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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Robert Pettus: The Good Folks

95_ym_thegoodfolks_bholtzman.jpg
Art by Bernice Holtzman 2022

The Good Folks

 

Robert Pettus

 

 

Light pierced the thick, large windows. The place smelled like popcorn, pancakes, syrup, and sweet tea. That’s what it always smelled like, at least until that inevitable, rotting stench swept briefly through the place. They didn’t seem to like that—they worked to prevent it—but it happened occasionally. It was unavoidable. A stench like flies, piss, dirty dishes, sticky floors, and muggy dishonesty. It didn’t smell like that now, though—it smelled like sweet tea and salty, buttery popcorn.

I sat at my table, as I always did. Good Folks shuffled from the store into the dining area. I knew they were Good Folks because my Watchers assured me they were Good Folks. They were important—more important than me, even though I was also a Good Folk, technically speaking—just a Good Folk who seemed to have lost favor.

I lifted the plastic, golf-tee-like piece from its wedged place and jumped a red piece. I had never won the game—I wasn’t sure it was possible—but the Watchers assured me it was. They encouraged me to keep trying. They were always so reassuring.

I was miserable.

Kenny Rogers played, singing about the poker game of life—risks and rewards.

Kenny Rogers always played. Him, Randy Travis, Lee Ann Womack, George Strait. Every day—every single day, unceasing.

I jumped another golf-tee, removing the jumped tee from its wedge and placing it by-rote onto the sticky wooden table.

“There you go!” said Felicia, adjusting her hijab and waddling toward me, brushing away dust from her brown apron. She was a five-star hostess—that’s what her apron said.

“You’ll get it!” she continued, “Hey! Would you like some fried okra, some country-fried chicken—maybe some pancakes?”

I winced. My eyes twitched erratically in torture. My stomach grumbled and cramped, rolling into itself, consuming itself.

“Pancakes,” I said, “Please… fucking pancakes.”

Pancakes were what The Watchers wanted Good Folks to order—it was their preferred meal; their specialty.

“Language, mister!” She said, “I’ll bring that right out! A couple big ole pancakes with butter and some sweet tea!”

Felicia turned and walked back into the kitchen. I always asked for food; I couldn’t help it. I was starving. I hated this restaurant, but I couldn’t deny that they had the best pancakes. At least I was pretty sure they did, from what I could remember—from what nostalgia my sniffing nostrils allowed me. My memory was getting foggy.

I was hungry.

I jumped another golf-tee. I couldn’t win; I recognized that. It was impossible—it had to be. I would have to try again. They said they would allow me to leave—or at least give me some pancakes—if I won, but I could never win. Time and again, I failed. This stupid wooden triangle. These infuriating golf-tees.

I thought about throwing the game against the window—or maybe at one of the allegedly polite guests; or perhaps at Felicia—but I didn’t. They hated that, The Watchers. They would force the stench upon me if I did that. The stench was much worse than the ungraspable pancakes, popcorn, and tea. I set the game up again; I had to keep trying.

There was a knock on the window behind my table, which sat at the back corner of the restaurant. I turned to look outside. Cars sped chaotically down Dixie Highway. People who weren’t stuck; people who actually had places to go. Focusing my gaze, I saw an old man glaring happily at me from his rocking chair on the restaurant’s front porch. He waved at me. He was sitting at a cloth-matted checkers table, in the middle of a game against nobody—like that guy from the Pixar short film.

I turned back to my triangular wooden prison key. Felicia walked back out, a sweating pitcher of sweet tea in her hand, a plate of hot, buttery pancakes lifted triumphantly high above her head—her elbow snapped skyward, the plate at the summit of her palm like a steaming, fragrant spire. She approached my table, making to set down the food. Just before the plate touched the wood of the table, she retracted:

“Oh!” she said, “There’s something wrong with this order. I’ll be right back, honey!”

She turned and left. She always turned and left.

I looked down at my glass, which was empty other than its ever-present ice. I tried to swig it again, lifting the glass to my lips to eat the ice, but it didn’t work. It never worked. The ice stuck to the back of the glass as if glued. The ice never melted, and never cooled—always pulsating only enough refreshing mist to alert me of its existence, but not enough to help my worsening dehydration.

I jumped another golf-tee.

