The Lunch Lady
by Roy Dorman
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Danny Wilson had attended his father’s funeral and was now walking down State Street in Chicago. He took a right, walked a few blocks toward the lake, and then decided he’d stop at the next bar he came to for a couple of beers.
His dad’s death had been a shock to him. After Danny had graduated from high school, and then college, they had sort of drifted apart. Danny had his work in Chicago, and his dad still worked wherever he was sent. He had been killed in a car-pedestrian accident in Rome. Since Danny and his dad didn’t really have a hometown anymore, Danny decided that the service would be in Chicago.
Danny was surprised at the number of people who showed up; apparently his dad had made a lot of friends over the last twenty-five years.
Lester’s Bar & Grill was the first bar Danny came to. Even though it appeared to be somewhat of a dive bar, he felt it called out to him. There were only a couple of small windows; it took a couple of seconds for Danny’s eyes to adjust to the darkness. It was only four in the afternoon, but there were already a dozen customers, mostly old men, scattered throughout the bar.
Danny took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer. The bartender drew a pint of one of the local brews and set it in front of him. “Happy Hour; that’ll be four bucks.” she said with a smile.
Danny’s mouth dropped, and he stared. “Kristen. Long time no see,” he said quietly, but returning her smile. He hadn’t seen her again after she had passed him the note on his second day of school. Except maybe for the following day with Cassie when he may have seen her and Loretta scurrying in the darkness.
It had been seven years since Danny had graduated from a high school in New York City. He and his dad had left Kansas midway through the first semester, and Kristen still looked the same. The brown of her eyes seemed to be a little more faded, but otherwise she looked great.
“Just a second,” said Kristen. “Hey, Lester, can you watch the bar for a few minutes?”
Kristen led Danny to a booth in the back and they settled in. “You’re the kid from Salina Central High that I gave the warning note to, aren’t you?”
“Well, I’m not actually a kid anymore but, yeah, I’m Danny Wilson.”
“You didn’t come back, so I never did get your name,” said Kristen. “I did see you peek in the door the next day with some other student. I figured you got the message from my note. Something told me that first day you didn’t really need our cafeteria at that time.”
“What was the cafeteria that you were in, Kristen? What was that place? What were you doing there?” said Danny, his voice getting a little louder with the last question.
“Keep it down, Danny,” said Kristen, cutting her eyes toward the bar. “I can fill you in on the cafeteria and a few other things. But I only have a few minutes, so pay attention.
“The kids in that cafeteria were kids who had graduated from high schools in the area and had become disillusioned with the sameness of the everyday world. They were kids who hadn’t had much of a home life while going to school and, now that they were out and on their own, they had less.
“You know there’ve always been losers. People who feel they don’t fit in; have no purpose. The cafeteria created itself by feeding on their despair. It wasn’t real solid all the time, it flickered in and out, but it was most real around lunch time. For some reason it drew you to it.”
“I was a transfer, not a loser,” interrupted Danny. “I liked school.”
“Were you happy at home? Did your parents love you and treat you okay?”
“My mom died when I was four,” said Danny. “My dad raised me by himself. His work was the kind that didn’t let him spend a lot of time with me. But he cared about me.”
“When was the last time you saw your father?”
“Today, at his funeral. He was in a little brass urn.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Danny,” said Kristen. “But tell me: when was the last time you saw him before today?”
“What does that have to do with what we’re talking about?” asked Danny defensively.
“Shhh! Not so loud. And focus, Danny; I’m trying to give you some important information.”
“What were you doing in that supernatural lunchroom?” asked Danny. “Why were you and Loretta working the lunch line?”
“I was getting to that. I was abused in my home and not all that happy with high school. Like most of the others in our special lunchroom, lunch period had been the least painful part of school, the least painful part of our lives. When you came to a new school, what was the easiest part of the day as a new kid? The cafeteria. Stand in line, get your food, sit at a table and eat it, and leave when you’re done. Same in every school. Anyway, I graduated from high school, went straight into an unhappy marriage with Lester, and—”
“Lester! The Lester from the cafeteria? Wait a minute; is he the Lester who owns Lester’s Bar & Grill?”
“Just hangin’, man. We’re just hangin’.”
“Yes, that Lester,” said Kristen. “He worked at a gas station after high school. Now listen: he’s up at the bar and just looked over at us. Keep it down.”
“How did you get from a high school lunchroom in Kansas to a dive bar in Chicago?”
“It must have been about a year after you would have left. Lester, Loretta, and I decided we’d had enough of living in the cafeteria. At first it had seemed warm and safe and better than the cold world outside, but we got restless.
“We weren’t the first ones to leave. People came and went over the years. We came to Chicago and were looking for a place. It was Lester’s idea to open a bar, a bar like the cafeteria. We were standing on a corner waiting for the light to change when Loretta stepped in front of a bus. Lester and I knew what she had done and, when the light changed, we walked on. There were twenty of thirty peopled gathered around her. She was dead; she didn’t need us anymore.”
“Loretta killed herself? Why would she do that if you three had managed to get free of the cafeteria and were starting something new?” asked Danny. “Kristen, Loretta looked like she was really old; like a hundred. What was her story, anyway?”
