January 15, 1960

Primo Diner

(from the upcoming publication, Small Stories from a Small Town)

His name was Eddie, and he was a regular at the Primo Diner. Using his palm, he was hitting the outside of the window right next to the swinging doors. They were locked. The diner opened at six but he wanted to come in and eat at five-thirty. It was strange, Belle thought, that the regulars felt that they deserved the special privilege of an early breakfast. The regulars, she figured, should know the rules better than anyone. Still, she opened the door and he sat down at the counter.

The usual. He didn’t have to ask. She took the batter from the small refrigerator under the coffee machines, poured it into two of the three waffle makers, and broke an egg on the heated stovetop. It’s what he always wanted. Two waffles and a fried egg on top. She let the food sit and offered him coffee and his other strange request, a glass of juice half-orange and half-cranberry. She poured the orange in first and then the cranberry. The pulp of the orange juice floated to the top. The color of the cranberry sank down so that the mixture was the same hue as the lowest line of a sunrise.

“Thanks Belle,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” she replied.

Belle didn’t normally cook the food. She spent her time refilling mugs and asking the patrons about their jobs, families, and opinions on recent political events. She wooed them for large tips that she would then split fifty-fifty with Kostas, the Greek who manned the stove. Kostas was also the son of the owner. He wasn’t in yet. He wouldn’t be in for another fifteen minutes.

“I have to tell you something, Belle.” His fingers were shaking. He hadn’t removed his coat. Small flakes of snow were falling outside and had left little, dark specks of water across his shoulders.

“What’s that?” She turned to look at the egg. Just needed another minute.

“The train from Detroit all the way down to Kansas City. Doesn’t stop at Lansford but it rolls right through on the tracks. Ran through an hour ago. Four-thirty almost on the dot.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Eddie never spoke large. He never claimed, as many patrons did, to have any special expertise on the events of the world, the strange inner workings of the human brain, or the lessons that we as Americans should all know by now. He never quoted anyone- poets or philosophers or politicians- but he only spoke for himself as he drank the strange concoction. His experience, his story, rarely left Lansford. He went to San Francisco once as a child, but that was the city on the Bay as it ran in the twenties. He didn’t know what it was like anymore. But Puerto Ricans moved into his neighborhood. Some of them sat outside an old candy store and played dominoes, speaking and laughing in their native tongue. They offered to teach him the game. He didn’t take them up on it. There was a new minister at the Methodist church where he rarely attended. He made him feel guilty for not putting more money in the plate. He bought three new shirts yesterday. The one he was wearing was the one he liked the most. Did she like it? He asked her. She nodded. He never spoke large. Where he had been that morning, where he was going that afternoon, what he planned for tomorrow. That was as far as his conversations went. He wasn’t the dull man. The dull man droned on and on about boxing results and entertainment shows. Eddie wasn’t the dull man. Just the ordinary one.

“I think the egg is done,” he said. He was right. She took it off the griddle and slid it onto a small plate. The waffles would be done in another minute or two.

“It’s a bit drippy,” Belle said as the yellow seeped across the plate. “Should have waited for Kostas. He’s the pro.”

“It’ll be just fine,” Eddie replied. “It’ll be just fine.”

She smiled at the small reassurance. He smiled back, removed his coat, and dropped it onto the next stool over.

“The train passes through Lansford every morning,” Eddie repeated. “On it’s way to Kansas City.”

“So you said.”

“Right,” Eddie replied. “The waffles look done too.”

She flipped open the waffle makers and turned her eyes from the heat. She took a spatula and a fork and carefully pulled them from the metal. She dropped them onto a large plate. Then she picked up the plate with the egg and slid the dripping food on top. She placed the special meal in front of him, took a bottle of maple syrup that sat next to the soda machine, and winked. He doused the egg in syrup and let it pour over and down the waffles. Then he took a knife and fork to the edge of it, put it in his mouth, and smiled as he let it melt between his back teeth.

“I almost jumped in front of the train this morning.” He put the fork back down and wiped his lips with a napkin.

