Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Berkeley Carroll School, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Erika Drezner
Category: Short Story
Truth or Consequences, or, Life and Death Often Meet in Waffle House Parking Lots
Between the mood lighting, the overwhelming smell of syrup, and the hushed conversations in a muddle of Spanish and English, it genuinely felt to Danny that he was not in a Waffle House in New Mexico, but in fact in the classic Edward Hopper painting “Nighthawks.” He did not particularly like Edward Hopper, or art history, or, really, any art that immediately proclaimed itself as “art,” finding it to be needlessly pretentious and the entire community to be one massive circlejerk. This, however, was the kind of thing that made people tell him to calm down. Danny pulled out his phone and was about to check Reddit when his friend JJ finally sat down at the table, signaling his presence by putting an enormous plate of smothered waffles and sausages in front of him.
Danny started eating without thanking JJ, as was customary to this routine. “Long shift?”
“Hell yeah, dude,” said JJ, stretching. JJ was short and dark brown, and his face sported several quarter-sized moles that had frequently been misdiagnosed as melanomas by the armchair dermatologists— vinyl acetate booth dermatologists— who came in to his Most Sacred And Holy House Of Waffles™. His name was short for Jesús Juarez, and he absolutely hated it when people called him Jesús, but he wore the Jesús nametag at work because people would make jokes about the second coming being with waffles, which he consistently found funny, because they were probably right. Danny did not call him Jesús, even as a joke, because the last time he had done that JJ had punched him in the face. It was sometimes suggested that this was unfair, because Danny was 6’3″ and often jokingly called “the tallest Mexican I’ve ever seen,” but punches in the face had been their response to off-color jokes since third grade and they didn’t want to change it.
Halfway through Danny’s third bite, JJ started talking, which was unusual; he was almost always too exhausted. “ICE came by today.”
Danny put down his fork, which unsettled JJ, as the consuming of the waffles was always done with a ridiculous, almost unearthly degree of momentum. He made a wordless gesture for Danny to keep eating, and he did, albeit slowly. JJ continued talking.
“They walked in during the lunch rush, full gear and everything, those stupid vests with ‘ICE’ on the back in big white letters.”
“Sweet Jesus,” said Danny. A bite of sausage fell out of his mouth and into his lap; he unselfconsciously placed it back on his plate. “What else happened?”
JJ grabbed the mouth-sausage off of Danny’s plate and ate it, which was objectively disgusting. “I don’t know. The manager— you know Lily— told me to go into the kitchen and tell the cooks and dishwashers and whatever to take an early break, ’cause she doesn’t speak Spanish. I went back and told them to not freak out, but ICE was here and they scattered.” He laughed bitterly. “‘No se asusten, pero ICE está aqui y ustedes debería ir a sus descansos.‘ Scattered, man. I told Lily that I saw a bunch of ’em drive home, just so she knew, and she told me basically that she expected as much and it’d be fine.”
Danny had stopped eating again; there was still more than half a waffle left. JJ found himself bizarrely annoyed by this, and made another gesture for him to keep going.
“Are they coming back?”
“No clue.” JJ pinched the bridge of his nose. “Pinches Christo. Is your mom…?”
“Yeah, she was born here, remember?” Danny paused from eating to answer. He swallowed thoughtfully, nervously, not making eye contact. “Everyone in my family was. Just like yours.”
“Did you eat dinner before this?”
“No, I’m just … not hungry anymore.”
“Pinches Christo. Okay.”
As JJ took the plate to the back, presumably to bag it, Danny turned to the window. The sun was almost done setting, staining the New Mexico sky deep, dark purple. A few single stars twinkled, and the moon was a slender white C. It looked like a painting, but he didn’t like paintings.
In the parking lot, Danny started telling a joke, the worst he could think of. This was almost disturbingly out of character, but JJ humoured him.
“Okay, so a pirate walks into a bar.”
“Sure,” said JJ.
“A pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel chained between his knees.”
“… sure,” said JJ.
“The bartender asks him, ‘Hey, why do you have a steering wheel between your legs?’ and the pirate goes—”
JJ elbowed Danny in the ribs. Two ICE agents, still in their riot gear, stood on the far end of the parking lot, talking to each other in inaudible whispers. Danny nodded, and they tiptoed to his car, a 2005 Lexus Sedan that he’d gotten from his mother.
Once in the car with the keys in the ignition, JJ looked at Danny, borderline frantic. “Finish the joke.”
“Really?” Danny cocked an eyebrow. “It’s not even that funny, I just wanted to lighten the mood—”
“I don’t care, finish the damn joke.”
“Where was I, even?”
“Steering wheel on his legs.”
There was a knock on the window; it was one of the ICE agents. Danny rolled his window down.
“Hi, sir, can I help you?”
“Do you two work here?”
“Well, this is reserved parking for employees. So one of you’s lying, or one of you works here. Which is it?”
This was a trick question. This was the kind of trick question that bored white men with power complexes ask two 19-year-old Mexican kids when they go to drive home from Waffle House in August; JJ was still wearing his Jesús nametag and uniform, it wasn’t like this guy didn’t know the answer or didn’t realize that Danny had just lied through his teeth. He had never felt so conspicuously syrup-scented.
Danny snapped his fingers and made an aw, man! face not dissimilar to the one that Swiper had made on the Dora episode he watched this morning with his nephew. “Guess I parked in the wrong spot. My bad. Have a good night.”
He drove off as fast as he could without getting a ticket and prayed to Latino Jesus that they didn’t get his plates.
JJ and Danny sat in complete silence for about ten minutes of uncrowded interstate highway.
“Pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel between his legs,” Danny announced. His voice was oddly loud. “Bartender asks him why he has a steering wheel between his legs, and the pirate goes, ‘I don’t know, but it’s drivin’ me nuts!'”
There was another few seconds of silence before JJ cracked up laughing; he and Danny laughed the entire way home.