Sal’s Diner stuck out of the desert like an ice cream cone discarded on the beach. A ragged border where asphalt met sand marked three sides of the lot. The fourth side joined the interstate. Two ancient gas pumps faced the road, nauseous with rust.
Inside, 50s and 60s memorabilia cluttered the walls, and the jukebox played non-stop rock and roll. A sign behind the bar advertised ‘Real American Lemonade’. Sal, the owner, was full of wild ideas. One of his more outlandish schemes had the employees on roller skates while they waited tables. That lasted all of a week and a half before the entire staff threatened to quit. From the outside, it was an ageing diner like a thousand others that peppered the American West. But when you walked through those doors, the place was something special.
Morning, afternoon and evening, her voice filled the diner with beautiful melodies. She sang country for the truckers and show tunes for the old timers. Maggie Ellis was gonna be a star, everyone said so. She swung a coffee pot up and down the bar and told customers about her dreams to live in Hollywood and make it big. “Maggie Ellis, remember the name,” she would say with a wink.
In town, the drive-in movie theatre was Maggie’s favourite spot. As she watched the movie stars on the screen, she would sketch outfits in a notebook. Later, she would piece them together with offcuts from the textile factory. She built up a fashionable wardrobe, covered in patches and uneven seams, to wear on the weekends when she went to watch the kids race their soap box go-karts.
It was a quiet night, near midnight, when the man in the brown coat came in. He kept his head down and his collar up as he took a seat in the corner booth. Maggie took customers like this in her stride. She straightened her name badge, put on a smile (all waitresses know the one) and walked up to the table.
“Good evening sir, welcome to Sal’s, what can I get for you tonight?” Even her speaking voice had a wonderful musicality to it.
“Coffee, please, and a bacon and cheese omelette.” The man lifted his head for the first time and Maggie got a look at his face. There was something about the curve of his nose, the shape of his jaw, that she recognised. He had the look of an attractive man who had aged fifteen years and had the added misfortune of balding far too young. She had already brought the plate of food over and was pouring the man a second cup of coffee before she could place him.
“You’re Malcolm McManus aren’t you?” Malcolm McManus was the name of a character from a TV situation comedy called Dreams of Living. The actor’s real name was John Turner.
“I used to be,” said John.
“Do you still keep in touch with the old gang?” She meant the cast of the TV show.
“Ah, not much.”
“Well, it’s a pleasure to have you with us tonight.”
Maggie walked back behind the bar to where Nicole, the other waitress on shift, was cleaning glasses.
“Know who that is over there?” Maggie asked. Nicole looked past her shoulder to where John was sat.
“No, should I?”
“That’s the kid who used to play Malcolm McManus.”
“From Dreams of Living?”
“Huh. I used to have such a crush on him when the show was on.” Maggie laughed.
“Go on then, go talk to him.”
“I said ‘used to’, Maggie.” Nicole glanced over to the corner booth again. “He’s looking a bit rough isn’t he?”
“Yeah, no kidding.”
“Hey, why don’t you go ask him about an audition? He might still know some casting people in California.”
“No, no, no. No way, I couldn’t.”
“Go on, what have you got to lose?” Maggie Ellis thought for a moment. Everyone said she was going to be a star with her name in lights. They were right, she thought. It was destiny that brought John Turner into Sal’s Diner tonight.
Maggie poured a third cup of coffee.
“I’m moving soon, to LA,” she told John.
“Is that right?”
“I’m going to be-“
“An actress, right?”
“That’s right,” Maggie said as she flashed another smile. She had given this speech a hundred times before.
“Can I give you some advice, darling? It’s something I wish someone had told me when I was your age.”
Maggie looked over to Nicole, who gave a reassuring nod and a smile. Maggie sat down opposite John.
“Quit.” John took a moment to wipe a napkin across his mouth. “Quit while you’re still young and pretty. Cause this business will eat you up and spit you out and then you’ll be old and ugly, and no one will want you.” John stood up, dropped a twenty dollar bill on the table. “I don’t know what you’ve got, but I’ve heard your story before and I know how it ends.” He picked up his coat. “Thank you for the coffee, sweetheart.” With that, John Turner left Sal’s Diner without another word, and just a nod to Nicole as he walked past the cash register.
Nicole came over and sat down where John had been.
“Well? What did he say?” Maggie didn’t say anything for a moment, then in one movement she stood up, pulled off her apron, and threw it into Nicole’s lap.
“Cover for me, will you?” Nicole watched as Maggie ran across the room, out of the door, and into the night.
Outside, John Turner was already in his station wagon, halfway out of the parking lot. Maggie ran towards the car shouting and waving her arms. “Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!” John didn’t stop. The car turned out of the parking lot and headed West on the interstate, leaving Maggie alone in the empty glow of the street lamps.
It was a cold night, and her uniform was designed for the dry desert heat. She wrapped her arms around her chest to keep from shivering. Maggie looked up at the midnight sky and felt a million stars look back.
Nicole did her best to lift Maggie’s spirits, but last orders couldn’t come soon enough. An hour dragged by, and Maggie was relieved to turn over the ‘closed’ sign on the door.
She was sweeping under the corner booth when the broom knocked something small and square out from underneath the seats. A wallet. Maggie picked it up. She glanced over to where Nicole was fixated on trying to shift a stubborn spot of grease from the stovetop. She opened the wallet and flicked through business cards. Mechanic. Dry cleaner. Boutique dog groomer. A card caught her eye: Carol McCoy - Legacy Casting, Los Angeles.
She slipped the card into the pocket of her blouse and smiled. Nicole hadn’t seen. Maggie walked around the bar and threw the wallet into the lost and found box. She held the card in her pocket. It felt warm against her fingertips. Tomorrow morning she would walk into town, put a quarter in the payphone by the post office, and it would be the most important moment of her life.