the cusp of his arm and his cow leather coat, his eyes darted between the chairs and the booths lining the aisle. He careened past me and plopped down in booth eight. It was the furthest in the corner. It had the best view of the passing interstate. The rolling asphalt tundra, lined with zipping cars twisting and turning on and off ramps, all unaware of his gaze.

He didn't make much of an impression on anyone in the restaurant either. His glasses were thick, his lenses layered in what looked like a slather of Vaseline. I tried to discern whether he was looking for his server, or checking out the couple at table three next to him.
“That's you.” said Jennifer as she glided by me with a bus bin of dishes. Figuring it was high time I be brought back to my humid domain of washing dishes beneath the silver plated hose, I jumped to follow.

“Booth Eight.” she pointed with her neck. “He takes diet.”

Jennifer disappeared beyond the barn doors of a place I'd rather be. Changing course I slumped my shoulders, grabbed my checkbook and did my damnedest to smile.

“Hey there, my name's Tim,” I said. “I'll be here to take care of you today.” nobody had taught me how to introduce myself. My training was a crash course. In fact, there was no training. My first day was my training.
“Did you get a chance to check out our specials?” I didn't know the specials. Who was I?
“Um, yes, no – could you, give me one moment?” he said. “I'm waiting on someone.”
“Oh sure, of course.” the diner was deserted except for the man at booth eight and the couple who were taking their breakfast to go. It was eleven A.M. on a bright Tuesday morning and Pudgie's Roadhouse and from what I was told it was usually bumping around this time. But for whatever reason, maybe the sunny weather but Pudgie's was looking to be a slow grind lunch.

“What's up with him?” I said. Steve nodded his head over a glass he was rubbing down with a sky blue microfiber rag.
“Said he was waiting on someone?”
“Yeah. How did you know?” Steve, his expression unchanged said

“Guy's out of his mind.” Steve placed the polished glass on the rack above his head. “That's Joe. He comes every week. Always orders a diet, asks for two menus.” Steve's expression lightened, as though delighted in the inside joke was to share with me, a young know nothing eighteen year old ready to be enlightened by the wisdom of the sagest bartender.

“Why does he ask for two menus?” Steve chuckled.

“He told you. Waiting on someone.” Steve nodded at Jennifer who emerged from the kitchen, her bus bin of dishes replaced by a bus bin of roll-ups.

“Waddup Jen.”
“Hey Steve.”

The chimes over the front door rang a few dozen times and with that an hour passed since the man at booth eight sat and ordered his diet coke. Pudgie's was beginning to pop off and I had been triple sat on my first day of work and I was beginning to feel overwhelmed. I had forgotten to set up table four with roll-ups and place mats, and completely missed putting in an order for Southern Fried Chicken for the father of a family at booth two, and the couple at table nine were feeling forgotten. I was scurrying back and forth, figuring my way around a foreign land when Jennifer gave me a heads up.

“Don't sweat it kid. Everybody's gotta start somewhere.” Jennifer handed me a refill of diet coke.
“Joe's looking thirsty over there. Did you take his food order yet?”

“No, not yet, I've got that family up my ass right now.” I said, fluttering my fingers over the micro POS system. I scoured the system. The Southern Fried Chicken button had to be somewhere...

“Do you need any help? I can take Joe if you want.”

“No, no, I got it.” too proud to admit for help, I fumbled over to booth two with my most sincere expression of remorse, trying to shift the blame from me on the forgetful when it's convenient kitchen staff.

“The ticket must have slipped by them. They're throwing the chicken on as we speak.” the rest of the family had already finished their plates and been bussed. The father perked his chin, disappointed.

“I'll take it to go.”
“Surely, I'll be right over with the check.”

Over at POS station three, I caught out of the corner of my eye Joe. He was staring off into the distance, people driving in boxes of metal and tires over an empty glass of diet coke. The cubes had melted and the brown syrup of carbonated soda looked more like the whiskey I had imbibed by noon.

His gaze entrapped me. Even through the thick lenses of his glasses, you could see a set of heavy blue eyes, peering into something further than the interstate. I stopped what I was doing and asked Joe if I could help him.

