The Habit of Toothpicks

Bill knows that his wife Pamela really wants more than anything not to care what anybody thinks.

“She’s a bitch,” says Pamela, “no way am I leaving her a tip.”

And he knows that just when you begin to think she believes these words, before you can enjoy her eccentric character, she lets her eyes drift around the room to see if anyone is looking or listening. When she does that, you know she’s just an actress. She cares what you think, so you don’t think much.  It’s like she becomes part of the background noise, a piece of clutter. She’s not even a face in the crowd. She’s just the crowd.

Her name is not Pam, it’s Pamela. Never call her Pammy.

He’s not quite old enough to be her father, but he knows she sometimes tells people he is. “He’s kind, in a quiet sort of way,” he hears her tell everyone eventually.

“She humps like a bunny,” says Bill to the boys at the shop, which is more than he usually says to her in an evening. Now, he tries not to look at her too long. She’s in one of her moods. Shit, she’s always in one of her moods. He begins to feel the pressing walls of the restaurant, the windows growing thicker. The table moves closer, pinning him in.

The waitress brings his biscuits and gravy. She’ll be right back with Pamela’s waffles.

“We can use our Stealth Bomber if we want to,” says Pamela’s son who is ten and not eating breakfast. He rarely eats anything. “The President can always send in the Stealth Bomber.”

“The President’s an asshole,” says Pamela, and then searches the room.  Her words begin no deeper than her throat. She contradicts herself a dozen times every day; if she thinks of them at all, she must think of her lies as pretending.

She frowns. “Where are the strawberries?”

“You wanted strawberries with that?” asks the waitress.

Pamela pretends. “No, no, never mind. It’s okay.”

The waitress doesn’t roll her eyes, but her arms are crossed. According to Reader’s Digest, she is either giving herself a comforting hug or fending off an enemy.

“I’ll get you some strawberries,” she says.

“Oh, great,” says Pamela, and this is the first thing she’s said in some time without looking to see if anyone is listening.

     In her daydreams, Pamela is a Country Western singer and speaks candidly with a talk show host. She feels her thoughts swimming in profound waters.

     “What I really believe in is individuality,” she says. “I believe you should just be yourself.” Her eyes do not drift to the side.

     “What a powerful and moving statement,” says the talk show host.

Pamela leans toward him, as if to whisper, but her voice is as invasive as ever. “Doesn’t our waitress remind you of that barmaid, Alice, over at the Silverado, the way she wears her hair in a ponytail, trying to look so young?”

He doesn’t answer. Alice is the owner of the Silverado and hosts an annual talent show. Pamela has entered four years running and never even placed. He remembers not to look at her. She’d be scowling, drumming her fingers, trying to think of something to say, something to get a reaction out of him. He continues to ignore the pain he’s been ignoring since before sunrise when it woke him. He glances at the ceiling. It is descending slowly.

Pamela’s son is drawing a battle scene on the back of a paper place mat and making war noises. He had gone by himself to ask the cashier for a pencil. His name is Thomas, but you can call him Tommy when his mother’s not around.

“Thanks, hon,” Pamela says when the waitress delivers her strawberries.

     In her daydreams, she wears all black except for her cowboy boots which are dyed white snake-skin.

I’m really a fairly shy person,” she says. “Singing and being on stage is like therapy for me. It beats paying a shrink.”

     The host chuckles, the co-host lets out a hearty laugh, and the comedian who was on before her nods approvingly.

When he finishes eating, Bill gets up and walks over to the cash register to get a toothpick. The dispenser is empty. He asks for one and waits patiently while the hostess goes to find more. Patience is something he has in reserve. He knows this to be virtue, but he isn’t quite sure what a virtue is or how he can cash in on it. The toothpick pacifies him some, but as he walks past the doors of the restaurant he hears them lock and the air being sucked from the room. He feels like he’s breathing through a pinched straw. To avoid looking at Pamela, he looks at the floor. The carpet is a dark shade of orange or a reddish brown. He can’t remember what the color is called.

