"You want a complimentary shake with that ma'am?"
"Hmm no thanks, dear. I have to keep an empty stomach for the road and well, to be honest what comes after the road. I'm squeamish about the viscera you see. Say how about just a water."
The waitress snickered.
"We haven't had water in this god forsaken place for the last twenty years."
"Well how about a nice lemonade?"
"Alright then that'll be just the one lemonade then."
"Thank you, you're an angel, darling!" she said with the piquant dialect of a Hollywood starlet fallen from grace and grizzled with age.
The woman in the red striped dress slipped away to the kitchen.
She looked out to the empty road beyond the cafe, thinking about how she would do it.
The entire facade of the roadside diner had been obliterated years ago for whatever reason. Some say it was part of the charm but others say cars crashed into it so frequently, they couldn't afford to replace it time and again. At any rate, it has the look of a shoebox diorama abandoned on the side of the road. Being a 24 hour diner, it didn't matter that there was no way to lock it up at night. It was called the Cutaway long ago, but there was no signage to proclaim this.
But of course, it was obvious why to anyone who knew to look for it, and the lack of any other wall on one side, was as loud as any flashy pink neon sign.
The starlet (as she is known to the Cutaway diner staff and customers at the moment) was on a trip to avenge all the Norma Desmonds of the world by getting revenge on her director from 20 years ago. She was dressed for the kill in pink overalls, yellow garden boots and polka dotted gloves for weeding. She looked like a very unfashionable Marlene Dietrich.
She surveyed the diner like a cinematographer looking for the best shot.
She saw the man across from her pouring over old photos in his frumpy, too big Steve Irwin attire.
She leaned over hand framing her face with a dozen rings.
"Darling, are you trying to catch a tiger by the tail over there?"
His face swung up like a mask and he had a look of bemused galapagos tortoise.
"Actually I'm on the hunt for a rabid snark."
"Ah I see," She leaned closer to look at the blurry photos, "and what exactly is a snark?"
"Well it's hard to explain," said the young man. "It was discovered by the writer Lewis Carroll in 1876. His discoveries were passed off as children's fantasy at the time, but my research has found that there may have been such a thing and it is my intention to find what may be left of the species." The young man explained with such vivacity the starlet had begun to drift again.
"Hm. Sounds fascinating, Absolutely fascinating. Say-you ever watch the old pictures? Movies?"
"I've seen Godzilla..."
"Well I don't know about ol' Godzilla, but I was in one once. 1954 if I recall, Genuine monster film, called it The Beast of the Waves. Hardly had a thread on me when the God of the Nile snatched me up! And you can bet your every last penny I was one helluva dame to behold."
"Oh that's fascinating. Yes ma'am I'm sure that is quite something to behold."
"Well enough about me. What's it you plan to do with this snark? Send him to his maker?"
By now the starlet had sat across from him in the booth.
"Well I hope to keep him as a pet and do exhibitions of it, but once it's dead I plan to pickle if it's a fish or reptile and taxidermy of it's a mammal."
"Oh and here I thought you were game hunting!"
"Oh no, I'm a zoologist, in fact. Well cryptozoologist if we're getting technical... I prefer study to slaughter."
"I prefer slaughter to study."
The man looked aggast and sipped his milkshake furtively.
"Oh don't look so surprised! I've had to claw my way up the ranks to be a film star, you know…"
The waitress was about to set the glass down on the table across from where she had been sitting when she sliced in,
"Darling, just put it here." She patted the table with garden gloved hands.
She obediently set the seedy lemonade down on the mica table before her.
"What's your story darling?"
"What story would that be?" the waitress smirked.
"How'd a sweet thing like you end up at the world's only four walled roadside diner?"
"You really want to know?" she said in a voice that meant it was not a question.
"I never could resist a well told story." she rasped.
Well dead end I guess. Went on a road trip in my early 30s. Was looking for my biological dad for a while. I didn't know his name even, just was told he was very odd and used to have this aquarium out in the desert here you see. By the time I got out here the aquarium was dried up. Closed down after they found he'd smuggled in species from the Galapagos. I tried to find him but he was long gone. Probably on a roadtrip of his own away from the law. Sometimes the road kills you though. Strikes you dead in your tracks like a deer without anywhere to run. You look down it and the miles look like years running buck wild in either direction. And I stayed in this here diner all those years, hoping one day my dad would walk into the frame of those walls yonder," she pointed towards the open road outside, "like it was a perfect stage play. But he never did."
"You know Charles Darwin himself smuggled an octopus from the Galapagos", said the cryptozoologist as he held out his palm face up and looked down at it intently. "Octopus vulgaris about this size. He was so taken by the thing, thinking he'd completely found some undiscovered species he kept it as a pet. Of course it died not long after that, but he kept it as a specimen. I even saw the thing in the Natural History Museum as a kid once."
"Well my dad wasn't too far off. Half the fish and sea turtles died in the voyage it seems. Apparently he kept them in tanks of alcohol on a series of strings and pulleys. They were still there when I got to what was left of it. Like cobwebs, you could hardly see them if wasn't for all the equipment that networked the illusion. And not a single person in ten years who walked past or took a photo ever realized they were watching some dead fish being puppeted like marionettes. Like that Edgar Bergan."
The three of them fell silent and were cast against the crepuscular desert scene. The starlet craned her head to the side like a bird of paradise waiting to be pruned.
"Makes you wonder doesn't it. If we aren't all those people, never once really looking at all the dead dreams."
She said it with a caustic lilt at the end that punctuated her thought like the intertitles of a Buster Keaton.
"And how bout your story? The gardener getup and talks about 'viscera'" said the waitress.
