The police arrived at the diner, bearing news of my husband’s death. I brewed coffee behind the counter while my husband checked his vitals. It turned out he was very much alive. He tried to explain this to the officers, but they didn’t believe him. One of the men removed his hat and tightened his fingers around it as he explained the situation. They found a body in the woods. It looked exactly like Isaiah. The man had no identification.
I recognized one of the officers—Bradley King. He frequented the diner on Saturday nights for dinner. If Isaiah wasn’t working, we’d complain about our spouses; he’d brag about his kids. The subject of children always made me uncomfortable, but I’d smile and nod until the conversation changed.
“We’d like you to come down and take a look at the body,” Officer King told Isaiah.
I pretended not to listen. Went through the motions of prepping the kitchen. Turned on burners, chopped vegetables, thawed meat. I couldn’t help thinking this news had come at the worst possible time. Suzanne had a custody hearing that day and there was no one to cover for her, so I’d already be working, as the only waitress, through a busy fifteen-hour shift. Now we’d have to shut down for an unknown amount of time for Isaiah to visit the morgue.
After the officers left, I laid out breakfast at the corner booth. Through the front window, the rising sun splattered the horizon with neon. The bare white countertop glimmered and I tilted the blinds to keep the sun from blinding us as we ate.
Isaiah sat across from me in the booth, his expression unfazed. I waited for him to say something, but he just shoveled eggs into his mouth, chewing loudly. I hadn’t known it possible to make such noise eating fried eggs, but my husband had found a way. My jaw clenched. My own food grew cold as I stabbed at the yolk. I imagined the gooey center was his brain and speared it again and again with my fork.
“Your mouth,” I said.
He took another bite of egg. Opened his jaw in cavernous exaggeration. Yolk ran down his face, turning his chin the color of a smudged dandelion.
I called him a son of a bitch. Wished just once he’d tell me what he was thinking.
I stood up to clear the dishes. Grabbed his plate away mid-chomp. “I’m not staying here alone while you go to the station.”
He touched my wrist and smiled. “I wouldn’t dream of it, darling.”
I set the plate back down and pinched his dimpled cheek. Jiggled the skin back and forth between my fingers. I couldn’t stay mad when he smiled.
It was Isaiah alright. The ears, front teeth, and left eye had been removed, but the rest of his face was unmistakable. Lips that puffed like down pillows; hair the color of desert sand. Most telling was the circular, brown birthmark above his right eyebrow that I always joked was a bullet from God.
“It looks like whoever did this got squeamish before he could finish the job,” the medical examiner said as he slowly peeled back the cloth covering the body. He halted at the shoulders and added, “I’ll spare you the rest of him. It gets a lot messier from here on down.”
The morgue was a fluorescent hell. Like standing inside a giant light bulb. All around me steel glared. Steel gurneys, steel storage spaces, steel desks, steel medical equipment. The light reflected off every surface and, no matter where I looked, I felt as if I was staring in the same direction. The air reeked of bleach, but underneath was the smell of decay. It was like an air freshener in the car of a heavy smoker—the lemon-scent only making the stale tobacco more apparent.
My husband sat in an office chair. He placed his head in his hands. His face was paler than the corpse’s. An officer gave him a glass of water and he clasped it between his knees. He hadn’t spoken in several minutes.
I ran my fingers through the dead man’s hair. The softness of it surprised me. It made my husband’s hair feel like frayed rope in comparison. I always told Isaiah to stop buying cheap shampoo, but he never listened.
Even with the blood and missing parts, I found the man attractive. I wondered if it was creepy to think about sex when staring at a dead man who looked exactly like my husband. I decided it was. That’s the power my husband had, though. After ten years of marriage, morning-after-morning of loud egg chewing, irresponsible spending, refusal to pick up slack at the diner, and general moodiness, I still wanted him.
Isaiah, for all his flaws, was a great husband. Infinitely better than my first spouse—a man who spoke at the volume of an air-raid siren. Toward the end of our marriage, we argued more than we breathed. The only clear memory I had of our three years of marriage was waking up each morning covered in hives and fighting off the desire to vomit.
“Please don’t touch the corpse. We still have to do an autopsy,” the medical examiner told me.
I ignored the examiner. Continued petting the man’s long hair. I clenched my fist. My stomach growled. I readied myself to pounce on the medical examiner. To tear his face off. I wanted to take the body away from him, away from the world. Curl up with it in an open storage container. Hold my breath until I too was dead.
“Ma’am?” the examiner said.
Silence. The air vents hissed above us. The examiner grabbed my arm. I turned to strike him. My husband dropped his glass of water. The clatter pierced my brain, waking me from my momentary delirium.
The man on the table was not my husband. Isaiah was still alive, sitting in an office chair, frightened by the stranger I had just been trying to protect. How had I forgotten?
“I cannot identify this body,” I told the examiner. “Sorry we couldn’t be of more help.”
I grabbed Isaiah’s hand and squeezed. Traced my finger down his thumb.
“Let’s go. This isn’t you.”
Isaiah didn’t talk much for the next few days. Just flashed his dimples and gave a thumbs up every time I asked if he was alright. He remained in our apartment and watched reruns of old sitcoms while I assumed sole responsibility for the diner. I worried about him a lot. He didn’t communicate his emotions well, but he was a sensitive person. Too sensitive for his own good. Isaiah was the guy who caught spiders in his palms, clasped his hands so they couldn’t escape. He’d take them outside barefooted, wearing only his underwear. He didn’t come back inside until they were safely in the grass. “It’s not our place to disrupt the balance of things,” he once told me.
