They sat across from one another at the diner. The younger man in a plain black pea coat with a black button-down shirt and black slacks. Hair: jet black. Skin: pale white. Though he looked to be in his forties, he had deeply sunken eyes, a pronounced jaw, and high cheekbones. The effect was a gaunt and grotesque visage staring blankly at the older man on the other side of the table.
The older man was not fat, nor even big, really, but next to his companion he looked robust. He wore a blue and white checkered shirt and a pair of khakis. His short-cropped gray hair had long since abandoned the top of his head for the more southerly latitudes around the ears – much the same way that so many of his friends had abandoned the northern cold for Florida or Arizona. A pair of big wire-rimmed bifocals rested about halfway down the bridge of his nose.
“So, you still haven’t told me where you want me to go.” The older man said.
“Sure I did,” said the other. “We’re going where you’re supposed to go.”
“And it’s already happened?”
“Yes. It’s already happened and you can’t do anything about it.”
“Heh,” the older scoffed, “No negotiating with guys like you, I guess.”
“There are no guys like me.”
“Yeah,” the older said. “I guess not. You said your name is Moe?”
“Yeah. Carl, this has got to happen. We’ve been running it this way forever, and this is just the way things have to be.”
“So you say.”
“Yes. So I say. You have only two choices here. Follow me, and get a shot at some leniency – a grade on a curve. Or, go it alone and let your imagination do what it will.”
They sat in silence for a long moment. Then Moe looked around the restaurant. Frank’s Diner was a staple of the city, a novelty breakfast and coffee shop made out of an old Amtrak car. Booths lined one side of the interior, the classic fifties-style counter lined the other – stools upholstered with the same red vinyl and chrome accents as the booth seats. Nostalgia and neon everywhere.
The woman behind the counter scraped scrambled-egg residue and bacon grease off the grill. She turned her head when Moe said, “Excuse me?”
“You ready to order, hon?” She asked.
“Indeed I am!” He said with a smile that crept just a little too wide. The plump, post-menopausal waitress came over to their booth. With the exception of a couple of regulars at the other end of the counter, Carl and his companion had the diner to themselves. She pulled her order pad and pen from the white apron tied around her apple-shaped body.
“What can I get’cha?”
“I’ll have eggs Benedict, please, with an order of hash browns, four slices of bacon, hot cakes, and a cup of coffee, please,” Moe said.
The waitress wrote it down and smiled. “Comin’ up!” She said, then added, “Do you want cream and sugar with your coffee?”
He shook his head. “Just black, thanks.”
“And for you?” She asked Carl.
“No.” Carl said quietly. Then he said it again. “No.” And again. “No… No. No. No!” The last one punctuated by his fist driving down against the table top.
The waitress looked at him quizzically, and the younger man looked at him like a disappointed father.
“Carl,” Moe said, “She’s just taking your order. Why don’t you get some eggs? After all, who knows when you’re gonna eat again. You should enjoy it while you can.”
Carl shot Moe a glance. “I’m fine. Thanks.” He said, waiving the waitress off.
“No. You’re not. That’s why we’re here. Remember.”
“Look, you can’t expect me to just believe you. I’m the sort that needs convincing.”
“Okay.” The younger man said, sighing. “You want proof? Fine. It’s like this.”
He touched Carl’s arm and the diner disappeared around them. In it’s place was a seemingly endless gray space filled with thick fog. Their booth remained, and the two men sat at the center of this void new place.
Carl looked past the other’s shoulder and beheld, through the fog, an image of himself strapped to a wooden chair. His arms and legs were bound, and strapped to his head was some kind of twisted torture device that kept his eyes open. He was in shock, and all around him, in the fog, flickered images from his life. Here was his father drinking and putting out a cigarette on his younger sister’s arm. Here was his mother shoplifting meat from the grocery store while she made him stand watch. Here was every fistfight, every bout of road rage, every drunken blackout he’d ever been a part of. Here were all of his secrets and regrets laid bare for him to relive.
“I am not here to play games.” The man who’d looked younger a moment before, and who now somehow held millennia in his eyes said. “The old ones sometimes called me Mot, or Thanatos. I’ve been known as Midrash, Yama, Iago, and even Rasputin. I’ve ridden the fourth horse at the end of time, and I’m telling you this is how it is.”
Carl sat transfixed by the scene playing out around him.
Moe released Carl’s arm and the two were back in the diner again. The sun gleamed though the windows, cars whizzed by outside, and the apple-shaped waitress scurried around behind the counter.
“What was that!?” Carl nearly shouted.
“I told you.” Moe said. “It’s what happens if you don’t come with me.”
“I thought you said I got to choose!”
“I did say that,” Moe said, parsing his thin lips. “And you got to choose.”
“I didn’t choose that!” Carl protested.
“You did, though.” Moe said, waving his twig-like index finger in front of his face. “The moment I touched your arm, your mind made your choice for you. Your conscious mind may have had no say in the matter, but it was your mind that created that scenario, nonetheless, and now you’re stuck with it.”
He slowed those last words down and spat them out like darts, then he let the poison sink in.
“But I wouldn’t…”
“Nobody would. But that’s not how the mind works. You’re tuned to respond to fear, to prepare for the worst. The moment I told you that you could choose, some part of your mind was afraid, and when I touched you, that is what it created.”
Carl looked indignant.
“This is a bait and switch! That’s what this is!” He cried. “I should be there looking at softball games and birthday cake and Sunday afternoon walks through the park! What about all of those memories, huh? What happened to those?”
“Look, Carl, I told you already. You chose what was down that path. It works like I said: You follow me, it’s like you get graded on a curve – it’s all relative. As long as you’re as good or better than most, I promise you’ll be happy with were you end up. You go your way, and…” he shook his head, “I tell ya, Mac, we’re our own worst judges.”
A few moments passed.
“Just give me another day then,” Carl said.
Moe sighed and sat back in the booth and rolled his eyes.
“I… I can go out and put new memories in my head! I can make sure that next time you touch me I think of something good! You gotta give me one more day!”
“Come on, Carl,” Moe said. “You really think you’re going to undo all of those wrongs in a day?”
Carl looked down at the table.
“That’s what it would take, you know,” Moe continued. “If even one bad memory remained, that’s the one you’d fixate on. I’ve seen it time and time again.”
Carl sat there for a moment without looking up. Moe’s phone vibrated and he pulled it out of his inside coat pocket. He looked at it for a moment, then said, “Excuse me, Carl. I gotta take this. You think things over for a few.”
He left Carl in the booth and walked back toward the restrooms at the other end of the diner. He held the phone to his ear.
“Yeah?” He said. After a moment he added, “No, he’s okay. He’ll play along.” Moe glanced back at Carl, who was twirling a spoon in his coffee cup, and who still hadn’t looked up since Moe stepped away. “I know we’re behind quota,” he said in a more whispered tone. “Trust me, the old ‘chair and regrets’ routine is working like a charm.”
Moe returned to the booth and Carl looked up.
“How did you say it happened again?”
“Heart attack. This morning. While you were driving.”
“Did I hurt anyone else?”
“That’s good! Keep that line of thought up! Concern for others really works in your favor in there.” Moe said. “Now, I hate to rush you, Carl, but I do have other clients I have to get to. I know this is sudden, but you really can’t change the situation you’re in – only what you do now that we’re here. Come with me, Carl. You have a much better chance with me than on your own. You can see that, can’t you?”
Carl closed his eyes and sighed. “Are you sure it’s already done?” He asked.
Carl grabbed his coat from the seat next to him and stood up.
“Good choice,” said Moe. “Let’s go.”