The Man in the Booth
There is a small town where most people keep to themselves. It’s a typical town; population less than 4,000, average family household made up of 3.2 members, medium household income is $4,380.
One of the few attractions in this town is Phil’s Diner, located down by the water and open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
There is a man who has been sitting in this diner in the same booth at the same time every day for the past four months.
He orders the same breakfast: one black coffee with two sugars and a slice of nearly burnt white toast, buttered on one side.
At the door of the diner, there is a rack of newspapers. Most are local. One is national. He always grabs a local newspaper.
This man always scans the first page headlines.
Three days ago, they said:
Coyotes attack pets; residents urged to take caution
‘Stephanie’ anticipated to be worst storm of the season
Local delivery man goes missing
Two days ago, they said:
Three car accident on Highway 59 causes massive traffic
Mayor Dingberg approves new construction bill
Ex-Librarian charged with theft
Today, they say:
Power outages from Tropical Storm ‘Stephanie’ leave hundreds without power
School Lacrosse team advances to state championship
He wears an ash gray jacket, accentuating his broad and pronounced shoulders. Never unbuttoned, always pressed. The matching slacks hug his muscular thighs and cascade down his legs, landing perfectly on top of his polished Florsheim V Cleat leather shoes. Never scuffed, always shining.
Sometimes he wears a white shirt.
Sometimes he wears a light blue shirt.
He likes to wear the same tie for a few days in a row.
A few weeks ago, he wore a black and gray striped silk tie for three days. Then he wore a burnt cherry plaid designed tie for six days. Five days ago, he started wearing a navy blue and soot gray striped tie.
His ties are always in a tight Windsor knot.
The first time he walked into the diner nearly four months ago, someone was immediately drawn to him.
The way he glided onto the light blue vinyl booth seat, always centered, and ran his fingers through his short copper hair.
The way he would cross his left leg over his right thigh.
The way every move of his body seemed rehearsed and nearly perfect.
It fascinated someone.
Someone wanted to get to know the man in the booth.
Someone needed to get to know the man in the booth.
He takes a deep breath. He lets it go. He takes another one. Lets it go. It’s time to do this. Now or never, he thinks. Just talk to him. He approaches the man in the booth.
At first, the man in the booth doesn’t look up from his newspaper. It’s like nothing else exists but that newspaper. Then, his eyes look to the top of the newspaper. Then they look at the warm body that just approached him. Then they lock eyes.
“Hi, I’m Dave.” He stammers a little too quickly.
The man looking up from the booth doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t smile. Just stares. After Dave begins to feel embarrassed, the man’s eyes crinkle with a wide grin.
“Thomas,” the man says. He reaches his left hand out to Dave, keeping those eyes locked on his. He is very good at eye contact.
Dave can’t help but return the smile.
He firmly grasps Thomas’ hand. He has a strong handshake. Dave doesn’t want to let go. He makes himself let go.
“Would you like to sit down?”
The invitation makes Dave’s heart thump, thump, thump. Why is he reacting this way? Calm down, Dave. He suddenly remembers to respond to Thomas, and gives a curt nod as he slides into the booth across from him.
For a moment, Thomas just smiles at Dave from over his newspaper. It looks like Thomas wants to say something to him. His brow rises to just under his perfectly parted cinnamon sprinkled hair. He inhales sharply. Then he ruffles the newspaper and resumes reading.
Dave feels oddly disappointed.
Thomas’ eyes remain fixated on the left page of the newspaper. Dave realizes he didn’t bring anything with him to this man’s booth. No food. No coffee. No newspaper. His hands feel awkward.
“Would you like a section of the newspaper?” It’s like Thomas can read his mind. Before Dave could respond, Thomas carefully folds and slides the news section to him. Dave offers a polite nod and tries to focus on the text. All he can read are the headlines.
Power outages from Tropical Storm ‘Stephanie’ leave hundreds without power
School Lacrosse team advances to state championship
A movement catches Dave’s eye. Thomas is pulling his tie it back and forth across his shirt collar, which is rubbing against his smooth, clean neck. He’s loosening it ever so slightly. This makes Thomas look relaxed. His eyes remain on the same left page of the newspaper.
“Is that short for ‘David’?” Thomas doesn’t break his gaze from his newspaper. Dave is relieved but he doesn’t know why.
“Yes,” he replies.
Thomas slowly nods three times to himself, not lifting his eyes off the newspaper.
The two men in the booth sit in silence for another eighteen minutes. It’s a comfortable silence.
A waitress walks over and asks David if he would like anything. He tells her he wants coffee. She tops off Thomas’ mug and brings David his own mug.
After another twelve minutes, Thomas finally puts down his paper. David stops rereading the same headlines and looks at him.
“So, David,” Thomas folds the paper neatly and places it to his left. He leans into the table. “Tell me about yourself.”
