top of page

The Scaffold

by Lisa Black

While the Odd Duck peered down into his sunny-side-ups, the Waitress kept a side eye on his blank forehead. The expanse glowed red from the food warmers, reminding her of November sunsets at a South County beach. The rest of him appeared in black and white, as did nearly everything in the grimy diner thanks to the low-crime-yellow buzz of the OPEN sign. Every night at midnight for six straight he’d sat down at the counter and ordered the same thing.

Tonight’s “I’d like two eggs sunny side up and well-done hash browns with dry wheat toast” sounded like a throttled cat. Last night he attempted a radio-announcer boom. Despite the vocal antics, the Waitress didn’t register so much as a tic on her hideous face.

Odd Duck took a small eternity to begin eating after floating a napkin onto his lap. On the third night, the Waitress had counted while he bent to the task. He stared at the eggs for thirty seconds before finally forking the yolks. As the yellows oozed over the whites, she moved in to refill his coffee cup, breathing low and slow thanks to her jiggle-proof undergarments. She corseted herself when she finally caved to waiting tables because the uniform was so absurdly tight. One size certainly fit the least. Either stretched threateningly tight on the buxom or hanging loose on the chemo thin. The steely shapewear delivered an unexpected boon though. When the pussy-grabbers went for her their knuckles jammed like the fingers of a gloveless baseball player.

To the man she named Odd Duck, the Waitress was a statuesque monolith crammed into a crap-colored polyester uniform. Worse, her affectless scrutiny distracted from his mission to master lucid dreaming in 30 days. If he could ignore her looming presence, surely he’d make the veiled yolks rotate around on the chipped platter or just break apart on their own.

He tested everything he looked at to determine if he was awake or asleep, hoping the habit during waking hours would bleed into his REM time. His how-to manual said to pay special attention to objects that recurred in his dreams. After being initially flummoxed, he figured it might just be eggs. He was pretty sure he’d dreamt of collecting them from a coop. Tossing one in a picnic competition, maybe, or throwing a dozen at dark houses on Halloween—well, those incidents could just as easily have been from comics as his own dreams. In any case, everyday hen’s eggs, he’d determined, would be the portal to shoring up his ability to tolerate life post-Coup II the Successful.

Besides, if locked up in an indoor shopping mall-turned-detention camp he needed a mental survival tool. The odds of him being randomly DNA-tested were difficult to calculate, slim he fervently hoped. But he was pretty sure a Jewish great-grandfather on the paternal side would be enough of a ticket were he ever swabbed.

As he waited for his order on this 6th night of his 30-day quest, he returned a bit of scrutiny of his own. The Waitress was watching the cook from her position at the saloon doors, where a sepia-toned light spilled on half of her from an overhead glass fixture filled with dead bugs. Her unpleasant visage began to subtly morph towards a more pleasing symmetry. Was he doing this? He hadn’t been testing her features, at least not consciously so. Yet he didn’t seem to be asleep either. Maybe it was the old-timey lighting playing tricks, he thought. Or some still-living insects in their throes.

He looked away before she turned in his direction, then snuck another peek. Her face stayed put, so he ventured a quick test on her garb. All attempts to change the color failed, even when he imagined her as a camouflaging octopus. There were still twenty-four days to practice, he reassured himself. Maybe he’d even try to give her six more arms. What a night-owl idea, he thought, astonished he’d come up with it.

Seems like just yesterday he was a morning person reading the newspapers at the public library. When the extreme left and the extreme right began to blur, he put down the dailies and started checking out books at random from the little racks by the entrance. That’s how he came into possession of Your Guide to Lucid Dreaming in a Mere 30 Days, which he now had on permanent loan since libraries were shuttered. Anything with the word public was being obliterated. With no access to free reading material, he decided to dip into his watercooler jug of loose change to finance the lucid-egg project.

