by Michael McGuire
Linh wanted to go dancing one night, alone in the city they never knew existed before setting foot there. Which is to say that it was there all along, the city, but Linh wasn’t inside of it. It’s simple, you see, when something is there, it doesn’t seem so much to someone who’s never been there. And when they finally are, then it is real to them. Analogically, it is much the question of the tree in the forest: If it is not seen growing, was it ever a sapling? …Is that the question which is asked? It is to Linh, anyway, right now. If a tree was never a sapling, when and where does it exist? And why?
Forever lost in these thoughts is Linh. Which is a main reason why they wanted to go out dancing one night, alone in the city.
It was a Wednesday night. Hump day, as it is referred to in our manner of speaking in colloquialisms only: “Case of the Mondays”; “Tuesday’s Gone”; “Hump Day” (as we have mentioned); “Thirsty Thursday”; “Thank god it’s Friday”; “The Freakin’ Weekend.” Maybe these aren’t so much colloquialisms as faint-hearted gasps of inner turmoil. For, as we should say, each day is more or less the same one as yesterday: the same one as tomorrow. All days are equal, at least to Linh. Which is why they didn’t think twice about going out dancing on a Wednesday, alone in the city.
“Please be kind, I have misplaced my identification,” they said at their moment with the doorman. “I don’t wish to drink but a Coca Cola. But to dance until the doors lock me out, whenever that should happen tonight.”
The doorman replied, “This place doesn’t serve alcohol, I didn’t ask for your ID, and we close in 30 minutes, because it’s a Chuck E Cheese. Also there’s no dancing here. You wanna jump in the ball pit, have at it.”
Linh smiled the width of their face, bowed to the doorman, and entered the establishment in which they had found themself.
They peered around the room. Not too many people there, of course. It was 9pm on a Wednesday night. Children’s birthday parties don’t seem to happen as late, generally. But it was the perfect time for Linh to go dancing, alone in the city. Of course, there was no dancing there. But no matter…a slice of pizza, a Coca Cola, the ball pit. That was enough for Linh.
They moseyed to the nearest table and gazed down at it. “What a table!” they thought. “What a table indeed!” They eagerly pulled back the chair nearest to them – it was a square table, I should mention, with four sides as squares will have – and plopped down. Not a moment later, the server came up with bold annoyance on their face.
“Hello, welcome to Chuck E Cheese, where children often come with their parents for birthday parties. May I start you-”
“Hello!” said Linh with glee. “This is my first time. What’s good here?”
The server stared for a moment, their attitude shifting toward a sort of bewilderment. “Uh, well…I’m gonna be straight with you. There’s nothing good here. I mean to eat. We have pizza-”
“Pizza! I love a good slice of pizza. How many can I order at once?”
The server giggled slightly- falling out of the lips and into thin air, waiting for nothing in return. “You should just get a whole pie, right?”
“Yes! A pie too! I like all of the fruit kinds. You can keep the pumpkins.”
The server laughed out loud. The kind of laugh that goes ringing through deserted Chuck E Cheeses on a Wednesday night near closing time, with no children having birthday parties, and no parents sitting ‘round sharing their chatter about their children’s birthday parties at Chuck E Cheese.
“Dude, we do not have those kinds of pies. We have pizza pies. Larges have 8 slices. Order two if you’d like. But come on. I gotta get the hell outta here at a reasonable hour.”
Linh slouched for a moment, looking down at the watch on their left wrist. “I suppose it is a bit late. How about just a slice? Whatever you have already made. Or, rather, just a Coca Cola to go.”
The server’s eyes fell on Linh’s watch the way eyes will when shown something they’ve never seen before. This watch was different, at least to the server. What they saw was something like a summer sky upon a circular face. There was no minute hand, nor hour hand, nor second hand, but 11 dots all circling each other randomly. In and out of focus they went to the server, and with each blink, it seemed, one of the dots would melt into the blue of the watch face with another appearing somewhere else on the watch face. However, it seemed most curious to the server that although there were certainly 11 dots always, there were never 9, which was the time on that Wednesday at Chuck E Cheese.
The server snapped their eyes quickly back to Linh’s, whose own were busy staring over at the ball pit and its balls of all the colors of the rainbow. Thousands, there must have been. Coated in the saliva and urine of filthy little children perhaps, thought Linh with a look of glee. How much fun those children must have been having all day today in that ball pit!
Now, even though all of this happened, it was only a number of seconds that passed before the server replied, “I tell you what. I’ll make sure there’s time for a pizza to be made. And I’ll throw in a Coke, on me.”
Linh looked sad for a moment. And then replied, “I’ll have it in a glass bottle, if you’ve got it.”
The server looked at Linh a moment before saying softly, “I’ll see what I can find.”
There was something about Linh sitting there that troubled the poor server. The server left them at the table, but on Linh’s face seemed a quiet air of purity. The server wondered what had brought this person into Chuck E Cheese on a Wednesday night. The server also wondered how long it was going to take for Linh to eat, partially digest, and leave that evening, and if they’d be alright getting home.