He stayed in my thoughts as I listened to the bacon sizzle and let the wafts of fresh-brewed coffee jolt me awake during the morning hours. He remained there as I blitzed between tables during the afternoon rush, running orders of BLTs and chicken salads through my head. I carried him with me during the late evening as teenage couples ordered milkshakes and hamburgers. Luckily our apartment was above the diner, so he was never far away if he ever needed to talk. There wasn’t much downtime with only me in charge, but in the slower moments of the day I could still run upstairs to bring him salads and rolls.
That pattern continued for almost a week, then was jarred loose by a customer who came in late one night. I was double-checking the kitchen and had forgot to lock the door. The bell dinged. I walked out to find a man sitting in the far booth. I yelled from the kitchen that we were closed. No response, so I approached.
The man wore a low-brimmed fedora and a long trench coat. His giant beard covered a deeply pocked face. I wondered if he was deaf, so I tapped him on the shoulder. He snapped his hand out and grabbed my wrist. His eyes glared from under the shadow of the fedora. Distant, yet familiar—like a cousin from my childhood I hadn’t seen in decades.
“I want to speak to Isaiah Greene,” he said with a three-pack-a-day growl.
I tried to pull my hand away from the man, but his grip tightened on my wrist.
“He’s not in right now. Can I give him a message?”
I jerked hard to free myself from his hand. I could feel my wrist pop. Indents of his fingers remained on my skin. He never turned his eyes away from me.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” I said.
I looked around the empty diner and tried to call for help, but thought it might trigger the man to violence before Isaiah reached the stairwell. I repeated my request. The man made no effort to exit. He turned his head away and stared into the darkness outside the window.
I backed away from him slowly, pressed my back against the counter, and reached for the phone. “Last warning. I’m calling the police if you don’t leave immediately.”
The man finally stood up and departed without saying another word.
I locked the door quickly, as panic stung my guts. Not for me, but for Isaiah. I ran up the stairs. The entire apartment was pitch black. I felt my way to a light switch. Called for my husband. My voice cracked. There was no response. I pictured the body with the missing eye, missing arms, missing ears. A light shone from a crack in the bathroom door. I kept calling his name and got no response. I pushed the door open.
Isaiah stood in front of the mirror, poking his skin, prodding his face, examining the lines in his forehead, the birthmark above his eye.
“Who is this man? How is he me?” he asked.
I didn’t know if he was talking about himself or the dead body.
“Isaiah, what’s wrong?”
“The police called earlier. DNA, fingerprint testing, and dental records confirmed the body belongs to Isaiah Greene.” He placed his hands in the sink. Turned on the faucet. Splashed his face with water. “That body is mine. How is it possible?”
An obituary revealed Dead-Isaiah lived at the other end of the state. He had his own wife, two kids, a career in sales. Isaiah wanted to attend the wake. I told him it was a bad idea, but he insisted. We argued about it for an entire Saturday until I finally caved. He wrapped his arms around me and pinched my back. Flashed his teeth and thanked me. It was the happiest I’d seen him since the morgue.
The wake took place the next day in a town called Samson. There was a line of consolers outside the funeral home when we arrived. Men and women stood single-file. At the back of the line, an older woman in a green blazer wept loudly. She wore a red felt hat with a wide brim that wobbled uncontrollably as she sobbed.
We joined the end of the receiving line, behind the woman in the hat. I locked arms with my husband and refused to let go. Held him close to my side, as if he would take flight the moment I let go. We didn’t talk. We stared straight ahead, listening to the old woman bawl.
“Jesus, a lot of people liked this Isaiah,” my husband said.
“A lot of people like you too.”
“Not really. I have a staff who thinks I’m a pushover and two assholes I go bowling with.”
“You have me,” I said, as the line moved forward.
A balding man with a pencil mustache tapped Isaiah on the shoulder. “Christ. You look just like him. Were you related?”
Isaiah turned pale. The look on his face transported me back to the morgue. I could smell bleach and decay in the air.
“He gets that a lot,” I said.
The balding man started to say something else, but I stopped him. “Please let us mourn in peace.”
I said it a little too loudly. I might as well have yelled it through a megaphone. A handful of people looked back at me. The mourners noticed my husband. Their tongues clicked against the roofs of their mouths. Whispers were carried away in the mellow autumn breeze—their surprise traveling past the rows of empty cars in the crowded parking lot.
One woman shrieked.
The funeral home was deceptively small. The interior barely had room for the coffin and six rows of chairs. There were flowers and plants everywhere. They covered the walls, filled the hallway. I had to push the greenery out of my face before I took a new step.
The woman in the hat stopped crying. My husband slid his arm out of my grasp. He tapped the woman on the shoulder. “Can I ask you something? What was he like? Isaiah, I mean.”
The woman turned around. She had a wrinkled face and collagen-plumped lips that looked like overinflated balloons. “He was a darling man,” she said, her mouth pursed. I held my breath while I waited for her lips to explode.
“Handsome, like you,” said an elderly woman next to her.
The bald man with the pencil mustache spoke up. “Isaiah was the best friend you could ever have. We were only co-workers, but he treated me like a long-lost brother every time he saw me.”
In the front row of chairs, near the coffin, a blonde woman was comforting two weeping children. She wore a black dress with red lace that stopped at her knees. Black lipstick, black mascara, and black eyeliner made her features pop against alabaster of her face. It gave her a blankness. An unreality. As if she were a photoshopped model on the cover of a fashion magazine.