“Yeah, I'm going to get the Honey Mustard Chicken Wrap.” he said darting between the menu and my waiter's apron.
“And what kinda side?”

He hadn't thought that far ahead.

“I mean, um, sweet potato fries. You have those right?”
“Of course.”

“And she's gonna' get the Steak Tidbits. Side salad, balsamic dressing.” He nodded at the empty seat across from him.
“She's on her way. Late from the school board meeting.” Joe smiled at me. I smiled back.
“No problem. I'll put that in right away for you.”

Joe jumped forward in his seat.

“Oh, and she likes A1.”
“Of course.”
“Can you bring some A1?”

I turned to the POS system when I turned and saw booth two getting up and grabbing their coats. Their bill was already on the table, paid in cash. It slipped my mind.

“Shit Jennifer, I'm sorry!”
“Don't be sorry, be quicker!” she said.
“Thank you!”
“Really, no sweat.”

I rung my hands over my face. The glare of the POS system. Right. Honey Mustard Chicken Wrap. Sweet Potato Fries. Steak Tidbits, side salad, balsamic dressing. On it.

“What'd he get today?” Jennifer said.
“Honey Mustard Chicken Wrap, side of sweet fries.”
“That's it?”
“He ordered for his wife, Steak Tidbits with a salad.”
“Oh jeez.” she said. “Joe's wife.”
“What about her?”
“What about her...”

Jumping on the bus home, I was upset the buzz died out by dinner time.


By mid-to-late evening you would need a light sweater if you were to prolong any outdoor activity. The sun tilted its afternoon dip, darkening the alley where Pudgie's kept their industrial sized dumpsters for the first time I could recall.

And as the summer cooled down, my work was heating up. It was three months since I started at Pudgie's and while the money was good, I was waiting for the busy fall season. In the meantime I looked forward to starting at IPCC, Industry Park's leading Community College as a major in Liberal Arts. I always had an interest in psychology but I figured I'd take a stab at the whole being a college student thing before I made any firm decisions.

And while I was waiting for things to start picking up, an opportunity dropped itself in my lap. A promotion as a senior server (which offered no real perks aside from being top in the pecking order for pickings on the shift schedule and rotation), coupled with three servers leaving for college, drained me of the little free time I had. Could have been worse. I needed to save up. Somebody had a used Wrangler for sale on Craigslist, a few thousand bucks. I was short another busy set of shifts worth of pay, so the overtime was helping shorten the wait.

As my quarter year came and went at Pudgie's, I came to know most of the regulars. There was Bill and Rob, two fishing buddies who'd come in six AM sharp every few days after their late night Mako hunt. They would spend their time sipping rum and cokes over fried seafood, hazing the other for the lack in size of their catch. Then there were the Smiths, a nice family of five who would come in once every Sunday for Pudgie's famous bottomless brunch, and once every Friday night for the happy hour specials on appetizers. They always tipped well. The kids, aged five to nine, were delightful. Then there was Coach Tim and wife Miriam, who would always greet and chit chat me as though we hadn't spent only one summer together in my youth, but every summer, fall and winter too. And then, there was of course, Joe.

It wasn't his hesitant pause between ordering side dishes, or his jittery hands as he grasped for the straw of his diet coke that made him striking. It was his wife. I had never met her. My three months serving Joe his diet soda and his order for two of whatever specials we offered that week, she would never show up. He would always have the same expression of disappointment, his face growing long, the stained-glass window panes of his eyes glazed in deep, resonate blue.

“I'll just, take that to go.” he would say. “Those meetings you know...” he would make the joke knowing it was only obligatory for him and I to laugh, to share the hard-boiled reality another week would go by where he would wait, only to dine alone.

“Of course Joe.” I'd respond, to go tin and bag ready in my hand.

Steve and I had become close despite our almost decade difference in age. Steve's time as a college student came and went and as he described it, 'was killer.' His general demeanor and lack of ability to recall almost anything he learned led me to believe he was well past his hayday, college and its immense opportunity and optimism fleeting over the years, fluttering out the way a bulb does after burning for too long.

