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Breakfast at the Diner — #25

After losing my temper at breakfast last week, I'm hoping for minimal snide remarks about it this morning, and minimal is what I get. Just one line from Phil, who probably makes snide remarks in his sleep. When I walk in, he's talking to some old man I don't recognize, but Phil pauses the story he's telling, glances at me and says, "No politics or religion." He doesn't even snicker, and then he resumes whatever he was saying to whomever he was saying it to.

I see Kirstin at the counter, but she's taking someone's order so I just wave. From where I'm standing and she's standing, Bouffant-Walker is behind her at a table, and he thinks I'm waving at him, so he waves back and shouts in his odd squeaky voice, "Hello, good to see you!" Kirstin nods at me, and I nod at Bouffant. The diner-nod is a thing.

I'm looking around, deciding where I'll sit, when I notice a small sign at the corner of the counter, right in front of me, where The Fixture always sat. It's a piece of cardboard, folded in half to stand up, with two handwritten words I don't want to read but already have. "Remembering Frank," it says, and there's a picture of The Fixture. Next to the sign, there's a vase with some flowers.

Kirstin comes by to pour more coffee for Phil and the old guy, and she says to me, "Frank is gone." She points at the wall behind his corner stool.

On the wall, enlarged and laminated, is a copy of an article from the newspaper, and the headline is just his name. You never want the headline to be just your name. Someone's leaving the diner, so I step aside and let them pass, and linger at the wall, reading about Frank's life and times.

Age 48. Married. Father of two. Born in Ames, Iowa. Graduated Ames High School, and married his high-school sweetheart. Worked as a sheet metal fabricator, and served in the National Guard Reserves. "He loved hiking, fishing, and his wife Charlotte, and his daughters Rebecca and Lucille." He died almost two weeks ago, after more than a month's hospitalization due to coronavirus. "Special thanks to the doctors and nurses at the ICU."

I'm thinking, What a shitty way to go, and also Did I know Frank?, and honestly I didn't. I didn't even know his name was Frank, until after he stopped coming in and people started asking, "Where's Frank?" Never knew his last name until now, when it's on the wall.

To me he was The Fixture — some guy on a stool eating breakfast, whenever I was also some guy on a stool eating breakfast at the diner. We ate together hundreds of times, but we'd barely mingled.

"He was a good guy," says Kirstin. "Never heard an unkind word out of him. He sat on that stool three mornings a week for at least twenty years, and now he's gone."

"I usually sat two stools away," says Phil, "and we always talked." Yeah, that's why I always sit at the other end of the counter. "He helped me move a few years back. Frank was my friend."

Nobody says anything for too long, so I say, "He was a good guy," and only after saying it do I realize I'd said exactly what Kirstin had said. "Damned COVID," I add.

"Damned 2020," said Kirstin.

"Damned everything," said Phil.

I am sincerely sorry that Frank dead, but I don't want to be standing at the counter for ten minutes reminiscing about a stranger, so I gently segue outtathere and toward my usual stool at the other end of the counter.

"Good to see you," Bouffant says again, as I slide onto my stool not far from his table.

"You know what?" I say, pausing, looking at him, maybe even smiling. "It's good to see you, too."

Kirstin takes my order, and she's already poured me a cup of coffee. I've had coffee with cream and half a dozen refills every time she's ever seen me, so it's a fair assumption, but all things come to an end. "Sorry, I'm giving it up," I say. "Could I please have an orange juice instead?"

"Sure, sweetie." Usually I'm sweetie, but of course, so is everyone else in the diner.

"When did you find out about Frank?" I asked.

"Almost a week ago, now," she says. "A customer saw the obituary in the paper, and brought it in."

"He was always there, corner stool," I said.

"We've had that seat reserved ever since," she says, and she means the cardboard sign and the flowers, where Frank's plate always was. "Losing a seat isn't a problem when we're limited to 1/4 occupancy. "

"He was a good guy," I say again, because I can't think of anything better to say.

