Sandra adjusted her loose ponytail. A nervous tic she carried from childhood. Some chew their fingernails or tug their ears when uncomfortable. Sandy played with her ponytail. She glanced over at Mike; manager for less than a week and he already was making a name for himself. Not in a good way.
Mike sat in an empty booth and glared at Sandy. Her hands shook as she cleared a table of dishes and glasses. She looked back at Mike, who motioned with his eyes toward the back of the diner. Sandy knew she had to do something. Not because she wanted to of course.
Creekside Diner is an institution. Sandy’s grandfather, Carl Nimber built this place. He laid the foundation, raised the walls, and created a landmark for the town. And now the new manager was going to change things?
The Diner sat next to the Ruin River. Carl thought it a sly joke to name his restaurant Creekside. The Ruin was no more a creek than an elephant is a mouse. His humor was always a little strange, thought Sandra. She brought her tray into the kitchen, and set it on a counter. Then walked through the swinging door to the front of the diner. Mike leaned against a wall, arms folded.
“Listen, sweetie. You know the rules. Now take care of it,” he said.
Mike walked back to his table in the back to file paperwork. He glanced back and leered at Sandra. She fixed her ponytail again. Then walked to the long counter lined with stools that spanned the length of the diner. A disheveled man sat, sipping coffee and staring into the mirror behind the counter.
Carl had a sharp mind, that is until dementia sucked his personality. He could look in a man’s eyes and understand. Carl passed his magic to Sandra. She served this man coffee for over three hours, and in that time she gleaned a lifetime of misery and pain. She wanted to help him in some way, and she thought letting him sit here out of the cold was the best way possible.
The problem was Mike. A week into his reign he made a rule that would’ve caused Carl to turn in his grave. “No loitering.” The other waitresses complained that we cannot turn away paying customers.
“Buying a fifty-cent cup of coffee does not count as a ‘paying customer,’” Mike said.
People go to diners all the time and only order coffee. Sandra knows this, and Mike definitely knows this. The issue for him is the man sitting in the back nursing one cup of coffee every night for hours on end. It’s not like he’s taking up space. The Creekside is empty most nights. So what is it about this guy that irks Mike so much?
Sandra knew the man. She knew him more than anyone on Earth. She didn’t know his name. Or where he lived. Where he came from or where he was going. But those facts aren’t always necessary. All she needed to know about him was he needed a place to sit. Out of the cold, and safe from whatever evils lie out in the world.
He sat in the same spot, drinking the same cup of coffee, and he never bothered a soul. Except for Mike. Not directly mind you. His mere presence was enough to rile Mike into a frenzy. But Mike was a coward and he didn’t have the gall to say anything to his face. He was comfortable bossing around the women, but no one else. He stayed in the safety of his own masculinity.
Sandra imagined Mike and his fragile ego as a result of years of never living up to any type of standard. High or low, didn’t matter; Mike didn’t measure up to either. She looked over at him again. His eyes bored through her. This was it. She had to do something.
Horace Sewell died in 1975. His soul went wherever souls go. Unfortunately, his body stayed behind. For thirty-five years, he dragged his hefty frame through life. Living without a soul isn’t as hard as one thinks. It’s the mental toll that drags and wearies the mind.
Horace was tired and he wanted the nightmares to stop. At the same time, those in his nightmares were the only company he could stand. Everyone else was shadows and dust. So after work, he wandered to the Creekside to nurse his cups of coffee. Stuck in a purgatory of thought. Should he go to sleep and dream of horrors? Or stay up and see the horror of humanity.
Sandra walked behind the counter and smiled at Horace. He curled his mouth up into a fake plastic smile. The same smile Sandra gave when a group of church folk come in after Sunday service. The smile hides the embarrassment and shame. The judgment she felt blazed into her skin.
Horace knew her more than anyone in the world. And Sandra knew him the same. But they were strangers passing each other on a river.
