Hannah is a writer and editor specializing in narrative nonfiction and short stories. She enjoys complex sentences, postmodern literature, and fashion magazines. Hannah lives in Atlanta, GA with cat Charlie and husband Caleb. On reflection, she should change her name to Claire.
And the Rain Came Down
The first drops came sudden, swift, and cold onto the stone patio outside Aretha Frankenstein’s. Those waiting in the courtyard shimmied their chairs under the table umbrellas, or else climbed the steps to the roofed porch and settled themselves, looking like disgruntled birds ruffling their feathers. A tall, thin hostess emerged—a streak of blonde hair against the faded turquoise of the house— and yelled “Brooke, party of 3!” She scanned the small porch for looks of recognition. Hungry patrons stared back, accusing her of base treachery.
Levi put the lit cigarette to his lips and inhaled, looking around at the hostility as the woody tobacco smoke warmed his insides and coated his lungs. The sheer force of their impatient staring had drawn him out of his book, The Dude and the Zen Master. It was a small, cream-colored paperback with worn pages and a picture of Jeff Bridges on the cover. Levi liked Jeff Bridges. He radiated a sense of calm that made you feel like nothing too bad could happen, or if it did, it wasn’t a big deal, really. That was what they were getting at with that “zen master” stuff. The Dude abides—no matter what. Levi had lost his page in looking up. He scowled at the table below him, thumbed the cover open. In a pencil scribble at the top of the page were the words “To Levi, with love -Dad.” Jeff Bridges’ official dedication, printed below, read “To all the hungry spirits.” There were certainly hungry spirits here, thought Levi, in the most literal sense.
These people were controlled by fear—fear that they would have to keep waiting, that they would be skipped over, forgotten. Ahh, there’s the rub. Forgotten. The inane inconvenience of having to wait for a table was so upsetting to these people because it got at their fundamental fear that the world didn’t need, or particularly care for, them. This mild purgatory threatened their sense of self, and—paradoxically—turned them into beasts, no better than Levi’s cat who cried for food half an hour before dinner time and then gulped it down like she was truly starving.
The cigarette dimmed and died, and Levi stepped inside the cramped diner, leaving suspicious glares in his wake. He edged between a young couple and an uptight-looking man in a suit to flag down the bartender. She was a squat woman, in her late thirties, with greasy hair tied in a ponytail.
“Cup ‘a coffee.”
She nodded and turned away. The interior of the place—it was really a bar that had acquired a devoted breakfast following—was a punk nostalgia wonderland, beyond anything the modest cottage exterior hinted at. The beer tap was an old brass diving helmet. Gold-painted plaster death masks hung over the swinging door that divided the bar from the kitchen. One table was fashioned from a defunct arcade game, another was a vintage Formica dinette. Over it all a skeleton with a spiky green mohawk crouched, frozen, suspended from the ceiling in the middle of a skateboard trick. The most remarkable feature, though, was the wall art. Every inch was covered with extinct cereal boxes that waved frantically at Levi with promises of a sugary-happy childhood. There was MR. T, Freakies, and Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks, among lots of superhero and cartoon character special editions. Levi had just spotted Wheaties Dunk-a-Balls and was chuckling to himself when the barmaid returned, cocked an eyebrow, and splashed a white paper cup full of dark, strong, burnt-smelling coffee on the bar counter. Levi tested the coffee—it was too hot to taste anything—and turned back through the front door—every head raised expectantly—to resume his spot on the stool.
It was raining heavily at this point, and newcomers made a mad dash from their cars to the safety of the porch while someone found a parking spot. They approached the hostess with unrealistic optimism, given the number already huddled under the roof. The hostess looked apologetic: the wait time had now topped three hours; no, they could not get food to-go any faster; but if they wanted, there were other good brunch options not far away—had they tried First Watch or Food Works? Bye now, y’all have a good day!
