Poetry and Prose from the Center for Writers
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by MICAH HICKS
This is the Waffle House where the jugglers live. Through the grease-smeared door, the cashier tumbling receipts and rolls of change above the register. Pancakes, eggs, sausages making tight orbits in the air over the kitchen. Clean plates spinning dry and tossed onto their stacks. The floor rolling with tennis balls, colored scarves, boiled eggs, dozens of dropped things. Eric, head cook and master juggler, reigns here in clean apron and hairnet, thin blond mustaches twisted with citrus pomade.
The walls are spotted with patched bullet holes, all the windows cracking and held together with strips of window tint. Gunpowder in the air, lingering beneath syrup and bacon smell. All this because of Mel, criminal and greatest juggler Eric ever trained.
Eric stands at the front and calls everyone to come and listen. He juggles with elbows raised, spatulas making lazy spins between his palms. They rise and fall with his chest, natural as breathing. He lets the spatulas pile up on the counter, stacked alternating, their ends dripping oil. He is calm, the way a juggler should be.
The servers come, the seated customers with syrup and honey on their lips, the cashier, assistant cooks, the dishwasher. “I’ve taught you everything I can,” Eric tells them. “It’s time I left the Waffle House.”
The dishwasher raises his hand. “You promised to tell us about the bullet holes, the cracked glass, everything that happened years ago before we were hired.”
“Alright,” said Eric. “Listen. I’ll tell you about me and Mel.”
It was the middle of summer, and the circus hadn’t been pulling in enough money. The ringleader told Eric he was sorry, but there would have to be cuts. “People have YouTube,” the ringleader told him. His eyes were full of these fears: wireless signal floating through the air and into his head, a smart-phone in every pocket, digital eight-second clips of lion-taming or tight-rope walking, anything that was free. The ringleader cleaned the sweat from his bald head with a tissue. “No one comes to the circus to see juggling anymore.”
Eric hugged his apprentice, Mel, tiny girl with lanky arms and legs, brown hair down her back, just turned seventeen. “We understand,” Eric said. “If people won’t come to see juggling, we’ll bring juggling to them.”
The ringleader wished them luck.
Down the highway with everything they had in a backpack, summer sun hot on their heads. Mel sat on the shoulder and beat her palm on the asphalt. “I hate him,” she said. “I hate every damned ringleader.”
Eric held up his hand and watched eighteen-wheelers roll by. “Jugglers can’t hate, Mel. It’ll make you drop things.”
Mel wiped her eyes and nodded. She pulled knitted bean bags out of her pocket and started to juggle them. “Stay calm,” she told herself. “Even after all this, stay calm.” She put all three in the air, tossing them underhand, trying to keep her arms limp and lazy.
Eric smiled. “Your shoulders are tense. You’re trying too hard.”
A van full of children slowed down, kids’ faces pressed to the glass watching Mel juggle on the roadside. Mel thought they were going to stop, heard the brakes squeaking, but the car started speeding up again once they had seen.
Mel caught the balls one by one as they came down and threw them at the car, one hitting the bumper and splitting open, one skipping over the road and getting run over by a car, and the last one rolling into the thick grass in the median. The van honked at them as it disappeared. Eric stared at the ruin of the beanbags.
“I’m sorry,” Mel said. “I just lost control.”
“It’s not about control.” Eric pulled out a handful of thin scarves, red and green and blue. “It’s about peace. You just have to relax.” He tossed them into the air overhand, letting them drift back down and cycling them up again. The wind pulled them to the side, and Eric walked down the road with them, letting himself be carried. His movements were sleepy, a slow stirring in the air.
Mel watched him and shook her head. When she juggled, even on her best days, it looked like she was punching the air. A few more cars passed, and finally another family stopped. Mel and Eric squeezed in between their kids in the backseat.
“Where are you headed?” the woman asked them.
“Where are you headed?” Eric asked.
“There’s a Waffle House a few miles up the road. We’re stopping for lunch.”
“That sounds fine,” Eric said. “You can drop us off there.”
In the Waffle House, Eric and Mel tossed packets of jelly and sugar across the table, each making half of an elliptical pattern. The restaurant was quiet, everyone listening to the smack of paper and plastic against their palms, watching the jugglers play.
