Edith’s Diner was the kind of place that slow-cooked their sauce and baked pasta dishes in ceramic crockery. It served home-cooked food to travellers coming off the nearby mess of road junctions. Truckers, vacationing families, regulars, and the lost few who needed a hot meal and had nowhere else to go wound up at Edith’s.
Smith was one of those few. He was wearing faded neon-orange and grey sneakers, jeans, and a lumpy dark green hoodie from his old high school lacrosse team. On the table in front of him was one of Edith’s best dishes- spaghetti and meatballs, simmered in flavorful tomato-basil sauce and topped with grated parmesan.
He ate slowly, watching the headlights blur past on the dark highway through the diner windows, waiting. He was one of the last regular customers of today, but the diner was open 24 hours. Truckers were still out on their rounds, and the motel across the road had an unlit no-vacancies sign.
“Need anything, Smith? Another iced tea or something?”
Smith turns his head and smiles tiredly up at Chris Trott, one of the two night shift waiters. More often than not he was the only person working through morning- save for the cook in the back. Trott was working busboy tonight, but everyone who worked at the diner looked out for their regular customers.
“Nah, I’m good, Trott. Thanks, though,” Smith says.
Trott nods and slings his dishtowel over his shoulder to better juggle the dirty plates stacked in his arms. “Sure thing. Holler if you need something.” He smiles and shuffles off towards the kitchen.
Smith finishes the last of his spaghetti, scraping the sides of the personal-sized casserole with his fork to get the remains of oven-baked cheese. The bell over the diner door chimes brightly, and it makes Smith raise his head.
Sips scans the empty diner and stretches his arms behind his back. His trucking hat is navy blue this time. He hasn’t shaved in a few days, and grayish-black stubble lines his cheekbones.
Smith catches his eye and winks.
Sips smirks back.
The other server, Tom, emerges from the kitchen, quickly seats Sips, and takes his order. His glasses are fogged up from being by the oven and grill, and a few short strands of hair are falling out of his pinned-up man-bun. Hipster to a fault, Tom is. Smith smiles and watches as Tom leaves Sips with a pot of coffee and swoops back through the swing door to the kitchen.
Across the empty tables between them, Sips eyes Smith up with a questioning glance. Smith can hear Tom relaying Sips’ order back in the kitchen, and Trott asks the server something unidentifiable over the sound of clattering dishes.
Sips pours himself a mug of coffee and gestures, silently asking Smith what his deal is.
Smith mimes a lewd hand gesture towards his mouth and grins.
Sips rolls his eyes. He muffles a yawn in his shoulder, but pointedly flashes two sugar packets in Smith’s direction and raises an eyebrow. Headlights glare on the windows as cars roar past the diner.
A suck and a fuck tonight, huh? He could do that.
Smith nods back, and finishes the remainder of his iced tea. When Tom brings Sips’ order to his table, Smith waves at him to pay for his.
“Same room?” Sips asks quietly to his pancakes as Smith moves past him to the door.
Smith knocks the hat off Sips’ head with a fast upwards hit to the brim. It falls between Sips’ back and the seat. “See you in 117, if you’re feeling lucky tonight,” he says, grinning, and sashays out the door.
Smith slumps into the creaky motel room mattress, panting, with Sips plastered on top of him. The weight makes him wheeze a little from the pressure, but he’s had worse. What is gross is the vacuum feeling of sweat sticking Sips’ fuzzy chest to his back. He doesn’t have a problem with body hair, but he really should invest in a fan for this room. The A/C just doesn’t cut it.
Normally Smith wouldn't let his clients take him like this, with his back turned, but Sips has been one almost as long as Smith has been staying at this motel. He blinks his eyes open in the near-darkness of the room and lies still as Sips finally extracts himself and stands up. The crappy alarm-clock radio on the bedside table is playing tinny Top 40s songs. Condoms and lube are where Smith keeps them, next to it, and there’s a crumpled handful of twenty dollar bills Sips put there before they started.
“Ugh, jeeze...” Sips groans. His sticky palm pats Smith’s shoulder. “3s and 8s, Smiffy. Good fuckin’. Whew.”
Smith listens to Sips pad around behind him, and rolls over weakly, reeking of sex. He grimaces at the feeling of the sheets and watches as Sips cleans himself up and redresses.
The trucker fixes his hat back on his head and nods to Smith as he leaves. He’ll see him same time next week, probably.
Smith gives him a wave.
The door shuts.
Smith lays there for a little while longer, and then pushes himself to stand on sore muscles and goes to take a shower.
