Last updated: 2006-12-18
They had an overwhelming flood of complaints when the Shiny Diner was first built. Not from the citizens of Kildaire, who found the retro fifties diner very charming, even delightful. After all, wasn't this the third most popular restaurant chain in the country? No, the complaints came from the town managers. Your diner is too shiny, they said, your silver aluminum siding too reflective, too gaudy. They tried to shut the diner down, citing town regulations and long-winded arguments, both of which failed. Eventually, tall bushes were planted in the front of the building facing Erin Road, as a compromise.
I brush the top of one of these bushes on my way to the door.
On the curb, next to the front door, sits an older man with a pepper-and-salt beard, sipping delicately on a take-away paper cup of coffee. The man wears a light blue tee-shirt and wrinkled, bleach-spotted jeans, which ripple in the night breeze. A faded blue cap with a mesh back perches on top of his head, kilted slightly to the left. There is also a big black smudge on the top of the old man's left hand, the result of either a night of frenetic club-hopping or a botched tattoo attempt. My guess is the latter. The man nods in my direction as I open the door, immediately turning his attention back to his coffee as if the Secret of Life is hidden there.
I step inside and the aroma of fried eggs and waffles hits me like a wave, sending little shivers down my spine. I walk up to the counter, take a stool; there are only five seats at the counter, but the other four are empty. I grab a laminated menu and scan the choices, pretending really, because I always get the same thing. I peek over the menu at the new cook in front of me; the man has his back turned to me, busily cooking up four orders at once. He has bleached-blond hair tied up in a ponytail, black at the roots and a little gray at the temples. When the cook turns around, I notice that the name on his tag reads MR. ASS.
After a few moments, Linda appears with a kerchief on her head, brandishing a Bic pen and a pad of paper. Her red apron is spattered with food remnants and her shirt is unbuttoned at the top. She smiles at me, and I return the favor. "What can I get for you, hon?" she says.
"Hey, Linda," I say, "I'll have a Denver omelette with toast. And coffee."
"You like grits or orange juice with that?"
"Not tonight," I say, "just coffee."
Linda scribbles on her pad of paper and looks back up. "That it, shug?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Whoa," she says, looking down at my hand. "That's some tattoo you got there. I can't believe I never noticed it before."
I splay my fingers so the tattoo stretches out. The black pentacle writhes on the top of my hand, undulating with the movement of my knuckles. "Thank you," I say. "It's a gift." I don't tell her I got it.
Linda glances back up and takes me in. "You don't seem like the tattoo kind of guy."
I shrug. "No. I don't, do I?"
Linda puts the pad in her apron pocket. "I'll be right back with your coffee."
Most of the booths in the diner are empty, but an unusual assortment of people make up the small clientele hungry for a twilight breakfast. To my right, a group of boisterous college students overflows into two booths, laughing hard, mangling the English language into slurred non-syllables. In the booth next to them, a squat, balding man with big ears slurps loudly from a bowl of runny grits. Across from him, a man and woman with matching purple hair sit on the same side of their booth, sucking face like one of them is going into the army tomorrow. I turn, a strange embarrassment overcoming me. I can feel my ears getting hot.
At the booth in the back corner on the other side of the diner, a pair of hard-looking men talk quietly. They wear windbreakers, though it's the middle of a muggy North Carolina summer, into the nineties even at night. A bluish haze of cigarette smoke hangs over their heads, almost obscuring them from view. They look strong enough to snap me in half and barely break a sweat.
"Here's your coffee, babe," Linda says, setting the unadorned white mug in front of me with a rattle. "I forget, you like cream and sugar?"
"Lots of cream, lots of sugar," I say. She grabs three cream containers and a few packets of Equal from her apron pocket and dumps them on the counter.
"Your omelette'll be right up."
"Thanks. Hey," I say, touching Linda lightly on the arm. "The new guy. Is his name really Mr. Ass?" I motion to the busy cook with my chin.
Linda smiles. "Probably not. But that's what everyone around here calls him. I think he likes it."
My ears pop as if from a pressure change, and I crane my neck to see who has just come in the door. The old man from outside steps into the diner, his paper cup empty. He takes the stool farthest from me, and Linda walks over to refill his cup. He puts the cup to his nose and inhales loudly. A look of contentment spreads across his face, and he turns to me.
"Life's blood, this," the old man says and gives me a toothless grin. He takes a big gulp of the coffee and puts the cup on the counter. His eyes squinch shut and he lets out a series of loud coughs that sounds like a bull snorting, a deep rattle that doubles the man over.
"Hey, man," I say, "you all right?"