“I remember college. I wrecked stuff dude.” he would say. “Had a 3.8 but rocked out like I was on my dad's dime. But really, school isn't a place for smart people.”

Steve became a bartender shortly after college when the job market in his field, computer science, took a dive following the internet bubble burst. Lots of dot com companies were downgrading, shrinking their bottom lines and their workforce to streamline more automated means of service, robots, computed maintenance, stuff like that. But luckily for a guy like Steve, there isn't a computer out there who can charm you with a drink and a wink in that 'Fuck off' of a smile irreplaceable by anything inhuman.

So for this, Steve was gainfully employed, making his rent, adulting as best as he could. I was just waiting, waiting to save up for that Jeep to impress the girl I had yet to meet. Waiting for her, too.

And while both of us waited for the stars to come crashing down, fall into our laps and light the way, both of us had differing stated goals. Even so, we both hoped our time in the service industry would only be a footnote, a stepping stone to what we both wanted for ourselves. A better something.

Jennifer was kicking around the floor, chagrining guests and regulars, making the rounds. She was top dog here. People joked she came with the building. That would make her sixty years old. But really, a hard thirty-five.
“Is there anything else I can get for you honey?” she said to Miss Reynolds and Miss Greenwich, two older ladies from the nursing home around the corner.

“Oh no sweetie, just some more sugar if you could please.”
“It's my pleasure.” Jennifer nodded with a grin and a deep smile.
“Javier.” Jennifer whistled between her teeth.
“Baby, honey, can you get Miss Reynolds and Miss Greenwich a caddy from the back for me dear? Please and thank you!”
Javier the busser smiled and made for the silver-plated backroom of the kitchen to the coffee machine for the requested caddy.
“Javier will be right there with that Miss Reynolds. How was the coffee?”
“Perfect as usual.”
“And how's Georgie doing?”
“Oh, just wonderful.” she said, happy someone asked. “You know, she starts her second year of Grad school this week. Mathematical Engineering...”
“That is just, wow! Wonderful! You must be so proud.”

Miss Reynolds smiled with the raise of a brow at Miss Greenwich who sipped with a full lip on the rim of her black coffee.
“Javier will be over in a moment.”


It was later that week when I trained the new girl Samantha. She was petite and quick, something sorely missed at a place like Pudgie's. Showing her the system in the kitchen, I hollered at by Jennifer.

“Joe's here, booth eight. Let Sam take it.”

“Sure thing.” I waved her to follow me out through the barn doors and into the front of the house.
“Joe's simple.” I said like a Wall Street Exec passing by ticking numbers and shouting brokers, only they were moms and pops and kids and cliques over wings and wraps. “He takes a diet. Give him two menus, show him the specials. He'll order the soup of the day, the afternoon special and an entree. He'll eat half and take the uneaten entree to go. He tips eighteen percent.” Almost as though Joe was some sort of initiation ritual, Samantha took on the challenge.

“What's it doing Joe?” I said.
“Oh good, good.”
“This is Sam, she'll be helping out today.”

Joe glanced over at her then back to the menu.

“I'm going to take the French Onion Soup, followed by the Biscuits and Gravy, and she's going to get the Chicken Pot Pie.”
“The mashed potatoes are fine?”
“Um, yes. Yes, sure, those will do.”
“On it Joe.”

We walked from the table as he lurched forward, his hand raised.

“Oh, and a diet please!”
“On it.”

Waiting on the expo line for Joe's dishes, the Chicken Pot Pie and Biscuits and Gravy sat simmering under the heat lamps. Understanding the industry for as long as I had been a server at Pudgie's, now a senior server, I came to learn timing is everything, and on this particular afternoon the restaurant was at full capacity. So instead of taking both the dishes to the table, waiting for Joe to wait for his wife only to ultimately wrap the dish to go, I directed Sam to bring the Pot Pie already wrapped and ready to go, along with his check.
To go bag wrapped Pot Pie and check in one hand and the plate of Biscuits and Gravy teetering on top of a dish rag in the other, she placed them down in front of Joe at booth eight.

