Of the men in the trio, one managed a hardware store, another was a supervisor in a factory producing plastic parts for light fittings, and the other a print shop proofer. Their white collars were discolored, verging on frayed, their shirt cuffs grubby, though they had to have a Sunday best at home. They were men out of old magazines and black-and-white movies, from a different time, I sometimes thought, yet there they came, swanning into mine. Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, they converged on a corner on the edge of the industrial district, where three roads met, then, without pausing, marched into our little restaurant.
“Never call it a diner,” Dad warned me, a long time before I set foot in there to work. “It’s a restaurant.”
But with a cook, and not a chef, and no espresso machine, it can’t even be called a café; it’s a diner. There’s nothing wrong with that. In our ad in the local rag, it says we serve ‘good, honest, home-cooked food’. Those commas are the loudest items on the page. It’s not too off-the-mark to say I’m ashamed of them, the way they herald that adjective that doesn’t apply to food: food – honest? How? The word good says it all; if food is good, people will like it. I hate it when people say, “Oh, we had this delicious meal.” Sure it was delicious, I want to yell at them. Or, “Oh, it was tasty, tasty. . .very very tasty.” Of course it was. If you’re starving, you’ll eat things that rot and things that wriggle – but that’s not what we’re talking about; it’s the reporting of it I take issue with. If food isn’t delicious and tasty, I say don’t even mention it.
And home-cooked – seriously? I reminded Dad that if people wanted home-cooked food, they’d stay home and cook it, wouldn’t come to
our. . .restaurant to eat. He thought I was being challenging. In the background, Mom counseled me with a shake of her head.
Our food is stodge, savoury or sweet, full of calories that burn in active bodies and stagnate in those whose only movement is to go to eateries and, eventually, to dentists. It’s good; Dad had that part right. One out of three, at the end of the day, is not so bad.
The trio always ordered the same food. For hardware man, who smelt all paraffin and wire wool and cardboard, it was tripe. Plastics man, under his layer of synthetic dust, went for liver, any kind. And kidneys for print man. I once heard him attest that printing ink was, technically, edible, what with the air full of it where he worked. It also filled his hair, and nails, and the lines around his eyes. Their food was accompanied by mashed potato, and the vegetable of the day, a graying green of cauliflower, cabbage, string beans or, sometimes, the somewhat mystifying greens, that I called, if I were feeling mischievous, grays. None of them ever noticed.
All three had dirty fingernails. I heard Mom say once that she thought they would be the kind of men who washed ‘below the waist’ at least once a month. I could never work out whether she approved of that or not. All of them maintained a humorless look on their faces. All talked in a practiced way that gave me the feeling that, although they heard what was said, they never listened; each utterance was greeted with faces that looked expectant, but only of giving an answer that had been long formulated in all their conversations down the years, recalled, and pulled out whenever it was needed.
They liked their offal for the strength of it, I suppose, but they never savored it. Down it went, mechanically, forgotten at once, in the times between their turns to talk.
As they spent their only free hour together three times a week, they had to be great pals. Yet they seemed to regard one another—and me, their charming, eager server—with the detachment with which they’d inspect an order of garden fork handles, the calibration of machines churning out a million perfectly identical light fittings, or the fine details that made up a print spread, with its crying, leaping commas.
Contentment settled over them only when their plates had been cleared, and they were waiting for their milky coffee. With a bit of theatrical after-youing, they each took a toothpick from the ceramic pot on the table, adopted an air of concentration, and set to picking their teeth.
When freed, the blobs of food hit the window. They hit the walls. They hit the floor, and gleamed on its tiles. They stuck to the edges of tables. They decorated salt and pepper shakers, the ones I polished every evening till they shone. They were launched onto the collars and sleeves of customers nearby. The gaps in those men’s teeth had to have been the size of warehouses.
Only when the excavations were finished did the men let out their sighs of pleasure, the only signs that they were enjoying their lunch hour. The ritual was not quite over: their ease was capped with their attention to the used toothpicks. I never saw any signal given, but, in unison, they broke their picks, one as exactly in the center as he could, another carefully inserting joints into his with a black-ridged thumbnail and not breaking it, just making it into a longbow shape, and the other breaking off only the pointed ends, each seemingly oblivious of the others’ handiwork. At another unheralded point in these proceedings they would look at me, as if challenging me to ask what they were doing, just so they could say, “You won’t be putting them back in the pot.” Like we would. They’re cheap as air, for a start – cheaper, in fact. And Dad doesn’t care about denuded pine forests or bare mountains in Scandinavia; he buys toothpicks by the truckload.