“That must be his wife,” I said.
“Wow. Isaiah was a lucky guy.”
I pinched his cheek. “Pick your jaw off the floor. This is why everyone likes Dead-Isaiah better.”
My-Isaiah didn’t laugh. He just turned his attention to the closed coffin.
When we were close enough, Isaiah placed his hands on the sleek red box. I placed my hand on top of his. We stood still for a moment. I said a silent prayer. More for My-Isaiah than the one in the casket.
Dead-Isaiah’s wife came from behind and ran her hand down my husband’s arm. “How did you know Isaiah?” she asked.
She stared hard at my husband. Kept caressing his arm. I wedged myself between her and Isaiah. Pressed my ass against her thigh.
“Hi, I’m Regan. My husband and yours were old friends from college. Used to play pranks on people because they looked so much alike,” I said.
“I can imagine,” the woman said, not moving away.
One of the weeping kids came over and tugged on Isaiah’s suit. “Daddy?” he asked.
The mother snapped out of her daze and pushed her child away. Told the boy that it wasn’t Daddy. Just a friend.
I told Isaiah we should leave. He seemed lost in his own head. We stood by the coffin as the people following in line did double-takes as they glanced from the dead body to my husband.
Dead-Isaiah’s wife returned. “Sorry about that. Children. It’s hard for them to understand sometimes.”
“We wouldn’t know,” Isaiah said.
After the funeral Isaiah became even more despondent. Still refused to return to work. I trudged on with the diner the best I could, but it was difficult managing everything. I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination, but the staff seemed more incompetent than normal. The waitresses consistently mixed up orders—brought burgers to vegetarians and bread to the gluten-freaks. The kitchen staff overcooked half the orders and subsisted on a steady diet of cigarettes that delayed almost every order. Their apathy served as a distraction to my concern for Isaiah, so I channeled my frustration through them—cut their smoke breaks, deducted botched orders from their paychecks, and gave them notices for being late. Used to Isaiah’s laidback style of management, they either fought me at every turn or quit.
My anger reached its limit on the night the bearded stranger returned. He seated himself at the counter and flipped through a menu. As soon as I saw him, weeks of slow-boiling despair burst inside me. I dumped a tray of food onto the floor and shouted at the top of my lungs, “Get the fuck out. Get the fuck out now. I told you before I don’t want you here.”
Sweat poured down my face as I screamed. Tears brewed in my eyes. The other customers in the diner stopped eating. The kitchen staff rushed out to see what was wrong. The two waitresses hid in empty booths.
The man calmly set his menu down, rose from his seat, and walked out.
Nobody could understand what was wrong. Suzanne put her hand on my shoulder and told me I might need to take a few days off. “Regan, everyone is worried about you,” she said. The customers politely paid their bills and left their unfinished food on the tables. I told the staff to take the rest of the night off.
I had no desire to see Isaiah just then, so I locked up and headed to O’Dooley’s Pub across the street. I drank a few vodka and cranberries, but they didn’t take the edge off. Just made me drunk and even more angry.
I came back home to find Isaiah watching a talk show. Laughing to himself.
“I’m glad you’re so fucking happy,” I said. “Letterman must be a real fucking treat after working so fucking hard all day.”
He flipped off the TV, stuck up his middle finger, and went to bed. I paced around the living room, fuming. I couldn’t believe the man who once tried to protect spiders from my crumpled Kleenexes could grow so callous. I’d been doing everything I could to keep the diner going and help him through his grief. He simply didn’t care.
I made myself a peanut butter sandwich—my first meal of the day. When I noticed it was almost midnight, fatigue struck me hard. I went to the bedroom, didn’t bother changing out of my work clothes, and collapsed in bed. I couldn’t have been asleep for more than an hour when Isaiah’s cellphone rang. It kept ringing and ringing. Drilling a hole in my head. I waited for Isaiah to answer it, but he made no move to do so.
“Would you fucking answer that?” I asked.
My husband whispered a few obscenities, but picked up the phone. He gasped.
A long pause in the conversation. I heard a man’s muffled voice through the receiver.
“Tell me about yourself. I want to hear it all,” Isaiah said.
My husband grew silent as the caller on the other end spoke, every once in a while Isaiah would laugh or sigh or groan as if he’d just be shot in the gut.
“That’s totally amazing. I’ve always dreamed of a son like that,” he said.
The conversation stretched longer and longer. I squeezed a pillow over my head. It didn’t help. It couldn’t block out Isaiah’s schoolgirl giggle. “Please. Can you take this into another room? One of us has to be up in the morning,” I said.
Isaiah grunted in reply and told the caller to hold on a moment. He shuffled out of the room and I finally drifted back to sleep.
In the morning, I found Isaiah sleeping on the couch. His long, sandy hair was matted against his forehead. A thin line of drool darkened the fabric of the armrest. I suddenly felt awful about losing my temper with him the night before and kissed him on the forehead. He swatted at imaginary flies and rolled over. I kissed him repeatedly on the cheek. Tiny butterfly kisses until he opened his eyes and smiled. It was a game we always played on the mornings of anniversaries and birthdays.
“Who was on the phone last night?” I asked.
Isaiah sucked his lips into his mouth, his smile disappearing under his nose. He told me the caller claimed to be Isaiah Greene. The man had a whole other life. A son named Graham who recently won top place in a statewide wrestling championship. He had his own yacht that he sailed to the Bermudas at least twice a year. His owned a line of golf clubs that catered to “the pacifist golfer with serious anger issues.”