“There we go Joe, you're all set.”

Joe paused. He surveyed the to go bag in front of him, unsure what to make of his prematurely concealed afternoon lunch for two. His eyes blinked beneath the Vaseline fogged lenses of his glasses.

“I, um, I – I didn't ask for this, for this to go.”

His stutter came in full force. He poked at the to go tin, pushing it toward me as though it had an infectious disease.

“Um, Joe, I just, I apologize, I figured you would want this to go.”

Joe looked down between the flaps of his trench coat and into his lap. He sighed and rested the butt of his chin between the webs of his fingers.

“Is there someone I can speak to, about this?”
“You would like to speak to a manager?” Sam said, shaking.
“Yes please, if it's no trouble, if you could.”

I too was nervous. I wasn't sure what I did wrong. In my nearly four months of working and serving Joe over a dozen times, Joe always took his wife's plate to go. It didn't make sense why he would be so upset.

Jennifer walked over to booth eight and from the bar I could see her motioning with her hands, apologizing for my short sightedness. She took the check and brought it over to the computer system at the edge of the bar.

“I'm comping the Pot Pie.”
“Did I do something wrong?” Sam said from behind Jennifer's shoulder.”
“But Jen, I didn't do anything, really, I swear.” I said.

Jennifer clicked a few buttons and a check popped out the printer, a large V with a negative sign next to the dollar amount for the Pot Pie. She handed Joe his check and continued her rounds.

“Follow me.” Jennifer said to Sam and the two walked away from me. That was the last time I was asked to train an employee.

I caught Steve staring Jennifer and Sam down as they walked away and through the barn doors of the backhouse.

“Ah don't sweat it kid.” Steve said, polishing a glass. “That's just Joe.”


It had been two years since I started at Pudgie's. While Steve was still working a fair amount, he cut his hours in half to start his job as a Court Officer at the Industry Park County Court. He had taken the civil service exam a year earlier, something which even I didn't know about until he was missing one Saturday morning and Samantha, the new girl, told me she was covering for Steve.

Jennifer kicked up her hours, working overtime the past three weeks in a row. Javier was bumped up to a server position, and as two more senior servers left for another sun-baked summer in Cape Cod or South Carolina, I was the only one left with the experience suffice to craft the weekly schedule. This allowed me to work out the perfect shifts, enough where I could save up for that Jeep with some time left over for me to enjoy my summer.

It was in that free time where I met a girl. Her name was Jenny (not to be confused with Jennifer) and while she was a few years older than me, we clicked off the bat. She was a Sociology major at Industry Park Community College and we both shared the same Social Sciences building yet never run into one another. It wasn't until a muggy summer Sunday afternoon out on the sands of Lake Fredonia where we bumped into one another.

She complimented me on my Puka Shell necklace (something she still did not let me live down for many years), and I responded with a garbled thank you. Having just bit into a rye and tuna sandwich my mom packed for me, I felt stupid. She was with a few of her classmates and some high school buddies on one of their rich parent's forty-foot Schooners. And while I always aspired to be at sea, have a boat of my own, I was only twenty and was still trying to figure out how to make it on land.

We had been dating for nearly four months now and things were looking good. She worked for her father's construction business doing their accounting during the day while I slaved away most evenings penning people's particular gluten free allergy or their choice of dipping sauces on check pad. We would always try to meet somewhere in the middle, grab a quick bite when she got out of work right before I went for mine. On nights where I would get cut early (9, or 10pm), we would try catching a movie at the local theater, or take a walk through downtown munching on ice cream cones. It was really something.

And while most of our physical intimacy was restricted to holding hands and kissing, I waited with bated breath, excited to see where it would go. I had never felt this way about a girl. Inviting her back to my place, even four months in, still seemed a bit rushed. I wanted to take my time with her, get to know her before we took the plunge.

That's why I was excited for her to come to my job for the first time. It would be another glimpse into who I am, how I make a living and all that. I had the night off. I hoped Steve would be working. I know he would see how much she liked me, and in turn, would be impressed – she was a great girl after all and I did it without having to get that Jeep. Stellar, as Steve would say.