I asked them to refrain, from the careless picking, not from the breaking. The one whose turn it was to pay would look at me as if I were speaking in tongues, and pass me the check, and, as was the habit in the trio, the exact money, with a rising, strongly-voiced “Thank you.” Dad had sent our cook, Nino, to ask them to shield their mouths when they picked. She had stood over them, broad tattooed arms folded, her tone even and patient. The one paying that day had avoided Nino’s dark eyes, looked around her, and signaled to me, passing the check, and that annoyingly exact sum. Dad had asked them. They had looked at him, sized him up and slotted him into the hierarchy they saw: a man who furnishes diner food for money, nothing else. One of them had pressed the check and the money due into his hand, and looked through him.
“It’s the only part of their meal they enjoy,” I said to Dad. About to protest at this affront to his home-cooked, honest, good food, he was perturbed into silence at the revelation. I hoped it wouldn’t pitch him into the mood that trapped him sometimes—which ended up in his doubting his entire existence, and that of history itself—and said quickly, “I got an idea.”
Dad looked at me, mouth open in scorn, a finger raised. He listened to me with half an ear, but that was all I needed. I’d called Nino, and we’d huddled, and plotted.
Next day was Thursday. The men came in. I took their orders and handed the copy in to the kitchen. Nino’s face appeared at the service hatch. She was nearly smiling. This was a woman who never forgot any of the numerous indignities and absurdities that had befallen her and her ancestors in the place she called the Soviet Onion, and never smiled. I nodded. She turned back, and nodded to Dad. Soon, she beckoned me to the hatch.
I picked up two of the plates, the tripe, and the liver, and brought them to hardware man and plastics man. When I brought the kidneys to print shop man, I also brought them all new salt and pepper shakers, both shining. They ignored me, as usual, until they saw that I had also brought a new pot of toothpicks. Their talking stopped, for a few seconds, and forkfuls of food were paused in front of them. Their gazes shifted to those perfect spikes of pine. Then they resumed their meal.
I usually never heard what they were talking about. This day, they mentioned a rice factory in San Saba, Italy, the use of baskets on ropes to deliver shopping to infirm, or just lazy, people who lived in the upper stories of apartment blocks in the Middle East, a holy hermit who lived on a pillar and had his food sent up to him the same way, and a man who bit off a chicken’s head for a dare and ended up paralyzed with some crazy disease found only in raw chickens, in an enzyme released at the point of trauma. I couldn’t work out how any of this hung together. I didn’t care. I saw the trio without seeing them, almost, my eyes flicking between the cash register, my pad, and the other diners.
The trio got the food and the talk out of the way. The men no longer looked at one another. They went into a study of post-prandial indulgence, like cats stretching before a fire, not caring about anything in the imperfect world around them.
I watched them openly now from the cash register, because they were too absorbed at this stage of their meal to be aware of anything else. Dad’s and Nino’s faces filled the hatch, Dad’s lips slightly wet, Nino maintaining the even line of the grim Soviet smile that hid her metal false teeth.
The trio, their eyes hooded as if to shield the world from their favourite part of their hour, picked their teeth. The food flew. We saw it in mid-air, spinning, arcing, or straight as an arrow, before it settled in the usual places.
The whites of their eyes bulged. Their mouths stayed open. Their fingernails whitened. A toothpick snapped, prematurely, in the hardware man’s grip, and he let out a low moan. The print shop manager dropped his, toothpick, and added his own tone. The plastics man took it up a click. They were a musical trio: they made a chord, one of those odd ones I could never remember from my abandoned piano lessons, and turned it into a discord. The other customers, distracted, noted the unearthly music, looked at one another a little uncomfortably in a second of stillness and silence, then resumed their food and talk.
The men got up, chairs flying and falling, hands to their mouths. One of them pulled money out of his pockets on his way to the door, and threw it in my direction. I caught some of it in my apron, bent for the rest, and picked it up and counted it, put some in the cash register, and placed the surplus into the tip jar.
They didn’t even take the time to break their toothpicks. As usual, we wouldn’t be reusing them anyhow. Had we been in the habit of such a reprehensible thing, we definitely wouldn’t have reused these ones.
Dad nearly smiled. Nino showed a centimetre of teeth the colour of guns. I looked past her into the kitchen, and the jar that sat on the counter, in which I’d marinated the toothpicks overnight. I didn’t know for certain what was in it, but had noted it in the back of the cleaning cupboard for years. It had a skull-and-bones on it, and the stark words Danger – Highly Corrosive. Nino picked it up and placed it gingerly into the crusher, and daintily operated the foot switch, made the unit whirr, thrum with protest, throw up a little glass dust, and then gulp. Pulling on protective gloves, I stepped over to the trio’s abandoned table, and added the discarded picks to the pot. I handed the lot to Nino, and she did her magic again, emptied the toothpicks without handling them, and threw the pot in after them, making them into dust and air.