The old man stops coughing and breathes deeply for a moment. He looks up at me as a tear drips down his face, and smiles again. "Yup. Little cough ain't enough to get Old Jake down." He picks up the coffee again, takes a smaller drink, and lets out a loud exhaled ahhhhhhh.
"Hey," Old Jake says, "you got a quarter?" He digs in his pants pocket and produces two dimes and a nickel. "I come here mostly for the music."
I reach into my own pocket and produce a dull New Jersey quarter, the one with Washington crossing the Delaware on the back. "There you go," I say, taking Old Jake's exchange. I notice that the old man's hands are rough and nicotine-stained, the hands of a man used to a hard life.
"Thanks," Old Jake says. "I just love the music here." He edges his way off of the stool and over to the jukebox. He slams the quarter in the slot and punches the buttons, so quickly that it has to be from memory. "Hound Dog" immediately drifts down from hidden speakers and Old Jake climbs back up on his stool.
"Hey, you look kinda down, fella. You feeling all right?"
I exhale. "Not really. My life's been pretty much turned upside-down lately, and I don't have anyone to talk about it with."
"Ah, don't worry about it, kid," Old Jake says with another smile that hurts to look at. "Loneliness is temporary. Trust me. These things have a way of working themselves out." With that, Old Jake turns back to his coffee like I'm not even there, staring into the liquid depths hard enough to divine the future.
I sip at my own coffee. The old man is right; this is good stuff. I close my eyes as the warm liquid flows down my throat, warming my insides, giving me the shivers again.
I snap out of my coffee-induced trance as a plate clatters in front of me. Errant cubes of ham and green pepper line the plate; the omelette looks good enough to kill for, and I say so to Linda.
"You need any ketchup or anything?"
"No, thanks. This'll do."
I pick up the fork, ready to dive in, when I'm bumped from the right. I look up into the grizzled face of one of the hard men from the corner; the man looks straight ahead, twitching slightly, a bead of sweat trickling down the side of his face. The smell of tobacco is strong.
Another waitress, this one called Kay, walks up to the cash register behind the counter. "Y'all ready to pay?" she says, holding her hand out for the check.
"N-No," the man says, reaching into his jacket. He pulls out a dulled .38 Special and aims it at Kay's face. "I think y-you'll be p-p-paying me, bitch."
The room goes dead quiet, broken only by the sizzle of eggs from the range. The stuttering robber's partner also has a gun out, pointed at the patrons in the other booths. His eyes dance in his sockets and he can't seem to keep his feet still. Behind the counter, Kay's eyes roll backward, and she collapses to the floor.
"Y-Y-You!" the stutterer spits and points the gun at Mr. Ass. "O-Open the fuck! shit! cash register!" Mr. Ass just stands there, his eyes wide as saucers, his hands clamped onto his apron. Linda is nowhere to be seen. I exhale. Like so many recent incidents in my life, this won't end well. I cut a piece out of my Denver omelette and pop it into my mouth.
The stutterer spins and shoves the gun against my head. "Hey f-f-fuckhead, what do you think you're doing? Are you eating?"
I swallow and turn the stool until I'm looking directly into the barrel of the .38. A flutter of hatred wells up in my stomach. Why did I have to be in the mood for an omelette tonight? And why did these two idiots pick this particular night to pull off their heist? I was pissed off, not just that they were endangering lives for a few hundred bucks, but that they were forcing me to make a choice. Either let them rob them place (and maybe shoot someone in their ineptitude) or abandon the pretense of being an ordinary person and show the midnight diners what I really am. The first choice would mean a black mark on the reputation of my favorite restaurant, leading to fewer customers, and possibly bankruptcy. The second choice would exile me from this diner forever, the loss of a regular eating spot and extended family, a home away from home.
I take a deep breath to calm my nerves, and choose.
"Yes," I say. "I'm eating. That's what people come to diners to do. People don't come to diners to have guns aimed at them, so one of us is doing something wrong."
"Eddie!" the dancing gunman yelps. "Man, what the fuck are you doing? Just get the money!"
"N-No, Ned. I'm gonna t-teach this mouthy bastard," he taps me hard on the shoulder four times, "a lesson."
"I wouldn't do that," I say and lean back. I can hear Old Jake chuckling softly behind me. The old guy has probably been through this before.
"Oh yeah? W-W-Why not?"
"Because," I growl, the tattoo on my right hand glowing blue, "you might end up dead."
