Well, another job is complete. It was time to take off the makeup and wig and put on my other mask—the one that isn’t real but is only composed of smiles and cheery anecdotes. I’m a child entertainer by day, singing and dancing in a clown suit, and a custodian by night, sweeping and mopping in a one-piece jumper. After a while, it all kind of blends together. Like a cocktail of minimum wage and sweat-stained uniforms. And forget about sleep. I am constantly snuffing out yawns as I barrel through the workday and night, running mostly on coffee and bagels. Although I haven’t been eating as much lately either. I convince myself it’s okay because I’m saving money on food to pay the electricity in my efficiency.
But after tonight I didn’t feel like going home. I sat in my neighborhood diner, sipping coffee, and watching a few drunk people shuffle in and out. The one thing I can say I’m proud of is my sobriety from alcohol. Didn’t even need AA. It’s four years today, actually. I usually celebrate with a bunch of lotto tickets and a piece of apple pie, my favorite dessert in the world—but it just didn’t sound very appetizing. I skipped the lotto tickets because I wasn’t feeling very lucky, either.
“Can I get you any more coffee, sir?” the rotund waitress asked, a huff in her voice, as though she was annoyed that I wasn’t ordering anything else.
“Please,” I slid my mug toward her. I could’ve sworn I heard a small sigh as she poured the coffee.
She walked away to tend to the booth behind me. I heard two men order a full breakfast, and snicker as she went back to the kitchen. Even though they were trying to keep their conversation quiet, I could make out everything they were saying.
“Let’s ask her.”
“If not her, there’ll be someone.”
“Yeah, just have to be careful.”
One of the men stepped out of the booth and walked past me, toward the restroom. He was a big guy. Well over six feet tall and over two hundred pounds, easily. He was still in the restroom when the waitress came back with their food.
“Anything else I can get for you, sir?” she said.
“Maybe. What time do you get off work, sugar?” the man said. I couldn’t see it, but I bet he was smiling.
“W-why?” she replied, bashfully.
“Thought maybe I can interest you in a cup of coffee. Uptown, someplace nice, Abby. That short for Abigail?”
“How’d you know my name?” she giggled.
“Name tag, sweetheart.”
“I try not to make it a habit of going out with handsome men that know my name, but I don’t know theirs.”
“Hmm, Jake. Wait around for me? My shift ends in a half-hour.”
She walked back toward the kitchen, and a few moments later the large man finally emerged from the restroom.
“She said a half-hour.”
I took my cell phone from my pocket. It was almost five in the morning. The two men began talking about sports. I wasn’t sure what they were up to, but something didn’t sit right with me. I ran my fingers through my graying hair and grimaced when I saw a small clump stick to my hand. Losing my hair didn’t bother me anymore. Not like it used to. When I was in my forties, I’d break a sweat over it. But almost a decade later, time cures all I suppose.
I got up to use the restroom. I stood in front of the cracked mirror, observing the wrinkles that’d made a permanent residence on my cheeks, and the dark bags under my eyes. I smiled. A huge grin—the mask. I’d perfected it throughout the years, so much that I almost fooled myself. But I know better.
I splashed water on my face and sighed. I must’ve stood here for about the length of time the large man had been in here. It was time to go home and lie on my mattress that waited on my hardwood floor. I exited the restroom and saw that the two men had gone. Their table was clean, and another waitress was tending a single table. Another old man. I placed a five-dollar bill on the table and left.
It was still dark outside, and I could feel the wet mist hit my face as I strolled down the sidewalk. My efficiency was only six blocks away. I thought about the conversation the two men had and how odd and creepy it sounded. It’s probably nothing, I tried to convince myself.
I’d walked two blocks when I noticed in an empty parking lot an old sedan with the passenger door wide open. Curious, I investigated. Nobody was in the car, not even signs of anyone nearby. Then I heard a scream come from a narrow alley in the lot.
“Shut her up!” a voice shouted.
The same voice from the diner.
I had no choice but to make my way down the alley. As I neared toward the end, I heard muffled cries coming from behind a large dumpster. I picked up an empty 40 oz. malt liquor bottle by my feet and held it over my head in a defensive position as I peered over the dumpster. The two men from the diner were perched over the waitress. The large man covered her mouth, with his pants down behind her and the other man facing away from me, stepping on her head.
I emerged from the other side of the dumpster. The man stepping on her head turned around, and I hit him on the side of the head with the glass bottle with great force. He hit the ground with a plop, and I immediately tackled the other man, the bottle still in my hand. But the man was large and strong. He struck me on the side of the face, and I toppled over, dropping the bottle next to me. The waitress began screaming for help. She didn’t waste any time, running down the alley for a safe haven. I shielded my head as the large man’s fists rained down on me. I saw his exposed genitalia and kicked upward. He groaned in pain as he sat back with his hands between his legs. I grabbed the bottle and smashed it on the hard asphalt. The bottom of the bottle shattered, leaving sharp, jagged edges around the circumference. As the man began to gain his composure, I lunged forward, stabbing him in his right eye. So much blood poured out of his face that it was hard to discern where it was exactly coming from. I took this opportunity to escape as his scream echoed in the alley.
I reached the end of the alley and quickly scanned the area for the waitress, but she was nowhere to be seen. I ran north toward my apartment building and called 911 when I was sure I wasn’t being followed. I explained the situation through panted breathing. The lady on the other side of the line said that police would be in the area shortly.
I finally made it home where I collapsed on top of my mattress. Dawn neared as I thought about the waitress’ cries and the man’s screams. I laid in the darkness with my eyes wide open, tracing my finger over the bumps and ridges of the wall behind me until light began to creep through my makeshift shades of slabs of cardboard and tape. After the short rest, I dug into the mattress and grabbed a needle, spoon, and baggie of the whitish-brown powder. No one could ever know this part about me. But another day had come and gone, and all I had were a couple more hours until I had to put the mask on. Although I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for it, I picked myself off the ground and headed out the door with a smile as large as the apple pie I was now hungry for.
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