After Hours

Motor oil dripping off the dinner plate should have stained my dress. The fitted blue fabric was pore-less– the word “uniform” felt completely appropriate. I kept reaching for a zipper, a button, some place where it could come apart, but I was always interrupted. I knew a nametag sat squarely on my chest but I never got around to looking down.

The diner was an island suspended in a vat of black paint. I didn’t have to look outside to know there was no parking lot, no bus stop, no liquor store glowing across the road. I assume there was a telephone line spotted with mechanical birds, but it was for show– a thick string of solid, dull rubber. I hadn’t always been here, but I can’t remember slipping in or out. Neon tubing snaked from floor to ceiling and there was a buzzing under each table, under each something-stained mug. An endless, butter-slicked counter sat before me, above us both, a red-trimmed clock. The numbers, small black ticks, two dainty hands, were painted on. This shift wouldn’t be over anytime soon.

Amber sludge slipped down the back of my arm, the heavy smell swelling in each drop. If you were to stand outside in the inky air, nose pressed against the window, it would have looked like maple syrup. The ants that trickled from a fist-sized hole in the wall wouldn’t make that mistake again. A vacancy sign, which I now recognized as out of place, hummed urgently through the glass. I could have sworn there was no door, but suddenly, it swung open.

In response to the sound, my plate dropped to the counter, a crack shivering down its porcelain center. The woman who entered was dressed in head to toe pleather. Tall, pointed boots stretched up to her thighs. Naturally, she glanced at the red booth that matched her ensemble, molded to look like pleats without the swish. I let out a “be right with you” and watched the way she gathered the sound in her hand, pressed it tight, and let it slip onto the floor. She wasn’t shy about giving me one more thing to clean up.

My right hand scuttled to the stack of greasy menus, and as she watched me do this, she sighed, long and theatrical, “No. I’ll have the usual.” With this command, I froze. My fingers curled into a fist, cracking audibly. She slid into the red booth, the surface of her skirt squeaking against her seat. “I can smoke in here, correct.” I glanced at the motor oil spotting my sleeves, so she assured me, “Don’t worry dear, I’ll be careful. Now, the regular please.” There was nothing to do but trust her.

She lifted a single, outstretched fingernail, and twirled it in the air. Suddenly, my entire body swiveled towards the kitchen. I marched in, full speed ahead with one clockwork thought: breakfast. The kitchen was in a frenzy. The refrigerator cord was chewed through the center, order wheel overrun with yellowed pieces of paper, tacked one over another, clamoring for attention: “yesterday’s newspaper and the cake recipe buried with mom,” “something that’ll stay hot for the ten-hour car ride and a reason to get through it,” “anything but more of this…maybe some hash browns.” I ran my fingers through them, leaving grease stains in my path.

Various metal and plastic parts filled every drawer and spilled from the oven’s gaping mouth: half of an alarm clock, a tin mug of Barbie shoes, some melted into each other, and what looked like a car door with the words “fuck you, Jonathan” keyed into it. A can of motor oil was turned on its side, splashing daintily onto the floor with little lapping sounds, neatly avoiding my heels. I gathered some in my palm and poured it into a deep stock pot, the closest thing to a skillet in sight. I could hear her, my maybe-last customer, drumming red nails on the table. The sound picked up slowly, and I felt the blood in my body, or whatever replaced it, swelling and receding at her will. I felt and suppressed the urge to yell “just a minute, darling” over the tapping.

Breakfast. Yellow. She just needs something. There was a small red pocketknife wedged into the spice rack, so I slipped it into my palm, walked back out to the counter, and stood defiantly before a barstool. I could see her in my peripheral vision, twisting pieces of her hair and pinning them up with corkscrews that sat like peppermints by the entrance. I pulled the knife through the seat cushion and watched it bloom fat and buttery on either side. It came up in pieces, light and hollow, crumbs scattering all over the floor. I could scramble this with pepper and red sequins. Yes, that would work. I cut pieces of the vinyl seat cover for “bacon” and let these sit in the oil, sputtering and changing, curling their toes, I salted and worried over them, scrambling for a fork with the other hand. I poured a tall glass of orange dish soap and found two glassy marbles that sat suspended in it like ice. I wiped the gloss from my forehead, staring over my masterpiece, on the verge of humming.

Just in time, her tall boots clicked in the distance, getting closer and closer. The kitchen got smaller and smaller, my breath thumping against the walls and shaking everything so it clicked together, almost-magnets never quite sticking. She rounded the corner: narrow eyes outlined in black, long fingerless gloves, those glossy fingernails. She cocked an eyebrow at the mess of foam and plastic twisting under my spatula, and I could feel hot, oily tears welling in my eyes. The smell was becoming overwhelming but she didn’t seem to notice. The junk around me multiplied. “What do you want from me?” I gasped, throwing the spatula down, wiping my hands up and down my skirt, willing something to make a mark.

She just laughed, low at first, then loud and apologetic, her face becoming softer, her face becoming mine for just a moment. She held two hands before her, “Oh, honey. Try your luck.” My hand moved without permission to the right one, then my other to the left. We stood like that for a moment, a frame from the world’s most cramped slow dance. A stream of electricity ran between our bodies, splintering me like a cracked dinner plate. “Very good,” she cooed.

When she unfolded her right hand, a perfect, brown egg was nested in it. She took it up, cracked it against her hip, and poured the contents into her left hand, where it bubbled. She brought her fist back together to crush the shell, and let this too scatter the floor. A few tiny brown pieces clung to her sticky hand.

In the other, white sizzled, a yolk beat in the center– a junior prom heartbeat. And over the hiss, this tiny, messy miracle, she whispered: “you’re gonna have to break a few eggs if you wanna make an omelette.”


Julia Horwitz likes to make art about all things sparkly, sticky, and queer. Her work has been published by Penmanship Books, Poetry Society of America, and All Def Digital. She is from LA, goes to school in Providence, and collects scissors. Here are here Website and Instagram

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