"Reality's a helluva a drug," he says, and I hate to admit it, but he's right. I don't think he means it in the same way I do, but to be honest, I don't know how he means it, and it doesn't matter. The world looks better than it ever has, despite the awkward view.
The click of the pistol's hammer latching into place is more akin to the hands of intricate clock tower innards than of a pawn shop piece that's only good for causing trouble.
The too-early-for-me sun is coating the world in a brilliance that I've never seen. The diner tables, resined with old syrup and the ghosts of ashtrays past are works of art, time-layered slick, containing memories of a million meals, countless conversations, after-party drunkenness, and sadness. I see clouds reflected on the table surface, uncaring and perfect, sky-written secrets within the Formica; whispering of a better place, a better world, where people don't make bad decisions, and where people don't show up with loaded weapons to show those other people why those decisions were bad.
He's bent down, fist around the back of my collar, forcing my head against the dazzling tabletop. The bunched-up fabric is harsh against my neck, and I feel my pulse battling his where his fingers touch near the base of my skull. When he talks, it's directly into my ear, a whisper to everyone in the diner, hissed thunder to me.
"Let's make this quick so nobody else gets hurt, okay?"
The scent of coffee wafts into my nose, mixed with bacon, eggs, scorched bread, body odor, booze. I realize that this is the smell of home. Not where I live, but where I belong, where I've always been comfortable.
I'm not the guy who does business in a boardroom, or an office, or even a coffee shop offering free wi-fi. Most of my business is conducted right here, or a place just like right here. Deals, bargains, trade-offs, promises, and threats, all made under the greasy-dull lights, amid the clatter of pans and the murmurs or hollers of conversation.
I've been here hundreds of times, making sure not to look around, because that's what makes you look suspicious. Nobody looks around these days, there's nothing you can't see on your phone. If you do, you stand out. Guy like me doesn't like to stand out, even if I'm not doing something shady. Usually, I am.
It doesn't matter now. Me and the guy with a gun against my head, we're both standing out. Not as much as you might think. They made it look like an old-fashioned stick-up, busting in, yelling, making sure everyone knew they were just here for the money out of the register and whatever people had in their purses and their wallets.
But this guy, he came right to my table, and before I could do anything more than pull the bills from my wallet, he started yelling about how I was trying to be a hero.
I've never tried to be a hero, not once in my life. That's when I knew what it was all about. I made a decision, and these fellas were here to show me that it was a bad one. I shouldn't be surprised, but deep down, all folks like me refuse to believe the truth: that one day, this kind of life will get you killed.
You think you believe it, but you don't, not really. Your brain refuses to accept it, and it tells you that you'll be the one to get away with it. You're smarter than them, better.
And you are, right up until you aren't.
The music stops, I hear a slight scratch as the needle lifts unevenly, the clacks as the record is lifted and put back in place, as the gears turn to rotate the vinyl disks. This isn't a hipster diner, and the jukebox isn't retro. It's only alive because the owner knows how to fix it for cheap. I once heard him tell his daughter that if repairs ever cost over $25, the thing's gotta go. None of that matters, but the memory is so vivid in my head that it's almost as if I'm reliving it.
Another record selected, the slap of it dropping into place, and then some lady starts singing about how she's done riding shotgun, she's going to get her own truck now. I hear every note of every instrument, I hear her short, hidden intakes of breath as she springs from one word to the next.
A sound of rattling bass interrupts the music, so loud in my skull it feels like my teeth might shake out. It takes me a drawn-out heartbeat to realize the sound is my own voice.
"I'm not begging, but I have the money. I'll give you that and a little more if you let me go."
I have time to relive a hundred memories, my life flashing before my eyes, just like they always say. I never heard about how real the flashes were, though, how you feel everything you've ever lived, how they flood in, all mixed together, but still distinct, all in the time it takes for this guy to say:
"Sorry, man, no dice. I like you, ever since you was small-time, I have. But the other guy's bigger. And the bigger guy tells me what to do, that's how I make it."
"Understandable," I tell him, because it is. We all know the game we're playing. We all think we do, until we lose. "Any chance I can talk to him first?"
"No. He was pretty clear about that. Said if he ever saw you alive again, he'd have all our balls. He wasn't being metaphorical."
I smell the gum in his breath as he speaks: mint, but not fresh, and not strong enough to cover the bourbon from last night. I think about my own last night, about how it was wasted. Sitting in uncomfortable chair because I was too lazy to move to the comfortable lounger, scrolling through an article about something I barely cared about. I didn't know. You never do, I guess.
What would I have done differently? It doesn't matter, according to my brain. What matters are the memories, the inconsequential seconds of a life lived without regards to moments like this. I can taste the cereal I ate for supper last night, feel the crunch of it between my teeth, not yet soggy, but not crisp. Television quiet in the background, telling me news I don't want to hear, commercials for crap I don't want to buy. The smell of the trash I should have taken out, but didn't.
And I'm back in the now, a fly buzzing inches from my face, it sounds like a power tool. I watch as it lands, licks its...hands or whatever; paws? I can see through its wings, so thin, so delicate, minimal, compared to the heft of its body. Hard to believe that's all it takes to keep those annoying little bastards from getting swatted.
I can smell a waffle burning, due to the fact that the staff is currently sprawled on the floor instead of taking care of orders. This guy wearing cologne everyone I know stopped using in high school, he's the guy who's going to end all of this, all of these memories, all of these sensations. His clothes are clean, but single-guy clean, smelling like soap, but still musty.
I see the fabric of his sleeve, the intertwining threads, the texture of each string. I see the flesh of his hands, dry and grained; this is not a man who moisturizes. I see a scar on his wrist, and I wonder what he's been through, what he'll see when it's his time to do this.
He pulls back, standing up, and the cascade sunrise illumination transforms him into an angel, for just an itty bit of a second, and then I'm staring at the light, and the beauty forces a tear from the corner of my eye.
"Do it." The skull-shaking bass again, but it's comforting, somehow, and I shut my eyes, engulfed by nothing, and it's like being tucked into your bed by someone who loves you most of all, and I take one last breath, this wonderful thing, sucking in everything around me.
I taste the world in that moment, in all of its glory, and in all of its putridity. It fills my lungs, fills my body, and I hold it in, absorbing it.
I smile, and the sensation of muscles shifting beneath my skin relaxes me. The tension I've held since birth escapes, and everything is perfect. I release the world back into itself, tasting it, smelling it, in reverse, as the pistol's mechanics begin again. The components snap against each other in synchronized harmony, a symphony performing an anthem only I can hear.
Not too bad for a last song.