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Breakfast at the Diner — #45

Christ is no longer King, or at least it’s no longer announced on the fence around the diner’s small parking lot. They’ve scrubbed the graffiti off, and I miss it. I’d been feeling a touch of godliness, parking in Christ’s space.

I make it almost to the diner’s door before remembering I’m maskless, so I walk back to the car. There’s a mask on the passenger seat, where my wife always sat. I still say “Hi” to her whenever I come home, or get into the car — a silly habit, pretending she’s still with me — so I say, “Hi, Stephanie,” as I reach in and grab a mask. Then I’m back thirty seconds later saying, “Hi, Steph” again, because I’ve also forgotten my reading glasses.

In the diner, Phil and Maurice are in their usual seats near the door, and I say, “Hey, Phil; Howdy, Maurice." No idea where that came from. As long as I’ve been coming here, today might be the first time I’ve said hello to either of them. They both say something nice, and I sit as far from them as the counter allows.

Kirstin says “Good morning,” and pours my orange juice. I say the same, and add, “Hope you had a nice Mother’s Day,” because I know she’s a mom and grandma.

“Yes, I did,” she says. “My husband took me to the Dells, and my son and grandson met us there.”

I’m not much of a talker or listener and she knows it, so Kirstin ends her story there, but here’s something I’ll add. Most restaurants do a booming business on Mother’s Day, but the diner does no business at all. Bob always closes the place, as a gift to Kirstin.

Some years back, I overheard them talking about it. Bob said they always got plenty of Mother’s Day customers, but they were mostly not the diner’s regulars, so they asked stupid questions and wanted things the diner doesn’t have, and a few of them every year made the day hell for Kirstin. So about ten years ago, Bob said “Fuck it,” and the diner's doors have been locked on Mother’s Day ever since.

“Today’s special is kielbasa and eggs,” Kirstin says, “and for you we’ll make it an omelet.”

I shake my head yes, and she says, “I’ll get you some extra napkins before I forget." She ducks into a cabinet and returns with an inch-high stack of the diner’s small paper napkins.

I may have once mentioned to Kirstin that the kielbasa is slightly spicy and makes my nose drip. Or maybe she noticed it without me saying anything. She notices everything — she’s probably put together the clues and knows which customers are cheating on their wives or their diets, just from some facial tick or the way they hold their pinkies.

♦ ♦ ♦

There are two black ladies at a nearby table, and from their ages they’re probably mother and daughter. Over the clatter of a busy diner almost half-full, they’re talking about someone in the family who’s seriously sick, and Mom says, “We’re not on our own time, we’re on God’s time.”

Daughter looks at Mom, and sighs and says, “Screw God’s time. This is Nina’s time.” I don’t know anything more than that, but if she’s Nina, I like Nina.

♦ ♦ ♦

At the table next to them, a priest is wearing the traditional black robe and white collar, and eating oatmeal. He’s deep inside his cell phone, like everyone else these days, and if he overhears the ladies talking about God’s time and Nina’s time, he ignores them. He's off-duty.

♦ ♦ ♦

A thirty-something white guy comes in with his son, who's about five. They take a table at the back, and ask for menus — pandemic’s still on, so you still have to ask. Then the two of them talk about every choice that’s listed. The menu is only one page, but there are twenty breakfasts to choose from, not including the daily special, so it's a big decision. Dad is still patiently answering his son’s questions when Kirstin comes by, and he says they’ll need a few more minutes.

"Absolutely no hurry," she says, and hurries away. The diner is busier than the new normal, and Kirstin has to be everywhere at once.

♦ ♦ ♦

"The plate is hot," she says, sliding it in front of me. This is maybe my favorite moment of the week, every week, at least during the long lockdown of 2020-2021. Hello, omelet. Good morning, hash browns. I love you, hotcakes. In half an hour you'll be part of me. Everything looks very good but never phony-perfect like a TV commercial, and I know it’ll be scrumptious. It’s embarrassing how happy this makes me, every Friday morning.

♦ ♦ ♦

An old-ish white guy comes in, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and overdressed in a suit that’s rumpled like Columbo. He’s not happy. He sits down and looks at me like I’m familiar, but I don’t recognize him. He’s alone, and soon he's talking to Phil and Maurice.

My attention is torn between my magazine and a pretty woman at the other end of the counter. I choose the magazine.

♦ ♦ ♦

It’s been a few minutes, and Dad and Son are still thinking things over. The boy wants pancakes, but he also wants eggs. That’s a dilemma I solve every week, by ordering both the pancakes and the eggs. The kid orders pancakes and his father orders eggs, and they agree to share.

♦ ♦ ♦

The man who was looking at me is still looking at me now and again. It bugs me, so I target my eyes on his eyes and nowhere else. I'm not looking away until I know what’s going on. The staredown doesn't last long, before he says, “You again?”

Again? “Do I know you, mister?”