It was a brisk Friday night and Pudgie's was hopping. The happy hour brought in the usual crowd along with some stragglers looking for a quick bite before the night out on the town. We were almost at full capacity and walking in, I checked my watch.

“She's supposed to be here...” I said to Samantha.
“Oh, no-one.” I didn't realize I said that out loud. “Busy night?”
“Yeah, been like this all day.” she said, her face fluorescent over the POS system.
“I'm gonna' go wait at the bar.”

As the words left my mouth, the chimes rang over the front door and in walked Jenny. She was wearing a crop top and a skirt. Most of the locals take a second look.

“Oh wow, it's busy.” she said.
“Yeah, it can get hectic.” I said, brushing metaphoric dirt off my shoulders. “Here, let me get that for you.”

I took her purse and coat from her hand and stuffed it under the host stand.

“I served one summer. I hated it.” she said, sliding shoulders through the crowd to the hostess stand. “All those people, the dirty plates, the noise. Ugh. I'd rather cut myself on a deli slicer.”
“Oh, you can do that here too.” I said. “Just ask any of the bussers.”
“No thanks. I'll take my office job any day.”
“Suit yourself.” I said.

I waved overly enthusiastic to Jennifer as she was walking an order over to the POS.
“Hey Jen!”
“Oh hey Tim! I like the kicks.” she said looking down at my new Adidas.
“And who's this?!” she said looking to Jenny.
“Jen, this is Jenny.” Jenny stuck out a hand.
“Nice to meet you!”
“Oh the pleasure's mine!” she smiled wide and open, like a big tip she knew was coming her way.
“You guys grabbing a table?”
“Nah we're just gonna' go straight to the bar. Steve working?”
“No honey, Steve took off. It's the new guy, Emerald.”
“Who the hell is Emerald?”
“Emerald. He was the bartender at the Olive Garden off 95. You haven't met him yet?”
“Can't say I have.”
“Great guy, knows his stuff.”
“I think we're okay, I -”

And as I was making an excuse to either wait for a booth or just depart Pudgie's altogether, Coach Tim and Miriam were walking past, two large bags of to-go food in one hand.

“How are we doing there Timmy boy?!” Coach Tim said, grabbing at my hand for a firm handshake.
“Oh Timmy, so nice to see you.” Miriam said. “Night off I see?”
“Couldn't tell by the pressed collar?”
The happily married couple cuffawed at my derision.
“Well Timmy it was nice seeing you but me and Miriam got an eight o' clock showing to catch. Did you know Industry Theater is rebooting the original Dracula for Halloween this weekend??!”
“No idea!”
“Oh it's going to be great! You and your lady here should stop by. I apologize, what was your name?”
“Jenny.” she smiled with no teeth.
“A pleasure to meet you Jenny!”
“Don't forget Timmy, Dracula! It's this weekend only!”
“Wouldn't miss it!”

The chimes rang the same way they do when someone enters as Coach Tim and wife Miriam strolled through the dimly lit street lamps and to their minivan. I watched and thought to myself, how much longer will I have to pretend I care about these people's interests?

“So bar or booth guys?” Jennifer said, impatiently being patient.
“We're just gonna' wait.” I said.
“No problem guys, enjoy dinner!”

Jennifer walked past, intent on completing what she came our way for before we interrupted her.
After about ten minutes of standing around, Jenny put on that leisurely slump in her shoulder. She would do when she was trying to hard not to think, not be caught up in the world around her. I admired that about her. Mindlessness.

A booth opened up. We slid in. We enjoyed a two course meal. A mozzarella stick and chicken wing sampler, a Chicken and Rice dish for me and a Reuben sandwich with sweet potato fries for her. We laughed and cracked up, joking about our always lately Professor Lazorbourne, affectionately known as “Geezer Bourne” and what Monday morning for her was going to be like, as well Wednesday night for me.

It was as the new busser, a little kid whose name I had never gotten in the three months he worked there and whose lack of English didn't help facilitate our introduction, when I caught out of the corner of my eye another regular. Joe.

