“Life asked Death, ‘Why do people love me, but hate you?’ Death responded, ‘Because you are a beautiful lie, and I am a painful truth.’ ” ~Anonymous
The woman flicked an inch of ash from her smoke as she sat on a cement step in front of the small café. Behind her was a sign in the window that read, Now Hiring.
“You work here?” Eddie Hoak asked.
She looked at him, pulling a fleck of tobacco from her lip. “No, I just enjoy sitting in front of this greasy spoon trying to keep my knees together.”
Eddie smiled through her sarcasm. He stepped past the woman into the café and managed to get the job. Barney tied an apron around Eddie’s waist and put him to work. He didn’t mind scut work—janitor, day laborer, burger flipper, whatever it took to serve his personal apprenticeship—the road to becoming a writer. He bussed and cooked the rest of the morning.
Following the lunch rush, he stacked a sandwich for himself and strolled out back to the alley. Maddie was leaning against a wall, hip thrust out and another cigarette between two of her fingers. Her face was highlighted by a crescent scar on her forehead above an eyebrow. That scar told him a lot.
“Hey Newbie, are you stalking me or something?”
“Not me. Just collecting research.”
Maddie dropped her smoke and crushed it. “What? Research on how long it takes to fry an egg, or how many orders me and June can serve up in an hour?”
“Something like that.”
Maddie grinned as she brushed a piece of ash from her bosom and strolled past Eddie back inside the restaurant.
Finishing his sandwich, he reached into his pocket and felt his silver dollar. He considered it a good luck charm. Eddie’s daddy had given him the coin before catching a train out of town, never to return. Lung cancer took his mamma a few years later. He grew up leading an untethered existence, moving from place to place, taking in what people offered and learning to survive. The café was just the latest stop on his road of information gathering. If it was only a few days work, that was all right. Some new opportunity always came along. Luck had a way of finding him.
There used to be a carousel in June Tunstall’s small hometown. She often daydreamed about her childhood: stealing quarters for her mom’s purse to pay for rides on the carousel. She always found her favorite carved horse scarred by decades of children and teenagers climbing up and down, but June hadn’t cared. When the carousel began to move, she found herself in a magical place away from childhood problems.
When the ride was torn down, she had been terribly depressed. If she’d had the power to destroy those who spoiled her escape from reality, she would have done so. A doctor once told June she had unresolved issues, might need professional help. Whatever. All she knew was she had never felt happier when astride her painted pony all those years ago. And in her search for something equally enchanting, something more than a distant memory, there were times when the calliope’s music haunted her.
At the end of the day, Barney asked Eddie to stay on. Eddie thanked him and volunteered to stick around with June, the café’s other waitress, until closing time. She was a doughy-eyed girl with a hopeful face and a sweeter disposition than Maddie. He waited for her as she locked up. They had exchanged few words in the café, but June’s interest was apparent. He offered to escort her home. She accepted.
“You don’t have a place to stay, do you?”
“I’ve got my gear in a locker at the bus station. It’s cool. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You don’t have to. I mean, we don’t really know each other, but I have a couch and you could stay until you get on your feet.”
“Sounds awfully tempting.”
June’s eyes lit up. Eddie felt a twinge of sympathy. Was she a pushover, or just making a onetime devil-may-care gesture? There was no timetable for moving on. Finding accommodating people had become part of his lifestyle. Strange how opportunities turned up. He felt the shape of his silver coin through his pants pocket and followed June.
She had been warned about involvement, what it might lead to, but there was something about Eddie that caused June to take the chance of letting him into her life. He did not try to take advantage of her hospitality like most men would have done. Late at night, she listened to his heavy breathing from the sofa as she drifted on a seductive river to a place she had not known for some time. When Eddie told her he’d once worked on a merry-go-round, it sealed the deal. He had even given her a plastic jewel he claimed he’d taken from the bridle of a carousel horse. True or not, she felt the blossoming of kindred spirits, fate intervening in her rather drab life. Only three nights passed before June suggested he would be more comfortable sleeping in her bedroom.
Eddie knew June was thrilled with his companionship. Maybe more than thrilled. After a week, he promised to stay around longer than planned recognizing a good deal when she saw one. Although June’s behavior could be a bit erratic, bi-polar perhaps, she seemed delighted with their arrangement and he was willing to work at a relationship, at least until the urge to move along overtook him.
“Eddie? You don’t ever have to leave. You can write your stories right here. I could support you while you’re writing.”
Eddie gave June his rakish grin when she made such offers. “We’ll see.”
All June wanted was the most natural thing in the world—love. She had loved her carousel horse. She thought she loved Eddie. There was no reason to believe anyone or anything would spoil her blissful seat atop cloud nine.
She found something in a pocket of Eddie’s discarded clothes. Not his lucky coin which he was seldom without, but something that made her heart ache: a bus schedule.
Was he thinking of leaving after only three weeks? She had opened up to him totally during their time together, revealed her innermost hopes and dreams. Sometimes his mind drifted away to a place where creative people go for refuge, but the thought of his physical departure placed her on a tray full of unbalanced dishes, ill-equipped to regain balance.
The last thing she wanted was confrontation. Still, a voice within signaled danger. She felt a headache coming on. Anguish mixed with agitation fell upon her like a burdensome cloak.
No more losses. I must hold onto him no matter what.