“Is that gravy any good?” asks Pamela as he sits down. She’s finished her waffles and wants the one biscuit he didn’t eat.

He wants to say go to hell. “Fine, help yourself,” is what comes out. He looks over at her plate and wishes he hadn’t. She didn’t touch her strawberries.

Thomas has finished drawing and instead of making a paper airplane he’s making a paper helicopter, something he learned from a library book.

     Because they never got along, Pamela always tries to say something positive about her mother during the talk show.

     “My mother,” she says to the host, “was a character, but a very good cook. Even though we didn’t have much money, we always had a good meal on the table. She was very creative with food.

Pamela forces out a loud, husky sigh. “You’re not going to leave that woman a tip, are you?” He has his wallet out.

One of the many things she’s never noticed about him is that he always leaves a generous tip. Of course, she doesn’t know about his first love, a waitress in his hometown. She worked at the diner where he picked up the habit of toothpicks. Her hair was long and deep red, almost brown. She wore a ponytail.

Their love had been what a nineteen-year-old might deserve from love: naive, frightening, and overwhelmed with laughter. They made love quietly, in the dark, with the windows open to summer. Her small gasps and desperate grip on his arms spoke more than Pamela’s wild moaning ever could.

“I don’t even know where Vietnam is,” she said, when he told her he’d been drafted.

Bill went off to war, and Carolyn died in a car crash on a winter road.

When he got the news, his insides collapsed and then vanished. He doesn’t believe they ever returned.

“I wouldn’t leave her a tip,” says Pamela, loud enough for the waitress and surrounding tables to hear.

Thomas has already made his way over to the bubble gum machine where he is spending money from his paper route on jawbreakers and a miniature yo-yo.

“Shut up, Pamela,” he says. But he’s not sure she can hear him. His voice sounds far away. The table has started to rise and is pushing against his chest. It’s very difficult to breathe. He tries to stand, bending over because the ceiling is so low, and the pain is so loud. Someone is speaking to him, touching him. He swats at the hand, afraid to look for a face. Don’t look, he remembers. He can hear his breath against the windows. They’re too damn close. The sun is too bright. There is a scream and there is falling. He doesn’t know which comes first.

He watches a kaleidoscope of movement, his cheek pressing hard against the floor. Was it the scream or the fall that came first? This is the only thought to occupy his mind until the last one, when he remembers the color of the carpet.

diner_toothpick

Edward R. Tilskin

Edward R. Tilskin, aka Eddie the Stilts, aka Rupert Stiltskin, aka The Rumpler, aka Stumple Riskin, died Wednesday at the state correctional facility. He claimed to be 90 years old.

Although no birth record has ever been found, Tilskin was the name used at the time of his trial on multiple counts, including fraud and kidnapping, and it is the name that appears in his prison records. Many aliases were entered into the transcript during the trial, the above list being only a sample. However, the most common name used by his criminal associates was Eddie the Stilts, clearly an ironic nickname given his diminutive stature.

Due to the confusion regarding his true identity, little can be confirmed about Tilskin’s early life beyond consistent reports that he was known as a grifter even as a teenager. Several people who claim to have known him when he was a young man say he spent most of his years before age 40 in prison. He then had a run of good luck selling get-rich-quick schemes, not all of which were obviously illegal. He even appeared in a series of infomercials inviting viewers to invest in hay farms for a near 100% profit overnight.

For reasons that remain in dispute to this day, Tilskin kidnapped the child of one of his get-rich-quick-with-hay customers, a well-known heiress. The investigation following his arrest revealed the scam behind his operations. Though he often made references to being “blackmailed” as his motivation for kidnapping the child, who was returned safely to her parents, he never provided details.

The inconsistencies around Tilskin’s case spawned a small cottage industry of conspiracy theorists who were disappointed to learn that his last words were a simple conglomeration if his aliases: “Rumpelstiltskin.” He had no known family.