The warm summer air drifted through the open window. It shook awake the somber curtains and caused the ceiling fan to groan. The fan had three blades, one of which was crooked as if it were in mid bow. That one had less dust on it than it’s counterparts. The electric wires curled and twisted from the socket from which the fan was attached to the ceiling. He had meant to tell the landlord about it but he hesitated in case the landlord asked questions. It was just another thing he would have to keep to himself. He closed the window.
The sun had just risen but he had been awake. No rest for those who think and he couldn’t stop thinking. If only he could go down like the sun and forget that he had ever risen. He dressed for work, wearing the same beige shirt, the same black trousers, and the same black boots. The belt he chose was the same one as well. The brown leather belt that had been with him for too many years now. It had changed as he had changed. Now the last hole of the belt strained as he buckled it around his waist. There was a time when the second did him fine. It was like with each new hole, he had lost out on a different life, now that he was on the last one, there seemed to be no other lives left for him. The path he walked on now showed no signs of branching off, rather it gave the impression of being a dead end. But he held out hope that maybe as he approached that wall, he’ll notice some kind of opening, something that will take him a different way.
He adjusted his trousers so he could get some more breathing room. The ceiling fan hung motionless now and as was everything else in the small room. It was everything he had. The small possessions of his were his own and he knew them by heart which made them great because each piece meant something. Perhaps this was why he still used the old belt. This one was familiar to his touch, his hands felt the different groves of the leather as he wrapped it around his waist, a familiar embrace, the way his wife used too or his little girl. How old was she now? He could barely recall what she sounded like? Would the belt fit around her waist? The belt still had a purpose just as he did. His purpose, for now, was to open the shop and sweep the floors before the customers came.
The shop was hidden behind the new stores that were built the year before. The store was like a snapshot of some long forgotten past with its red bricks, yellow rooftop, and old western style font that spelled out its name along with when it was open and closed and how breakfast, which ended at eleven am, was half off. All of which was painted in black ink on the large glass window. This contrasted drastically from all concrete buildings that had sprung up in recent times. Which is why people described it as the little shop that looked out of place. From its appearance, it was still functioning. People still came through the doors but not as many as they used to. And the tiny bell still rang but not as smoothly as it used to and the customers still appreciated the food but not as much as they used too.
It seemed as if only the old remembered the shop for it was always the same people that came at the same time for the same food and said the exact same words. He greeted them the same as well and asked them the same questions. Robert, who worked as a server had noticed this and made a joke, saying that whenever he came into work it was like he was living the same day again.
“I could go about the day blind and still see,” Robert said. “I don’t know how you do it, man. I’ve been here for like two months and I’m going mad, you’ve been here like six years—”
“Eight? That’s even worse, I don’t know how you ain’t gone mad.”
It was actually ten but he kept that to himself
“It’s not that bad. I don’t mind the everyday,” he said.
“This ain’t for me, man, I’m trying to get out when I can.”
“You should. You can do much better.”
“Franz you always be telling me this but you should take your own advice.”
He shook his head. “I don’t mind it here.”
The little bell rang with a slight hiccup and it was time for Mr. Friedrich to come. He was an older man, older than Franz but he still had a full head of grey hair, unlike Franz. He walked slowly, leaning on one side because of the wound he had suffered in his leg still bothered him. It bothered him more with each passing year. It bothered him the most now for he could not lean upon his wife anymore.
Mr. Friedrich had the choice between the four tables. All four were identical. White flowery cloth, salt and pepper shakers, a dessert menu that was rarely touched, a couple of mints that were placed in a small cup and a bunch of napkins. He took his usual seat in the corner table by the window. He liked to feel the warmth of the sun. Although he never said as much but Franz figured it to be true. The fragile sun spotted hands always rested where the sunlight fell. Robert went to greet him.
Franz already knew the order and had the eggs and bacon ready to cook. He also had the orange juice waiting for Mr. Friedrich. Robert came back and told him what he knew and Franz started cooking. Robert leaned up against the kitchen counter and folded his arms. He whistled a tune as Franz cooked, rhythmically tapping his foot on the tiled kitchen floor which was swept clean by Franz hours before.
“Why do you think he comes here every morning?” Robert asked.
“Maybe he likes my cooking.”
Robert laughed and his laugh made Franz smile.
“I heard he’s well to do.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Meaning he ain’t need to come here.”
“Mr. Friedrich has been coming here for years now. He used to come with his wife before. I’ve even seen him come with his daughter.”
“She good looking?”
“Out of your league, son,” Franz chuckled.
“You’d be surprised, Franz my boy, I can make plenty of things work.”
“Yeah, yeah. How about you make yourself work first and take this to Mr. Friedrich”
The trickling of the customers lessened in the afternoon like a leaking tap, the kind where one can see the water droplet form, gather size, cling to the metal rim before elongating and falling into the sink. It was just how things worked around here. The warm sunny days made people slow and relaxed. They much rather walk the coastline or lay by the beach and watch the waves come and go instead of being stuck in a small four table shop in the corner of the town. Franz liked this part of the job. Afternoons were what he looked forward to the most because he could step outside the kitchen and have his smoke under the sunlight. He sat on the curb in front of the shop and watched the quiet streets. In the big cities, you could not find such peace.
He looked at his left hand and no longer was there any mark that changed its disposition. With time, the sunlight had branded over his previous brand. Now, it was concealed as if there was never anything on his finger. The sunlight fell upon his chest as well. There was no concealing what was inside there. A branded heart cannot be rebranded. If only the smoke and the sunlight could calm his memories. Amidst the peace was disorder but only he felt his disorder, the rest of them did not see it, but he knew the rest had disordered as well, but he did not see it. He wondered how peaceful the town really was.
