The Last Straw


[This story was written in response to Writing Challenge: The Last Straw over on RocNaNo. Yes, I posted it there, too, but I think it’s good enough to include here as well. What do you think?]

“Here ya go, honey! You want regular or decaf?”

I glanced at the waitress’ name tag as I slid into the booth. Rachel. “No thanks, I don’t drink coffee.”

“Well you just let me know when you’re ready and I’ll bring the pots right over!”

“Uh, could I have a menu?” I asked, but she had turned away as if she didn’t hear me. “Uh, Miss? Rachel?”

“Change your mind? Ok! Which do you want?” She turned back to me with a pot in each hand, one of them having an orange spout that probably indicated the lo-test kind of coffee. Decaf coffee never made any sense to me. The only reason to drink the vile stuff was for the caffeine, so why make a decaffeinated version?

“I don’t want any coffee, just a menu, please.”

“Ok, I’ll get you something to look at until your friend arrives, and you can have your coffee then.”

“You don’t seem to understand; I don’t drink coffee.” But she had turned away again to park the pots on the warmers while she hustled back to the cash register where the menus were kept. I think she sloshed one of the pots, for the scent of burned brew arose, reinforcing the usual diner smell of coffee, fried eggs, burned bacon, and more coffee. I swear I could get my caffeine fix just by breathing the air. There was no reason for me to actually drink something that tasted so bad that even frequent coffee drinkers masked the taste by loading it up with cream and sweeteners. Some even went so far as to blend it with booze, using the caffeine to speed the alcohol into their system. Gah!

Rachel returned with two menus. “Here’s one for your friend so you can order right away once they arrive.”

“I’m not …” but she had already turned away, hurrying off to hide in the kitchen. It wasn’t like the diner was busy or anything. It was late morning, Diner Time, and there was one old guy sitting at the counter drinking coffee and reading the paper. He looked like he should also be smoking a cigarette, and probably would be if it weren’t for all the health regulations.

I sighed and opened the menu. I’d come here because someone had told me they offered good breakfasts cheap, and looking at the pages stuffed into the plastic folder that seemed to be the case, but the thing they featured was their “Bottomless Cup!” of coffee. A real selling point for a non-coffee drinker. I wondered if they would substitute Coke instead of coffee. Yeah, right.

Now that I’d made my choice I closed the menu, placed it on the table and sat twiddling my thumbs while keeping my eye out for Rachel. I checked my watch — five minutes gone. Where was she?

Finally she popped out of the kitchen and went to speak to the guy reading the paper. Then she grabbed the hi-test pot and went back to top him up. Putting the coffee pot back, she went over to the dessert merry-go-round, took out a piece of pie and set it in front of him. He just continued reading the paper.

Rachel had just started my way when the front door jingled and a handful of teenagers invaded the diner, swarming over to a booth on the other side of the room. Her path immediately veered off to take their orders. I started drumming my fingers on the table.

She darted into the kitchen and returned with a tray full of glasses which she set in front of the kids. Her hands dropped into the pocket in her apron and pulled out a handful of straws which she dropped on the table, then she took her dripping tray back to the kitchen.

The kids immediately grabbed the straws and started shooting the papers at one another. One flew over to the counter and bounced off the guy’s newspaper to land in his pie. Without seeming to look up he flicked it away and forked a bite from the pie. Then he turned the page.

Rachel finally made her way over to me, a pot in each hand. “I’m ready to order,” I said.

“So what’ll it be, honey? Regular or decaf?”

“I’d like a Diet Pepsi.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, dear, we only carry Coke products. Coca-cola, Sprite, …”

“Then I’d like a Diet Coke, if you please.”

Why, certainly, darling! Why didn’t you say so?” And then before I could get another word in edgewise she disappeared back into the kitchen.

The kids in the other booth were evidently sensitive to sugar and caffeine, with the way they were climbing all over the booth and causing a ruckus. When Rachel appeared with my drink she headed over to them first. I didn’t hear what she said, but while she was talking with the kids one of them swiped my drink off her tray, started drinking it, then spit it out.

“Ugh! Diet!” was the only thing I could hear. Rachel picked up the half empty glass along with several other now-empty glasses, placed them on her tray, then pulled out a towel from somewhere and wiped up the most obvious mess. Then she headed back into the kitchen.

