Dr. Jack’s Coney Island by Jennifer Porter

Dr. Jack’s Coney Island advertised in the weekly paper on a weekly basis. It was under new management. There were Wednesday specials—using local farm fresh ingredients. At Dr. Jack’s diner, you could order a Reaper’s Omelet and put your cares and worries behind you, once and for all. It sounded so simple. The idea of walking into a river with my pockets full of stones did not. The thought of crashing into the viaduct with my car did not. But, going to Dr. Jack’s did.

When the kids were finally down for their naps, I got in my car and hopped onto the freeway. Everything was winter gray and crusty with the soot of ancient car exhaust—the snow, the concrete, the struggling vegetation. I exited at Twelve Mile Road. Pulling up, I realized the place was once the old Coney Island restaurant I’d known as a girl, now long neglected and forlorn. It didn’t look open for business.

Some rusty beater cars sat in the parking lot. One had a flat tire. The skin of the roof of another was shredded as if by the claws of a giant sloth. But there were other vehicles: some newer cars, a couple of pick-ups, a broken-down tow truck. A Harley Davidson leaned on its kickstand. The thought of riding in the cold made me shiver.

The diner’s door was locked. I wiped the fog off the glass and pressed my face against it. A guy in a suit whacked at the keys of a cash register, talking loud and laughing. I knocked. He kept counting. I banged. The chill had started to seep into my bones. I’d forgotten my coat but I’d remembered my purse with its wad of cash. I turned toward my mini-van and lifted my key fob and pushed the lock button again and again, feeling reassured by the honking horn. Paul would need the van to take the kids around to their lives.

The guy came to the door. His name tag said “Geoff” in large blocky print, drawn with a thick purple crayon. He wore a shiny designer suit, a stained Kandinsky-esque silk tie, and a slick smile. His long hair was parted in the middle—80s rocker-style. His cheeks were exuberant.

He opened the door only a few inches, sticking out botoxed lips. “Do you have an appointment?”

I rested my hot cheek against the cool glass, facing Geoff. “No.”

“Did you at least go on the website and print the release and sign it?”

“Yes.” I fished the paper out of my purse. It was crumpled and had some mashed banana and crusty oatmeal on it.

He snatched it and closed the door. Then with the lips, “Did you fill out the questionnaire?”

I fished that out of my purse. He pulled me inside where it was warm. He made a big show out of putting on his reading glasses.

“You only answered one question, Lisa,” he said, staring at me with his head down but his eyes above the rims.

“The most important one,” I said. The diner was busy but not in the lunch-hour way. Everything seemed muted beneath a light-filtering shroud. The noise, the colours, the diners’ motions, the view outside the windows—dim-washed. “Look, I don’t have the answers to the other questions. Especially the ‘why’ one. If I knew why, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be somewhere fixing the reason for the why.”

Our customers can’t fix the reason, though. They know why and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it.”

“Are you going to seat me or not? I’m getting hungry.”

“I can’t seat you when a) you do not have an appointment and b) you have not filled out the questionnaire.” His eyes were bright and blue. I wanted to take a squeegee and wipe the fucking happiness off his face.

“I wanted to make an appointment but I was never sure when I could get down here. You know, the kids and all.”

“And?”

“And I’ll fill out the paper at the table.”

“Promise?”

I nodded in an artificially enthusiastic manner.

He made a big show out of putting away his reading glasses. “Our customers know why, Lisa. Let’s hope Dr. Jack does not deem your answers as being grounds for removal from the premises.”

For some reason, this made me cry. For months now, everything made me cry as if I were nothing more than a never-ending well of tears.

He wrapped his arm around my shoulder. “Please, don’t cry. How about a cup of coffee?”

I nodded. He passed a yellow silk hanky to me, and I blew my nose. He insisted I keep the hanky. He put me in a corner booth. I rested my elbows on the table then my forehead on the palms of my hands. I rested my cheek against the cool table and took a nap. I thought about how hard life was as I drifted off. It was crushing me with its demands. Nobody understood how much I’d been through from a very early age. There were two kinds of people: those who had a childhood and those who survived one. I didn’t even have the energy to plan it all out. I just showed up at Dr. Jack’s.

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I don’t know how long I slept but the tantalising smell of fresh-brewed coffee woke me. I lifted my head and straightened my hair. I frantically checked for my purse then for my cash but it was where I’d left it. Deductibles and co-pays due at time of service. No credit cards or checks accepted. I added real cream and four sugars and stirred my coffee. Geoff was banging on the cash register, but he turned and waved at me. I waved back.