My hands were sweating, as was my brow. I was starving; I had no idea how long I’d been in this abysmal place. Perhaps forever. When time doesn’t exist, how is progression possible? Without comparison, can perception exist?

Felicia walked by, sitting a trio of Good Folks at the four-top table next my two-top.

“I’ll be right out with the sweet-tea and pancakes!” She said before sauntering off. Those Good Folks had no idea of what they were in for. It was a family—a mom, dad, and a boy five or six years old. They looked at the menu as if there were options. They were happy, though they wouldn’t be for long. They wouldn’t be here for as long as me, though—I was sure of that. I had seen every Good Folk come into this wretched place, sit waiting for what seemed like years, and finally receive their food—their ice-tea and buttered pancakes—before being gestured from the dining room, Felicia smiling and wishing them well as they left. I had been here longer than any of them. What was this place? Why did The Watchers hate me?

“A damn ‘nother one!” came a distant though booming voice from the back, in the kitchen.

It was Tater; I knew Tater. He had been here nearly as long as I had; he was the only apron-wearing employee—the only one associated with The Watchers—who seemed to complain. Who seemed dissatisfied.

“I already have three full tables in my section!” he said. He was yelling at Felicia.

“I just go by my chart,” she said with authority. That was what she always said when Tater got pissed. Tater then paced from the kitchen into the dining area.

“What can I start you off with?” he said sarcastically to the family of Good Folks, “Maybe some iced-tea?”

“How did you know?” said the mother. “We know what we want—three iced-teas and three orders of pancakes! Maybe some salty, buttered popcorn as a starter!”

Tater stared at them in deadpan irritation. “I’ll be right out with that,” he said, walking back into the kitchen.

I jumped another golf tee. I was out of moves; I would have to start over. I banged my fist against the table in frustration.

“Sir!” said Felicia, “Sir! Please don’t do that. I don’t usually ask Good Folks to leave, but we don’t stand for aggression. This is a family restaurant.”

“Kick me out!” I cackled. “If only that were possible.”

“Oh, shoot!” said Felicia, “You know us too well. We appreciate our Good Folk guests too much to do something like that. There’s nothing ruder—nothing more inhospitable—than throwing a guest out to the curb; out into the street! Such a heathen thing to do. No, you can consider this place home; just imagine you’re sitting down at grandma’s Sunday table.”

I glared at Felicia.

“I’ll be right out with that tea,” she said.

I re-racked the golf tee game.

Tater walked back out of the kitchen, a tray of sweet teas and popcorn on his palm. Tater didn’t lift the tray high above his head like Felicia; he sat it wobbling chaotically on his shoulder.

“Here’s your tea!” he said, setting it down to the other Good Folks’ table before obviously retracting it. “Oh,” he said, “There’s been a problem with your order.” He said monotonously, “I’ll be right back.”

The table of Good Folks looked predictably confused, though not yet angry. They hadn’t been here long enough yet.

Pssst,” I whispered loudly as Tater turned away.

He glanced to me while making the turn back into the kitchen. The tray sat on his shoulder wobbling—the glass of tea spilled from it; the bowl of popcorn scattering across the floor. He glared down at it angrily, as if enraged by the result of his popcorn divination.

I didn’t think it was possible! A change in the hellacious monotony!

The glasses of tea shattered, likely washing the ever-filthy fake, brick-like tile of the floor. The popcorn sat collecting tea—becoming progressively soggier—small, buttery sponges.

“Damn,” Tater said, looking at me with animosity, “Look what you made me do.”

“I didn’t make you do anything,” I said.

“Hey!” said Felicia, scrambling over from her place at the hostess’s stand, “No cursing! Please! This is a family restaurant. And what is this mess? We have to get this cleaned up ASAP, before Rose sees it.”

“Who the hell is Rose?” I said, looking back and forth between Tater and Felicia.

“She’s the GM,” said Tater. “You don’t want to mess around with her. I’m going to be in for it if she sees this mess.”

“She will never see this mess!” said Felicia, her expression frantic—her hijab unfurling in disorder and gluing itself across her sweaty face.

“Can I help?” I said.

“No!” You stay there, Mr. Good Folk—I’ll be right out with your tea and… and pancakes! And some popcorn—on the house!”