I laid on top of Isaiah. Placed my head against his chest. Listened to his heart to make sure it was still beating. “I don’t understand this,” I said.
As the weeks passed, Isaiah received an increased amount of phone calls. They came at all hours of the day. Always from himself, or at least different versions of himself. The disparate Isaiahs liked to call, swap life stories, imagine what it would be like to be each other.
While Isaiah was having fun imagining all the other lives he could lead. Our own life went to shit. He became completely disconnected from me and the diner. I struggled to maintain a semblance of control. Employees, fed up with my erratic moods, walked out. I hung up a “Now Hiring” sign in the window and added anyone with the slightest degree of enthusiasm to the roster. Unfortunately, enthusiasm alone doesn’t run a kitchen and the new staff botched even more orders than the previous staff did. The new-hires were numbers on a roulette wheel, none of them a winner.
Before long, I became known around the neighborhood as: Mount Regan, the most active volcano in the neighborhood. Kitchen relations suffered and customers complained until they stopped coming altogether. I started closing the dinner shortly after the lunch hour. Eventually I whittled the crew down to Enrique, Suzanne, and two other new-hires who couldn’t find their ass in a bathroom.
And even they eventually gave up on me. One night after closing, Enrique and Suzanne handed me their nametags and aprons, wished Isaiah and I well, and jointly decided to depart.
“They’re hiring over at O’Dooley’s. It’s only bar food, but the tips are nice,” Suzanne said, adding, “I have to look out for my kid, you know?”
As soon as they left, I walked behind the counter and pushed over a stack of plates. They shattered to pieces on the floor. I waited for Isaiah to come down to check out the noise, but he never arrived. I sat next to the broken ceramic. Rested my head against my legs and bit down hard on my kneecap.
The diner seemed like an alien planet: lonely, empty, and foreign. Even though the place was relatively small—fifteen booths lined along the walls and a counter that stretched across the kitchen area—it felt larger than Jupiter. The air conditioner hissed in the solitude. The fluorescent lighting was a flickering hell. The pungent odor of cleaning solution filled the air, reminding me of formaldehyde. I couldn’t stand to be there any longer. I needed human contact. Needed Isaiah.
Upstairs, the apartment was quiet as well. Isaiah sat on the bed, whispering into his phone. When he heard me enter the room, he held his finger up to silence me. Told the caller on the other end to hold on.
“Another Isaiah died. A heart attack. He was a really good guy. We talked quite a bit over the past few days. Only thirty-nine. Can you believe it?”
It took a moment to process the information. After the day I just had, I didn’t want to hear any more of his fantasy life. I didn’t want the distance to keep widening between us. Mount Regan erupted. I walked over to his side of the bed and swatted the phone out of his hand. It banged against the wall and disappeared beneath his dresser.
Isaiah remained still and made no attempt to retrieve the lost phone.
I laid down on my side of the bed. Tapped the light on my nightstand. An orange beam illuminated my side of the bed. It cast Isaiah’s body in a dull glow. He sat still, back to me, staring at the floor. There was a small, white spider crawling along the wall. I watched it move closer to my side of the bed.
A morgue-like silence. I tapped the lamp on my nightstand again. The room grew brighter. The spider disappeared behind the headboard.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Isaiah hunched over. I studied the curve of his spine. I hadn’t noticed how skinny he’d gotten over the past few weeks.
“He had three kids. Now they won’t have a father. What happens to them?” Isaiah asked.
The spider appeared again. It crawled onto the nightstand.
“There’s a spider,” I said.
He didn’t respond. I reached out. Cupped it in my palms. I could feel its tiny legs tickling the inside of my hands. Crawling around. I dropped it and the spider skittered down the bedspread.
Isaiah turned around, raised his hand, and smacked the bedspread hard, crushing the spider against the fabric before flicking away the carcass.
“I’m going to the funeral,” Isaiah said. “I don’t want you to come.”
Isaiah disappeared for over a month, but called to check on me every few days. His voice had become nearly indistinguishable from the other Isaiahs who occasionally called, looking for him. Whenever another Isaiah called, I would ask intimate questions about our relationship—our first kiss, our favorite vacation memory, the last time we had sex. If the Isaiah passed the test, I knew it was my husband and begged him to return. I explained that we were about to lose the diner.
“That’s not my world anymore,” he said.
There was always another funeral he needed to attend. “Necessary for closure,” he told me. He mentioned he’d been keeping in contact with Pauline Greene, the widow we met at Dead-Isaiah’s wake. The mere suggestion of her name roiled in my chest. I imagined her arms wrapped around his neck and her head resting against his. I hadn’t felt my husband’s touch since he left. Things had gotten so bad that I would linger on the small moments of contact in my day, such as a customer’s hand grazing mine during the trade-off of the lunch bill.
Things got worse when the creditors arrived. With limited customers, I couldn’t make enough money to sustain the diner. The food I prepped in the morning, remained there until close. I didn’t want it to go to waste, so I spent the afternoons making dinners no one would ever eat. I brought a different meal to every table in the diner, as if it were filled with customers. Moved from one booth to the next, taking a bite of each dish and telling the imaginary waitress to send it back to the kitchen.
One morning, my routine was broken by the crunching of gravel in front of the diner. Thinking it was a customer, I rushed to the door and spotted Isaiah’s rusty Impala outside. He walked slowly to the apartment entrance, lugging an oversized suitcase. I beat him to the back entrance.
