The Gray Hour

James Pate


“What time do you think we’ll get back home?” I asked Beth. We were sitting in a booth at Gale’s Cafe, and had been there for a long while, waiting for our food.

                “GPS had us coming in around midnight. I guess it depends on how much longer it takes for us to get our food.”

                “We could always just skip. We could put down a few dollars for our drinks and head out. Long as we do it before the food actually arrives.”

                “I’m starving. I don’t want to go the next nine hours without eating something.”

                “It’s not like we won’t be passing a ton of other places.”

                Beth stared at me. “Michael, settle down. We’re going to eat here. It hasn’t been as long as you think. I don’t know why you’re so antsy.”  

                Beth reached over for the salt shaker, picked it up. Then she put it down. She reached for the pepper and picked it up. And then put that down too. From looking out the windows you would think it was night but really it was a little past three in the afternoon. This was in January, which partly explained the darkness, and it had been cloudy since we left DC, and that explained it too.


                Still it didn’t seem this early should be this dark.


                The dream from the night before was why I was antsy. A dream that’d eaten into my mood that day, making me feel as if I’d never completely woken up. I’m on a bare bed and I’ve been dressed in white silk pajamas as if I were a huge human doll with huge human limbs but who has dressed me and who has had laid me out across the naked bed I do not know. Figures are in the room, at the edges. Yet due to my inability to shift my head or any other portion of my body I can’t see the faces and because they are not speaking I don’t know if their voices would be familiar.

                Part of me wants them to speak. To find out.

                Most of me doesn’t.


                My cousin, a thick-necked hairy guy who eked out a living as a DJ, had gotten married in a beer garden in DC, and we had decided to save a few hundred dollars by driving there instead of flying. Because both Beth and I had partaken of the plentiful wine and beer at the event our morning had been a slow one. We drank our coffee with no great hurry in our beige hotel room overlooking an alley slowing being covered in salt-like snow. Traffic noise came through the windows but none of the windows faced the street so we couldn’t look out at it. Our windows did have a close view of the lead-colored clouds.

                We always choose the highest floor. Even in low-statured hotels. Even in ones without elevators. A preference we both shared. Neither of us liked the idea of people sleeping and walking and eating above us.

                Like in the John Lennon song what we wanted above us was only sky.

                So we drank coffee slowly and we dressed slowly and the residue of my dream lingered in my mouth with its cool metallic taste.  Like a light creating a subtle, almost unseen shade around everything I looked at and thought.


                The woman in the Darkthrone hoodie leaning in, across the table (though truth be told I don’t remember her sitting with us in that booth), telling us, “In a previous life I pretended to be a fortune teller but what I really did was say things about a client’s past so forgotten it seemed to have happened to somebody else. And not big things either. No earth-shaking revelations. Small details were what I excelled at. What they had for lunch on their first day of third grade. The number of tattoos their great aunt from New Orleans had in their youth. The million trillion things that drop from our view. That was my gift.”


                On the road for several hours traveling eastward, both of us getting hungry. Another bond between myself and Beth was how we didn’t like breakfast and preferred cups of coffee with loads of milk and sugar and maybe a heaping spoon of coconut oil if available. At home in Milwaukee we considered ourselves morning people. Individuals who did not want to be weighed down so early with carbs and solids. Ahead of us stood a fat green metal sign telling drivers of the six or seven fast food places in the upcoming town. The sign also said GALE’S CAFE in blocky yellow letters. Beth and I looked at one another and realized that would be our place. The café stood on an apron of cracked asphalt. Its windows were bright in the dim air and through those windows you could see a few patrons eating substantial sandwiches and drinking coffee. It had a hipped roof with red shingles and rain dripped from its eaves. When Beth and I entered a bell jingled. The couple in matching white sportswear in the booth near the door turned their heads. They eyed us and smiled faintly, as if they had been expecting familiar faces and got us instead. The two smiles faded. They turned their heads back. Went on with their day.  

                “Sit anywhere you want,” a waitress informed us, moving down the aisle between the booths with a coffee pot in her hand.

                There were about a dozen customers. More than half of the booths were empty.

                After we took a seat by the jukebox I handed Beth one of the menus that had been placed between the ketchup bottle and napkin dispenser.

                A man with a cane walked by. He paused at our table.

                “Nasty afternoon,” he said, his tone so friendly and open it was as if he recognized us. “My house doesn’t have much heat, so when it gets cold out, I come here to warm up.”

                Beth said, “Is that right?” She smiled. She was an introvert who enjoyed talking to strangers but found speaking with friends draining.

