SHORT STORY by Sidney Thompson

Her name was Karma and everyone assumed if her parents had known that much when they named her, they’d have tried to prevent what she’d inevitably become. I’m not certain what exactly that is, but I’d like to think she was the prettiest lie the ugliest truth could tell.

I spent most of my life watching her from a distance. Everybody did. Few got as close to her as I eventually did, but one way or another, you’d have been walking along and seen her and something about her would have made you stop. Everyone stopped at least once. It was an unspoken truth in our town. It could have been on the sign: “Welcome to Misery Valley. Population: 1507. Home of the ghost trains, passers through and the girl by the name of Karma. Something about her will haunt you long after you leave.”
That something was different for everybody.

Karma worked at a small diner off the Old Loess Highway called Jenny's. She worked there every night but Friday. Friday’s she went in early and did the books for Wanda, the older woman who owned place. Then she did the books for everybody else in town. She was dynamite at math. That was what Wanda and all of the other restaurant owners in town had seen. They were always looking for a way to cut corners, or save, or find out if a manager was stealing.

It was the second thing I had noticed when I met her.

There were only a few types of people who occupied Jenny's on any given day. There were the truckers who would come in at different times and sit in the same six booths that ran along the wall, their asses spilling over the tops of their jeans and off the sides of their seats. Laughing loudly. Talking loudly. Chewing loudly. Then there were the old men and farmers who sat quietly at the counter, drinking coffee the color and texture of tar, while rereading the more interesting articles from last week's copy of The Valley Times, or talking to each other. And sometimes there were older women who came at around noon to play Scrabble. There were about six of them in alll and they’d drag four tables together if the big circular one in the middle of the diner, which they usually sat in, had been taken by some unknowing family of travelers, or by a bus full of kids back from Living History Farm. The women were old, but they played to win. So there was often a lot of bickering, name calling, “playfully” socking in the shoulder and dictionaries politely being pulled out to call bullshit.

But the moment Karma walked in everything became still. The understated beauty in the silent way she walked, how she held herself, set down a plate, or poured a cup of coffee captivated the attention of the old men and the farmers. She’d walk to a table of truckers to take their orders down and when they tried to hit on her or crack a joke she’d laugh like a mermaid sang. Entirely out of irony, yet never coming across as callused or condescending. The older women were floored by the fact she was so sweet. Occasionally, after she’d made small talk with a few of them or helped the losers cheat in a game, she’d overhear one of them say something like, “I had no idea she was such a nice girl,” and she would walk over to me after they had left and say, “Jesus, they make it seem like just because you’ve done drugs and gotten in trouble a couple times it makes you an asshole or something.” But nine times out of ten, Karma never heard any of this.

Different people came to Jenny’s for different reasons. Some came for their paycheck, to play their games, or catch up with friends. I came entirely by accident, but always came back for her.


I’d come in one night a few years back, a blizzard pushing me through the door. I’d relapsed in a rather extravagant way, dropping twenty pounds almost overnight. I could barely walk in a straight line, my ankles bowed as if they were about to break and after about fifteen or twenty minutes of trudging back home though whiteout conditions, I decided to stop somewhere for a bit. Jenny’s was the closest place.

I took a seat in the booth by the window watching the snow come down, finding it odd that up until that point, in the nineteen years I’d lived in Misery Valley, I’d never once set foot in Jenny’s. I don’t remember having meet anyone who was there that night, or personally knowing any of the wait-staff other than Karma. Then again, I’ve had nights where I barely recognized myself. Where I could look in the mirror or the reflection in a dark window and only see a stranger staring back: ashy hair with no real color, greying skin, the veins in my arms bruised and caved in, my eyes taking on an almost iridescent gleam. Every time I got fired from an actual job I started selling again and every time I started selling, I started using and I became this person in the window. And every time I saw him, it took me that much longer to see myself again.

When I was good and convinced, somewhere underneath it all, that I was still there, I looked past my reflection and saw her standing outside, under the floodlights of the parking lot. The jade-green highlights in her hair swept back and forth in the wind as she talked to a small group of girls on break. From what I’d heard about her she talked a lot about dying, which attracted as many people as it put off. Older men whose friends had passed and whose own lives were coming to a close, young girls who were fascinated with being beautiful, the poetry and tragedy in dying the only great beauty unobtainable in life and small children with hollow, hungry eyes, too small to know what dying meant, but like the way she talked of it, crowded around her. Everyone else, the people afraid of dying or afraid of talking about it, listened from a safe distance. Funny to think we’re all a little morbid. Some of the nice girls would have surprised you, but Karma had everyone on her hook. I mean, as offbeat and unnerving as it was, she had charisma. A lot of it was in her voice, in the way she said all these sad things. It was flat and dark and even. If you closed your eyes and listened to her talk, it was the most pleasant nightmare you could imagine having.

Karma was skinny, but not in the way a supermodel is. She was skinny like I was. In the last in a of a series of mug shots of a person they showed you in health class before they’d say, “We cannot stress it enough. Never, ever do drugs.”

