The Letter “H” by John Sheirer

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Michael felt like a cliché as he sat alone at the counter of a 24-hour diner. The time of night could best be described with the military designation, “oh-dark.” The only other people in the place were a waitress and two late-middle-aged women huddled close together in a corner booth. Michael didn’t usually drink coffee at this hour, but he felt the need for a cup tonight, strong and black.

“Full disclosure,” the waitress said. “This pot has been sitting on the burner for a few hours. Not exactly fresh.” Her name tag read, “Donnah.” Michael had never seen the name spelled that way. Everyone making their way in New York City had a story, Michael knew. He wondered if the “h” in her name was part of Donnah’s story.

“That’s fine,” Michael said. “Good coffee would be wasted on me tonight. I just want something as dark and stale as I feel right now.”

“Gotcha, honey,” Donnah said. “Been there myself a time or two.” Michael looked at her face, pleasant but tired, ageless with a slight olive cast in the florescent lights. She gave him a half-smile with her mouth and her eyes, and he could imagine that she was doing more than just commiserating with a late-night, heartsick customer. She meant what she said about feeling a time or two like he felt on this night.

The women in the corner booth whispered and then broke into hearty laughs. Their laughter had a rounded accent that reminded Michael immediately of his favorite midwestern aunt who he loved visiting as a child. One woman put her hand on the other’s bare arm in a friendly, share-a-laugh way, but then kept the contact after the laughter quieted. The women gazed at each other shyly. Michael recognized their connection. Normally, he would have been happy for these two lovers. But tonight, he had his own issues.

When the coffee arrived, it was, indeed, foul. A rainbow layer of some unidentifiable oil floated atop a chipped mug of liquid dirt. Michael took a tentative sip, paused, and then drew in a deep swig. This was not one of those countless New York diners that advertised, “The World’s Best Coffee!” on a neon sign above the door. But, tonight, the near-scalding heat and caustic taste matched the bitterness of Michael’s mood. And that was, strangely, a comfort.

“I’ll leave you to your thoughts and your delicious beverage,” Donnah said. With a wink, she replaced the coffee pot and walked to a nearby table in the nearly empty diner where she used a damp cloth to wipe down row after row of salt shakers and mustard bottles.

*   *   *

Earlier that night, Michael had argued with his newish boyfriend, Dave—their first big fight. What brought on the fight? Among other things, a red hat with white letters. Yes, that red hat with those white letters.

Michael and Dave had been dating for about three months. They met at a party hosted by one of Michael’s coworkers. A friend of a friend of a friend introduced them. Michael found Dave handsome enough. He had a smile and boyish charm that raised his looks from a weak six to a solid seven. But Michael had never been too concerned about looks. He liked fun people, and Dave seemed like fun. Dave worked in the loan department at a small-town bank north of the city where the traffic thins out. But he liked coming to the city to “let go.” They exchanged phone numbers, and Dave called a few days later to invite Michael to after-work drinks. Usually cautious in his romantic life, Michael instead let himself be drawn in by Dave’s abundant personality.

 The relationship had been going well enough before this night, with only a few “red flags” popping up here and there. In Michael’s experience, three months was an essential evaluation point for any relationship that might turn serious. Both Michael and Dave were in their mid-thirties, old enough to know that a few red flags are fine. Nothing is perfect. But if one of those red flags leaps to attention and starts waving like a sailor doing emergency semaphore, then trouble is brewing.

That’s exactly what happened tonight between Michael and Dave. The particular red flag that had spent weeks foreshadowing the red hat was Dave’s nagging streak of selfishness.

Michael had noticed that Dave commandeered a top drawer in his dresser without asking after just three dates. One day, five pairs of Michael’s socks were on top of the dresser. When he opened his sock drawer, he saw a pile of white tube socks nestled among a few pairs of the performance fabric boxer briefs that Michael so enjoyed seeing Dave wear. Michael suppressed the quick burst of anger at having his life disrupted in this small way. It’s just a drawer, he told himself. It doesn’t mean anything. I’m glad he feels comfortable enough to use it, Michael rationalized, and then he took his own socks from the dresser top and jammed them into another drawer with his own briefs.