While she watched Short Order prep Odd Duck’s meal, the Waitress wondered if there would be two low tides and two high tides per day if Earth had two moons. Some loud guy had asked his tablemates about life on Earth with two moons at a six-top earlier in her shift. These singular, overheard phrases would hover, suspended by air quotes, as if the people at the tables were quoting still other people. Then the snippets would swoop around in her mind until finally getting scribbled on her order pad while she memorized the things diners wanted to eat.

Since Short Order could barely read, the slips she attached to his carousel had “the lookout baboon” or “the Age of Omnishambles” or tonight’s “What if Earth had two moons” written on them. Then she’d mumble “Two sunnies, burnt browns” in his direction, and he’d spin the ticket around to his side and squint at the slip before setting to work. The Waitress would take care of the toast with precision, slipping whole wheat into slots just as Short Order turned the potatoes but before an egg got cracked.

She had moves, sure, but they were timing related. Not classic server like the aunt who raised her. Auntie piled on hair pieces to work Bob's Big Boys all over Orange County, three platters per scrawny arm. In the late ’70s the Ramones sat at her counter in full regalia while she was covering a shift at the El Toro Bob’s. The bandmembers, between gigs in LA and San Diego, barely spoke but left a whopping tip on their toast crumbs and shed hairs.

As a know-it-all teen back then, the Waitress had cringed at the way her aunt was treated on the job, but especially how she replied “Yessiree, sir, rightaway, sir” to every demeaning query or demand. Looking back, maybe that greasy-sounding response was her aunt’s version of armor. Auntie settled into each Bob’s as if pulling up a chair to family dinner—happy to be there but braced for explosions. She’d trade shifts with the other big-haired servers whenever asked, gladly handing over cigarettes and tampons on request.

The Waitress had capitulated to following in Auntie’s bunion-shaped footsteps—what choice was there? She’d been a gig-economy slave since back in the 20th century. But umpteen shutdowns beforehand and now in the doomy fallout from Coup II, any job at all was snapped up and clutched. At least her head was spared the fake coifs and Aqua Net. Though in a nod to the diner’s decor and technological void, she corralled her salty locks in a snood.

Short Order dinged the order-up bell. She delivered Odd Duck’s platter, waited the usual thirty seconds, then refilled his cuppa joe.

As per his usual, Odd Duck stared at but then didn’t eat much of his nightly breakfast before paying with exact change. She left him to nurse his coffee and went to punch out. He watched her disappear then listened for the saloon doors to subside before executing little experiments on the dregs clinging inside his mug.

While peeling off her work layers in the cramped bathroom, she ran through the predator checklist, as she did before every traverse home through the alley. Violent crime was way up in broad daylight and at night even on well-lit boulevards. That made the back alley the least dangerous route if you evaded the ornery dumpster divers.

It took just a few seconds to run it. If the predator is:

·       larger than her, run

·       smaller or weaker, play it by ear

·       sick, leave it alone

·       armed with stench or sharps, back away but keep eyes on it

·       super charismatic—she was most vulnerable to this one, still easily made idiotic by handsomeness—WALK ON BY.


She learned the list back in her twenties when she worked for a Laguna Canyon woman with a booth at the Sawdust Festival. This Lady of the Canyon had navigated the Brotherhood of Eternal Love intact, adapting the survival techniques she recited before dropping acid for use in defense against human as well as hallucinatory predators.

But long before the Waitress sat in a Quonset hut sewing squares of Hoffman Fabrics into wide strips on a sewing machine that required five spools of thread for the quilts the woman hawked every summer, she’d known she had good survival instincts.

In fifth grade she’d been walking home alone from school late in the afternoon when there weren’t many kids around. Until up ahead a group of boys approached, the puniest one clearly the leader. Didn’t think much of it until she saw he was holding a snake. Back then snakes so terrified her, if she even saw one on TV by accident she'd wake from a nightmare that night guaranteed.

Oh so casually she crossed to the opposite sidewalk, something she'd have to do anyway because up ahead she had to turn left onto her own street. For a moment it seemed like she’d pulled it off, but then the leader sneered, “Are you afraid of the snake?”