“I’m so glad you’re back. It’s been miserable without you,” I said, blocking his way with my arm. I planned on being angry when he arrived, but seeing his face calmed Mount Regan. Brought the lava to a slow boil and made me feel as if the world was in motion again.
Isaiah set down his suitcase and gave me a half-hearted hug. No smile. “I’m not staying.”
He tried to duck under my arm and shove past, but I pinned him with my hip.
“I’m moving in with Pauline and her kids,” he said.
I tried to read his face, but it was as mysterious as ever.
“Is this about her or is it about the kids?” I asked. “You said you weren’t interested in adoption.”
Isaiah faked a cackle. The increase in his volume burst in my eardrum. “This isn’t about the kids. I’m in love with her. We’ve grown together over the weeks. Attending funerals, learning about each other. She understands me in a way I didn’t think possible.”
He leaned in. Kissed me on the cheek. His lips were cold, corpse-like. His breath smelled of formaldehyde. There was no trace of the Isaiah I knew in that kiss. He was no more my husband than that earless, armless husk that had stretched out before us on the gurney months ago.
“It’s for the best that I leave now. Maybe one day we can be friends again,” he whispered in my ear.
As he pulled away, I pinched his cheek between my fingers. I stretched the flesh like taffy. Squeezed as hard as I could. Held it tight until he yelped in pain and batted my hand away.
The phone rang. I hadn’t answered a call since Isaiah mailed me the divorce papers. No matter who it was, I knew it was someone I didn’t want to talk to: an Isaiah, a consoler, a bill collector, my father.
That time I answered, though. I can’t say why. Most likely loneliness had rotted my brain. I hadn’t left the apartment in days. The electricity had been shut off. I’d put the diner up for sale. The meat and other perishables had started to rot in the unplugged freezers, and I couldn’t afford a trash collector. In the heat of the summer, the air grew heavy with the stench of rancid meat.
“Hello?” I said into the receiver.
“Is Isaiah Greene home?” It was an Isaiah’s voice. His deep baritone tickled my ear.
“He doesn’t live here anymore.”
The man apologized.
I bit my tongue until it drew blood. “Wait. Don’t go. Tell me about yourself.”
He was reluctant at first, but after I encouraged him, he began his life story. He lived with his mother in Atlanta. Had studied genetics at UCLA, but got kicked out for selling pot in the dorms. He currently worked part-time in a meat packing plant and collected vintage comic books. He chuckled nervously throughout his monologue.
“You sound like a real entrepreneur,” I said.
“Not really. I only work at the factory because they don’t make me do much except sit around and poke at meat. It’s pretty boring.”
“Why don’t you try something else?”
“What else? I have a bad back and bad shoulders and I’m bad with money and I get extremely nervous around people and I don’t have any skills,” he said.
As he spoke, my mind wandered. I thought about how unbearable it was going to be never seeing Isaiah again. To not have the diner to take care of. To be alone.
“You ever thought about working in a diner?” I asked.
The sky was filled with clouds on the day New-Isaiah was due to arrive. It made the city look as if it was drawn in charcoal. My heart thudded against my rib cage, shaking my entire body like it was a whale crammed in a goldfish bowl. I prayed he wouldn’t show up.
I spent the day in the dark, listening to the heavy rain. Closed the blinds. The odor of spoiled hamburger choked the air. Even with the windows open and the Lysol I’d sprayed, it was almost impossible to breathe. I lay in bed, pretending I was dead. Kept my body as still as possible. Kept my breathing shallow. I fell asleep wondering who I’d be when I woke up.
There was a soft tapping noise. Like a leaky faucet. Tap. Tap. Tap. I ignored it, too dead to move. It continued for several more minutes. It came from the door.
“Hold on,” I said, adjusting my blouse.
The man at the door looked like my husband, but scrawnier. He had scraggly side burns and hair that looked as if he’d tried to cut it himself, realized how badly he was doing, and then gave up.
“Sorry. I didn’t hear you. I hope you haven’t been knocking for long,” I said.
“Just a few hours. No big deal. I probably need to ice my wrist, though.”
“Come in and sit down,” I said, motioning him inside. He hadn’t brought any luggage with him. His whole body trembled.
“Is something the matter?”
“I don’t meet many women as pretty as you,” he said. “Do you want to have sex or something?”
“Let’s have the something. How about dinner?”
To reduce the risk of bumping into an acquaintance, I ordered take-out. We sat cross-legged on the bed and used flashlights to illuminate our faces. New-Isaiah ate his lo mein, loudly and recklessly. He punctuated it with snorts. His body was a one man percussion machine.
“Am I bad person for bringing you here?” I asked.
New-Isaiah was more concerned with his food. “Nah, babe, you’re the best.” Lo mein noodles fell out of his mouth and onto the bedspread. “Oops.”
I lost my appetite. Set my meal aside. Told him I was going to the bar.
“I’ll come with you. Hold up a second.”
“No, you won’t. If you come with me, I’ll have to murder you.”
At O’Dooley’s pub, I ordered a vodka and cranberry. After three of them, my credit card was declined. It wasn’t really a surprise. A broke, middle-aged woman sitting alone at an Irish-themed bar can’t afford much in this life.
Who was this woman? What was she trying to accomplish? A few months ago, she was happy. She was sure of herself. She’d finally achieved her dream: a stable marriage and a private business. Now she was about to head back to her apartment and restart her life with a strange man who looked exactly like her ex-husband.
I was about to leave and call the whole thing off with New-Isaiah when the aggressive, bearded man from the diner grabbed me by the shoulder.
“I saw the new man. The new Isaiah. I want to speak with him,” he growled.