Eventually, Michael noticed that most of their dates involved activities that appealed to Dave more than Michael. Michael had no objection to Dave’s assertiveness at planning their time together. That was part of Dave’s charm, and, truth be told, Michael was relieved not to be the one constantly in charge of the couple’s entertainment agenda as he had been in most previous relationships. Michael enjoyed sports as much as the proverbial next guy, but he soon noticed that a Friday night college basketball game followed by a Saturday night pro hockey game leading to a Sunday afternoon at Dave’s apartment watching NFL on TV constituted a pattern.

The occasional museum visits and plays that Michael had planned in that giddy first month of their relationship had all but vanished. And Michael had recently realized that he hadn’t met any of Dave’s friends or family. Normally, that would have been a five-alarm warning bell that Dave was deep in the closet and not planning to come out any time soon. But Michael dismissed it as a product of Dave living forty-five minutes away in the upstate banker boonies.

And then there was sex. Michael was immediately attracted to Dave’s semi-rugged features and his athletic (though beginning to sag) body. Michael had no problem being the more generous lover in their early and frequent encounters. From the start, Dave had been enthusiastic and appreciative, if not overly giving. But, as time went on, Dave tended more and more to direct the attention to his own needs and to check out after he was satisfied. At first, he avoided reciprocal affection by claiming he was tired or blaming the long drive home or needing to leave because he had to get up early for work. Recently, he just rolled to his side and began snoring within a few minutes and ducked out the next morning with barely a goodbye peck on the cheek.

Michael was planning to bring up these issues tonight when Dave came over for a planned dinner of broiled salmon with pineapple salsa, one of Michael’s several specialties. But Dave had texted just as the oven finished preheating to cancel dinner because friends from out of town were visiting, and Dave planned to show them his favorite local sports bar, the one Michael thought was too loud and was mostly lit by big-screen TVs.

“How about a late visit?” Dave asked. “I can be naked and in your bed by eleven.” Dave knew by this point that Michael wasn’t a night owl. He was ready for sleep by eleven, often before. But Michael agreed to Dave’s plan, wrapped the uncooked salmon for another night, and promised himself he’d bring up his concerns before the two of them went anywhere near the bed.

When Dave arrived at nearly an hour after midnight, bursting through the door without knocking, Michael shot upright where he had fallen asleep on the couch waiting for Dave.

“Mikey! Mikey!” Dave called out, using a nickname that he knew Michael didn’t like, one that reminded him too much of unpleasant high school years. Dave had clearly been drinking—and heavily. Dave often had a beer in hand (another minor red flag that now flapped in gale-force winds), but Michael had never seen him like this. Dave staggered slightly and spoke so loudly that Michael worried his early-to-bed middle-aged neighbors would hear.

But worst of all was that hat. That goddamned hat. That red hat with four words lettered in white. That hat was atop Dave’s head, tilted at an angle corresponding to Dave’s inebriation.

Dave plopped down next to Michael on the couch and heaved his thick, acrid-smelling body against Michael’s. The bill of the red hat poked into Michael’s forehead as Dave tried to kiss him. “Gimme somethin’, gimme somethin’,” Dave mumbled, alcohol vapors filling the small space between their faces. Then Dave grabbed the back of Michael’s head and tried to push it down into his lap.

Michael pushed himself away and shot to a standing position, backpedaling several paces. He suddenly understood that he and Dave had never talked politics. In three months together, the subject never came up. Michael wasn’t the most “woke” person he knew, and he had been perfectly happy not clouding his relationship with Dave by delving into the subject that seemed to obsess most of the country even more than usual these days. Michael had enough to think about in just getting through the day and dealing with his job and his parents and his friends and his bills without turning on the news or seeking out political websites. Life was complicated enough, and Michael didn’t want to invite bigger complications.

