A Mirage >
by John Riley
He peered through the window, almost charmed by the gallant light. It’s bestowing honor, he thought, sitting like a crown across the swaying wheat field. He had been thinking this way for days now. Light was gallant and honorable, rivers had dignity, the tea table with fragile legs her mother had given them had manners.
Was there danger in thinking so, he asked himself again?
He was the diner’s only customer. The waitress was heavy-set with a firm but friendly face. She placed a glass of water on the table and he asked her what type of beer they had. She looked up from her pad. “If you want fancy beer you’ll have to wait until you get to Omaha.”
“It was worth asking.”
“You’re heading into the city, right?”
“Aren’t most of the people who stop here?”
She glanced out the window. “Not as many as you’d think. Lots of people are heading the other way.”
He opened his mouth to respond but she cut him off. “What can I get you?”
The diner stood trapped between a two-lane road and the seemingly endless field of wheat. After the waitress brought him a can of beer and a bowl of beef stew he wondered what it would be like to shout, “Serving-woman, bring me your stoutest ale.” If he lived centuries before would he be the type of man who made such demands? Maybe a warrior with the wisdom to know inside his ignorant heart that someday the spear would be for him. Or would he have been the drunkard in a village, full of fancy thoughts and ambitions but without the wherewithal to make them happen? It was difficult to think of a man being weak in a time when cheeks were shiny with meat grease. He felt the steam from the hot stew on his face.
Then he thought of Copernicus in his tower making near-sighted observations of Mars and realized his image of the past was as distorted as his conception of his marriage had been. That he had thought she was an honest woman and he a proud man, when in truth he had known inside his own ignorant heart that someday the spear would be for him. The strange truth was that now it was over he knew he had never cared. All the years thinking there was some sort of bond, that what he thought they had built together had the right to have meaning when in the end it was dust.
He ate as much of the thick stew he could and finished off the beer. He had no reason to rush and considered having another one. Then he thought that clouds are wise because they know how short their life will be, and decided to get back on the road.
The waitress took his money and began to count the change with the confident skill people who work cash registers develop over the years.
Money is a circle, he thought, and told her to keep the change.
“Or should I leave the tip on the table,” he asked.
She glanced at him and said, “Why would you have to do that?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “People do things differently in different places.”
“You’re right,” she said, stuffing her tip into the pocket of her greasy serving apron. “But me, give me money and I put it in my pocket. That way I’m sure I know where it is.”
published 25 November 2013