At the Backdoor Diner, there was never any good reason to order something other than the banana pancakes with chocolate chips for breakfast according to Earl. But then, people didn’t always do what you expected them to, and almost never did what Earl expected them to.
“Hey Earl, more coffee,” shouted Mr. Denkins above the din. Earl plunked down the heavy plastic bin full of dirties, and went over to the sideboard to retrieve the coffeepot.
“Earl, next time, finish what you’re doing before you go for the coffee,” Smithers coached. “Ol’ Denkins can wait another minute for his refill. The old hoot.”
“Aw Smitters, it’s no bother,” replied Earl with his lopsided grin.
No matter how much training Smithers gave Earl, he was always too eager to do whatever was asked of him resulting in a pile of inefficiencies as long as your arm.
Earl’s school learning had stopped early when they realized that he wasn’t reading the words on the page and the numbers all looked the same to him. But he had a heart of gold and everyone knew that, except for Betty Jo who seemed to only have eyes for Warren from the Stop n Shop over in Bergen.
Earl had just bussed his last table when Mrs. Petersen burst through the backdoor pushing baby James in her stroller.
“Earl, I need to run across the street for a few minutes to get my hair done. There’s a last-minute cancellation and I want to grab it. I haven’t had my hair done since this sweet boy was born and this is my chance to feel human again! Would you mind keepin’ an eye on him?”
“No. You go right ahead.”
“You’re a doll. This won’t take long.” Turning her attention to her soon to be abandoned baby, Mrs. Peterson added “I just changed him and he’s not due to eat for another hour or so, so he should be fine.”
Earl plopped himself at an empty booth and positioned the stroller facing him. When Smithers came out from the back with a tray of pies to restock the dessert case, he couldn’t resist a rib “Hey Earl, didn’t know you was a Daddy! Did you finally convince Betty Jo to go round with you?”
“Very funny,” replied Earl mimicking a hearty laugh at his own expense, immediately eliciting a gurgle from Baby James. “Don’t you encourage him,” Earl chided the baby, which prompted more giggling. Delighted with the baby’s response, Earl exaggerated different facial expressions, drawing more laughter.
When the baby tires of goofy facial expressions, Earl makes funny noises. It works at first, but then the baby tires of that too, and the laughter subsides as quickly as it began, and in nanoseconds the party is over and Baby James begins to howl.
“Hey, little guy, I know, I’m not that funny but you don’t have to cry about it,” he says softly as he scoops up the baby in his arms and paces back and forth over the black and white tiles, bouncing the baby up and down to shush him. This only increases the volume and Earl begins to panic as the inconsolable infant wails.
Hitting on an idea, Earl places Baby James back in his stroller and fishes out a partially melted chocolate bar from his pocket. Unwrapping it, Earl dabs his finger in the chocolate he places a bit in the baby’s mouth. The crying stops, and the baby’s eyes widen as big as saucers. He purses his lips, asking for more. Earl laughs, “You like that huh? Pretty good stuff,” he says as he places more chocolate in the baby’s mouth.
The baby is making his way through Earl’s chocolate bar when Mrs. Petersen returns from her hair appointment. Seeing his mother, the baby smiles with his gummy toothless mouth which is full of chocolate.
“Oh no! Earl! Did you give the baby chocolate?”
“Yes ma’am. He loves it. He started crying and it was the only way I—”
“Earl! He only drinks formula. He can’t have solid food yet. He’s too young.”
Earl, who had been a hero only moments earlier, turns into the villain and slumps off with his eyes cast downward.
Without a word, Earl grabs his coat from its hook in the back and heads out the back door. When he returns to work the next day, Earl is feeling better, the incident with the baby totally forgotten, until Smitters teases him.
“Hey where’s that baby of yours?”
Earl doesn’t answer. All day long, he serves people heart-stopping portions of pie, and refills their coffee cups until his shift is over, but he says little. On the way out, he hears Smitters joking with a customer.
“Yup this weekend, I’m finally gonna fix that front door. Customers are gonna come in the front, just like at them fancy places.”
That’s when Earl gets his idea. The front door has been busted for as long as he can remember and Smitters has been talking about fixing it for just as long. Earl hops on his bike and heads over to the hardware store, to buy a new spring, a striker plate, and some putty. He has the rest of the tools he needs at home.
Earl bikes home with a smile stretching from one ear to the other for the first time in days. He’s gonna surprise Smitters by beating him to it and fixing that door! When Earl returns that night, he sets out all his tools and points his yellow camping lantern at the door. He could turn on the lights but he wants this to be a surprise.
Just as he begins to work, a police car pulls up.
“Hey Earl, whatcha doin?’ asks Officer Jim.
“I’m gonna surprise Smitters by fixin’ his door.”
“Well, that will be a surprise! Need any help?”
“Nope. I wanna do it all by myself.”
“You’re a good man,” Officer Jim says before turning on his flashers and heading out of the parking lot.
The repair job turns out to be not that hard. In fact, after greasing the door with a little WD40 and installing the new spring, the door swings easily on its hinge. Almost like it was never broken. Earl puts up a huge sign commemorating the new door, beckoning patrons to use the front door of the Backdoor Diner. I can’t wait for Smithers to see it, he thought as he rode off on his bike.
