Years ago my wife and I had come from the county fair, in Calhan, Colorado, and stopped at this road-side diner. It is exactly as I described it in the story, down to the stencil-work and Clay Walker tunes. This is where I was inspired to write this tale…the cool and cozy microcosm of life we experienced in this diner on that hot summer afternoon was so unto itself it was separate from the rest of reality.
And then there was the meatloaf.
Typical restaurant meatloaf is extremely salty to me, but this was the first time I’d ever had meatloaf at a restaurant where it wasn’t—I liked it so much I’d ordered an extra meal to go.
So…meatloaf, microcosms, and messin’ with reality. That’s how I roll.
“Tick, Tick, Tick, Tock” originally appeared in The Black Sheep, issue #64.
Tick, Tick, Tick, Tock
© F. P. Dorchak, 2004
“Table for two?” the hostess asked somberly, escorting Tom and Lea Colbert to a booth in the very rear of the restaurant. It was a late mid-July afternoon and the air-conditioned interior felt like a life-or-death oasis. The couple nodded thanks, taking their seats as the hostess deposited menus then quickly returned to the front of the restaurant.
“Is it even worth it?” Lea asked her husband.
“How would you rather go? Out in that heat?”
Lea said nothing, mechanically opening her menu. “I don’t think I could even eat anything. Look. Look around. Is anyone else eating?”
Tom opened his menu, and took in the restaurant without making it obvious. She was right. Everyone either skulked, stared blankly into oblivion, or quietly sobbed. There wasn’t much dinner conversation. Several lone individuals, cowboys and cowgirls, simply sat and stared straight ahead into the western-motifed walls. The waitresses (they didn’t seem to call them “servers” out this way) all congregated at the front of the restaurant around the white lattice-work behind the counter, where a hand-burned sign proclaimed “$Cashier$.” Off to the right of that were the restrooms, equally proclaiming “Cowboys” and “Cowgals.” Tom’s gaze fell across to the dinner special written up on a whiteboard. Meatloaf special, it said, mashed potatoes, veggie, diner roll, and a salad. $5.50. Clay Walker played quietly in the background, from overhead speakers. There were pictures of many famous and not-so-famous cowfolk across every wall, ranches and horses, as well as a stencil that traveled the entire length of the room with pictures of cowboy boots, spurs, horses, and that same old, bleached-and-weather-beaten steer skull. Behind his wife, Tom saw quite the elderly couple not talking, partially eaten food sitting on the table between them. Bibles were open before the both of them and each clenched each other’s hands. Inside this small, hole-in-the-wall western diner off the beaten path all the curtains were drawn shut. It was as if nothing existed outside this tiny diorama.
“I’m just not hungry,” Lea said, closing her menu and carefully laying it on the table before her. She leaned over it and buried her face in her hands.
“Well, I’m hungry and meatloaf sounds good. If we’re gonna die, I might as well do it on a full stomach.”
“How can you eat?” Lea lowered her tone to an intense whisper. “How can you eat at a time like this?”
Tom calmly set down his menu.
“I don’t know, honey…all I know is my stomach’s growling and I feel shaky. What difference does it make if I die starving or well fed? If the cook’s cooking, I’m ordering.”
Tom saw tears emerge from his wife’s eyes. He reached across to her, but she continued crying, her shoulders shuddering.
“Honey…honey,” he said, “there’s nothing we can do…we just have to live our last day like any other. What else can we do?”
“I know,” Lea blurted, suddenly realizing the other patrons were eyeing her, including the group of cowboys and cowgirls at the large table up front. The small family to her right. They all stared…knowingly…at her.
“I’m sorry. You’re right.” Lea pulled some napkins from the holder and dabbed her eyes. “You’re right. There’s nothing we can do about it except what we’re doing.” She cleared her throat. Blew her nose.
“Hi, folks,” the waitress said, showing up at their table with glasses of water in each hand. “Are you all right?” the waitress asked Lea.
Lea nodded, composing herself.
“Yes. About as fine as anyone can be, right now, I guess. Thanks for asking.”
The waitress smiled warmly and pulled the pencil from her beehived hair. “All we can do is what we can do,” she said, reaching out to Lea with the hand holding the pencil and resting it for a moment on her shoulder before retracting it. “Now, what can I get you folks to drink?”
“Um, cmmm, I’ll have iced tea,” Lea said.
“Same,” Tom added.
“We have a meatloaf special today. And I must say it’s really good—but I’m supposed to tell you that there’s green peppers in it.” The waitress smoothed away loose strands of hair behind her ears. Her hand trembled just a little. Barely at all. She was a pretty woman, in her forties, with a slim cowgirl’s figure pleasantly stuffed into her Wranglers. Lea started to tear again, when Velma (her name was on her name tag) again reached out to her. “Honey…it’s okay. When the Lord’s ready for us, we just have to answer His call.”