I breathed slowly through my nose. Took in sustained puffs. Tried not to scream. I calmly rotated my stool and stared directly into his eyes. I’m not sure how I hadn’t notice it before. Behind the pockmarks and beard and cold eyes, lay the indents of dimples, the puffed lips, the bullet hole birthmark over the eye
He was an Isaiah. Creepy-Isaiah.
“What do you want from us?” I asked.
“My identity. You’ve all stolen it from me. I want it back.”
I grabbed my empty glass and tossed the ice in Creepy-Isaiah’s face. He was taken aback and stumbled into the stool next to me. I darted out of the bar.
New-Isaiah waited for me back at the apartment. I shined the flashlight around the room until I found him sitting cross-legged on the bed. His grey T-shirt was stained with sweat. “Where were you, babe? I was so worried.”
“I was attacked at the bar,” I said.
New-Isaiah ran toward me, knocking leftover noodles across the carpet. He wrapped his arms around me like My-Isaiah used to. Patted my back gently; caressed my spine. It felt nice to be comforted. Amazing to be touched. The sudden feeling of contact pushed the incident in the bar out of my mind. I planned to keep myself as far removed from myself as I could, for as long as I could.
“Take off your clothes,” I demanded and clicked the flashlight off.
He had the smell of a man who hadn’t showered in days. A sharp, tangy odor that, even over the festering hamburger meat, made me gag. His body was sticky. My fingers clicked when I touched his chest.
“Pretend you’re dead,” I instructed.
His body stiffened to corpse. I sat on his pelvis. Neither of us moved for a long time. I just kept him inside me. Felt him disappear. Occasionally he would mutter an exclamatory phrase, like “Oh, wow!”
“Shut up. Dead men don’t say ‘oh, wow!'”
When he softened, I rolled off him. He tried to put his arms around me. The feeling of comfort departed and I deeply missed My-Isaiah.
“Get the fuck off.” I said.
In the morning, I woke to New-Isaiah smiling at me, his dimples the size of craters. My whole body became red and itchy. Broke out in hives. I scratched at my skin until I started to bleed.
“I can get you lotion if you want,” he said.
In the shower, I vomited. Half digested lo mein and bile dripped from the white tile and down the drain.
After I dressed, I walked into the kitchen. He was frying eggs on the gas stove. Smiled again when he saw me and motioned for me to take a seat. He pushed the eggs on a dish and presented it to me with a Voila! motion. The eggs were a little overcooked, but they weren’t bad. I chewed slowly. Thought about my next move. He might not have been the Isaiah I wanted, but he was the only Isaiah I had.
“Are you ready to talk business?” I asked.
New-Isaiah had enough money in the bank to pay off the bills and get the electricity back on. His credit was shit, but his mom co-signed a loan to replenish our stock and hire at least two more employees. With our phones back, the calls came in more than ever—more Isaiahs looking for my husband. I was in the middle of contacting the phone company to have the number changed when New-Isaiah proposed a business idea.
“What if we hired some of these Isaiahs? I bet they’d work for cheap and, besides, it’d be kind of cool. Like a gimmick.”
I wasn’t sold on its potential at first, but after each new Isaiah called, I got in the habit of asking if he needed work. For most the answer was, “no.” They had careers and families. Lives they weren’t about to abandon for the opportunity of working in a small town diner for minimum-wage. The success rate of these propositions might have been low, but a few of the more desperate Isaiahs eagerly accepted the prospect of steady work.
The first three Isaiahs we hired were not wildly different. They resembled New-Isaiah far more than they did my ex-husband—bony, uncoordinated, shallow faces, poor haircuts. Two of them talked a lot. One didn’t talk at all, instead slouched around from station to station and grumbled as he washed dishes.
Integration did not go smoothly at first for these Isaiahs. None of them had restaurant experience, so an extended period of training was required. New-Isaiah was the worst of the lot. He constantly dropped trays of food, forgot orders, picked food off customers’ plates, and chattered nonstop to people while they ate. Everywhere I turned, he was right behind me, brandishing a goofy smile and cracking jokes about penguins and olives and any ridiculous thing that popped into his head.
The other Isaiahs grew on me because they weren’t as awful as New-Isaiah. Quiet-Isaiah was particularly interesting, once I got to know him. He had a master’s degree in literature and squandered his early thirties on an ill-advised foray into stand-up comedy.
“I don’t know why. I’m not even funny. I don’t think anyone has ever laughed at a damn thing I’ve said,” he told me in the kitchen one night.
New-Isaiah was out for the evening, picking up a new hire from the airport. Quiet-Isaiah and I were alone in the diner closing up. We spoke about writers. I told him my favorite author was J. K. Rowling. He said his was Rimbaud. He looked me dead in the eyes as he said this and repeated it several times—as if the mere mention of Rimbaud would make me scream with passion. It didn’t work. I told him I’d never heard of the man, so he hurriedly retrieved the “vintage copy” of A Season in Hell from his car.
Quiet-Isaiah held the book in the air, as if he were lecturing to an auditorium, and read to me while I scrubbed the appliances and counters. He projected each line so that it echoed through the empty diner. He sat above me on the counter as I wiped down the bottom cabinets. Nudged me on the shoulder with the tip of his shoe. I stood up and leaned next to him.
“A thousand Dreams within me softly burn,” Quiet-Isaiah recited.