Michael had one simple rule when it came to politics: Don’t vote for assholes. If a candidate wasn’t someone you could picture yourself having a quiet conversation with, then don’t vote for him or her. If a candidate didn’t read or listen to music or appreciate art or laugh at himself or seem to have a reflective interior life, then vote for someone else—anyone else. And if a candidate based his campaign on insults and bullying, then Michael knew to take a close look from a long distance at the people who supported him because there must be something screwed-up with those people.

And Michael knew that the candidate who propagated that red hat with white letters was the biggest asshole of them all. Michael had never met one of the red-hat’s supporters who wasn’t also an asshole, ranting about illegals and libtards and fake news in the comment sections of Facebook when all Michael wanted to see was cat videos or celebrity gossip or inspiring memes. Michael didn’t consider himself a liberal or a conservative or anything political. He just didn’t like assholes being in charge, whether it was at work or in his family or in his country. He didn’t like asshole policies. And he was appalled that the biggest, loudest, most obnoxious asshole in the nation was now president.

Michael was even more appalled that the man he had just recently started to think of as his boyfriend might have voted for the biggest asshole in the country. The guy whose socks and boxer briefs nestled in his top drawer was also the guy who had showed up moronically drunk and wearing one of those dumbass red hats but still expected Michael to suck him off, which he could never do again without his imagination conjuring up the all-time greatest mood-breaker, a little red hate-hat perched atop the end of Dave’s cock.

“What the actual fuck are you wearing?” Michael asked, pointing at Dave’s actual head.

“That’s my MAGA hat!” Dave replied, as if this were the most obvious fact in the world. “MAGA, MAGA, MAGA, MAGA!” he chanted.

“Did you vote for that asshole?” Michael asked, not looking forward to the answer.

“Sure!” Dave said. “Mexico’s paying for that shit!”

“What?” Michael asked, gaping.

“Mexico’s paying for that fucking shit! Benghazi emails, muthafucka!” Dave replied, as serious as a drunken, newish boyfriend could be at this hour of the night. “And lock that bi-otch up under the fuckin’ jail!”

Even though Michael didn’t obsess about politics, he knew “that bi-otch” had marched in the New York City Gay Pride Parade nearly twenty years ago. She was still First Lady of the nation back then, and she had worn a cute purple hat. Not an idiot-identifying red hat. Michael had voted for her in elections to the Senate, his very first election at age eighteen, and he absolutely voted for her last year instead of the asshole. Anyone saying she belonged in prison was asking Michael to do something he hadn’t done since fifth grade. His knuckles hurt for a week back then, but it was worth it to see the trickle of blood from the playground bully’s nose before he turned and ran like the coward he really was.

Michael was as close to punching Dave as he had been to punching anyone since that day on the playground. But he didn’t need to. As Dave reached out to Michael and tried to get off the couch, his momentum shifted from vertical to horizontal. He rolled sideways and landed with his knees on the floor and his face buried in the pillows on one end of the couch.

Michael stared at Dave. When he didn’t move for a few seconds, Michael nudged him with his foot. No response. Then Michael gave him a solid kick to the thigh, not hard enough to leave a mark, but hard enough that it should have gotten his attention. But Dave just groaned softly and barely shifted his weight.

“You stupid asshole!” Michael snarled, half to Dave’s slumped form and half to himself. He snatched a jacket from a coatrack and slammed the door on his way out.

*   *   *

And that’s how Michael ended up at the diner down the street, drinking very bad coffee, watching a woman with an extra “h” in her name wipe down condiment bottles, and reevaluating his life.

“Refill?” Donnah asked when she saw him staring in her direction.

Michael replied, “Sure,” having grown fond of the bad coffee as he ruminated on the night’s events that led him to this quiet, sad, little diner.

Just then, the two women in the corner booth rose to leave.

“Night, Donnah!” one called out.