It sounds obvious, but if you were a girl like Karma and you didn’t end up getting into heroin or cocaine, you knew somebody who did. The kids had this sick little joke about the girls growing up, that it was a fifty-fifty game of Russian roulette, an equal shot of becoming a heroin addict or a homemaker.

You’d watch people continue to play, load the gun again and again until they OD’d on some bad mix of something or killed themselves to escape life’s monotony. Occasionally you’d get some overlap, but this was seldom and ugly and always made the papers. “Iowa woman, 22, charged with beating her four year old son to death in a blind and violent rage. Police suspect drug abuse…”

Karma at least knew her place in this world, which was right there at the bottom. The only kids she abused were old enough to know what they were getting themselves into when they asked her to set her them up with a fake ID, or with a ride to the city, or with the classic exacto knife tattoo.

“Your math is off.”

I looked over my shoulder to see her standing behind me. She was wearing a long-sleeve black v- neck shirt and dark denim skirt, her apron tied loosely around her hip bones, holding her pen like she held her cigarettes, waiting. Apparently I’d been staring out the window long enough for her to come back in from break, walk behind the counter, grab a set of silverware and a menu, walk over to my table, and wait long enough for her eyes to wander down in front of me and warrant a correction of math I didn’t even remember doing.


She dragged my sleeve back with the tip of her pen, past the dots and bruises on my left arm, pointing out the numbers I’d written down earlier that day, “Four thirty-five, plus five fifty-seven isn’t eight thirty it’s-”

“-Well, eight thirty is a time. The other two are addresses.”

“Course it is,” she said, biting back a small smile. “Sorry. I just assume everyone around here sucks at math.”

“Oh no, I do. If that were math, it would have been wrong. Flunked out of Algebra twice.”

“Third time's the charm.”


We looked at each other for a moment when I realized her eyes were green. Green in the most familiar kind of way. Like when you’re walking down a rainy street and you smell something that reminds you of something or someone from some other time, a scent you vividly remember, but can’t place. And no matter how you try and explain it, or who you try to explain it to them, they don’t seem to remember it. Or when you’re cleaning out your basement and you find a stick magnet from a set you use to have as a kid, stuck to a metal shelf rack. You pull it off the side and hold it in your hands. You can’t remember building anything with it, yet as soon as you see it you think of childhood. Her eyes were green like that. Like I’d been there before and I was just now remembering it. They were green like the Chicago River three days after the St. Patrick's Day parade. After it had rained and the river had diluted, lost most of its pigment and faded. I’d only been to Chicago once, one of the few vacations I remember taking as a kid. It was for a funeral of a distant relative. One of those funerals where you don’t really know anybody all that well, including the guy who died, so you just sit and listen until halfway through someone’s eulogy you realize nobody really knew him. And after the service, as your my mother drags you from museums to stores to the restaurants to the river still sort of dyed green knowing it’s not likely you’ll ever make come back, you wonder for the first time in your life, if anybody will remember you.

That was the green of her eyes. The green was what I’d noticed and I think she knew it.
She cleared her throat, flipping to a clean page in her notebook. “Well, what can I get you started off with?”

It took me another moment before I said, “Cup of coffee will do it.”

“Cream or sugar?”

I shook my head.

“I’ll have that right out for you.” she said. She cut across the empty dining room and I watched as she slipped past chairs pulled out in the narrow aisles and walked behind the counter, moving past another waitress. Like everybody else who came in the doors of Jenny’s, I was struck by her thing for numbers, how sweet she was and how she poured a cup of coffee, but the thing I noticed first was how she mirrored me. Opposite sides of the same fucked scale and yet something about“us” worked from that first time I met her.

She brought the cup of coffee back over to my table, setting it down and turning back to the kitchen before I could get a word in. Halfway back, she hollered, “You ever need help with math. I’m here six nights a week.”

And almost every night since that one three years ago, I’ve come back. Somewhere along the way I stopped needing the math excuse to see her. Like I said, I came for company, for conversation. For her. I knew exactly what type of trouble I was getting myself into when I asked her to do my books, and every time thereafter when I walked through the door of Jenny's Diner.


My bag hit the floor like a corpse. My eyes hurt, my head ached and my brain pulsed with memories of last night that it would ultimately fail to retain. I slid into the side of the booth she was sitting in and sunk back into its form, the back of the plastic bench digging into my neck. Karma didn’t so much as look up,“You’re late.”

“Sorry,” I said, trying to come up with a good excuse. “Had to bury a body.”

“Anyone important?”

I smiled to myself. There were two ways you could look at it. The first was that everyone was important and the other was that no one was.

“Katherine Larson,” I said. A totally imaginary person, with an utterly unremarkable name that sounded like she could exist in this God- forsaken town.

“Poor girl.”

“It was quick.”

“Still, it’s damn shame.”

“Yeah. A mediocre human being and a subpar future mother of three,” I chuckled, turning my head to where she was. “How are the books looking.”

“Two cents off.”

