by William T. Vandemark
The town diner gleamed in the twilight. Above the entrance, a neon WELCOME
sign pulsed on and off, the hum and buzz staccato.
Lenny stood mesmerized. "Bees and fireflies," he whispered. In the chill October
air, his breath wafted like a ghost. A moment later, a gust of wind snatched it away.
With a shrug, Lenny repositioned his backpack and surveyed the town's
crossroads. Neither headlights nor tail lights shimmered in the distance; neither
gods nor demons tolled the ways. In solitude, he decided to stop. A cup of coffee
and a bite to eat sounded good, company even better.
He strode to the diner's entrance, and paused beneath an awning. At the glass door,
he used his reflection to fix his hair and adjust his collar. He rolled up his frayed
shirt cuffs, plucked nettles from his jeans, and realized he had no socks. He
wiggled his big toe, teasing a hole in his canvas sneakers. None the worry, he
decided. Feet need to breathe.
He reached for the doorknob and stopped.
His cheek twitched, his eye winked, he coughed a guttural bark, the sound capped
with pips and a squeak. A carrion stench filled his nose, and hairs rose on the nape
of his neck.
An hour of company, Lenny silently pleaded. Was it too much to ask?
Pain pierced his right side and in spasm he bit the inside of his cheek.
At the taste of blood, he reached into his pocket and sorted through coins. By
touch, he found the one he wanted. It was ancient, large as a silver dollar, but
colder, heavier, and had a jagged hole in its center. He circled his finger around its
edge until his fingertip went numb, then he touched the wound inside his mouth.
After a three count, he withdrew his finger and spat into his hand. His spit ran
He wiped his mouth, tucked in his shirt, and entered the diner. "Greetings good
people," he said. "Beautiful night, beautiful sight, I'm Lenny, The Amazing Lenny.
And it all changes now."
At a Formica counter, a bucket and mop stood sentry. A row of stools, trimmed in
chrome, ran the length of the diner. Opposite, red Naugahyde booths sat empty.
"Hello?" Lenny called. On the counter, a bell rested -- tiny, shiny, appealing.
Lenny wanted to ring the bell, ding the bell, peal the bell. He sidestepped the
Past the counter, a waitress appeared from a doorway. Flour dusted her honeycomb
curls and kissed the tip of her nose.
"Sorry," she said. "Kitchen's closed." She wiped her hands on her apron. "Slow
night. Cook's already out the door." Her nametag read Nettie.
"Might I have a Joe? Some Java? A spot of tea, hold the tea, pour the coffee?"
Nettie angled her head -- an assessment, head to toe. "It's been sitting a while."
"That's okay, I've been walking awhile. Sitting sounds good."
Lenny heaved his backpack from his shoulders and set it on the floor. The pack
toppled and books spilled forth.
"Quite the library," Nettie said.
Books were Lenny's treasure, but admission felt as risky as performing a new
trick. "I find them," he said. "Serendipity, I think." He gathered the strays and
propped his pack against the base of the counter.
"Where you headed?" Nettie asked.
Lenny sat. "Away. Always away."
Indeed, Lenny thought.
Nettie said, "How about a piece of pie to go with your coffee? No cook needed."
"That'd be lovely."
"Right then. Nasty coffee and lovely pie it is." Nettie smiled.
Lenny's breath caught. He'd long since grown used to the furtive whispers,
sidelong glances, and outright catcalls his ticks, fits, and fancies invoked. But here,
now, she had taken him in with her smile, a simple yet perfect kindness. His face
Nettie poured him a cup of coffee and rattled off a selection of pies. "They're all
good. Make them myself, most everyday." As if to illustrate the point, she brushed
flour from her apron. "What'll it be?"
Lenny rubbed his chin. For dramatic effect, he looked up, as if searching for divine
guidance. On the ceiling, water stains eddied, faint patterns from a once leaky roof.
Curls of peeling paint beckoned.
Lenny gritted his teeth. Molars creaked as he shifted his jaw. What had they been
talking about? The room spun round and around.
Round. She'd asked about pie. Lenny gripped the counter. "Have you any that are
whole?" he asked.
"You'd like a whole pie?"
"No, no. Just a piece. But I prefer the first slice. The very first slice. Call it a
peccadillo. An armadillo. The cask of amontillado." He winked. Twitched. Ticked.
Nettie narrowed her eyes. "Apple then. Fresh from the oven."
Lenny grasped his coffee cup with both hands, hoping to hide his tremors. He
sipped the brew, burnt and acrid. "Delicious," he said. "And pipe, pipe, piping hot.
Perchance some cream is available?"