The water is lukewarm, but at least the water pressure is decent. It was one of the better things about the motel. That, the diner across the street, and the lax about the suspicious activity Smith dealt in. The motel was just shitty enough to not bat an eye, but not so shitty that the mattress was utterly disgusting.
Well, it'd been four months, so by now it probably was, but Smith didn't sleep in the same bed in the room that he fucks in, nor has he been in the same room each week.
He cleans himself up slowly, tired, but needing the methodical routine to quiet his mind. Sips was a decent guy, for being a client and a middle-aged trucker. He paid well and he wasn’t an asshole.
He was also the only one who seemed interested that Smith got off too, but Smith brushed him aside. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy it when Sips stopped by- it wasn’t bad sex, unlike others he’s had- but it wasn’t that important to Smith to get himself off. Doing this was just about getting paid. And after all the sex he’d had that day, he honestly was too fucked-out to care.
Smith wondered why he didn’t care more. Maybe it was because when he started he thought he’d pull people he was actually interested in, and that belief was stomped on quickly. Most people didn’t hire hookers, certainly not male hookers, and paying the bills was a little harder than it had originally sounded.
Smith had a sore throat for the first few weeks, and then decided he couldn’t be as selective about what he did, unless it concerned his safety.
A job was a job, at the end of the day. And some people were just dicks.
The next morning, Smith is halfway through a stack of pancakes and a mug of coffee when he sees a fleet of cops pull up to the motel across the street. His heart drops into his stomach, and suddenly it feels like his food wants to reappear on the plate.
Were they there for him? Was there something else going on at the motel?
Smith puts down his fork and bites at his nails, panicking internally.
Whatever reason the cops had for being there, it couldn’t be good.
“Hey Smith- this seat taken?” Trott asks, shedding his jacket next to Smith’s booth.
“Uh. No, it’s not.”
“Cool.” Trott sits down and smiles, running a hand through his unkempt, wind-tossed hair.
Smith stares back at him. Trott’s hair is as brown as his eyes, and Smith thinks the combination is more attractive than society deems. “Since when are you here this early?” he asks.
Trott nods towards the kitchen. “Ross, my friend the fry cook, switched schedules for the week, so I dropped him off. I thought I'd grab food before I head back home to sleep.”
“Oh.” Smith looks down at the table, wishing he had a menu to distract his thoughts with. He picks at his pancakes again.
“Have you been staying at the motel across the street?”
“What?” Smith snaps his head up.
Trott shrugs, and gives him a small smile. “I see you walk across to the diner, is all.”
“Oh. Uh. Yeah, it’s just...temporary.” Smith shovels pancakes in his mouth in lieu of talking.
Trott hums and opens his mouth to say something, but Esther, one of the servers, interrupts whatever Trott could have asked to take his order and fill coffee. Esther was a little old lady who always knew Smith’s breakfast order, and toddled around the diner with a perpetually steaming coffee pot.
“Anything else I can get you dears?” she asks sweetly, her wrinkled face lit up by a warm smile. Her grey hair is pinned back out of her face, and her gingham checked red apron is impeccably free of food stains.
“That’s it. Thanks, Esther,” Trott replies.
Smith tries not to shake the table from his leg bouncing underneath. Cop cars are still outside the motel.
The two of them sit in silence for awhile when Ester leaves, Trott sipping coffee, Smith trying to finish his no longer appetizing pancakes as quickly as possible. He can feel eyes on him.
When Trott’s food is delivered, he digs in. Smith sees the cops take off out of the corner of his eye and breathes a loud sigh of relief. They didn't seem aggressive, but they didn't bring anyone outside with them either. What did they stop by for?
“Do you want to hang out sometime?” Trott asks abruptly, cutting his omelet into bite-sized pieces, “I have Wednesday off. We could play some videogames and have a beer.”
“I...have to work,” Smith lies. He reaches for his coffee cup and pushes the stir straw around before he takes a sip.
“IT stuff. Online distance-work.”
Trott eyes him up and Smith drinks coffee instead of talking.
“Well, if you change your mind, let me know.” Trott smiles.
When he and Trott part ways, Smith goes back to his room and watches trucks pull in from his motel window. He turns his CB radio on to channel 19 and advertises himself. He drops his voice just a tad and slips a little bit of a southern drawl on to sound more charming.
"Breaker one niner, this is Liz. Just saying hey to all the good buddies. If you're heading west on I70, looking for a hand, and interested in lizards in the lot, send me a text. Unless you're super chicken, or a fan of blue light specials." Smith stuck in his cell number afterwards. He repeated the message again twice, and then sat back to wait for bit.
