“I wish . . .” the stranger says, wandering over to my counter and sitting on the stool in front of me like it took the last of his strength to make it. I wait for him to finish his thought. Instead, he stares at the counter between us. He may be coming down from last night’s drunk. It’s in his cautious steps, the casual aimlessness of his route.
He’s my first customer. Through the rows of windows behind him, I see dawn just starting to get serious.
The windows make me think of my brother. I only look through them a million times a day hoping drivers will stop, or to count cars sitting in the parking lot, and I think of Abraham more often than not. I wanted a classic diner look, plate glass and the name painted in an arch. My brother convinced me to get windows in ten-inch-square panes, row after row. They look like wood but they’re metal underneath. Metal is better for insurance. The glass squares are small, cheap and easy to replace. It’s my place but it’s Abraham’s money, so I convinced myself there wasn’t much difference between an expanse of open window and those small, cage-like squares. I didn’t think about having to look through them all day.
“Coffee?” Milanna asks the stranger. My ex-wife picked Milanna’s mother picked her name. I never liked it; too close to Milano cookies. I didn’t have a say in naming our daughter, my ex just plucked those three cookie-sounding syllables from the air and slapped them on a piece of paper. Whatever else goes wrong in her life, Milanna can’t blame me for the name.
She has an eyebrow ring and tired eyes, shocking red hair. That’s the brand name; Shocking Red. She has a kid, too, just three years old. The kid’s at home with my girlfriend.
I think the only reason Milanna agreed to live with me and work for me is to piss her mom off. The only reason Stef – that’s my girlfriend – agreed to the whole thing is because she hates working with me, and was happy to have Milanna take her place.
Cheryl Whitehouse was my first girlfriend. I was nine years old. Now I’m thirty-eight and I still have a girlfriend. I’m a grandfather, and I have a girlfriend. A grandfather at thirty eight. When I found out Milanna was pregnant, one year younger than I was when I got her mother pregnant, it was like being force-fed all of my mistakes. It felt like a death.
I can’t tell whether the customer is agreeing to coffee or just echoing the word, seeing how it feels in his mouth. His eyes are unguarded, but glassy.
“Great.” Milanna turns around and rolls her eyes at me. I’m facing the guy so I don’t change my expression. I’m not sure if Milanna’s eye roll is over the customer, the fact that she has to serve him, or both. I watch the guy stare at Milanna while she gets the coffee. Not leering, exactly. Like she’s the only thing in the room. Still, I don’t like it.
“Hey.” I snap my fingers in front of the guy’s face, my tone stern but polite. At this point, he’s still more customer than nuisance.
Now the guy is staring at my fingers like they’re the only things in the room. I wave slowly in front of his face, like hello, anybody home? He follows the movement for a second then closes his eyes, shuddering. If he’s coming down from a binge, maybe it’s been a lot longer than one night.
“You feelin’ okay, there, buddy?”
I’m not sure I feel like watching my first customer of the day go through alcohol withdrawal. I’ve done it before, but I’m hardly in the mood.
“Don’t I look alright?” He looks up me with those naked, glassy eyes.
“Coffee,” Milanna says, putting the mug between me and the guy.
“Sure, you look alright,” I tell him. Despite the heat, he wears a long-sleeve, button down shirt and jeans. Sweat stains his collar. His lank mass of salt-and-pepper hair places him somewhere between forty and fifty, but his unlined face says he could be much younger. Apart from stubble beneath his nose, over his chin, and two dots the size of dimes on either cheek, his skin is as smooth as a teenager’s. His eyes and skin are olive but not dark. If he’s local, he’s only half. “You look great.”
“Coffee,” the guy agrees, spreading his hands around the mug like ta-da!
“Cream?” Milanna gives the kind of service I can’t stand getting. Bored eyes, borderline hostile, like she resents the guy’s presence. I tap her elbow. She shifts her weight and opens her eyes marginally wider. Her lips cramp into what passes for a smile in her life. On another young woman’s face, it would be an expression of tasting bitter medicine, or maybe heartburn. “Sugar, sir?” she adds.
Salt-and-Pepper frowns into his mug. “I can’t think why not.”
“Great,” she says again, moving away.
“This is how I spend my mornings.” He shakes his head. “I wake up, I drink coffee.”
“You’re not the only one.”
“The only one?”
I wish I had something to do. The batter has had time to thicken, the potatoes are peeled and chunked, the cheese is grated fine, the eggs are beaten frothy, the bacon is frozen flat, the vegetables are chopped, the grill is hot at my back. All set for the breakfast rush, which won’t begin for another two hours. I’ve got nothing to do but chat with this guy who is obviously checked out.
“That, who, you know . . . wakes up, then has coffee.” He seems to need something from me but that’s the best I’ve got for him at the moment.
“Who wakes up and has coffee?” he asks.
“How would you know something like that?”
“You just told me.”