“There’s never been anything like this,” the manager said. “Not in any Waffle House anywhere.” He paid for their lunch. The family who’d picked them up told everyone how they had brought the jugglers. The manager paid for their food, too.
“What did they do?” Mel said it quietly, looking down at the table so only Eric could hear.
“What do any of us do?” Eric asked her, but Mel didn’t know what he wanted her to say, why he didn’t understand, so she said nothing.
Eric got up to buy a roll of pennies from the cashier. After she gave it to him, he asked, “Are there any tennis courts around here?”
Eric and Mel sat in the grass outside the tennis court, watching yellow balls smack against the chain-link fence and waiting for some to make it over. They’d been there for a couple of hours.
“I feel like a little kid, waiting out here,” Mel said.
Eric laughed and squeezed her shoulder. “You’re a pro. The best I’ve ever taught.”
Mel shrugged and said, “Thanks.” Inside her head, she repeated his words over and over, that she was the best, burning with the truth of it and loving the feeling.
“Now you’re smiling.”
Eventually, worse tennis players came to the court, and Eric and Mel caught a small pile of stray balls. They were stacked in Mel’s lap, a mound of fresh yellow Wilson’s, still smelling store-new, when one of the players walked up to the fence and yelled at them.
“Hey,” he said, “Thanks for finding those. But can we have them back now?”
Eric took them out of Mel’s lap and started throwing them back over the fence, one by one.
“What are you doing? We’ve been out here for hours.”
“There will always be more.”
Mel threw the rest of the balls over the fence all at once. They bounced and rolled into other lanes, interrupting matches, while the man darted over the court to collect them, apologizing to everyone.
After a while, a landscaping crew rolled up and started mowing the lot behind the court. Mel and Eric moved to a bench while they worked. After the mowers left, it was almost dark. Eric got up and walked back out to the grass.
“What are you doing?” Mel asked. “All the players are gone.”
Eric waved her over, and Mel got up and walked over. With the grass cut short, she could see dozens of dirty yellow tennis balls, lopsided and split open from the lawn mower blades.
“Fine. You’re right again.” Mel picked out six of the best looking ones, and they filled the insides with pennies and wrapped them in black electrical tape from Eric’s backpack. Mel tossed them up and let them fall heavy into her palm, liking the sound of pennies sloshing together inside. “They could be a little heavier,” she said.
“Always twenty pennies in a tennis ball. You’re just throwing them too hard. Throw them softer.”
“Where are we staying tonight, Eric?”
“There’s a motel across from the Waffle House. I thought we’d stay there a few nights, then see what else is in town. We’ve got money saved. I like the Waffle House.”
Mel flipped up the bottom of her shirt to carry her six juggling balls, the tape shiny black under the park lights, and followed Eric. He picked up twigs, stones, and sweet-gum balls as they walked, juggling a column higher and higher. Surely he’ll drop something soon, Mel thought, as Eric kept adding to the cloud of objects he had in the air, but he didn’t. He walked along juggling, staring at the sky and picking up things to add effortlessly. She wondered if he knew he was doing it.
Eric and Mel spent a week finding things to juggle and bringing them back to the Waffle House. They went to the Little League field for baseballs. The Country Club for golf balls. To weddings of people they didn’t know, lingering afterward to collect unwanted crepe paper and tulle for scarves, carrying off Tiki lanterns to chop down into juggling pins and torches. Eric and the Waffle House manager made space in the freezer and storeroom for these things, staying up all night talking together. Eric began wearing an apron and hairnet, working in the kitchen. Mel spoke to him less and less, saw servers and dishwashers dropping plates and pawing at scarves. She didn’t understand what was happening.
One day, she walked around the building and juggled while she waited for Eric to finish his shift inside. The balls still felt too light, and they crisscrossed higher and higher, until she lost control of them and they all came falling down. She was juggling five, and she knew that was part of the problem, but she was too proud to juggle less. It would feel like defeat, she thought, to have three in the air and juggle them perfectly.
Coming to the back of the building, she stood facing a wall of brick, concentrating on keeping all five going. They started to slip away, and Mel got angry, tossing them up faster and harder. She lost one, sent it soaring out of pattern and into the wall where it smacked like a change-purse against the brick and bounced back towards her. She barely caught it in her left hand, throwing the ball in her right at the wall, too.