“I’ll get the mop,” said Tater.

Just as he turned back into the kitchen, Tater stood stone frozen. I looked in his direction, seeing in his shadow—which was shifting metronomically across the dirty floor with the spin of the ceiling fan—the flickering silhouette of a slouching, cane-wielding elderly woman.

“The hell have you done, Felicia?” she said from the doorway.

“Please!” pleaded Felicia, “It wasn’t me! I didn’t do it.”

“It was me,” said Tater, “I wasn’t holding my tray properly, and one of the Good Folks asked me something as I was heading back to the kitchen. I made the spill.”

Which Good Folk spoke to you?” said Rose.

Tater was silent.

“You better tell me, boy,” she said, “Else you’ll be returned to the back to wash dishes.”

Tater’s legs buckled at that. For some reason, he was horrified at the thought of going back to the dish room.

“It was him,” said Tater, pointing at me.

I jumped another golf tee. I knew I was supposed to be afraid, but this sudden change in the previous, never-ending monotony had me excited.

“That’s what I figured,” said Rose.

She limped toward me, her cane and elderly feet briefly slipping on the spilled tea, which caused an anxious drawing of breath from each of the onlooking wait-staff.

“You made Tater spill his tea,” said Rose upon reaching me.

“I didn’t make him do anything,” I said. “I didn’t touch him; I didn’t push him—he’s a waiter; he should be able to handle his tray.”

“You’re right about that,” said Rose. She turned back to Felicia: “Take Tater back to the dish room. I made a mistake. He’s not ready to be a waiter yet.”

Felicia, though a look of horror apparent on her face, quickly obeyed. Tater’s eyes widened, but he didn’t fight it. He knew it was no use.

“Watch yourself,” said Rose to me, “You may never get out of here, at this rate.”

I jumped another golf tee. Rose chuckled. “Are you ever going to learn this damn game?” she turned to walk back into the kitchen. As she slid away, her brown, oversized apron, which she was wearing backwards, dragged across the wet floor, collecting the tea like a sponge. When she reached the doorway back into the kitchen, the floor was spotless – totally clear.

          I gave a confused start. This place was unexplainable—I already knew that, but I hadn’t yet seen blatant, in-my-face magic. This somehow threw me off.

          I jumped another golf tee. The game was finished. I lost again—I would have to start over.

          Felicia came back to my table, a tray lifted high above her head: “Sorry for the wait, but here’s your sweet tea, pancakes, and pop…”

          “Please shut up,” I said, cutting her off.

          She stepped back in offense.

          “What’s wrong with the dish room?” I said, “Why was Tater so afraid to go there?”

          “Oh, Tater?” she said, “He wasn’t afraid! He’s been a dishwasher for years; he’s completely experienced. Maybe he was a little upset, because the dishwashers make so much less than the waiters, but he wasn’t afraid. Of course not! Anyway, there’s been a problem with your order—I’ll be right back!”

          “Wait!” I yelled.

          Felicia stopped, momentarily glancing back, but then continued back toward the kitchen.

          “There’s been a problem with your order,” she murmured, stressed, “I’ll be right back out.”

          I needed to get into the kitchen—that much was clear—perhaps to the dish room. The answers to at least some of my questions were back there; maybe I could even help Tater, assuming he was actually in a bad situation.

          I waited until the dining room was clear—when all the wait staff were back in the kitchen or out front at the host-stand—and darted into the back. Before leaving my table, I pocketed the golf tee game.

          The kitchen was dimly lit and grimy. Dishes clattered, griddles sizzled, and pots simmered. This clanging, bubbling percussion fused with the music—which was still blaring loudly even back in the kitchen—adding a more aggressive edge to the softer country sound of George Strait’s Troubadour.

           None of the kitchen staff seemed to notice me, or if they did, they were afraid to get involved. I saw them glaring nervously at me side-eyed before turning back to cooking pancakes or popping popcorn.

A knob of butter sizzled, melting on the griddle. Its sweet aroma invaded my nostrils—I was so hungry. I couldn’t think about that, though—there was no time. Squatting, I ducked through the kitchen back toward the dish room, looking like an inexperienced, poor-man’s James Bond. I slipped on some of the grease covering the dirty floor but caught myself before falling to the ground. I saw imprinted on my palm a layer of grease. The dish room was just ahead.

