Amor Vincit Omnia (Nth Street)
The condition of loving someone or something that does not exist.
Shelby’s Diner is settled on the corner of Nth Street and Main, across the street from Christ's Love Book Store and just beside John-John's Car Parts. When Shelby's first opened, they offered free lunches to all the mechanics at John-John's, because the owner, McNaulty, drove a Ford that used to break down every time it rained.
The Ford finally died buried under six feet of snow during the worst winter the town had seen in as long as anyone's memory. McNaulty begged John-John to use it for parts, not willing to put his baby down forever, and in honor of their friendship and the free lunches, John-John did. Now nobody's car runs in the rain, but old Mrs. Merle makes a killing selling knitted umbrellas. Mrs. Merle's umbrellas are the best in three counties, so long as you don't mind getting a little wet.
Technically McNaulty owns the apartment above Shelby's, but he doesn't sleep there and hasn't since the diner's fourth New Years celebration, when he collected a severe case of climacophobia that prevents him from climbing the stairs.
Here are the things that everyone knows about the eponymous Shelby:
1.) she was blonde, with four freckles lined up below her right eye,
2.) she never tasted a single bite of her own cooking, not even the pies (though they were her favorite),
3.) she was the only one who knew McNaulty by his first name, and
4.) she suffered from cometophobia, a terror born from both a major in astronomy and a love of dinosaurs, and made worse by her chronic anablephobia—the fear of looking up.
And here is the thing that only McNaulty knows: there has never been a Shelby.
Shelby's Cranberry-Apple-Cranberry Cupcake, Shelby's Babyback/Babyback Ribs, Shelby's Six-Ounce Burg-O-Rama, and all of Shelby's Specials are what made the diner famous, but Shelby was just what was written on the nametag of a check-out girl that McNaulty had made a pass at once in high school. He remembered it only because of her soft accent, the way she pronounced the "el" in her name as "ale."
McNaulty has been inventing Shelby for years, piecing her together with stories and new Shelby's Specials and invented traditions that he claims come from her paternal grandfather. His Shelby loved to look at dogs, but she hated to touch them; his Shelby once scored the winning goal in a rivalry match between two nunneries in the south of France; his Shelby once tied a ribbon around her mouth and refused to speak to him for six days when he told her he didn't like her brioche. Every year he closes Shelby's for a weekend and makes a pilgrimage to a grave that doesn't exist. He sits at the edge of a cemetery where Shelby isn't and weeps for the wife she wasn’t.
His Shelby collected phobias in an old Chinese takeout box, writing their names on the back of all her old fortunes, because she had been fearless all her life and she was terrified that it had left her incomplete.
McNaulty does it now in her honor, and this is why he sleeps on a mattress in the office and refuses to serve lemons.
"Buenos días, Boss," Olive Yoo says when she comes in, as she does every morning. McNaulty nods at her across the counter. One of her pineapple earrings has fallen out of her ear and gotten hooked onto her collar. "Looks like it's going to be hot today. The radio said we might hit a hundred. I left the air conditioning in my house on in case it gets too warm because the last time I forgot to and all my crayons melted on my white rug. Which ended up being okay, actually, because that was right when all of that 'melted colors' stuff was getting big so I just thought, hey, it's art, and left it. Bit weird on your toes though, kind of soft and slick like candle wax."
McNaulty hasn't yet collected thermophobia, but he's been expecting it for several years now, so he nudges the air conditioning down a few degrees and reaches for a sweater. "We've got some bacon in the kitchen if you're hungry," he says. "Steve and Suzy had another fight, so he's been in since five making bacon and crème brûlée."
Steve Stevenson is Shelby's baker and reluctant chef. He was born during an Indian summer—bad luck, his grandfather said, and maybe that was true because he was born in love with the baby in the next crib and she was born allergic to the natural oils on his skin. They've never once touched except through the safety of gloves or Mrs. Merle's knitted jackets.
Olive makes a sympathetic face and pushes open the kitchen's large swinging doors. Steve is perched on a stool in front of the stove, miserably nudging strips of bacon back and forth across the fryer and eating an apple with his free hand. Steve always makes bacon when he's upset, but he never eats it, because his girlfriend Suzy is a vegan, and when she smells it on his breath it always makes her cry.
When Olive was thirteen, her father bought a new grill and made them eat outside every day unless it was raining. She loved her father. When he died, she didn't know what to do with all that leftover devotion so she started loving barbecue instead.
