Whatever Happened Next

Whatever Happened Next

In the diner in the college town where Jeff worked and went to school, in the comings, goings and stayings of its visitors, the people that worked there and their customers, could be discerned, it seemed to him, the strata of most of the area’s inhabitants.

He would say “most of,” because the affluent never ate or worked there, as far as he could tell. Jeff was 21, falling out of love with the idea of being a writer, trying to fall in love with his newly chosen major of sociology, and suspecting that what he would actually do with his degree, whenever he finished it, would involve some unrelated and dull career in business. It was one of those chain restaurants, brown, green and gold—brown walls, green leather booths, light that was oily in the day and bronze under lamps at night—and it smelled like industrial cleaning fluid, cigarette smoke, and fried food. Perhaps it was his newly refocused academic training, or the cognizance of his own predictable trajectory that made him so interested in the trajectory of others. Perhaps it was the natural impulse of someone raised in a midwestern metropolitan sprawl to locate himself amidst mingling social classes, vocations and ethnicities. Whatever it was, the types of people in the restaurant of which Jeff was conscious included:

College students like him, who waited tables, bused and cooked wearing black Dickies work slacks, dirty white shirts, and green aprons. The job was part time for them—if 30-plus hours a week can be called part-time—and temporary, a way to pay bills while they worked on their degrees, serving inexhaustible pours of coffee and meals to others like them studying at the tables they waited on. It was a college town so a lot of college students were naturally on hand.

The working poor, people for whom this job was not temporary or, if it was, would be replaced by another, equally menial job, maybe something a step up into good blue-collar work. Jeff had worked food service since high school and had long since realized that, while he wasn’t staying here, others were, and he had developed not just awareness of the fact but appreciation and sympathy. Among this type of people were some with criminal pasts trying, for now, to “go straight.” Drug dealers and thieves mostly, the occasional violent thug.

Townies. These could be subdivided into several groups. The restaurant always had a bountiful crop of high school kids and kids not, or not yet, pursuing higher education. It was interesting to Jeff to observe that they were growing up in the shadow of the university and that meant they were ordinary high school kids from any American small city except they had a comparatively higher level of access to adults, ideas and drugs. Jeff liked them. He wasn’t much older than them, and some of the unschooled not-yets were also his age. Some of their parents were professors or other sophisticated university employees; others had parents or families in more modest roles.

Other townies: the professionals, the people that worked in the town. There were a lot of white-collar workers, many of them connected to the university. In fact, even if someone didn’t work for the university, they seemed to cater somehow to it—if you sold auto insurance, for example, you probably sold it in large portions to people or enterprises affiliated with the university. Blue-collar workers, likewise, were in the school’s close orbit; if you fixed glass or laid brick, you fixed it or laid it for someone that worked at the university, or someone whose livelihood largely depended on the university. Jeff served them. He met them at the beginning of their day, in the morning, giving them coffee to go when they finished their pancakes and trundled out to their work trucks after taking a leak. Or in the middle of the day, craving a grilled ham sandwich in the 50 minutes they could spare from the office. Or at the end of their day, wandering in under a slowly sinking 6:00 sun in search of chicken fried steak and the soup of the day. It was the kind of restaurant where no one was offended if you did a crossword puzzle while eating. Jeff enjoyed these people as much as the kids—he had been the latter, and would soon, if all went according to plan, be the former.

The elderly. Jeff had come to believe you could find them at every restaurant of this kind. They like everyone else needed to eat, to enjoy their coffee somewhere besides their own kitchen, and they like everyone else sometimes, or often, loved it if someone else did the cooking. Unlike the others, the elderly patrons of the restaurant were divorced from time as most knew it, were less dependent on the clocks that drove everyone else, and so came to be fed at slightly different hours and with slightly different attitudes. He couldn’t help thinking of “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.”

And he couldn’t conclude his taxonomy without considering race. A higher percentage of the restaurant’s working poor were black. A number of the town’s students and its white-collar professionals connected to the university were Asian. There were not many Hispanics or Middle Eastern people in their area, perhaps because they were further away from the state’s larger cities.