“Thank you kindly for the coffee,” the other said. Definitely midwestern, Michael thought.

“Night, ladies!” Donnah called back. “See you next year.”

“Next year?” Michael asked as the door rattled closed behind them.

“They’re a story,” Donnah said. “Been coming to the city on vacation for a few years now. One’s from Minnesota, and the other from Wisconsin. They love going to Broadway, taking in a Mets game, going to museums. New York is heaven for them. Their husbands passed away long ago, and they somehow found each other. They call this their favorite coffee place, which makes me wonder about the quality of Midwest coffee.”

“Found each other?” Michael asked.

Donnah smiled and filled his cup, then said, “Bartenders have the reputation for being amateur therapists, but they have it easy. Their clients are usually at least halfway drunk. They could say anything to them and it would sound profound.” She returned the pot to its burner and leaned toward Michael from her side of the counter. “Waitresses have it tougher because no one gets drunk on coffee. But I’m a good listener if you’d like to talk about it.”

“Do you get many clients in here?” Michael asked.

“Don’t let the echo you hear tonight fool you,” Donnah replied. “We usually do a brisk business in the wee hours here. Tonight’s quieter than usual. Or this morning. Whatever time it is. So, tell me. Woman trouble?”

Michael snorted a sip of coffee.

“Man trouble, then,” Donnah said, chuckling “It’s okay. This is 2017, not 1917. Love is love is love is love, I’ve always said. New York, the Midwest, a galaxy far, far away. Love is what matters.”

Michael wiped a trickle of coffee from his chin with a tan paper napkin. “Yep,” he said. “Man trouble.”

“How long have you been together?” Donnah asked.

“Three months,” Michael said, sounding a little embarrassed even though he wasn’t sure why.

“Pivotal moment,” Donnah answered. “Still new and exciting, but long enough to start learning some things that the other person may have been hiding up to now. Messy in the bathroom. Messy in the head. Let me guess. He doesn’t appreciate you?”

“Probably not,” Michael answered. “Especially considering what I found out about him tonight.”

“Ahhh,” Donna said. “He’s seeing someone else?”

“In a way, yes,” Michael said with a philosophical nod. “He seeing the biggest asshole in the world.”

“Oh,” Donnah said. “Bad enough that he’s cheating. But he’s showing poor taste on top of it.”

“You could definitely say that,” Michael said. He nodded several times, but then he stopped suddenly and looked at Donnah. “Hey, I don’t want to make any assumptions and offend you. But who did you vote for in 2016?”

Donnah spat out a short, angry grunt. “For president? That’s easy. I voted for the smart lady who wasn’t a crazy-ass, fake billionaire, pussy-grabber.”

“Thank God!” Michael sighed.

Donnah eyed him knowingly. “Oh, I get it now. You just found out that your boyfriend got hoodwinked by that loud-mouthed con artist.”

Michael closed his eyes and nodded.

“Shit,” Donnah said. “That sucks.”

“Yep,” Michael replied. “And not in the good way.”

The two were silent for a long moment. Michael sipped his coffee while Donnah worked her cleaning cloth in absent-minded circles on the counter in front of her.

“Tell you a story,” Donnah said at last. Michael sat up straighter and gave her his full attention. She pointed to her nametag. “See this name? The extra ‘h’?”

“I wondered about that,” Michael admitted.

“My father was white,” Donnah said, matter-of-factly. “Whiter than you are, and, no offense, you’re pretty damned white.”

“No offense taken,” Michael. “My whole family has always been nearly translucent. Blankets and umbrellas at the beach, SPF 10,000.”

“My pops was just like that,” Donnah continued. “So white his name was Wesley, but everyone called him ‘Whitely.’ But, as you can see, I’m a shade or two from that level of white. Pass for white if nobody looks too closely. But not ‘Whitely’ white. My mother was just a generation removed from Iran. She was Persian. Mix that with my whitely father, and that’s why I can enjoy a few hours in the sunshine now and then.”

