Joe pushed open the door and a bell sang.
Max followed Joe into Red’s.
The men’s dark hats and trenchcoats were beaded in snow.
Joe took off his hat and waved it profusely, air-drying the moisture that had accumulated on it. He put the hat back on and surveyed the diner.
The place was empty except for two customers.
An old woman, wearing a green hat that fit her head like a woolen conch shell, was seated at a table in the far corner. Arms gelatinously splayed on either side of the table, she was hunched over her bowl as if divining messages from it. When Joe and Max entered, she raised her eyes and stared at them with listless gravity.
At the counter, which was lined with red vinyl stools, sat a rumpled, doughy-looking man with an eyepatch.
Snow in April, Joe piped, as if announcing the title of a hit song.
Snow in April, Max echoed, and began ceremoniously whistling a cheery melody, a tune belonging to summer and lazy Sundays.
Joe drew a yellow handkerchief from his coat-pocket and wiped at his nose.
Wasn’t expecting snow, Joe continued in an amplified voice, obliquely directing his comment toward Henry and/or the old lady. Neither said a word.
Max kept on whistling.
The waitress, Agnes, who had been in the kitchen, came out carrying a plate of food, which she set before Henry.
Joe gave his nose one last thorough wipe—Something smells good—and fixed his eyes on Agnes. She was a skinny thing, a vibrating twig with mouse-brown hair and blue eyes that dramatically projected from their sockets, giving her look of perpetual alarm or eagerness.
Wanna sit at the counter, Joe asked Max.
Max stopped whistling—Counter sounds great—then resumed his bluebird melody.
These seats taken, Joe wryly indicated two stools to the left of Henry.
No they’re not taken, Henry said.
Joe sat down next to Henry and Max next to Joe.
Henry had almost expected to see these two men. Or two men like them. His nerves, high-strung to prophecy, had fretted the trouble. Was Piers at the trailer, he wondered.
Joe took off his gloves and laid them on the counter, one neatly on top of the other.
Max, who had ceased whistling, left his gloves on.
Joe folded his hands, ennobling politeness—May we have menus please?
Oh yea of course I’m sorry I yea, Agnes recovered from her nerve-inflamed space-out.
Henry watched as Agnes fumbled for two menus and set them in front of the men.
He wished it had been Gwen working and not Agnes. Gwen, constitutionally, was better equipped to handle situations of this nature.
Joe and Max scanned their menus.
Joe noticed Henry sneaking a look at his gloves, and issued a slashing sideglance—What’s yours Brightboy?
What’s mine? I don’t understand.
That’s what I thought, Joe puffed, as if he had won a small victory.
Then he turned to Max—What are you gonna order?
I don’t know yet. What’s Brightboy over there having?
Both men’s heads swiveled, nearly in sync, and Henry, implicated by their gazes, flushed and froze, his fork hovering in mid-air.
What’s that you’re eating Brightboy, Joe pressed.
Bacon, eggs, home fries and toast.
Breakfast huh? Well we didn’t come here for no breakfast.
Henry stared down at his eggs, a little perplexed, a little ashamed.
You a regular breakfast guy, Max kept at him. Bacon, eggs, toast, round the clock, that your gig?
Henry was utterly mystified. Part of him wanted to burst out laughing. Part of him wanted to cry.
With Henry remaining quiet, the scene reached a tense impasse, which Agnes broke through—You guys should order, we’re closing soon.
Yes we close at eight, Agnes’s voice quavered.
Closing at eight huh? What time is it?
Max spotted a clock on the wall behind the counter.
It’s 7:15, Max informed Joe.
More like 7:30, Agnes gently protested.
Joe looked at the clock.
According to my knowledge of time sister, when the big hand’s on the 7 and the little hand’s on the 3, that’s 7:15. And that clock on the wall—
Is slow, Agnes cut in. It’s about fifteen minutes slow.
Joe checked his watch. 6:26.
According to my watch it’s 6:26, but I’m still on West Coast time, which means . . . 7:26. About fifteen minutes slow, just like you said. Why don’t you fix it? So it tells the right time?
We like that it’s slow. It helps our shifts to go faster.
You hear that Max? It helps their shifts to go faster.
Time is the enemy of the impatient Joe.
Yea Max, time is the enemy of the impatient, exactly. You know this is a funny place this diner. And this is a funny town. It’s got a funny feel to it.
As soon as we rolled into town Joe I could feel it. That funny feel. The snow, the pink flamingo at the gas station, the dead coyote in the middle of the road, now the slow clock, and this guy here—
Max’s thumb, a stubby Napoleon, indicted Henry.
Funnyboy’s also a Brightboy ain’t he? Ain’t you?