The little bell rang and Robert came out of the shop. He sat beside him on the curb and Franz passed him the smoke. Robert was a good boy. He complained a lot but he always did his work and soon he’ll move on like the rest of the kids had and another will come to take Robert’s place and Franz hoped he would be as good as Robert too.
“Did your daughter like the boots then?”
“You know, those black boots for her birthday. The ones I told you about.”
“Oh, yeah, she loved them.”
“Yeah, she said she wore them that day.”
Robert passed him the smoke.
“When’s she coming here? It’s been like a year since you said she was coming.”
“Thought better of it,” Franz said, “Wanted to keep her away from you.”
Robert laughed as he took the smoke from Franz and finished the last bit of it.
In the evening Mr. Friedrich returned. He never came back in the evening, however, Mr. Friedrich did take his usual seat by the window. He ordered whiskey but Robert told him that they didn’t serve alcohol. Mr. Friedrich asked for it again and when he asked for the third time it sounded as if he were on the verge of begging, the man’s voice quivered as he failed to look Robert in the eyes.
Franz gave Robert some money to run down the street and get the whiskey from the liquor store. Mr. Friedrich sat quietly holding the piece of newspaper he had brought with him. He did not read it until Robert came back with the whiskey. Franz put three ice cubes in a glass and drowned it with alcohol. He set it on Mr. Friedrich’s table who just nodded. He took a sip from the drink and then unfolded his paper and began to read.
“Odd fellow ain’t he?” Robert said to Franz as the two watched from the kitchen. “Made a big deal about the drink and now he’s barely drinking it.”
“It’s not about the drink,” Franz said.
“What you mean?”
“He could have stayed home, in a comfier chair and had a drink.”
“I’m still not following,” Robert said.
“Night can be too long when you are alone.”
Mr. Friedrich finished his drink. He did not ask for more. When he tried to pay for the whole bottle, Franz told him not to worry about it. Mr. Friedrich was a proud man and he did not take the service for free so he left a good tip on the table. Franz let Robert keep the tip for himself.
“You deserve it,” Franz said, “Never seen you run that fast.”
Robert laughed and the two of them shared another smoke. Robert suggested that they might as well have some whiskey too while it’s here and Franz agreed. Franz did not talk much but Robert did, he never stopped talking, Franz simply sat there smoking and drinking until he felt a little light-headed and he wasn’t sure if it was the drink or Robert’s word that made his head feel that way but he was glad for Robert and his words because otherwise, it would have been him and his own words.
“You know I really want to be a dad,” Robert was saying, “I’ve been talking about it with my girl. I want a boy but she wants a girl. I’d love to have a whole bunch, you know, but damn, the thought of it is kinda scary, right?”
“But you just gotta do it, I guess, just go with it. But first I need to find something better, don’t you think?”
“You will find something better.” He took a sip of the whiskey.
“You think so?”
“Yeah, you’ll be a good dad too.”
“I hope so. No, I know I will. I know I’ll get something better. That’s how you gotta think, right? You have to get all those bad thoughts out so you can think only good ones. I think that’s how it’s gotta be.”
“You know, that isn’t a bad way to think about it.”
Robert looked pleased with himself.
Before going home, Franz stopped to see if he had received any mail. He hadn’t. When he got him, he sat down at the edge of his bed and took off his shoes. Afterward, he undid his belt and his stomach thank him. He laid the brown leather belt beside him and went to open the window. The warm evening air came through, slightly moving the cream-colored curtains which had yellowed slightly from the cigarette smoke. He made a note that he should get those washed before the landlord says something about it. He stood by the open window and had another smoke. All he could see from his window was the quiet back street where a cat lay curled up. He often fed the little cat and he called it Franny.
Once Franz finished his smoke, he grabbed the wooden chair from his study table and set it in the middle of the room. He went to his bed and picked up his brown leather belt and looped the belt through the buckle and tied it at the last loop which had been strained by the weight of his belly. He stepped onto the chair and put the belt through the arm of the fan until the belt was centered. Franz needed to get on his tippy toes to get his head through the loop. Once around it, he balanced himself on the chair, his toes scraped the chair as if he were testing out how cold the water was, not wanting to plunge right in, which was something he had learned from all his mistakes but if there was a time to plunge it was now. Here was where his coward came out. Always here. At the edge of it, he was always too cowardly to jump, to plunge into the nothingness and be brave about what happens next. But his heart wasn’t built like that or it may have been built like that but he had drowned his courage, the same way he had drowned his marriage and now all that remained was the coward. He swallowed his spit and took a breath and pushed the chair away. Slowly the disorder went away.
Franz woke up on the floor. The chair lay on its side and he unknowingly mimicked its stance, on it’s back, staring up at the ceiling. The belt still hung on the ceiling fan but it was no longer circular but rather it was limp, oval shape like a horse racing track. Franz rubbed his tender throat. Inhaling stung. He should have known better to take a deep breath. The warm evening air came through the open window and he lay there. After some time he got to his feet and set the chair in the middle of the room again. He climbed up it and reached for the leather belt. He saw the loop had finally given way and had ripped.
He liked that belt. He placed the belt in his cabinet and the ceiling fan leaned a little more. Outside, the cat meowed and he forgot that he didn’t even feed Franny. While outside, he decided to have another smoke. At least this time he had made progress.
Franny came up to him as he set the bowl on the ground. He opened the can of tuna and emptied it in the bowl. Franny started to eat. He gently brushed her fur saying, “Good girl, good girl, I love you, You’re so good, I love you.”