I wake up and know, right away, that it’s going to be one of those nights when I toss and turn in the sheets for hours trying to logically deduce the purpose of my life, knowing the whole time that the effort will only drive me out of my mind. Rather than suffer the torment of that introspection, I slip into my clothes and step outside.
A cold wind rattles the last dead leaves in the trees and fills the street with the sound of rattlesnakes and maracas. Sitcom laughter drifts out from some open window somewhere. Hell probably sounds something like that. No, Hell probably sounds exactly like that. I start walking.
I think of knocking on a door and telling whoever answers that I’m having an existential crisis and need their help. Just a cup of coffee and a quick talk, I’d say. But they’d only call me crazy.
Past the houses I walk along broken roads into the old industrial district. Miles of abandoned factories stand dead in the starlit mist, the glow of their furnace fires extinguished forever from their windows. Rusted smokestacks silhouetted against the sky like the ancient monoliths of some ruined civilization. Pigeons stir inside the stacks, the chirping and beating of their wings echoing madly through the cavernous space.
Turning the corner I see at the heart of this industrial ruin a lighted diner with a neon sign reading The Lighthouse. After ensuring the sight is not an illusion, I cross the street and walk inside.
A waitress sits behind the counter doing a crossword puzzle while a man reads a newspaper. I ask for coffee. The waitress sighs, gets up, pours me a cup. Her cracked nametag reads Debbie. Frayed red hairs stick out of her head like broken clock springs. I smile at her but she does not smile back, just fills my cup and saunters back to her seat.
"Any news?" I ask the man.
"No news is good news, right?"
"Nope. All bad news."
Debbie chortles over her crossword puzzle.
I want to smash my cup against the wall. Why must people snicker and scoff their way through their brief and miraculous lives? There is no time for such indifference. Maybe it’s just the easiest thing in the world to retreat from life, to put your passion in a box and hide it in some closet in your heart with broken umbrellas and old comic books. And maybe they’re right.
After this cup is done I will go home, give up walking and fighting against the dark, buy a television so big that I can actually fit inside it. A television without windows.
I notice a jukebox standing against the back wall. It’s one of those classic models from the fifties, remnant of the age of bunny hops, polka dots, and soda malts. Built like an old Cadillac or a spaceship, ready to explode into outer space, glowing with shades of red, blue, and yellow that were pulled out of production after JFK died.
I walk over to the jukebox and cycle through album covers until I find Buddy Holly smiling back at me as though he's been waiting there all night for me to show up. I drop in a quarter and the opening notes of Peggy Sue begin.
I bop back to the lunch counter and slap two bills down on the countertop. "Ten dollars in quarters and a slice of lemon meringue. Get yourself a slice, too. And him.”
Debbie looks at the money as though it’s up to something, takes it, slides over my quarters and pie. She takes chocolate for herself. The man waves her off, thinks again, asks for cherry cobbler. Everything in the diner brightens. Even the jagged names carved into the countertop are punctuated by hearts. I take my pie to the jukebox and drop the quarters in.
Debbie takes a bite, closes her eyes, and moans, "Better than sex. Better than bad sex, anyway." She narrows her eyes in thought, "The best is both at the same time, though."
The man chuckles. "Sex and pie at the same time?"
"Honey, you haven't had sex until you've had sex and pie at the same time. I don't remember how I met him, don't remember what happened to him after that weekend, but I remember that weekend. And that pie. He'll never forget. He's got my name inked on him to make sure he doesn't.”
"After just one weekend?"
"Honey, one weekend with me and you'd have Debbie tattooed on your ass, too.” She points her fork at him, "And you'd never regret it, either."
The man laughs and introduces himself as Andy. He shakes his head, "Man, I love this tune."
"Nobody cheats death like Buddy Holly,” I grin.
Andy lets out a hooting, cackling laugh. Debbie and I look at him and he freezes as if surprised that the sound came out of him, then we all bust up laughing and it sounds kind of crazy and hooting, too.
We listen to every Buddy Holly song that the jukebox plays, telling stories of our lives and laughing like old friends reunited in the lighthouse at the heart of the universe. For just a moment I can almost feel the world spinning beneath me, the stars spiraling out through space, the mystery and the miracle of our smallness amongst it.
And of course this night must end, and the three of us must return to our beds, where death and time are always waiting. But right now Buddy Holly is singing Rave On, and That’ll be the Day isn’t far behind, and maybe the music can’t last forever, but I’ve got a whole pocketful of quarters and I can make damn sure it lasts a long, long time at least, and on a night like this that’s more than enough, because on a night like this, man, one more song is all I need.