Ben Pearce is sitting across from his mom in the diner they’ve been going to once or twice a month for like, twenty some odd years. They’ve got these dull-colored paper placemats in front of them, on top of which sit two off-white ceramic cups of coffee. Some of the lightbulbs above them probably should have been replaced awhile ago, too, because everything’s drenched in lighting so dim it feels sketchy.
Ben’s planning on quitting his job as an English teacher at Montclair High School sometime this week to pursue a full-time career in writing, which is what he’s just got done telling his mom. He’s got a wrinkled button-down on and blue eyes like you read about; right now, he’s re-positioning his knife and fork maddeningly with both hands while he waits for his mom to stop sipping her coffee and touching her hair and adjusting her glasses and just, you know, respond. He’s trying to get this over with.
“Writing? You’re going to pursue writing?” Elise Pearce isn’t exactly smirking, but it’s in the ballpark.
“It’s not really like a talk-me-out-of-this kind of thing, you know. It’s more like me telling you and then you fussing about it and then you coming to terms with it.”
They’re sitting in this cramped little booth right now because Ben’s dad, Mr. Benjamin T. Pearce, used to be a manager at the Blue Mondays Diner, up until a heart attack got him on the toilet, Elvis-style, a few years back. Back in the day they’d eat here sometimes when he was working, as a show of support. They don’t really have a reason to keep coming, though, and they both know it’s more or less a shit hole; but hey, it’s their shit hole.
Elise Pearce’s glasses are the sort that magnify the eyes of the wearer to almost absurd proportions. “You’re just gonna throw it all away, mid-semester, and why exactly? Because the kids don’t get all emotional when they read a Shakespearean sonnet?”—She takes a sip of coffee here—“I mean Jesus, Ben, get a clue. Most kids just don’t like reading. It’s doesn’t have to be some mind-boggling dilemma for you to scratch your head over. You just gotta accept it and stop beating yourself up about it and just, you know, move on with your life, write on the weekends, be an adult about it. And all that jazz.” Ben’s mother likes to say “all that jazz” after otherwise-serious rants to try and take the edge off things.
In his five-year teaching career, which began a few months after he graduated from a liberal arts college he doubts anyone’s heard of, Ben’s started and stopped over twenty different novels. He can’t help but remember how his father believed in him way more than his mother ever has, but he figures it’d be pretty unfair to accuse her of that. It’s sort of a delicate situation, for obvious reasons.
A pale, lanky waiter with a shirt more wrinkled than Ben’s gives them refills on their coffees. Elise doesn’t know if she has another one in her, but she sips it anyway as Ben finally gives the whole knife-and-fork thing a rest and says, “No but see, that’s the thing. Plenty of kids don’t like Shakespeare, and I get that. I can totally, one-hundred-percent handle that.”—Ben leans forward, his expression grave—“I’m telling you though, these kids don’t like anything. It’s like they’ve all gotten together and agreed that, no matter how entertaining a work of literature is, not one of them will ever show any sign of liking it. Sometimes in the middle of a lecture I start looking around at all of them and it’s like I’m looking at just a bunch of mannequins. It’s like the part of the brain that controls facial muscles has stopped working for every single one of them, and their eyes aren’t looking at me but through me, and I start getting this feeling in the pit of my stomach that it’s my fault, somehow, even though I’ve been feeding these kids nothing but the best in terms of literary entertainment. For example, we’ve recently been reading this one author who is just phenomenal in my opinion, I mean this guy’s stories would definitely blow any halfway-cultured person’s literary socks off, but not one of my students seems to think anything of them whatsoever.”
“Well maybe these stories that you think are so great are really just as boring as twenty kids agree they are.” Another ball-park smirk.
Ben’s now pinching the bridge of his nose to show he’s frustrated. “They’re not though, like this guy is good, practically objectively so. Like for example, this one the other day about a film director was absolute gold, top-notch stuff style-wise, and yet you would’ve thought I was speaking, like, Russian to these kids, the way their faces seemed to not even register anything at all when I was pointing out the little themes of the story and the tricks the writer uses to explore them and whatnot.”
“I just don’t get how you can’t see that it was probably just a really shitty story, plain and simple.”
When pinching the bridge of his nose doesn’t quite do it, Ben likes to massage his temples with his fingertips, which is what he’s doing right now. “It wasn’t though. It’s about this guy Croucher who’s trying to make a film and so he hires this guy Marty for a small-time role but—”
“I really don’t need to hear the full—”
“—but Marty is in some kind of deep shit, either debt-wise or mob-wise (it’s kind of unclear), so Marty bails on Croucher last second and Croucher’s gotta find some sort of replacement fast, like fast fast, because they’re already way behind schedule as it is. And one of those boom-operator guys whose job it is to hold that long pole with the mic attached to the end says that he knows this one guy Dennison who might be able to do it—Dennison being his former college roommate, who if he remembers correctly did some small-time acting in college and now is (the boom operator is pretty sure) living only an hour away from where they’re shooting. So some calls are made and Croucher agrees to let the guy come audition.”
If you’re looking at it from across the street, the diner doesn’t look half bad, really, and it has that quaint, anachronistic vibe that most diners go for, but it’s wedged between a hole-in-the-wall laundromat and a bowling alley that burned down five or six years ago, which doesn’t exactly do it any favors, customers-wise.
“And so it jumps to this guys audition, which is just about the best audition anyone on set has ever seen. Suffice it to say the guy’s a natural, so he’s officially hired for the role that former actor and current getter-out-of-Dodge Marty had had, which is the role of a quiet neighbor who—as the film progresses you start to realize this—is almost definitely insane, like he’s almost certainly not playing with a full deck. You never learn what the movie’s actually about, you just know this creepy neighbor’s in it and it’s called Life in Suburbia and it’s Croucher’s debut film.”