                “I have a small heater I sit by,” he went on. “I have a lap dog. But some afternoons they don’t do enough. And when the cold creeps in, it starts with the fingers.”


                The figures in the dream approach the bed I lie prone on, their shadows falling across the ceiling. There must be windows in the room letting in a little blue wan daylight but because nothing in me is able to move, not even my eyes which I’ve begun to notice do not blink, the windows might as well be invisible. The light in this room is not electric or fluorescent and feeble as it is I can still tell it is streaming in from the outside (whatever the outside might mean in this dream).

                The figures draw closer. They touch the fabric of my pajamas with their fingers. How I know I am in pajamas since I can’t look down on myself I do not understand. But I know it and I know the bed is bare under me and I know this is not the first time I’ve been in this room even if I don’t know if I’ve visited it in actual lived life or in another dream.

                Fingers tug at me. Fingers run along the white silk covering my limbs.

                The ceiling shadows are two and four and six and then two again. Splitting off and folding back the way licks of flame do.

                The scissors are near. I can’t see them but I hear their opening and their closing.


                The jukebox in Gale’s Cafe which until then was a hunk of unglowing metal and glass started to flash red and blue and Patsy Cline’s voice spilled forth through a layer of vinyl scratches from the speakers. The waitress came by. I ordered a cheeseburger and coke and Beth ordered a chili dog and coke and the waitress asked us if we wanted fries and we said we did.

                “Good choice,” she said, winking. “The fries here are fantastic. Once you’ve had them you’re never going to want to leave this place.”

                After she walked away Beth and I looked out at the rain blowing across the parking lot and the street. What had been snow in DC had long since turned to showers. The wind was heavier than before. No cars curved along the glistening road. I waited and watched as if expecting something to arrive and eventually a single vehicle drove by. A van with a dented fender and rusted hubcaps. Though I know more than a little about vehicles, my uncles having owned a garage, the van seemed so generic I couldn’t guess a make, a model.

                It rode up into the lot of the cafe. It parked beside our Honda. A woman in a black hoodie emerged from the driver’s side.

                “When it’s cold out, I come here to warm up.”

                I was startled by the voice. The old man stood at our table again, his hands folded over the top of his cane. His eyes were locked on my face. I said, “That’s good. It’s warm in here.”

                He shifted his weight from one leg to the next. “I’ve been here such a long time, I don’t remember arriving.” He laughed, and it was a deeper, harsher laugh than I would’ve expected from such a frail man.

                Beth stared at him. She wasn’t smiling.

                The waitress appeared by the old man and apologized to us and led him away to a booth at the far side of the cafe.

                The bell at the door jingled. The woman coming in was the woman who had stepped from the van and now that she was closer I saw the hoodie had letters on it, a name, Darkthrone, heavy metal band from the suburbs of Oslo, Norway, and her hair now that she had removed the hood was long and straight and entirely blue. A dye tone bringing to my mind Youtube videos of flashing underwater lifeforms.

                The waitress nodded to her. She nodded in return.

                From this exchange you could tell they were familiar with each other.

                The woman in the hoodie brought her hand up and before I could tell what she held she said, “Anybody lose a watch out there? I found this by the door.”

                Every head in the café shifted.

                Beth who sat with her back to the woman turned too.

                The watch held aloft by the woman in the hoodie had an orange plastic wrist band and as everybody shook their heads and/or murmured no I felt sick as I said, “Could I see that? It might be mine.”

                Sick because if that watch was mine it had not been on my wrist that day. Nor had it been with me at all. Shortly before leaving Milwaukee for the wedding the hour hand had stopped at three. That watch if it was my watch should not have been here but rather in a drawer in the bedroom of our apartment on Grant Street. Under socks and folded underwear.

                She came up to our booth.

                I heard Darkthrone on the radio once, when getting a tattoo.

                The lettering grew larger as she approached.

                She held the watch in front of my eyes.

                The face of it faced me.

                A broken watch reading three o’clock: which meant it was mine.

                I could not speak. My mouth was tight and dry. I could feel the skull inside my head. The woman in the hoodie placed the watch on the table, near my hands. I picked it up, held it in my palm. It was as if it had followed me, slipping up through a sliver of space from the not-entirely-shut-drawer and hitting hard against bare wood floor and somehow finding a means of departure through the window, into the outside.

                I made myself stop seeing this, imagining this.

                Beth said, “I thought you left that back at the apartment.”

                Why was the woman in the hoodie not walking away? Why was she lingering?