"I suppose like all of you I'm on a trip of sorts. Should've taken it a long time ago…Taking care of my old director. Bastard has had it coming for a long time. Got me blacklisted for having an affair with another actress. Wanted to marry me off to some man to hush up any rumors and I refused, so they said I was a liability and I had to go back to doing cabaret and cheap tv shows."
"Hold on. Hold on," said the cryptozoologist, " you're planning on killing someone?"
"No, no. I'm not as bloodthirsty as I seem. You see the old bloke just sits on his pile of film negatives. Insisted on keeping every last one of his movies Hires some fancy preserver to come out at least once every few years to come out and clean them up. Anyways I plan to melt them down. Nitrate is flammable enough you can burn the Cinema Paradiso down with it." she cackled to herself.
"Aren't you in those movies?" said the waitress with a look of dismay on her haggard face.
"Well I figure it like this. If I can't have the fame then neither should he. But I'd rather not be remembered in his image parroting lines he conjured up for me and fainting on command. No, I've made peace with obscurity."
The three figures were sharply cut against the waning oranges and purple oasis beyond.
"Well aren't there other copies of it?" said the cryptozoologist.
"For some of them perhaps, but mostly not. They'll deteriorate soon enough too. They throw them out after a while at the theatres." she said and then:
"Oh don't look so glum about it. I was in other things too, you know."
They sipped their beverages and the waitress left to fix up the now empty tables.
But then an armature in a long purple suit with tails and top hat ran into view at that very moment. There was no telling whether this person was a man or a woman or neither. But they seemed to have an air about them that confounded interrogation or even comprehension. They began to set up a puppet show on the outskirts of the diner. Cerulean velvet curtains inset with gold stars.
It resembled something of a beach side Punch and Judy in the middle of a desert.
The puppeteer opened an old maroon chest. The first puppet was clad in overalls and wore a wry smile, the second a man in beige button up and pants and a news boy hat, the third a woman in a red and white striped dress and a ruffled apron, the fourth was the puppeteer. The curtains of the tall theatre were drawn back with a turn of the hand. The show began without an audience and ended without one too.
The two diners and the waitress watched all this from a distance. They could hear faint whispers of dialogue rasping as demure as the sand itself blowing in the night.
None approached this bespoke marionette master, and none could figure out why. In a matter of minutes the stranger had walked away with the maroon suitcase, leaving the puppets strewn over the tall organ pipe cacti.
The three characters walked to the edge of the diner. They were the only ones left at 9 o'clock.
They each gazed down upon their fabric facsimile impaled and clinging to barbs. The cryptozoologist was the first to reach for him doppelganger.
"What-what the hell is this supposed to mean?"
He turned the thing over and smoothed his thumb over a hole in the burlap. The threads unwinded themselves and gaped like a mouth of a leech and sand began to siddle over his beige hiking boots.
The thing went limp in his hands and looked nothing more than a dish rag.
He had a look of dismay on his face as if he was watching some small and helpless creature flounder and die in his hands.
The starlet put her hand on the man's shoulder.
"Just a thespian's idea of a joke, my boy. It's not supposed to mean anything."
She reached out a now garden gloved hand to pluck her doll from the carnage.
It immediately turned to dust and she threw it in the trash bin with a chuckle.
"What a silly little thing indeed! I've never had such a trivial role as that in all my life!"
The waitress didn't dare to touch her's. She left it suspended with its hands pinned upon two spikes.
"How can you say such a thing? They're us. I mean they're a part of us." she muttered quietly.
"Oh darling, don't look so downtrodden! She hasn't got a thing on your good looks."
The zoologist nodded laconically, still looking at his.
"She's right. I don't know how but they know something about us that we don't."
They walkes back to their stage positions in the diner.
"Oh psh, I think it's just late and you're both letting the desert go to your head."
They went back to the table and the waitress sat across from them. They sat there in silence for a moment.
The other two shook their heads from side to side.
Then the starlet finished her lemonade with an obtrusive slurp and looked at her watch.
"Well I've got to get to the motel pretty soon."
"Don't go", said the waitress, "please."
"Oh don't worry about me. Here I'll give you my number, if you like."
She scrawled a spidery string on the napkin.
She turned to the cryptozoologist.
"Hope you catch your snark one day. Maybe I'll see his skin in a museum"
"Thanks," he replied, "Good luck to you too."
She walked out like it was the final scene of Casablanca and she just kept walking not once looking back. Just walking straight into the dunes and the oasis beyond that.
They watched her and then the waitress turned to the man.
"Well I'd better be going to the kitchen to clean up. You can stay as long as you like. It's a strange night with strange folk about.”
The man nodded and fell to looking over his maps and Victorian illustrations once more.
Within that very hour, the sandstorms came. There was nothing but a haze of ashen wind.
The waitress watched it. The man watched it. And she thought of the starlet and wondered if she'd made it out. The sands came as swift as death on wings of leaden waterfalls.
The cryptozoologist wondered too but before they could wonder for too long, the sand began to flood the diner. They rushed to the phone but the dial was jammed, and when it came loose the receiver itself seemed to ooze with sand.
"There's no one to call." she said over the din.
The manager had come out by now and was cursing at the leviathan of sand, as if a priest in the middle of an exorcism.
They looked at one another and sat down on the booth and drank their coffee and stared at it as it swallowed the diner. Their lungs became quick sand and their eyes were filed into obelisks. The cryptozoologist screamed but the sound was muted by the wind.
By the morning there was only a sand dune where the diner had been.
In the years after people would wonder distantly if that l diner without a wall still stood there but they could never quite remember where it had been. Or if it had been real at all. Or just a hallucination created by the desert itself to soothe the wearied travelers in pursuit of madness and lull them to their sleep.