Watchlist , our anthology of surveillance-themed short stories, is out now. To mark the publication of the book, we asked a few of its contributors to perform their own real-life act of clandestine observation — and to write about what they saw.
This place bakes in the midmorning heat, and smells like our various coats. The sun, aslant through the plate-glass windows, weighs heavy in the maple-flavored air, blankets our heads with Sunday torpidity. A hostess guides me past tables filled with heathens who have skipped church this morning (as well as those who went to the early service and now stare in judgment at those who probably did not). I’m led to a sticky booth at the back of the restaurant. I sit, order coffee, water, pancakes, and something called the Big Country Smasher®. I open my notebook, unpocket my pen, and begin my observations.
A young girl walks her littler sister around the perimeter of booths on a leash. They both wear sweatshirts in varying shades of pink and purple: The older sister’s has a large white pony on it, rearing and clapping its front hooves; the leash-bound sister goes by too fast for me to be certain what hers depicts. A flower? A monkey? SpongeBob? She skips, happy as a puppy, while her sister keeps the leash taut. They do several laps until, somewhere on the other side of the restaurant, a wail rises like a siren and then here comes the big sister carrying— trying to carry—the younger girl, hurrying back to their parents at their table, narrating the whole way: “She was running and hit her head on the corner of a table. I told her, I told her! But she wouldn’t stop running!” The mother takes up the girl, smothers the sirens in her land-o-plenty bosom. The older sister waits for a word of thanks, appreciation, approbation— anything . Getting none, she glares at her mother, then throws the leash to the ground and stomps back to her seat.
Two large women dressed in neon spandex and T-shirts are shown to the booth behind me. They look like they’re dressed for a race, but I have my doubts. When they sit, there’s an audible cry from the vinyl padding on the bench seat. I don’t get a good look at their faces—all I have time to see is an eye-assaulting expanse of fluorescent orange and lime green. I cock an ear to their voices.
“You hear about Suzanne?”
“She’s moved back in with him.”
“And now she’s saying she’s putting everything in the past. Said she wants a fresh start. She’s even gonna take a class at the college.”
“I don’t know. Not that it matters. I just don’t think she’s stable enough for it. Taking classes, I mean. She’s like a twelve-year-old—doesn’t know what she wants.”
“Last year, it was volunteering at the animal shelter. And now this . . . ”
“There’s something weird going on. I mean, did Chris give her the cash? And why did they swap vehicles? It doesn’t make sense to me. It does not make sense.”
“Are you saying Chris went ahead and gave her the whole $10,000?”
“That’s what it looks like.”
“And she already blew it all?”
“I don’t know. It just sounds weird to me.”
“What is she doing ? I mean, seriously, what is she doing with him?”
“I couldn’t tell you.”
“That’s what I said.”
A mother and her three daughters sit in a booth halfway across the room and I can only see slices of their heads: The mother wears sunglasses on top of her hair; the youngest daughter has a pink hat with a difficult-to-read cursive word glittered across the front (Princess? Paris? Ponies?); the oldest daughter is maybe sixteen or seventeen, with black hair streaked with purple, black-framed glasses, black lipstick, and a face that screams, “I don’t want to be here! I’d rather be hanging with Chad at the mall! God , why do we have to do this every fucking Sunday?”; the third daughter, the middle one, wears a hat in the shape of a polar bear. I can only see the top of her head, so that it appears the bear spends the entire breakfast marauding this family.
The Neon Ladies behind me order their food and return to the conversation the waitress had interrupted.
“She’s not old enough for that.”
“She’s only three. I mean—did I ever tell you about the time I came out to the kitchen and she’d pulled a chair over to the stove and was standing on it, stirring something? And you think Joan was anywhere to be found?”
“I’m guessing no.”
“ Hell , no. I totally freaked. She just lets her do her thing. And she’s only three. I mean, she’s always wandering out the front door because Joan never keeps an eye on her. You go out that front door and you’re right in the driveway—which isn’t even really a driveway, it’s a road. So it’s like Joan just lets her walk right outside into the road with all those cars going by, for God’s sake. And then on the other side of the trailer is the woods and all them trees. It’s just a mountain of trees and one of these days, she’s just gonna go walking out into them and never come back.”
“Joan—I tell ya . . . ”
“I think maybe you should say something to her.”