The wait list seemed to be at capacity, and the above scene soon became a predictable and entertaining pattern with newcomers. It had the added effect of building camaraderie amongst those waiting. It was satisfying to watch these intruders be denied—the wait felt vindicated, even honorable. Each time a new group came, inquired, asked if an exception could be made for them, and left, The Waiters scoffed at the impudence and ignorance of The Outsiders. “We have waited our turn and we will be rewarded,” they nodded to each other. As if to confirm this theory, every 10 minutes the hostess would emerge from inside, examine her clipboard, and call a new Chosen Group through the door. The crowd outside was dwindling. They, somehow, were winning.
How easily people could convince themselves they were exceptional, and how quickly they could form into hostile gangs of us and them.
A cuff on his shoulder brought Levi out of his frustration.
“Levi! What’s up, man? It’s been a while,” said the voice attached to the hand on his shoulder.
“Matt—good to see you, bro.”
The boys clasped shoulders, Levi’s long, dirty blonde hair hiding Matt’s dark crop. In high school, they had been inseparable, on the football field and off. Two halves of the same boy, Mrs. Bowman, the English teacher, had remarked. But there was college, and then Levi had come home when Dad got sick and said nothing to anyone, not even Matt. And now…
“How about the game last night?” It was a desperate move, Levi hadn’t watched a game in months, but Matt took the bait.
“Dude, I know!” Matt sounded relieved. “Insane game. I can’t believe Sims though. The ref was right to give him excessive celebration.”
Levi went with it. “Yeah, that’s not how I was raised. Dad always told me to act like you done it before.” Matt nodded, a little too solemnly.
“Hey, man, about your dad—”
“Good to see you, Matt.” It was dismissive this time, final. Levi turned back to his coffee and took a bitter sip.
“Yeah, see you around,” Matt said. He gave a halfhearted wave and rejoined his group. Levi recognized several of them as old classmates, but he suddenly felt much too old to talk to them.
Well, and what had he expected? Maybe he should have opened up to Matt—the book would think so—but then, Matt wasn’t the same guy he had stolen beer with in high school, or confessed crushes to, or played football with. Matt was married, and the two of them hadn’t had a real conversation in five or six years. And besides, this wasn’t the place to have that talk. He returned to the book. To the hungry spirits. What were the hungry spirits?
Levi pulled out and lit another cigarette. All this misanthropy was bumming him out. That’s what I get for studying philosophy, he thought bitterly. He glared at his open page of The Dude and the Zen Master and blew a disconcerted puff of smoke at it.
It had been three years since his father had died—sudden and aggressive brain cancer destroyed him before the doctors had even begun to treat it. Dad left his last book a tangle of unintelligible notes and ideas, the code known only to him. Ironic, the doctor said to Levi, that the most remarkable part of Mr. Kincaid was what killed him. Levi thought he must be losing his sense of humor, because rather than laugh, he threw his half-empty Coke bottle at the wall behind the doctor.
Near the end, Levi’s father wasn’t capable of speech. Levi didn’t recall his last real words with his father, but he’d laminated in his mind the last coherent moment they shared, in that sad grey-and-cream hospital room with the blue sheet on the bed that was somehow both flimsy and uncomfortable. His father had turned his hand over on the sheet and beckoned Levi with a crook of his index finger. There was a smile in his eyes, but it was an effort, fighting back pain for a moment of clarity. He pulled a book from a pile on the little plastic nightstand and pressed it into Levi’s hand. A peeling sticker on the spine showed it belonged to the hospital library. Levi squeezed his father’s fingers. “Thanks, Dad.”
And he had left Levi this little book. It still had the library sticker on it, but Levi didn’t kid himself that he would ever return it. To him, it was his inheritance, and never mind that it hadn’t belonged to his father either. This book was intended for Levi, and he was going to figure out why.
A voice broke Levi’s train of thought. That’s what he thought it was at first—a girl’s voice: she was talking to the hostess with her friends. Then Levi realized that the unusual noise was not her voice, but the absence of other voices. The Waiters were watching her, some covertly, some outright, but they were all watching. There was tension in the air—it was hard for Levi to breathe—to which the three at the hostess stand seemed oblivious.
