[Originally published October 6, 2010]
The following is a review of one of the many, amazing short stories that can be found in the legendary magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The publisher generously comp’ed the September/October issue to yours truly to review.
Warning : May Contain Spoilers
Published by Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, and written by Dale Bailey, Eating At The End-of-the-World-Cafe is an ideological descendant of Shirley Jackson’s 1948 creepy thriller, The Lottery.
The protagonist, Eleanor, is an aging, used and abused, worn out former stripper who now ekes out a living waiting tables at the local greasy spoon called the “End of the World Cafe.” She supplements her piddling wages by stealing money from the cash register to help pay for her ailing, eleven year old daughter’s medications and treatment, but it’s never enough.
One dreary and wet morning while riding the subway to work, Eleanor collides with and spills her coffee on what she initially thinks is just another passenger, but as it turns out, he is one of the elite, black tunic wearing authoritarians of Acheron society.
When she realizes what group he’s with, Eleanor apologizes profusely and tries to clean the coffee from his tunic, but the stranger dismisses her as nonchalantly as he orders the snarling dog at his feet to sit. Although the stranger walks off and seems not to care very much about the coffee stain, Eleanor still can’t shake the feeling that he is watching her sight unseen. It is this incident that sets the overall ominous tone of Cafe.
When she arrives at the diner, Eleanor is met by her busybody co-worker, Noreen, who teases her incessantly about the blue shirted employee of the pit that eats there everyday and who she refers to as, “loverboy,” since she believes he is sweet on Eleanor. Eleanor, meanwhile, has no time for such banter because she is deeply troubled by her life. “Loverboy” does eventually show up for dinner and attempts to talk to her, but it’s not so much the “move” Noreen thought he’d make on Eleanor as much as it is to warn her.
Carl (“loverboy”) tells Eleanor that he’s been watching her everyday as she collects the full price from the customers, but rings up a lesser amount in the register. He tells her that he’s not trying to scare her, but Eleanor blithely remarks that she doesn’t know what he is talking about. She then walks off to the next table to pour coffee, but is as disturbed by his words as she was by the stranger on the train.
Later, during the crush of the dinner hour, Eleanor is occupied with customers when a hand suddenly reaches out from a table that she is passing and grabs her by the elbow. When she realizes who the hand is attached to, she is instantaneously filled with dread. The stranger from the train tells her that he has his eye on her and that he overheard her conversation with his “colleague” in the blue shirt. He says that they are all -one way or another- “in the pit” and that he can make people disappear if he wanted to. He then tells her that his organization is always looking for someone anxious to put their “shoulder” to the “wheel.”
Eleanor remains in place stupefied, and, as the stranger and his friends stand up from the table to leave, she expects to be struck for having spilled the coffee on him earlier, but he deposits a folded white envelope into her breast pocket, instead. He tells her that he can take her away from the diner, and then walks out the door. Meanwhile, the silence is broken by Tank, the owner and cook of Cafe, as he announces the next order up. He then tells Eleanor that he needs to see her when she gets a moment.
Tank is sitting in his cramped and dingy office counting stacks of money and reviewing journal tapes when she walks in. He makes small talk at first -asking about her daughter, Anna- and then asks her to sit down. Eleanor says she’s fine where she stands, but then Tank asks her if she’s stealing from him. It’s clear that he knows about the missing money, but doesn’t want to file a police report. Instead, he tells Eleanor that she could have the money, but that a man has his “needs.”
Frightened, frustrated, and completely burned out on her life, Eleanor ends up in tears in the diner’s bathroom staring at an old, creased photo of Anna before she got sick. As she is reminiscing about their lives during better times, the envelope the stranger gave her falls out of her pocket. She notices the words, Application for Employment written on the flap. Realizing that she has another option, Eleanor then finishes feeling sorry for herself and returns to work almost stumbling over Carl on the way out of the bathroom.
Seeing that she is visibly on-edge, he coaxes her to sit down in his booth with him and orders coffee for them both. Carl asks if she afraid of him and about Anna, but Eleanor brushes off his concerns and tells him that she is too tired to play games. Then she tells him to have a nice life since she probably won’t see him around the diner anymore after tonight.
He then tells her that he has all the money he will ever need and that he wants to take care of her but without any strings attached before he disappears, but she is angered and resents his assumption that she either wants or needs anyone to help and storms out of the diner. She then heads directly to the guardhouse through the chain link fence surrounding the pit and tells the old man behind the counter that she’s there about the job. The old man asks for her application and she slides it across to him after she fills in her name on the only blank line on the paper.
To her astonishment, the old man crumples the paper and tells her that the app isn’t very complicated and hands her a fresh one. When he sees that Eleanor still doesn’t get it, he explains that they don’t need her name since they already have it. They need someone else’s name. Eleanor then arrives at the horrifying realization about the job and proceeds to write a name on the blank line.
Overall, I thought Eleanor’s life was a rather accurate portrayal of the type of less than optimal circumstances that a lot of us have to live with whether we’d like to admit to it or not. She is deeply dissatisfied with her situation, and, although she struggles to find the positives, the fact remains that life just keeps handing her a shit sandwich time after time. Case in point: Her own daughter doesn’t even appreciate the lengths she goes to in order to finance her medical care, and, prefers, instead, the sitter’s company over her mother’s. Further, the single, promising instance that something else does come along that seems like a way out results in another layer of grief that confines her that much more irrevocably to the circumstances of her wretched life. In Eleanor’s case, there is no easy way out of the mind-numbing, soul-sapping woe, and, for that matter, for those who may relate to the tale, and, that’s what makes this story so compelling, in my opinion.
[The full length version of The Lottery can be found here.]
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