He was sitting at Table twelve, the one closest to the kitchen. I'm not sure how long he had been there, but nobody enjoyed sitting at Table twelve. The barn doors of the kitchen swung to and fro every few seconds, coupled with racing servers and busboys lugging several dozens pounds of dirty dishes, crop dusting every odor from slathered honey mustard to pile-high chicken bones. Any meal or drink at that spot was particularly gruesome; but given the high volume of a Friday night, Joe didn't have much of a choice.

Maybe it was because I hadn't seen him in a few weeks given the time I had been taking off to hang with Jenny, but he seemed different. He was slouched. The shine of his head between the few strands of hair at the his hairline was in full gloss, shining out the loss of hair he had been shedding for some time. His jaw grew longer, more gaunt - a loss of weight? And he had a new coat. It was a darker leather brown and hung to right above his belt line. All in all, he looked good. A bit more aged, but good.

“You see him over there?” I said to Jenny. “That's Joe. He comes in every week waiting for his wife to show up. He orders two dishes, one for himself and one for her. He always takes hers to go. It's crazy.”
“That's so sad.” Jenny said, a droop of her lips and a sag in her eyes.
“Wanna' meet him?” I said, all but ignoring her plea for pity on Joe.
“I mean, sure...” she said. “He's not gonna' be like, weird or anything, right?”
“No no, he's harmless. It's Joe!” I said.

He was nearly done with his plate of rice and beans and his wife's plate of chicken fingers and fries were cold when we hung over his table like a shadow at dusk.

“Hey there Joe!”

I slapped a hand on broad of his shoulder. “How's everything buddy!” He dropped his forkful of rice onto the plate. Disappointed, he stirred around in the black of his bean sauce.

“I'm, I'm good there. Hullo.”

He looked at me hard through the opaque lens of his glasses. Maybe it was because I was out of uniform, or maybe because I caught him off guard, but he seemed to not recognize me.

“I wanted to introduce you to my girlfriend, Jenny.”

I said, presenting her like a basket of fruit at a catering event.

“How are you, nice to meet you.” she said with a nod of her head.
“Fine, fine.” Joe said swirling the fork around his beans and rice. He looked to her, then to me. He smiled, waiting for the torture to end.

“Well, just wanted to say hi Joe. Hope everything's well with you.”
“Okay.” He smiled again, looked to Jenny, nodded his head, and resumed eating.

In the dimly lit street lamps, the echo of the door's hanging chimes lingered. We walked quiet for a few seconds when Jenny, a pressing thought pushing against her frontal lobe, blurted out.

“Do you think she's dead?”
“What?!” I said.
“His wife. Joe's wife. Do you think she's dead?”
“What?! I mean, no, what?! What would make you say that?” the thought never crossed my mind.
“Oh, I mean, nothing. It's just, you say he sits there, by himself every week, orders for two and she never shows up. Do you think he's like, grieving, or something?”
“That's crazy.” I said. “Don't be silly. Joe's not like that. She's just busy at work. She works late, late for the school board.”
“I see.” Jenny said. We walked for a few more seconds in silence, toward the corner where the local bus would swing by in no later than ten or fifteen minutes to give us a lift into town.

“I'm not really in the mood for ice cream.” Jenny said, looking at her feet.
“You're not?” I said.
“Wanna go back to your place?” I was startled.
“I mean, um, yeah, sure. I mean, are you sure?” I said. “You don't think it's, too soon?”
She said.
“It's gonna' happen eventually. I'd rather not wait forever.”


Coming back home after all these years was rough. I was balding, had gained some weight. I had become more quiet, reserved. My desire to express what had happened to me fell to quiet whimpers at the dinner table with my aging mother, who, even with her pockmarked skin and freckled cheeks, could push the warmth of her smile into the depth of any unfortunate soul.

“Oh sweetie.” her smile gleaming like a rainbow from her chest.

It's part of the reason why I moved back in. The other, primarily financial. The divorce with Jenny had been particularly rough on me. She took the house and our second car, the minivan we purchased in anticipation of starting a family together. We had big plans. Those big plans left me with a few thousand dollars and my Jeep Wrangler, which shortly after my fourth year at Pudgie's, was finally able to afford. But, getting married and such, it rotted away, stowed back home in the garage. The up side being it was safe from the prying claws of alimony.