Earl loved riding his bike almost as much as he loved working at the Backdoor diner. The town was still small but the number of cars had multiplied to the point that there was congestion everywhere. Eventually the city council came up with a plan to make a labyrinth of one-way streets and that is when Earl opted for the freedom of his bike and ditched his car altogether. He could still borrow one if he needed to, but he found he never needed to.
Earl rode down Main Street heading east, turned right on Nottingham, and ended up at the reservoir. It was a warm summer evening and perfectly still. A shooting star streaked across the sky directly in front of Earl’s line of vision. Another followed. When another star traced a vein through the sky, it started to feel like some sort of sign from the universe. That is, if you believe in that type of thing, which Earl did not.
The next morning Earl got up early and raced to the Backdoor so he could see the look on Smithers face when he saw the working front door. Instead of being pleased, Smitters yanked the new sign off the front of the building and kicked a metal bucket across the parking lot.
“What the heck do you think you’re doing?” asked Smitters.
“I thought you wanted the door fixed. So people could come in the front.” Anyone else would have been exasperated, but Earl simply clarified the way he saw the situation without letting any anger or frustration enter into it.
“Come on inside Earl. Let’s have some coffee before the customers start showing up.”
Earl slid into the third booth, his favorite, and waited while Smitters poured them coffee.
“Look Earl, I’m sorry I lost my cool back there. It’s just that we’re called the Backdoor Diner. What would people think if they could just walk through the front door like any other place?”
A confused look settled on Earl’s features which prompted Smitters to continue. “Let me put it another way. What is special about this place Earl?”
Earl brightened, knowing the answer to this one. “The banana pancakes with chocolate chips.”
Despite himself, Smitters laughed. “Well yup, I guess they are. But what’s special about this place is you come in the back door. It’s like a secret club, something no one else has. All our customers are part of that club. It’s special.”
Earl thought hard, narrowing his brows and focusing on the possibilities. “I guess you’re right. I cain’t think of any other place you come in through the rear.”
“That’s right and what would happen if someone did come in through the front?”
“People would prolly stare.”
“Exactly and they wouldn’t be a part of this little club, would they?”
Earl was starting to see the light. “Smitters, let me ask you som'pin. Was that door even broken?”
“It was. Ten, maybe fifteen years ago. But I fixed it right up ‘cause I didn’t wanna get a fire violation. Sheriff’s office is mighty strict about that, specially with places that can have grease fires.”
“Anyone else know? Or just you and the Sheriff?”
“Well you know now Earl, so don’t be tellin’ anyone.”
Late that night Earl takes his bike out and rides alone in the night. It is dark and there are very few street lights, but Earl maneuvers his way around the uneven sidewalks and unpaved potholes. Despite the lack of illumination, he’s so familiar with the streets, he can probably ride with his eyes closed. He decides to try it, closing his eyes and feeling nothing but the wind on his face.
Earl has peddled to the corner where the florist, Stemtations, meets on Old Pine Road when the sound of squealing tires causes him to open his eyes. The high school kids must be at it again, joyriding around town at 2 o’clock in the morning. The acceleration reaches his ears, along with the braking, skidding and finally crashing. Earl races his bike over to the direction the of the impact, finding the car has flipped. He phones the Sheriff, then launches into a one-man rescue mission.
Two people are in the car and he needs to get them out in case the whole thing combusts. He uses his bike tools to cut the seatbelt from the passenger. The passenger is moaning, but Earl drags his heft on the pavement away from the car. There must be broken bones, but moaning means he’s conscious and Earl knows it’s a lot easier to treat a broken bone than a burn victim.
Next, he rushes to the driver’s side, but the door is jammed. As he climbs through the passenger side, the sirens from the ambulance make their way towards him. He can’t make out who the driver is, but recognizes the passenger as Betty Jo’s little brother. Earl accompanies the Sheriff and the ambulance to the emergency room where the Sheriff takes his statement.
The next day at the Backdoor, the accident is the talk of the town. As Smitters and Earl are closing up for the evening. Betty Jo walks over and throws her arms around Earl’s neck.
“Earl, I cain’t thank you enough for saving my brother’s life. If you hadn’t come 'round, why, I hate to think what would have happened.”
Smitters nudges Earl, cueing Earl to recognize what Smitters calls ‘his opening’.
“Betty Jo, any chance you want to go for a spin with me?” asks Earl.
“With you Earl? Why, you don’t even have a car.”
“Don’t need one Betty Jo.”
“You think I’m gonna get on the bicycle of yours? You only got one seat.”
“Well Betty Jo, I’m pretty handy with tools, just you ask Smitters.”
From his backpack, Earl pulls a round wooden disc that snaps onto the back of his bike and is fitted with a cushion. He pats the cushion with his hand assuring Betty Jo it’s a comfy ride. “Hop on up Betty Jo. I’m gonna take you for a spin and you’re never gonna wanna get off.”
And with that, Smitters watches Earl and Betty Jo ride off into the sunset. Or at least Earl’s version of it.