When Time Stopped at Gunther Toody's

by Chris Talbot-Heindl

One moment, they were staring into their date’s twinkling eyes and admiring her beautiful laugh, sipping on one of the two straws stuck in a strawberry Surfer Smoothie placed halfway between the two of them in a tacky, red vinyl booth at Gunther Toody’s; the next moment, everything stopped.

Billie heard – or rather didn’t hear – the café go silent before they noticed that everything had stopped; everything except themself. Jimena’s almond eyes and dark cherry lips held in place, one strikingly well-defined eyebrow raised at something Billie had said. The wait staff were frozen in mid-step, their kitschy hot pink uniforms caught like photographs.

From what Billie could observe, they were the only animated object or person in the joint. Even the soda machine had frozen with a trapped stream of Mug Root Beer half way between the spigot and the metal container they used to make malts and shakes.

Billie heard the tinkling bell of someone entering and watched as a white man quickly approached. Billie felt themself freeze as well; not by the same mechanism everything else had, but by fear. Billie’s therapist had assured them that this was perfectly natural.

“People think there’s only fight or flight, but there’s a third fear response: freeze. This is quite common in people who have been sexually assaulted. It is perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of. It’s the hormones flooding your body,” she had said.

Billie imagined those hormones flooding each and every inch of their body, causing this seizing up.

The man wore green cargo pants with too many pockets. That was Billie’s first thought – there are too many pockets; too many places to hide things. Billie wasn’t sure why that thought, but anxiety didn’t have to be logical. He had tattoos all over his arm – not quite a full sleeve – but splotches and groupings of tattoos. Some were obviously professionally made, others looked like an amateur had done them with a needle and some India ink. And quite prominent on his upper forearm was a large swastika.

He strode up to the booth where Billie and Jimena sat, he eyeballed them both – spending an uncomfortable amount of time on Jimena’s mouth, Billie’s afro puffs and naked face – and then he brought his face close to Billie’s.

Billie could see his 5-o-clock shadow on the top of his head, the wrinkles that betrayed how often this man must frown and worry, and a ridiculous patch of sideburn on either side of his face – like Wolverine’s, but being the only bit of hair on his head or face, it didn’t have the same effect as the superhero’s.

“You will not replace us,” he practically growled. Billie could smell a mixture of eggs and beer on his breath and wished he would take a few steps back. “You have forgotten that girls are girls and men are men. Look at you here, pretending to be a man with your little date with this doll!” he gesticulated wildly at Jimena, and Billie was afraid that he might strike her, but couldn’t move to do anything about it. Billie felt droplets of cold sweat drip down the back of their neck and soak the neckline of their shirt.

“Our Western culture is being crippled by your negro, lesbian, communist ass, and her chola bullshit too. But we men – those born with a penis, just so we’re on the same page – we aren’t going to take it anymore! We won’t be ashamed of ourselves and accept the blame for slavery, the wage gap, gay-bashing, or anything else you people try to pin on us,” the man had worked himself into a frenzy. Billie could see his veins bulging and the vein by his temple throbbing with exertion. This last sentence was in a near shout: “We were the past, we are the future, and you will not replace us!”

As quickly as time had frozen, it now restarted. The din of the 50’s diner replaced the panic-ringing in Billie’s ears; Jimena’s infectious laugh replaced her previous stillness. The man turned and approached a grouping of small tables pushed together across from Billie and Jimena’s booth and pulled a Bible out of one of the many pockets of his too-many-pocketed cargo pants.

“Chad! You made it! I’m so glad,” a man wearing a button-up dress shirt pulled out a chair for Chad and Chad sat down nonchalantly like nothing had happened. Billie had to wonder if anything did.

Billie was still frozen, dumbfounded.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Jimena asked. Billie felt her warm hand cover theirs. Billie did as their therapist suggested and shook out the hormones to unfreeze.

“It happened again,” Billie answered quietly. “I’d like to go.”

“Of course. I can get the check,” Jimena immediately began what Billie liked to call her Action Mode – analyzing steps and making things happen. God, Billie loved this woman.

“No, I’ll just leave a $20.” Billie grabbed their wallet from their back pocket, dug out a $20 and left it on the table. They grabbed Jimena’s hand and swung out of their side of the booth, assisting Jimena up from hers. On their way out, Billie turned once more towards the Bible group seated at the grouping of small tables scrunched together and caught Chad’s eye. Chad winked as they pushed the door open to leave.

Chris Talbot-Heindl is a Denver-based creator making stories, zines, art, and blasé things pretty. They are the editor of the quarterly art and lit compzine The Bitchin' Kitsch and are currently attempting a graphic novel illustrating what it's like to be non-binary or gender non-conforming in today's binary society.