His CB radio could pick up truckers in a fifteen mile radius on a good day, two to four on a busy, not-so-good one. The weekends were slower, with people less inclined to stop. But Monday through Wednesday Smith could haul in anywhere from six to eight truckers looking for sex, which was at least several hundred dollars.
Most texts he got back were leetspeek gibberish, like, "hi liz wat $ 4 job?", but sometimes truckers would ask him to repeat the number, and give him an estimate on how much time it would take for them to get there. A lot of truckers were “goin' from Steam Town to Big D” so Smith had picked up several regular clients besides Sips.
As his phone started blinking with incoming text messages, Smith gave a worried look out the blinds at the parking lot in front of the motel. No cops. Hopefully it stayed that way.
Each week, Smith walks an hour from the motel to the bank and a Starbucks to deposit his cash and pay his cell phone bills. After getting his funds in order, he’d either walk back, pick up something at the drugstore, or head to the health clinic for his monthly screening tests. With what he did for a living, he wanted to keep an eye on things.
Today, when Smith answers questions about his sexual history, the nurse asks if he's heard of PrEP. She gives him a pamphlet to look over on his way out. Smith folds it into a square and shoves it in his wallet with an expired strawberry-flavored condom.
He tries not to think about the risks while simultaneously cursing at himself. He was careful, as safe as he reasonably could be in the circumstances, but for fuck’s sake- what the fuck was he doing with his life?
Smith walks to the drugstore, grumbling to himself about nasty dick infections and sex diseases. The roar of an engine slowing down beside him makes him turn his head.
Trott rolls down his window and grins. “Hey, motherfucker. Need a ride?”
Smith smiles back and nods, quickly getting into the passenger side of Trott’s car. “I just need to pick up some batteries,” he said, buckling his seatbelt. His CB radio ran on a battery pack, not a cord plugged into the wall.
Trott drives further down the street and pulls into the drugstore parking lot. “What kind do you need?”
“A lot. Gotta power my vibrators somehow, Trotty,” Smith jokes.
Trott shakes his head and laughs.
“Honestly, I should get some condoms, too. I’ll be running low soon,” Smith muses out loud.
“You’re fucking ridiculous, Smith,” Trott says with a grin, “What do you do, take all the dicks at one time?”
Smith smirks to hide his ambivalence over his situation. “If you want in on the gang bang, Trott, I’ll give you a discount.”
After getting batteries (and condoms) Smith takes up Trott’s offer and rides back to Trott's place to hang out. Trott lives in an apartment network thirty minutes away from the diner. It’s a small one-bedroom, sparsely furnished, but the focal piece Smith notices when he walks in is an electric guitar hanging on the wall.
“Do you play?” Smith asks, pointing to the classic red Fender stratocaster as he takes off his shoes.
“Used to. Not so much anymore. I have a keyboard in the bedroom closet, too,” Trott informs. He sets his keys on the nearby table and skirts past Smith to the side of the room where the kitchenette is. “I was a music production major before I switched to business and marketing.”
Smith moves further into the room, taking a closer look at the guitar. He kind of wants to ask Trott if he can play it. When Smith turned twenty three, he quit college and drove away. He sold most of everything, except for some clothes, his laptop, and cell phone. He misses the guitar most of all, he thinks.
Trott searches the fridge for drinks, and walks over to him with beers in hand.
“Did you like it better? The business major?” Smith asks, taking the offered drink and unscrewing the top.
Trott shrugs. “Not really. I wasn't really satisfied by either. Kind of why I’ve ended up working at a diner.”
They sit down on the living room couch for awhile, chatting about stupid college stuff and their overlapping music interests. The sun starts to dip below the horizon, and Smith feels like he should be going soon.
He opens his mouth to say so but Trott speaks before he can.
“Listen, Smith...” Trott sighs and sets his empty beer bottle aside on the coffee table. “I know this might come out as being sort of...condescending? I don’t mean it to...” He wrings the back of his neck, looking away from Smith for a moment. “But I see you alone a lot. And I wonder...like, is everything okay, with you? You look like a guy who's down on his luck.”
Smith summons up a short facetious laugh. “What, feeling charitable to use those condoms I bought?” He rolls his empty bottle between his palms. It had been empty for an hour now but he didn’t put it down because he didn’t know what to do with his hands.
“I’m serious.” Trott frowns. “You’re living out of a motel, you walk from there to the store, and you eat at a diner seven days a week. Finances are hard, I know, and if that’s the issue, there’s not much I can do to change that...but is there any way I can help?”
What kind of help? He doesn’t need help. Smith feels paranoid. Why would Trott want to help him? What about himself makes him look like a sad sack of a human being?
