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Breakfast at the Diner — #33

Kirstin is on the phone in the kitchen, jotting down someone's carry-out order, but when she sees me enter the diner, she waves. Harvey is behind her in the kitchen, where he belongs, farther from the customers than he's been the last few weeks. Nothing personal, Harvey, but farther is better.

And now, Rebecca Black's dilemma: Which seat can I take? Easy answer: the best seat in the house is open, my favorite seat, the next-to-last stool on the right side of the counter. A couple of times I've tried the very last stool, but it gets too busy — the walkway into the kitchen is next to that last stool, so it's like sitting on the curb of a busy highway. Traffic comes too close, and even before the eternal coronavirus, I didn't and still don't want people walking inches from me and my breakfast. So it's the next to the last stool for me. Thanks for asking.

♦ ♦ ♦

Kirstin brings orange juice before I have a chance to ask for it, and she's wearing a t-shirt which features a big silkscreened trout. "Nice fish," I say.

"My husband gave it to me," she says, "to make up for going fishing when my parents were in town."

I calculate my response, and it's heavy math. A conversation about her parents or her husband could easily last too long, and I'd prefer something short, because I get tired of talking but I need to talk to Kirstin later. So I don't say anything.

"Crappie and bluegill," she says.

That could've been the end of it, but a few stools down the counter, Sudden Urge to Pee says, "Bob fried up my bluegill for us once, right here in the diner."

All I do is glance at him, but Pee can't stop himself, and says, "Yeah, I'd gone fishing up north, and I caught six bluegill, one past the legal limit, but don't call a cop. I mentioned it to Kirstin here —"

She says, "Yeah, and I said, 'What are you going to do with all that fish?'"

Pee says, "And I said, 'I haven't decided yet, but I don't want to freeze 'em, and I'm single so I can't eat 'em fast enough', and that's when Harvey came out of the kitchen and knocked twice on the counter —" Pee knocks twice on the counter — "and said, 'Hey, if you scale it, skin it, and chuck the innards we could have a fish fry right here.' So that's what we did."

Harvey comes out of the kitchen, and knocks twice on the counter, just like he did in the story. "Yeah, that's what we did. Fish fry at the diner."

"It had to be after hours, though," says Kirstin, "because of the law."

"Because he caught one fish more than the limit?" The question comes from Maurice, on the far side of the counter. Welcome to our conversation, I think to myself. You can have my spot.

"No," says Harvey, still up front and now pouring himself a cup of coffee. "The law says we can't sell caught fish." And with that he's walking back to the kitchen.

"Everything we sell has to come from an authorized and inspected facility," Kirstin elaborates, "and the lake hasn't been inspected."

"So you can't sell it, but you did?" That's me, asking.

"We can cook it, serve it, eat it, but we can't sell it," Harvey shouts from the back.

"No money changed hands, so it's legal." says Kirstin. "Just some friends eating fish and drinking beer in a diner, but after hours."

Maurice asks, "Why would any of that be illegal, even if money did change hands? It's fish from a lake. How is that any more dangerous than fish sealed in plastic from a factory?"

There's an answer to that but I don't hear it, because I'm lowering my glasses, eyes, and ears, and immersing myself in my magazine. My head is spinning from all the words floating in the air. That was a month's worth of conversation for me, all in one talking-tornado. And yet, there's more to be said, and I'm going to say it.

♦ ♦ ♦

Oh, we got us a droner today. He's an old black man, alone at a back table, but talking like he's not alone. He sounds like an African-American recasting of the history teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

"Time to get out of this town," he starts, speaking very slowly, with minimal tone or emotion. "I'm looking for a house in Guntersville, Alabama... There are no good jobs here... Born and raised in Alabama... and I need to be close to the best damned fishing in the world..."

♦ ♦ ♦

Bouffant-Walker arrives, and makes his way through the restaurant, giving out hellos like free samples. Of course he says "Hey there" to me, and I say "Hey there" to him.

Bouffant heads for his usual table, just one table removed from the new character, who's droning again, "I gotta get out of this town..."

Bouffant says "Good morning" to him, and he says nothing. Kirstin brings coffee and takes his order, and after she's gone, Bouffant says, "They need to wash these walls." It's just another observation, the kind of thing Bouffant is always saying in the diner and to the diner, and you know what? He's right — there are a few tiny ketchup blops on the wall near his table, from somebody's lunch yesterday or the day before.

The diner's phone rings, and Bouffant shouts, "Saved by the bell!" which is barely a joke, and he's told it before, and nobody laughs. Not much later, he says, "The bus driver who brought me here was riding the brakes too much, and that makes for a bumpy ride." Again, there's no reply. There's rarely a reply to any of the things Bouffant tells the diner.

"I need to leave this city..." says Get Out of Town, "and Alabama beckons to me..."

Bouffant says, "Alabamy? I spent a summer in Alabamy one week."

Get Out of Town says, "Did you have a chance to go fishing?", and with that they're off like the ponies at Pimlico. For the next twenty minutes Get Out of Town and Bouffant can't stop talking about all the fabulous arts and entertainment available in Guntersville, Alabamy — which seems to be fishing on lovely Lake Guntersville, and not much else.

♦ ♦ ♦

After a few bites of my omelet, Kirstin checks in on me. "Is everything as perfect and fantastic as it usually is?"

"Better than that," I say, "but I have a question."

"Shoot," she says.

"Couple three weeks ago, you were dealing with an idiot named Eric."

"I've dealt with worse," she says.

"You shouldn't have to."

"Well," she says, and then she says nothing. She's sorting words around in her head, until finally she says, "Don't worry about Eric. He's not worth any worry."

"I worry about you," I said, and Kirstin cogitates again.

"I'm not worth the worry, either," she says. "It's my job is to make sure you're happy with your meal — you, and everyone who comes in here. I like some of the customers, and some I really don't, but everyone gets the best I can give 'em."

I say, "There's gotta be a limit, though, and jeez, that guy was over the limit."

"Poor pitiful Eric," she says, and bounces her head, left to right diagonal. "Meh. He's a jerk, but he never crosses my line. When someone does, I have clearance from Bob to kick 'em out, and I've done it, many times. Couple of times, it was Bob I kicked out."

I laugh, and she says, "Oh, you think I'm joking? So did Bob."

I chuckle again, and she says, "Bob and Harvey and Slim are always behind me, sweetie, so don't worry about it."

"Well, I'm behind you, too."

She smiles. "Ah, I already knew that, Ted. I've known that for years, since you used to come in with your late wife, and you were both always so nice. There's one thing you have to know, though."

I'm weary from all the talking, so I lift my eyebrows and let them say, "What's that?"

"Bob's real strict about this. If someone's out of line, and we have to kick 'em out, and they won't go? Bob's the owner, so he gets to throw the first punch."

Harvey's voice, from the kitchen: "And if Bob's not here, I get to throw the first punch."

Several bites later, after Kirstin has walked away, I'm still thinking about what she said, and what Harvey said, and what I said. It was a weird conversation, but I'm glad we all said what we all said.

♦ ♦ ♦

As I'm paying and leaving and saying my ordinary thanks, the last line I overhear is Get Out of Town saying to Bouffant, "If you're ever near Guntersville, Alabama, look me up... I'll be there, because I can't stay in this town much longer..."

Bouffant says, "It's a date," but I think it's more of a daydream.

 

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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