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Breakfast at the Diner — #28

Before walking into the diner, I always glance through the front window to see whether Kirstin is working. This morning I see Harvey behind the counter, so I lower my expectations half a notch, and step inside.

I sit on the side where I don't usually sit, because too many people are on the other side of the U-shaped counter. On this side, there's only Lady ManBun. She glances up and says, "Good morning," then looks down again, at the screen she's scrolling through.

I say "Good morning," but I haven't decided whether I mean it. Depends on whether ManBun will be joining her. He's always a little too chipper and outgoing for me.

"Do you want coffee?" Harvey asks, and I stupidly say "Yeah, with cream." Damn it, I'm off the coffee — gave it up weeks ago, to avoid the jitters and headaches, but when he asked the answer came quicker than me remembering I've quit. He's already poring, so it's too late to shout, "Belay that order!" Guess I'm having coffee this morning. I've made worse mistakes. Rules are easier to break than habits, and the diner's coffee is excellent.

As Harvey brings me cream and salt and pepper and silver and such, a wisecrack bubbles up in my mind. I say to him, "Kirstin, you look like hell this morning." He scowls at me, but there's immediate laughter from Lady ManBun, and from other customers, and an especially loud guffaw from the kitchen.

I turn and look and I'm surprised. Harvey is usually the cook, and when he's up front playing waitress the cook is Slim, but this isn't Slim — it's Bob, the diner's owner. It's been a long time since I've seen Bob at all, and when he does come in it's usually just to eat a free breakfast. Haven't seen him cooking in at least months.

"Mr Bob!" I say. "Glad you're still alive."

"Me too," he says in his gruff, grizzled voice, "but there are those who disagree." Bob and I are about equally taciturn, and for either of us that was a complete conversation. We say not another word to each other all morning.

Harvey says, "The special is Homemade Italian Sausage," and of course, homemade anything at the diner is always good, so that's what I want. Sadly, though, when Harvey takes your order you can't get the special as an omelet, so it'll be homemade sausage with eggs and hash browns.

He asks how I want my eggs; I tell him.

He asks wheat or white toast; I answer.

He asks a third question, but it seems complicated and I'm old, hard of hearing, plus someone coughs in the distance so I can't quite make sense of it, so I say, "Yeah, that sounds good," not certain what I've agreed to.

♦ ♦ ♦

I didn't sleep well last night, and I'm not drinking coffee these days, so I'm sleepy. I enjoy my contraband caffeine, but before it takes effect, I briefly close my eyes to rest my mind, and notice something I'm not sure I've noticed before: the diner has a scent of its own.

It smells damned good — the odor of eggs fried in butter, and bacon and pancake batter, seasoned with years and years of coffee and grease and sweat and onions. I keep my eyes closed for a few extra seconds and concentrate on that lovely aroma. I never wear cologne, but I would pay to dab this diner behind my ears.

♦ ♦ ♦

A young white man comes in to pick up a carry-out order. He must've phoned it in, because Harvey already has it bagged up for him. "That's $19.79," Harvey says.

The customer hands Harvey a twenty-dollar bill and says, "Thanks, keep the change."

Harvey says nothing until he's left, but as the door closes he says, "Keep the change, my ass, you donkey-fucker."

Harvey is often saltier than the diner's fries, and I can understand his frustration. The owner isn't usually around, though, so I'm wondering whether Bob will say something about the profanity, and indeed he does. From the kitchen I hear Bob mutter, "Double donkey-fucker."

♦ ♦ ♦

My breakfast is here and it's a masterpiece. The eggs are only eggs not an omelet, but the hash browns have gone ballistic. They're topped with gooey forkfuls of mixed and melted cheese, and some chopped and sauteed onions and green peppers, and of course lots of the promised (and excellent) homemade sausage. Oh em gee.