Did he know what Smith did for a living? Was that why? Trott was too young to be a cop. Smith had asked Sips if he was, the first time. "Not unless you're into that," Sips had replied.
“Look, I’m fine, Trott, really,” Smith plasters on a smile. “My finances are fine. I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
Smith’s phone chimes with a text, and his stomach twists because there’s only one reason for it. He tears his eyes away from Trott’s concern to check what it is.
“hey liz u gonna b up late 2nite? Good fuck in it 4 u.”
Yup, a customer. Such class.
Smith chews his lip. “Ah...I should be getting back. My boss texted; he wants me to fix some coding issues for his software presentation tomorrow.”
There’s a question on Trott’s face, or several, but he doesn’t voice them.
Fuck, Smith feels bad for lying. But what is he supposed to say? Sorry, we can’t hang out, I’ve got to go suck someone off in my motel room and get fucked in the ass for cash? Sorry, I’m a truck stop hooker?
Trott sighs and gives him a small smile. “Right. Okay. I’ll take you back, then.” He stands up and collects their empty bottles.
Smith smiles and stands as well. “Thanks, Trott...”
The following Friday starts out normal enough. He gets a text from an unknown number after lunch, with a simple, short, “Hello.”
“Hey there ;)” Smith texts back, “Whatcha need darlin?”
“Whats the price”
Smith gives the customer the basic run down, and they settle on a blow job.
“Condoms only or this is a no-go. Cash up front. Either of us says stop at any time, we stop and you get out. Got it?”
The man gives him a name, and Smith gives him a room number. Fifteen minutes later, there’s a knock on his door.
“You Robert?” Smith asks, leaning in the doorframe in only his underwear. His black boxer briefs clung in all the right places, and he knew it. Still worked like a charm, if Robert’s expression was any indication.
“Yeah. Here’s the, uh...” Robert hands Smith a wad of cash, and Smith looks him over salaciously while counting it. The man’s attractive, with dark hair spiked up at the front, and thin stubble. He doesn’t look like a trucker...but he doesn’t look like a cop, either. Too soft in the middle, but his hands look strong...
Smith wouldn’t turn this down, not for what Robert was paying.
He finishes counting and steps back from the doorway. “Alright. Come in, and make yourself comfortable, would you?”
Robert does as he asks, looking around the place a little warily. The man doesn’t do this often, apparently. He sits down on the bed, curling his fingers into the edge, and scuffs his Adidas against the shitty carpet.
Smith tosses the cash to the side table and picks up a condom, rounding the bed again and kneeling down at Robert’s feet. “So,” he says, placing his hands on Robert’s knees and teasingly rubbing them up and down his thighs. “Blow job, right? Any particular requests for that, or do you just want me to get to it?”
“Um...no?” Robert licks his lips. His blue eyes watch Smith with apprehension, but definite interest. His hands flex on the sheets.
“No requests?” Smith slowly reaches for his zipper.
“Wait! Wait, I can't do this...” He holds up a hand to push him away and Smith backs off immediately, seeing how he’s uncomfortable.
“We can do something different, if you like? I'm flexible.” Smith puts on a sympathetic smile. He hopes the guy doesn’t ask for his money back, but most don’t.
“I-” Robert shakes his head. “That's not what I mean. It's because...Trott.”
“Trott? Wait, how do you know-” Smith slowly sits back, realization slugging him in the stomach. Dark hair, R-name, faint food smell, knows Trott... “You’re Ross, aren’t you.”
“Yes.” Ross looks visibly pained, grimacing.
“What the fuck...You set me up for this?”
“I'm sorry, Smith...”
Smith pushes himself to his feet, cursing and shaking his head. He should have fucking known it was suspicious. He turns away from Ross as the man digs his phone out of his pocket, and walks over to his CB radio, wanting to throw the thing on the ground. He never should have gotten into this. He never should have trusted that he could make his own decisions. Everyone always questions it anyway.
“Trott? He, um. Smith knows. Yeah. Okay.” There’s a pause as Ross presumably hangs up. “Um. Trott’s on his way over.”
“Fucking fantastic,” Smith snarls, “It better be to pick you up.” He runs a hand through his hair and storms across the room to the bathroom. Smith slams the door shut behind him, leaning on it heavily. His brain assails him with “How could you be so stupid” and “Now what? Do I keep doing this?”
Smith doesn’t know
what to do. He waits in the bathroom until he’s not panicking as much. He didn’t want anyone to find out- he didn’t plan on Trott knowing, and now this guy, his friend Ross, knows too. Fuck, was this just a joke to them? Are they going to judge Smith now for what he does for a living? He wanted to pretend that their stupid trick didn’t hurt him, but it did.
