The town is one of those forgotten places that everyone has left, a single diner sitting in an empty parking lot with a flickering light the only sign of life in a part of the country that goes dark as soon as the sun sets. Said, probably one of the quietest people I have ever known, has decided to make up for the silence of the past three months. I don’t know if it is the wild feeling of the rain plowing down from the sky like the clouds are desperately trying to drop everything and flee, but Said is yelling, and with his matted hair, his torn lapel, he looks like a man beaten into a confession.
For some reason, the waitress stands in the doorway, perhaps fascinated by the downpour or wishing to run out into it and dance like a child, or perhaps just being polite with her cigarette, but the rain is so loud that Said’s shouting goes lost in its rumble, a sound I now mark unmistakably as a kettle boiling over, and with his accent, it is nearly impossible to make out what he says. He is so excited, he has his arms up and bent at the wrist in that T-rex posture I always tell him will get him in trouble in a town like this. It’s worse in my country, he says. I wonder if he is really this quiet back home. Quieter, he tells me.
Across the street, a Greyhound pulls up, the blast of water from its wheels nearly reaching the waitress. She looks down at the spray like a familiar but dangerous mongrel dog that she looks forward to kicking if it gets any closer. Like some kind of magic trick, from behind the Greyhound, a stream of young people carrying giant black bags comes in an almost endless line, not one with an umbrella, one girl in a skirt and at least two of the boys in shorts. They hold their band instruments or body bags or whatever over their heads like they are some exotic African tribe that has taken a wrong turn, the high-pitch calls and laughter they emit almost sound like parrots as they go lost in the rain and also somehow match Said’s high monotonous tale, as if he is out there with them, calling out happily or exasperated, but young and hopeful in any case, his hands waving wildly now as if he is a high school kid describing a fight he took no part in.
I look back down at Sara’s hand, the end of the sliver nearly loose, my knife ticking back and forth against it like it is a tiny hair, her head pushed into my shoulder harder each time I try to slip the blade deeper. If it were my hand, I would simply cut it open and wipe out the splinter, but I can’t tell how much it hurts, and Sara is a bit soft, something I thought I always appreciated, and so I am trying to simply get enough of the thing onto the tip so I can pin it with a nail and drag it out. The problem is how long this takes and now her hand is up on my bicep, clawing into me, and worse, I’m very much enjoying her touching me, wondering if perhaps pain is something I overlooked. The waitress closes the door, and the sudden quiet of the silenced rain leaves Said shouting the same words he has been shouting for the last minute: Of course I’m a faggot, you fucking redneck. He leaps up now, and I think he is about to cry, but then he runs for the bathroom and all of us including the waitress can hear him retching in there like a freight train.
The waitress gives us a look and wanders back into the kitchen. It’s not clear whether her distaste for us stems from the sight of a man gouging a pretty girl with a knife or a gay man vomiting in a bathroom she very well might be forced to clean. I suspect she sweeps all of this and worse into a giant garbage can in her mind labeled Why I hate this job. For a moment I try to imagine her story, the high school sweetheart who left her, three kids at home, stuck with just enough cash to make rent and eat fast food, smoking herself to death, cursing the bad tips. Sara’s hair smells mostly like smoke, but I get a small scent of vanilla and I turn back to her, deciding that the waitress is a night owl, loving a job that pays her to smoke cigarettes all night alone and she probably gets free meals thrown in.
I dig the knife in deeper, telling myself it is necessary, and I get it half way under the splinter before I hear Sara suck in her breath, the stifled whimper that reminds me of things I’m afraid to remember, and she pulls away. It will come out by itself, she says, sucking up the single drop of blood slipping from her tiny wound. It’s the kind that just digs in deeper, I say. We look at each other and I try not to think that this conversation is about anything other than a splinter.
Said comes back to the table, wiping his sleeve across his mouth, a gesture completely out of keeping with the usual manners he keeps, his eyes red and sunken like he hasn’t slept for days. The waitress brings coffee as if we ordered it, and we all just point at what we want, too tired to speak. Said drinks his coffee down in a single gulp then puts his head down on the table. Sara gives me her hand again, and I jam the knife in quickly, scrape out the splinter, then kiss her stiffly on the forehead. The pancakes taste like Styrofoam, but we push them down our throats anyway, then walk Said to the bus stop where the empty bus waits, the driver off somewhere smoking or pissing or just waiting for the schedule to send him on to the next town. Said hugs each of us, stands back and looks from one to the other as if measuring something. We stand by his window, as if we are family. He doesn’t wave, which seems strange, but I decide it is cultural, and then the bus pulls away, and Said turns to look back, like a lover does in a movie, and Sara slips her hand into mine. I squeeze it, thinking that we owe him at least this.
A famous writer money forced to sit with me said a story could operate by coming together, the text ending simply because a family all sat down together to stitch a father’s severed ring finger back onto his palm. Narrative is not always an arc, she said, but also sometimes a circle closing. This was my first lesson in spatial form. Reading a rather longwinded and ingenious dissection by Roland Barthes, I wondered if a story might not also work in terms of opening and closing, narrative as breath. I believe the term Barthes delicately uses is “vomit.” So I placed a door at the center, and closed the door, and made this mark the transition from leaving, opening, exiting, vomiting, darkening, yelling, and laughing to sweeping, smelling, digging, silencing, eating, and finally pulling away. I found, of course, surplus in this equation, the silence of closure necessary to let the pariah speak, the best stories about the one that got away. And here I’m talking about Said. It was a Friday night and I was not feeling well and it was all wind and sideways hail as it tends to be here and I had been asked to teach a Latin dance class to the Business Department at the university for their yearly party. I was to be the exotic entertainment. I live in a country far from home where I do not look like other people and the culture only makes me uncomfortable when I’m awake or dreaming that I am. Even back home, I am a man who teaches dance. So we could call my position that of the pariah—a critical lens quite useful for the writer, but not so useful for someone in business. Said was not only studying business, he was a gay man from a country where such a thing “does not exist,” and in a time in history where the Western world, including the country where we are both immigrants, is radicalizing against people who have his ethnic appearance. What is not in this story, but what inspired it, was watching him sing a karaoke song in front of everyone, in the most off-key and unprofessional way you can imagine, his gawky limbs jouncing about to some internal rhythm only he seemed to know, and Said simply delighting in it, as if he were the center of everything, despite how much further from historical, cultural, social, and ethnic comfort his subjectivity seems positioned when compared to mine. But in the end, we tell our own stories, so I sent Said home, to my country, to watch two young people who loved each other end their relationship, and in that moment of closing the door, I asked Said to hold it open, just for a moment, so those two could stand there in the muggy damp of a silenced southern rain and feel the tiny sliver of hope I felt right before we both let go.
-Allen C. Jones