Until a few days ago, Travis Carter didn’t have any scars. A greasy spoon changed all that.
As he entered Sarah’s Diner, the smell of bacon, eggs, and Tabasco sauce hit him hard in the face. A tiny copper bell pealed, but something seemed off about it. Travis turned and looked up at the door frame.
“It’s a recording,” Sarah said from the hosting podium.
“Huh?” Travis said.
“The bell. It’s fake.” Sarah pointed up at the entry way, her arm fat jiggling.
“Just you, Hun?”
“No, a table for two please.”
“You’ll have to wait for your entire party to arrive before we can seat you.”
Travis looked past Sarah to an empty diner, save the three truckers who sat belly up to the bar.
“But there’s no one here,” Travis said.
Sarah pointed to a handwritten sign taped to the hosting podium. It read, “YOU’RE ENTIRE PARTY MUST BE PRESENT BEFORE SEATING.”
“I’ll just sit over here then,” Travis said. He looked at the sign again and cringed.
Travis took a seat on the bench to the left of the entry door and waited. Sticky, red vinyl covered the bench. As he sat, he heard “So What” by the Miles Davis Sextet kick in over Sarah’s ceiling speakers. Travis scanned the fliers tacked to the cork board near the entry way. One of the sun faded handbills read, “Live Jazz - Returning to Sarah’s in September.” Travis snorted. It was October.
Sunlight reflected through the glass doors and moved across the entry way wall. A car had arrived. Sasha DiAnno rolled into the parking lot and parked her BMW convertible right in front of the diner, next to Travis’s Mazda 3. Travis hadn’t seen Sasha since they broke up last March. His heart raced.
With her engine running, Sasha talked to her passenger, Wally Cook, who was also her new boyfriend. Travis’s hands began to moisten and his breathing got faster and shallower. Sasha looked radiant and beautiful, her hair six months longer, chestnut curls cascading over her olive shoulders, aviator sunglasses hiding her deep blue eyes. Wally, on the other hand, was attempting to grow a scraggy, 20-something excuse for a beard. He wore a royal blue beret.
Wally got out of the car, grabbed his duffle bag from Sasha’s rear seat, and walked around to Sasha’s side of the car. Wally and Sasha kissed. Then she backed out of the space and turned. Before leaving, she scanned the inside of the diner for Travis. She saw him, smiled, and waived. Then, she was gone.
As Wally walked to the entrance of the diner, Travis felt his face get hot. Wally entered the diner. The ersatz bell rang again.
“You must be Travis,” Wally said.
“Yes. Nice to meet you, Wally.” Travis extended his hand. Wally’s handshake felt like a dead fish. Wally’s partial beard obscured a rehearsed smile.
Sarah walked forward from the hosting podium. “Hun, I can seat you now,” she said.
Travis extended his hands in an “after you” gesture. As they followed Sarah to their table, plates clinked in the kitchen. From a distance, the wall by the eating booths appeared to be made of uneven stone, but as they got closer, Travis saw that the wall was a mere facade of fashioned plaster. Lamps like globes lit the otherwise dark interior of the dining area.
Wally plopped down into the far side of the booth and Travis sat across from him. A glass cylinder of sugar, a bottle of ketchup, and a stack of single serve jelly containers took their usual places at the far end of the table, next to a napkin dispenser, next to the wall. Stacks of both the pink and yellow packets of artificial sweetener lay next to the napkins.
“Can I get you fellas somethin to drink?” Sarah said.
“Coffee,” Travis said.
“Bloody Mary. Extra vodka, ” Wally said.
Sarah walked toward the kitchen.
“So, I wanna get this out of the way,” Wally said. “I know this is so awkward for both of us.” Wally spoke with one side of his mouth always showing his ultra white teeth.
“Don’t sweat it.”
“Sasha said you were a stand up guy. I just . . . I don’t think I could do it, I mean, if I were in your shoes.”
“C’mon. Sasha and I are still friends. It’s her fall break. I’m headed that way. You need a ride. Nothing to it.”