                I looked at Beth. I lied to her and said no, I had brought it with me.

                “You were wearing a broken watch?” she asked.

                I lied. I told her I’d forgotten it was broken.

                Her expression made it clear how little she believed me.


                In the restroom mirror of the cafe I saw my face dripping and my forehead seemed larger and rounder than on an average day because of the hard gleam of the lightbulbs set within scalloped shaped glass above my reflection and I thought about the dream from the beige DC hotel room where I could not do anything but look up at the ceiling crisscrossed by shadow and nothing of me moved and this led me to think about an actual day, a real picnic, with Beth and I in our early days with one another, the two of us in a secluded spot in a park near the state border and how our clothes were mingled in a pile on one side of our Simpsons blanket with coffee mugs and a box of candy-sweet wine on the other. Sooner or later Beth rose to go pee. I heard her walk into the trees. I heard shrubs shake. My eyes stared up into the depths of the tree branches though it was not their depths really since I was staring up. I thought how peaceful it would be to remain there, half of my body in sunlight and the other half in shade, the breeze trickling through the hairs of my arms and legs.

                To lock into that instant. A frame cut from a film reel.

                In my reflection my face dripped.

                Not looking with my eyes but through them.


                Back in the booth.

                I ran my finger over the crack on my watch’s glass face.

                Three o’clock remained three o’clock. Like that line you hear about how the broken watch is right twice a day but what if you flipped the order and the watch is informing the wearer it is three o’clock now and now and now and will continue to be so from every now now on.

                 Beth asked, “Were you really wearing that watch today?”

                 I said nothing. I looked at her with what I knew to be a miserable face.  

                “You were lying to me.”

                I picked up the watch and looked at the hour hand. I held the watch out to her. “Look at where the hour hand is,” I said.

                She took the watch, her eyes examining my face, and just as she was about to glance down the waitress arrived at our table. She carried a tray with two steaming plates. She placed them in front of us. “You going to be needing anything else?” she asked.

                “Do you happen to have the time?” I asked back.

                “The time?” She looked behind her shoulder, at the door that led into the kitchen. “We usually have a clock there. I forgot, though. The clock broke last week.” She chuckled. “And I don’t wear a watch. Or have my phone with me.”

                “That’s all right then,” Beth told her.

                The waitress asked the two old men in the booth across from us, “Bob and Eddie, you all happen to have the time?”

                One of the guys looked at his wrist. “About two freckles past a hair I’d say.”

                The guys didn’t laugh. The one who spoke did not seem humored by his joke.  

                “Smart ass,” said the waitress. She reached out and lifted one of the fries from my plate and placed it in her mouth and chewed. “We really do have the best fries here, honey. You all need to try them before they get cold.” She winked, wiping her fingers on her apron.

                After she left I asked Beth, “Did you look at my watch?”


                “The watch.”

                We stared at one another. The rain hissed against the cafe. The jukebox played Patsy Cline. The same song over and over. The one where she’s walking after midnight. The one where she’s searching for you.

                Beth still held the watch. She gazed down and looked back up. “So what? It reads a few minutes before three. That’s what it got stuck on.”  

                “Did you notice the clock in the car when we got here?”

                “Can’t say I did.”

                “That was a few minutes before three too.”

                “Funny coincidence.”

                She picked up a fry. She dipped it in ketchup. She looked at it dripping red for a few seconds and placed it back on her plate.

                “We could check the time on our phones,” she said.

                “We could,” I said.

                We didn’t.


                Looking back I don’t remember the woman in the hoodie sitting with us but she must’ve because I get these flashes and at times she is on my side of the booth and with other flashes she is on Beth’s but she’s there making the two of us three and our food has not arrived yet but it is always just about to and she says, “In a previous life I was a fortune teller. But not the type who knows what will happen to a client. Instead, I could say to them with one hundred percent accuracy what would not happen to them. How they would not see California from a plane again. How they would never swim again in an Olympic sized pool. How they would not see a particular distant relative again. The omissions, the events slipping through cracks — that was my foresight. That was my way of knowing.”


                One of the old men across from us stood out from the booth and limped past our table. The man who remained in the booth turned his head toward us. He wore a yellow baseball cap and his long beard hung to his midriff and looked dirty, speckled with mud. “It’s getting mighty cold out there,” he said in a growling voice. “Any moment now that rain will switch to snow. Then we’re all going be stuck here.”

