By TYLER BARTON
—a town so small we all had the same therapist, honest, and called her by her first name: Carla. Predawn in a Denny’s booth, we debriefed our sessions, shared notes, compared diagnoses, and wondered where her tattoos were hidden. We marveled over Carla’s insight. Her ambient charm. Her bad jazz mixes. The slight dent in her forehead, how it hued and curved the light.
We drove ourselves in circles telling stories of how she saved our lives. Where else are myths made but in dark diner corners? That long bulb flickering overhead. Gaunt faces reflected in the glass. Stomachs dumb with syrup. Waitresses tamping down our every simple need. Please, it’s the cradle of conspiracy.
“She says I’m sensitive because of how I notice shit,” Jed was saying. “Like those tree branches that grow over the road and sort of swallow the power line? Well, when the tree dies, and they trim it, they have to, like, leave that bit of branch up there, wrapped around the wire. Just a chunk of wood strung up like a charm on a necklace. Well, Carla noticed that I notice shit like that.”
“Does Carla ever speak to you about yourself in the third person?” I asked my tablemates.
“She says I’m all about the physical world,” Jed went on. “She says I hold it dear.”
The whole front face of her office building was coated with green hearts—morning glories, invasive and gorgeous. Sadly by the time I arrived Monday evenings, the flowers had all gone shy and shut. The building was frigid, but her office held a dry heat. Though she saw adults, Carla’s professional focus was kids, so she kept a collection of Hot Wheels on her hard carpet. Feet and feet of orange plastic track I fiddled with as I whined, feeling unjudged but unloved.
“You talk often of this lacking,” she said one session that autumn, her restless, shoeless foot tapping the rug. “Would you say it’s a lack of identity, a lack of meaning, or a lack of, let’s call it: belonging?”
“I’m belonging fine,” I said, calling to mind the diner, how the butter dollop on the Belgian waffle looked exactly like a scoop of vanilla. “But the other—what did you call it?”
“I’m not sure what that one means.” I slid a toy Trans Am into an orange turn.
“Present for you?” Carla said, and my goosebumps grew. “A dictionary.”
I laughed. “I’ll ask Santa in December.”
“Sal, take me back to that moment in the shop,” she said. “The morning the needle went into your wrist.”
Every tailor makes mistakes. Your hands get scarred. But the thing on my wrist is scary and different and still red and the reason I first sought out the help of someone who would turn out to be Carla. I was hemming a dress pant, something simple, almost mindless, like the way you drive home without thinking once about your hands on the wheel, but my arm just kept moving toward the feed dogs, those bars of teeth that flank the needle. Closer. Closer. Until it was in me. And in me. And in me again through the backhand side of the wrist.
“Doesn’t everyone have those thoughts? The thing where like, you’re driving over the river, and you wonder for a second how long it would take to hit the water? You know, if you just threw the wheel hard to the right?”
“Except,” she said, “that is just a thought. Our thoughts are not our selves, Sal.”
“Yes, at first. But that day at the machine, the thought started happening to me.”
The blood ruined so many clothes, all of which belonged to other people.
At Denny’s we fussed over Christmas, which gift to all chip in and get her. Year one was a card full of lottery tickets, but it grew to jewelry, and then that last year: a jacuzzi. No shit. Jones knew a guy who got us a used one for a song. I sewed the bow. It was 1999. We were in a bad way, brains curdled by the promise of Y2K. What could our money mean, really, after it all melted to zeroes in some billionaire’s server? Love was our only material. Sausages, waffles, all this love. And you were a liar if you didn’t love her.
Jones was a liar if you didn’t know how to handle his hoaxes. He claimed Carla invited him over for a soak in the tub as a thank you. With him and Jed it came to blows almost, over my Moons Over My Hammy. It was a story. Jones’s visit hadn’t happened. Merry Christmas, I offered her every appointment that January, but Carla never acknowledged the gift we’d had delivered. None of us six would ever use the jacuzzi, would never know if she used it, or what she wore when she did if she did. Not that our obsession was sexual—for everyone except for Jed, this thing was well beyond physical. Rumor was, anyway, that she sold it.