"Aloha, Steve. The Boss said you and the Suze had a fight," she says, peeling one of the bacon slices off the plate and dropping it into her mouth. "And I can see by the copious amounts of bacon on this plate that it's either that or they were playing re-runs of the cupcake special on the food channel again. Which, by the way, is something you need to stop watching, because you're always emotional after and last time you completely ruined the flan."
Steve hates cupcakes. He finds them offensive.
He doesn't look up. "I don't want to talk about it," he says, and then, "she said she was happy. With the way things are."
"'The way things are' being that whole allergy thing?"
"She said it made us 'wonderfully tragic.'"
Olive, who has always been prone to looking on the bright side, eats another strip of bacon. "Well . . . doesn't it, a bit? I mean, yes, I suppose you could look at it as like this horrible, sad inevitability that just hovers over your heads every moment that you're together. I suppose you could look at it like that. Knowing you, I suppose you do look at it like that. But on the other hand, I don't know, don't you think it's a little romantic? Don't you think it makes your relationship sort of special and weird, but weird in that way that everyone always wants their romances to be? If you guys have kids—or well, you can't, but if you adopt kids—and they ask you how you met, you can say, I fell in love with her the first day I was born, and I've never touched her, but she's perfect, give her a kiss for me. That's lovely, isn't it? It's lovely. It's . . . poetic. And anyway, doesn't the fact that she's happy mean that she loves you?"
Steve slaps another strip of bacon onto the fryer. "I'd at least like her to be upset about it."
The bell outside jingles once. Olive claps Steve's shoulder. "That'll be the twins. And hey, at least she said 'wonderfully tragic.' So there's still hope that it could all end in despair." She puts the plate of bacon in the fridge, grabbing a strip on her way out.
The Rooney twins come in every day at nine. Dana always orders coffee and the cobbler; Cary always gets artichoke hearts and Shelby's Cranberry-Apple-Cranberry Cupcake. They always sit at the only table that's next to a window. They always put a song on the jukebox, and it is always "Blue Suede Shoes."
Dana and Carey are completely identical except that they are nothing alike. They say that Cary takes after their father, and he does, though of course Cary and Dana's father is actually Ralph Goddard, a custodial technician who worked at their mother's secretarial college the year that Patrick Rooney was in the North Pole showing Van Gogh to penguins. Dana doesn't look like anyone in particular, though it could be argued that he has the Hapsburg nose.
Dana has a strict policy about never speaking to anyone but Cary for more than two minutes. He's always found mankind more bearable that way. Everyone puts their best foot forward when they only have two minutes to do it.
Of course, that was before McNaulty hired a five-foot-nothing sepia-toned girl with soft brown eyes and hair that she kept twisted against the back of her head. The first time she took Dana's order, she'd been wearing a pink piece of flare on her uniform's front pocket. It had said Smile like you mean it!
Two minutes, Dana Rooney thinks, is barely enough time to fully consider the way Olive's collar curls into the niche between her shoulder and neck, much less to tell her than he thinks she smells like sugar, and that sometimes when he's in the pastry section of the grocery store he takes a deep breath and half-expects to find her standing behind him.
He has never told anyone this.
"Well, bonjour, boys," Olive greets, swooping over to the table and handing them menus. She knows they don't need them, but Olive likes routine. "Which one of you is mine?"
Olive has been dating Cary for three years now. No one is really sure what made her decide one day to sit down beside him and recite the entirety of Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabelle Lee," but she had done it, and he had thought that her fingers looked like music notes when they ran through her hair. When she had finished, he'd invited her to sit down for a coffee, so she'd planted herself next to Dana and talked at them for an hour, and when it was time to lock up, she kissed Cary's cheek and that was the end of it.
Cary identifies himself by raising his hand as Olive squeezes into the booth and tucks her feet up under her. Her knees knock against Dana's leg. "Oh, sorry. That just always happens, doesn't it? You'd think I'd be able to sit next to you without some sort of terrible accident by now, but, well, that's life, isn't it? And anyway, you don't mind, you're too sweet to mind." He nods once, jerkily. "It's going to be hot today. Did you listen to the radio this morning? I always listen to Mrs. Merle's radio show, she's so funny. You can hear the customers in the background. She keeps saying that Mr. Grotto is going to recite that poem he's been writing, but he never does. I don't think he's finished it. I'd be surprised if he ever finishes it, poor thing, with that hand of his."
