He now had everything he needed until the final moment stored inside this house he’d purchased and maintained as a well-kept secret. Whenever that final moment should arrive, he realized, he might feel as if he needed more; but the moment and the need would pass unnoticed by anyone but him.
But lately colleagues and self-declared friends had noticed and had chosen to tell him that his eyes looked yellow and his skin looked pale. One woman, a professor of history, just a few days before this grey afternoon, had expressed her concern. In private she’d assured him, although he had understood that if she were commenting on his physical and emotional state, then so too were other faculty members.
“Have you seen a physician about possible liver problems?” she asked. He mumbled an ineffective reply, but next rushed to the restroom, stared at himself in the mirror, and saw that she was right. “Dear God, it’s time to go,” he’d said to himself. “It’s well past time to retreat and to prepare.”
So instead of traveling to the bar, he headed away from the place the two of them still insisted on calling home, steered the Volvo northward onto the freeway, toward the town of Maplewood, where Rosie’s Diner each evening held blue-collar court.
Rosie wore bright-red lipstick in a messy smear across her lips, smelled of five-and-dime rose sachet, snapped chewing gum when she spoke, and covered a customer’s hand with her own when she served the first cup of coffee.
“So, professor, to what do we owe this honor?” she whispered as he took a bench seat at the counter, not far from the diner’s front door. Rosie’s breath was spiced with the odor of cigarette smoke. The diner’s door, disconnected from its broken pump, allowed puffs of air mixed with raindrops to enter and land on the heavy rubber welcome mat. Trainer watched as muddy footprints melted on the rubber, and he wondered which ones might have been his.
“I need a cup of –“
But Rosie had the cup set there in front of him before he completed his request.
“Looks like you need a whole lot more, Jon. But we’ll let that go for now. Dinner, or just a slice of virtue this time round?”
Virtue, Trainer had learned by way of his recent, frequent visits here, was diner-speak for cherry pie. He checked himself and discovered once again that he owned no appetite, but he ordered the slice of virtue anyway, maybe just because he wanted an excuse to stay here for a while longer.
He realized that on a rainy afternoon turning fast toward evening he must look counterfeit and silly with a pair of dark glasses wrapped around his face, but to take them off, he feared, would reveal his disease to other people seated nearby. He wasn’t sure why he cared enough to hide the obvious; the citizens of Maplewood remained gratefully unaware of the employees of Rutherford University, and in any event, Jon Trainer’s life would soon be of little consequence to anyone but the authorities. Still, he supposed that somewhere inside himself he yet harbored a residual sense of pride.
At first he thought that the now familiar, daily sense of vertigo was what threw him off balance, but soon the shock of metal slamming hard against itself cracked the air like a shot from a gun. Trainer reflexively ducked in time to avoid the larger shards of glass as the windowpane closest to the door she had snapped full backward on its hinges gave way. Next he sensed the heat of her, heard the intrusive shriek of her anger and felt the spray of spit hit the back of his neck.
“I hate you, Jon fucking Trainer, and now everyone in this lousy excuse for a town will know what you are.”
He sat up and stared after her as she turned on her heels and left the way she’d come. He felt hot tears leaking from his tired eyes; and through the blurred confusion he surrendered his body to trembling, as Rosie curled her arm around his back and kissed his cheek.