Into this ecosystem had recently been injected another species of working poor high school kids. A handful of 16-17-year-olds that lived in or near a local trailer park had gotten jobs at the restaurant, and their friends started hanging out there while the others were working or waiting for them to get off work. So a fresh new herd of young, suspicious, excited, inexperienced, blue-collar teenagers now mixed with the people that came to eat or camp at the diner, the college kids, townie kids, adjunct lecturers, real estate appraisers, bus drivers, retired postal workers, thieves, bookies, burglars, perverts, masons, restorers, financial planners, business analysts, researchers, grad students, basketball and tennis players, campus evangelists, administrative assistants, musicians, strippers, loafers, nurses, librarians, clerks, sales associates, mechanics, car salesmen and saleswomen, lab techs, vending machine stockers, gas station attendants, carpet sellers, carpet cleaners, grocers, janitors, electricians, plumbers, karate instructors, VA administrators, beer truck drivers, baristas, warehouse managers, copywriters, pornographers, pastors, middle managers, bank tellers, park rangers, hardware sellers, printers devils, book binders, production designers, carpenters, accountants, and senior citizens.

On the minds of all of them that summer—when was Kacie’s old boyfriend going to fight Kacie’s new boyfriend?

Jeff couldn’t remember who among the trailer park set had gotten a job there first, Chad or Eric, but soon those twin-like creatures were joined by others. Chad, like Eric, was short, and always seemed to be half-steps removed from anything going on, or maybe it was a trick of the heavy-lidded eyes and expressionless mouths that enabled them to blend into the background of any setting, one dark, the other blonde, both with hair parted down the middle and faint mustaches that were either the products of relaxed shaving habits or pathetically intentional. They were bus boys. A taller boy, Nate, also 16 or 17, with simian arms that would one day serve him well on a road crew, started bussing tables soon after, allowing Chad to start on the cooks’ line. Another, Jayden, was into hotrods and had a car—not the tricked-out Mitsubishi he wanted but a boxy old Chrysler—and would give the members of this circle rides to work and then just hang around waiting for them to get off. “You might as well get paid if you’re just gonna stay here,” someone said, and he did for a while before deciding soap suds and garbage bags were not for him; still, he remained a regular fixture on the scene.

Having launched a colony at the restaurant, others came, on errands similar to Jayden’s or, simply learning there was a motor vehicle leaving the area, stowing away on the voyage. Jeff attended Chad’s birthday party with one or two of the other college guys, and had a glimpse of their home. Chad didn’t live in the trailer park but across the road from it, in a neighborhood of small houses that had expelled a lot of their contents into the yards outside, perhaps because the houses and likewise similar garages were too small to contain them. Clothes lines and laundry, sporting goods, including the bench where people like Nate and Jayden lifted rusty weights, all manner of vehicles, bicycles and tricycles in various states of assembly, cars, trucks and motorcycles, scooters and dirt bikes, populated the land between the little houses through which children and animals scampered. Chad’s parents were there, small, red-faced people; his dad seemed perpetually on the verge of scolding. In Jeff’s mind, though this was someone’s home and, however alien to him, a place where one could easily find a playmate or a space to play—a neighbor’s house, the front seat of an inert Chevy—any chance to hop in Jayden’s car and experience something different would be eagerly seized. In this exodus another friend, hillbilly strong like Nate, joined them and was soon working at the diner, this one with a real mustache, Jamie, Kacie’s boyfriend, and then Kacie herself, one of several girls that swam in the wake of the boys’ migration. A remarkable girl; in their ragged Camelot, Kacie was queen. No, Jeff corrected himself, their princess. Royalty that had not yet fully assumed the mantle of her office.

Kacie had a magnetic effect on the diners and waiters, drawing eyes away from plates and cutlery to the bounce of her hair across her shoulders, the curve of her back tapering to a slender, youthful waist and, Jeff couldn’t help acknowledging, breathtaking hindquarters. When she eventually got a job as a hostess and would, with a dazzling smile and a handful of menus under her arm, ask patrons to “follow me, please,” they, boys and men alike, some women, some girls, were only too happy to do so. In considering why Kacie was attractive, Jeff and Hugh, one of the other college-student waiters, chatting at the wait stations or in the break room, diagnosed her appeal as existing on at least three levels. One, she was, in the conventional parlance, simply “hot,” with sleek eyes and the effortless figure of a swimwear model. Two, she was young, nominally on the cusp of womanhood, physically already there, an unspoiled sheet of paper, a Saturday. Three, she had a working class, country girl, Midwest glow. To those that recognized it or, indeed, imagined it, this suggested a natural appetite for carnality, foreknowledge of it even if lacking experience, willingness and the possibility of being an adept study. Maybe it was a myth that the girls of white-collar families, with their sense of entitlement and resultant restraint, were less passionate than trailer park girls. It was a persistent idea in the town. A college-age waitress observed in the breakroom one evening, “That girl’s gonna break hearts when she turns 18.” An older waitress with a background similar to Kacie’s replied, “She’s already breaking hearts.”