The next few seconds stretch and become viscous, more like a series of connected images than real life. Stuttering Eddie pulls the trigger and screams as the gun explodes in his hand. As he cradles his mangled appendage, he falls backwards into Dancing Ned, causing the second gun to go off. I flash a hand out and the bullet stops in mid-air, still spinning. I point my finger at Dancing Ned, who is now halfway to the floor with Stuttering Eddie, and the bullet rotates to point at the duo. I close my fist and the bullet resumes its flight, plunging deep into Dancing Ned's thigh. He shrieks.
"C-C-C'mon!" Eddie shouts, pulling Ned to his feet with his one good hand. The pair bolts out of the diner, leaving a trail of blood that glistens in the overhead fluorescent lights. There is a sound of screeching tires, several gunshots, then silence. Blue lights pulse in the reflection of the windows.
Linda pokes her head cautiously out of the back. "Are the police here yet?"
"Yep." I spin back around to put another forkful of omelette into my mouth. "Sounds like they got 'em." I stand up and reach into my wallet, produce a fifty. "Hey," I say to Mr. Ass, who still has that deer-in-the-headlights look, "I was never here, all right?"
"How," Mr. Ass says in a throaty whisper damaged by too many cigarettes. "How'd you do that?"
"It's better the cops don't find me," I say. "It would complicate things."
Shocked, I turn at the mention of my name to look at Old Jake, who appears strangely vibrant, almost luminescent. The old man stands without a sign of the strains of old age, rising smoothly. The specks in his eyes disappear, revealing clear blue irises that hold immense knowledge. My own eyes widen and I try to catch my breath; the old man is growing healthier before my eyes.
"Save your money, son," Old Jake says, his voice now full of deep confidence. "I'll take care of this." He quickly whispers some words to himself, words too fast or quiet to be heard by the normal ear.
And that's when I look around. Everyone in the diner is frozen in the act of doing something. Linda has one hand on the door leading to the dish room, staring straight at me. Mr. Ass is in the process of scratching his head to express his bewilderment. The group of college kids stare as well, as do the punky couple with the purple hair. The man with the big ears has a spoonful of grits halfway to his mouth, oblivious to everything that's happening. The inside of the diner has taken on a glossy sheen, as if I'm seeing it from behind a sheet of Saran-Wrap. Only Old Jake is sharply in focus.
"I've got a little gift too," he says and turns his left hand over so the back of it faces me. Carved into the rough, wrinkled skin, no longer smudged by illusion, is an exact duplicate of the tattooed pentacle that I wear. And even as I watch, the wrinkles begin to dissolve as the skin stretches tight. "Besides, you can't afford to pay off everyone in here. I'll handle it."
"How is this possible?"
"It's possible just like you stopping that bullet was possible." I notice Jake starting to sweat lightly; a brief look of strain flits across his features. "I've momentarily stopped time, but I can only hold us here briefly, so if you have questions, make them quick."
"So you and I are the same?"
"Yes and no. The gift is a little different for all of us."
My stomach flip-flops and a tingly feeling travels all up and down my chest. "So there are more of us?"
"Unh...yes. Most of us are very good at hiding in plain sight. We impersonate the homeless, the downtrodden, the invisible. We are the people that most normal folks gloss over or outright ignore. We are everywhere...and we are nowhere."
Old Jake smiles, and I see that he now has a mouthful of teeth. "Lots."
A warmth rises from the tips of my toes all the way to the top of my head. I feel like I can fly.
"Now," Old Jake says with an impatient tone, "you need to beat it. I can't fix this situation with your energy here."
"How can I find you? I mean, I have so many more questions..."
"Don't worry," he says, the world becoming clear and full of movement again. "I'll be in touch."
I turn and step out of the Shiny Diner onto the asphalt, and repeat the words from Jake's lips. The world takes on the Saran-Wrap sheen again, but I can feel no strain at all. I walk out to my car and see the two would-be robbers lying face down in the parking lot, hands cuffed behind their backs, barely breathing. Movement, then. I haven't stopped time, but stepped sidewise, outside of time. Jake's words ring in my head: the gift is different for all of us. One police officer, a pretty brunette with high cheekbones, has her Beretta aimed at the two criminals, yelling something which sounds muted to my ears. Her partner leans on the open squad car door and speaks numbers and initials into the radio.
I open the door to my own car, bringing the beat-up Dodge onto my side of the sheen, and look over at the female officer. She's looking in my direction, a perplexed expression on her face, like wasn't there a car over there a moment ago? I smile, blow her a kiss, and close the door.
"Shiny Diner Blues" is © 2003 by Jason Erik Lundberg
Originally published in The Dream Engine no. 6, February 2003