And while the consolation of hanging onto my baby may have been enough for a twenty-two year old Tim, the twenty-nine year old felt drained. Exhausted. The upkeep of the old rig kept my hands slicked with grease, my toolbox in the belly of my trunk, and my forehead peeled with sweat. In its old age it sprung oil leaks everywhere, and it seemed a never ending endeavor to keep coolant from seeping into every other part of my baby's six cylinder heart. Still, it kept chugging on, requiring only sweat and grit to keep the gears turning.

It had been a few months back home, sleepless and fixed on the glaring television when my mom suggested I get out of the house. She told me Peter at Pudgie's was asking about me. I told her it wouldn't do any good going back there. That part of my life, much like everything else, was over. Lost over a dish of her mashed potatoes and string beans, she said for the second.

“Honey. They loved you there. If you couldn't go back there, where could you go?”

And like that, I was in the old rig, revving the engine in the garage, hoping its cylinders would pump enough blood through its veins and to its heart to make the trip downtown to Pudgie's. Its melancholy driver arriving intact, less than a smudge of grease on his hands.

The chimes ringing over the front door, I was greeted by a familiar face. Emerald, who, following Steve's quitting the same month I had left, had become my second closest friend at work. His mocha skin shined whiter than normal in the pale afternoon light shimmering through the storefront sized windows and he was making good on his training from Steve, polishing a glass to its shining end.

“What's up holmes.” Emerald said, flipping a chin in the air, his hands occupied.
“What's going on there.” I reached over the bar and slapped him on the shoulder.
“Oh you know, same shit different day. Been a real long time since you last came around. What's been up man?”
“Oh, you know, same shit.”
“Sorry to hear about your girl.” his eyes frowned. “Chicks can be bitches man.”
“Yeah.” I resigned myself to the bar, elbows glossing the marble countertop.
“But hey, sure you didn't come here for a pity party.” he laughed with a childish chuckle, unsure what he meant. “Whiskey?”
“I don't drink anymore.”
“Oh, good for you brother. Bad for business but, hey, good for you.”

In this industry, sobriety is always bad for business.

“Yeah, doing my best.”
“But hey man, not much here has changed. At least you got outta here. You were in Seattle, weren't you?”
“Yep, Washington State.”
“That's ill man. I hear Seattle is dope.”
“Yeah, it's got its charm. Lots of rain. I thought that was pretty cool.”
“I bet. But hey, I'm sure your folks are happy to have you back.”
“Yeah, my mom's pretty happy about it. Got someone to cook for now.” I thought about the dozens of half eaten plates piling up on my end counter. How I loathed digestion.
“But hey, I know there are a few folks here who'd be happy to see you.”
“Have you heard from Steve?”
“Steve?” Emerald said, placing the polished glass on the rack above his head. “Nah holmes, last time I heard he transferred to Portland with that county job he got. Told me he was gonna' come back to visit, haven't seen him since. He was a good dude.”
“Yeah, he was.”
“Jen's still here.”
“Of course Jen's still here.” we both laughed. “She came with the building!”
“Facts brother. She's got the day off but I'll let her know you stopped in.”

I looked over my shoulder. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon and much of the restaurant was deserted, safe for a couple and a family at Booths one and Table seven. And Booth eight, Joe's favorite, was occupied by a group of younger girls, sipping on bloody mary's, the hair of the dog.

“Looks like Joe's going to have find a new spot when he comes in today.”
“Joe?” Emerald said staring down the gun of the glaring POS system. “Oh yeah, Joe. Nah man, he hasn't stopped by in a while now. Don't remember the last time I saw him.”