Wrinkled-uniform waiter is back and he gets a little pouty when Ben and and his mom say they’re just gonna stick with the coffee, thanks.
“So they film and they film and everyone just can’t believe the new Dennison guy, I mean my goodness maybe that boom-operator guy should get a promotion or something because this guy is good. Granted, it’s a debut film from some no-name director, so it’s not like he’s going toe-to-toe with Daniel Day Lewis or anything like that, and it’s also not like he has to act out a wide variety of different emotions, because the neighbor is really just meant to be like a discomforting representation of the town that the protagonist has apparently moved to at the start of the movie. But still. No one can stop talking about how utterly creepy he is—to the point that everyone gets sort of awkward when Dennison tries to crack a joke or make normal conversation after shooting a scene, because they can’t get his performance out of their heads.” At this point, his mom’s looking a little uneasy as she starts to contemplate who, exactly, wrote the story Ben’s now blabbering on about with all the enthusiasm of a mad scientist.
“All is not well, however, because Croucher can see clear as day that this guy is stealing the show and overplaying his role, and he can tell the guy’s brilliance is distracting from the rest of the film’s mediocre cast. Which you can get away with if it’s a lead role, but Dennison’s character is in the movie for a collective like, thirty minutes tops. And so he confronts this Dennison guy who’s just brilliant at what he does, but instead of thanking the one thing his movie has going for it, Croucher tells Dennison that big-picture-wise, he doesn’t really see Dennison lasting, and in fact he tells Dennison to just go on home and they’d send him the money they were contractually obligated to pay him, and Croucher would just have to play the role himself and do a whole lot of chaotic re-filming of all of the scenes with the psycho neighbor. Which could work I suppose—only Dennison’s mad now, because he knows he’s got chops and he knows Croucher knows he’s got chops, and the whole thing seems petty and unfair, which is what he now says to the increasingly stubborn director. And Dennison doesn’t even care about the money anymore, he cares about making a name for himself, he says he’ll do whatever it damn well takes to make it in this business. Whatever it damn well takes.”
Elise Pearce starts to see now, sadly, what Ben’s former editor had told him was the problem with almost every single one of his would-be novels—that they all, one way or another, devolve into very similar themes concerning under-appreciated talent and the pursuit of art rather than money, and that (in the former editor’s opinion) it feels like Ben just uses eccentric and not-entirely-developed characters and plots to write about the same things, over and over and over. But she remembers Ben’s father reading every single one of his convoluted stories and half-novels and giving him what little pointers the manager of a New Jersey diner can give a person, writing-wise, and so Elise tries to ignore the pit in her stomach and assume the role of parental encourager, now that her husband can’t. A little part of her hates herself for asking this next one, though—“So what happens?”
“The story ends with the two looking at each other, mad-eyed, in one of those cluttered trailers actors always seem to have on sets, neither backing down, both believing what they believe, and as the reader you just really don’t know what is going to happen next.”
Ben looks down at the placemat in front of him as he finishes. It’s got these little local advertisements on it, all of them black-and-white and not one of them looking by any means professional—they’re the sort of slipshod, do-it-yourself ads that make Ben sad in a vague way that he can’t really articulate.
He knows that, in all likelihood, his mom will put two and two together and realize that the story is his, that in reality the whole thing was never about kids not liking Shakespeare or capital-L Literature or anything like that. It’s about those mannequin-faced kids not liking him, it’s about proving them wrong, everyone wrong, it’s about chasing the dream before it’s too late, and not getting mired in the same mediocrity that his father suffered through day-in and day-out in the diner in which Ben now finds himself, staring at his mother’s enormous eyes, not entirely sure what he’s waiting for.
Meanwhile, Elise Pearce’s brow is furrowed as she wonders just when exactly a mother is supposed to encourage her son and when exactly she is supposed to tell him to act like the twenty-seven-year-old he is; when is it productive to tell someone to go for it and when is is it harmful? Is she cold or practical, was her husband supportive or just too nice to tell their son to throw in the towel and grow up already? She’s not sure. But when the waiter brings over the check and tells them to have a nice day with the voice of a person clearly not having a nice day, or nice week or month or year, Elise imagines Ben speaking to a class in the same voice ten, twenty, thirty years down the road, a voice that used to be excited and passionate and enthusiastic but now had the quality of someone simply going through the motions. And as they get up from the booth, thank the waiter, and head for the door, Elise is thinking that it might all be worth the risk, the risk of trying to become an author—because even if it never pans out, even if he writes and he writes and he writes and nothing that could be called “Literature” is ever produced or published, even if he comes back to teaching in a year or two with his tail between his legs and absolutely nothing to show for it, even if all of that happens, maybe—Elise thinks, walking through the door Ben now holds for her—maybe he owes it to himself to go for it anyway. Maybe he actually ought to take the risk, to see this thing through, to find out for certain whether he really does have the literary chops that his dad had said he did; to find out whether, really, he’s good enough to somehow escape the mediocrity, the mannequin-faces, the bland coffee and place mats and lighting, and the gnawing feeling that he’s better than what everyone gives him credit for. And all that jazz.
Matthew Smith is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame majoring in English. His fiction is primarily concerned with realism/absurdism, often explored in a suburban setting. In 2017 he won the Richard T. Sullivan Award for Fiction Writing for his short story titled “On the Train.” He is from Little Silver, New Jersey.