Coffee and Cornbread

by Alicia Cole

It’s a universal law: the customer wants the one item they can’t afford.

I’ve been working at this diner for three years now. On the edge of Saturn’s farthest ring, I watch the rock shards tumble past our containment shields. The sun is so far away.

“Serve me up some hash and grits, Sally.”

Cletus hangs on the counter’s edge, his work sleeves rolled up. If we needed fresh ham, those forearms would do.

Shipments from the terrestrial planets come in real slow.

~

Before we open, the lights are off. Spaceships navigate around the safety beacons, drivers on long haul hustling in, waiting for their morning coffee.

Saul’s in back, heating up the grill.

I polish the front case. The apple pie is fresh, the peach – eat at your own risk. Somebody’s going to want a slice; if I put cream on it, you won’t be able to tell anyway.

It’s a two-person show, this diner. No money for a third. Sometimes, before we kick the sign on and open for the day, we take bets. Who’s going to ask for a job today? If it’s a kid, I may give them a free cup of coffee.

We never take bets on the egg.

~

Bottom line, Saul’s order: the egg is only for sale at the right price.

I’ve lent the egg before. Saul was pissed at me. Cletus borrowed it for a freighter captain he was courting. They took a spin around Jupiter together, got into a tangle with some speed enforcers before she took off for the edge of the solar system. The next day, Cletus returned the egg.

I made it up to Saul with coffee and cornbread.

~

“You ever wanted to go to the surface?”

I’m polishing the egg when Cletus asks me, its apex gleaming.

“Not much for a pressure suit.”

That, and I’m not keen on floating through layers of gaseous atmosphere. Saul claims it’s beautiful; the thought of tumbling through those clouds makes me shudder.

“I’ve been down to the core of Venus. Shine a flare on it, pure metal like Saul’s frying pan.”

“Pressure suits, Cletus,” I remind him, shaking my head. They make me queasy.

~

I punch the combination into the computer. The lights of Phoebe’s Diner flare, both inside and out. The waiting ships connect their jet bridges to the port doors on the sealed loading ramp. Saul punches the latch on the door. Business is open.

It’s hash and toast the first few hours each day, then they’re asking for grilled cheese and more coffee.

One captain eyes the egg speculatively.

“What’s it for?”

“What do you mean what’s it for?”

After polishing the counter, I serve up some peach pie for a young know-nothing just in from Jupiter.

The captain’s face sours at the wrinkled fruit as I ladle cream on top.

“Can you eat it?”

Saul pokes his head into the kitchen window and bellows, “Of course you can eat it!”

The egg is very large, for an egg.

“I wouldn’t eat it, if I were you,” Cletus comments. “The women seem to like that egg.”

As junior bites into his days-old peach pie, the captain gives a better-him-than-me shrug. Cletus earns a scowl.

“That’s the price?!”

He jabs a finger at the sign board underneath the egg. As usual, it’s resting in the display case on a yellow egg cup.

“If you want the egg, you have to pay for the egg.” I finish polishing the counter.

“Too rich for my blood.”

I refresh the man’s coffee. The egg seems vaguely disappointed.

~

The captain’s back a week later, still eyeing the egg.

“Can I put a down payment on that thing?”

The words are halfway out of his mouth and Saul’s already howling, “No!”

The captain leaves without drinking his coffee.

~

“Saul.”

Saul’s arms are crossed on the counter. Closed for the day, he’s pouring some whiskey into a coffee mug. He fills mine up for me.

“Where’d that egg come from again?”

“Shawnee,” he begins, the name sounding in his throat like a chime of choir bells. My own throat tightens on my whiskey.

“She was storm-surfing on the planet. Said it came out of nowhere, a great cut of cloud like a bird’s wing.”

CoffeeAndCornbread-scifi-fullSaul’s looking all wistful, which has never happened before; I’m beginning to really hate Shawnee.

“And then. Surprise! A big old egg,” I finish, curtly.

Saul’s eyes narrow at me. “Yeah, pretty much. Tumbled out of the cloud and she caught it.”

“Do you think we’re asking too much for it?”

“It’s the only fucking egg its kind this side of Mars-base, maybe even the whole solar system. Somebody wants something that rare, they’ll pay for it.”

