The Usual

by Richard Radford

For the first Sunday in twenty years, Arend Tensen overslept.

He woke up in horror. Sunlight was scintillating through the plaid curtains, splaying light across his dusty bedroom, and for a moment panic flowed through him. He had never seen the room in direct sunlight, always rising before dawn and going to bed at dusk. He stared at the dust molts trapped in the rays of light and held his breath, pulse beating in his neck.

My God, he thought, have I died?

After the shock passed he looked at the alarm clock. It read four-thirteen. Picking it up and examining it, he saw that the second hand had stopped. He knew that he always wound his clock before bed, and twisted the key on the back. It was wound tight. He rapped the clock on the nightstand and the second hand began to tick. Checking his wristwatch, he set the clock to the correct time and smiled weakly.

I overslept, he thought. That's all it was.

At the breakfast table he hurriedly packed a pipe and clicked on the radio. Only an hour behind schedule, he knew that he would have time to check on his bees before breakfast. He had started it as a hobby, and enjoyed it immensely. The bees were always organized and systematic, and Arend liked to see them performing with consistent competence. He also had fresh honey saved up for the long winters.

He liked things that worked, proper order, systems that proved infallible. Sundays were his favorite: he woke up at precisely five-thirty, read the paper and drank the first cup of coffee of the day, packed a pipe, listened to the radio, then headed to Tanner's Kitchen at exactly seven. This ceremony had been kept up for the past two decades without interruption. The last time the rite was overlooked was the Sunday his wife died.

He was not an attractive man. Although not hideous nor grossly deformed, there was something unappealing in the asymmetry of his face. One ear was slightly higher than the other, the eyes were a bit too far apart, and a long broken nose rested over a large crooked mouth. When he was younger the skin was tight and made the lopsidedness of his face far more apparent. Now in his seventy-third year his epidermis was heavily creased and drooping, giving the impression that his head was melting into his flannel collars.

The lankiness of his body, the stooping of his shoulders, and the clumsiness of his lengthy arms made him look hastily constructed. Those who saw him lurching along in his wide gait thought of a poorly treated beast of burden, or a geriatric circus bear out on a Sunday stroll. For all the world he was a monster, with the permanent crease of a frown. If one were to examine him closely, it would be seen that the only inconsistent feature of his inequitable frame was his hands. Although the fingers were gaunt and the joints were knobby, there was a certain delicacy to them. They could have belonged to an artist, or a surgeon. They were never utilized for anything so delicate, and instead were used to scoop feed and bait at Taylor's Farm & Feed for most of his life.

His physical appearance never plagued him. In fact he married young to a woman who loved him unconditionally, and after her death he drifted into retirement and was able to put his life in order extraordinarily well.

The sunlight had been deceiving. Despite the stark brightness of the day, for the first time in the year it felt like autumn. After sending a puff of breath off his doorstep, Arend apprehensively returned to his bedroom for an insulated flannel jacket, rushing back out of the room as quickly as possible without looking around it. He knew that the bees would be calm today with the brilliance of the sky, and he loped across the yard swinging the long metal bar he used to remove the sections of the hive. The frosted grass crackled under his feet.

Still several paces away, he stared at the white box with his crooked mouth hanging open. The drones were getting shoved out of the hive. The premature cold through the night had indicated to the bees that it was time to rid themselves of the unnecessary members of its collective. Many of the drones lay on the ground right around the hive, some still struggling to get back in, only to be turned back once again by the sentries. Arend dropped the bar and backed away without hesitation, then jumped in his car and immediately headed to breakfast.

Rattling down the highway in his car, Arend screwed up his face, attempting to articulate what had happened to him. He had been keeping bees for years now, and the sight of the drones' expulsion from the hive was nothing new to him. On the contrary, previously he had admired the functionality of the behavior. Food was scarcer in the cold, and the drones, who had fulfilled their only purpose to mate with the queen, would only be needy vagrants living off the collective. It only made sense. They would simply be destructive and worthless. They would do nothing for the collective but eat. Yet that had not been in his thoughts today as he stared aghast at the writhing bodies on the ground, desperately clinging to the legs of the white box, feebly attempting to force their way back in. Instead that same chilling feeling that had coursed through him upon waking ran up his spine and caused him to flee.

