For several days, Charles didn’t come to the diner. Eli feared that maybe the man had died after all, his project unfinished. Who would find it first? Would the police searching his house pause to observe his masterwork in the making, or would they rush through, pick up the body and send him to the nearest morgue?
Then Charles did come in one night. At the end of the man’s meal, Eli brought the check and a whole box full of straws.
“What’s this?” the man asked.
“You’ve been gone.”
“What is this?” He sounded alarmed.
“I need only three.”
“But you’ve been gone. You missed four days.”
The man chuckled at this. It was obviously a nice gesture, that the young man showed both concern and a willingness to help.
“This diner is not the only place where I get my straws, you know?”
“Why don’t you just buy them? They’re not expensive.”
“Well then, if your establishment regrets handing out straws for free to their customers, I can go somewhere else. I always pay for my meal, and I don’t cause a fuss.”
“No, listen, that’s not what I’m saying. Here’s a whole box of them. You can have them. You can have them all. Take them.” He wanted to push the box into the man’s chest.
Truckers and other customers stirred at this—took a look at the counter where the two men argued over straw—and then returned to their midnight breakfasts.
“It’s not about that,” Charles said.
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about building something.”
“Okay. Then here. Build. Build with these.”
“I have to pace myself or—” he caught himself, stopped, breathed through his nostrils and finally pressed a thumb to his lips as if to prevent himself from saying more.
“Don’t you have some orders to make?”
“Then refill my cup, would you?”
Eli looked down. The black liquid came up to the brim of the mug.
“It’s cold,” Charles said, with a sort of forced kindness.
Eli went back into the kitchen, dumped the coffee, came back out and refilled the cup. He set the coffee down on the counter and exhaled deeply. He lowered himself with his elbows on the countertop, fists under his chin. Eyes level with the other man.
“You’re pacing yourself, aren’t you?” he asked.
“I am.” Charles managed a bright smile at this, but it was dishonest.
“I have my reasons.”
“How? How can you do it? How can you stop at three every day?”
“I just know I have to. When you get to be my age, you learn a little about self control. You become friends with patience. When you’re young, like you, there is none of that. Everything is here. Everything has to be now. Even here, miles away from big city living. It’s like you think you can solve everything just by…” He couldn’t find the words to finish.
“Digging,” Eli said.
“That’s what I’m doing. I dig. I have to down a bottle of painkillers just to pour you a damn coffee. And there’s no rest for me. There ain’t no pacing.”
Saying all of this—it felt a lot like a confession.
“What are you digging for, young man?” Charles asked.
“What is it you’re building, old man?”
Charles didn’t say anything. He just stared at his coffee while stirring it with a spoon, even though there was no sugar or anything inside to stir.
“It’s a sculpture.” the old man said without looking up. “But I can’t say more.”
“I’m digging a hole. But I can’t say more, either,” Eli said, finding spite in his own tone.
“It’s nothing,” Charles said.
“It’s gotta be something. Else you wouldn’t be building it.”
Charles didn’t respond. He placed exact change on the table for the bill, picked three straws out of the box and walked out.
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Genre – Short Stories / Literary Fiction
Rating – PG13