Nettie fished a packet from her apron and set it on the counter. "Already emptied
the pitchers. Powdered creamer is the best I can do."
"Ah, packaged artifice," Lenny said with a wink. "Who doesn't like a little
Nettie was already headed off to the kitchen. As she passed through the doorway,
she called back. "I can think of times where I could use a little less."
Lenny nodded to himself. Some mysteries bound souls to eternity.
He tore the packet and emptied the powder into his coffee -- an island of white
into a sea of black. He picked up a spoon and prodded the floating clump. "I am
become death, the destroyer of worlds."
The island bobbed. Slowly, its shoreline dissolved and Atlantis fell into the sea.
Lemuria . . . Mu . . . Lyonesse . . . all lost. How much knowledge lay hidden
Lenny stirred the creamer. The coffee spun white, the creamer spun black.
Fractals, fractals, everywhere, nor any drink to drop.
Lenny stood. His right eye looked off on its own and his left blinked to the twitch
of his cheek. Aware of his body's betrayal, controlling none of it, Lenny wailed in
In pace requiescat, came a whisper. Rest in peace.
At his feet, a shadow waited. Lenny slipped into the dark.
He awoke to Nettie kneeling at his side, haloed by a water stain high above. "You
all right?" she asked. Her face came into focus.
"Sometimes." Lenny smiled weakly.
"Stay still. I'll call for help."
"No, I'm fine. Just a little fire from the gods." He rolled over and pushed himself
to his feet. He dusted himself off, clapped his hands once, and showed his palms to
Nettie. "See? Right as rain."
"I'm sure. Really, truly, madly. Even better after I've had a bite to eat." He
returned to the counter where a pie, golden brown, waited.
Nettie made her way to the other side. "Fire from the gods," she said. "Meaning
"That'd be a clinical assessment."
"My aunt, she suffered from seizures. Positively hated it when people made a
"A wise woman."
"And a great cook. Taught me everything I know. See if you agree." She sliced
into the pie twice, slipped the knife under the wedge, and slid a generous portion
onto a plate. She set the knife on the pie tin and handed Lenny a fork.
Lenny took a bite. The crust was flaky and buttery, the apples, tart and sweet. Yin
yang. He rolled his tongue about the filling. "Oh my," he managed.
"I'll take that as a compliment."
Lenny nodded vigorously, savoring the taste. Warmth washed through him, and
tension slipped from his shoulders. He ate methodically, but without pause. When
he finished, he set his fork aside, pressed his thumb onto the last of the crumbs, and
with a grin, delivered them to his mouth.
Nettie, who was wiping down the counters, looked up. "That do the trick?"
The trick? The question pinned Lenny and his vision dimmed.
The trick, the tick, the tock . . . Hickory, Dickory, Dock.
To stay the sudden swirl of whispers, he bit his tongue hard. The pain cut through
wisps and curls, knicks and knacks, the flotsam and jetsam of patterns that were
tugging, tugging, always tugging. And in that moment, he remembered: the greater
the pain, the greater the measure of peace. "The trick," he said, "Yes. Yes, it did.
How about I return the favor?"
He fished his ancient coin from his pocket and set it on the counter. He clapped his
hands once and displayed his palms to Nettie. "Before the crucifixion of Jesus," he
said, "there was Horus, Quexalcote, Prometheus, and more." He tugged a paper
napkin from a dispenser, wrapped it around his hand, and tucked in the ends. Palm
up, he rested the back of hand on the coin. With his free hand, he snatched the
knife from the pie tin.
Nettie took a step back.
"But Odin," Lenny continued, "Odin was crucified by his own javelin." He raised
the knife and gave Nettie a wink. Twitch. Tic.
She looked at the knife, looked at Lenny. Her eyes widened.
Released, Lenny drove the knife though the air, through the napkin, and through
his hand. His fork jumped, his plate clattered, and his coffee cup rattled on its
With a flash of white, the room canted, and Lenny felt as if he were about to pass
out. But with his next breath, exquisite pain rose up and washed through him. It
ablated all the hard edges of the world, until at last, he floated free.
For the first time in years, he dared hope the night might grant him an uncontested
sleep. He opened his eyes. The diner glowed softly, and a golden aura hung about
"You need to leave," she said. Her words came from a distance.
"I mean it." Her aura shifted. It thinned into cold white motes that fell from the air
like clumps of flour. She held a phone, her thumb resting on the buttons.
Lenny wondered how long he'd been in the Elsewhere. He nodded at his pinned
hand. "Will you set me free?"
Nettie glanced at the knife. "Not a chance."
"Magicians need assistants."