It was a large diner. A very old man and an equally old woman still in their nightclothes walked in and handed their papers to Geoff. His cheeks were exuberant. Apparently, they’d answered all the questions correctly and had an appointment because he took them right to their booth. They seemed happy. They looked alike. Their marriage had melded them together. I sighed.

I’d texted Paul from the driveway of our house, so he’d be home early from work, confused now, with the children. I told him I was leaving for awhile. I hadn’t told him that I’d thought about throwing the baby out the second-floor window of my bedroom after I’d nursed and rocked her to sleep. How easy it would have been to just lean out the window and drop her. I didn’t know why I wanted to drop her, but at the moment, I felt capable of doing so. I’d rushed out of the bedroom and put the baby in her crib. Then made the boys go to their rooms for a nap.

Maybe it had been the tornado dream. Every night at 3:09 a.m., I had a tornado dream. The tornado was coming straight for me, for us, and I watched it swirl black in the distance. In its swirl were houses, and cars, and the bitch neighbor on her bicycle who wanted to hurt Toto, and the tornado kept sweeping up all the puppies and kittens. It was coming for my puppies and kittens but no one would listen to me when I yelled about the tornado coming, closer and closer. They just kept playing outside on the swingset. The tornado was so black and it whipped so fast and it was the hugest tornado ever.

Can dreams make you crazy?

The waitress walked up in her deep purple waitress outfit, her ashen blond hair coiffed in a super-tease. “Need a menu?” Her name tag, also in purple crayon, said “Stephanie.”

I nodded.

Stephanie brandished a single plasticized sheet, giving it over reluctantly. “Geoff needs you to answer the questions for Dr. Jack before I can take your order. He said you don’t have an appointment.”

“I haven’t a pen either.” I tried to smile at her but I was still worn out.

She pulled a purple pen out of her waitress pocket and clicked it for me, handing it to me clicker-end first. “See all these people in here,” she said and she pivoted away, like a sprinkler head, pointing out all the people.

There were people in hospital gowns, people on crutches missing a leg or in a wheelchair missing both legs, people in their pajamas, people dragging their IV poles around with them. They had big black circles under their eyes and a gauntness that made me cringe.

“Yeah?”

“Some of them been in here a dang long time,” she said. “Dang long.” She clucked her tongue, chicken-like. “I’m gettin’ sick of most of them. All they ever talk about is the answers to those damn questions,” and she turned back and pointed to my crumpled sheets on the table. “When Geoff told me you didn’t answer any but one I got pretty excited. Figured you’d have other things to talk about. You know, on a day by day basis, it’d be nice to have us some decent conversations in this place.”

“Or some decent art,” I said. Large tacky oil paintings—Hannibal Lecter inspired by the work of Edvard Munch—hung on the walls. In one, a bloody headless guy was eating his own head. In another, angel rabbits were trying to pull off a guy’s head by his hair. In yet another, people were turning into stone and the stone parts were breaking off.

She laughed. “I like your sense of humor. Dr. Jack paints in his spare time when there aren’t any appointments. People think he’s busy with appointments all day long, but that ain’t the truth. Some days go by and there’s nothing to do but feed the ones that’s already here. The ones in here didn’t go out on the Head Honcho’s timeline. Myself included.”

Stephanie had smoky black circles under her eyes and sunken cheeks and she was bony in a severely anorexic way.

“You answered why?” I asked.

“Bet your life I did. Bladder cancer. Stage 4. No health insurance.”

“Oh,” I said. “That makes sense.”

“How come you can’t answer why?”

“I don’t know why. But I want to do it. Doesn’t that count?”

“Yeah, a little, it does. It’s a big decision. Dr. Jack needs to know you’ve run out of options and have thought it through real good.”

“Well, I have a baby and two little boys so I haven’t been able to think through anything in a long-ass time. I haven’t really slept in years.”

She laughed. “Maybe you got that after-birth problem? What’s that called again? I never had babies.”

“You mean … Postpartum Depression?”

“That’s it. Maybe that’s what wrong with you. Are you writing that down?”

“That sounds like a good reason to me,” I said.

“Don’t be tellin’ Dr. Jack you got that from me, you hear? I like this job.” She walked away with her crusty coffee pot, stopping and filling up stained mugs as she went along and slipping away like a ghost when the diners started chatting.

Now that I had my reason I perused my potential meal options:

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Dysentery on a Stick – A mouldy corn dog dipped in a tar-like substance.