Jeff observed the relationship between Kacie and Jamie in between running out food and rolling silverware, and in the remarks of others that, like the exchange in the break room, reached his ears, so what he knew seemed clear but was assembled from fragments. Kacie enjoyed her popularity, standing comfortably in a circle of people, especially when her friends from home were near, picking at her fingernails, pulling her hair over one shoulder, and explaining things like, “You guuuuuys” and “shut OPPP!” She locked eyes on Jamie when he passed, her male counterpart in precocious sexuality, carrying in bronze arms bus tubs or trays of dry stock. Jamie had small, glittering eyes and wore his hair invisible except for a fringe that stood up from his forehead. He had, as mentioned, the full mustache his classmates sought, but only a few tiny tufts in a goatee that had not yet caught up to the rest of his body, which would look equally at home on a football field or a construction site. Jeff was never quite sure what the trailer park kids were interested in because he heard their tones better than the actual content of their talk, music that mixed with the general lopsided symphony of restaurant noise. But he could discern that, whatever the topic, space was made for Kacie’s reactions or pronouncements. On clothes, “I just don’t know about them socks with the little ball on the back; I can’t decide if those look good with my Adidas or not.” On music, “Y’all gotta get over all this gangster rap. Like, you can kinda dance to it but it’s so, like, it’s not fun, y’know?” On cars, “Oh my Gawd, my brother’s new Laser is hot but if he paints it that purple color it is gonna look so dumb, you guys.” On an incident at their school, “You can’t go runnin’ your mouth like she did and then get mad when everybody knows what you said. Right? Like, what’d she think was gonna happen?” On people, on relationships, “Wayne is so silly and Cassidy is so cute. I like them two together.”

And fights, fights that were going to happen, could happen if circumstances evolved, or had happened, often with no clear victor. “Aiden walked away from it, but did you see his lip, man? He was messed up.” Jamie figured largely in many of these conversations, as he possessed a set of their school’s legendary knuckles, but he never had much to contribute verbally to this or other topics, either because he wasn’t as good at articulating his thoughts or because it was too hard to drop his pose. Maybe he just preferred to listen to his beloved speak.

Of course, the trailer park kids didn’t only communicate with each other, but rippled increasingly into the restaurant’s other circles. “Kacie,” asked a townie kid, “what do you wanna do when you graduate?” “I dunno,” came the reply. “I’m thinking about getting my associates in nursing or something like that. I don’t think I can go to school for four more years.” “Jamie,” asked one of the college guys. “What do you bench?” “I don’t get in the weight room much right now but, um, last time I was working out it was, what, Nate, 220, 230?” “Chad, man, whyn’t you take them chains off while you working? Ain’t you afraid you gonna get it dirty?” “Nah, I got to keep my gold on, man. There’s hoes here.”

The origins of the trouble between Kacie and Jamie, and her reasons for breaking up with him, were uncertain. Equally unclear was what Kacie saw in her new boyfriend, Trace, a high school graduate with a car and a job in a machine shop to whom everyone took an instant dislike because of their difference in age and his condescending attitude toward Kacie’s friends. Jeff wondered whether their relationship, if consummated, violated the state’s age of consent laws. He asked Hugh’s opinion. “Do you think they’ve…?” “Kacie and the new guy? I don’t know. I hope not. Kacie and Jamie, definitely.” This upset Jeff for some reason. He had normal, healthy sexual relationships with people his own age, if the practice of serial monogamy that was typical of his generation could be called healthy. But he was an adult, dammit. These were kids. Worse, an adult and a kid. He realized in that moment something that was new to him but which he would feel often in the years to come; though he appreciated Kacie, admired her shape and her spirit, he had no sexual interest in her, because she was, to him, a child. The strength with which he felt this surprised him.

The trouble between Trace and Jamie was not ambiguous. Trace had a lot of critical things to say about Kacie’s ex, and took every opportunity he could to say them. Jamie had been excessively jealous, Trace said, possessive, controlling, and Kacie had wisely traded up to a real man that knew how to treat women. This did not endear Trace to anyone at the restaurant, but it did set him on what seemed an inevitable course toward confrontation. Kacie seemed cautiously delighted by the attention wrung from this drama, the ancient spectacle of men threatening to come to blows over a woman, but as the possibility of its actually happening neared, as Trace took to saying things like, “I oughtta beat this kid’s ass,” she wore the nervous, embarrassed expression of someone striking a match and accidentally setting the book on fire. “Oh my Goooood, you guys.” Jamie, confidently mustached, who had barely dropped his stony posture throughout the break-up, was not completely silent, either. “Let him keep talking that shit, see what happens.”