There’s a knock on the door.
Ross is still sitting on the bed, looking guilty.
Smith gives him a dirty look and lets Trott into the room, shutting the door behind him and immediately busying himself with his suitcase. Trott looks concerned, but doesn’t say anything at first.
“What, were you two going to rat on me? Did you call the cops?” Smith asks, angrily picking up clothes.
“No,” Ross replies. He looks from Trott to Smith. “Trott had told me about you, and we sort of started putting the pieces together. But we didn’t tell anyone, I swear.”
“I don't need help, or pity, or Jesus, or whatever it is you think I need.” Smith throws his clothes into his suitcase and swoops past Trott in the doorway to collect his things from the bathroom.
Trott shares a look with Ross.
Smith bustles out of the bathroom again and drops his stuff onto the dresser with a clatter.
“Where are you going to go?” Trott asks gently. He moves further into the room and stands by Ross, keys in hand.
“Away from this! Somewhere. I don't know.” His hands are shaking.
“Do you want a ride, or-”
“I'll take a bus!”
Trott sighs. “...Smith.”
“What?” Smith spins around and throws out his hands. “What are you going to say? Huh? 'You're better than this', or some shit? Don't patronize me. You don't know me- you don't know my life."
“You're right,” Ross says quietly, looking sheepish, “We don't.”
“But we want to, Smith. If you need someplace to stay, you can come stay with one of us. We want to help,” Trott starts.
Smith shakes his head furiously. “If you wanted to help, you shouldn’t have started out by trying to trick me,” he snaps, “I’m not going with you.”
Trott raises his hands up. “Okay. You’re right, I’m sorry for not talking to you directly about it. But you don’t have to leave. We’re not going to make you.”
It feels like a stand off. Ross looks between them both warily. They stare at each other for a long moment.
“I’m not staying. Unless you’re sure you don’t want to fuck,” he quips to break the mood, “I charge double the price for a threesome.”
Trott tuts, and Ross shakes his head, but they’re all smiling slightly now.
“We are...serious, though,” Ross says quietly.
“So am I.”
“Smith...” Trott’s looking at him- they’re both looking at him- with pity and disappointment and worry.
Smith sighs heavily and turns away, packing up the rest of his suitcase and zipping it shut. He didn’t want this. He didn’t want any of this. He feels ashamed of what he does, because he knows they disagree, or they wouldn’t be here. Smith wants to put on some clothes but that would be hiding and he’s not going to hide himself away. They know. It’s all out in the open, now.
He hears Trott sit down on the bed next to Ross. “I was starting to infer what was going on when I saw you come out of the health clinic,” he says, “And then, with the hours you keep, the condoms, staying at a hotel...it seemed suspicious.”
Smith grinds his teeth and stares at the metal zippers on his suitcase.
“I didn’t want to trick you or pressure you, neither of us did. I just wanted to figure out what was going on,” Trott continues.
“Well. Now you know,” Smith mutters bitterly.
Ross clears his throat. “It wasn’t completely Trott’s idea for me to...go along with it. I'm sorry for misleading you, Smith. I kind of thought it was a joke, until...I got here.”
What a joke. Yeah. His life was a joke, for sure.
Smith sighs and turns around. Trott and Ross watch him with careful concern. He leans up against the dresser and scuffs his bare foot across the shitty flat carpet. “I don’t know what to do now,” he says, not meeting their eyes, “I don’t know.”
“What do you want to do?” Ross asks.
“I don’t want to move somewhere else,” Smith admits, “I don’t want to crash on someone's couch. And, for the time being, I'm not changing ‘jobs’.”
“Okay...” Trott nodded. “As long as you're...safe.”
“As safe as I can be.” Mostly. Smith crushes the niggling doubts in the back of his mind. Every job came with risks...right?
“Is there anything we can do?” Trott asks again.
Smith shakes his head. “Right now, I'd like some space.” Not to mention today is a bust in terms of customers. That’s a dent in his wallet, and right now he just wants to sulk and watch shitty cable tv.
Trott’s face falls slightly and Smith curses himself for being such a crappy person.
“Right. We should get out of your hair, then.” Trott stands up, and Ross follows.
Smith leads them to the door. “Reign check on the blowie, Ross?” he jokes.
Ross laughs and ducks his head, a little embarrassed. ”Fuck off.”
“Hey, I mean, your money’s still on my dresser.”
Trott shakes his head at Smith’s propositioning. “I’m sorry, Smith. About...this. Call if you need to talk, okay?” he says sincerely.
“Sure thing.” He watches as Ross sheepishly follows Trott back down the hall.
Smith heaves a long, tired sigh, and closes the door.