Over the next seventy-six minutes, David and Thomas share scenes from their lives with each other.
“I just moved here from across the country,” David reveals. “I don’t really know anyone.”
“I am not much of a ‘people-person’ myself,” Thomas bashfully admits. “What about your family?”
There is a song serenading the two men during their conversation:
And, I know the way you love, you make me feel so fine.
I love the way you love, because I know you're mine, all mine.
Thomas is tap, tap, tapping his left foot to the smooth melody.
“I’m not close with my family,” explains David. “We don’t share the same views.”
“I understand,” says Thomas, still smiling.
Folks tell me, now and then, find somebody new.
I don't care what the people may say, I'm stickin' right here with you.
David mostly talks about work and frustrations. Thomas mostly listens. Every now and then they both get refills of their coffees.
David and Thomas share a lot in common. Neither enjoy their jobs. Both prefer winter over summer. Neither eat thai food. Both enjoy theater.
“There’s a show playing at ‘Regal Crown Theatre’ tonight,” Thomas explains. He leans in closer to David. “I happen to have an extra ticket.” His voice drops an octave. “Would you like to join me?”
David thinks for a moment. He wants to say yes. Of course he will say yes. He wants to go anywhere with Thomas. He’s so warm and welcoming. For the first time in a long time, maybe his whole life, David feels at ease with himself. He almost feels confident. Probably not as confident as Thomas, though.
“Well,” David begins, touching his chin. “I did have other plans…” he lies.
“Oh,” Thomas interrupts. “I understand, no worries.” Thomas immediately dismisses the subject and returns to his newspaper.
David doesn’t feel so confident anymore.
“But,” he retracts his statement. “I can postpone them.” Thomas looks up from over his newspaper.
For a moment, Thomas’ face changes. His smile is warm, but his eyes are excited. His skin warps and his cheeks harden. He looks divine. Like a perfect porcelain doll. His eyes flicker. And then it’s gone.
This excites David.
It’s 6:22 p.m. and David is pacing back and forth in his apartment. He is wearing a white shirt, buttoned to the top, with dark gray blazer and khaki pants. His bed is covered with rejected shirts, pants, and ties as he searches for the perfect outfit.
“Fantastic,” Thomas had said nine hours ago after David retracted his little white lie. They worked out specifics: where to meet, what time, maybe coffee afterward? Thomas looked at his Mido Powerwind wristwatch and excused himself from the booth.
“I’ll see you later tonight, then,” Thomas extended his left hand towards David. David wrapped his fingers around Thomas’ and shared his intimate warmth for just a brief moment.
David couldn’t stop his gaze from gliding over Thomas’ perfect shoulders as he carried himself towards the diner door.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Thomas interjected David’s thoughts, turning his body nonchalantly. “Make sure you wear your best suit. The theater dress code is jacket and tie only.”
With that, Thomas had left David in the booth to think about his subpar wardrobe and cheap suits.
Right now, David is deciding between a blood red and coal black striped tie or a midnight blue and vivid white polka dotted tie. The striped tie matches his outfit, but is cheap and not as elegant as David would like. The blue tie is made of silk, but has a Mariana stain near the bottom. He could always cover it, though.
He chooses the silk sauce stained tie.
When he buttons his blazer, the stain is covered.
After taking a last glace at the mirror and feeling more than mediocre in his suit, he heads out the door leaving the whirlwind of clothes behind him.
David doesn’t have a car. He usually rides his bike where he needs to go. Tonight, though, he doesn’t want to show this side of his life to Thomas.
Tonight, he wants to pretend.
He hails a taxi and asks the driver to drop him off a block away from the theater. It takes sixteen minutes to reach his destination.
The show doesn’t start for another thirty-three minutes. Thomas had asked to meet him at 8:30 p.m., fifteen minutes before the show begins. It’s now 8:12 p.m. David is glad he is early. That way, Thomas won’t see how he arrived.
He walks towards the theater and sees a man dressed in black in front of the doors.
It’s the man in the booth.
David isn’t early enough for Thomas’ promptness.
Nonetheless, he warmly returns Thomas’ smile.
“David,” Thomas reaches his left hand out towards David. He grasps it and Thomas pulls him into a short embrace. He pat pat pats his back three times with his right palm and then lets him go.
David feels at ease.
“Take a look at this,” Thomas remarks as he reads a sign posted on the front door. “Looks like Stephanie knocked the power out.” He looks at David and shrugs his shoulders.
“That’s too bad,” David is more disappointed than he lets on. He worries their night will end earlier than he anticipated.
“Well,” Thomas taps his chest with his finger, seemingly lost in thought. “There is one other place we could go.”
His heart soars and David exhales.
This is the last moment David remembers.
When David opens his eyes, he is disoriented. He doesn’t know where he is. He waits for his eyes to focus and looks around the unfamiliar room.