Lea recomposed herself, again wiping her eyes. She smiled blithely.
“Just get us two of your dinner specials, okay?” Tom said. Velma jotted that down and departed.
“How does she know there’s a God? We’ve all seen it, haven’t we? The same dreams? Over and over again. Night after night. It’s been on TV, books have been written about it. Psychologists have analyzed it the world over, but nothing—not one thing—has been done about it. It’s today, and there’s not a damned thing anyone can do!”
“Hon, please try to keep you voice dow—”
“Why? Tell, me, why, Tom? What’s the point? We’re all gonna die—the dreams told us so. The strong ones, they took their own lives—but look at us. We couldn’t even do that—”
“Honey, please,” Tom said. “Everyone else is going through the same thing. There’s no need to get everyone all stirred up. We have to go sometime, don’t we? What difference does it make if we go in our sleep, by old age—or in some apocalyptic Götterdämmerung? Now, we’ve done the best we could with our lives, we’ve atoned…each of us in our own ways…there’s nothing more we can do. We’ve all made our peace, and we’ve had two years to do it. Every one of us. The world over.”
But, here, Tom began to tear, whispering.
“We have to be strong, dammit. For others.”
“But what difference does it make!” Lea again exploded, and this time she shot to her feet. “We all made the jokes at first, didn’t we?” she said looking to her captive audience.Even those who’d been quietly sobbing stopped and looked up.
“All of us…we thought, ‘oh, something must be in the water,’ or something similarly stupid. We joked about it. Then…then we sought religious and philosophical help, because that’s what we do in times of stress, even if we aren’t practicing about it.”
Lea looked everybody in the eye, including Velma and the other waitresses…the cook, who poked his head out from the grill.
“We all made amends with everyone, tried to make up for all the little and not-so-little wrongs we’d done. Helped out those in need of any help. Did our best to be perfect little Humans—but it didn’t seem to make any difference, did it? We still had those goddamned dreams—those nightmares—every night, didn’t we? Don’t we? And today’s the day…the day we alll pay the Piper. And how can all of you just sit there like this? Like stupid…pathetic…little mice, caught in a trap?”
“What else are we going to do?” asked the wife from the small family to her right, huddled together like frightened puppies. Her eyes pleaded, searching for an answer, anything…but Lea had none. She just stared back.
“Mommy…” the woman’s daughter peeled, “I’m scared.”
“Please, ma’am…please,” the mom pleaded.
Tom got up and went to Lea. He put his arm around her and brought her back to her chair. He sat her back down, and she again began to quietly weep. Tom took up a chair beside her and grasped her hands….
Tom and Lea just stared at their food. Two meatloaf specials on the table before them now cold. Iced teas also untouched, but leaking condensation down the length of their glasses onto the table.
“Tom…how do we know this isn’t a dream…a lucid one?”
Tom took his time answering, noticing that the late afternoon was quickly turning into early evening. The light outside the windows had changed…became darker, more…solemn.
There just wasn’t enough time.
“I guess we don’t do we? That’s what some of the experts were saying. That we could all just be dreaming this and we’d all wake up to find our world the same as it ever was. Sane, rational, still there…what we remember.”
“I’ve had some pretty real dreams before,” Lea said. “Before all this, I mean. Where I couldn’t tell the dream from reality. People thought I was crazy—”
“Not anymore,” Tom said, snorting.
“No, not anymore, huh. Well, we’ve lived a good life, haven’t we? You and me?”
Tom smiled, reaching out to her/ Twenty years of married love and emotion immediately welled up inside him. “Yes, we have, my love. The best life we could ever live. We always did our best, even before…all this.”
“Yes, we did.”
“We just have to look at it as…time to go.”
The two sat silently for a moment, squeezing each other’s hands before Lea continued.
“But, Tom, I know I’ve asked this before…but, really, what if this is all a dream? I mean it. This is all a dream and we’re gonna wake up, you and me. Say this is my dream and in your sleep, you’re not even dreaming about this—but I am—and we’ll both wake up tomorrow and you’ll not remember your dream, but I’ll remember mine—this dream—and tell you all about it, and nothing’ll be wrong. Nothing. Everything will be as it normally is, I mean, like we’re used to?”
“Honey, that’s been said before, you know that—”
“Yes, but if it is my dream, then it’s all just me, don’t you get it? Or you. Don’t you see? This is my dream and when I wake up, none of this will matter…it will all have just been in my head. No one else’s—the world isn’t going to explode or whatever it is that’s supposed to happen, because it’s all in my head and no one else’s.”
Yes, she had brought this up once or twice. As had others. And, yes, books had been published on this premise more than once over the past two years.
But…what if she was right?