Besides, Rule One was no touching. Carla was anti-hug, kept a professional distance that was to be respected. Rule Two was born the sad night Thin Bill whispered all ten digits of her home phone number over his plate of wet eggs. When the old man protested, he was asked to leave the group and took up residence at the Denny’s bar instead, until he left Denny’s, and then Seven Corners, and for all we know, the earth itself, altogether.
Our rules were not meant to make our actions admirable, but tolerable. After all, we needed to be able to live with ourselves.
“I’ve been thinking about Sal’s obsession with pancakes,” she said one session that winter, after I’d dodged again the details of growing up with my grandfather. We often spoke about me as if I were on TV, and it turned the good blood in my head loud. “His need for something endless.”
I envied the way her work consumed her. Mine had when I was tailoring in town, before the accident happened and it got so I couldn’t pay the electric bill and had to close, had to find scratch work sewing repairs for the York Little Theatre costume shop. My wife, Adie, pleaded with me to get help. Something in me was misfiring, and I couldn’t do a lick of work without pacing around the playhouse, needle and thread in hand, mistakes piling up and over.
“Sal—did you think your grandfather would let you live with him forever?” And here was Carla, sitting before me every week, a person whose work poured from her like sap—she had tapped the tree of life. She had made herself happen. I used to wonder whether she ever looked back at her past, and if she did was it divorced from fear, a cold object just hanging there?
Adie called the obsession unhealthy. But she saw Carla too, and after a gin and a half her love would slip out in curious questions and what-if scenarios. “What do you think happened to her head?” None of us were adult. Pushing forty, yes, but not adult in the way America demands, not grown enough for the five-day work week or the silent, god-fearing community of Seven Corners. The realtor had said the schools were beautiful. We never did get around to kids.
“Is there a lot of sax when you’re in session?” Adie asked. “Is that what jazz is? Does it ever seem like she’s just making shit up? Oh God—what if she stops taking Medicare?”
“You could sell your eggs,” I guessed. “I’ll sell sperm. I hear there’s money in plasma.”
Ice and all, Adie gulped her drink empty. “Kiss me,” she said, lime pulp clinging to her top lip. “And promise you won’t go out for breakfast tonight.”
But I was already pulling on my boots.
“You’re getting worse, Sal.”
“Please,” I said, rubbing my wrist. “How am I getting worse?”
“By not getting better.”
“They can’t understand,” Simon said, pointing his fork at an invisible woman in the middle of the table. “God bless them, but they don’t get it.”
“Our wives want to teach us yoga, but Carla wants to teach us hope,” said Orrin, a bitter news reporter whose wife had long left him. It would be a month before Adie did the same to me. Each of the women in our lives, God save them, would abandon her brave campaign to reconnect spiritually. We’d come home wrung out and stuck to the loveseat like gum, chewed and pale, only to flee again at ten for pancakes that slid happily from their stacks, fantasies spread thick across the corner table. A Caribbean cruise with Carla. A book club with Carla. A flight where Carla saves a planeful of passengers from something fierce on the wing. There were times too we sat in silence, bloated and confused, more than a little disappointed Y2K had not come with its ungodly eraser to even us all out.
The night Carla entered the Denny’s was one of those nights.
She knew I spent a lot of time in diners, but of course our club was hush-hush (we used a booth tucked away from view of the doors, back by the bathrooms). I saw Carla climb out of a car, the passenger’s seat, her dress purple as the night.
“Orrin,” I said. “We got a Code Rose.”
Inside her office, there were picture frames still filled with stock photos. Our little club would theorize where it was she’d come from, what it was she had left. None of us had ever seen a car that could be Carla’s in the parking lot. How did she get there? How would she ever leave?