There is a bed in the corner. There are items all over it in the same way his clothes were all over his bed just hours ago. The clothes that are still all over his bed.
The items on the bed in front of him vary:
A small black bag.
A Polaroid camera.
A Louisville Slugger.
David notices there are newspapers all over the floor.
His head throb, throb, throbs on the left side above his ear. He tries to reach his left hand to touch it.
He tries his right hand.
He tries to move his legs.
David is tied to a cold metal chair.
A door opens from behind David. Footsteps walk towards him.
“I’m sorry.” Thomas’ face appears in David’s vision. He looks at Thomas with confusion. Obviously, he’s confused. He tries to wiggle the chair and realizes it is bolted to the ground.
Thomas reaches towards David’s face.
“I love you so much, David.” Thomas trails his fingertips along David’s delicate jaw line and pauses at his chin. His lips part as he grazes David’s bottom lip with his thumb.
“I know I love you,” explains Thomas, “because I accept that one day I will die. But to accept that one day you will die?” He’s whispering to himself now. “It hurts so much. It’s best to end the hurt as soon as possible, rather than wait.”
David pulls his lips into his mouth.
Thomas looks hurt.
“Waiting.” Thomas looks down guiltily. “Life is just waiting for the inevitable.”
For three seconds, Thomas stares intensely at David.
“Don’t be mad.” Thomas pleads. “But I have so much love to give.” Thomas turns his back to David. The newspapers on the floor crinkle, crunch, crankle with each footstep. Thomas looks at the bed. He walks towards it. David watches as Thomas’ back rises and falls with every breath he takes.
“Robert.” Thomas turns and faces David, who still hasn’t said a word. He doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t understand why this is happening to him. All he wanted was to get to know the man in the booth.
He didn’t want this.
“Robert worked for ‘Dalton’s Deli.’” Thomas can’t meet David’s befuddled gaze. “I would order the same sandwich every day and he would be the one to deliver it. He was so beautiful.” Thomas runs his fingers through his now erratic hair. His burnt wood hair.
“Every day I read the newspaper, waiting to see his name again. Waiting to be able to accept his death. To be able to acknowledge the inevitable.” Thomas’ left hand snatches the newspaper lying on the bed next to him.
It’s the newspaper from four days ago.
“’Local delivery man goes missing,’” He reads in a mocking gesture. Thomas drops to his knees. His rabid hands grab at pages of newspaper. He’s looking for something.
Crinkle, crunch, crankle.
His eyes focus at the black and white splattered ground.
“All he was worth was a blurb,” he suddenly bursts out. “They objectify him by calling him nothing more than a ‘local delivery man’ and don’t even mention his name. He has a name! Goddamnit he has a name!
My name is Thomas!”
David realizes Thomas is yelling to no one in particular.
Thomas clenches his jaw. He stares at the newspaper scattered around the floor.
“Nobody cares about the faggots.
Nobody loves the faggots.
I love the faggots.”
Thomas’ head snaps up and locks eyes with David.
David knows what to say.
“I’m not a faggot,” he finally stammers.
For a moment, Thomas’ face changes. His smile is warm, but his eyes are cold. His skin warps and his cheeks harden. He looks wicked. Like a grinning jack-o-lantern. His eyes flicker. And then it’s gone.
This frightens David.
Thomas wakes up at the same time every morning, 5:35 a.m. His tawny hair is tousled and wild. He hates when his hair isn’t in its place. He avoids the mirror as he walks into the bathroom.
He showers for exactly sixteen minutes today. Lather, rinse, repeat, condition. He steps out of the shower onto the cyan rug and wraps a cyan towel around his waist.
Thomas uses a smaller cyan towel to dry his hair.
He hangs both damp towels on a rack behind him.
Thomas finally meets his gaze in the mirror.
Thirty-eight minutes later, his penny colored hair is in place. Each strand is where it belongs.
Twenty-two minutes later, he is wearing a light blue shirt. Buttoned all the way up and pressed. His ash gray jacket matches his ash gray slacks and his black shoes shine back up at him
In his desk, there is a locked drawer. Inside the locked drawer are thirteen Polaroid photographs. Some are blurry, most are grainy. On top of the pile lies a photograph of David, his eyes closed and serine. He looks asleep, lost in a peaceful dream.
Thomas reaches into his closet. There are a plethora of ties.
A black and gray striped silk tie.
A burnt cherry plaid tie.
A navy blue and suit gray striped tie.
Today, he chooses a silk midnight blue and vivid white polka dotted tie. He doesn’t notice the stain at the bottom.
It’s time to go to the diner, he thinks.
It’s time to get breakfast.
One black coffee with two sugars and a slice of nearly burnt white toast, buttered on one side.
It’s time to read the newspaper.