Levi could not decide if the three were in their late teens or early twenties; anyway, they seemed about college age—two girls and a boy. They all had dark hair and one of the girls, the one not talking to the hostess, had tinged hers with teal. She stared intently at her phone. The boy was heavily built. He scanned the porch—unsuccessfully—for a place they could sit. The girl talking to the hostess had a gold nose ring spanning her nostrils, which glinted when she turned her head. She smiled at the hostess, but Levi thought it looked more like she was baring her teeth. She stood confidently, and when she spoke, it was with certainty that she would get what she wanted.
“Would you like to put your name down?” asked the hostess, scanning their audience with visible discomfort.
“What’s the wait?” The girl stepped closer, looking at the list of names on the wooden podium.
“Two hours, maybe more.” The hostess shrunk from her, failing to match her terrifying smile.
“What if we got it to go?” The girl with the teal hair and the large boy, now aware a struggle was taking place, flanked their leader and supported her with snorts of “how long?” and “that’s ridiculous.”
“It wouldn’t be any faster,” the hostess regained some ground, “we still have to serve the people in front of you first.”
The Waiters seemed to exhale; faith was restored in the order of the universe. The hostess started listing her usual alternative recommendations. Except—
The girl stepped in close, leaning a bit on the podium. “Are you sure there’s nothing you can do?”
It was derisive, accusing. The hostess was not prepared. She blanched, composed herself, managed an “I’ll check,” before disappearing through the door. The girl smiled and her companions returned to their phones.
Discontent and hunger rumbled through the crowd. Who was this girl? Would she be allowed to skip the wait? Would they be left longer in this dreary purgatory because she had questioned the system?
No. It could not be allowed. Social convention hung in the balance.
Everyone watched as the three usurpers took a covered table in the courtyard, and the boy distributed and lit three cigarettes. The table opposite from them was occupied by four men in football hoodies. They seemed to reach a grim decision, nodded to each other, and rose as a group. The rain fell in great, fat drops and left their sweatshirts spotted by the time they reached the opposite table.
“Hey there,” the biggest man said, by way of introduction, “I couldn’t help hearing ya up there,” he gestured with his thumb to the porch, “and, I mean, ya can’t just skip the wait. We’re all waiting.”
He swept his arm to indicate the porch and the rest of the patio, and for the first time, the girl seemed to notice the rest of The Waiters.
She fixed the big man with the same feral smile and said through her teeth, “Why not?”
Years later, Levi would say that at that moment, several things happened at once. The rain fell hard, and the wind picked up and began to blow it sideways, under the porch and the patio umbrellas. More groups stood and began to move off the porch or out from their tables, toward the one table where the storm seemed heaviest. A vortex was forming, swirling wind and rain that threw odd growls and roars back to Levi’s ears. As he watched, as the ring formed around the table, as the storm grew fiercer and wilder, the mob looked less human, and more like a many-backed beast that rippled with selfish fury and howled for justice. Long jaws with sharp teeth snapped and yipped above the furry sea, and then there was a collective howl that froze Levi’s blood where he sat.
He may have heard a scream or two, he was never sure, in all that chaos—you can’t know what it was like, he’d say—but in the end, when the wind or whatever stopped howling and the rain slowed up enough for him to see, they were gone. The table was empty, and everyone was back in their seats, looking wet but content. The big man in the football hoodie wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
The hostess reemerged, looking worried. She scanned the crowd, found the troublesome group absent, scratched something off her clipboard, and sighed in a satisfied kind of way.
She called, “Matt, party of 5!” and Levi watched his old friend, who had not been in his seat during the storm, lead his group into the diner. They were happy, shiny people, who did not look remotely like they had just consumed three teenagers.
When he told the story, Levi always placed himself on that same stool on the porch, away from the chaos. But sometimes, in dreams, he was in the middle of a hurricane, and there were beasts on every side, and he was a beast, and they were tearing, rending…something, and there was a long, guttural howl that Levi felt low in his abdomen, and then he would wake, shivering. He would pick up the book, and read about abiding, and about being everywhere and nowhere, and he felt better.
Levi drained the last of his coffee, leaving the little paper cup on the railing, and walked down the porch steps and across the patio to the sidewalk. He wasn’t hungry anymore.