‘Let’s order first!’
‘You shouldn’t exclaim things,’ said Cletus. ‘It’s shit writing.’
‘But we aren’t writing!’ exclaimed Nathan. ‘We’re having conversation!’
Cletus considered this. ‘Shit conversing, then.’ As was his custom when feeling he’d driven home a particularly stimulating point, Cletus simultaneously shrugged & sneezed. He unfolded the menu in front of him, his eyes landing on a staged photograph of a humongous plastic-looking burger drenched in melted cheese, when an excessively tall waitress approached. Way up there, almost near the damn ceiling for crying out loud, thought Cletus, a nametag on her apron read, Hi there, I’m Occasionally.
Occasionally what? wondered Cletus. Parched? Randy? Bored beyond belief? Cletus considered the possibility that this woman’s name was, in fact, Occasionally. His own last name was a noun; it had served him well enough. However, having never met someone with an adverb for a name & unsure of the proper etiquette Cletus decided against asking the waitress outright.
‘Is that your real name?!’ exclaimed Nathan.
‘Nathan,’ said Cletus under his breath. ‘Are you always such a spurious cur?’
‘It is actually,’ said the waitress whose real name was apparently, incredibly, Occasionally. She laughed in a terse spurt like a bum car revving its engine & asked, ‘What’s a spurious cur?’
‘No matter,’ said Cletus, taking in his first human adverb: she wore a green apron & had brown hair the color of bark. Cletus decided Occasionally resembled a maple tree, specifically one from his bastard of an ex-neighbor’s fucking gorgeous backyard.
She stood there smiling, patiently awaiting their orders.
At least she’s unassuming, thought Cletus. Better ‘Occasionally’ than ‘Victoriously’ or ‘Voraciously.’ If there was one thing Cletus could live without it was pomp. Also, the shingles.
‘Well I like it!’ exclaimed Nathan. ‘Your name, I mean. Sui generis & all that. Good for you!’
Occasionally the Maple’s smile grew like an unruly vine. ‘So what can I get for you gentlemen?’ she asked.
Recalling a certain pedestrian turn of phrase, something about beating & joining, Cletus held up the menu & pointed to the aforementioned photograph. ‘I’ll have one of these humongous plastic cheeseburgers!’ he exclaimed.
Cletus Foot was, by all accounts, shitty at both writing & conversing.
After taking Nathan’s order (‘Pancakes! Extra syrup, please!’), Occasionally rumbled off behind the counter, leaving Cletus & Nathan in a cloud of somewhat awkward silence. The cloud stuck around as it turned out, & before long Occasionally was back with their plates of food.
‘These pancakes are the best!’ said Nathan, barely having sunk his saffron-colored teeth into one bite.
Oh-me-oh-my what a goof, thought Cletus. Nathan was a goof, to be sure. What other possible conclusion could be drawn of a person claiming one pancake to be inherently more valuable than all the pancakes griddled the world over? There was a ‘best martini,’ a ‘best concerto,’ a ‘best lay.’ There was no ‘best pancake,’ & to suggest otherwise was goofy, decidedly so.
Or so decided Cletus.
‘How’s that burger with cheese treating you?’ asked Nathan. ‘Looks delish!’
‘Just call it a fucking cheeseburger, will you?’
‘And don’t say right-o. Or delish. While we’re at it, don’t say anything. I prefer to masticate in silence.’
Cletus had had his eye on an especially savory bite, very cheesy, right in the heart of the bun-burger ratio. It was during this bite he paused, looked at Nathan, & asked the question they had both been avoiding. ‘What is the meaning of life, do you think?’
Now: true, they’d only met a few hours prior at the singles mixer in the basement of a local Baptist church where they’d both been kicked to the curb for ‘conduct unbecoming’ (though unbecoming what exactly had never been made clear; Cletus secretly suspected his chiseled features & impressive body mass index were simply too much for those weak Baptist knees), but Cletus felt a certain brotherhood with Nathan. He felt he could tell him things.