She could feel them putting it down her dress yet heard herself ask blandly, “You have a snake? Wow, can I touch it?”

“You want to touch the snake?” responded the bummed-out little leader. But she was already jaywalking back toward them.

The boy proffered the wriggler and her guts rebelled, but when she looked down she saw her brave index finger pointing out toward the snake and inching closer until she touched it. It was dry. “Wow, that's so cool!” she yelled while bolting back across the street without looking for cars, “thanks!”

Guess that had been a play-it-by-ear situation per the checklist.

The Waitress left the bathroom, stuffed girdles and snood into her locker, and slammed it shut. At the noise an unbidden memory hissed. She spun the dial to secure the lock, but the turning just made the memory come into focus.

“Wanna llama!” she heard herself whining and felt both hands clinging to her mother, begging to go with. The llama had lived next door to a car mechanic along with about 200 caged German shepherds at the rural edges of Stanton. The mechanic’s hustle was to quickly replace VW engines with somebody else's rebuilt one, then he’d rebuild yours and put it in someone else’s bug or Karmann Ghia. The lanky man wiped his hands on a stained red rag in a way that mesmerized both mother and daughter. He easily talked her mom into getting a new clutch plate while he had the engine out because it was right there and that made it a cheap job.

Two weeks later the plate cracked in half, and her mother was headed back to Stanton with a tow truck to get the VW fixed. She just had to go too, to feel the llama lick her face again through the chain-link fence as she pretended to take its picture. But her mother peeled her off, digging in fingernails to make the no final.


While the Waitress re-lived her last maternal contact, the lucid-dreamer-in-the-making left a dollar-coin tip the Waitress would never get under his cup and exited the diner, going from black-and-white out into the full color of the LED-lit boulevard. He followed the ruptured sidewalk under dark construction tunnels abandoned by bankruptcy or austerity, looking for opportunities to test his wakefulness and praying he didn’t become prey.

He emerged from a tunnel to immediate threats from a passing pickup bearing arms and flags. Then something animal-like rubbed against his ankles, which really made his sphincter yawn. He looked down anyway to see a pink tomcat at his shoes. This cat is pink, he marveled, pink fur on a twenty-pound alley cat.

Wait, what? Hold on, he cautioned himself. This could be it, a true moment of lucid dreaming. But without an egg, huh? Could the portal be, of all things, a pink cat?

As if in answer the feline sauntered off into the neglected space between buildings. With quick steps crunching broken glass, he followed the upraised tail and considered the possibility he had fallen asleep in his big chair at home and dreamt going to the diner for Day 6. If he’d only known, he would’ve tried to make the Waitress do something truly animated like, say, crash through the saloon doors reciting “I come before you to stand behind you to tell you something I know nothing about” instead of squandering his lucid probings on changing the color of her dumb dress.

He tracked the cat into the forbidding alley, because in a dream that's what you do. A ferocious stench emanated from every dumpster, racing up his sinuses to his brain. He held his nose and attempted to fill a receptacle with swaying hollyhock flowers but was blinded by two motion-sensor lights he must’ve triggered. Or was he seeing double? A pair of full moons glowed brightly on a high wall as if painted on like a cartoon trickster’s tunnel.

He stumbled on through an array of tarp-covered mounds that reminded him of anthills. Once his pupils recovered, he was focusing his powers on a dirt patch when poppity-pop, up grew what he hoped was a hollyhock as quick as Jack’s bean sprouted for the sky. The tomcat clawed up the plant as matching flowers bloomed along the top of the hollyhock’s twelve-foot stalk. Then Jack the Pink Cat arched up and pounced. The flower leaned toward the ground to have a closer look, and that’s when the maybe-dreamer lost sight of the cat and braced himself for waking up.

But there was Pink Jack across the alley taking a post-pounce bath. It froze with paw upraised and head bent down to lock eyes with him, then it about-faced and slipped into a tight passageway back toward the boulevard. So did he, squeezing sideways past old-school trash bins with mix-matched lids, one had a chain around its dented waist. He paused to listen to a chorus of loud purring overhead that emanated from a mortar-splattered scaffold barely clinging to a building dripping bricks.