He had in fact been off his usual schedule, having a touch of the flu for a couple of weeks. He had almost been forced to cut the past couple of Sunday visits to Tanner's. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps this is why it feels so strange…just getting back into the usual routine.

Arend arrived at Tanner's Kitchen and parked. For a moment he sat in the car staring at the building and warming his fingers in front of the dashboard’s heater vents. Though Tanner's was, not unlike Arend himself, a rather unbalanced structure with makeshift patches over the rusty spots in the siding, he still felt better here than at his house. He had been eating at the diner for so many years it was like a second home to him, though in the past decade many of the familiar faces had been disappearing as age and disease and time carved its course. There always seemed to be something familiar, though, and familiarity was the conduit through which life flowed in his body.

Limping inside and taking his usual seat at a booth, Arend glanced around at the people lining the counter. It was a row of unfamiliar faces, and he frowned. Surely not everybody I know is dead? he thought, with a phlegmy harrumph, when suddenly a menu was shoved down in front of him.

"Good morning, sir," the young waitress said cheerfully. "Can I get you anything to drink for a start?"

"Where's Marlene?" Arend snapped without thinking. The waitress appeared a bit ruffled at this affront.

"Oh, I’m sorry, I’m not sure who that is,” she replied cautiously.

"Who're you?" Arend demanded. The waitress sighed.

"My name is Sandy."

"Oh," he said, shaking his head. "I’m sorry, dear. I've been having a queer morning."

"That's okay, sir, do you need a few minutes or do you know what you'd like?"

"Just the usual…uh, Sandy." The waitress paused for a moment, and raised her eyes from the order pad to meet Arend's eyes.

"What's your usual?"

"It's what I always get," he said with a hint of irritation in his voice. The waitress scowled subtly, attempting to keep a pleasant demeanor.

"Sorry, sir, I just started here, I haven't gotten to know anybody's usual. If you can just tell me what it is I'll remember it next time you come in," the waitress said through a forced smile. Arend's gnarled face squinted impatiently, but slowly the features twisted into a look of fear. He looked at the menu gripped in his hands, and then helplessly up at the waitress, who was beginning to become concerned.

"Sir, if you need some time-"

"C-coffee!" he shouted with sudden happy recall. "Coffee!" The waitress wrote on her pad.

"Good," she said. "And to eat?" Arend's face once again contorted into fear. The waitress gave him a sympathetic look.

"I'm not senile!" Arend shouted, and several of the diners turned their heads towards his booth. The waitress put her hand on top of his.

"It's okay sir, just keep your voice down…you can take all the time you need to remember your usual." Arend sat for a moment later, and then his long uneven lips parted slightly.

"I-I can't remember," he rasped.

Driving home, Arend stared absently at the road. The cold chill had come again, swept over him like a wave, and had dragged his inert body out into the depths. He couldn't focus his mind right now, but it was not unpleasant. The chill seemed to comfort him, and he smiled a crooked smile.

The rest of the meal had been unbearable. The young waitress had sat down at the table with him and spoken soothingly with him, even responding to his sudden angry outbursts of frustration with an even deportment. After several minutes of panicking, Arend finally got control of himself again enough to pretend to recall his order, pointing randomly at the menu. The food had arrived shortly and he had consumed it without looking at it.

He pulled his car up the driveway, calmly lurched across the lawn, passing by the bee box without as much as a glance at the corpses. He entered his house and walked up to his bedroom, pausing at the door to peek inside. It was as it had been earlier: bright, dusty, plaid curtains glowing, alarm clock ticking. The air was motionless, and he smiled. It's so simple, he thought, why didn't I realize it earlier? In the one moment it took him to pass between the door and the bed, Arend Tensen moved more gracefully than he ever had in his life, and the expression he wore was one of serenity. He carefully set his body down on the bed, and with a deep breath gazed at the ceiling, waiting peacefully. In a short time, the clock stopped ticking.

BIO: Richard Radford is a writer and journalist living in Boston, Massachusetts. His work has appeared in various news publications, and fiction has appeared in Hackwriters International Writer's Magazine, Hearsay, Vermont Law School's literary journal, and the WNRC e-zine. He also has a story accepted in the literary journal Pear Noir! to be published January 2009. His hobbies include excessive reading, cooking, and avoiding a "day job." Richard can be reached at: raradford@gmail.com.