She screamed at us sometimes. “I’m not some witch! I can’t just cast a spell—this shit requires your effort!” Call it tough love. She made us stand and pace as we talked, to stave off stagnation. “Move! Go!” The way her neck vein popped. We ate it up. You wouldn’t understand. We didn’t get it ourselves. We didn’t even realize that it was wrong to pour the kind of attention you craved for yourself at the feet of any person kind enough to look you in the eye. Our behavior was sick—it’s no feat to admit it. I regret every minute of the Carla years. But at that time—and this is what I can’t escape—I thought what I felt was alive. Almost divine. Life had not snapped to attention like that since I was twenty-three, when my grandfather gripped me by the arm a final time and said, You’ve got to get out and make your own life.
Things changed the night she came into Denny’s. Before the waters were even on her table, Carla had to use the bathroom.
“It’s Sal—” she said in passing, but then stopped herself, choking a little on the l. Her legs stiffened like a charley-horse was coming on. Maybe saying hello would have been some kind of malpractice. But she registered us, registered our existence, registered us with her neck muscles. She knew in an instant what we were, in that booth. Jed waved. Her right foot wobbled as she turned the corner. While she was in there, we escaped, but not unscathed. At least not me. After this breach, so many rules seemed no longer to apply to me, or at least not to Sal.
“It’s just illegal,” Adie would say, “or it fucking should be, the way you worship this woman.”
A god she was not, but a prophet, possibly. I always saw Carla as more of a seer than an overseer. She divined this clear path I traced and traced with words. Healthy habits. Gratitude journal. A mile every morning. “No treadmill, either. What Sal needs is the out-fucking-side.” Hobbies, hobbies. Dinner made with things that grew, and chewing slow, no TV in bed. A sex life with my wife like we had in ’95. Carla taught me the word intention. The word curvature. The word care. She gave me a list of museums in nearby cities, and I went alone, daydreaming my therapist beside me. What is this thing here? This pile of bark, what do you think it means?
“New necklace?” I asked at my next appointment after the Denny’s sighting, an appointment which Carla had rescheduled twice. She never wore the presents we purchased, and this piece around her neck was wild, shining like nothing did. “What’s that stone—peridot?”
“We’re going to focus on your—”
“Topaz?” I flicked a red Corvette down the track, and it flipped when the path bent left.
“Stop it—we’re going to focus now on why exactly Sal is—why you are still here.”
“It’s six-thirty, no?”
“Don’t play dumb,” she said, her neck-vein strumming itself clean. “I’m talking about Seven Corners.”
“Addie’s the one who’s leaving. Sal’s keeping the house.”
“Salvador, I’m talking to you.” Even though she said my name—my full name, like a mother, and yes, it gave me chills—I couldn’t intuit who her words were for. “Don’t you know that there’s something powerful in the act of leaving? I mean it. Leaving makes it so that everything new you encounter is something you’ve found.” She stood up and paced the room, like she was dictating a future speech. “And really, a sense of self is only everything that a person finds and decides to keep. I want you to find some things for yourself. Do you hear me? Salvador, is there anything here left to find?”
I thought about the dirty house, the empty theater. I mentally flipped the pages of the Denny’s menu. I had not found a single dish that didn’t ultimately make me sick. But hadn’t I found Carla?
“Wait,” I said. “Are you breaking up with me?”
She sat down. “The fact that you’d even use that language proves my decision to—”
“To move and reduce the size of my practice.”
“To abandon us,” I said, squeezing the matchbox car in my hand until its little plastic windshield snapped. I couldn’t feel my breath in my mouth, and I told Carla this. I may have shouted it.
“You’re sick, Sal. What are you all doing there at the diner? Besides making yourselves sicker?”
“You need something better to bond you to the world, something more than your fucking therapist. You need an identity, and probably a strong prescription.”
“I don’t know,” I said, down on the carpet. “I just don’t know.”
For all the feelings I still have—I am thankful for how long she let me lie there on the floor.