Up until this moment of my life I thought of Joe in grays and shades of white. A lost hue on a boring canvas marred by the unfinished strokes of a painter imbued by thoughts of another project, more colorful and tantalizing to finish. While I was erased from the innocence and safety of my hometown, tossed into the unforgiving world of love and its array of violent meteor showers, waiting for something, anything to make all of it work out, Joe probably stopped waiting. And if you had asked me some months ago all the way back to grade school, I would have said he was defeated. But, Joe was a better man than I. He knew when to go for it, and when to give up. And while to many Joe was just another face at the booth, so was I. Just a lonely patron at the bar with the only friend many of these folks had, the barkeep, just waiting.

“You sure you don't want anything?”
“I'll take a water.”
“On the rocks.”
“You know it.”

I sat in Pudgie's the next few hours watching Emerald swipe by a dozen or so customers, filling their waters, mixing their cocktails, serving their plates and in the same breath dismantling their place mats and silverware, tossing them into the black walls of crusty bus bins to be tossed into the silver-plated backroom wish washed in humid soapiness and ketchup stains.

Me and Emerald exchanges glances, those knowing eyes when one regular would order their usual cup of black coffee, two sugars and stirring spoon, accompanied by an out of the box pastry dessert, or when one regular would berate an unruly child over the phone at the edge of the bar in an attempt to not cut short his late evening dinner to assist the babysitter in getting the tots in order. Emerald and I, we didn't speak much that evening.

It was about an hour to close and the restaurant had cleared out. It was only me and Emerald when the chimes rang over the front door for a woman, clad in all black and dark sunglasses. She plopped her purse on the red leather seat of booth eight beside her. She removed her thick pale colored gloves and placed them on top the folds of her purse. She gripped her knuckled hands, the bones under the skin visible in every digit. Being the only one left on staff, Emerald emerged from behind the bar for the first time since Uncle George, as he was affectionately known, needed assistance in opening the heavy glassed door and to his car.
“We got a seater.” Emerald said, his term for people who sat at a table after dinner service ended.

“Wanna get this one Tim?” he laughed.
“I'm good.” I smiled.
“Hey man, these older broads, they're known to tip on that hard fifteen.”
“I'll take one for the team.” I scoffed.
“Give me a sec.”

Emerald approached the Cruella Deville looking character at Booth eight the same way he does anything - a big old smile and a flutter of his hands.

“How's it going there this evening, what can I get for you?”
“I'd like a menu please.” she said, looking up at him through dark plated sunglasses.
“Of course.”

Emerald walked from the table and gave me the death look. An old woman in sunglasses at ten at night on a Sunday? What a joy this would be! Said his every expression.

“Here you go ma'am.”

he slid the laminate menu, flush with pictures of hamburgers and seafood wraps taken back before I had even been hired.

“Excuse me.” she said, as though insulted.
“I need another.” she said.
“I'm waiting on someone.”

Emerald shot a look, displeased, knowing this could be a long night waiting on one lone woman who would not yet be ready to order until her date showed up, which could be god knows when.

“Oh yeah, sure.”

He motioned to me.

“Hey, Tim, wanna' grab me a menu from behind the bar? They're next to the printer.”
“I got it.” I went behind the bar, scooped a menu and slid it over to the woman in Booth eight.
“There we go ma'am.” I said.
“Do you work here?” she said.
“No. Well, I used to.”

I said, nervous jitters jumping from my bottom jaw. I forgot how to serve. How to seem confident in the unknown of my guest's needs, knowledgeable in our never ending ingredients and allergy restrictions, well versed in the art of hospitality. It had been a long seven years. It all washed away.

“I see.” she frowned, disappointed.
“It's been a long night. Could you make me an Irish coffee?”
“Sure, I'll get Emerald on that.”

I said, nodding at Emerald who had taken a few steps back from the table.

“Anything else I can get for you?”

I said, slowly molding myself back into the person I once was. That young kid who waited on people, who met Jenny, who waited on her to be the person I needed her to be. The kid who waited for his toy car, the one that would drive him to better pastures. The kid who was always trying to wiggle my way into another wayward situation, one which would in time, benefit me down the road, undoubtedly. And here I was, back again and, in some twisted alternate version of waiting, waiting on someone else.

“I just got back from the school board.”

She said, her eyes glossing over the menu.

“I'm going to order for him. Are you ready?”