Cary reaches across the table to tug on a lock of Olive's hair, and she leans into his hand. Dana thinks she smells sweeter than the cobbler on the plate in front of him, thinks she's warm like pastry, thinks he'll tell her this as soon as his brother is gone.
Suzy Sarsburg always comes to Shelby's around noon. Supposedly she's a distant relative of McNaulty, through Shelby's side, so she always kisses his cheek and brings him a wrapped parcel from her mother. Usually it's a pen. Suzy's mother would collect them if only she didn't compulsively give them away.
When Suzy was six, she witnessed the death of her dog Horacio when her mother backed over him in their minivan. The incident had instilled in Suzy a kind of desperate terror of death. She splits her days now between teaching at the middle school and researching practical ways to extend her life. This is why she became a vegan. According to her calculations, she will live the age of one hundred years six months two days and fourteen hours.
Recent studies suggest that wearing high heels increases the risk of heart failure, and so Suzy has been considering buying orthopedic sneakers. She thinks she might be able to squeeze another day or two of life out of a proper pair of shoes.
"Well, for pity's sake," Suzy says as she takes a seat at the counter, "will someone ring John-John and have him do something about that car alarm? It's been ringing for almost an hour and it's giving me a migraine."
She doesn't order; McNaulty always has her sandwich ready when she comes in. When they aren't fighting, sometimes Steve comes out and they trade bites of one another's lunches, which is kind of like kissing but with lettuce and tomato.
"I've left him a message," says McNaulty, who's got cotton shoved into his ears because of the ligyrophobia that he collected on a whim last September. "But he hasn't gotten back."
Suzy pats his hand before reaching into her bag to pull out the pen her mother had given her when she'd come by for breakfast that morning. Olive comes by with a bottle of water and pops it open against the counter (a trick she'd learned in college and practiced on beer bottles in the basement until she'd perfected it). "Namaskaara, Suze," she says. "D'you see Kelly outside today? I think she's dieting again, she was having lunch with that nun and all she's eating is carrots. Well, and dressing, but it's probably low-fat, the kind they sell at Whole Foods."
Kelly had been Shelby's waitress in the nine months before Olive showed up. She'd been working the day that Olive had stumbled in, hair matted and eyeliner streaked across her cheek because she couldn't get a taxi in the rain. You can't ever get taxis when it rains, Kelly had explained, because they all get serviced at John-John's. A block or so down, the Pottery Lounge had been looking for a new girl to grout the mosaics, and Kelly was always dropping plates. Olive had wide feet, good for balance, so Kelly had written her an application on the backside of a napkin and given it to McNaulty to consider. Olive reminds McNaulty a bit of the wife he never had, in the way that her hand darts across the front of her blouse checking for loose buttons, so he'd hired her. He thinks Shelby—had there ever been one—would have approved.
Suzy looks over Olive's shoulder at the large swinging kitchen doors that Steve is not pushing open. "Oh, well, Kelly's always dieting," she says.
"Yes, but carrots," Olive says, and thinks about living without meat, and thinks about her father and how she'd loved him, and thinks about a good hotdog. She shudders.
The problem is that Dana has been speaking in two-minute intervals for so long that he's forgotten how to do it any other way. He'd fallen in love with poetry during high school, because it was to the point, and now he talks in stanzas instead of paragraphs. Which is fine for telling the flower shop in haiku to deliver anonymous daisies to Olive Yoo's front porch, but less effective when you're trying to ask somebody to love you.
But poetry had taught him to love Shakespeare, and Shakespeare had thought him to love theater, and theater had taught him to love pretending to be somebody else. Dana can pretend to be almost anybody.
Sometimes after her shift, Olive goes and sits by Mr. Grotto's flower stand on the sidewalk between Nth Street and Jean le Rond d'Alembert Parkway. She likes the way the flowers make the air smell, especially in the summer. Olive loves flowers whenever she isn't hungry, because she can't focus all the leftover love she's got on food alone.
Three years ago, one of the Rooney brothers started dropping by to pick up a bouquet. He always got daisies. At first Olive wasn't sure which Rooney brother it was, because like everyone else, she can't tell them apart. But one day he sat himself awkwardly on the curb beside her and began to talk at length about the way that poetry can creep into your body and make all things clear, provided you don't ask it any questions. Poetry, he said, bubbled up in your soul until you couldn't keep it in anymore, and that's how you knew you were a poet.