The Last Burger – A raw double-patty with puke-colored special sauce.

Reaper’s Omelette – Sulphurous eggs scrambled with gooey medical waste and green peppers.

I hated green peppers.

Plague Pie – Crust the color of rotting leaves and insides as slimy.

PerriLead H2O – A gallon of the city of Flint’s finest tap water. Rash included.

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Then I saw what I wanted – the Carbo-Mono Hot Fudge Brownie.

“So you want Dr. Jack’s famous brownie?” Geoff said, standing there where before he’d been on the other side of the diner. I gave him my best stink eye.

“Always sneak up like that?”

“Sorry if I freaked you,” he said. I thought his cheek bones were going to burst through his flesh at any moment. “Stephanie says you filled out the questionnaire.” He made a big show out of putting on his reading glasses then grabbed my paper off the table. “The State of Michigan will not cover the brownie for Postpartum Depression.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not a fatal disease.”

“It is if you throw your baby out the window.” I started crying from the look he gave me. And the thought of my baby dropping to the cement. And the tornado dreams. And what a disappointment I was to everybody. I wanted to be a good mother but instead I was a miserable one.

He sighed and motioned me to scoot over then sat right next to me.

“Look, we’re here to help people despite what you may have heard.”

“You can help me by giving me the brownie.”

“I can’t give you the brownie if it’s not covered. I can’t give you the brownie for a non-certifiable non-fatal condition. I have a reputation to protect. Dr. Jack has a special license that we cannot lose. We have an agreement with the state of Michigan about these things. Postpartum Depression does not affect you physically. It’s a hormone thing. You don’t need the brownie.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “It does affect me physically. My head hurts. My stomach hurts. I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking terrible things. How easy it would be to drive the van with all of us inside into Seymour Lake. Or walk away from the baby while she’s in her baby bathtub. She’d just slip under the water. And the thoughts … they just pop into my head. Bad thoughts no mother should have. It’s like someone took over my mind.”

“Mind control?”

I didn’t want to own up to the fact that from somewhere inside me those thoughts originated. I nodded.

His cheeks were exuberant. “We can sue for that. Class-action.” He put his fingers to his chin and lifted his face, as if puzzling this all out. “Where do you live?”

“Out in the sticks.”

“Farms nearby?”

I nodded.

“Monsanto probably.”

“I hate Monsanto.”

“Me, too.”

I started crying. I wanted to lie down in a field of poppies and forget about that damn yellow brick road. “Sorry, I cry all the time now.”

“I’d cry too if my mind was being controlled by Monsanto.”

I laughed. “It’s not that, you know.”

“Yes, I know. Postpartum Depression is a real disorder. It afflicts ten to twenty percent of new moms. You have all the classic symptoms.”

Stephanie walked up with her crusty coffee pot. “Re-fill, hun?”

I nodded.

“Have we decided what to order?” she asked. She set the coffee pot down and wiped her skeletal arm across her brow. 

“Yes, I’ll have the Carbo-Mono Hot Fudge Brownie. I love chocolate.”   

Geoff cleared his throat. “I think we’ve decided, Steph, that Lisa is not a suitable candidate for Dr. Jack’s Carbo-Mono Hot Fudge Brownie or for anything else our handy doctor might whip up.” Geoff slid out of the bench and stood up.

“No, I think we’ve decided, Stephanie, that Lisa will have the brownie!” I said.

“I ain’t gettin’ in the middle of this. Let me know if you two figure it out,” Stephanie said, picking up her pot. She headed toward the service counter where Dr. Jack was setting plates of food to keep warm under the lights. Dr. Jack was a short, spare, white-haired, wrinkle of a man in a white coat and thick black plastic glasses. After he set the plates down, he banged a silver call bell. The sound ricocheted off the glass and shot through the restaurant.

“I’m not a suitable candidate?”

“No, young lady, you are not,” Geoff said.

“Not even for the thoughts?”

“Oh, no, no, no, especially not for the thoughts.”

“What about the bad mother thoughts? I think the baby knows I’m having these bad thoughts about her. She’s going to hate me when she grows up.”

“Look, Lisa, you’re asking me things that are outside my area of expertise. Get hurt in a car accident or by a negligent doctor, I’m there for you. Need a respectable exit strategy from unbearable pain and suffering due to a terminal condition,” he swept his arm across the diner, “we’re here for you.”