Except that was a lie. Last month, when Travis found out that Sasha had a new boyfriend, the news devastated him. He fell into a depression, didn’t go to work, lost his job, and shed about ten pounds because he was throwing up all the time. Six months ago, Sasha told Travis that she couldn’t see him anymore because she needed to “focus on her studies.” She decided to go to UCLA architecture school to get her M.Arch. “It’s not you. It’s me,” she said. “I need space,” she said. And Travis, being a man of his word, let her be. He texted her only every now and then and, above all, he didn’t forget her birthday. Birthdays are important. He gave her a three dimensional birthday card that folded out into the shape of the Guggenheim. Sasha liked Frank Lloyd Wright. But in all of this, Travis never doubted that they would pick up where they left off once she got situated. But then, right after she started school, she was dating Wally Cook, the house drummer at Redondo Beach Jazz Bistro.
“Coffee for you. Bloody Mary, easy on the blood,” Sarah said, placing their drinks before them. “Whatcha want?”
“I’ll take a club sandwich with fries,” Travis said.
“Soup of the day for me,” Wally said.
As Sarah jotted down their orders, the diner began to rumble and shake. Travis, not a native to California, grabbed the table with white knuckles.
“It’s alright, Hun. Just a tremor.” Sarah returned to the kitchen, shouting the order to the cook.
“Should be a nice drive up the PCH,” Wally said.
“Good. She’s really busy with the M-Arch degree, but good.”
Except that was probably a lie. Sasha had terrible OCD, she always fought with her mom on the phone, and drank a bottle of wine every night. Wally sipped his Bloody Mary.
“Hair of the dog,” Wally said.
Travis sipped his coffee, inviting the first of what would likely be many uncomfortable silences on this road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco. He stared at the table. The cleaner that the bus boys used had eaten into the wood finish. The booth smelled like antiseptic.
“So, how did this trip come about?” Travis asked.
“I’m auditioning for a jazz house band up there. Her fall break happens the following weekend so we planned to make a week of it. She loves San Francisco.”
She hates San Francisco.
“Why are you headed up there?” Wally asked.
“What’s an underwriter?”
“I’m in insurance,” Travis said.
Except there was no convention. Not only was Travis unemployed at the moment, he also made up the convention to set this redemption plan in motion. He wanted to show Sasha that he would do anything for her, including giving her new boyfriend a ride to San Francisco. Besides, there are no underwriter’s conventions. Why? Too much risk. If underwriters got together for a conference, anyone passing idly by would die from boredom.
“How did you a Sasha meet?” Travis asked.
“At the Redondo. She was sitting alone at the club every night and then one night I bought her a drink. We talked—”
Until dawn. Sure. That’s how she and Travis met, too, except they met at Twiggy’s, not the Redondo.
“Here we are. Club sandwich for you. Soup for you,” Sarah said. She tore the guest ticket from her pad and set it down on the edge of the table.
Wally slurped his French onion soup. He avoided the big crouton. “It’s good,” he said, dodging the opportunity to pay for lunch even though Travis was giving him a free ride.
Travis looked at his club sandwich. A toothpick held the bread, meat, cheese, and lettuce together. A frilly plastic ribbon coiled around the tip of the pick. The plastic frill began to blur. Travis wiped his eyes, but the blur intensified. The table began to shake again. Wally’s smile turned to an odd sneer. This time he held on to the table.
The large plate glass window at the front of the diner cracked and sprayed glass all over the patrons seated at the bar. The dishes and glassware slid off of the storage shelves and crashed onto the tile floor. The coffee urns broke, scalding the bar patrons still in shock from being spritzed with shards of razor sharp glass.
“It’s an earthquake!” Sarah screamed. She ran from the rear of the restaurant, past the table where Travis and Wally sat, and toward the front doors. For a second, she looked as if she were running down an escalator, but really, the floor beneath her had given way. The ground swallowed her whole.