He gave him a tender kiss. I let him. He did it again and used his tongue that time. It felt perfect in my mouth, like a missing piece of a puzzle. Quiet-Isaiah kissed harder than New-Isaiah. Used his tongue more than my ex-husband. It still wasn’t the same as My-Isaiah, but it closed the distance between he and I—at least for a moment.
“Please don’t tell the others,” I told Quiet-Isaiah. “I don’t want them to feel left out.”
As the diner grew in popularity, we changed the name from Glory Diner to Isaiahs’. Soon we had enough money to maintain a constant staff of seven Isaiahs per shift—twenty-two Isaiahs in total. More than we needed, but it added to the charm.
The work environment was harmonious. All of the Isaiahs became very close. They hung out at bars after work, took a vacation to Hawaii, rented a house together, started a Christian rock band. Seattle-Isaiah and Melancholic-Isaiah even entered a committed relationship with each other.
During this time, I started making love to the different Isaiahs. Searching for one who could replicate My-Isaiah. Even with twenty-two Isaiahs around, I only thought of my ex-husband. I pictured him as Ex-Con-Isaiah pushed into me, smelling of Marlboros and whisky. Imagined My-Isaiah’s caresses while Burn Victim-Isaiah ran his fingers through my hair.
I knew I needed to win him back somehow, but I didn’t have his number. I did have his address, though. Received it through our last moment of communication—the divorce papers that I burned page by page in the stove. New-Isaiah had watched in horror, whimpering, “But, baby, do you still love him? Don’t you want to be with me?”
I tried drafting My-Isaiah some letters, but I could never decide what to say. It took several attempts before I stumbled on an idea: an Isaiah reunion. We’d host it at the diner. Send out invitations to Isaiahs all over the country. Invite them to come meet their doppelgangers. They could spend the day conversing. My-Isaiah was sure to show, and he might see how well I was doing. Maybe he’d realize his mistake.
I recruited Art School-Isaiah for help drafting invitations. He invited me to his room in Casa de Isaiah. Casa de Isaiah was a sprawling three-story, Victorian-style home on the edge of town. The Isaiahs bunked two-to-a-room, except for a few of them who made a blanket fortress in the middle of the common area.
I hadn’t spent much time with Art School-Isaiah, except that he spent time as an underwear model in his teens. Art School-Isaiah and I shared the cushion of a computer chair, each had half of an ass resting comfortably. We worked late into the night manipulating the images of my invitation on his laptop screen. As we argued over font choices and images, I could smell the expensive cologne rising from his flesh. I kept taking quick whiffs, in case he got wary. He was everything I wanted, appearance-wise, from my husband—taut muscles, impeccably groomed, stylish.
When the invitations were finished, we ran them down to the local Kinko’s. We made love in the bathroom as the printing machine whirred with fresh copies. He was gorgeous and passionate and made me orgasm in a way my ex-husband never could, but when it was all over, I still felt empty inside—raw and sore—and his expensive cologne suddenly smelled like embalming fluid.
The day of the Isaiah reunion finally arrived. Isaiahs lined up promptly outside at a quarter to six. When I unlocked the door, they poured in, yelling out orders for bacon, eggs, and french toast. They buried themselves in introductions. Every time an Isaiah entered, I searched his face and prayed he was mine. By 6:30 we were nearly filled to capacity. Isaiahs packed themselves eight to a booth. The ones without a seat milled about from table to table. It was difficult for the server Isaiahs to grab orders. They had to make beelines through the customers, carrying trays high above their heads.
As the food orders came out, I learned one terrifying fact about the Isaiahs—they all shared the capacity to eat their food with gusto. The diner thundered with smacking lips, clicking tongues, crunching of food, snorts of air. They vocalized their pleasure with loud “Mmm-mmm-mmm” declarations after each bite. It was like being in the world’s largest pigsty at feeding time.
My head rang. The sun poured in through the windows, making the diner humid despite the air conditioner. I had to keep running outside to catch my breath. The hours passed and night arrived. My-Isaiah still hadn’t come. I tried to keep myself busy in the kitchen as much as I could. I needed to avoid the cacophony of the Isaiahs at the trough. I popped my head out of the serving window from time to time, hoping to catch a glimpse of my ex-husband.
The knobs on the oven started jamming and I was in the back jabbing them with a screwdriver when My-Isaiah finally entered the diner. He walked straight into the kitchen. Pauline was with him, hanging on his arm with porcelain hands. The other Isaiahs tried to stop him, but he pushed his way past.
“What in the hell is all this about?” he asked, waving his Isaiah reunion invitation in the air.
I tried to reason with him. Told him how the diner had collapsed after he left. “Since you didn’t care, I had to find an Isaiah who did. Luckily there were plenty out there.”
Pauline kept rubbing up on my ex-husband. She gave him a kiss on his chin. He gave a near-imperceptible smile, a smile only I would notice. A smile that betrayed his stoicism and revealed his true feelings. A smile that showed he was happy with her, with Pauline.
Art School-Isaiah chopped carrots at the end of the counter. I called him over. With his model looks, I knew he was my best chance of making my ex-husband jealous.
“I’d like you to meet my new lover,” I said, kissing Art School-Isaiah on the lips.
“What the hell is your problem?” My-Isaiah asked.
Someone broke a glass from the other side of the serving window and New-Isaiah popped his head through. “So, you’ve been seeing that asshole all along?”
“Isaiah, wait. Calm down,” I yelled back.
New-Isaiah didn’t listen and I could hear him smashing dish after dish through the window. Other Isaiahs shouted at him: “That’s my dinner, asshole!” “I was eating that, fucker!” “Get your hands off me before I kick your ass!”