Nathan, on the other hand, knew exactly why they’d been kicked to the Baptist curb (he had brought one of his paintings to auction off to the highest bidder, while Cletus saw a room full of people & seized the opportunity to read aloud his favorite passages from his latest sci-fi duology; they’d been peddling their goods in God’s house for godsake), & while he had no guarantee that Cletus was an honest, working man, he knew they were alike.
Animals usually do.
‘I’d like to think it’s art,’ Nathan said.
‘You asked about the meaning of life. I’m saying—I’d like to think it’s art.’
‘The creation of art.’
‘Yes, that would be nice.’
Nathan mopped up the last bit of syrup & pancake & ate without pleasure. ‘I see you met Her too, then.’
To anyone who happened to be listening the question would have seemed abrupt & outlandish, but Cletus knew better. ‘Oh, Her,’ he said. ‘Yes, we’ve met.’
Occasionally stopped by—more frequently than her name might suggest, thought Cletus—to refill Nathan’s coffee. Nathan thanked her & it occurred to Cletus that his new companion had thrown in the towel on his exclamations.
‘So, uh,’ said Cletus. Unwilling to shed light on his own encounter with the Almighty before hearing Nathan’s, he resorted to utterances rather than words, fragments rather than sentences. “Um, huh,” he went on, unashamed. Being rotten at conversing often meant leaving little threads of discussion hanging around in your wake. ‘Anyway,’ he said in a simultaneous shrug & sneeze.
Nathan dropped his head to the table & began rhythmically pounding it against the Formica.
‘Stop that,’ said Cletus.
Nathan did not.
‘Stop it. People are staring.’
This only seemed to strengthen Nathan’s resolve. He pounded harder, & with each pound, uttered the words, ‘I-don’t… under… stand… I-don’t… under… stand…’
‘You’re brooding,’ said Cletus. ‘I cannot tolerate brooding.’
This stopped Nathan, if only momentarily. ‘I’m a brooder,’ he said, forehead still on the table. ‘Father was a brooder, Grandfather was a brooder. Brooding is in my bones. I was born to brood.’
‘Quit saying the word brood for crissake.’
Nathan raised his head & the look in his eyes almost broke Cletus’s heart. ‘Where did you see Her?’
‘On the road to Montana,’ said Cletus. True, he hadn’t planned to speak of it first, but there was such a thing as pity-spurned generosity. ‘She parted clouds. You?’
‘Cemetery. I was visiting my aunt Ingrid when out of nowhere… bam… there She was right next to me. I poured out my heart. Told Her I was afraid I’d lost my soul. Know what She said?’
‘She put Her arm on my shoulder & asked where I’d last seen it.’
Cletus considered the day he’d driven his truncated auto from Arizona to Montana, eating a hot dog, minding his own damn business, when She’d parted the clouds above, Her voice booming down upon him with such force he’d had no choice but to pull over. Her methods had seemed so revelatory at the time, so entirely God-like, but in retrospect, Cletus wondered if they weren’t just a touch lazy. Parting the clouds seemed a laughably human idea for the cosmically Divine.
‘She doesn’t love us, Cletus. Does She?’
Cletus thought about what God had told him, to quit stealing people’s mail, & for the love of Herself, do what he’d been created to do: join the Marines. He’d done just that & now here he was, sitting in a diner with a perfect stranger who wouldn’t quit banging his head against the goddam table.
‘No, I don’t think she does,’ said Cletus.
Nathan went back to pounding his head.
Cletus took a sip of water & raised two middle fingers to the room.
In time, Nathan stopped. But his forehead was red from where he’d been pounding the table. ‘I don’t have any money,’ he said.
‘It’s fine, I’ll pay for the pancakes.’
‘That’s not what I meant. I mean—I have nothing. In life. I’ve wasted my talents & my time & my faith & now there is nothing left of me. I’m a ghost.’
Cletus watched his new friend cry. The young man was clearly down on his luck, but there was more to it than that. Truth be told Cletus saw much of himself—much of who he wanted to be, much of who he used to be—in Nathan. For Cletus, the world had stopped letting him down when he’d stopped expecting it not to. But Nathan still felt things & deeply. Nathan still believed in possibility, still believed there was a chance the world was not in fact a smoking shitball of disappointment.
