Cooking, Serving, Cleaning

Keiko got up an hour before work, stood naked holding the pendant in her hand, the light from street lamps through the window glinting on the silver star. She placed the medal in her jeans-pocket and went to shower. Burke was awake when she got out. She had a change of clothes there. She drove them to work at the diner. She unlocked the doors and let them inside, locking the doors again, half an hour till opening. She set the tables and prepared the coffee makers. Burke lit the grill, turned on the fryer, mixed the pancake batter and put several baked potatoes through the grating press, mixed a dozen eggs in a bowl and set a few pounds of bacon by the grill, heating the oven and starting the water for the gravy, chopping onions and bell peppers and ham for omelets as the water heated, mixing dough for biscuits and stirring the gravy and spooning the biscuits onto a pan, placing it in the oven and setting the timer.
Keiko was reading the newspaper. Burke kissed her on the cheek and slumped opposite her in the booth. The dishwasher got there and Keiko let him in and turned the lights on inside and over the parking lot and the neon sign, OPEN. Some working men got out of parked cars and came in, the first commenting on the chill outside, another greeting Keiko warmly, another picking up a newspaper from the counter. Burke returned to the kitchen, asking the dishwasher if anything eventful happened while he was away. "Funny you should ask," the dishwasher said. "My apartment building burnt down last month."
"I'm sorry," Burke said. "I hope you didn't lose everything."
"We have insurance, so it's not bad."
"Did anyone get hurt?"
"No, they even got the pets out."
"What started it?"
"Bad wiring they said."
"I'm glad you're all right."
"Yeah, thanks, me too."
The owner came and helped Keiko serve tables. The breakfast rush was slower for the cold weather. Lunch was quicker, the Wednesday special a proven favorite, the owner's heirloom chicken and dumplings, mushroom wild rice and cheddar bread, served again on Saturdays. She had posterized a photograph of her mother winning grand prize at the Kansas State Fair for best soup, she a little girl beside her mother, smiling.
After work, Keiko drove Burke over to his place on the way back to her father's house a mile south of town. Burke showered and Keiko talked to Susan, one of his roommates. He met Keiko through Susan. They had taken a class together, Susan saying he should ask her out for a cup of coffee. "He's pre-law," Susan said. "He's smart." Susan invited her over to watch an old-fashioned movie and introduced them. Halfway through the movie, seated beside him on one of the couches, Susan having gone upstairs, Keiko took Burke's hand in hers. Susan had rented a cello and resumed practicing, the sounds filtering down through century-old heating vents no longer in use. Normally all one would hear through them were adolescent rumors about any of the tenants, though mainly by then they were about Burke and his strange and amusing behavior. One of the engineering students laughed, Burke overhearing, "just Burke, king of cards."
He changed out of his work clothes and rode out with Keiko to her house. Her father, Jack, was home, watching the news. "I brought you some chicken soup," she said. "I'll put it on the table." Burke sat on another couch and their Pomeranian yapped until Jack sighed and murmured to the dog, saying they adopted him from an abusive prior owner. "How was Texas?"
"I made a movie."
"So I've heard. What's it about?"
"It's about being on the road and meeting people."
"Like Kerouac?"
"I don't think so."
"Why not?"
"I just went there to meet my real father."
Jack got up, muted the TV and went to the kitchen table for lunch. The little dog huffed and went downstairs to look for Keiko. Burke watched the muted news channel for a moment, then looked over the titles of Jack's latest reading. Keiko said it was Jack's goal to read all the books from the Lawrence Public Library before he died, reading two or three of them by the week.
Burke went downstairs and racked up a game of nine ball. It was a nice, full-sized, granite table, installed with new felt after Jack won it playing poker in a support group for widowers over the summer. Jack gave Burke a handicap of the two and the nine ball when they played, keeping the score closer. Burke practiced drawing from bank shots to side pockets, laying up the next shot lengthwise into a corner pocket, never a sure thing. Jack would sink most of his long bank shots. He took up playing poker and shooting pool with someone he'd met in the group when his wife died in a car crash twelve years ago, along with Keiko's younger sister. Keiko survived the crash, even calling emergency dispatch from inside the wreck, then her father before losing consciousness from shock. Jack took lessons for years afterward but discouraged Burke from practicing or playing regularly, the game incarnating time badly spent.
Burke heard the shower stop and put away the rest of the game and sat in the big recliner, ratcheting it back with the leg support extended, yawning. Through the terrace doors he looked over the lawn covered with sparkling snow. He felt poor, felt want, ignorant of why or for what, yet situated on how and when, where and who. He stared at the sparkling snow and thought of Erica, abandoning school in Texas, traveling back to Mexico for the winter, then to California in the spring. He walked over to the terrace door, two large, sliding glass doors, unlocked them, and stepped out onto the patio. The chill nipped his forearms and he unfurled his shirtsleeves. It was quiet, the sky clear and the snow glittering. "Johan," he heard, looking up to see if it was Jack on the upper deck. No one was there. "Johan!" said the thing, right before him, causing him to backstep and thud against the glass door. He blinked, a fluttering, tiny, humanlike creature before his eyes. "What are you?" he said. "And who is Johan?"
“I,” it said, “am a pixie, and Johan is you."
"I must be dreaming.”
"You are dreaming, but this is not your dream."
"I don't understand."
"You do," it said. "That's why I'm here."
"What do I understand?"
"That this is a dream."
"I'm dreaming, sure. I dream all the time. What do you want from me?"
It was silent, floating off to one side, leaving a trail of pink and violet mist. Burke touched the mist and it sparkled luminously, the colors growing more intense and causing a pleasant sensation in his fingers. He moved to touch the pixie and it giggled, avoiding his touch and appearing in triplicate around his hand. Reaching with both hands, the pixie tessellated into twelve figures, averting Burke's retracting arms and rejoining each other as one figure, chuckling again, asking what he saw. He looked flatly at the luminescing figure, blinking again. The figure began to disappear and reappear, imprinting white, angelic shapes, until there were twelve in the nebulous, purple cloud. Burke reached again to touch them and the shapes conjoined, forming a stretch of paper dolls, materializing in his hands, snow angels. None of the color remaining but the white, yet the misty cloud remained before him as he held the stretch of paper dolls. What appeared to be a small burst of lightning blitzed in the cloud, then again, silently. "What is that?"
"Worldpath," said the pixie.
"It looks like a raincloud, a thundercloud."
"Here it does, Johan, but you are dreaming, and it looks different to everybody."
"What does it do?" Burke said, "and why do you keep calling me Johan?"
"Worldpath is a mix of dreams and memories, Johan."
"I'm not Johan and I don't know who that is."
"Johan is someone I know."
"Who are you?"
"Someone who says who you are."
Burke woke abruptly in the chair, looked in his hands for the paper dolls, finding nothing, craning his neck to the terrace door, but no footprints were on the snow-dusted patio. He could feel the rough paper on his fingerprints, rubbing together, the sense diminishing after a moment. He unfurled his shirtsleeves. Keiko emerged.

The End

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