Thursday Night in Roland's Diner

Written in response to: Set your story in the lowest rated restaurant in town.... view prompt

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American Contemporary Sad

       Roland’s Diner was the lowest-rated restaurant in town. Roland himself passed almost twenty years ago- or as the patrons would say, “Ole Role hisself died about two decades ago.” His son, Benny took over the duties of running the cheap eatery and had only managed to turn out a place where the food was gristly, the tables sticky, the chair pads ripped, and the coffee bland but hot. The Diner barely pulled a profit anymore as most people avoided this place like they’d contract cancer from just smelling the place, but a select few old-timers still held a certain loyalty to the diner. That and it was one of the few places where someone could still smoke inside left in town.

       Outside, a silent Thursday night passes by with little more than a passing car or a distant insect creak to add noise. An old-fashioned jukebox plays hits from many years ago to add a certain cheerful tone that horrible clashes with the state of the diner. In one corner, under lights that had needed to be replaced for years now, a young couple sat on the same side of the booth, making out over two plates of pie. The guy’s was a half-eaten slop of apple, the girl’s a blueberry with only two bites taken out. Two men sit hunched over coffee at the bar, separated by the trapdoor used for waiters to leave their station to attend the booths. In a booth nearest the door, an old woman who seldom talks picks at mushy French fries with a look of total isolation. Mary cannot help but frown at this woman. She always looks this way, but any thoughts of what to say drain out of her mind like a plug being pulled from the bottom of a bathtub any time she gets the nerve to make conversation with this woman.

       Mary Wentzel, the middle-aged waitress who had taken the job after high school and never escaped the town for her dreams of stardom, struts around the dull grey and white dining room with a cantor that told of great beauty forgotten through late nights and cigarettes. She shakes her head, to dissipate the sympathy for the old woman, who finishes her meal, leaves some bills on the table, and exits the diner. The thoughts fade like smoke in the wind.

       “Top your coffee off, Tom?” She asks in a husky voice to a lonely patron who sits at the bar, staring into a half-empty mug of black coffee. The man is kindly and smiles warmly as if to say “yes” behind a smoldering cigarette. His eyes are brown with garnet pools of bags around them. His skin is a mismatch of colors under a bushy nest of thinning hair. He thanks Mary and returns to his contemplation of life over his coffee.

       The next visit is Darnold Humphrey, whose tattered clothes and stingy salt and pepper beard age him twenty years older than he actually is. Without asking, Mary tips the pot into Darnold’s mug. She knows that as long as he is in there, he is going to want coffee. Darnold holds up a leather hand that shows years of hard work with his index finger and thumb meeting at the tips, an okay gesture meaning, “thanks, hun.” Darnold pours exactly two and a half creamers and three and one-forth packets of sugar into the steaming liquid as Mary flicks the switch to the second coffee maker to start brewing. It spurts and bubbles like a dying animal, but it heats the tar-like drink to a respectable temperature.

       She lights another cigarette. Mary knows that she shouldn’t- her last doctor’s appointment four years ago concurred with the idea, but smoking was one of the few things she could hold onto to remember a better time. The cancerous smoke brought about the charming images of sleek blond hair, makeup that was just on the verge of being overdone, miniskirts, and loud music streaming from fast cars or cheap speakers. Back then, the only worries in the world were which boys to turn down date offers from and if her makeup matched her outfit. She looks down at the tight button-down and miniskirt that had constituted her uniform for the last thirty years. White- turned grey with red, once vibrant and cool like herself-turned a faded pink. She was going to be something, but as the years went on, her features had lost their strike and her body had fallen, just like this uniform. She could still catch the lingering of an eye or the craning of a neck from men both young and old, but gone were the days of wild-eyed clamoring as males fought animal-like to climb over each other for a conversation. A smile spreads her red lips as a pinprick of a tear forms in the corner of her eye- good memories.

       The dull bell with more than a few cracks in it gives an equally dull announcement of a new patron entering. It’s Nadine Markey- an old friend who was once first in line for every rock show that visited within a hundred-mile radius. She had married a charming greaser with a fast car too young, four grown kids, and a divorce later, she was a lonely antique shop cashier with a caffeine addiction.

       “Hey there, Nadine,” Mary says between drags on her menthol smoke, she blows the cloud of grey to the stained ceiling of flickering lights. “Coffee?”

       “Please, Mary,” Nadine says, her smile is still as fun as ever as she shows teeth that had somehow never faced the consequences of tobacco and coffee, “How’s things been lately?” The two see each other almost three times a week, but the conversation still happens as if it has been months since their last conversation.

       “Same old, same old,” Mary speaks. The two women’s eyes have a forlorn look as if pity stretches to one another for what used to be, “Benny still workin’ the kitchen by hisself and I work morning to close.” Mary likes these hours despite the often depressing look of lonely patrons and the decaying interior of the diner. Something about being able to see the small flicker of smiles on people’s faces as she serves the same customers that she has for most of her life. There was something joyous about being able to still see people smile in these hard times.

       “Jackson called the other day,” Nadine says. Jackson called his mother maybe four times each year if she was lucky and visited once every three for a short weekend- still the most loyal of her children.

       “Oh!” Mary perks up, she knows that these rare calls are the biggest treasure to her friend, “How is that little heartbreaker doing?”

       Nadine smiles warmly for the love of her son, her eyes gloss over in that way that screams that she misses him to death, “He’s good, got hisself a job as a advertiser for some big company. Middle of Summer and they’re already workin’ on what to do for Christmas. Christmas for chrissakes!”

       Mary shakes her head slightly with a smile, “These young people and their want for money.”

       Nadine takes a sip of her coffee that has far too many sugars and creamers loaded into it, “I’m tellin’ ya, girl, the world’s getting’ all sortsa crazy.”

       The two giggle on through one-liners about the insanity of businesses before Mary leaves to attend to other patrons. More coffee, another pot started, and hardly any food to occupy Benny’s time with cooking. He sits in the back and wonders what his life would have been like if he had taken his father’s wishes and kept things in order. The diner could have been a big hit for kids and adults if he hadn’t been so frugal with the income that dwindled more and more each year. Too late now, he figures, this dump will die with me. 

       Benny wishes he had married and produced children, but that is just a nagging sting he has to live with at this point.

       Mary spots the couple making out. A loving feeling overtakes her as if a blanket around her body. She wishes the two the best as they pay for their abandoned pies and flat sodas to hold hands as they disappear into the night. At some point, Darnold had left and Tom was crying softly about an occurrence years ago. He too trudges out the door with a melancholy air about him. A bill has been left under the mug that has just one sip left, a scribbled smiley face adorns the corner of his bill. Mary pulls the paid bills and distributes the money into their rightful slots in the cash register. She tosses her tips into a little change purse in which the black faux leather is cracked and chipping off to reveal a course grey fabric beneath.

       “See you in a few days, Mare Bear,” Nadine says as she stands. The woman stubs a cigarette into an ashtray and leaves it smoldering until it dies a few moments later.

       Benny tells Mary to close up as he shuts the lights off and heads for his home in a car that makes sickly belches and leaves a wake of ill-smelling exhaust behind it as it roars home like a wounded lion. The car is a perfect representation of Benny, Mary thinks.

       Flipping the sign over that happily reads “Sorry! Will return soon!” in cheerful printing to face outward, the lights shut off, putting an end to the soft hum they make. Mary, high heels still on, struts through the parking and into her home across the street to sleep before beginning an identical shift tomorrow in the town’s worst diner.  

April 14, 2022 16:27

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