"Yes," Olive had said, "yes, that's it, exactly! That's how I feel, except all the time, except I can't keep myself from just saying every single thing that's on my mind, though of course I know that nobody cares whether I stubbed my toe on the lamp this morning or that when I spat out my toothpaste it looked like the face of Jesus in my sink."
The Rooney had leaned his shoulder into hers. "You're a poet, Olive," he'd told her softly.
Olive had looked at her watch. They'd been sitting for an hour. Dana only ever speaks for two minutes at a time, so she'd asked, "Cary, it's you, isn't it? I can never tell you two apart, for the life of me you're just the same."
The Rooney had smiled at her and shrugged a little. "We are who we pretend to be," he'd said, and taken her hand.
"I just don't think you're nearly as invested in this relationship as I am," says Steve, viciously forming a sugar-rose on the plump head of a cupcake. "I just don't think it bothers you that you can't touch me. I just don't think you even want to."
"Steve honey, you're overdoing the icing," Suze says, instead of answering. "No one will be able to eat it and get the proportions right."
"No one will ever be able to eat it and get the proportions right, it's a cupcake," Steve snaps disdainfully. "And stop trying to distract me. I'm right, aren't I?"
"Of course not."
"At least look at me when you're lying. Make the effort."
"Oh, for pity's sake. What's the point of wanting something you can't have? What, would you rather that I spent my days miserable and unhappy because I can't touch you? Would you rather I walk around like McNaulty? Is that what you want?"
Steve puts the cupcake on a plate and leaves it on the counter for Olive. He's always thought that McNaulty and Shelby must have had the perfect relationship. There's something beautiful about the hopeful look that McNaulty always has on his face when the door swings open, as if he's half-expecting his dead wife to walk back in and say the first name that only she knows. "I mean, don't you love me that much?" Steve asks, and Suzy looks hard at her placemat.
Dana hasn't told his brother Cary about his afternoons with Olive. He hasn't told his brother that the only reason he's been able to speak with her for more than two minutes at a time is because he's been pretending to be Cary. Cary can speak for hours about things that he doesn't understand—though Cary sticks mainly to philosophy, because he's under the impression that if he doesn't understand an idea than it must be clever.
Cary maintains that poetry is for the lazy, but he finds memorizing the way that Olive's skirt moves around her leg when she walks, so he reads it.
Mr. Grotto's niece Lulu causes a bicyclist to run into the flower stand that Tuesday and knock it over, so instead of buying daisies Olive lets Dana take her to the park. He holds her hand as he tells her that there is nothing more beautiful than a poem made out of nouns, because objects are everything.
"It would be better if we spoke only in nouns," he says.
"But then how could we do things?" asks Olive. "How could you love someone if there wasn't the word for it?"
Once a year, McNaulty empties the vault of the old Chinese takeout box and throws all of his phobias away. The only two he keeps are his Shelby's—cometophobia and anablephobia—because it reminds him of the way her eyes didn't light up in front of a fire. He always makes a big to-do out of this. There's a barbeque, and Olive Yoo never works because she prefers to plant herself next to the grill and close her eyes and smell her father and the summer that she was thirteen.
This year McNaulty hires a caterer because Steve's been fighting with Suzy so much that all he ever wants to cook is bacon. McNaulty could just make the food himself, but he prefers to sit at the counter of the restaurant and listen to the sounds of the pots banging together and pretend that it is Shelby that he can't see.
"I don't think she really loves me," Steve says miserably as McNaulty pulls out koniophobia and sets it on fire using the special box of matches that he uses for the occasion. Outside, Mrs. Merle is teaching Suzy how to knit. "I think she loves the absence of me, I think she loves that she has me and doesn't. Suzy loves paradoxes."
McNaulty swirls his finger in the small pile of ashes his koniophobia has made, loving the way that the dust feels tucked beneath his fingernail. It feels good to have them dirty again. "Isn't love itself a paradox?" McNaulty asks philosophically, thinking of the way Shelby's hair used to curl when she cut it too short. "Nobody ever really loves anyone else. We can't, they're too complicated." He pats Steve on the hand. "Love what is available to you to love."
He stands, tearing up his climacophobia and walking towards the stairs that lead to his apartment. He'd left the TV on the day he'd added put it in the Chinese box and it's been playing all this time. He misses his couch. "At least, that's what Shelby used to tell me."