Looking like a lumpy ninja in steel-toed boots, the Waitress smiled at the dishwasher as she tipped him out then quickly slipped into the alley before his pining could touch her. Coup II had slammed the borders shut on whatever country he'd fled. He had no idea if his family was still alive and waiting for him to send for them, or if they had fallen victim to some climate calamity or his own defection.

Acting as her own lookout baboon, she made the alley trek without incident, at least until she turned along the side of her building and spotted a figure smaller than her staring up through the scaffold toward the top-floor window she used to access her place. Despite an inkling of familiarity, she executed a surprise attack, hurling a garbage can lid toward the thickest part of him. The whizzing sound cut out as he turned and caught the thing like the Ultimate Frisbee player he no doubt had been. He retreated a bit with the lid, hand stinging.

She closed in, reaching up to release the gin wheel from the scaffold’s tubing—hoping nothing collapsed to behead her—and heaved the device. He raised the bin cover as a shield in a swift motion, again perfectly timed. At the off-tune clang dozens of hissing cats leapt off the scaffold and hit the ground on all fours, dashing off to the reverberations. The figure power-walked away toward the boulevard.

Without breaking stride he set down his shield, hand still alarmed from the impact. While his internal systems were busy absorbing adrenaline and other alarm substances, any yen toward retaliation completely subsided. His mind was operating with clarity, niftily clicking the events into place. The attack was turf-related, he concluded, nondeadly, and decidedly not the lurid impulses of yet another brute. His dexterity on defense was pretty strong evidence he was dreaming.

Pink Jack and some of the feline herd escorted him to the boulevard unconcerned whether he was awake or asleep, as was he, really. Like in a typical dream he would arrive home to what was not exactly his home, to his big chair that was not quite his big chair, where he would find himself fast asleep or, if not, he'd kick off his shoes and settle in under the crocheted throw.

The off-duty Waitress reattached the gin wheel as the air quieted to the usual din. No lights had come on, no window coverings opened to investigate. People knew better. Up the scaffold and into her dwelling she scampered, victorious. As she secured the window, she remembered a flash of pink during the battle’s end when it had rained cats. Was there a pink one? Jeez, when had she last seen pink? It was that pink that pairs so well with black, too, her favorite once upon a time when she bothered about favorites.

The bloodless escapade let loose something long taut, and she was up and jumping on the bed, flesh freely swinging, wildly working the bedsprings, and trampolining up toward her high ceilings. “Pink!” she roared on the way up, “pink”! Then “Pinkety pink-pink! Pink!” on the way down. She was back in a mosh pit at the old Cuckoo’s Nest high above Costa Mesa, flying up into the painted sky and white clouds, slam-dancing with the boys and trying not to crash-land on that sticky floor.

When it occurred to her that she was literally jumping for joy, she groaned but kept jumping for joy then jumped some more at the notion that jumping for joy was even a possibility in this “Age of Omnishambles.”

Eventually, she splatted flat-out on her back, panting on the mattress, considering the merits of The Omnishambles as a band name. If it wasn’t already.

Then it dawned on her that maybe it was the Odd Duck at the threshold to her lair.

What the hell kind of coincidence was that, she wondered, rolling onto her side. Her nifty index finger snaked out toward the fear. Would it feel dry?

She’d get her answer that night at midnight—assuming the Odd Duck returned for his usual at the usual time.


After getting an MFA in Drama from UC Irvine, Lisa Black worked on dozens of new plays with Theater Oobleck in Chicago and created original performances in collaboration with various ensembles and as a solo performer. After returning to Orange County, she was proofreader of OC Weekly’s dead-tree edition and wrote the arts column Paint It Black until the paper’s rude demise. Her fiction has appeared in Santa Monica Review and Citric Acid #4.

bottom of page