                The woman with the Darkthrone hoodie sitting at the counter swiveled on her stool. “That’s right, Eddie. You’d have to be crazy to be out on a night like this.” Then she swiveled further and said to myself and Beth, “I bet you two wish you didn’t have to get back out. I bet you wish you could stay here just drinking our coffee and eating our fries. I bet you wish you could stay with us for a good long time.”

                The waitress passed along the aisle, holding the coffee pot. “They haven’t had a single fry yet,” she said. “You’d almost think they’re afraid to eat them.”

                “They’re probably scared to eat it because you built it up so much in their heads,” the old man retorted. “They’re probably sitting there thinking, how could these fries possibly be as good as Dorothy was telling us. They’re afraid they’re going to try it and be all disappointed.” To us, he said, “Is that right? You two afraid of being disappointed?”

                I didn’t answer him, and Beth didn’t either. I stared around the room and saw everyone in the cafe had turned. Everyone was staring at us.


                In the dream they cut my clothes away. Shadows dance like flame across the flat plane of the ceiling. My dead eyes can see nothing else. Only that which is above me. Through the windows which I have slowly realized are open to the wintery afternoon snow is drifting. Swirling. Falling harder and closer to my naked arms and naked legs. Almost but not quite touching. As with all else in this place except for the ceiling I cannot see the snow but the dream has its way of telling me it is there. The white flakes drift in and gather in clumps on the floorboards. Then the wind gathers force, its frosty breath blowing the snow along the edges of the bed, creating bookends of ice around my motionless body. The figures watch. The figures whose faces I will never glimpse are my witnesses.


                Beth said, “Let’s get out of here.”

                She stood, picking her coat up from the booth. I wrapped my scarf around my throat and zipped my jacket and glared at the people in the cafe who were calmly eyeing us. The waitress stood in the middle of the aisle, holding the coffee pot. The rain continued to clatter across the rooftop. “I hope you plan on paying,” said the waitress.

                A hand clasped my elbow. It was the old man with the cane. I tried to break my arm from his grip but his hand clasped hard. He was grinning. He lifted his cane. He whipped it across my face. I felt blood drip from my nose. He raised his cane to strike me again, but before he did I pushed him, putting my full weight into it, and he fell backwards on to the floor, his cane clattering against the linoleum.

                The waitress moved toward us. Steam rose from her pot of coffee.

                Beth went up to her. “We’re not paying for shit,” she said.

                “You don’t think so?” the waitress asked back. She tilted the pot and coffee began to splatter on the floor. “You’re already paying, baby.”

                Everyone in the café stood from their booths. They accumulated around us.

                We pushed through them, Beth going first and me following her. Some touched my jacket and the back of my neck and I saw the waitress’ hand reach out and yank Beth’s hair as Beth fought through their bodies. “Move out of the fucking way,” she yelled. But they gathered in tighter as we neared the door.       

                Beth struck out, hitting an old man in the face, and I pushed a bearded man back when he started pulling on my jacket. Beth forced the door open. I saw a hand reach out and grab her face and she opened her mouth wide and bit into it and the bleeding hand withdrew and Beth brought her arm back and clutched on to the neck of my jacket and there were hands on my knees and calves and I kicked at them and stumbled and then we were outside in front of the cafe in the rain and cold and the open air felt clean on my face.   

                We ran to the car. We climbed in. We locked our doors. The patrons of Gale’s Cafe were gathering outside now, silently and slowly, standing under the green awning. The windows behind them showed empty booths, empty tables. The waitress shouted, “Be careful out there. And remember, we’ll be right here, waiting for you. Maybe next time you’ll let yourselves try our fries.”

                Beth flipped her off. There was blood on her chin from the hand she’d bitten into.

                As we pulled out from the lot and into the street I was startled by how dark it was despite my inner clockwork telling me this should be late afternoon and not full out night. Only the few feet of road lit by the headlights was visible. “Crazy fucking place,” I said.

                Beth stared at me. With my eyes on the road I could not see her. But her eyes were focused on me. Almost a kind of heat.

                Walking after midnight, in the moonlight, looking for you.

                I repeated what I said before but with a difference, hoping she might respond to the change. “That place was nuts.”

                She continued to stare. She said, “Do you have your watch?”

                I pressed on the accelerator, as if this hour had an end, and speed could push us past it.



James Pate teaches creative writing and Gothic literature at Shepherd University, and his fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Harpur Palate, and Superstition Review, among other places. His book of poems, The Fassbinder Diaries, was published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2013, and his collection of essays titled Flowers Among the Carrion was published by Actions Books in 2016. In June 2018 he was a guest editor for Burning House Books.