“What?”

“Almost jumped in front of the train. Almost threw in the towel.”

“Jesus, Eddie. Jesus Christ.”

The thing was, Belle quickly noticed, was that he hardly looked fazed. He just stuffed the waffle into his mouth and rinsed it down with long sips of heavily creamed coffee. He was treating this morning like any other, except for the fact that this morning nearly never happened for the man.

“Why?” Belle didn’t feel worry. She didn’t feel sadness. He didn’t seem to feel either one, and she could only act out of empathy. The situation was too strange to know any other right way to respond.

“It’s all building up,” he said. “Financial problems. There’s a big part of it. My father won’t speak a word to me, not even to tell me why he’s shunned me. All those dead bodies in Algeria right now. Just seemed wrong to keep on going like this. So I walked down to the train tracks and it came barreling down on its way to Kansas City. I looked right into the headlights. I bent my knees to jump. But then I couldn’t do it. I just let the rush of air bowl me over. I took my shoes off on the ground and shook off the dust.”

“You couldn’t do it.”

“Right,” he replied.   “Couldn’t do it.”

“Why not?”

“Well,” Eddie said. “I thought of you, Belle. And my eggs on my waffles. And you asking me about how I’m doing. Like you always do.”

“Wow,” Belle said. Surprise. He didn’t seem to be expecting anything else.

“Nah,” Eddie said. “No need for ‘wow’. Would have hardly been the first one to throw it away. Would have hardly been a pioneer.”

Belle looked at him. She looked at the rings under his chin as he chewed. Satisfying himself. She didn’t think of her own life as being so trivial. Just catching the train on the way to Kansas City. He chewed the waffle and took a long sip of the coffee. He kept the food in his mouth. He puffed out his cheeks. He looked foolish and no other man would look as uniquely foolish as him. He put the coffee down for a long drink of his strange elixir. The mix of cranberry and orange. No one else ever ordered it. He belched and excused the offense. A passive, insignificant apology, but one that only he could offer in that high tenor and scratchy voice. He was broke and Algeria exploded and who would miss him anyway?

Kostas entered the diner. He made a comment about the cold and patted Eddie on the back as he slid behind the counter and took up his post.

“Early morning for you, Eddie.”

“You’re right about that,” Eddie replied to the Greek.

“I can’t take you serious,” Belle said to the man at the counter. Kostas turned to look at her. An odd comment. He tried to read the tone of the conversation.

“You can’t?”

“No,” Belle said. “I can’t.”

Eddie smiled.

“There’s a halo hangs over your head, Belle. And you’d do anything in the world to spare yourself seeing it.”

“What’s that mean?” The waitress untied her apron. She noticed that her stomach tightened.

“Sounds like a compliment,” Kostas interrupted.

“Sure is,” Eddie said.

An hour later Eddie paid and was out the door. By that point the counter was full and all but one of the booths and two of the tables had filled up as well. Lucy, the other waitress, hadn’t shown up. She hadn’t called in sick either. She likely slept in. She did it a number of times before. Kostas was backed up on the orders. He was cursing in Greek. Belle hustled back and forth between tables. She bumped her knee against a man who pushed his chair back into her path. She felt her ankles twist as she carried a hot tray of omelets, spinning around the busy Kostas. Then at four o’clock, with Lucy only working an hour and a half, she put her apron under the counter, took her share of tips, washed her hands, and stepped out the door.

“Hey!” Kostas called out from behind her. She walked a half block before she realized that she forgot the coat that the cook was waving in the air.

“Thanks sweetheart,” she said, and wrapped it around her, feeling the heat that it absorbed from sitting next to the toasters, the place where she always left it in the winter.

“See you tomorrow morning,” she said. “I promise.”

Kostas curled up his nose and nodded before turning around and going back inside. He didn’t understand the purpose of the promise. But neither did she. She had her routine, if nothing else. And she had her cat. And she had her older brother, a farmer out in California. And the war in Algeria had to end someday soon.

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