The two front windows of the grey Chevy are open. Dennis hangs his hand outside the driver-side window as he holds a lit cigarette and flicks off the ash into the breeze that comes rolling down Santa Fe Avenue from Mars Hill.
Dennis brings the cigarette back up and inhales one final breath of his dying Marlboro Red, then tosses the butt down to the cold parking lot pavement where it disappears into a mixture of frosty sleet, black asphalt and oil. He pulls out another cigarette from the pack resting on the car's sun-cracked dashboard. Dennis licks the sides of the cigarette with his tongue and then places it between his parched, puckered lips. His wife once asked him why he licks his cigarettes before smoking, and Dennis answered that it made the cigarette burn slower and the smoke run softer. She replied that he was just giving death a kiss on the lips. Those are the sorts of memories that remind him why he loves his wife, why he’ll miss his wife when he dies.
After briefly inspecting his swollen nose in the rusty side mirror, Dennis lifts a lighter up to his face and tries several times to light the cigarette, but the lighter is out of gas. He rustles around inside the car, looking for another lighter, or a packet of matches, anything he can use to burn his cigarette. Normally Dennis would use the electrical lighter that plugs into the car’s DC output, but when he came back home a few weeks ago his wife took it out of the car and hid it somewhere in their house.
Dennis, frustrated, searches the car. He opens the glove compartment and the armrest, but finds nothing. He then reaches to the back of the car and moves around a lot of stuff he’s thrown around in the back seat; there’s a dark blue zip-up sweater with a hood, a storage box filled with old books, and an army canteen passed on from his father who served in Vietnam. But, he finds no lighter, nor matches.
A young lady walks by Dennis’s car. She’s wearing a light grey trench coat that nearly covers her up entirely, from mid-calf all the way to -- since the collar is flipped up -- the sides of her rose-kissed cheeks.
Dennis hears the young lady walking up close to the car. He rolls down the manual window with his left hand while sticking the other outside, waving it and calling her over.
“Hey,” Dennis says. “Do you have a light?”
As she continues walking, Dennis feels her stare on his hand; he sways it left and right in an almost rhythmic motion and lets the cool air pass between his fingers. She comes up close to the car and pulls out a small, yellow ninety-nine cent lighter from her purse.
“Yes,” she answers, handing the lighter to Dennis.
He takes the lighter from her delicate hand and thanks her as he lights his cigarette with one flick of the metallic sparkwheel that crowns the top of the disposable lighter.
“How did you know I had a lighter with me?”
“Don’t you always,” he answers. “And, lucky for me you happened to have a finely colored blue lighter with you.”
The young lady squints her eyes at Dennis, and her lip slightly curls at its edges.
Her eyes are usually a piercing shade of blue, but on cold days like this one they turn dark grey, which she once told Dennis she hates because they don’t complement the auburn freckles that God sprinkled on her nose.
“Dennis, this is yellow; it’s a yellow lighter,” she says.
“Oh,” Dennis answers with a childish grin. He brings the lighter up close to his face and inspects it.
“Oh yeah, look at that. It’s definitely a yellow lighter,” he says, smiles and lets out a puff of smoke that floats into the cold autumn air. An airy chuckle escapes as the young tries to hold back a grin.
“How have you been,” she asks Dennis.
“I’ve been good.”
“Yeah, I’ve been good too, how’s your wife?”
“She's like she's always been. Not too fine, but not too bad. There's always something that she's terribly interested in that, you know, I'm not.”
“Well, that's sad to hear,” she says.
Dennis exhales another big, dense cloud of smoke. “No it’s not.”
Although it should be the lunch rush, the diner isn’t anywhere close to full. All across the room empty booths dot the floor plan, like little red flags that let everyone who works there know how bad things have gotten in Flagstaff. For most people, eating lunch at the diner is a luxury that the economy doesn’t afford them, so it’s been brown-bag lunches for the past year.
A waitress, dressed in her robin-egg blue uniform and white apron prepares two cups of coffee behind the white Formica counter. A hand-carved walnut cuckoo clock ticks on the back wall above the kitchen window.
A man and a woman sit at one of the booths. The sunlight that shines past the blinds of the diner window reflects against the red plastic-leather seating. The man is wearing a crisp white button up shirt and a light purple cashmere sweater loosely tied around his shoulders, so that the arms are slightly knotted across his chest. His hands are ornamented with a few rings and a large, platinum watch. His younger sister Maggie is dressed very differently. She has on a simple outfit: dark blue jeans, a grey fleece-lined hooded sweater and a cream turtleneck -- no makeup and no jewelry.
The waitress brings them each a cup of coffee and a bowl filled to the brim with white sugar cubes.
Maggie’s brother is named John-Thomas, but growing up everyone called him Tommy. When he finished business school and moved back home, however, he started going by John, because it made him feel more legitimate; Tommy was a kids’ name, and John was what he liked now.
“Are you doing okay,” John asks.
Maggie starts to drop two sugar cubes into her coffee, “I couldn’t be any better,” she responds. “Why do you always ask things like that?” Maggie pushes the sugar over to John.
