The Basic Laws Of The Universe
By Chris Dankland

(Illustrated by Stephen Michael McDowell)

It was three in the morning and the Denny’s down the street was about half full. I’d smoked a joint a couple hours ago to try and help me get to sleep, but it didn’t work. I was frustrated. I didn’t think I would get any sleep before having to go to work the next day. My bedroom was driving me crazy, flying around in endless loops like a swarm of tiny fruit flies. I had to get out of the house.

To my bloodshot eyes, the customers and table lamps and walls and white tables all blurred together into one delirious fog. And here I was, just one more dingy blur. One more peripheral smear in the corner of somebody’s half-dreaming eye. Fuck my life, as the saying goes.

Who are all these people, I thought. What the hell are they doing here. “IT’S THREE IN THE MORNING,” I felt like screaming.

Killing time, probably. Sobering up for the long drive home. Giving their wives and husbands some breathing space, so they could stop hating them. Chewing bacon and slurping coffee. Surlping bacon and chewing cups of caffinated mud. Waiting things out.

I plopped down into a nearby booth and a fine mist of sandwich crumbs plumed up around me.

I felt an intense sensation of dissapointed camaraderie with the human race. All these people. I’m not any different, I thought. I’m not special. One more ship passing through the night, as the saying goes. One more invisible heart. One more tired spelunker, hunkering down in some greasy all-night hole.

I ordered a milk and a piece of cherry pie, and opened the book I’d brought with me. I read it for a long time.

“Hey!” A girl I didn’t know slid into my booth on the side opposite me. Her face beamed at me so hard I almost had to shield my eyes. She looked crazy. “I hope this is okay I just saw you sitting over here and I was sitting over there and I’m just waiting for my friend to come pick me up cuz his phone isn’t working so I’m stuck here for awhile and I just saw you reading and I thought ‘I wonder what’s he’s reading’ and you seemed like a friendly type of okay guy so I thought I’d just, is this okay? Am I bothering you? Jesus, I’m bothering you. I’m bothering you, aren’t I.”

I’ve been a druggie for long enough to know when someone’s cracked out and wants something. Her dilated pupils stared at me like two black moons. Her jaw twitched. Her head jerked around like a bird’s. She was on a mission.

“It’s okay,” I said, closing the book.

“I’m Tracy,” she said, tilting her head to the side. I tilted my head to the side too, but she didn’t notice. “Hey do you have a cigarette?” This was back when restaurants in Houston still had smoking sections.

“Sure,” I said. I even lit it for her. “How’s your night going?” I asked, after she took a deep puff, sighing endless curls of smoke.

“Oh…” She took another long drag and leaned back in the booth. “Thanks for the cigarette. Damn.” She suddenly looked like she’d aged a couple decades. At first I’d thought she was in her early twenties, but now I was thinking early forties. Maybe she was old and just looked young, or maybe she was young and just looked old. She was skinny.

“You look like you needed that,” I said, smiling.

“I need everything,” she said. Her hands were shaking. “Just kidding I’m just waiting for my friend to come pick me up but her phone isn’t working so I’ve been here for the last three hours waiting for her dumb ass and I told her I would be here at this specific Denny’s but I don’t have anyway I can get ahold of her cuz her phone is broke and now it’s coming up real late and I’m not even sure where I’m gonna stay tonight cuz the manager’s about to kick me out—” She pointed at a bald Hispanic man on the other side of the restaurant, staring hateful daggers at us. “That asshole he’ll probably come over here in a minute or two that asshole”

Maybe he could hear us, because at that exact moment the manager came walking toward us. He walked toward us like he was planning on shooting someone. He stopped at our table, glaring at the woman.

“I already called the cops,” he said. “I’m sorry about this sir,” he said, glancing at me. His gaze almost immediately pulled back to Tracy, who was rolling her eyes and waving her middle finger at him. “Keep doing that, you just keep doing that. The police will be here any minute. Leave this man alone and let’s wait for the police in my office.”

“It’s fine with me if she sits here,” I said. “I want to order some french fries for both of us.” The manager stared at me. “If you have chili cheese french fries, that would be awesome.” The manager stared at me, and in his eyes I could see the reflection of gigantic all-caps curse words scrolling through his head. “Please,” I said.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not serving this woman. This woman is a prostitute and a drug addict. The only reason she’s here at all is because she doesn’t have anywhere else to go. She’s in here all the time. I’m not running a hotel. I’ve already called the police and they are sending a patrol car immediately. I understand how this might seem to you, but this has been an ongoing issue for a very long time and I’m at the end of my rope. I’m just trying to do my job.”

“Fine, we’ll leave then,” I said, grabbing my book. “Let’s go,” I told her. I put a ten dollar bill on the table. She beamed, silently flicking off everyone in the restaurant as we left.

As we walked out to the car, I started instantly regretting my decision. I’ve been a druggie for long enough to know that you don’t just take strangers home with you. If she saw where I lived, she’d follow me forever.

“Look,” I said. I stopped walking. “Okay. First off, don’t take me for a mark. I’m not a mark. I don’t want that. I’m not even a good person, that manager was just being an asshole.” She started to say something, but I held up my hand. “If you have a friend that’s somewhere nearby—somewhere you want me to drop you off—that’s no worries, I can do that. If you want me to drive you to another restaurant or a hotel, that’s fine too. All I’ve got is twenty bucks, you can have that. But you can’t stay at my place. I can give you a ride, and twenty bucks. That’s everything I’ve got to offer.”

“What’s your name,” she asked. I told her my name and she repeated it several times, like a mantra. “Chris. Chris.” She leaned forward and grabbed my arm. “I’m sick, baby. You seem like such a nice guy. You’re the nicest person I think I’ve ever met. You’re so kind. I don’t think you’re a mark. It’s just that I don’t feel good. Okay? Do you understand? All I need is…” Her fingers were digging into my arm like eagle claws. “I need you to take me to…take me…” Suddenly she burst out sobbing, her body going half-limp. I caught her and held her, hugged her and stroked her hair. She smelled like a whiff of air from an open manhole.

Through the restaurant window, the manager was staring at us with a couple other employees, laughing their assess off. “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know…” she moaned, openly weeping. The manager waved a couple people over and pointed. A couple of tired looking waiters showed up. They looked through the window at us and burst out laughing, clutching their stomachs.

I held her in my arms and petted her hair and said, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.”

Forty minutes later I dropped her off at an apartment complex and gave her the rest of my money. She tried really hard to go home with me, and when that didn’t work she tried really hard to get my phone number. I said thanks but no thanks.

By this point, the sun was coming up and I would have to be at work in two hours. As we drove, she started telling me everything that had gone wrong in her life from age ten to the present.

I told her I know how it goes. At the end of the day, nobody’s really in your corner. If you’re lucky, you might find some good friends or a couple of nice people, but the bottom line is that when all the propriety and generosity burn out and fade into the vague air like a twisting ribbon of crack smoke, you’ll learn the basic laws of the universe. When you’ve got the world by the balls, an endless line of people show up to give you presents. But when you get to the point where you need everything, nobody will be there to give it to you.

When we pulled up to the apartment complex she crumpled the twenty dollar bill in her fist, leaned over, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. She looked happy. I said, “I hope that things get better for you,” but before I could finish my sentence she’d already jumped out of the car, hustling toward the apartment gates.


chris dankland lives in houston, texas