The bar patrons, the stools they sat on, and the bar itself fell into the sinkhole. The tables toward the front of the diner and all the kitchen appliances fell into the hole, too. The hole expanded and began to swallow up everything in its path.
“Run?! Run where?!”
Travis and Wally ran to the rear exit door as fast as they could. The earthquake made it hard to see, hard to hear, and hard to breathe. Then, everything went dark.
The diner, which, from the parking lot, took on a basic rectangular design, now looked like a sad “M” shape. The center of the building, and everything in it, had fallen into the earth. The sides of the building were intact, though. At the periphery, the foundation had sunk about 12 feet down.
Travis awoke a few seconds after impact. Dust, debris, and dirt clouded everything. He wiggled his fingers and toes. Nothing seemed to be broken. Travis looked up. His neck hurt, but he could see light cascading through the beams of wood, rebar, and broken concrete sticking out of the earthen wall.
Travis stood up. He touched the skin of his lower back. He was bleeding a little.
“Wally!” Travis said, scanning the room-sized hole.
Wally lay face down.
“Wally! You OK?!”
Wally had fallen onto several planks of wood. He groaned, rolled over, and sat up.
“Damn earthquakes,” Wally said, coughing.
“Are you OK?”
Wally scanned himself, still coughing. “Yeah, just got the wind knocked out of me.”
“I think we can climb out,” Travis said, pointing to the various foot holds and divots in the wall of the sink hole.
“You first,” Wally said.
Travis began to climb out of the hole.
When he had scaled about a foot off the ground, Travis said, “It’s fairly sturdy. It doesn’t feel like the—”
Wally jammed a rod of steel rebar though Travis’s lower back, impaling Travis and causing him to fall to the ground. Waves of shock and numb cascaded through Travis’s body.
“What the fuck, Wally!”
Wally stepped over Travis, who lay on his side, and looked Travis straight in the eyes.
“She’s mine, Travis.” Wally then climbed out of the sinkhole, leaving Travis to bleed out.
Travis awoke to the beep of his heart monitor.
It’s fake, Hun, he heard Sarah say in his mind.
No, this beep came from a real heart monitor. He attempted to sit up, but he couldn’t. His belly felt broken. His lower back ached. He heard a light whimper from the visitor’s chair next to his hospital bed.
“Sasha?” Travis whispered.
Sasha stirred, awoke, and said, “Travis. You’re awake,” with a smile.
Sasha paused. “Travis, I’m so sorry.”
“I feel like all of this is my fault,” she said.
“That’s funny. You don’t look like you have earthquake powers.”
Sasha returned a puzzled look.
“But hey, at least you didn’t build your diner on a sinkhole.”
“Travis, please. I need to explain.”
Travis winced. “You know he stabbed me, right?”
Sasha paused again.
“Trauma makes people do crazy things.”
“He’s a fucking psycho.”
“I don’t know, maybe he was just confused.”
“Didn’t seem confused to me.”
“We’ve all been through a lot.”
“Why did you lie to me?”
Sasha paused a third time.
“Lie to you?”
“About needing time to yourself, for school.”
“I did need time to myself.”
“Yeah, but I thought when you were done doing what you needed to do, you’d come back to me.”
“I just . . . I figured you had moved on.”
“How’s your mom?”
“Bitchy as ever. She hates Wally’s beard.”
“Can’t imagine why.”
Sasha kicked the hospital bed.
Travis and Sasha talked for a while before Travis felt the need to take a nap. He slept. In his dream, they were much older and had lived a long, loving life together. There, Sasha lay next to Travis and ran her hand over the star shaped scar on his stomach and then onto the same shaped scar on his lower back. “Scars don’t lie,” she whispered. Then, they embraced and fell deep into each other.
Compared to that dream, real life, as Travis and Sasha would find, wouldn’t be too much different. Except in real life, Wally Cook did time for attempted murder, got hooked on crack in jail, and died of a heart attack while wearing that royal blue beret.