Someone coughs a phlegmy cough, upbrings portions of the Hearty Man’s Combo into a handkerchief.
Sparkle-Hat Daughter tries to get her mother’s attention: “Mama, you know what I’m happy about? You know what I’m happy about?” The mother is leaning toward Goth Daughter, desperately trying to lift her from her funk. It’s like trying to pull an elephant from a pool of sticky tar. “Mama, Mama, you know what I’m happy about?” The mother ignores her. Sparkle-Hat Girl’s happiness seems to diminish by the second. The polar bear moves in for the kill.
The Neon Ladies have their food now.
“You definitely got more hash browns than I did.”
“I can call her back.”
“Or you could just share some of yours.”
(Long pause). “Okay.”
A man in his twenties sits alone in a booth by the sun-drenched window, looking out at the parking lot. This is a good spot for him: He can keep an eye on his truck, make sure no one pulls up next to him and gives him a door-ding when they get out. He stares out the window while his nonstop hands feed him his food. Because he’s across the room and hazed by sunlight, it’s hard for me to see what he’s ordered. A breakfast platter? A burger? Whatever it is, he eats with a fork in his right hand while shoveling items (bacon strips? fries?) into his mouth with his left hand. The hands are machine parts and they perform their jobs well.
No one pulls up next to his truck, but that doesn’t mean he should stop his vigil. These days, the world is full of people in a hurry and he is ready for the next fucker to give him a door-ding. Just let them try it, see what happens.
Behind me: chewing noises, the sticky smack of syrup-coated lips, the hissing sip of coffee.
“Did I tell you about Liam at the pool the other day?”
“I was there with Nancy and we were talking in the shallow end and Liam comes over and says he has to go to the bathroom and I say all right without even thinking. I mean, he’s usually okay by himself, but you never know, you know? Liam can be—well, you know.”
“Anyway, I didn’t think nothing of it right then. Nancy was telling me about this class she was taking—genealogy or something—and next thing I know, Liam comes tearing out of the bathroom, headed straight for the pool, and I’m like ohmy god ohmy god . See, the bathroom was at the other end of the pool, right by the seven-foot level—and Liam just comes running out of there full bore and he would have gone right in if he didn’t fall first. It wasn’t a bad fall or nothing—just enough to slow him down. Nancy and I were on the other side of the pool, the shallow side, and we couldn’t reach him in time, and we right away started swimming—well, running through the water, really—fast as we could. But it was okay because Liam tripped first. A frickin’ miracle, you ask me. I could just see him going in headfirst and all the way to the bottom.”
“God, that’s scary.”
“Yeah.” Pause. “Not that anything like that would have happened. But you never know.”
“You never know.”
Three elderly couples come in, straight from church, according to their clothes. The ladies are prim in their dresses, and the men are big as cattle—they wear a lifetime of meals just north of their belts.
One man has a large dark birthmark on the side of his face. It forms a parenthesis around his left eye.
They sit, the three men clumped on one side of the six-top, the women at the other end, leaving one man and one woman sitting directly across from each other.
A waitress appears. The group, beaming with holy happiness, chat her up. One man, the fattest of them all, tells a joke to the waitress—perhaps one the pastor just told from the pulpit—and they all laugh, six for the second time today, the waitress for the first time. They are not ready to order yet, so the waitress will give them another minute.
They go to the menus and discuss their options like they were sitting at a table negotiating with the Russians over nuclear warheads.
The waitress returns. Orders are placed. The waitress harvests the menus, then disappears.
The three couples busy themselves with silverware, the pouring of coffee, the adjustment of purses and coats. Then the two men at one end of the table start talking. The two women at the other end do the same. The two in the middle—the man with the parenthesis at his temple and the woman who is evidently not his wife—are stranded. The man clears his throat, nods politely at her. The woman allows a small, tight smile to poke at her lips. She stares at the man’s face, perhaps really seeing it for the first time, then glances away with a hot blush, as if caught in a sinful moment. The man looks down, fiddles with his silverware, putting it in alphabetical order—fork, knife, spoon—then looks up when the woman asks him a question, a polite inquiry designed to get their awkward middle-of-the-table conversation rolling.
Their words go out and join the river of chatter flowing around the restaurant, all of it eventually spilling into my ears and then onto this page.
Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest is available now from Catapult Books.