“No thanks,” he says as he shoves his arm out into the walkway, stopping the waitress as she walks by again.
“Yeah John?” “Can I bother you for some Splenda?” Linda, the waitress, gives John a probing look and nods her head as she walks away.
“I don't, Maggie. I never see you, so how could I always ask?”
Maggie sits at the table with her hands wrapped around the warm cup of coffee and exhales deeply. Her long brown eyelashes flicker a few times as she looks into John’s eyes. She’s tired.
“I don’t know, just forget about it.”
“It's just that he isn't right. You know? You're my sister, and I’ve got to tell you this. I don't want you to get hurt.”
Maggie stares at her brother again. He stares back for a while, but then, abashed, he looks down and takes a sip of his coffee.
“He's fine John,” says Maggie. “I'm fine. There isn't really anything wrong with either of us. There's absolutely nothing wrong with him or me.”
“Are you going to come inside?”
“I’m seriously considering it,” answers Dennis with a pause. “You’ll be happy to know that I might just come inside.”
The girl smiles at Dennis and says, “Well, what’s holding you back?”
Dennis takes a puff of his cigarette and exhales; the grim smoke twirls in the air as it rises into the grey misty sky and disappears. He opens his mouth for a moment. He’s just about to speak, but holds back and turns his face away from the young lady.
“I went to the diner for lunch, and Linda told me you came in the other day,” says the young lady.
Dennis turns back to the girl, “Linda said that?”
“Uhum,” she answers. “How could you sit at Linda’s booth without me? You know I don’t like her, and you promised me you wouldn’t go in without me if she was there.”
“You know, I was already inside. I was inside when Linda started her shift, and she's the one who came over to me,” Dennis says as he stumbles over his words. “I mean, you weren't there, so Linda came - all of sudden, and she decided to attend to me. What did you want me to do? Did you want me to ask her to leave, from in there?” He looks at the young lady without blinking.
“Yes,” she answers. “Why didn’t you just leave?”
Dennis leans back in his seat and tilts his head to the side.
“I couldn’t do that,” he says.
“Why not, it would’ve been easy.”
“I guess I could’ve done that, but I did something better.”
“Really? What did you do that was so much better?”
“I ordered absolutely nothing,” he answers. “No coffee, no tea, no pie, nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
“Oh, that’s real sweet,” she answers in a sarcastic tone. “Well come on, now that I’m here we can go inside. I won’t be mad this time, I promise.”
“Alright,” says Dennis. “But only if you come in here and help me finish these last two cigarettes.” He waves the two cigarettes at the girl and she quickly takes one with a smile. She brings the cigarette up and leans into Dennis’ outstretched hand as he lights the young lady’s cigarette with her yellow lighter. Two sparks jump and sting his fingers, but Dennis doesn’t mind. He just holds the lighter for her until she pulls away and exhales her first puff.
“You can’t say absolutely nothing by the way,” she says to Dennis.
“Why not,” he questions.
“Because absolutely would mean that there is something of total significance, while nothingness means a sort of absence due to non-action.”
“I don’t follow.”
She walks around the front of the car, pulls on the passenger side door and wiggles her way into the seat. Without noticing, she closes the car door on her coat. Dennis thinks about saying something, but decides it’s not important.
“I mean,” she continues. “You can’t just sit around, you know, and wait for things to happen. You have to do something about it. You shouldn't let things just sit inside of you. You have to do something about what you feel.”
Dennis looks at her coat trapped in the car door and wonders if it looks funny from the outside -- a dangling piece of grey cloth flapping in the breeze.
“Okay,” he says without looking at her.
“You’re not always happy, are you?”
“No, not always,” he answers. “I feel alone most of the time. But, you help me with that; you make me feel good sometimes. You make me feel like I’m not the only one out here. You know, sometimes I just want to go away, but you keep me here. You keep me thinking.”
Linda comes by and pours more coffee into their cups. John grabs the bowl of sugar cubes and gently shakes it at her.
“You forgot my sweetener.”
“I’m sorry John, I’ll bring it right over,” she answers.
John turns to Maggie and looks at her. He extends his arm and grabs onto her hand, but she pulls away and tucks it under the table.
“This is family loyalty, Maggie. I'm the one who cares for everyone in this family; nobody does anything. I'm doing this to help you.”
“No, you're not, John. You're not helping me at all, because I don't have a problem. You think I have a problem, and you think this is the only way to fix it.”
“Please, Maggie, you have a problem.”
Maggie looks back at John and takes a sip of coffee. A bell rings in the background and the cook yells that an order’s ready. Linda quickly walks over to the counter and grabs the plate of pancakes and brings them over to the old man with a yellow sweater sitting at the counter. John stares at the man and thinks he probably smells like musk. He thinks of the musk cologne that Dennis likes to wear.
“Anyways,” says John. “How’s the new apartment?”
Maggie smiles and nods her head. She doesn’t really care about the apartment right now. She can only think about Dennis, and whether he’s all right waiting outside in the car. This is only the second or third time she’s left his side since he came back home. She loves Dennis very much, but sometimes it gets difficult to keep going. Sometimes she wishes that they didn’t know each other -- that they never fell in love. But, those are the kinds of the things neither she, nor John, nor anyone can control. Her life and Dennis’ are connected, and until one ends, they always will be.