Before making my way through the doorway, I heard a voice from behind: “Where do you think you’re going?”

I turned around; it was Rose. Felicia stood trembling behind her.

“I had to tell her you left your table!” Felicia said, “I have to do my job! I must!”

I began backing into the dish room.

“Don’t go in there,” said Rose, “You don’t want to do that; you’re not that stupid, I don’t think.” Lifting her cane, Rose unscrewed the rubber tip at its base, revealing a glimmering blade. Lifting it to her mouth, she tipped its end with her venomous saliva, some of which fell to the dirty flooring, dissolving through—toxic fumes wafting up from the sizzling remnant.

“Shit,” I said.

She stepped toward me wordlessly, glaring into my soul with her green-slitted, quivering eyes.

I fell back into the dish room, slipping again—this time falling to the floor. Behind me, water sprayed and soap suds floating colorfully, peacefully. The dish washers refused to acknowledge me. I looked around the room; I saw Tater in the back corner. He glanced at me over his shoulder, a tired, fearful expression spread across his face. His light-brown beard was covered in soap and dirty water.

“Looks like we found another dish washer, didn’t we?” Rose was looking back at Felicia.

“Uhm, yes!” responded Felicia, “This Good Folk will make an excellent dish boy! We’re always in need of new washers, as busy as this place gets!”

“You’re right about that,” said Rose, “Business is always booming when you deal in death!” She then took a slithering step toward me. I scrambled backward like a frantic crustacean, toward the large sinks lining the wall. I had nowhere to go.

Rose lifted her cane with both hands, making to plunge it into my thigh: “You may have gotten out of here, eventually,” she said, “But now you never will. You were merely sinful—now you’re both sinful and nosy. Nosy Good Folks get made to be dish washers—and dish washers never leave the dish room. First time in hundreds of years I made that mistake, when I let Tater out onto the floor as a waiter, but I’ll never do that again! He tricked me with his eccentricity—I’ll admit. Dish washers never leave the dish room!”

She looked at her blade lustfully, “Once you’re branded—which you will be in just a moment—you won’t be able to leave.”

“Branded?” I shrieked. I looked over to Tater, who nodded at me sullenly.

I continued scrambling around the dirty floor. Rose raised her cane-blade, readying to pierce me. At the last moment, I took the golf tee game out of my pocket.

I jumped another golf tee.

I won the game!

The brittle wooden game opened like an eldritch container; reality immediately being sucked into it—a reverse Pandora’s Box. The golf tee game shook and rattled in my hand as if to escape, but I held tight. The interior of the restaurant was inhaled by that wooden triangle. All the tables, the pancakes, the sweet tea, the popcorn—even all the Good Folks, who flew screeching spectrally into the container. Lastly, Rose herself was consumed legs first, flying into the box. She fought at the last moment, clawing like a demon, trying to escape this new prison, but she was incapable. Her eyes widened, turning bleach-white before bursting like a crushed pair of white-chocolate truffles.

I gazed ahead as reality disintegrated around me, eventually leaving nothing other than a bright white, ethereal nothingness. I fell to the ground, but there was no ground—I was floating.

“You did it!” came a voice, “About time!”

It was Tater. He was standing above me, staring down happily.

“Thank God!” said Felicia, joining him, “You beat the game! One of you Good Folks finally beat the game! We’re free.

I sat up. The white nothingness took shape—a wide field, a windy wood, a rolling stream, mountains.

“Thank you,” said Tater, walking away.

“Thank you,” said Felicia, doing the same.

I sat up, feeling the grass under my ass. The sun shone down onto my face. I was confused, but I was free.

 

End

Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia. He likes writing, but he never found the time or the courage to try and regularly do it until quarantine forced him into a much more isolated lifestyle. He was most recently accepted for publication at Apocalypse-Confidential, Mystery Tribune, and The Green Shoes Sanctuary online journals.



Bernice Holtzman’s paintings and collages have appeared in shows at various venues in Manhattan, including the Back Fence in Greenwich Village, the Producer’s Club, the Black Door Gallery on W. 26th St., and one other place she can’t remember, but it was in a basement, and she was well received.

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2022