“You know it’s illegal what she’s doing,” Jed said the first week of the transition. Carla started seeing her remaining clients in her home, at least until the place sold. “That block’s not zoned for private business.”
“I have something to bring to the table,” Jones said, before explaining that his sister, an officer with Seven Corners PD with whom Jones had been crashing, shared with him reports of excessive loitering on Carla’s street. His sister had heard him rave about Carla, and she wanted to make sure he wasn’t doing anything stupid. “So, I’m asking you all,” Jones said. “Has anyone been doing anything stupid?”
Jed began to cry into his big red napkin, and my breath came back. It didn’t have to come to a restraining order—Jed agreed he would leave. He’d been leaving things in her mailbox daily, little things like notes and stones and pieces of trees, things he had noticed and wanted to show her. We dealt with the issue internally, as we did the night Thin Bill shared Carla’s phone number. A month later we helped Jed with his move, waved bye as he cried in the cab of his little Ford Ranger, belongings spilling from that overfull truck bed.
They would never know it had been me pacing up and down the opposite side of Carla’s street. I never crossed closer than the yellow line. What troubles me the most is that, at the time, I didn’t even see that man as me. The creep out there in the Steelers jacket—that was Sal.
Without her, Jones actually got better—a little stuffed up on downers, but it helped him out of his hole. He found a counselor in York City, progressed to monthly, then four times a year, and now I have a letter from him I don’t like to think about, full of praise for a cliché, bearded God. I found Orrin on Facebook, but he never posts. Every picture shows him with a smile that I hate myself for reading as fake. I notice that he now has braces. Carla always said that progress takes all shapes.
In the end, it was Carla who left. It seemed powerful to me, but I hope it didn’t feel like fleeing. Which makes me wonder how many times, for her, a move has been a necessity, an escape from the need of men. Men like us. Men like me, clinging to the power line despite the death of the tree. I hope like hell the truth is that she simply needed to find a place, for herself, where things could still be found.
Now she practices ten towns down Lincoln Highway, where her new rates are mean, and my newest job’s plan won’t cover things like Carla. Necessary things. Sublime things. Pre-existing. I heard the high school closed the art wing and laid off two counselors in the same summer. I heard the banks fucked us, they’re going bankrupt. I’ve heard that if you look at America from above, say from a plane, there’s no denying it’s riddled with cracks. Flawed geography. The foundation—spiderwebbed. If I’m ever up in the air I will look to confirm this. What I can say is I feel a shudder beneath my car tires, like I’m vibrating against a track, desperate for a power station to send me into the next corner, but there’s nothing on the horizon. Even as the car putters to a stop—
—everything built shakes.
Tonight my kitchen shift is dead, so I walk sluggish laps through the dining room—if I find a tear in a booth seat’s upholstery, I’ll stitch it up. Tight, with matching thread, though the fix rarely holds more than a couple days. I refer to my work as my practice, and somehow this helps. What doesn’t is every man who comes in and eats at a booth by himself. A booth is for community, the bar’s for being alone. I take my meals here standing up beside the fryer, so I don’t have to think about the quick hours I spent in the booth in the back, the fictions I helped fabricate there about who she was, the ten digits I wrote down the night Thin Bill recited them aloud like poem. When I get real low I type that number into my phone, even though I know the chance is slim it’s still hers after all these years. Just the act of typing it, button by button, is enough. Though I’ll admit I sometimes do press Call. But I always—and if this isn’t progress—hit End before the zeroes appear.
This story appears in the collection Eternal Night at the Nature Museum, out this fall and available now for pre-order.
Tyler Barton is a literary advocate and cofounder of Fear No Lit. He’s the author of the story collection, Eternal Night at the Nature Museum (Sarabande, 2021) and the flash chapbook, The Quiet Part Loud (Split/Lip, 2019). Find his fiction in Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, and soon in Copper Nickel. Find him at @goftyler, tsbarton.com, or in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.