“You gave me crap once.” I strenuously have no idea what’s happening here. I don’t give strangers crap, as a rule, but looking at his stupid face a memory comes into focus.

“Ah,” I say with a sarcastic smile, and I point at him. “You’re the Abortion Nitwit.”

“You wanna say that to my face?”

I just did, didn’t I? but I don’t say that. We silently stare at each other across the long counter. He’s old but not as old as me, fat but not as fat as me, and I can out-coward anyone. “Sorry, man,” I say with a fake smile, and add, “Enjoy your breakfast." I lower my eyes to fake-read my magazine.

My first plan: If he comes at me I’ll run out the back door and come back tomorrow to pay my tab. My back-up plan is the can of mace in my pocket, but that would stink up the diner. Mostly, I just wanna eat my hotcakes.

“Apology accepted,” the Nitwit says. I toss him another fake smile with all the fake sincerity I can muster, and there is peace in the diner. I have Neville Chamberlained that bastard.

Kirstin doesn’t say anything. She wasn’t here the morning me and the Nitwit had words, but Harvey has probably told her about it. I glance into the kitchen, and there he is, cooking at the grill but also watching the front of house. If anything had happened, I’m 70% sure Harvey would’ve been on my side.

♦ ♦ ♦

Well, I was in a good mood until that brief and stupid interruption, but now Bouffant-Walker walks in and everything's back to normal.

Like most Friday mornings, he says hello to everyone he recognizes — today that's Phil and Maurice, Father Cell Phone, one of the black ladies, Kirstin and Harvey, and me. I’m last on the list because I’m sitting at the end of the counter.

Bouffant says my name when he says good morning, but I don’t know his name so I just say, “Good morning.” I mostly mean it, though. He walks on, sits at his usual table, orders his usual breakfast, and as usual starts talking to the walls.

♦ ♦ ♦

Usual is good. I peek at the Nitwit, and he’s drinking coffee. I hate his fuckin’ guts, but there are so many people to hate it could ruin your morning if you let it. I ain’t gonna let it.

♦ ♦ ♦

Just moments later, Big Hat sashays into the place, with hellos like Bouffant — but for everyone, not just for the people she knows. When she says hello to the Abortion Nitwit, he looks bewildered but gives her a good morning back.

It’s always difficult describing Big Hat, but she’s among my favorites at the diner. She's cheerful but not obnoxious about it, and always wears mismatched bright colors and an enormous red hat. Today she's wearing a blue aluminum vest and purple pants, with a stars-and-stripes mask, and that hat, of course.

When she says hello to me, I tip my own imaginary hat and say, “Good morning, ma’am.” She laughs, and settles in at the table next to Dad and Son. Predictably, they’re all three friends by the time breakfast is over.

Does Big Hat ever wake up in a dour mood, or go anywhere without that huge floppy hat on her head? I don’t think so. She’s like an old, black Mary Poppins, an upbeat whirlwind of good vibrations making everyone smile whether they want to or not. I wonder who or what went right in her life to make her who she is. I ought to ask her, and one of these weeks I’m sure I won’t.

♦ ♦ ♦

I glance down the counter again to make sure the Nitwit isn’t about to ambush me. To my pleasant surprise he’s finished and gone. Now Hangover Harry is at that same stool, and yikes, unexpected eye contact with Harry is a jolt. He has the world’s bloodshottiest eyeballs, and a face that announces he’s been drinking heavily for thirty years.

Then again, I don’t really know his story, any more than Big Hat’s. Possibly it’s not booze, but some medical condition that gives him those frightful red, almost bleeding eyes, and the gnarled skin on his cheeks.

He sure looks like a drunk, though. Whatever it is, I hope he does better in the afternoons than he does in the mornings.

♦ ♦ ♦

These people at the diner … I watch and listen, and I’ve come to know a few of them, but only barely. I don’t know what Phil does for a living, or why Maurice has a tube in his nose, but only sometimes. I don’t know Kirstin’s last name. There's almost nothing I really know about these people — just enough to poke fun at them, gently I hope, in these silly reports. To me it’s breakfast and a show, but I like the people here. Most of them.

♦ ♦ ♦

I pay and tip and say, “Thanks, Kirstin,” and step into a light rainfall on a gray morning. At the car I say hello to my wife who’s not there, and reverse out of my Christ-free parking space. The car rolls slowly past the diner’s back door, which is open. Inside there’s the silhouette of a man, and even in shadows I’m certain it’s Harvey, not Slim or Bob. Guess I know the shapes of the men who work there.

In a slow-motion moment, his lighter flickers as Harvey emerges from the shadows. His cigarette is lit and in his lips as he steps outside. He sees me and waves. I wave back.

And with two right turns, I’m on the highway home. See ya next week, Harvey. Thanks for the hotcakes, and for maybe having my back when I maybe needed it.

 

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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