"Yes, he was," says Kirstin. "And he always ordered two eggs over-easy, corned beef hash, white toast, coffee, and V8."

♦ ♦ ♦

I look around, and there are six customers besides me — Phil is at his normal seat, two stools from The Fixture's memorial. Near Phil, there's that old white guy with long gray hair under a dorky hat, and a tie-dye jacket quite similar to the one I'm wearing. Me and the old hippie make eye contact, and I give him the diner nod. At one of the tables up front, the Bible Bros are having bacon and eggs, and gee, I wonder what they'll be talking too loud about? Bouffant is at a table sorta-behind me, and Big Hat is at her ordinary table in the back, and he and she are talking across the room as they always do. Bouffant, of course, talks about as much whether he's talking to someone else or not.

Phil and The Hippie are talking about football, and I'm surprised there's anything to talk about. The local team's last two games were cancelled because too many players had the coronavirus, and I didn't know they're playing a game tomorrow. The Hippie says, "That's as stupid as hell," and he's right, but as I get older more and more things strike me as stupid as hell.

A couple of young men come in; one is black with a mustache, and the other is blonde but that's all I can say about him, because they're seated by the time I notice them, and I can only see the back of Blondie's head. At first they're talking about whether they should go to a movie or whether that's too dangerous, but they're seated between Bouffant and Big Hat, so that conversation fades away and soon all four of them are talking about Trump, about winter, about soccer. It's good seeing younger customers, and the diner needs more of them, because the old-timers — meaning, everyone else in the building — won't be buying too many more breakfasts.

Kirstin brings my omelet, and I eat it and sip OJ instead of coffee, and sometimes read, and sometimes listen to the conversations. It's just another day at the diner, only it's not, because Frank isn't here.

He hasn't been here for a while, but this morning he's really not here, you know? Give someone long enough, even someone you barely know, and he becomes part of the place.

♦ ♦ ♦

At the front table, two men are fingering their Bibles and discussing Psalm 25. The Bible Bros are regulars here, always discussing the Bible and debating it's meaning.

Today, though, there's no debate; they seem to simply be reading the verses to each other, running their fingers over the pages and then reading the same chapter again. Out loud. By their third read-through I have the verses half-memorized whether I like it or not, and I do not. It ends with "Deliver Israel, O God, from all their troubles," and I guess the world is still waiting for an answer to that prayer.

The obit mentioned that Frank was an elder at some Lutheran church, so maybe he'd appreciate having scriptures read this morning. I don't. Whenever the Bible Bros are here, everyone in the diner is at a Bible study, whether they like it or not. I don't. And now, having finished reading Psalm 25 twice, they're starting with the first verse again, but they're quieter than they've sometimes been in the past, and that's appreciated.

♦ ♦ ♦

On my way out, I pause at Frank's corner stool. Everyone who was present when I entered the diner has paid and left, and there are seven different customers now, but nobody's sitting at this part of the counter, and Kirstin is in the kitchen, so I'm talking to no-one when I say, "So long, Frank the Fixture."

Frank is gone, but the diner goes on without him. Bacon is sizzling on the grill, Kirstin is kind and quick with the coffee whether I want it or not, and there's lively talk between the seven strangers I'm leaving behind. The conversations never end at the diner until they lock the doors. Eventually the conversations go on without me taking notes, but we all had a good breakfast while we were here.

 

I'm a grumpy old man who lives alone and has few friends — basically a hermit. Once a week I have breakfast at my favorite diner. Most weeks it's my only in-person interaction with other humans, which is not my strong suit.

Yeah, I'm aware of the coronavirus, so I go to the diner at dawn, before it gets busy. I wash my hands before and after, cough into my elbow, spray Lysol on my food, pay at my plate, tell the waitress to keep the change, and hold my breath while leaving until I'm outside. It's a little more dangerous than staying at home, but life would suck without breakfast at the diner, so get off my lawn.

And remember, decent people leave a generous tip.

 

Breakfast at the Diner

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