Cold, Black, and Bitter by Lee Hamblin

Saturday morning, and I’m taking my breakfast at the same diner I always have. Time was when Boots, Ed and me would trawl in here regular, early morning red-eyed from a night driving back from a gig we’d done upstate. These days I tend to come here on my own.

There’s only the one server working today, Candice, least that’s the name sewn in blood-red thread on the breast pocket of her apron. She may well have inherited it for all I know, but it fits her well enough. She started working here a few weeks back, and remembers I like my eggs just so. And I pity the poor chef who ain’t followed her instruction, cause she’ll be sending them right back with a holler worthy of Mammy Two Shoes if they get it wrong. She’s also real good at lending an ear, if she’s not all busy with the bringing and collecting, that is.

This morning’s quiet, like it’s sufferin’ a hangover: thickheaded and slow on finding its groove. I’m sat on a stool, alone at the bar. The radio simmers away in the background, broadcasting watered-down jazz that should be the reserve of Vegas elevators. Candice’s elbows are boring into the counter top, her hands tightly clasped, and she’s busy wearing out the clicker of her biro with her thumb. I don’t imagine the radio station’s her choosing. I finish up my toast and wipe my mouth with a napkin.

‘I reckon that when the creator was serving up forgiveness,’ I tell her, breaking the tedium, ‘my wife, Frances, ate up plate after plate. You know my wife, right?’ Candice quits the biro clicking, and nods. ‘Yeah, course you do, I reckon everyone but everyone in this town knows Frances, least knows of her.’ An old Stevie Wonder tune from the mid seventies comes on. It hits the sweet spot. ‘And here’s another thing, when kindness was being divvied out, she must have snaffled an extra piece or three for good measure, least that’s how I see it; cause if you ever cut her open, I swear you won’t find a bad bone in there.’ I lean in a little tighter, soften my voice even though there’s no-one else listening, ‘and Lord knows I’ve given her reason enough over the years to show it, what with all the jazzin’ and boozin’ I done.’ I take a pause, though more for Candice’s benefit than mine; cause I know that once I get going it takes a knife in the back to stop me. Candice starts up with the clicking again.

‘I was never one for philanderin’ mind, nor the drugs,’ I say, ‘Boots, my kid brother, he’s the one did enough of that for the both of us.’

And there comes that knife, sliding its way right up between my ribs, twisting round slowly.

I empty my coffee cup of what’s now cold, black and bitter.

‘Pfft, I don’t wanna talk about him right now, being that we only laid his stupid-ass soul to rest last month,’ I say.

Candice loses the pen to the counter, interlocks her fingers, and stretches her palms right up to the sky, ‘Come on, Jack, that’s no way to speak about your own flesh and blood.’ She says.

‘Yeah, you’re right I guess. I’m just mad cause I couldn’t stop him before it all got outta control.’

Candice winces.

Stevie Wonder’s clavinet funk takes me all the way back to when.

‘I think we’ve all done things we wish we could’ve done different, Jack, given the chance.’

‘Amen to that,’ I say.

‘It was cancer, right, with Boots?’ She asks.

‘Yeah, I suppose that about covers it,’ I say. But in truth, it weren’t even the half of it.

Candice turns around and picks up the glass coffee pot from the hot plate. I catch her looking at me looking at her in the wall of mirror tiles behind her. There’s this hurt in her eyes I hadn’t noticed before, I suppose it’s the first time I looked, and it’s far too deep for a kid of what? I make it she can only be eighteen, nineteen, twenty-one tops. She turns back around, looking everywhere but at me.

‘Can I get you a refill there, Jack?’ She asks sweetly, slamming the door on what just happened.

She disguises pain real well, keeps it hidden, where it can fester. I’ve seen it in others; I see it in her. But I ain’t one to pry, after all, it sure ain’t right for an old man to pry into a young ladies mind, is it?  I hope whatever’s eating her up’ll come out someways, and that it’s some day soon.

‘No, no thanks, honey, I gotta get back home,’ I say, checking my watch, leaving her be, ‘Jack Junior’s trio want some notes from an old timer.’ Candice laughs, maybe it’s just out of politeness, cause it weren’t that funny, but the laughing gets caught up in her throat and turns to a cough. She puts the coffee pot down and massages her throat with a couple of fingers.

‘He plays the trumpet, right?’ she asks, a sheen glistening in her eyes.

‘Yeah, how come you know that?’ I ask, ‘then again, I s’pose you might be about the same age. You must have gone to school with him, and that Aaron kid from the gas station, maybe even with Ed’s boy too, Isaac, God rest his soul. Poor kid accidentally drowned out in the lake a couple years back.’

And I swear, if ever a seraph-pretty brown-skinned girl could look as white as a sheet, it happened right there, right in front of me. Before I could say another word, she’d hitched off her apron and made a break for the fire door, storming on out to an alleyway lined with badly parked cars and stanky dumpsters ever in need of emptying.


Lee Hamblin is originally from London, now living in Greece. He’s had stories published with F(r)iction, Flash Frontier, Spelk, Flash Fiction Magazine, Platform For Prose, Sick Lit, STORGY, and some other places. He has stories forthcoming in Stories For Homes Volume 2, and Fictive Dream. He occasionally tweets @kali_thea and puts words here:

Image: Joshua Ness