Then she had it, eight feet back from the wall, throwing the balls as hard as she wanted, smacking them against the brick so hard it echoed off the eighteen-wheelers parked behind her, the balls bouncing back to her hands so she could send them whizzing back to the wall. She’d never juggled so well before, and kept the pattern going for forty minutes, until her arms ached.
Mel walked back into the Waffle House and found Eric putting on a new name tag. It read, Assistant Manager. “What do you think?” he asked.
“I think you’re the greatest juggler in the world. Why are you doing this?”
He smiled a sad smile, but didn’t look up from his application. “You heard the ringleader, Mel. People don’t pay to see juggling anymore.”
“Maybe we could change things. Listen, I just figured something out. Behind the store a few minutes ago. You should have seen it. It was angry and happy and everything all at once. I was great, Eric. I had passion.”
“Mel, you can’t juggle with passion. You have to be calm. I’ve been telling you for years.”
Mel looked at the restaurant tables, the servers trying to juggle, Eric’s new uniform. She hated all of it, even him. Mel walked out of the restaurant, Eric calling for her to stop. He asked where she was going, but Mel didn’t answer. She walked across the parking lot and followed the road towards the tall buildings sparkling in the sun downtown. Something good was waiting for her there, she decided. It had to be, after all of this.
Downtown, Mel walked past cafés and clothing stores, a row of old factories that had been boarded up, a post office. She stopped outside of a tall building with gray columns and spreading concrete stairs. People went in and out of the building’s six main doors. It reminded her of the circus where she’d spent most of her life, the towering main tent, the grandeur of the thick yellow ropes and snapping flags. She went in.
Inside, the floor was green marble with bronze edging the outermost tiles. There were more columns inside, clean wooden tables, and a counter with rows of people behind it along the back, like ticket-sellers. It was quiet.
Mel walked past a huge man, bull-like in his black coat and black cowboy hat, reaching into his coat pocket. Big Man stopped when he met her eyes, seeming embarrassed, and looked at the floor. Mel went to the woman behind the counter and asked what this place was.
“First National Bank.” The woman had dark red nails and wore her blonde hair in a pony-tail. “Do you have an account with us?”
“No. Sorry. I thought this would be something else.”
The woman laughed. “What were you expecting?”
Mel remembered crowds filling the tent, Eric juggling torches burning at both ends, keeping six in the air at once. Mel standing in front of him as a girl, the flames twirling around her and only kept back by his arms, her hair curling in the heat. Every eye on them.
Before Mel could answer the woman’s question, someone screamed at the other end of the line.
Big Man leveled a fat revolver at the tellers. He tossed balled-up plastic sacks over the counter and told them to fill them up. From the entrance, more men started pulling out guns, their hat-brims pulled down to shade their eyes from the cameras high along the walls.
Big Man shouted for everyone to get down, so Mel dropped to the floor, the tile cold on her hands. She heard someone shout, “Police!” There was gunfire, the sound of the shots echoing back from the ceiling. She heard people cry out, could taste the gunpowder in the smoky room. Everything was quiet then.
Mel lifted her head and saw the bodies of police officers and robbers strewn all over the bank. Big Man was sitting with his back to one of the columns, tearing a long strip from his shirt and tying it around his arm, his black coat sleeve sopping wet.
On the floor next to Mel, there was a dead cop, his gun cocked in his dead hand. Mel crawled towards it. What am I doing, she thought. She needed to stay still, be calm. That’s what Eric would tell her to do. But she was afraid of Big Man, and she was angry at him for making her afraid. She picked up the gun, astonished at how perfectly heavy it was in her hand. She grabbed another one on the cop’s belt, stood, pointed both of them at Big Man, and started walking towards him.
He looked at her, his revolver lying on the floor beside him, and kept wrapping his arm.
“Why did you do this?” she asked.
Big Man said, “Because I want the money.”
“You can’t just have whatever you want.” Mel’s eyes were wet. “You’ve got to have restraint.”
Big Man looked at the girl, her wet bright eyes and tense body, and thought that he could love her. He stood, the barrels of her guns pressing into his chest, and pushed the hair back out of her eyes. “Who told you such a thing?”
The doors burst open, and Mel and Big Man turned their guns to the front of the building. More cops ran inside. “Get down!” one of the officers yelled.
“You don’t have to do what they say,” Big Man told her.
“I said, get down!”