What if it was all a dream, her dream—or his dream? What if all this—the dream of the dream—was all…a dream? A lucid one, where he (or she) was just wide awake and aware and that just made it all the more frightening? And Lea just thought it was her dream, because that’s how dreams work…that’s the weirdness of them…he’s dreaming, it’s his point of view, and she’s just a part of his dream…just like sometimes he’s in hers. But if he was (also?) dreaming it, was it really Lea’s dream—or his? How could he be aware in Lea’s dream? It had to be his dream, not Lea’s. And further, if he was aware he was dreaming and the dream was so intense and scary—and he knew this—why not change it?
“You know…you’re right. We don’t really know, do we? It could all be a dream of a nasty dream, and if it is, we can change it, because we’re aware of it.”
Tom stood up. Took in the restaurant. Everyone stared at him. He stared back.
Country music continued to play over the speakers. Somebody he didn’t recognize.
The sky was now totally dark outside (wasn’t it just twilight?). The curtains closed. This was their own little microcosm and it did feel different. Something was suddenly different about the whole affair. Not just the place, but also what supported this place…life itself…was the only way he could describe it. And he was conscious that everyone was still staring at him as if he was going to save the world—which he was, because it was his dream. Lea had said it was hers, but she was just saying that because she was in his dream and that’s how dreams worked. You never really knew—until you did. Then everything just fell into place.
“Okay…okay, everybody…,” Tom announced, arms upraised as he walked away from Lea and their table and into the center of the restaurant, “she’s right. She’s right—can’t you feel it? You’re all in a dream, my dream—all of you.”
The cook and waitresses stopped talking and—holding hands—came out from behind the lattice-work.
“Think about it. How could this be anything else? Nothing like this ever happens in real life—it’s all boring and drab. Dull. Practical. Sometimes even downright brutal—but always, always the prime directive has been that nothing like this ever happens.
“Only in science fiction and fantasy.
“Books and movies.
“This is all dream world stuff.
“Armageddon? The end of the world? The world never ends…sure, it gets nasty, wars come and go…but it never ends. It only did once, if you believe in the Bible, but wasn’t there also something about a promise that God would never do that again? So, if it’s all true…my wife’s correct—this is all a dream, but it’s my dream, and not her’s…and you’re all in that dream. So, if this is the case—”
“Sir, this has all been talked about before,” a cowboy said, pushing back his wide-brimmed hat. “And what about Reve—”
“Of course it’s all been said before—because it’s my dream! But that’s exactly what I’m trying to say! There’s no real time in dreams, everyone knows that—years can end up being mere minutes. Listen to what I’m saying! If this is all in my head and it’s not reality then why do we have to live with it, right? We can change it. Each and every one of us—”
“But, if it’s your dream, then why do we have to do anything?” another asked.
“Don’t you see? Everyone knows dream logic never makes any sense—except in dreams—so go with it. This is my dream, so I’m telling all of you to go along with it! We’re not all going to die because I’m not going to allow that to happen.
“I’m saying, right here, right now that this is my dream and I’m taking control.
“I’m saying we live. All of us. And that we’ll wake up in the morning, refreshed and ready to meet the day in all its beauty and splendor!” he said, spinning around, arms upraised higher, “A day like any other day! Like we’re used to! If it isn’t a dream, then we all die with smiles on our faces, but if it is…if it is, then we change a bad outcome for a good one.”
Everyone continued to stare at him.
“Come on, people! What do we have to lose? Take control!”
The quietness was slowly replaced with handfuls of intimate conversations. Tom watched as people hugged and kissed each other, but more importantly, he saw renewed hope. People, finally, had hope, again, where they hadn’t had any for two years.
He smiled, returning to his wife.
“Why isn’t this my dream?” she asked.
“That’s the beauty of it, hon—it is. But it’s also mine. Whether it’s yours, mine, or the cook’s, it’s still everyone’s dream. The dream is dreaming as well as the dreamer! Credit doesn’t matter. We’re the only thing that matters—the now,” he said, taking hold of both her hands and kissing them, “dream with me, honey. We can do this!”
Everyone closed their eyes and many mumbled their desires over and over and over…but all concentrated with their hearts and souls…upon lives they wanted to live.
A better life. For all.
Beautiful homes, with beautiful yards and beautiful pets and kids.
Beautiful birds. Singing.
Beautiful trees whispering in balmy summer breezes.
No wars, peace everywhere…love and plenty for all….
And Clay Walker continued to belt out his tunes overhead. People dreamed about the way it used to be, only better…simpler problems with simpler solutions. Simpler times….
Outside flashed a brilliant, silent explosion that was gone the instant it ignited…and with it, all the world that had been known and loved. All of it…down to the last atom.
All the people…all the animals…all the dirt and trees. All the insects and birds. All the hate and love. All the oceans, the mountains, the stars…
And, except for everyone in this one diner, reality…all of existence…simply ceased to b
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