"I don't think he really loves me," Suzy says as she purls one and goes in to knit two. "I think he loves a me that he's imagined. I think he loves a me that doesn't exist."
"Oh, honey," chuckles Mrs. Merle, thinking of her dead husband Jerry and the way she sees his ghost around corners, "that's how everybody loves."
"You have perfect hands," Cary is saying, perched behind Olive by the grill. McNaulty has just set fire to his sesquipedalophobia and is celebrating by singing the chorus from the Mary Poppins song 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidotious.' "I can't do anything but look at them when you recite."
Olive laughs, pleased. She presses a kiss to his cheek. She says, "There isn't anyone quite like you. You and your brother are so different, such different things to love. Isn't it funny, I'd have never loved you if you hadn't started coming to the flower stand, and you'd have never loved me if I hadn't started to recite for you."
Cary opens his mouth to ask, what flower stand? when he realizes that he hasn't seen Dana, that Dana didn't come.
Oliva is watching him carefully, with an expression he can't read.
Oh, he thinks.
I should tell her, he thinks.
He kisses her once, on the mouth. She smiles. She has mesmerizing hands.
Thank-you, Dana, he thinks.
Dana goes to Denny's and watches from the window as Boris the fry cook plays Bocce ball with some of the nuns that run Christ's Love Book Store. Halfway through the game, the Pottery Lounge's mosaic girl Kelly comes outside with an armful of ashtrays and candlesticks and starts breaking them with a broom handle.
She looks up when she's finished, panting, and there’s a look in her eyes that says she’s only done destroying because she can’t lift her arms anymore. Dana thinks: Yeah.
Dana thinks: I hear that.
At half-past eight, Mrs. Merle falls asleep in her chair and Suzy goes to find Steve. He is sitting under the orange lantern lights that Olive had hung earlier that day. They're bright against the fading blue sky. They look like the fires that McNaulty keeps lighting.
They sit side-by-side for a moment, almost touching. Suzy thinks she can remember the first day that she was born, when she had turned her little head and seen the baby in the bed next to hers.
"Well," she says.
Steve takes a bite of an apple. He puts his chin in his free hand. "Well."
"I don't wish I could touch you," Suzy admits gently. "I like that we can't. I like the romance of it. I like that we're like characters in some sort of tragic novel. I like imagining us that way."
"But we're not that way. Those people aren't real."
Suzy wraps her hand in a napkin and places it over his. "So what?" she asks.
Olive lets Steve boss the caterers around as the night winds down, Suzy stationed at his side, holding his hand through a swathe of napkins. She runs across the street to Denny's for a soda--they're all out at Shelby's, and McNaulty has already left on his yearly pilgrimage to Shelby's grave.
Dana is at the window. She knows it must be Dana because she'd left Cary in his booth at Shelby's.
"Hello, Dana," Olive greets. Dana's hands automatically go to his pockets, a habit she'd once ascribed to Cary. He smiles at her, then looks down at the floor and huffs a breath out of his nose. "I have two minutes, right? That's the rule? Two minutes to tell you everything?"
"That's the policy," Dana agrees, wincing.
"There isn't anyone quite like you," Olive muses. "You and your brother are so different, such different things to love. Isn't it funny, I'd have never loved you if you hadn't started coming to the flower stand, and you'd have never loved me if I hadn't started to talk to you. You gave me more than two minutes."
Dana blinks at her, jaw going a little slack. Olive kisses his cheek. "It's okay," she says. "We love what's available for us to love."
"Does Cary know?" Dana asks, voice hoarse. "Does Cary know you know?"
Olive shrugs. She looks at her watch. "That's my two minutes," she says, and goes to get her soda.
McNaulty leaves Olive and Steve to lock up and drives the fifty minutes to the next town.
There's a private detective there that McNaulty has had on the payroll for almost a decade. He always goes to see him after the barbeque, when he is new and nearly fearless. Upon arrival, the detective hands him a stack of files and then leaves to get a drink at the bar next door.
McNaulty looks through the stacks of found Shelbies—all blonde, all with freckles—and he finds relief in seeing their unfamiliar faces. He finds relief in knowing that no matter how many times he drives out to the cemetery, there will never be a grave with her name written on it.
Acerophobia: the fear of sourness.
Thermophobia: the fear of heat.
Ligyrophobia: the fear of loud noises.
Sesquipedalophobia: the fear of long words.