June became suspicious of Eddie. She feared he was planning something without telling her, even as he continued to pour on the praise: how attractive she was to him, a jewel of a woman, much like the eyes of her beloved carousel horse—plenty of cannon fodder to pacify her concerns.
At the café, Eddie and Maddie often exchanged playful barbs. They sometimes snickered at some inside joke, Maddie’s scar reddening, a Cheshire Cat smile on her lips. June hoped it wasn’t at her expense. Maybe he and Maddie were planning to leave together to do more research, as Eddie called it.
June fought against her paranoia. She might lack Maddie’s sass, but she was the person serving as a waystation for Eddie, a touchstone as real as his silly lucky coin.
Another week passed before June’s insecurities began to boil over into moments of panic. Eddie had argued with Barney over some little thing. She knew he was tiring of the job. Had he outgrown the shabby little café? He had said as much himself:
In this age of Jesus sightings on a tree stump, the Virgin Mary in a piece of French toast, or the shape of the Elephant Man in an Idaho potato, there’s so much to write about. Eventually, I’ll need more experience. Research goes further than being a short-order cook.
Her knees weakened at the thought of losing him. Carousels stop, its riders get off, and people say goodbye. June did not plan to get off, would not allow the situation to derail the love and affection she felt for the man she truly believed had come to save her. Eddie couldn’t simply become the Goodbye Man in her life. “No,” June whispered to a part of herself she was usually able to hold in check. “Whatever it takes to keep him. Whatever it takes. Nothing will separate us.”
After a month, an emotional distance creeped into the relationship even as June clung to Eddie all the more. They were two people together, yet alone inside their separate fantasies, a strange reflection of one another.
“Do you want to leave?” June said straight out one evening, unable to contain herself.
“Not at all. Not now, anyway.”
“What’s going to happen to me when you go?”
“You’ll be fine, June. People are like the pieces of a jigsaw. It takes time to find the right fit. Hopefully, they finally do.”
Eddie used that word, eventually, often, a word she did not care for. It was now she was consumed by. Was she merely a puzzle piece? How much research had he gathered from her, Maddie, Barney, and their customers? Were they all merely specimens, players awaiting a role in his stories, just pieces of tapestry in a larger production? Were their lives comedic or tragic?
Eddie kissed June’s forehead. “You’re a precious stone like those on your pony. I’ve told you that. It’s lucky I came this way and that we met. We’re comfortable together for now,” he said smiling, “but everything eventually runs its course.”
“I have a story for you,” June calmly answered. “It’s about a beautiful woman who took pride in her delicate feet. She soaked them in warm oils. Lanolin was applied to the soles, arches, and ankles. The result was feet without calluses or blemishes. They were powdered and perfumed to smell as nice as they appeared and were admired by all. It was no wonder the woman took such pride in her tantalizing tootsies, for she had no arms.”
Eddie’s smile faded. “And you’re sharing this with me because…?”
Her gaze found some infinite point in the cosmos beyond her bedroom walls. How effective would Eddie’s charm be minus an arm or leg? “I guess the moral of the story is to appreciate what you have.”
“Make lemonade. I get it, but life is also about decisions. Maybe the only time we’re really ourselves is when we’re alone with no one to disappoint.”
Alone. The Goodbye Man pulling levers of the carousel bringing it to a halt. The haunting idea of waiting for things to slow to a stop did not appeal to June either. How could Eddie be so blind to what they had? Would she be tethered only to her wooden horse forever? Be careful of entanglements, the shrink had advised.
Her fear of loss was all consuming, but she would not reveal, even now, how bereft she felt inside, how empty. But Eddie was right. Life was about making decisions.
June saw her reality. A not-that-pretty woman, a lonely person who’d missed the brass ring, soon to be cast aside, blotted out, as handicapped as the woman in her story. That river in her mind was drifting toward its darkest recesses. Anything else Eddie might say would be from behind a mask of false expression, not unlike the painted smile of her wooden horse.
“You trifled with all of us,” June whispered so softly he probably didn’t hear.
His old man’s lucky dollar couldn’t help him. It was in his jeans across the room. Her hand dropped to the floor while thinking about her life—a place littered with bruised and broken desires. Of all the lies told, the cruelest is the one called love.
Her fingers closed around the pistol at the edge of the bed, protection for a woman alone.
June looked into Eddie’s eyes as deeply as he had so often looked into hers, both loving and hating him in that moment. They were merely travelers with a common fate that made it hardly worthwhile to do anything more than be together.
She wouldn’t cry, couldn’t cry, realizing the two of them would never grow old. Was it cruel to end Eddie’s dreams along with her own? June didn’t think so. There are moments when one is inexorably drawn to a person or place, one road leading to another, then another, and finally to one with no return where one’s luck finally runs out.
The calliope began to play. June lingered on a threshold, her heart-rate increasing, her head pounding, the voice guiding her. They were no longer Eddie and June. They were mounted lovers on the carousel, a knight and his lady, together forever.
“Make a decision, June,” the voice within said as the music from the calliope abruptly stopped.
About The Author
Jay Seate is a writer who stands on the side of the literary highway and thumbs down whatever genre that comes roaring by. His storytelling runs the gamut from Horror Novel Review’s Best Short Fiction Award to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. His longer works can be found online at Amazon and B&N.
This story appeared in the October 2018 issue of Books ‘N Pieces Magazine.