Alex looks up from his laptop. The Uptown Diner, with its chipped melamine tables and leatherette benches is where he comes to get away from the distractions of the student house he shares with a bunch of University friends; at least that’s what Alex tells himself. Although in reality it’s the burger and fries he can get for half price with his student card that’s the real pull.
The Diner sits across the road from Java Java where the mocca-chocca-lotta brigade hangs out. A metal railing separates Java Java from the street and at a cluster of bistro tables under a broad awning slanting out from the roof, couples huddle around tall, stainless heating lamps, smoking and sipping over-priced coffee. A professional type in brown corduroys leans across the table towards a younger woman, a tasselled scarf wound around her throat like a neck brace, and lights her cigarette.
A man shuffles along the street pushing a shopping cart filled with aluminium cans, his overcoat knotted with string at the waist. Tied to the cart, a thin black dog lopes along behind him. The man stops in front of Java Java and touches a hand to the grubby yellow peak of a Ticats cap. Corduroy Guy shakes his head and looks away and the dog lifts its leg against the railing.
Alex looks back at the screen. The cursor blinks at him. Okay. “Declining Ethical Values in Today’s Society” is the title of his Social Justice essay and typing the title across the top of the page is as far as Alex has got. For inspiration, he clicks on his half page of lecture notes.
‘Checklist for Acting Ethically:’
1. What would you think if you were on the opposite side of the situation?
2. What are the alternatives?
3. Is there someone you can speak to whose advice you trust?
4. What would your family and friends say if they learned of your actions?
Slumping against the bench, Alex exhales slowly. He’d wanted to do Sports Science but didn’t have the biology, so he’s enrolled in the first program that would take him and plans to switch to Sports Science next semester by taking biology at night school. Although so far, he hasn’t actually managed to get to any biology classes.
His eyes drift back to the window. “Jesus!”
The man with the shopping cart has crossed the street and is now pressed up against the glass on the other side of Alex’s table. His eyes, in deep black sockets like railway tunnels, are fixed on Alex.
Alex slides himself up the bench away from the window.
A waitress reaches across the table and re-fills Alex’s mug. “Oh, don’t mind him.” She nods towards the man pressed against the glass. “It’s only Lionel.” Her name, scrawled in thin red pen across a plastic name tag says, Hi, I’m Wendy.
Wendy shakes her head. “Real sweetheart too when the drink’s not doing the talking.” She flicks a hand at Lionel through the glass. “Go on,” she mouths and Lionel turns away from the window.
“He’s a funny one you know,” says Wendy. “When he comes in, he’ll sit over there.” She points her thumb at a line of stools along the counter. “And if he has to use the bathroom, he’ll stand up and say, ‘I’m going to make a call from the Oval Office.’” She slaps a hand across Alex’s shoulder. “Cracks me up every time!”
Wendy leans a fist on the table and glances around. “When it’s not busy, I let him inside if he’s got a coupon. Boss don’t need to know. Nothing wrong with a bit of charity is there?”
Alex, his eyes dropping to his palms spread out on the table, slides his hands onto his lap and wipes them down his jeans.
“Free donut with your student meal deal. See?” Wendy taps a slip of paper next to the bill she’s tucked under Alex’s plate.
On the laptop, the screen flicks from the swirling vortex of Alex’s screensaver and back onto the Checklist for Acting Ethically. Wendy nods at the window. “See, Lionel wants you to give him your coupon.”
What would you think if you were on the opposite side of the situation? asks The Checklist.
Alex looks at the coupon on the table. He’d like a free donut himself. Why doesn’t Lionel just go to a soup kitchen or a food bank?
He looks back at the window. Lionel’s lost to sight but the shopping cart, wedged now at an angle against the window, is being scraped against the glass, pulled along by the dog in an effort to follow his owner.
Lionel is pushing open the door of the Diner.
Oh God. He’s coming in. Alex looks from Wendy to Lionel then back at Wendy. He’s coming to get his coupon.
“Nothing wrong with a bit of charity,” Wendy said. Well, doesn’t charity begin at home? A free donut is called lunch when you’re surviving on a student loan.
“Hey, Lionel,” Wendy pushes the coffeepot onto the counter and heads across the diner. She braces her arms across the doorway. “Not today, sweetheart. Too busy in here.”
Lionel points a shaky finger at Alex. “He’s got my coupon.” A cough rumbles in his throat.
“No. It’s not your coupon, is it?” says Wendy gently, blocking Lionel’s advance with her body. Wendy’s eyes flick to Alex.
Alex shifts on the bench, turns his gaze back to his laptop. I know exactly where the nearest food bank is. I’d be happy to tell Lionel.
“Any beds at the Y tonight?” Wendy is saying to Lionel who is swaying in the doorway.
He steadies himself against the frame and saws an agitated palm across his face. “Feckin prick!” he shouts at Alex.
“Come on now.” Wendy reaches for the door and holds it open while Lionel, gripping the frame with both hands, shuffles around. “They won’t let you in the Y if you start with the language, will they?”
Lionel eases himself off the front step and out onto the street.
Alex looks back at the Checklist. What are the alternatives? He sighs and looks out of the window. Not many for a guy like Lionel, who has now pushed the shopping cart over to a bench at a bus stop near the Diner.
Jeez, Alex thinks, he’s getting real good at making himself feel guilty. But Alex’s real problem is that he’s going to flunk his semester if he doesn’t start turning in some decent assignments, and his mom’s got no idea. She’s working double shifts at the hospital so he that can go to university. And when he goes home to visit, she feeds him, does his laundry, sends him back with care packages. And she’s happy to do it, because, she says, he needs to concentrate on his studies.
Concentrating isn’t something Alex does well.
Alex counts out coins onto the table and shoves the coupon into his wallet. Sliding off the bench, Checklist Number 4 drifts through his head. What would your family and friends say if they learned of your actions?
Answer is too easy: They’d say I was a lazy shit, and how can you treat your mom like that?
Shouts from the street outside brings Wendy to the window. A woman from Java Java is punching numbers into her phone as she runs across the road towards the bus stop while some guy is bending over Lionel who has slid off the bench and is lying unconscious on the pavement. His dog is yelping and pulling on the rope. The shopping cart lurches sideways and tips over, spilling aluminium cans across the pavement.
A handful of cutlery clatters onto the table and Wendy runs to the door, her Crocs slapping across the tiles like castanets.
In a minute, Wendy is kneeling beside Lionel. She picks up the Ticats cap that’s rolled beside him on the pavement. She presses it into her lap then reaches out and strokes Lionel’s head.
Alex wishes he’d given him the coupon, wishes he thought better of himself.
Wendy pulls a napkin from her pocket and blows her nose. “I could have given him more than a stupid donut,” she says. “Who can survive on that?”
Jayne Evans wrote furiously as a child. Then life took over. Her passion for writing was rekindled when she found a newspaper clipping about the tragic story of her young uncle who immigrated alone to Canada in 1929 and died a year later in Toronto. The provided the inspiration for her first novel which she is currently working on (furiously.) Jayne is a passionate ESL teacher and lives in Waterloo, Ontario, with her husband, Mike. Her short stories have appeared in CommuterLit and she has also written for CERIC Magazine and Moving2Canada.
See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including online and in-person writing workshops, weekly writing classes, and weekend retreats in Algonquin Park, Alliston, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Georgina, Guelph, Hamilton, Jackson’s Point, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Midland, Mississauga, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Southampton, Sudbury, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.