~

I’m still sore at Shawnee the next day we open. Saul’s always been sweet on me. Part of the deal, working a diner together this far out.

Dried up from too much whiskey, I’m a spitfire when the customers pour in. No joking, no flirting, just serve up that food and get them on their way. A few of them tip more, seem to enjoy me better.

That captain hustles in a third time. Cletus is sleeping at the counter, sick of trying to cheer me up.

“I’ve come to buy that egg,” he tells me.

Saul’s got the grill up high, sizzling. He doesn’t hear.

“But you’re asking too much. Three hundred rothgars? I’ll give you one-hundred-and-fifty.”

He’s not much to look at this captain, but he’s grinning that particular way as he slams down a stack of rothgars.

I make a quick count. All there.

“Hold on a second.”

I smooth my hair behind my ears and duck my head back into the kitchen. “Saul?”

He doesn’t bellow, knows I’m moody.

“What you need, Sally?”

“That captain’s back for the egg. Put down one-hundred-and-fifty rothgars just now.”

Saul raises an eyebrow, wipes the sweat from his brow with a gloved hand.

I’m half expecting him to scream about the price, but this morning he shrugs, gets a glint in his eye. “Told Shawnee I’d buy her something nice if that thing ever sold, but she ain’t coming back. You want some new stockings?”

My eyes widen, but he’s grinning like he’s serious and I’m not so sore on Shawnee now. She can’t have my new stockings, even if she comes back around these parts.

“It’s a deal,” I tell the captain, hustling to refill his coffee. “What are you going to do with it?”

“I was thinking of seeing if it’ll hatch.”

He pauses, dead-pan, then starts laughing. “Naw, honey, I haven’t had a fried egg since I left Earth five years ago. Get that chef to cook this baby up for me.”

~

The yolk is purple and pools around the captain’s plate while he sops it up with a bit of toast.

“It tastes like … well, I don’t quite know. Like blueberry jam, molasses and egg white.” His forehead is furrowed. “Not like any proper egg at all.”

The rothgars are already safely in the till; I’m backing away just in case.

Then, the captain breaks into a beatific smile. “Best fried egg I ever tasted.”

~

In a few weeks, I’ve two new pairs of stockings and Saul’s bought a better bottle of whiskey. Business is booming.

That captain’s still feeling lucky. His trade route’s going well. Some tufts of feather are sprouting at his ears.

Looks sort of distinguished.

Still, I tell you, if I was a freight captain out on long haul, I’d order up some coffee and cornbread and leave the alien eggs alone.

~~~~

About The Author

Alicia Cole lives with a photographer and a menagerie of animals in a not-so-humdrum house.  Over their house, egrets and great blue herons fly.  Tree frogs nestle on the front porch and stray cats roam the woods where coyotes call in the murky night. Her short fiction is forthcoming in A Torn Pages Anthology and Vagrants Among Ruins. She can be found at her Goodreads page.

Fast-Paced Author Interview (At High Speeds! Risking Dire Consequences!)

The Squid:  If you had to sing the story of your life, what would the chorus be and what existing melody would you use?
Alicia Cole: Meatloaf was made for me. “I would do anything for love” baby, “but I won’t do that.” Sing it with me people. Belt it out. “I would do anything for love!!!” It’s such a precious torch ballad. Precious like Rocky Horror Picture Show precious. My kind of precious.

So, basically, for the story of my life, take the melody of Meatloaf’s “I would do anything for love” and substitute the following –

*cue bikes and piano music*
*cue beautiful music*
Intro chorus:
“I would do anything for love
Hell or high water, I’d rise above
I would do anything for love
Except clean the toilet.”

The Squid: Irrespective of the melody that you chose or the words of your song… do you hope to see lighters or i-phones waved when your song (see #9) is performed? Are you expecting a mosh pit? Or are you hoping that the crowd will stomp their feet in rhythm and raise their glasses, or some other response, perhaps?

Alicia Cole: Lighters, definitely. I am not interested in iPhones or Androids used as faux lighters. Unless they are real androids. On fire. As faux lighters.

Can I have a rain shower, a mud slide, a mosh pit, and a make-up-link-elbows-sing-the-finale (my song, of course!) extravaganza? That would be epic.

About The Artist

Our very own D Chang is a game writer and web designer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology.

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