"And you need to leave. I'm not kidding."
Take me up. Cast me away.
Lenny sighed. He took hold of the knife, inhaled, and wrenched it free. He
swallowed hard, fighting a rush of nausea. "It's okay," he said. He set the knife on
the counter. "I've been blessed."
"Please," Nettie's voice trembled, "Just go."
"But that wasn't the trick. This is." He raised his hand, snapped the napkin free,
and made a tossing motion. Using the misdirection, he dropped the crumpled paper
onto his lap. But to Nettie, her view blocked by the counter, the napkin had simply
Lenny clenched his maimed hand and opened it. No blood, just a wound. He
repeated the gesture. No wound, just a scar. And again. No scar, just a memory.
Nettie blinked. "Well heck. That's pretty good."
"I can do it again if you like." Lenny plucked the coin from the counter.
Nettie's smile disappeared -- no misdirection. "No. I've got to get home. Your
order's on the house."
Everything has a price.
"I pay my debts," Lenny said.
"Really, no charge."
Nettie shrugged. She pulled a pen and pad from her apron and scribbled. She tore
the slip loose and offered it to Lenny. As she stepped towards him, he reached out.
His fingers grazed her ear.
"Slow-coach," he said. He palmed his coin and pretended to pull a silver dollar
from her ear. He rubbed the dollar between thumb and finger, duplicated it, clinked
the two together, and set four on the counter. "I appreciate your hospitality."
Hospitality -- an old word, an ancient charge.
In dappled moonlight, Lenny sat on a park bench, his backpack alongside. On top
lay his favorite book, Forcing Coin and other Legerdemain, by The Fabulous
Farnsworth. It had warped boards and a bleached, tattered cover, but to Lenny the
book was priceless. Nonetheless, he'd decided to give it to Nettie; he'd share the
secret of the Coin from Ear trick without breaking the Magician's Code -- a gift of
After a time, the diner's lights went out. A moment later, Nettie stood in the
doorway, her figure sylvan in the moonlight. Lenny held his breath. If Nettie's path
home carried her away, he'd not antagonize the Fates by following.
Instead, she turned in his direction.
As she approached, Lenny rolled his coin back and forth along his knuckles.
Sidelong, he watched her hesitate as she caught sight of him. He winced at her fear.
"Hello again," she said, angling away, passing him by.
"Beautiful night," he said. And suddenly, as if he'd uttered an invocation, autumn
leaves, which had been scrabbling about the pavement, fell into the restfulness of
Nettie stopped. "I was wondering -- back at the diner, that wasn't a trick, was it?"
Nettie drew closer. She rested her hand on the corner of the bench. "If I ask you
how you did it, will you tell me?"
She laughed. "What if I don't?"
"You'll wonder about it the rest of your life."
"Did it hurt?"
Lenny's cheek twitched. He tasted bitterness. He wanted to laugh at her question
and the razor's edge it skirted. But if he started down that path, he'd not come
"Have you ever felt trapped?" he asked.
She glanced up and down the street. "I don't know. Sometimes, I guess."
Lenny displayed his coin. "In the desert, I pried this from a dead man's grasp. He
opened his eyes and thanked me." The coin grew heavy. "Would you like to
Nettie shifted her weight. She drew her fingertip along the bench rail, tracing its
In the distance, a dog barked.
"I think I'll pass," she said.
Pass? How could she pass? He held an adamantine coin forged from a chain that
had bound Prometheus. Secrets from time eternal lay within her reach. "You don't
want to know?"
She shrugged. "Well, I do. I truly do. But like you said, who doesn't like a little
mystery in their life?" She stepped backward.
Lenny wanted to reach out and catch her by the wrist. They didn't have to talk
about magic. They could talk about the weather. Exchange recipes. He could recite
lost poetics or regale her with impossibly true stories. She could ask him anything,
anything at all. Or they could just sit in the quiet.
And maybe he could hold her hand.
Silently, she turned and walked away. A block later, she glanced back. She raised
her hand waist-high, and gave a small wave. Then she rounded the corner and
slipped from the evening's loom.
A cloud passed the moon. It pulled silks of light from the sleeve of night.
Leaves swirled in the street. They swept over the curb and danced about the bench.
A single leaf spun free and landed against Lenny's bare ankle. It tick, tick, tickled.
Time to go. Time to go.
"Yes," Lenny said, "Time to go."
He stood, brushed himself off, and the leaves scattered.
At the park bench, he shouldered his backpack. At the diner, he propped a book
against the door.
At the crossroads, he clapped his hands once and displayed his palms to the moon,
the daily rent of his soul -- life itself.