The man behind the diner counter with the perfectly-waxed handlebar mustache, the grease-smeared white apron and the batter-smattered string wrapped around his fingers could feel that she was gone when he couldn’t leash Lochiel’s Dogs. She had taught him, or tried to teach him, that figure the last night her saw her; before she left with that punk in the nice jacket; before she came back a few hours later with a rolled up comic book in her hand, blood on her shirt and a purple ring around her eye; before she disappeared for good and lived only in his dreams, forever frozen as the pretty waitress with curly hair who taught him string figures.
She was his best friend when he was a kid, whether she knew it or not. Every evening, at 4:36PM on the dot, she would come to work to the same scene: his dad, the eponymous Gene of “ene’s iner” behind the counter serving up borscht and Gene Junior, or rather his four-year-old-self, in the booth with a book or pad of paper, lost in thought and coloring inside the lines, always inside the lines. She always made it a point to come see him and show him a new string figure: Jacob’s Ladder, Cup and Saucer, Leashing Lochiel’s Dogs. Every twenty minutes, between tables and charming the counter jockies, she would check in, a helpful critique always at ready: move your finger here; you need to relax the knuckle. He lived for that space between twenty minutes, for the exhalation of her, the missing piece he needed to breathe. He spent the next sixty years learning new figures, showing them to his kids when they took over the booth and he took over the counter. When his kids moved on to other, better, things, he spent the years and days and months and hours hoping that one day the old boxing bell above the door would ding, and that she would be there again and he could show her how much progress he had made.
– Excuse me, good sir. My foodstuffs?
Junior unwrapped the string from his fingers and slid the plate of chicken, recipe unchanged since time immemorial, across the counter to Beady, same spot as always. He missed. The plate crashed to the floor. The blinking sign bathed the shattered plate in a wash of dull green neon.
His dad had never missed; he had never missed. The diner itself was a fading monument to his father and the genetic gift of never-missing: cracked picture frames of boxing glories past on rusted nails above the multi-patched pleather booths smeared with greasy fingerprints; dust-covered maroon boxing gloves the color of the dried knuckle bloodstains hidden inside hung from eyehooks barely held into the failing plaster; tins of mustache wax stacked on a shelf, color-coordinated by era.
For the first time in any era, Junior missed.
When the young woman and the little girl with the plastic Triceratops showed up, he knew Tess was gone before the young woman even told him Tess sent her and showed him the key.
To be continued.