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Slice Of Life
About the Author: John Joseph Ryan writes unusual tales, verse noir, and crime fiction. His work has appeared in River Styx, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Akashic Books' Mondays Are Murder and Fri-SciFi series, Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, Suspense Magazine, and in anthologies such as Noir Riot and Grievous Bodily Harm. John’s collaborative noir short is “Hothouse by the River” and his debut novel is A Bullet Apiece.

Lucy One-Way said left turns were bad juju. Only she didn’t say “juju.” She used Eastern European-sounding words that conveyed the evil eye, a finger hex, and a drop in temperature all by the way the vowels got sliced up by the jagged consonants. If I could type it, it would be all x’s, and even that wouldn’t get close to how dangerously the words cut the air. But that’s not important. The point is she never made left turns.

If you ever rode around with her—mind, she was a decent driver—you’d always forget that when you said “Turn here,” and gestured left, she would pass up the turn, make a right, make another right, and then make one more to complete the turn left. And all with just her right hand. If there was no convenient street on the right, well, sit tight.

Her resistance to leftward movements didn’t just apply to driving. Even walking, she wouldn’t turn left to enter a store. She’d make three quick rights to avoid the matter. This led to not a few offended pedestrians cussing her out. But they shut up quick when countered by those cutting consonants winging out like throwing stars between Lucy’s lips.

And her lips. Have you ever tasted strawberry pie right when it has cooled enough to eat and not burn the roof of your mouth? How the heat masks the sugar at first and you just get this warm gelatinousness sensually filling your mouth as it crosses your own lips?

Forget that. Lucy has lips nothing like that. They are one line set atop another. I asked her to smile once just to see what would happen. I haven’t asked again.

I know Lucy from working the serving line at Furr’s Cafeteria, just off Highway 61. My job is to Smile and Engage Genuinely with the Diner and Suggestively Sell Additional Items. My manager, Larry, is always trying out a new acronym birthed from that horrible tangle of corporatese. “Remember, Paul, SAGE DASAI!” “Paul, have you SEGUED SAID IT?” “Paul, did you not see that that last diner was looking at the jalapeño cornbread? SMEG-ASS ADDIE, Paul! SMEG-ASS ADDIE!” Larry, I should add, has had brain surgery. His scar stretches from above his left eyebrow diagonally across his bald dome to just behind his right ear. Lucy points to his scar with her right forefinger and mouths incomprehensible words to me when Larry’s not looking, finding more evidence of a literally sinister conspiracy.

Lucy works the register. She insisted on pivoting it away from the serving line because, at least from our perspective behind the steam trays, the line moves from far right (trays, plates) to far left (Jell-o, strawberry pie). The repositioning forces the diners to pass to her right. She conducts all transactions right-handed, punching numbers, running credit cards. Weirdly, her left arm is not atrophied or anything; it even looks bulkier than her right arm. Occasionally, she will chew at or even seem to suck upon her left index finger when she thinks no one is looking. She caught me looking once. Just once. The evil intent flowing like visible death rays from her eyes melted my guts to ice water. Now, when I talk to her, I try to concentrate on a point between her eyebrows.

“Tour bus coming in!” Larry called one day, a strident note entering his anchorman-with-a-twang voice. He wears the standard uniform of a cafeteria manager: short-sleeved button-up shirt dyed in some hue of beige, dark brown tie, polyester slacks, sensible shoes. He paced the line behind us, murmuring new acronymic variations of Smile and Engage Genuinely with the Diner and Suggestively Sell Additional Items. The tourists began to flop in. They were wearing New Orleans Saints regalia and bore the beleaguered look of weary travel as they struggled to discern what lay out in this particular buffet. Once they caught a whiff of the roast beef sizzling under its orange light and saw Pecos Bill sharpening his carving knife dramatically alongside it, a new alertness sizzled through their blubbery forms and puckered their discerning lips. The line tightened. A few bumps here and there. The door stayed held open by a large man stuck far back in line. He was frowning behind oversized glasses and blotting sweat from his forehead. You could see he was sizing up the man in front of him and considering if he would ask him to move forward a little so he could get inside.

This story appears in our MAY 2021 Issue
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