The open field is white and still.
The streetlamps wink out.
I sit up, unbelievably stiff.
There’s the faintest dusting of snow on my coat.
My breath plumes in the cold.
Of all the versions of Chicago I’ve seen, none can touch the serenity of this morning.
Where the empty streets keep everything hushed.
Where the sky is white and the ground is white and the buildings and the trees stand starkly against it all.
I think of the seven million people still in bed under the covers or standing at their windows, looking out between the curtains at what the storm left behind.
Something so safe and comforting in the imagining of it.
I struggle onto my feet.
I woke up with a crazy idea.
Something that happened in the bar last night, right before the other Jason showed up, inspired it. It’s nothing I would have ever thought of on my own, which makes me almost trust it.
Heading back across the park, I walk north toward Logan Square.
At the first convenience store I come to, I go inside and buy a single Swisher Sweets cigar and a mini BIC lighter.
My coat is damp from the snow.
I hang it at the rack by the entrance and make my way down the counter.
This place feels gloriously authentic, as if it’s always been here. The 1950s-era vibe isn’t from the red-vinyl upholstering on the booths and stools or the framed photographs of regulars on the walls down through the decades. It comes, I think, from never changing. The smell of the place is all bacon grease and brewing coffee and the indelible remnants of a time when I would’ve been moving through clouds of cigarette smoke en route to a table.
Aside from a few customers at the counter, I spot two cops in one booth, three nurses just off-shift in another, and an old man in a black suit staring with a kind of bored intensity into his cup of coffee.
I sit at the counter just to be near the heat radiating off the open grill.
An ancient waitress comes over.
I know I must look homeless and strung-out, but she doesn’t let on, doesn’t judge, just takes my order with a worn-out midwestern courtesy.
It feels good to be indoors.
The windows are fogging up.
The cold is leaving my bones.
This all-night diner is only eight blocks from my house, but I’ve never eaten here.
When the coffee arrives, I wrap my dirty fingers around the ceramic mug and soak in the warmth.
I had to do the math in advance.
All I can afford is this cup of coffee, two eggs, and some toast.
I try to eat slowly, to make it last, but I’m famished.
The waitress takes pity on me and brings more toast at no extra charge.
It makes me feel even lousier about what’s going to happen.
I check the time on my drug-dealer flip phone, the one I bought to call Daniela in another Chicago. It won’t make calls in this world—I guess minutes aren’t transferable across the multiverse.
Jason2 probably left for work twenty minutes ago in order to catch the train to his 9:30 lecture.
Or maybe he hasn’t left at all. Maybe he’s sick, or staying home today for some reason I’ve not anticipated. That would be a disaster, but it’s too risky for me to go anywhere near my house to confirm that he’s not there.
I pull the $8.21 out of my pocket and set it on the counter.
It just barely covers my breakfast plus a cheap-ass tip.
I take one last sip of coffee.
Then I reach into the patch pocket of my flannel button-down and pull out the cigar and the lighter.
I glance around.
The diner is now packed.
The two cops who were here when I first arrived are gone, but there’s another one sitting in the corner booth at the far end.
My hands shake imperceptibly as I tear open the packaging.
True to its name, the end of the cigar tastes faintly sweet.
It takes me three tries to strike a flame.
I fire the tobacco at the end of the cigar, draw in a mouthful of smoke, and blow a stream toward the back of the short-order cook who’s flipping hotcakes on the griddle.
For ten seconds, no one notices.
Then the older woman sitting next to me in a cat-hair-covered jacket turns and says, “You can’t do that in here.”
And I respond with something I would never in a million years even dream of saying: “But there’s nothing like a cigar after a meal.”
She looks at me through her plate-glass lenses like I’ve lost my mind.
The waitress walks over holding a carafe of steaming coffee and looking massively disappointed.
Shaking her head, she says with the voice of a scolding mother, “You know you can’t smoke that in here.”
“But it’s delicious.”
“Do I need to call the manager over?”
I take another puff.
The short-order cook—a wide, muscled guy with ink-covered arms—turns around and glares at me.
I say to the waitress, “That’s a great idea. You should go get the manager right now, because I am not putting this out.”
As the waitress leaves, the old woman sitting beside me, whose meal I’ve ruined, mutters, “What a rude young man.”
And she throws down her fork, climbs off the stool, and heads for the door.
Some of the other customers in my vicinity have begun to take notice.
But I keep smoking, until a rail of a man emerges from the back of the restaurant with the waitress in tow. He wears black jeans and a white oxford with sweat stains down the sides and a solid-color tie whose knot is unraveling.
By the general dishevelment of his appearance, I’m guessing he’s worked all night.
Stopping behind me, he says, “I’m Nick, the manager on duty. You can’t smoke that inside. You’re disturbing the customers.”
I turn slightly in my stool and meet his eyes. He looks tired and annoyed, and I feel like such a jerk putting him through this, but I can’t stop now.
I glance around, all eyes on me now, a hotcake burning on the griddle.
I ask, “Are you all disturbed by my fine cigar?”
Someone calls me an asshole.
Movement at the far end of the diner catches my eye.
The police officer slides out of the corner booth, and as he heads my way down the length of the aisle, I hear his radio crackle.