“Think hundreds of years, Danny,” said Kristen. “Loretta was at least two hundred years old. She would never talk about it, but Lester and I think that she started the cafeteria idea. She had some sort of power that converted the despair into something tangible. At least it was tangible most of the time.
“Maybe Loretta was afraid Lester and I had absorbed some of that power from the cafeteria, like through osmosis, and were going to dump her once we got settled. Or maybe it was she was just tired of the whole long-life thing. It does wear on you sometimes.”
“You do know that this is all pretty hard to swallow,” said Danny. “If I hadn’t been in that lunchroom eating burgers and chips the first two days and then seeing it all dark on the third day, I wouldn’t believe any of this. But Loretta hundreds of years old? Nah, I don’t believe that. How old are you? How old is Lester?”
“I was born in 1950. Lester in 1947,” said Kristen. She watched that information sink in.
“What?” said Danny, a little too loudly again. He was sitting in the booth with his back slightly turned away from the bar. He tried to sneak a quick peek to see if he could see Lester. Lester had heard him and was looking in their direction. “That would make you and Lester in your late sixties; you both still look to be in your early twenties.”
Kristen nodded. “Listen: Lester’s going to probably come over here in a few minutes. When he does, you say, ‘Well, it was good seeing you again,’ and walk straight out the door. Do not talk to him, okay?”
“Kristen, is this bar like the cafeteria? Are all of these old geezers in here permanent fixtures? I think you should come with—”
“Yeah, now I recognize you. You’re that kid that was at Salina Central, ain’t ya?” Lester had come from behind the bar to the booth and was standing over Danny and Kristen with his arms folded across his chest. “Now you’re here sniffing around Kristen.”
“You are so vulgar sometimes, Lester,” groaned Kristen. “Really, if you looked up ‘vulgar’ in the dictionary, there’d be a picture of you next to the definition.” Kristen then looked at Danny and cut her eyes to the door, but Danny chose to ignore her earlier advice.
“Hey, Lester, nice place ya got here. It’s a little ‘dead’, though, if ya know what I mean,” said Danny with a chuckle. “And I’m pretty sure a couple of big screen TVs aren’t all that’s needed to ‘liven’ it up.”
Danny had been looking at Lester when he said that, but now he turned away. Trying to look nonchalant, he took a sip of his beer. Lester looked at Kristen, shrugged, and then cold-cocked Danny. Danny slumped over unconscious into the booth.
It was dark when Danny came to in an alley cluttered with garbage cans. The right side of his head was sending him some serious pain messages. Lester was lying on top of him. He had a bullet hole in the center of his forehead. He must have dragged Danny out here and then somebody had shot him. Kristen.
Danny managed to stand, check to see if he still had his wallet, and stagger out of the alley onto the street. It was ten minutes before he finally got a cab to stop for him.
* * *
A week later, Danny took the train to the neighborhood where Lester’s Bar & Grill had been. He retraced his route from that afternoon but couldn’t find the place. He knew that he was on the right street. Finally, after really concentrating on Kristen, he saw an abandoned storefront flicker like a mirage.
Crossing the street, he stood in front of it and could make out “Lester’s Bar & Grill” above the double doors. The words were painted over, just as “Cafeteria” had been painted over at Salina Central, but they were there. Danny wasn’t surprised that the words appeared to have been painted over years ago rather than a week ago.
Danny had come to accept Kristen’s explanation as to why he had been drawn into the oddball cafeteria in Salina and he had an idea that some of the same personal issues had led him to Lester’s bar. Danny was making six figures, but he didn’t have a partner, close friends, or any close relatives. His life was just so-so. Walking back to his apartment rather than catching the train, Danny decided the next time he ran into Kristen, he was going to throw in with her.
It was only a few blocks later that a bus pulled up on the street next to him. Looking up at the passengers, he saw Kristen looking down at him. Danny slapped the side of the bus and called out for the driver to wait. He put some change in the fare box and started down the aisle. It was pretty full, all older people, but there was an open seat next to Kristen. He sat down next to her and took her hand in his. He gave her a small smile and she returned it.
Looking at their hands clasped together, Danny noticed there were a number of small liver spots on the back of his that he didn’t remember seeing before. He was pretty sure they hadn’t been there when he got on the bus.
Kristen saw what he was looking at and bent down and gave the back of each of his hands a lingering kiss. When she sat up again, the spots were gone. Danny wondered if maybe Kristen hadn’t been telling the truth when she had told him that Loretta might have been responsible for the idea of creating alternate realities for dissatisfied people.
“As long as you stay with me, you’re practically immortal,” said Kristen. “Unless, of course, I kill you or you kill yourself. Also, you should know time can move erratically in places like the lunchroom and the bar, and even more so on this bus. A couple of hours have already gone by ‘outside’. The things we see out the bus windows will be in ‘bus time’. But when we get off the bus, we’ll step into a whole new world.”
“Just hangin’, man. I’m just hangin’.”
The bus driver drove on into the evening and then on into the night. Over the next couple of months, Danny and Kristen saw a lot of the streets of Chicago. Danny had never felt more alive.
Copyright © 2017 by Roy Dorman