One of the most exciting things about editing a literary magazine is when a short story gets us talking. Sure. We read every submission carefully and leave our collective comments accordingly; very often going back and forth, championing stories that we love or trying to tactfully point out a submission’s weaknesses. But I mean, talking-talking. I mean, a story so compelling that one of us simply cannot help but pick up the phone and call; a story so compelling that we must speak! “Gratuity” by Tim Johnston is such a story.
The couple in the second red booth was having an argument. The man, fortyish with slicked-back blond-white hair, was wearing an expensive charcoal overcoat. Even inside the restaurant. The red-haired woman, perhaps his wife and perhaps not, was listening and looking around. Listening and looking around. Shushing him. The man raised his voice. He said they weren’t coming back to this restaurant. Not ever. Not ever, dammit. The woman whispered, loud enough for Hubert to hear, that the man was embarrassing her. To please stop it. To stop it for God’s sakes. For God’s sakes please stop it you’re embarrassing me.
The man did not stop it. He said, and Hubert wasn’t the only one who heard him, “If they want to advertise great service, then I have the right to advertise that they don’t deliver on what they advertise.”
Hubert thought it was odd, almost funny, that the man used the word “advertise” three times in one sentence. Maybe he could have used it once, and then could have said “I have the right to complain” and then “that they don’t deliver on what they promise.” But the man said “advertise” three times. Hubert didn’t know whether to tell him or not. Maybe he would tell him. Maybe the woman would tell him. Yes. She could tell him: “For God’s sakes, don’t say the word three times in one sentence. You’re embarrassing me.”
But the woman did not tell him that. She just said “You’re impossible” and then she smiled, and then said she wanted a refill of her iced tea. The man said, and loud at that, “Maybe if we pitch freaking tents and get a good night’s sleep, your iced tea will arrive in the morning.” The woman laughed and told the man again how impossible he was.
She seemed to like his impossibility, or was it his impossibleness? She held his hand now, and Hubert thought that was strange, almost funny, since the man embarrassed her and was impossible and used the same word three times in one sentence. Hubert didn’t know whether to remind her of how embarrassed she was. He considered reminding her that less than a minute ago she was so embarrassed for God’s sakes. He could say here’s your unsweet tea ma’am and why are you holding the hand of a man who is impossible and says words like advertise three times in one sentence.
Visit Mulberry Fork Review: Issue 1 (page 26) to continue reading and you will see for yourself, Tim sustains a narrative voice that one of our editors referred to as, “brilliant, and pitch perfect.”
It is difficult to sustain a believable narrative voice but especially when writing from the close third-person perspective of a main character like Hubert. It is our editorial assumption that Hubert is a high-functioning autistic adult; if not autistic, then somewhere on the spectrum of disorders. Tim very skilfully helps the reader ease into the story. He essentially teaches us how to read “Gratuity” by presenting the reader with an unfolding situation, raising inequities and questions about what might be going on and then giving us the inside bead on Hubert’s skewed, but humorously literal (and, yes, logical), viewpoint.
Tim also does another important thing. He gives the reader credit. The narrator provides essential background information but is never once tempted to the lectern. The narrator holds the line; doesn’t feel the need to pander or explain or preach. In other words, the narrator shows us rather than tells us. A cliché, I know… but true.
TIM JOHNSTON is a writer and editor living in Beaufort, South Carolina. His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Hobart, PineStraw Magazine, O. Henry, Civil War Camp Chest, and Short Story America.
Tim is also the editor of Short Story America. SSA is a brilliant site “dedicated entirely to the short story…Whether you seek short stories for casual reading, for the classroom or for the purpose of developing your own craft as a writer, Short Story America is a great library and bookshop for every short-story enthusiast.” Also check out the SSA anthologies Volume 1 and Volume 2 both contain excellent short stories by today’s top writers. You may purchase the anthologies directly from Short Story America.