Which it was, of course. One big stinking, smoking shitball.
Cletus opened his mouth to break this news to his friend, when suddenly he glimpsed a small burst of color protruding from the inside pocket of Nathan’s blazer. ‘What is that?’ asked Cletus.
Nathan pulled out a painting about the size of a pocketbook. ‘I thought maybe it would impress someone. At the mixer, I mean. Silly of me.’
‘May I?’ asked Cletus, taking the canvas in his hands. He turned it, then again, trying to decide if he loved or hated it. The painting seemed both loud & soft, a little presumptuous of its virtue, until Cletus looked closer & decided no, it had just the right account of its own virtue. And then Cletus began to cry (a thing he rarely did), & he was dumbfounded (a thing he rarely was), for he understood that what he held was rare magic, that Nathan had harnessed that magic, had completed the unspoken commission of artists the world over: Create something new for godsake.
Cletus looked from the art to the artist, this shell of a man sitting across from him, & in a blinding revelatory blaze, he understood. To complete the commission—to create something truly new—it was not enough for the artist to put themselves into their work; they must also die to it.
‘I just want to create,’ said Nathan, as good as dead. ‘Just to create.’
Cletus reached his hand across the table, placed it on Nathan’s. ‘So did She. And here we are. But you know—I’m not sure Her creation would know what to do with yours.’
Nathan was overcome with emotion at these words & the two men wept openly onto the Formica tabletop. Nearby patrons whispered, eyes darting furtively at these strange men who would dare cry & hold hands in so public a place. Cletus did not care. For in one hand he held magic & in the other the magician.
And Cletus Foot wondered if perhaps the world was not so giant a shitball after all.
‘I’m sorry, Nathan. I’m just so sorry.’
It was silent for a while—Cletus was the first to stop crying. But the two held hands like that for some time, content in the simple & silent company afforded by the kindred spirit.
‘Let’s get out of here.’
‘Nowhere to go,’ said Nathan.
When they’d first entered the diner, Nathan spoke as if the world was at his feet; now he spoke as someone bearing its weight on his back.
Cletus knew the feeling.
‘Look,’ Cletus said. ‘You are a great artist.’
‘Don’t ha me. You are. The lofty morons of the world may not see it. You probably won’t live to see them see it, but believe me, generations from now they’ll know.’ Cletus held up the small canvas. ‘They will see this painting hanging in an art gallery’—
‘If galleries are still around by then.’
‘If Paris is still around by then.’
—‘& they will stand in awe, shaking their heads at the miraculous oeuvre of Nathan… uh… what’s your last name?’
Oh boy, thought Cletus. He took a sip of water, cleared his throat, & tried to pick up the pieces of his little motivational speech. ‘They’ll, um, whisper the name—uh, well. They’ll whisper your name in, you know, awe & what have you.’
A different waitress stopped by the table to drop off their check. Cletus studied it for a moment. ‘How many pancakes did you eat, for crissake?’
‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ said Nathan. ‘I have no one in my life & I have no idea what’s next.’
Cletus set down the check, leaned across the table. ‘OK, listen. I’ve had it with the brooding, so I’m going to let you in on two secrets. First, you have no one in your life because you’re a miserable git & when you’re not a miserable git, you’re a completely insufferable git. I know because I’m one too. Guys like us will always be alone, that’s fine—the trick is knowing the difference between being alone & being lonely. As for not knowing what’s next… sometimes I don’t know what I’m writing until it’s written. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m thinking until I read it. And sometimes I don’t know where I’m going until I’m there. So I’ll tell you what you do. Paint. Forget the lofty morons. Just paint, Nathan.’ Cletus glanced at the check on the table. ‘Now let’s get out of this shithole.’
Together, Cletus & Nathan left the diner without paying. Cletus agreed to follow Nathan to his house, where they would further discuss their artistic endeavors.
On the way there, Cletus got lost.
They never saw each other again.