“But it is unbearable pain and suffering. It’s making me dead-tired. My head fogs with its gunk or I feel as if I’m on a speeding bullet train of ideas. Then my mind wants to separate from my body, and when it does, it’s just out there, floating and looking down on me from above, never shutting up or shutting off. Entirely outside of my control. I can’t take it anymore. I’m going insane!” I stabbed the fork into the table. Yanked it out then stabbed it again.

Geoff put his big puffy hand over my frantic one, wrapping his fingers so that I had to stop. “Please don’t engage in willful destruction of private property.”

“Fuck you,” I said.  And I whipped the fork across the table. “I want the goddamn brownie.” I hurled myself out of the booth.

“Lisa! Where are you going?” he shouted.

I was going to talk to the doctor. I was going to plead my case. I wanted out of this hell hole called life. I couldn’t take it anymore. I gave Geoff and his damn cheeks the finger.

“Lisa! Your phone’s ringing.”

I stopped and turned. “What?”

“Your cell phone is ringing,” Geoff walked toward me, holding the phone out. He placed the phone in my hand.

I stared at it. “Home” was calling. I didn’t know if I should accept or send it to voice mail. It kept ringing and buzzing my hand. The screensaver was a photo of my three children together. The phone went quiet.

“Everybody thinks I’m so tough,” I said to Geoff. “They think they can say and do to me whatever they want. They think they can use me as a garbage can for their bad feelings about themselves, about other people, about their own lives. When they aren’t dumping on me, they can’t see me, as if I were invisible. All of my life I have felt very alone.”

The other diners floated over and hovered behind Geoff. Stephanie stood next to me with her crusty pot. The diners stared at me with their vacuous eyes, their darkened hole-mouths, their clammy, ashen skins. They seemed so at peace, not a care in the world.

I ran up to the call bell and smacked it.

Dr. Jack came to the window, wiping his hands on the towel tucked into his short order cook apron. “No one bangs that goddamn bell but me,” he said. “What the hell do you want? Where’s Stephanie?”

“A Carbo-Mono Hot Fudge Brownie,” I said, forcing a smile. “Please.”

He looked me over, meat-inspection style. “You’re the PPD girl, aren’t you?”

I nodded.

He smiled, his wrinkles pushing up his glasses. “Well, I admire your gumption, that’s for damn sure. So, you came down to Dr. Jack’s to put an end to your suffering, did you?”

I nodded. I was finally getting somewhere with this.

“Well, guess what?” he said, leaning toward me. A shadow fell across his face. “Your condition isn’t covered. This isn’t a goddamn charity. I’m not your father or your mother or your stinkin’ lousy brother. This isn’t a therapy clinic either! Boo hoo hoo, you haven’t got any family. You’re all alone. You’ve been alone your whole life. Awww, that’s pretty damn sad, but guess what? You came to the wrong place.”

“Come on, Lisa,” said Geoff. 

“Yes, Lisa, stop bothering Dr. Jack,” said the doctor.

Geoff pulled me over to the foyer. The diners crowded all around me. Warm whispers that made me remember the beach in Guarujá, Brazil brushed the airs on my arms and neck. I felt swaddled, cocooned, and sleepy. Dr. Jack was at his grill, slapping his spatula against the steaming surface and flipping whatever he was cooking. The diners started stroking my arms, my hair, my back. They began to chant, “We’ll be your family. We’ll be your family.”

I had spent my childhood hiding in the prickly shrubs that grew against the brick of the mid-century ranch and peering into the cozy family room—the brother playing with his Legos, the mother praising his artistic talents, the father putting logs into the fireplace.

Dad lit the fire and turned to the window. He waved at me then turned back. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t stand all the touching and whispering then, saying the same damn thing over and over. The Wizard was a fake and the flying monkeys thought it was funny. I yanked away and pushed through. The door was locked. “Open the door, Geoff!” I yelled.

He unlocked the door. His cheeks were exuberant. I rushed outside and the wet cold air slapped me. A passing car hit a pot hole and the slush sprayed the sidewalk. The gray clouds in the gray sky kept the sun prisoner.

I’d forgotten my purse and its wad of cash and the mini-van key fob.

But I still had my phone.

I still had my phone.

Jennifer Porter

Jennifer Porter

Jennifer Porter lives in metro-Detroit, where she grew up and learned to appreciate rock n’ roll and the steely determination of Michiganders. Her writing has appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Writing Disorder, Old Northwest Review, drafthorse, The Dos Passos Review, and other fine journals. She’s the prose editor at The Tishman Review and earned her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.
Jennifer Porter

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