Michael held his pale hand next to hers to see the contrast. He studied her hand, which looked surprisingly young. “You look good,” he said. “It’s a glow. I wish I had that glow.”

Donnah squeezed his hand. “You’re beautiful, honey,” she said, meeting his eyes. Michael choked back a tear.

“So here’s where the story gets interesting and more than a little timely,” she said. “My mom died when I was seventeen. She was only a little older than I am now. Popped a blood vessel in her brain on a Thursday night and was gone by Friday afternoon.”

“I—” Michael began.

“It’s okay,” Donnah said. “Time heals, and all that. I’m just glad I was able to get to the hospital with my dad that Friday to say goodbye. My older sister couldn’t make it back from college in California fast enough. I was lucky. Anyway, two weeks after the funeral, after everybody went back to everywhere else and we had finished the casseroles the neighbor ladies baked, my pops came to me and told me that he wanted me to always remember my mother, to always remember who she was and who I am.”

Donnah reached into her apron pocket and pulled out an old-fashioned women’s wallet, the kind with the snap holding it shut. She popped the snap, reached into one of the interior flaps, and pulled out a small photo. She held it out to Michael, who took it and saw a younger and darker version of Donnah smiling shyly.

“Her name was Soreeyah. S-O-R-E-E-Y-A-H,” Donnah spelled. “My pops asked me to add the “h” on the end of my name to remember her. When people see this name tag and ask me about it, I usually just say that it’s a misprint or it’s ‘H’ for ‘Hello!’ or I tell them it’s my hippy-dippy name.”

Donna paused and gently took the photo from Michael and returned it to her wallet, snapping it shut and placing it back in her apron pocket.

“For you, my new friend,” she continued, “I want you to know the whole story. Because I want you to know that when that toadstool-dick asshole said he wanted to ban every Muslim from coming into this country, it was like he was trying to erase the ‘h” from my name. Like he was trying to erase my mother from the history of this country. Like he was trying to say that my whole family is somehow not right or not good or not enough. Those red hats should say ‘MAHA’ because that asshole’s ‘H’ stands for ‘hate.’ I didn’t care very much for him and his asshole ways before he ran for president when he was just a loud-ass business fuck-up, but from the moment he said he wanted to bam Muslims, I hated his fat, orange face and his tiny hands and his clown hair more than I hated anyone or anything on the planet. Most of all, I hate his hate.”

Donnah put her hand on the side of Michael’s face, thumbed away the small tear forming there, and moved her face close to his. “So, honey, if that boyfriend of yours thinks he can take the ‘h’ out of anybody’s name with his goddamned red hat, then you need to kick his stupid ass out of your life and find someone who deserves you.”

After a second, Donnah stepped back. She dabbed the sides of her own face with her cloth and sighed. Then she refilled Michael’s coffee, which had grown cold.

“Bad coffee is even worse when it’s cold,” she said. “You hungry, sweetie? Hard to believe, but we make a really good omelet.”

Michael slowly became aware of the coffee cup in his hand, the sounds coming from the kitchen, pots and pans and quiet voices, aware of the swaying lights of scattered traffic moving in the street outside the plate glass window, aware of his own heartbeat.

“Omelets are my specialty,” Michael said.

And Michael became aware of who he was and what he needed to do next.

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John Sheirer

John Sheirer (pronounced “shy-er”) lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wonderful wife Betsy and happy dog Libby. He has taught writing and communications for 28 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where he also serves as editor and faculty advisor for Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). He writes a monthly column on current events for his hometown newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and his books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. His most recent book is Fever Cabin, a fictionalized journal of a man isolating himself during the current pandemic. (All proceeds from this book benefit pandemic-related charities.) Find him at JohnSheirer.com.

You can discover more about John and his previous publications at:
http://www.johnsheirer.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/makecommonsensecommon
Twitter: https://twitter.com/RealAmericanLib

Feature image by Jorge Guilen from Pixabay

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