~ Elaine Barnard
(This story is the second prize winner in the Strands International Flash Fiction Competition)
“Do you eat that slop around the corner?”
He’s suddenly beside me whispering in my ear. I back away, my pack full of books. He follows me to checkout. His backpack bulges, his T-shirt stretches tight over his belly.
“I tried to get a job at that place. Told them I could improve their cuisine.”
His mouth is against my ear now.
“Listen, I said to them. You need a real chef, not a graduate from Jack in the Box.”
I pull up my hoodie.
“A real chef is what I told them. One with experience. I cooked for the best restaurants in Paris.”
I set my pack on the checkout.
“Oh yes, the very best on the Champs Elysee.”
I take the books from my pack.
“You’d think they’d be impressed. But they’re not that smart. Never been to Paris I bet. Never been anywhere outside this town. Local beach boys. Surfer bums. What do you expect from surfer bums?”
The librarian frowns. Looks up from her computer.
“I could have instructed them. Built their restaurant into a first-rate eatery. I mean I know food. Just look at me. Do I look like I don’t know food?”
I try to smile. Maybe he’ll go away if I’m pleasant.
“Listen, I know the inside of every mushroom the French ever cooked. Shitake, Chanterelle, Butter cup, Cinnabar, Cantharellus Illicis….”
I zip up my parka.
“When I was a kid my dad and I tramped the woods for mushrooms. He was a great chef. That’s how I learned the trade.”
“I thought that restaurant on the corner was a Thai place.”
“It is but there’s a major French influence in Thailand. Didn’t you know that?”
The librarian quickly checks my books.
“I guess I didn’t.”
“That’s the trouble. No one knows anything in this town. Insulated-isolated. You’d think we were on Mars for all anyone cares about anything.”
The librarian hands me the due date.
“Just look at that parking lot.”
He tries to steer me out the door.
“See those cars. Luxury vehicles. I bet that Lexus is yours.”
“C’mon tell me which car is yours. We’ll go for a ride.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so?”
“Right, I don’t think so.”
“Oh c’mon, let’s have a little fun. Sun’s still up. We’ll watch it set over the ocean.”
He tries to take my pack.
“It’s too heavy for a little gal like you. I’ll carry it to your car. Just tell me which one.”
“I take the bus.”
“Where do you catch it?”
“Right here, in front of the library.”
“I’ll wait with you.”
“No, you don’t have to.”
“I do have to. I want to. I need to wait here with you.”
He sits on the bench. The library locks shut behind us.
“Now which bus is it we’re waiting for? We’ll take a little ride.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I know so. I’ve seen you before. You spend the whole day in the library. Spend the night on this bench. You can’t fool me. I watch. I wait until the time is right.”
He comes toward me, his arms outstretched as if he wanted to hug me, or crush me. I grab my pack from the bench and start to run.
“Wait,” he hollers. “Wait.”
I hear his footsteps following.
“We can spend the night together on the bench. Be first when the library opens in the morning.
Start the day with a good book. Learn something new. Don’t you want to be smart?”
He’s screaming now. People are staring. I ‘m hoping a cop car will pass.
“Come back here. I’ll show you how to get smart. I know how. I know everything. Just try me.”
A bus pulls up to the curb. It’s not going in my direction but I hop on it anyway. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t care.
Elaine Barnard's plays and stories have won awards and been published in numerous literary journals. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best small Fiction and Best of the Net. The collection of stories from her travels in Asia was published in 2018 by New Meridian Arts. She received her BA from the University of Washington, Seattle and her MFA from the University of California, Irvine.