“Not bad,” I smiled under the lights, pretending it was sunshine, like I was on some white sand beach in Hawaii. I was burning up. Part of it was the high I was still riding, part of it was the down feather winter jacket I’d bought second hand from the Good Will in Blair, part of it was probably because I’d been walking around outside without a jacket for the last two months and was finally getting sick. That or the orange juice Jenny's was serving was from the wrong decade. It was the only thing I’d had all day, and it’s not like I was use to eating anything so I figured part of it was probably that.

I opened my eyes, practically sitting nose to nose with Karma. I smiled, but she frowned. Which seemed odd to me since she was usually so smiley. Not like she was happy, but like she was high or like maybe she’d just gotten off the hook for murder or arson or something. “Can we talk?” she asked.

I immediately picked my head up off the back of the booth, “Yeah,” I cracked, still trying to wake myself up from the daze and the initial shock of that particular question and where it usually tends to go. “Yeah. What’s up?”

She turned back to look at the door, as if waiting for someone to come running in and cut her off before she could finish. “I um,” she said, running a hand through her hair. She’d never done that before. I’d never known her to act like this. “We’re good, right?”
“Sure,” I said. If that was even possible. “Well, I mean I sure as hell hope so.” I was trying to play off being much more okay with whatever she was about to say than what I really was. I wasn’t freaking out or anything, but my stomach wasn’t geared up to hear that, ‘I think we should see different people,’ conversation I figured was where she was going with this. “Why?”

She sucked in breath of stale air between her teeth, “Cause I want to make sure you’ll still like me alright after I tell you this.”

“I fucking knew we weren’t two cents off. Shit like that never happens.”

“No, it’s not that,” she said. She turned herself towards me, the thermal tights she was wearing brushing up against the holes in my jeans. She was still looking down. “I don’t want to do this kinda shit anymore.”

Last person on Earth I’d ever thought I’d be hearing this from. Well, not the last. But pretty high up there on the list of people I’d never thought I’d hear that from. “Why,” I said, feeling a bit like a three year old with too many questions that never had easy answers. Why’s the sky blue some days and grey the next? Why’s the news so sad? Why aren’t you going to do the books for me anymore when you know I suck at math? “I’m not asking to be an asshole or anything. If you don’t want to tell me I get it.”
She nodded, looking down at the half- eaten cheese omelette sitting on the table in front of her. Standard, run of the mill, roadside diner cheese omelette that tasted great when you were starving, but was shit for literally anything else. It sat like a brick in your gut and it was a week or so later till you recovered. “I just want out.”

“Is it me?”

“No, it’s everybody.”

“So? What else is new?”

She sniffed a laugh, one of those pained laughs people give you when you laugh at something they think is serious. “I’m not dying here. I’m not dying to be a bookie for a drug dealer. I don’t even want to be a bookie for a restaurant.”

“Hell of an epiphany.” I muttered with a small smile, pulling the plate across the table with the tip of my finger. I didn’t bother flagging down a waitress for another fork. There’s a certain point after knowing somebody that you decide you can use the same fork, use the same cup, and finish off their meal, and mine was after I’d slept with someone three consecutive times. I never did it to be cute. I wouldn’t have ingested the garbage omelette just to be able to look like a cute couple in an empty diner at ten thirty at night.

“Jimmy, I’m pregnant.”

I paused, the fork hanging loosely in my hand. A sad piece of omelette, smacking, wet and cold, fell back on to the plate and into a pile of unmelted, shredded cheddar cheese.

“You’re what?”

She began sifting through the papers laid out in front of her. Some of it was my books, which looked more like clues to a puzzle or something. Reason being, if any cop in the town cared enough to check to see if I had a paper trail, it really wouldn’t look like it. She kept grocery lists and recipes cut out from magazines that seemed to surpass her capabilities, resumes with different wording to appeal to different employers and different kinds of jobs, police records and priors she could explain to people like an attorney. Drug possession: ‘Well sir, I’d picked up a hitchhiker from Wisconsin, a very nice man, but when I was pulled over for a tail light that was out, the officer of course went to go search the car and there seemed to be some cocaine in his bag, but since I was driving the car I was also charged…’

I didn’t know another girl like her who had an answer to every question. Everyone in town knew her, but sometimes I thought about her leaving to go somewhere else. I thought about her disappearing. She’d be so good no one would ever know where to find her. And you’d see her, if you ever got out, years later in a spin-cycle class some place in California, swear on your life you might know her, you might even talk to her a bit. But you’d never know for sure it was her until after you left. Not till you closed your eyes and listened to her talk when the mask wore off and all the clothes and all the years couldn’t hide her.

She pulled out a manila envelope from the back of her binder, pulling out a static black and white picture of a tiny, almost person in an empty room.

I wish this was the part where I told you I pulled my head out of my ass and called Oscar Grant from the asphalt company down the road, apologized for egging his car when he called me a deadbeat in the ninth grade, and begged him for a job. I wish I would have seen it and thought, ‘Alright, this is the part where I fall in love with something enough to start caring about things.’ But it wasn’t.

“So. You need a ride to Omaha, for… you know…”