On Saturday nights, the diner gets busy just after 9:00 p.m.
I don’t mind it. It helps keep my mind off things—things like unopened bills, unanswered texts, unreturned phone calls.
“Say Billy, I’m ready to order,” rasps the grizzled old man, raising a finger to get my attention. Typical of Fort Worth, he always wears a cowboy hat and belt buckle the size of a salad plate. I trot over.
“Let me guess. You want chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, no green beans, and extra gravy?” I take the menu from him, a menu he knows by heart.
“You got it,” he taps his hat. “Guess I’ve been coming here too long.”
“We would miss you if you didn’t,” I say, actually meaning it.
The diner’s counter is crowded, but no one is talking to each other. Typical of Saturday nights. Everyone wants to be alone together.
“So,” the old man says, as I refill his orange Fanta. “You hear about the heartbeat bill? High time we quit killin’ babies. Governor Abbott fixed it good, didn’t he? ”
“Holy shit, did he ever,” Flo snaps, walking by to pick up an order.
“Don’t give me that language shit, Billy,” Flo responds, plating a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup. She balances the tray on one shoulder. “I’ll give that motherfucker a piece of my mind and a kick in the ass if he shows his face in here.”
“That’s going to be hard to do, Flo. Abbot’s in a wheelchair,” Paul chimes in, pausing his conversation with Davy, on leave from the Naval Air Station for the weekend. The two are fortifying themselves with greasy bacon cheeseburgers in preparation for a hearty night of drinking.
“Fine, I’ll kick Abbott in his shin. He won’t feel it anyway,” she quips. She better not push it. The last thing I need is some idiot filming Flo’s rants and posting them on TikTok.
“Flo, if you weren’t such a damn good waitress I’d fire your ass,” I say with a smile that belies my simmering anger.
“Language, Billy!” She fires off an ironic grin, taking the food to table nine.
She won that one, I mumble under my breath.
“She wins them all,” John says with a nod, proving I wasn’t talking under my breath as quietly as I thought I was.
“What time is your shift tonight, John?” I ask.
“I’m pulling a ten-to-two,” he mutters. John is a close friend of mine. He hates tending bar at the Coyote Roadhouse next door, but he gets me my drinks for free. John’s movie-star good looks have kept him popular with the ladies over the years, even though his nose has been broken several times from a few jealous brawlers.
“You know, John, the second you stop serving alcohol, all your scantily dressed little ladies who you drive crazy come over here and eat like truck drivers.”
We both chuckle, but John’s thin smile dies quickly. He looks at me and shakes his head.
“You know that problem I told you about a few weeks ago?” John asks very quietly, very confidentially.
“Yeah,” I nod. “She took care of that? You gave her cash, right?”
“I gave her plenty of cash,” he spat. “With this Abbott law, she says she wants to fly to Oklahoma City. I can’t afford that.”
“Oh shit, John,” I empathize, rubbing my eyes. “You can’t afford a kid either. Holy shit.”
“Ain’t nothing holy about it, you dog,” Flo loudly whispers, walking by with a tub full of dirty dishes. The busboy has called in sick again. “Maybe keep your dick in your pants?”
“Fuck you, Flo,” John says, miserably.
“Maybe if you did, you wouldn’t have a bastard on the way,” she fires back in her gravelly voice. Unfiltered Marlboro’s have not aged her well. “Menopause is really the only way around your Texas Taliban plan to shove women, barefoot and pregnant, back in the kitchen. Maybe we cougars are having a moment?” She flutters her eyelashes, sarcastically seductive. Then she throws her head back and laughs until she coughs.
Smokers, I think, shaking my head.
“Hey John, if you need new digs to accommodate your ever-expanding family, I just listed a ranch on Highway 19. I’ll give you first dibs.”
“Eat me, Pauly. I ain't marrying her. There are 49 other states where we can rip that thing right out of her. Hell, China will do it on the delivery room table! All I know is she ain't having that kid, and I hate one-story homes and realtors in general.” He punctuates his tirade by draining his beer.
“It’s not a ranch-style home, you neanderthal. It’s a ranch ranch. Cows and all that. The Double D is for sale. You like double d’s, am I right, Johnny Boy?”
John flips him off with both hands.
“When I get out of the Navy, I’m going to buy myself an alpaca ranch,” says Davy. I am grateful to him for changing the subject.
“Davy, you ain’t never leavin’ the Navy, and if you do, I’ll shoot you before I let you raise one fuckin’ alpaca.”
“They’re like big dogs,” Davy whines.
“Alpacas are big dogs?! You see, this is why those fuckin’ misogynists in Austin get away with their bullshit. Look at these idiots we have here every night!” Flo throws up her hands, exasperated, and walks away.
“Language, Flo!” I yell. “And your order is up.”
“You know, I’m putting all of this in my book,” Paul says, pulling out a pen to jot down incomprehensible notes.
“I don’t know, Paul,” Davy says, giving Paul a wink, “This place would make a better song than a novel.”
“What would you know,” Paul responds dismissively as he continues to feverishly write.
“Well,” the grizzled old man says, finishing his chicken fried steak. “I think I’ll take the check. I must say, Billy. It’s always entertaining here.”
“It’s a carnival,” I agree. “But it’s better than eating alone.”
“It was nice to forget about life for a while, and you got us feelin’ alright.”
I watched the old man tuck in his stool, tipping both his waitress and his hat on the way out.