“So you like Chekhov?”
Joyce raised his head. His eyes (they were too light and too blue) darted sideways, big, bulging. Afraid. Or Nervous. His eyes held the same startled wide-open look, the same frozen awareness, whether they were pinned to the wall with jagged nerves or hovering in debilitating fear. He did not blink. He did not swallow. “Huh?”
Hal leaned against the oak desk. His eyes narrowed. His fingers pushed wide apart over the dark wood. “Chekhov.” He pointed to the woolen coat. To the charcoal folds, then motioned – nearly touching Joyce as he signaled and floated his finger over to the book the younger man had tucked away, the book that was now nearly halfway out his large pocket. “The Cherry Orchard.” He said. The lines on his face deepened, but especially his dimples. He smiled and Joyce stared at the dark cherub pits before returning his eyes quickly down to the desk, to the rusted bell, and then to the landline phone.
He pushed the book further into his pocket, covered it with his hand and shook his head. His eyes closed and his mouth stayed tight and stiff. No no, he shook his head. “Not really.”
“Read the Tobacco one? The harmful something on tobacco?” Hal asked. He fixed his bare elbow over the black guestbook and settled his chin into the center of his callous, hard palm. His short blonde hair spiked into a furious mess that reminded Joyce of Medusa and of turning into stone but it was the man’s eyes that he avoided. They were brown and warm and they stripped him down to his twitches and striped socks. There was a pause before he spoke. He weighed the options. Then his voice sprung out (naturally too loud, yet rough and dirty like shifting gravel in a landslide).
“On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco.” Joyce corrected. He shook his head as a few words scuttled out over the gravel. “No I haven’t.”
“It’s one act. Hilarious really. I mean it. The guy…” Hal tapped his knuckles. His wedding wing clanged against the hard surface and woke Joyce. Woke him up enough to bring his eyes up to Hal’s eyes, to his flaying swords, then his grin. His wide, contagious grin. His breath smelled like waste and mold. “I forget all those Russian names but he’s this older man, scholarly type. But not really. He’s going on with this lecture he’s gonna give. That his wife made him give. He doesn’t talk a lick about tobacco, just his wife and kids. His miserable life.”
The young man nodded.
“What’s with the book then?” Hal asked.
“I should go.” Atop the counter were ruffled piles of papers, some dried and curled, others stained with coffee or syrup. Joyce gathered half into a separate pile and folded them over, then tucked them into his other pocket while Hal watched quietly. Hal took the other pile and went to file them away, turning briefly as Joyce adjusted his coat, closing it over his fleece sweater. He checked his watch.
“Oh,” Hal shouted. “Wait.” He peered over at the man, looking him up and down from the felt black hat to the worn brown shoes. “Scarecrow.”
“Nothing.” Hal said, smiling. “What’s your schedule like?”
His voice cracked. “I really have to get to work. The paper work’s done, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Alright.” Hal frowned. “Remember, kid. Rent is the first of the month. Extra 25 for every day you have it late.”
Finally, he shuffled down the hall, dragging his queer leg.
“Only those who still have hope can benefit from tears. When they finish, they feel better. But to those without hope, whose anguish is basic and permanent, no good comes from crying. Nothing changes for them. They usually know this, but still can’t help crying.” ― Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust