Most Nights

Submitted into Contest #110 in response to: Set your story in a roadside diner.... view prompt

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Inspirational American Fiction

Most nights, Eleanor Robin manned the counter of Lazy Night Diner with a cigarette in one hand and a flask full of vodka and orange juice by her hip. Of course, it was strictly against protocol for any employee of the diner to be drinking on the job, but her own boss Clyde Wilkins was such a boozer that she could smell the whiskey on his breath the moment he’d hired her. He was rarely in - always with some excuse about his car, his home, or his wife, and he was never in during the night. Since Eleanor exclusively worked the night shift, she had free reign to do what she pleased. 

Most nights, she was quite pleased to drink and smoke by herself, occasionally stealing a bit of food from the kitchens as she listened to smooth jazz on the old, crackley radio. There were no TV’s at the diner - Clyde couldn’t afford them, and so she was deprived of her favorite show - Gunsmoke, which she had watched religiously before getting her job. Rumor had it the show was entering its last season, but at this point Eleanor was so far behind she would have to settle for reading about it in the papers or saving up for a VCR player and a TV of her own. She laughed dryly. Like that was ever going to happen. 

Roadside spots like the Lazy Night Diner were dying, and she knew it. The first signs had been the closings she’d seen on her way to Edmonton - the town closest to her current place of work. As cars got more fuel efficient, they needed less and less stops, and people these days were so busy that they’d settle for a quick snack at the gas station rather than a nice meal on the side of the road. Times were changing. She hadn’t seen a customer in over a week, and the last gentlemen had just come in for a cup of coffee before heading out again. Rumor had it the day shift was just as bad, but Clyde maintained his confidence in his business. 

“Y’see, El,” he’d said on her first night, “Y’might not get any customers, but that ain’t a problem. They’ll come. They always do. And when they do y’better treat ’em like royalty, cuz when they leave… they’re gonna tell their friends, their family, hell, even their enemies about how great this place is. You’ll see.”

“Of course, sir,” she’d said, the smoke curling from her mouth and hiding her grin. With the amount of dust on the seats, she knew the only thing coming in were rats to gnaw at the bottoms of the stools. 

And so it was on this night, with rain lashing the thin windows of the Lazy Night Diner and jazz playing particularly poorly on the radio that Eleanor Robin lit up another cigarette, closing her eyes and feeling the heavy smoke fall gracefully into her waiting lungs. She embraced it as its warmth spread throughout her body until every part of her was singing a numb melody. She kept her eyes closed until a blinding white light forced her to open them. Eleanor stared in front of her with her jaw hanging open. 

A car had just pulled up right in front of the place. The lights turned off and she heard a door thunk and the diner’s door open in quick succession. A man stumbled in, his trenchcoat pouring off water as he held it over his head. He was tall, wearing a crisp black suit with a white checkered shirt and a red tie. He smiled at her as he sat down, his face lean, kind, and dark skinned. His eyes were brown and stared at her expectantly. After ten seconds of silence, he cleared his throat and said, “I’ll just have a coffee while I wait for the menu.”

This snapped her out of her reverie. “Oh, I’m sorry sir. Here.” She fumbled around with a menu from under the bar and slipped it to him. 

He grabbed it appreciatively. “And the coffee?”

“Oh, yes sir,” she slapped her forehead, “I’m sorry sir, I’ll get it. So sorry.”

She quickly poured him a cup, spilling some on her hand and cursing, and gave it to him with a napkin. He looked at it and said, “Where’s your creamers?”

Again, Eleanor slapped her forehead and began, “I’m sorry sir-”

He laughed. “It’s alright. I take it black.”

“Oh,” she laughed nervously, “I’m sorry.”

“Can you do one thing for me, though - before I order?”

She nodded energetically, her heart still racing, “Yes, sir. Of course.”

“Stop saying you’re sorry. You haven’t done anything wrong.” He smiled and she returned it. After a few seconds of staring at the menu, he handed it back saying, “I’ll have the Denver Omelette, please. With a slice of wheat toast and a side of fries.”

“Coming right up.”

Eleanor went to the back, breathing hard. A customer? At… 1:30 in the morning on a Monday night? Why was he dressed so nice, and where was he going? Her heart was racing, and each beat brought a new question to her lips. Her embarrassment at acting so flabbergasted at his appearance quickly faded into curiosity. She put his omelette and fries in the microwave - there was no one to cook this late at night, and stared at him through the slot in the kitchen. He was sipping his coffee and nodding along to some jazz. His short hair was neatly cut, and still shone from the rain. 

The microwave beeped after three minutes, making her jump. She got out a slice of bread and seared it quickly on a hot griddle. With the plate carried deftly in her right hand, she walked out of the kitchen with a smile and set it in front of him. 

“Ah, thank you,” he said, “I see the microwave is in working order?”

She flushed. “How’d you-”

“Well, I saw you staring at me through that little hole there, and when I walked in I noticed the stove would require you to face the other way to cook. Well, either you can turn your head 180º on your neck, in which case you must show me that trick, or you were simply standing at the clearly visible microwave waiting for my food to heat up.” He paused, smiling at her surprised expression and finished, “Oh, and I heard those beeps at the end there. You really should stop the microwave before it finishes - makes it much less conspicuous.”

“Uh… I’m-”

“Now, now,” he warned, “Don’t say you’re sorry again or I’ll tell your boss about that hip flask of yours.”

It was her turn to smile. “He already knows. Clyde’s the biggest drunk in Edmonton.”

He cut into his omelette. “I see. What a fine quality to have so widely known about oneself. I can only imagine his pride.”

“You talk funny,” she said. 

“I do?”

“Yeah. You from around here?”

“Well, I’m not really from anywhere. I grew up in Boston, Manhattan, Columbus, Philly… I studied in England, though. Perhaps that’s why you find I ‘talk funny’.” He took his first bite and frowned. “Perhaps adding another thirty seconds would do you good - but not to worry,” he added, “I’m fine with it this way, trust me. I don’t want to hear you saying ‘I’m sorry, sir’, just because my eggs are a little cold.”

“Who are you?” asked Eleanor, her eyebrows lost in her bangs. 

“Well, I go by David Willman. I’m a lawyer, hence the suit.” 

“And… what are you doing here?”

“Not so fast,” he wagged a finger, “Now you have to tell me your name. I can’t read your nametag from here.”

“Oh, I’m Eleanor. Eleanor Robin.” She extended her hand and he shook it lightly.

“Pleasure to meet you.” He took another bite and chewed it dutifully before saying, “Ah, why I’m here is simply this: I’m here for work.”

“At 1:30 in the morning? On a Monday night? In the rain?”

“Well, not specifically here at the Lazy Night Diner, but here in Edmonton.”

“Oh? What’s the case?”

He sighed. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. Only that it was so urgent that when I got the call at 10:00 tonight I was forced out of my bed and on the road. I’ve been driving since then.”

“Sheesh. You lawyers have it tough.”

David shrugged. “Well, it goes with the salary, I suppose… Anyway, tell me about yourself. About this town.”

Eleanor laughed. “There’s not much to tell. It’s sort of out there, really. Everyone knows each other a little too well. I think the population just crested 1,000 and every old geezer went insane. The sheriff is Michael Wallace - he’s a tough guy but he’s gettin’ up there in age. You should probably go see him first thing tomorrow. Otherwise he’ll come and find you. All the kids go to school in the same building - from first grade to highschool. You’d think it was a bad arrangement, but they seem to love it. I - someone I knew used to volunteer there and said the kids are pretty happy to almost always have younger kids around that they can beat up. Oh, and watch out for old Linda Whyler on Crest Street - she… sometimes forgets to put on clothes while she gardens.”

“I see. And what about yourself?”

“What about myself?”

“I asked you to tell me about the town and yourself, and now I daresay I know a bit more about the town than I’d like to and almost nothing about you.” He smiled and took a bite of toast and a sip of coffee.

“Well,” began Eleanor slowly, “I’m not from here - I came from up north. A small town outside of Portland, Maine. Growing up… I wasn’t much of a kid, y’know?”

“I don’t know,” he said softly, “Tell me.”

Eleanor’s heart began to race again. She hadn’t told anyone about her life before Edmonton. No one else had even asked her. Her own eyes were moving around the diner, trying to find an escape, but they always came back to David’s, which were so full of kindness that she couldn’t help herself from trusting him. 

“I… Well, my dad left when my mom was pregnant with me. My mom was… well, in those days and in that part of the country the big drug was heroin. And my mom became an addict right after I was born. Her family had a bit of money, but it was never enough to sustain her habit and our lives. So we moved around a lot. When I was six, my mom became pregnant again, but she never stopped using. So when my brother was born he… he wasn’t right. My mom just slipped back into her old habit and left me to take care of him. And I did, until I was fifteen. I’d spent my childhood going to school late because my brother needed me, and almost flunking out four times because my mom passed out in some alley and I needed to get her home.

“Well, on my fifteenth birthday, my brother died. I guess he’d had some sort of rare medical condition which needed treatment, but neither my mother nor I knew about it.” Eleanor took a long drag of her cigarette. “That was the last straw. I took the keys to my mother’s old car and drove south. I worked in a lot of places like this, making just enough money to survive. When I get bored of a town - or they start to ask a few too many questions about me, I leave. I’ve been in Edmonton for two years now. Clyde gave me the night shift, which means-”

“It means you can sleep through the day and not have to meet too many people,” finished David, his omelette now completed. 

Eleanor nodded, taking another puff and drumming her long nails on the counter. “I don’t know what happened to my mother. She probably died, but… I-” She felt tears coming unbidden to her eyes. 

“I’m sorry,” said David. “You’ve lived a hard life. Much harder than I, I might say. I moved around a lot too, but my parents were together. My dad was a civil rights activist and my mother worked in a law firm as a secretary. It was in going to work with her and through seeing my dad fight for what was right that really made me want to become a lawyer.”

“That’s… great,” said Eleanor, her eyes still burning. A lump had formed in her throat, and she didn’t know how to get it out.

“God, what am I saying? I really am sorry about the loss of your brother, and perhaps more importantly, about the loss of your childhood. It was something your mother always regretted.” David took a sip of coffee and watched her carefully.

“Yeah, I’m sure she - wait, what?” Eleanor turned to face David with her eyes narrowed. “What did you say?”

He grimaced. “Eleanor, I’m afraid I haven’t been completely truthful with you. Though we haven’t met, I’ve been told your story before - at least, those parts which occurred before you left home.”

“How is that possible?”

David raised his eyebrows. “I think you can figure that out.”

After a pause, Eleanor gasped and said, “You know my mom?”

Knew,” said David, his eyes solemn. “You were right in your morbid prediction, Eleanor. I’m afraid your mother is dead. ”

Eleanor’s vision blurred suddenly. “What? How’d she-”

“Your mother was… in bad shape. After you left, she was left completely alone, with only the solace of her addiction to keep her going. Well, she decided enough was enough. A few years ago, she came to me for help. You see, I am a lawyer - or rather, I was. But I also have a graduate degree in clinical psychology. Your mother, Debra, wanted to get better. I helped her kick the habit, but it came at a grave cost to her health. She didn’t have much time left in the world, and she wanted to make things right with you. But her physical health did not allow her to travel. She began entering in the lottery - perhaps replacing her heroin addiction with a gambling addiction, but she was still attending our sessions, so I allowed it.”

“I can’t believe… my mom-”

“She won, Eleanor. Last year.” David’s words were blunt, but his eyes were sharp. 

“She what?”

“She won,” he repeated. “During her last days, when she had to be in bed constantly, she won a jackpot. $15,000, after tax.”

The air seemed to have collapsed in Eleanor’s lungs. “What? How?”

“How is not the right question,” said David, “She knew her time on Earth was limited, so she asked me to do a favor for her. To track you down and give you the money in person.”

“You… what?” Eleanor’s world began to reel. 

“Your mother died three weeks ago, Eleanor. It took me that long to find you here, in this diner, and to give you what you deserve. I drew up some papers so it’s legally binding. Now, $15,000 is a lot of money, but it’s not enough to get you out of working for the rest of your life. If I were you, I’d invest some of it, maybe go back to school, and then find yourself a decent job afterwards so you can make a life for yourself. You’re young. You’ve got plenty of time to do something with your life. Maybe this money will help you with that.”

“You… huh?” Eleanor clutched the counter and felt the cigarette fall out of her limp lips.

David smiled, polishing off the last of his omelette. “I know it’s a lot to process. I’ll be in town for a week to help you through it all - both legally and psychologically.” He grabbed her hand with his own and held it tight. “I’ll meet you at 8:00 tomorrow night at Red’s Tavern - dinner’s on me. In the meantime, I’m staying at The Holt Inn. Room 276. If you need anything…”

“Thanks,” mumbled Eleanor, blinking rapidly. She barely felt his hand leave her own. He put on his coat and left some money on the counter before he put his jacket over his head and walked out of the door. The headlights nearly blinded her again, but Eleanor couldn’t do anything except stare straight ahead. Ever since she’d been a child, her future hadn’t mattered to her. She’d been so enveloped in taking care of her brother and mother, and then so busy with work after she left home, that the prospect of having a future she could plan and work towards… it left her completely shell shocked. “Oh, mom,” she muttered, wiping her eyes after a few minutes and clearing the empty plate. Tonight was a far cry from most nights. 

September 06, 2021 22:42

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2 comments

23:19 Sep 15, 2021

This has the makings of a fascinating novel. Your characters are vivid and intriguing. The timeline and detail distracted me - Gunsmoke ended in 1975, at near the exact moment that VCRs in the home started to be a bit more common. Also, I live in Canada so Edmonton to me is one of our large cities. I wish you had chosen a different town name, because I paused to check (in 1976 Edmonton Alberta had a population of about 416k). Not sure also that microwaves in diners were that common in the mid 70s and also I'm not convinced that diners were ...

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Dhruv Srivastava
21:11 Sep 16, 2021

Thanks for commenting - I appreciate any feedback I get on my writing, and this one is particularly enlightening. I really try to make my stories fit chronologically in the history of the world, hence the Gunsmoke and VCR pairing. But the town of Edmonton just popped into my head and I decided to stick with it without question rather than switch to a fake town name. And as for the microwaves/cars, that was honestly me writing myself into a time-corner, something which I'll have to be more cognizant of in the future. 😊😊😊

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