Somebody Once

Still holding tight to his egg-stained fork, Graham ran the back of his hand across the counter, feeling the grains of salt roll under his skin like sand. He imagined rubbing the salt into the wound on his leg.

“More coffee?”

The server behind the counter should have been a sour old lady with a southern drawl and a smoker’s cough or a pretty young blonde trying and failing to corral her sexuality with a ponytail rubber band. But it was a man. A young man with dreadlocks that surely violated the health code by the way the natty strands flew around the room with every nod of his head. He was wearing a Princeton t-shirt and a hemp necklace and he was obviously stoned. Graham knew the look all too well from the mirror.

“Yeah,” Graham answered.

The server stared at him for a moment before turning to collect the coffee pot from the warming station.

Graham watched the young man move in slow motion, not a care in the world. Or maybe it was just that he’d exhaled all his cares behind the diner during his last break. He pictured the smoke swirling in the freezing midnight air, remembering his own demons of want and mistake, then stabbed at his eggs again. They were cold and runny, but cheap.

The server filled Graham’s coffee cup, then stood there for a moment with the pot held out as if awaiting some sort of approving nod.

“Hell of a thing,” Dreadlocks said, staring at Graham’s plate.

“What?” asked Graham.

“That girl. The one on the news. The one that almost got killed or raped or whatever.”

Graham cradled the coffee cup. It was only slightly warmer than his calloused, clean-scrubbed hands.

“Yeah,” he said.

“I mean, that wasn’t even a mile from here. Walked by that way a hundred times myself.”

Graham took a sip of coffee. Dreadlocks kept talking.

“I got this friend, he says he saw the whole thing. Three guys or maybe it was four jump this girl and start ripping her clothes off. I mean, like there’s no way my friend was going to get in the middle of that because those fuckers were serious trouble, you know?”

Graham set the coffee cup on the counter. The snap of plastic against metal sent a chill through him. Gunshots sound different in real life than in the movies, he thought.

“And besides,” the server continued, “Nate – that’s my friend who saw it all – he’s as skinny as that Napoleon guy, the one from the movie, not the French dude, and probably twice as stupid. He woulda gotten himself killed. But it didn’t matter anyway since that good Samaritan showed up. He really did a number on those dirtbags. He was a real dark hero – like in that flick by M. Night Shama – however the hell you say his name – the other film with Bruce Willis. Nate says he saw it all but if I know Nate he was probably passed out in his car the whole time. He’d sorta had a lot to drink.”

Graham reached into the inside breast pocket of his army surplus jacket and pulled out his wallet.

“How much?”

“A six-pack at least…”

“No, how much for the food?”

“Oh, yeah. Um…I’ll get your ticket.” The server didn’t move. He squinted at Graham for a long moment. “Hey, I know you,” he finally said. “You’re that singer, aren’t you.”

It was a statement, but Dreadlocks waited for an answer. When he didn’t get one, he continued.

“Dude, I loved that CD – what was it called, ‘Incredible Ache’ or something. Was that it? I must’ve listened to that thing a thousand times back in the day.”

“‘Irresistible Escape,’” said Graham.

“Right. Yeah. That was it. Second best thing about my old man leaving was that he forgot to take his CDs.”

Graham was pretty sure he knew the first best thing.

“Best thing? That he left,” said Dreadlocks. “He was an asshole. But he had good taste in music. So I guess I have that to thank him for.”

“Can I have my ticket please?” asked Graham. His pulse throbbed in his neck.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

A moment later, Dreadlocks returned and slid the ticket across the counter.

“So what happened to you?” he asked. “Was it sex or drugs or money? Or like did you have some sort of existential meltdown?”

“All of the above.” Graham pulled a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet, set it on the ticket. “Thanks,” he said, then spun around on the stool and slid off onto the cracked tile floor. The whole weight of his body found his knee. He limped to the door, grabbed the cold metal handle just as Dreadlocks called out.

“Hey,” he said. “You okay?”

Graham looked at the tiny red pools on the linoleum that marked his steps across the floor. Dreadlocks didn’t wait for an answer this time.

“I mean, it must be tough, you know? To be somebody once and then one day…well…at least you’ve got your music. That shit lives on, you know?”


“Take care rocker dude,” Dreadlocks said.

Graham let the door slam behind him, then shuffled through the slush and snow. A single flickering streetlight stood like a nervous sentry in the middle of the parking lot. His shadow followed him, caught up to him under the light, then preceded him as he crossed the street into the dark of the starless night.

It was the sort of night that ought to inspire writing, but his guitar was still in the pawn shop.

Unbreakable, he said to himself. That was the name of the film.

Right then he stumbled. He grimaced when he landed hard on his left hip, but a moment later his grimace had morphed into a wicked smile.

“Unbreakable,” he coughed out with a throaty laugh.

Graham dragged himself into a seated position and leaned against a stop sign as black as the growing stain on his jeans. So what if I don’t have my guitar. He began humming a new song. It didn’t have any words yet, but he already knew the title.

“Somebody Once.”

It will be a song about redemption.
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