Quiet-Isaiah watched from the sink. He turned to me, called me a slut. Walked into the eating area and pronounced me a slut to the whole room.
My-Isaiah hadn’t said anything during that time. He just tucked Pauline under the crook of his arm. When a shouting match erupted in the packed corner of the diner, My-Isaiah turned away from me and pushed his way toward the exit. “Jesus,” he said. “You are fucked in the head.”
I chased after them. In the dining area, all the Isaiahs that I had slept with broke into a fistfight. Quiet-Isaiah had New-Isaiah in a headlock. Marine-Isaiah punched Burn Victim-Isaiah in the face. His body tumbled over the counter and into a booth of Isaiahs still chomping down their meals. There wasn’t enough room in the diner to move, let alone fight.
I grabbed My-Isaiah on the shoulder. “Please help me. You owe me that much.”
Pauline wedged herself between us. “He’s a father now. He can’t afford to get in silly little fights.”
Isaiah, the father? The title somehow fit him. It was the thing he’d always wanted. The thing I couldn’t give him. And even though I still resented him for leaving me alone, I tried to convince myself that he should be happy. At least one of us should be.
“If you want to leave,” I said, “I won’t stop you. Just know that all of this was for you. I was happy with our old life. I thought maybe I could keep a little part of it for myself.”
My-Isaiah’s eyes softened. He gave me his patented-dimple smile. He reached his arms out to give me a hug just as New-Isaiah rammed into us, knocking us both against the counter and sending a cluster of Isaiahs toppling to the ground. New-Isaiah dashed through the kitchen door before I could yell at him.
“Let’s go,” Pauline said to My-Isaiah.
My-Isaiah shrugged and jumped on the counter. Stomped his foot against the granite, trying to get the other Isaiahs’ attention. Pauline scowled at me. I propped my foot on an empty stool and was about to hoist myself onto the counter too, but Art School-Isaiah called for me from the kitchen. “You have to come back here, he’s going berserk.”
In the kitchen New-Isaiah butted his head against the freezer door. His skull connected with a spine-cracking clunk. He reeled back in a daze and then charged at it again.
I jumped in front of him. “What the hell are you doing? You’re going to give yourself a concussion.”
“I don’t care. I don’t want to live in this world with such a horrible person.”
“Get a hold of yourself, idiot.”
I pushed him away from the freezer, but he grabbed a nearby soup ladle and started smacking himself in the head with it.
Pauline called from the serving window. “We’re out of here, Regan. Good luck with all of this.”
I motioned over to Art School-Isaiah. “Take care of him will you?”
I dashed out to say goodbye to My-Isaiah. To make one last effort. The brawl between the Isaiahs expanded. It encompassed every Isaiah in the bar. I couldn’t tell who was fighting whom. Couldn’t say who was winning. I just saw an ocean of similar, bloody faces bobbing around on the floor, rolling over each other.
I stepped in My-Isaiah’s path, “You told me that, we shouldn’t disrupt the balance of things. Do you still believe that?”
Pauline slapped me across the face and said, “Back off, you barren slut.”
Then the calm facade of Mount Regan gave way to its biggest explosion yet. I could feel the lava boiling in my stomach, in my heart, in my veins. I suddenly could not bear the thought of that woman walking out the door with My-Isaiah.
I took a swing at her. Connected with the side of her head and she fell into a tangle of Isaiahs fumbling around on the ground. My-Isaiah shoved me. Up to that point, he’d never laid a finger on me in his life, but he physically shoved me away. Hard. Then he reached his hand down to rescue Pauline.
I wanted nothing more to do with either of them. I backed into the kitchen, wanting to cry. As the kitchen door swung open, I was greeted by the smell of charcoal and the crackling of flames.
Art School-Isaiah and New-Isaiah laid side-by-side on the kitchen floor. Blood pooled under their lifeless bodies. The oven was in flames. Near the exit to my apartment, I saw Creepy-Isaiah edging toward the corner. His fedora still hung over his eyes; the bushy beard covered his face. He held the fire extinguisher in his arms. A large gun dangled at his waist. He stared at me for a moment and then slammed the backdoor.
The fire from the kitchen grew. The heat scalded my face, turning it red.
I stood there watching the flames curl around my kitchen. In olden times, it would be honorable for a captain to go down with her ship, but this was the modern age and I was not an honorable person. I peered through the kitchen door at the Isaiahs still fighting, unfazed by the black clouds of smoke that billowed through the serving window. My-Isaiah was pounding Quiet-Isaiah’s head against the counter. Pauline was cheering him on. They deserve each other, I thought. They all deserve each other.
I ran past the flames and through the backdoor. Took out my keys and locked it behind me. I walked to the front of the building. Locked that exit too. The flames spilled out into the dining area. The Isaiahs finally stopped fighting, and soon, muffled shouts of panic came through the windows.
Across the street, a light shone from the window of O’Dooley’s Pub. A woman with red hair and a thin frame drank a vodka and cranberry at a table near the window. Across from her was a dark-skinned man with a large coif of hair. The woman flirtatiously touched the man’s hand, tilted her head back in a pantomime of raucous laughter. She looked eerily familiar. Too familiar.
It was like looking into a mirror.
Matthew Lattanzi is a recent graduate of the Northeast Ohio Masters of Fine Arts Program. His work has appeared in the online literary magazines Swamp Tea and Biscuits and The Jenny. His story “Dreaming in Flesh” has been featured on the Daily Fiction website and was selected as a notable story for the 2011 storySouth Million Writer’s Award.