“Can I?” Sandra asked.
She held the steaming coffee pot up for Horace to see. He smiled for real this time and nodded.
“Sometimes I think you’re the only only one that really sees me,” Horace said. He reached for a packet of sugar near the rusty napkin tray.
Mike appeared behind him, menacing in a pathetic way. A vein ran from his receding hairline to his temple. He looked at Sandra who put the coffee pot back on the tray. This is it, she thought.
College would have to wait another year or never. A garbage can full of rejection letters from even the most humble schools ensured that. And now she would need to find another job. In a town with no work. In a state with no future for her. If grandpa Carl could see her now. The last living family member, fired from his beloved Creekside Diner.
Sandra’s glad her grandfather didn’t live to see his restaurant fall into disrepair. She blamed herself. But in reality, it was her father and mother. Or better said, it was the heroine her father and mother overdosed on that ruined it for everyone.
“Sandra, you had something to say to this man?” Mike said.
Sandra looked down at the ground. A roach crawled out from under the counter and she smashed it with her shoe. She looked at the grimy floor, the roach guts smeared on the floor, and her big toe poking through her old shoes.
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” she squeaked.
Mike grinned like a clown. He scratched his sweat-stained armpit and leered at Horace who stirred his coffee.
“You are a stain on this establishment. You being here tells everyone in town that this place is off limits. You should be embarrassed.”
Mike chuckled and turned to leave.
Horace stopped stirring his coffee. He looks down in shame. If only she knew. If only she had asked. He would've laid it all on the table. He would've explained how he grew up in the poorest section of Ruin County. How he often slept in the woods to escape the smell of the shack his mother slept in. He wanted to tell her about Vietnam. And how he left his soul there in the jungle. Horace didn’t say anything, he did that a lot. He left a lot of things unsaid. He looked up at Sandra. She wasn't looking at him.
“I'm talking to you,” she said.
Mike stopped and turned around. Sandra is staring straight at him.
“Mike, get out. I want you to leave this place and never come back.”
Mike cleared his throat but no words came.
“You are a louse and a coward. Get the hell out of here. Don’t worry we’ll mail you a check.”
Mike coughed and gathered his words. “I’m the manager, you don’t—“
The kitchen door swung open, and two hulking figures appeared. Leo and Braun. Men of few words. Mike never had the nerve to speak to them. He relied on everyone else to talk to them. The pair folded their arms and stared at Mike.
“You know what. You're all fired. Let me make a phone call…”
Sandra walked over to the phone on the wall. She started dialing a number.
“Let’s make this quick. I’ll tell them how you are running this place into the ground. How there are roaches everywhere. And you’re kicking customers out. One customer in particular.”
Mike cowered back. “What is with you, Sandra? I’m just doing my job!”
Sandra slammed the phone down. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Mike backpedaled to his table. Grabbed his coat and walked out of the Creekside Diner.
Leo and Braun nodded. “You’re the boss now,” Leo said. They walked back into the kitchen.
Sandra breathed a sigh of relief. The world wasn’t as cold and dark as it had been ten minutes earlier.
“Hope rekindled is the start of a good life,” Horace said.
“I read it somewhere. Or heard it. I don’t know,” he said.
Sandra woke something in Horace. He couldn't place it, but it felt good to be seen. He thanked her, chugged his coffee, and walked out.
Horace didn’t come into the diner the next night. Or the night after or the night after that. Sandra asked around but no one knew where he had gone off to. She hoped he moved on. On to something better than sitting in a diner sipping coffee alone every night.
A week later Sandra found a bulky package on her doorstep. She sat on the steps to her trailer and unwrapped the brown paper and string.
Sandra gasped: the package was full of hundred-dollar bills and also a yellow envelope. Inside was the deed to the Creekside Diner signed over to Sandra.
“Hope rekindled is the start of a good life." I should’ve done this a long time ago and I’m sorry it took so long. Now it’s back where it belongs.