It was two minutes later when she reappeared with a tray full of drinks. She headed back to the kids table, distributed most of the drinks there, dropped off another handful of straws, then finally headed my way. Thank God!

“Here ya go, sweetie!” She placed one glass in front of me, and a second one on the opposite side of the table.

“Uh, Rachel? I only ordered one drink.”

“Oh, I’m sorry! Is your friend not coming?”

I decided not to fight her delusion. “No, I’m eating alone today.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. So what can I get you? A nice piece of pie?”

“No, I’d like the Farm Style Omelet.”

“Apple or cherry?”

“I don’t want any pie. I’d like an omelet — the Farm Style Omelet.”

She looked dazed for an instant, then said “Oh, sure! I’ll have that for you in a jiffy!” and in an eye-blink she was gone.

Finally, after twenty minutes I had a drink in front of me, and it wasn’t coffee. The glass contained a lot of ice and just enough brownish liquid to color it all the way to the top. I looked around — Rachel hadn’t left me a straw. Or a napkin or any silverware, either, but I wasn’t going to worry about that now. I cautiously raised the glass to my lips and took a sip. Diet, hooray! Finally something was going right! I set it down and watched the animals in the other booth while I waited for my breakfast to arrive.

Apparently the straw papers over there had gotten wet, for they weren’t flying around anymore. Instead they were being torn up and turned into spit-wads, which flew a lot farther. Several decorated the counter guy’s back, but he ignored them. He only reacted when one hit his ear, and then only brushed it away like a fly. The ones that stuck to his paper made no impact on his reading.

Counter guy finished his pie, folded up the paper, took a last sip of his coffee, and stood up. He fished some money out of his pocket which he placed under the coffee cup. Rachel came out of the kitchen just as he turned for the door.

“See ya tomorrow, Walt!” she said as he turned away, and quickly brushed the spit-wads off his back as he headed for the door. He seemed totally oblivious to her attentions or the chaos caused by the kids. The cacaphony was so loud I couldn’t hear the door tinkle when he left.

Rachel set a plate of fries on the kids table, fueling another spurt of mayhem. One of the kids immediately grabbed the ketchup bottle and squirted a thin pink stream all over the fries. Another kid grabbed a bottle from the next booth and added a second stream, and the next thing the kids were squirting the ketchup at one another. The resulting shrieks were painful to the ear.

I did my best to turn away and ignore them. I could feel my stomach growling, though I couldn’t hear it over the din. When I’d sat down half an hour ago I was merely hungry; now I was famished. Was hunger the added spice they used to make their food taste so good? I wasn’t certain I wanted to find out.

Finally my food appeared. A three egg omelet, strips of bacon and hash browns on the side, and some toast. It smelled heavenly and my stomach grumbled in appreciation. Then Rachel set a full cup of coffee next to it.

“You looked like you could use a little hi-test,” she confided. “Cream and sugar are there on the table. I’ll bring your pie when you’re done.”

I closed my eyes and took a cleansing breath, then reached out and grabbed her arm as she turned to head back into the kitchen. “Before you disappear again, could I have a straw for my Coke?”

She looked back over her shoulder at me. “I’m sorry, baby, but the kids over there got the last one. We’re all out of straws.” With that she hustled off to the kitchen and I looked over my meal with the unwanted cup of coffee steaming next to it. Then I looked around the restaurant. There wasn’t a napkin or any silverware to be found.

I leaned forward and held my head in my hands for a moment. Another deep breath and I reached for my wallet. A ten was more than enough to cover the cost of the meal, but no way was I going to hang around for change. I put the bill on the table and had one final drink from my Diet Coke. As I raised the glass the ice shifted and some fell out to roll down my shirt. Great.

“Have a nice day, Rachel,” I murmured as the door closed behind me, making good my escape. I wondered if there was a McDonalds around here that took plastic. They’d at least have straws and wouldn’t force me to drink their god-awful coffee!

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About Kurt Schweitzer

A former vampire logistics facilitator, past purveyor of Italian-style transportation, and Y2K disaster preventer, I'm currently creating websites, novels and other fictions while reinventing myself. Again.
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