I cleared the men’s plates, and used a cloth to get rid of their other mess from the window, the floor tiles, the table top and, as discreetly as I could, from the shirt collar of a little pot-bellied man all done up in a summer-weight three-piece suit, talking to his willowy secretary as if he were addressing a public meeting.
The trio hurried along the road, hands flapping, or held up to their faces. They tottered, and almost tumbled, into the reception of the nearest dentist. I knew this because, along with Dad, I followed them.
The receptionist showed her lovely white teeth in a very professional smile.
They pointed to their faces, but their movement, and noise, was put on pause as they looked at the receptionist. What they saw was a version of me. They must have wondered for seconds whether they’d really made that painful journey down the road, or whether by some awful time-warp sorcery they were still in our so-called restaurant. One of the men let out a moan. Another joined in. The third completed their awful chord.
They were looking at my twin. She was only identical on the surface. When she was eleven, she walked smack into the door that at that time bisected our hallway, its glass thin and clear as a summer day, not a speck on it nor a mark, nor even the hint of a reflection. She had been fixed on something so intently that she hadn’t seen the door; maddeningly, the shattering impact had cleared her mind of whatever it had been that was so important. I sometimes thought she would never get on with her life till she remembered what it was. Now me, I would never be so preoccupied with one single thing; I drive myself crazy by trying to see everything at the same time. Back in our hallway all those years before, my sis had stood, silent, and framed in wood, and had bled. When we found her, there were shards in her head, chest, hands and thighs, and she was the whitest creature any of us had ever seen, bolt upright in a pool of blood, a hand raised as if to ward off helpers in case they broke her concentration. She was Saint Sebastian, contemplating the power of momentum, and the reward for inattentiveness, and carelessness.
My twin was in a deep sleep for weeks, fed through tubes—bad, dishonest food, I suppose, and not cooked in a home, but in a lab. When she left the hospital, she moved slowly, and examined the minutest details of her surroundings before she committed herself to any action at all.
When my twin was twelve, my mum bought a blue budgerigar, and caged it. My sister hated the background noise it persisted in supplying; it was the irregularity of it, she told the psychiatrist: if it had hummed a continuous note—impossible, of course—or chirped out the same Morse-code-steady message, pursued the repetitive, solitary behaviour of any imprisoned animal, she could have lived with it. She got a rubber spider from a joke shop, a life-size bird-eater, and put it on the cage, where it sat, its lifelike eyes paradoxically deadly, regarding the bird with the implacable contentment of the diner. Startled, the poor budgerigar fell to the floor of its little prison and, mortified, lay in its own mess. It took three days to perch again properly. It didn’t have a cardiac event and die, but it never squeaked again.
I’d looked into my sister’s eyes many times, and had sought empathy, sympathy, sometimes, and the legendary twins’ psychic bonding. I only ever got a watchful, calculated curiosity back. I settled for it. We shared a twins’ smile by day, at our respective jobs, and reverted to our own faces in the evenings.
The trio noted that smile of mine on my sister’s face. They were too flustered, and too needful of attention, to do anything other than throw themselves on its mercy.
My sister said, “What seems to be the problem, gentlemen?”
Our uncle once told me and my sister that the mouth was the filthiest place in the body. Just like one of those mortified chickens with its deadly enzymes, the mouth was full of bacteria that would kill us. We brushed our teeth diligently. We vowed never to kiss anybody. We do, of course—you have to—but it’s nearly always accompanied by distaste and, just a little, terror. Our uncle is an expert. He’s also my dad’s identical twin. They had decided to corner two complementary markets: my dad prompts the stodge and sweets to be made, and fills mouths with bacteria, while, a short walk along the road, at his dental practice, his brother fixes them. There’s terrible perfection in it, for sure.
The trio of diners crowded into the surgery’s waiting room. They looked up when my uncle put his head into the room. They had one of their moments all over again, fancied they saw my dad standing there, a restauranteur, masquerading as a dentist.
“Who’s first?” my uncle said.
They stared at my uncle, fingers pointing. Distracted by a not-so-discreet cough—mine—they looked at the doorway, at me and Dad fixed in place, having by then hurried through the side door. The trio looked at one another and, once again, came up with that chord of theirs, dreadful, diminished, and, yet, growing louder.
Nick Sweeney’s stories are scattered around the web and in print. Laikonik Express, his Poland-set novel, came out with Unthank Books. His novella A Blue Coast Mystery, about the swingin’ sixties and genocide, will be published in November by Histria Books. He is a freelance writer and musician, and lives on the English coast. More than any sane person could want to know about him can be found at on his website.
This is his first feature on The Fictional Café.