“Do you like the couch I bought you guys?”
“It was a nice gift,” she answers without thinking.
“It’s Napa leather,” John says as he squints his eyes.
“I know it is. You told me when you bought it.”
Dennis and the young lady are sitting in the car, smoking. They're having fun performing tricks with the cigarette smoke. Dennis blows smoke into an empty plastic water bottle that was lying on the floor of the car and squeezes it, which creates tiny perfect smoke rings.
“Do you see,” he says. The young lady laughs.
“You can’t do them with your mouth,” she asks him.
“No, can you?”
The young lady puffs on her cigarette and exhales a series of smoke rings. Then, she turns and blows the rest into Dennis' face, laughing all the while.
“Not in my face,” he says as he pulls away coughing and fanning the air in front of him with his hand.
“My father’s coming tomorrow.”
“Really? I’d like to meet him,” says Dennis. “You’ve spoken so much about him.”
“Maybe you will,” she responds.
Dennis looks at her; she’s smoking with her head tilted back and staring at the roof of the car. He turns his body to her and taps her on the shoulder.
“Hey, have you seen the dogs?”
“You know, the dogs that are always around the dumpster, eating all the food the diner throws away every night.”
“No, I've never seen any dogs.”
“Really,” questions Dennis.
“Really,” she answers with wide-open eyes.
“You just have to look out for them. Here, just look at the dumpsters with me and I'll see if I can point them out.”
Both of them, Dennis and the young lady, stare at the dumpsters through the car window. The young lady, in order to get a better view, puts her knees on the center console and climbs over Dennis. She rests her arms on the edge of the window and pokes her head outside.
“Did you read the article I sent you,” she looks back into the car and asks him.
“It's funny you asked because I was just thinking of that.”
“What'd you think about the rats they found in the basement?”
“God, there were so many,” says Dennis in a deep tone. The young lady stares at Dennis through squinting eyes.
“There were only two rats,” she says.
“Only two,” he says sarcastically.
The young lady laughs and then gently pats Dennis' head; he grins back at her. They continue to stare at the dumpsters.
“Just look out for the dogs,” he tells her.
“I don’t see them.”
“Just wait. We’ll see them.”
“I’m tired of looking,” she says as she slouches back down into her seat.
“Me too,” Dennis answers while he continues to stare out the window.
“Hey Whit,” he says.
“Last night at three in the morning the same thoughts kept racing through my mind over and over again,”
“It happened again,” she asks.
“Yeah, I just want to them to stop,” he answers. “And this time I thought: well if I kill myself I’ll stop thinking.”
“Well that isn’t too good of an idea. You’ve got a whole lot of friends and people around you that love you,” she says. “You’ve got me and you’ve got Maggie.”
For a few seconds Dennis doesn’t answer. Then, he tightly closes one eye and turns his head to the side.
“I need your help,” says Dennis. “I want you to help me so I don’t kill myself, Whitney.”
“I can’t help you Dennis,” she says.
“I know. But tell the guys who listen to my thoughts to stop. They’re making it worse. Tell the people at Stanford, and the President and the dogs to stop listening to my thoughts.”
“I’m at the point where I don’t want to live anymore. The mental process in my mind takes over, and it’s exhausting, and it’s scary.”
“I can’t help you Dennis,” she repeats.
“I know,” he yells as he slams his hand against the steering wheel. “It’s keeping me from loving my wife. I fight it every night; I fight the dogs every night. They tell me to kill myself.”
Whitney holds Dennis’ hand and brings it up to her mouth and kisses it.
“I do have a brain problem,” he says. “I know you can’t help. You’re not real, just like the dogs. But, what should I do?”
“You have to do something,” she says. “Do what you’re feeling inside. But, you have to do it alone. I can’t help you. Nobody can do it but you.”
“I have to go,” says John. “I'm meeting the doctor. She'll tell me what's best to do with him, whether we send him to Azpire or not. You have to trust me, Maggie. You understand, Maggie, right? I'm doing it for you.”
“Yeah John,” she says. “I understand.”
John stays quiet and stares at his empty coffee cup.
“I’ll go pay the bill and see you outside by your car.” He gets up quickly and leaves the booth.
Dennis sits in his car alone and finishes his cigarette; he flicks the short butt out the window, and then exhales deeply. He stares up at the roof of his car for a while. He then reaches back and picks up the canteen.
“No matter how many times I clean this canteen,” he says. “The water always comes out black, Whit.” Nobody answers.
Dennis pours a murky liquid out of the canteen and into the plastic water bottle, then seals the cap. “I know you’re not really there, but I sure wish you were Whit.”
He turns the canteen from side to side in his hands, scrutinizing its exterior. Then, he clutches it close to his heart. He takes a look inside the diner and sees his wife sitting at the booth. He blows her a kiss, smiles and looks down.
He reaches underneath his seat and picks up a black .9mm Beretta 92 and puts its steely end to his head; it feels cold against his temple. He shoots.