A strange sensation passed over Henry. As if he had been in this situation before, a peripheral strain of déjà vu.
Without saying a word he considered the butter knife set next to his plate, and considered Joe’s throat. Instead he raised his coffee cup to his lips.
We don’t want no trouble, Agnes’s voice cracked.
Heyyyy, Joe raised his hands in a gesture of innocence, we don’t want no trouble either. We just want a meal.
Joe turned to check on the old lady. She was busy tearing up napkins and snowing their remains onto the table.
What’s with the old lady, Joe asked Agnes. Is she out to lunch?
Max whistled the two-note cuckoo melody to underscore Joe’s out-to-lunch assumption.
That’s Wanda, Agnes said.
Wanda’s just Wanda, Henry pitched in.
Wanda’s just Wanda, Joe repeated to Max and smirked. Yep this is definitely a funny town, a real looneybin.
Yea guess we can add Wanda’s just Wanda to our list of funny things.
Like a smug schoolboy Max counted off the funny things—There’s the snow, the pink flamingo, the dead coyote, the slow clock, Funnyboy Brightboy over here—
Mister Breakfast Pirate—
And Wanda’s just Wanda—
A place like this you can’t make up.
Joe peered at Henry’s burnt toast and asked Agnes—You got a cook in the kitchen?
Yea the person who makes the food, Joe rotated his hands as if attempting to rush Agnes into comprehension.
Yea we have a cook—
Who’s your cook, Max inquired.
Julio, his name’s Julio—
Julio, Joe smiled at Max. Wonder if he’s legal?
(Though Joe was not genuinely racist, he figured this line and it derogatory implication fit his character and the scene.)
What do you guys want, Henry braved.
Hey listen to Brightboy here, Joe said. I noticed a little edge in his tone.
Yea me too, Max agreed. Maybe that’s how he wound up a pirate. That your story, Captain Jack?
I have no story, I just wanna know—
We don’t care what you wanna know, Joe abrasively cut Henry off while slamming his palm on the counter for effect. We care about what we wanna know, which is why we’re here.
What my associate means by that, Max picked up the thread in a professional tone, is that we’re here about a young girl goes by the name Piers, she’s a little thing with a shaved head.
Have you seen her, Max’s eyes pinned Agnes, whose eyes bailed to Henry’s and then back to Max’s—No.
You haven’t huh?
That was an interesting hesitation, Joe noted. You sure you haven’t seen her?
Joe slid his hand inside his trenchcoat. It looked like he was pledging allegiance or gauging his heart rate.
I—I don’t know—
You don’t know what?
Hey guys why don’t you—
Hey Funnyboy why don’t you? Okay?
Maybe Funnyboy Brightboy knows a girl named Piers, Max pressed, a tiny thing with a shaved head though it might not be shaved anymore and she might not be using the name Piers so let’s see . . . any tiny white girls roll into town in the last month or so?
Tiny white girl? I don’t know anyone fitting that description. And I don’t know anyone with a shaved head or with the name . . . Pree . . . Preese—What was it again?
Piers, Max reminded Henry, then spelled it out in loud halting syncopation: P . . . I . . . E . . . R . . S.
Joe turned to Wanda—What about you Wanda just Wanda, you know anyone fitting that description?
Wanda, due to faulty hearing, lack of interest, or inner-space-voyaging, didn’t acknowledge Joe, just kept snowing napkin confetti into her bowl.
Maybe the cook knows something, Max suggested.
No Julio doesn’t know anything, Agnes quickly countered. He doesn’t speak much English.
Figures, Joe clipped, then popped an exhale. He slid his fedora to a higher angle and thumb-scratched his forehead.
Well me and Max will be around, since finding this girl is of primary importance to us.
Why, Henry risked.
Why? FunnyBright wants to know why? He’s the inquisitive type.
That’s why he’s FunnyBright, cuz of his inquisitiveness.
Henry felt as if he were at the mercy of cardboard cut-outs, ones whose patter made him slightly tipsy.
Joe explained—Let’s just say this girl did something she shouldn’t have done . . . like remember in the old days when you’d ditch school and the truant officer would go looking for you? Well me and Max here are like truant officers.
That’s a good way of framing it Joe—
So as truant officers, with a responsibility to the public education system, we beseech you to do your duties as upstanding American citizens and help us locate the truant.
Max began air-bugling the Star Spangled Banner.
Joe put his gloves on and rose from his stool—You should get that clock fixed.
Both men left without ordering, and with Max bugling the Star Spangled Banner all the way out the door.
Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, John Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of two novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale and Raking the Dust, as well as a collection of stories. To see more of John’s work, visit johnbiscello.com