I've been eating here and Bob's been the owner, both for many years, so he's probably cooked a million breakfasts, but this morning's is something he should be proud of. I've overheard in the past that Bob inherited the diner from his father, who was also a Bob, and heard him imply that running a diner might not have been the life he'd have chosen for himself — or maybe he just likes to complain, as do we all. Obviously, though, Bob knows what he's doing in the kitchen. I ought to tell him it's appreciated, but I don't.

Later, I hear Harvey explaining the daily special to someone else, and decode the third question that I couldn't decipher when he'd asked me. "You can get the sausage as a patty, or we can chop it up and serve it over the potatoes with some cheese and stuff." So that's what I'd said yes to.

♦ ♦ ♦

It must be 6:30, because Bouffant-Walker is rolling into the room. He gives me and most of us an incoherent greeting, as is his style, and then he takes a seat at his ordinary table.He almost owns it. Never sits anywhere else, unless someone's at his table when he gets here. 

And always alone. He's sociable with several of the regulars, and I'd wager he has a crush on Big Hat, but he always comes in alone, and leaves alone. Same as me. I wonder if his solitude is intentional, like (I tell myself) mine is. I also wonder why I'm wondering.

He eats alone, but always carries on a conversation with the diner, just saying whatever thoughts pop into his skull. Today he wants us to know about his nipples. Soon as he's settled at his table, he says, "Oh, it's cold out there this morning. I have a couple of nipples frozen solid."

Five minutes later he can't still be cold — the heat is on in the diner — but he's still talking about the cold. "Sure is cold out there this morning. About froze my nipples off." Again with the nipples. Again with the cold. It's Wisconsin. It's winter. It's not even that cold, really, not for Wisconsin.

When no-one responds he adds, "This would be a good day for the diner to sell chili. That would warm people up!"

"We have chili sometimes," Harvey answers from behind the counter, "as a daily special."

"Not today, though," says Bouffant. "I wish I could have chili today, just to hold the bowl against my nipples." I start putting tick-marks in the margins of my magazine, to keep track of how many times he mentions his nipples. (Three times, so far.)

His pattern is always a few minutes of quiet, and then another line apropos of nothing, and then Bouffant-Walker moves on to other topics, says other things. Fifteen minutes later Bald-Walker comes in, and takes a seat at a table, near enough to Bouffant that they're soon talking, and we get this exchange:

Bouffant says to Baldy, or to anyone who's listening, "Didn't you think it was cold out there this morning? I about froze my nipples off." (Four.)

"Mighty cold," is all Bald says.

"I told Harvey this would be a good day for chili."

"Yup," says Bald.

"Might also be a good day to just stay in bed," says Bouffant.

"Yup," says Bald-Walker again, and I know exactly what he means. We're all regulars here, and all the regulars are like dice perpetually rolled and re-rolled, so you could end up sitting next to anybody. I'm sure the dice have had Bald and Bouffant chatting before, and that's why Bald has so little to say.

"Of course," Bouffant continues, "if you stay in bed you get fat and you maybe get babies." Bald-Walker has no response to that, which seems like the best response.

♦ ♦ ♦

I am loving my hash browns smothered with sausage and messy cheese and stuff, loving it so much that I have prepared another wisecrack: When Harvey asks "Is everything OK?", I'm going to say, "Yeah, it's fantastic — y'all should fire the usual cook and keep Bob in the kitchen!" Harvey, of course, is the usual cook, but today he doesn't ask "Is everything OK," so my sly insult remains unspoken.

♦ ♦ ♦

There are no further updates on Bouffant's nipples until he's ready to leave. He settles his bill, says goodbye to Kirstin and to Baldy and to me and several others, and then he says, "Hope it warms up out there. Don't want to freeze my nipples off again." (Five.)

When Lady ManBun leaves, she tucks cash under her plate instead of paying at the register and waiting for her change. That's what I do, too, when I'm done, a few minutes later. That's what most of the regulars do.

I mask up and shout "Thanks!" at Harvey, partly because I mean it, and partly to let him know to collect the cash so it's not sitting there tempting everyone who steps inside. And I leave a good tip, because while I have many faults, I am not a donkey-fucker.

 

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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