It finally boiled over one Friday night. Trace was in a booth behind the hostess’ station, waiting for Kacie to get off work. Eric and Jamie were bussing tables, Chad in the kitchen. Jayden was sitting at the counter nearby, along with a handful of others he had brought in his car, who as usual had come with no expectations other than to see whatever happened next. Then it did.

Trace, glaring at Jamie as he passed, said, for perhaps the 99th time, “I oughtta beat that boy’s ass.” One of the waitresses, Linda, replied, “Whyn’t you quit talking about it and do it, then?”

“I don’t wanna embarrass Kacie at work,” Trace muttered, to which Jayden rejoined, “She’s already embarrassed. She’s in high school and her boyfriend’s old enough to vote.”

Sounding like he meant it, Trace said, “I’m gonna slap the piss out of you.” Jamie was nearby, stacking tubs, and said, “You even think about touching him, I’m gonna touch you.”

“Touch me? Whatever, fag. Move along, little fella –” Trace waved his hand—“before you get hurt.”

“That’s it.” Jamie slammed the bus tubs down hard enough to make the plates and glasses in them jump and some of them break. “Let’s fucking do this, dude! Let’s go!” Jamie’s shirt was off before he had left the building. Kacie, a handful of menus in her hand, swiveled her head, startled, pony tail whipping to watch him go; everyone did, everyone in the restaurant, because it was surrounded by glass windows looking out on the parking lot and they could see him go, long, barrel-lifting arms, golden, flat torso, nipples like hornets. Shirt in hand he stomped out to Trace’s car and waited, pacing slightly in front of it and silently frothing. “Oh shit, it’s on!” exclaimed Jayden gleefully, as he, Eric, and every other trailer park kid left their seats to plunge out into the summer night after Jamie—somebody called Chad off the cook’s line and he dropped his spatula and bolted, prompting somebody else to cry, “Hash browns!” Now a crowd of kids formed a semi-circle around Trace’s car, around Jamie, and called, intermittently, cries of imminent combat. “Oh my God… yooooo… it’s going down… you got this, Jamie… kick his ass, man!”

Jeff was dropping food at one of his tables when this happened. They were regulars, a man and woman, and knew a little about the situation. “We have some entertainment tonight,” said the man. “Bread and circuses!” Jeff hurried to the hostess’ station to see Kacie with her hands over her mouth and Trace looking pale. One of the kids came back inside. “Are you going out there or not?!”

“This is stupid,” Trace muttered. “Is there a back door to this place?”

Kacie burst into tears and fled. Hugh appeared. The manager on duty that night, Bob, had been summoned from doing inventory in the walk-in and, before he could question anyone, Jeff followed Kacie to the break room. Her pretty and youthful face was swelling from the effort of tears, a girl’s tears, frightened and angry. “What do I do?”

“Probably nothing,” Jeff said. “I think Bob’s gonna squash it. You could tell Trace to go home, or go with him, just clock out.”

“He’s such an asshole,” Kacie said, pawing at the corners of her eyes.


“Trace. He thinks I still love Jamie.”

“Oh…! Do you?”

“I don’t know!” Kacie wailed. “I don’t know. I don’t even know why we broke up. Jamie’s just so, intense about everything and Trace was supposed to be casual but he’s been acting like such a freak… this is all just too much!”

Jeff thought he knew what she meant. He remembered his earlier observation about trajectory, and thought that he could see where she was going and where he was going. She would go on to other jobs like this, and marry Jamie or someone like him; this was her first clumsy shouldering of it. Jeff would finish school and either stay in the college town in some new position or move back to his home suburb and do the same. He would marry a girl like him. He was 21, not a writer or a sociologist, not anything at all, really, except a waiter. Whatever happened next, he would probably never love a woman like Kacie, never strip to the waist and demand someone fight him in a parking lot.


About the Author

Charlie Kondek is a marketing professional and writer from metro Detroit. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at MysteryTribune.com, Yellow Mama, Wrong Turn Lit and the Rye Whiskey Review, and in Kendo World and other niche publications. More at CharlieKondekWrites.com.


Image by Mike Goad from Pixabay