“Eating at the End-of-the-World Cafe,” by Dale Bailey, appeared in the September/October Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I found it a sharp, painful examination of the way people make compromises to get by in a hard world.
The intro blurb calls it a “science fiction noir story,” and, when I read it the first time, I thought it took place in the future, on another planet, where criminals or political dissidents were sent to be tortured and killed. My second read made it seem more like a fantasy of an afterlife where everyone was fated to suffer. Certainly, a heavy atmosphere of hopelessness and foreboding hangs over everything in the story.
Overshadowing the specifics of the genre and setting, though, are the choices that Eleanor, the main character, faces. She is in a hard situation–single, her daughter ailing and in need of costly medicine, her job low-paying and exhausting. Three characters offer to help her, three men whose offers carry a hint (or more than a hint) of romantic overture, but Eleanor is not sure whether to trust any of them.
It seems the world is engineered to put people in such positions. The simple things Eleanor wants–time to relax, a man, health for her daughter–are out of reach, and so she works and works but finds them always seeming farther away. Who hasn’t felt this way? Yet Eleanor is strong, and she chafes at accepting charity or a quid pro quo. I admired her for this, and yet, as the echoes of hell and damnation reminded me, pride is one of the seven deadly sins, and charity a virtue.
I found the story gripping and punishing, a meditation on what happens when a person forces herself to compromise. As one of the men puts it, “We all end up in the pit sooner or later. It’s just a question of which side of that equation you want to be on.”