The Man in Lime (A Story)

At eight o’clock in the morning, a figure walked into the Arthur Cafe. The figure was male and decked out in a lime-colored three-piece suit. He was hard to miss, really; heads turned as he walked out of the sunlight and through the glass double doors.

Without waiting to be seated, he gravitated to the far left wall and took a seat. His face was chiseled in an expression of humor, and yet that face was carved from the blankest and most expressionless stone of all.

Most of the cafe, filled with the casuals (the elderly, the locals, and the out-of-towners who don’t have a better eatery in their own town), turned to look at the man in lime. He only shone a wide smile, a grotesque grin welded to his face.

In the kitchen at the opposite end of the cafe, the employees of the Arthur Cafe looked on in confusion and mild wonder. One of the waitresses, Shirley Carter, was leaning through the hole in the wall used to pass orders from the kitchen to the dining room. Her head was craned to get a better look at the man. The peculiar man in lime noticed she was staring at him, and he stared right back, beaming that smile.

She recoiled in surprise, hitting her head against the roof of the hole.

“Aww,” one of Carter’s co-workers, Hannah, said slyly, “Shirley, looks like you ‘ve got yourself an admirer.”

“Oh, whatever,” Shirley said, grabbing a stack of menus and offering them out to any willing volunteers. “So, who’s taking Bachelor Number One’s order? Huh?”

Empty stares from everyone in the kitchen. Shirley sighed and marched out the batwing doors and into the dining room. As she walked across the dining room, everyone else could tell she was heading for the man in lime, and they watched on with the kind of curiosity that could only brew and mutate and fester in a small town.

“Good morning,” Shirley said, setting the menu down on the man’s table and taking a green notepad out from her apron. “Can I get you something to drink?”

The man in lime gave the menu a careless peek and slid it forward. He folded his hands neatly, and it reminded Shirley of an old iron gate slamming shut.

“You certainly can,” he said with a very slight but noticeable Southern drawl. “It’ll be a sweet tea if you don’t mind.”

Shirley began writing the order down. As her notepad retreated back into the black apron, the man stopped her, just as the memo pad’s bright green edge slipped into her pocket.

“And you can go ahead and take my order. It shouldn’t take you too long.”

“Sure thing.” Shirley pulled the notepad back out of the apron and into the daylight once more.

The man in lime considered, only briefly. “Three slices of bread, butter on one side, seven strips of bacon, two, no, three eggs, over-easy, and a side of hash browns. How does that sound?”

In spite of his tedious order, Shirley found the strength to utter a chuckle. “That sounds good to me. Your order should be up in no time, sir.”

She pulled the menu from the table and made her way back into the kitchen. As she went, the man called back.

“Thank you very much, Shirley.”

Without turning back, she waved at the man in lime.

In the kitchen, she ran into Hannah, almost knocking a tray of coffee onto the kitchen’s tiled floor.

“Woah! Hey, now, easy.” Hannah set the tray down and mopped up the sloshed coffee.

“Whoops, sorry about that Hannah. Say, what do you think of that guy back there. You know, the guy decked out in pool table felt?” Shirley handed the slip of notepaper with the man in lime’s order to the head cook and leaned against the soda fountain.

Hannah blew a lock of hair from her forehead. “He’s quite the character. Oh, hey, that reminds me.” She walked out of sight into the labyrinthine depths of the kitchen and came back with a small, rectangular silver object. “I found this on the floor earlier, figured you might want it back.”

To her surprise, she was looking at her own nametag, with SHIRLEY embossed in bold black lettering. She’d left her nametag in the kitchen at some point. That’s when something clicked within her mind.

Thank you very much, Shirley. The man in lime had said that to her as she walked into the kitchen. If she hadn’t had her nametag, then how did he know what her name was? She was almost certain that she hadn’t ever seen this man before in her life. Shirley almost certainly would recognize someone she knew if they, too, were dressed as a human reflector.

Maybe, she thought, he is someone I know, I just don’t recognize them because of the get-up. 

It was a possibility; small-town waitresses got to know a lot of people.

Lost in thought, she grabbed the nametag, thanked Hannah, and picked up a teapot, pouring Mr. Lime Suit’s drink out. Now determined to figure out who the man in lime was, she hurried out of the kitchen with the sweet tea, nearly sloshing it out of the cup in her mad dash. She reached the table with relief and set the cup down.

What transpired next was one of the most peculiar and awkward conversations Shirley had ever had.

“There you go sir, and um, I hate to ask this, but…do I know you? Because you knew my name, and I didn’t have my nametag on.”

The man in lime took a sip of his tea and smiled. “You might and you mightn’t. I can’t say for sure. Do you know me?”

She was a bit stunned. “No, I-I guess I don’t. It’s just that–”

“Then I don’t know you.” He put his attention elsewhere, not at all minding the living, breathing human next to him.

Feeling the heat of embarrassment wash over her, Shirley darted back into the kitchen. Inside, Hannah had news for Shirley, and it wasn’t the grandest of news.

“There’s a small problem, hun,” Hannah said this with a thin air of sass, like whatever the problem was it was all Shirley’s fault.

Shirley sighed. “What could it possibly be now?”

“Quentin, in the back, broke the stove. We won’t be cookin’ anything hot for awhile. You might want to break the news to your pal over there.” She stuck out a thumb over into the seating area, where the man in lime was reading the label on a packet of artificial sweetener.

Days could–and have–been worse, Shirley thought, making her way once more into the dining room.

The man in lime wasn’t wearing a smile when Shirley came back to his table.

“Um, sir, I hate to say this, but our oven is broken, so we can’t serve anything hot for awhile. Would you like me to put in another order?”

The man in lime thought about it. “No, on second thought, could you go over there and get a gumball for my niece? Her favorite color is orange, but I’ll give you change for one.” He pulled out an old quarter, tarnished with the exchange between many hundreds of hands, and handed it to her.

Shirley took the quarter and went across the seating area to a red and white gumball machine. Inside was a rainbow of colors, swirled at random.

Outside, the streets were bathed in the morning sunlight.

The quarter dropped into the machine, and Shirley gave it a hefty turn. Something caught, and a gumball dropped through, landing with a soft click as it hit the metal door on the gumball machine. Shirley pulled up the door and held out her hand. A gumball dropped into her hand.

Its color was orange.

Turning around, Shirley noted the sky was darker than she remembered.

“Here you are, sir.” She handed the gumball to him. The man in lime pocketed the orange ball into his jacket.

His brow furrowed. “Ma’am, if I were you, I’d stay back here a little longer.”

Shirley blinked. “What?”

That was when, where Shirley normally took her path to the kitchen, a car broke through the wall of the cafe and into the seating area. Bricks bounced this way and that. Tables were knocked askew, some tipping over. The gumball machine fell over, splitting the plastic holding tank and sending a wave of multicolored gumballs across the carpet. No one stood where the car was growing out of the wall, thankfully. Inside the car, the driver covered his face with his hands and began shuddering.

Shirley only stood there, realizing that if she hadn’t got the gumball and stood back at the man in lime’s table, she would be under that car.

The man in lime stood up, placing a hundred dollar bill on the table. He left the cafe, not once looking back at Shirley or the wreck.

Outside, rain pounded the ground.

Oh,” was all she could manage to say.