“I don’t know what to do,” Mel told him. “What should I do?”
Big Man took a step away from her. “That’s one thing I won’t ever tell you.”
The police kept shouting. Big Man was looking at her. She had both guns pointed at the cops. Mel let out a breath she’d been holding and tossed her guns into the air, starting a pattern. It was the only thing she could do.
Big man laughed and threw his revolver to her, Mel adding it the the rest. He pulled two more guns out of the back of his waist-band and threw these to her, too.
Mel had five guns flying up into the air and dropping back down to her palms, crossing them back and forth, switching between overhand and underhand patterns, catching one behind her back.
The police stared, wondering what they should do now, when they all heard the sound of a gun being cocked. Mel was pulling back the hammers as they fell into her left hand and throwing them into her right.
“Drop those,” the cop said.
“I can’t stop.” Mel cocked two more. “You should all get down.”
Big Man started laughing, a deep and wicked sound.
“Drop those, or I shoot!” another cop said. They all had their guns on Mel now.
She juggled the guns faster and faster, their hammers catching on her thumb and snapping back, the handles catching in her right hand with her finger on the trigger. Everything was lining up too perfectly. She couldn’t help but pull it.
Mel strafed the bank with gunfire, sending shots up the legs of the columns and zipping across the lobby. The cops were carved with gunfire from every direction, shots hitting them straight on or bouncing off the walls. The bank employees and customers were on the floor, screaming. The only person standing besides Mel was Big Man. He watched her from under his hat, bullets striking the floor in front of him or squealing past his ear, but never hitting him.
“You’re beautiful,” he said. He threw extra clips into her pattern, watching Mel switch out the empties as she juggled them. “Don’t let anyone stop you.”
While Mel kept shooting, juggling better than she ever had before, Big Man ran behind the counter and collected his bags half-filled with money. He took holsters from the police officers and tossed these to Mel, extra guns for himself. After she’d strapped the guns on, heavy and hot through even through their cases, Big Man scooped her onto his shoulder and started for the door.
“I have a car around back,” he told her.
Mel felt his thick shoulders and arms through his coat, careful not to touch the arm where he’d been shot. “I can walk,” she said.
The man shook his head and looked at her, worship all over his face. “Someone like you. Your feet should never have to touch the ground.”
With sirens in the distance, Mel and the bank-robber pulled up at the Waffle House. “I have to take care of something,” she told him, and kissed his rough cheek.
Mel found Eric inside behind the counter.
“Where have you been?” he asked. “I was worried. Who is that man in the parking lot? Why do you have all those guns?”
Mel spread her arms so Eric could see each of the five pistols holstered on her body. “You told me it couldn’t be done. But I’m here to show you what juggling with passion looks like.”
She started throwing the guns into the air, and Eric yelled for everyone to get on the floor. Mel spun them on her finger, tossed them over her shoulder and under her leg, cocking and firing the guns without aiming, but never hitting anyone. She blew out the front windows, put holes in all the tables and counters, cracked the sheet-rock on the walls. Her empties piled up on the floor, and it stank of gun-powder so badly when she finished that Eric could barely breath.
“You would have kept me from ever knowing I could do this.”
Eric tried to speak, but Mel shushed him with a gun barrel laid against his lips.
“I killed people, Eric. It was easier that I thought it would be. Not nearly as hard as juggling.” She looked around the shattered interior of the Waffle House. “I’m glad you like this place. If you ever leave, I’ll kill you.”
Through a pane of broken glass, Eric watched her get into a long black car with the biggest man he’d ever seen and spin out of the gravel parking lot. He thought of her every day after that, with every new employee he taught to juggle in the Waffle House. Every night, wondering what he’d done so wrong.
“I haven’t seen her since that day,” Eric says. “They talk about her on TV or radio news sometimes. Hitting banks in California, last I heard.”
Sunlight flares in the cracks in the windows, and Eric rotates two eggs in his palm. More people come inside, a troop of girl scouts in green and brown.
“So which is it?” the dishwasher asks. “What should jugglers have? Passion or restraint?”
“I’m going to go see Mel and find out,” Eric says. “And if she kills me, there will be jugglers still.”
They hug Eric goodbye one by one, and he steps through the door, tossing fresh eggs high into the air and letting them drop back into his palms lazy and gentle. He could do this forever, he knows. He would never break one.