Linh – sitting patiently for a dinner they hadn’t planned on eating, and a Coco Cola they were almost certain would not come in a glass bottle – looked about the room with a child’s wonderment. Glancing again to the ball pit, they got up. Walking slowly, so as not to seem too eager perhaps, they counted their steps. One with the left, two with the right- no, that’s not how it’s done, thought Linh. Trying again, one with the right, one with the left; right, left, right, left. They landed the tips of their toes before their heels; and thinking, again, that this isn’t how it was done, they corrected the patterns to be heel-toe, heel-toe. And even this seemed odd to Linh: so they began a sort of shuffle, then quickly into a gentle gallop, until they finally, after what seemed like eternity, reached the ball pit.
Linh peered into the pit. “So many balls of so few colors,” thought Linh. Only 7 colors and thousands of balls… Linh wondered if it were right, seeing the balls like this. Only seven colors? That can’t be right, they thought. So they counted on their fingers: “R-O-Y-G-B-I-V. Yes, only 7.” That’s the number they added up to from the rainbow. And after adding, Linh thought about a boy named Roy with the last name Biv and a middle initial of G. And they wondered if a boy with that name was someone on Earth, wishing he were at a Chuck E Cheese, waiting for a slice of pizza and a Coco Cola, counting the colors of the rainbow on his fingers.
The server was busy standing in the kitchen, telling the guys in the back that they needed one more slice of pizza for the evening, and did they know where close by there was to find a Coco Cola in a glass bottle. “Why in a bottle? We’ve got a soda fountain. What difference?” one of the guys said. “I dunno,” replied the server. “They said in a bottle. I don’t have a good reason for wanting to get it. I just do. I’m gonna go out to the corner and see if they have any.”
The server went outside and turned the corner and walked right into the deli and all the way to the back of the store where the coolers held soda. They found the glass bottle Coca Colas right away, and gathered two in their hands and went to pay. The man behind the counter looked gruff, but he gave the server a nice smile and a nod when the bottles were placed in front of him.
“How many more would you like?” he asked.
“No, no. They aren’t for me anyways. Really I only need one.”
“Two is better than one tonight,” the man said. “I think it so important that you have two tonight, that I’m going to charge you for one, and the other one I’ll pretend was never there.”
The server handed him $2 and waited for the man to place them in a shopping bag. “How far are you going? How many bags do you feel like?” said the man.
“I guess I don’t need a bag,” said the server. The man smiled a little bigger at this, and whispered something under his breath the server didn’t quite hear, but they were too eager to give Linh the two bottles of Coca Cola to ask what the man had said. The server left quickly, turned the same corner as before – this time in the opposite direction – and entered through the backdoor of the Chuck E Cheese.
Linh was busy studying the dirt on one of the balls they’d picked out of the pit. The ball was orange. The dirt was black. Linh wanted to lick it to see what it might taste like, but thought better of it. They looked up from the ball and straight into the studied glare of the doorman, who apparently had been watching Linh the entire time. Linh smiled very big at the man, who smiled back but bigger. Linh took this as a challenge and smiled even bigger, which must have looked quite odd because the man stopped smiling at once, and went back to watching the screen on his phone.
Linh placed the orange ball back in its pit. Too dirty, Linh thought with a smile.
Linh returned to their chair, this time paying no attention to how many steps, or the way to perform them. So little attention was given, in fact, that by the time they were back sitting, they were wondering if they had ever gotten up in the first place.
The server entered back inside the dining area, and straight over to Linh. “Hello again! I found you two bottles of Coke. They were hiding deep in the cooler. It’s almost like they were waiting for you!”
“For me?” asked Linh drily. “But why me? Won’t anyone else have ever liked them first?” The server became nervous for only a moment before declaring, “I won’t lie to you. I went to the deli for them.” Linh grinned at the server. The server grinned back. “Won’t you join me?” asked Linh. “Unless you’re busy, which I’d understand completely. I imagine you’ve a lot to do.”
“You know, I have next to nothing to do right now. Honestly. I’d love to join you.” the server sat down in the chair Linh had pushed out from the table with their foot.
The two of them sat quietly for a moment, just looking at each other. Linh looked at the server. The server looked right back. Their eyes met and Linh smiled. “You look like you have eyes.” The server laughed, replying “And you.” They both smiled for a while longer. Not saying anything, but smiling.
One of the guys from the back – the one who had mentioned the soda fountain – came soon with the slice of pizza. “You know the best part about this particular slice of pizza?” said the guy with a grin. “It took me years to make.” Linh looked up at the guy and said, “How long have I been here?” To which the guy laughed and the server laughed and Linh laughed too.
“Cokes on me!” said the server. And they all laughed.
Linh drank the entire soda in one long gulp, and looked at the server. “It’s nice. You’ve been kind. What do I owe you?”
The server smiled. “It’s free tonight, friend.”
“But nothing is free,” Linh replied. They then got up, reached for their wallet in their back pocket, and pulled out a twenty. “If there is change, keep it,” they said.
Linh then pushed the chair back in and sprinted out of the restaurant, with the server, the cook, and the doorman left staring. And wouldn’t you know it, Linh danced the whole way home.
Michael McGuire is a 31-year-old poet, songwriter, recording artist, and author. Over the past nine years, Michael has been prolific, releasing over 200 original songs, and self-publishing nine books. He is a 2020 LaGuardia graduate in the Creative Writing Program and will be continuing his studies in the UMASS Amherst English department in the Fall. He lives with his fiancee, Allie.