“Well . . .” Now he looks old, confused. He stares at a point somewhere past my shoulder. “I did?”
Milanna sets a sugar shaker and a little crock of cream within the guy’s reach. “Cream and sugar,” she says, her chipper tone made false by her eyes. She comes across as a basically good, nice person having a bad day. Only I know that’s how she is every day. The locals know it, too, but they don’t mind because they’re cut from the same cloth. Shit, maybe I’m no different. Maybe I just hide it better. “Do you know what you’d like to order?”
“Not really.” He shrugs apologetically. His smile looks genuine, melting more years off him. I wonder how he earned those grays.
“Would you like to see a menu?”
“I think that would be lovely.”
I think that would be lovely. Who says that? The flighty girl in that HBO series, pretending she’s in Paris, maybe. Not here along the St. Lawrence.
Again, Milanna turns to give me a private expression. Not a roll this time, but a deliberate widening of the eyes. Get a load of this guy, her look says. This time, my poker face cracks slightly.
Two faded trucks pull up outside, both marked with shotgun sprays of rust around the wheel wells. Stereotypes make it like we’re more in touch with nature, environmentalists by birth rather than policy, but Nicky and Duran have driven the same route for three years and they can’t be bothered to carpool.
Salt-and-Pepper doesn’t touch the cream or the sugar. He sips his coffee and grimaces as though he’s just passed an open sewer. He grips his stomach and swallows hard. I wonder if he’s about to vomit in my diner.
“Is that right?” he asks.
I think he’s what’s wrong with the coffee, but I dutifully take a whiff from his mug.
“I’m drinking the same pot,” I tell him with a shrug. “It seems okay.”
“This is all so strange,” he says.
“Being disoriented.” He looks at the ceiling, smiling to himself. “Strange… being… disoriented. I think that’s redundant.”
“You seem okay.” I have no idea if this is true or not. In fact, I think it may be a fairly large lie. I mostly don’t want to get involved, don’t want to know why he moves the way he moves and speaks the way he speaks.
“Disoriented. What a word. What a perfect word. Just exactly how it feels.” He stops looking at the ceiling and looks at me. He doesn’t seem to notice a difference in the view. “You know. There are worse things than being a famous, successful . . . whatever.”
“Are you famous?” I ask him, knowing he’s not.
“Only in rarified circles.”
“Your menu, sir.” Milanna hands it off, then nods to the two casino workers walking in. “Nicky. Duran.”
“What do you know, fellas?” I call out.
“Not too much,” the younger one, Duran, says.
“Ain’t that the sad truth,” the older, Nicky, says. The four of us chuckle like we do five times a week over similar exchanges. Milanna pours two cups of decaf and drops them at the corner booth before the two men even sit. They will drink decaf coffee for forty minutes to an hour, maybe have pie or chili, then leave. They work the graveyard shift at the Western Door, the big casino, not the Lucky 777. Sundays and Mondays are their days off.
The guy in front of me opens the menu and gives a low whistle.
“This could take some time.”
“It’s not War and Peace.”
His uncomplicated laugh makes Milanna and the other two men look at us.
“Do people eat this stuff?”
“Hey, watch yourself. That’s my cooking there. Many march into their daily battles stuffed with my hash browns.”
“Hash browns.” He says it the way I’ve heard classmates breath the names of the first girlfriends generous enough to let them cop a feel.
You know who I ran into the other day? Susie Shin.
Oh, Susie Shin… I remember Susie Shin.
Susie Shin was Dicky Bailey’s first handjob. Tiffany Hile gave Noam Jacobs a blowjob in the back of a school bus. As exceptionally generous Debbie Turnbill asked Leonard Reusswig for a ride when he got his license, then she gave him a ride of his own in the backseat. I have my own Susie, my own Tiffany, and my own Debbie, but for some reason I can’t run into any of the girls from high school without thinking of how she lives in someone else’s memory. Maybe it’s to do with the road not taken. Maybe I wonder if Susie, Tiffany, and Debbie ever think of Dicky or Noam or Leonard. Maybe I’ve been serving the same faces too often.
“They don’t make decent hash browns where I live,” Salt n Pepper tells me.
“Where you from?”
“Oh, I’m from here. A long time ago. I just got back… yesterday, in fact. Where I live now is Islamorada. It’s in the Florida Keys?”
He shrugs. “Most of them have never been up here.”
“Most people have never been up here.”
Again, the cheery laugh.
“So, what do you think? Some decent hash browns for a change? A side of bacon?”
“Bacon. If my wife knew . . .” He looks down at the counter. His words have been coming fast, making me rethink the drunken assessment, but his last word is a tell-tale drawl. Still, he doesn’t smell like an all-night drunk, or a week-long bender. He smells like honest sweat, a fresh exercise smell that hasn’t had time to become offensive.
“Your wife here with you?”
“My wife . . .” He places a hand over his eyes. The barking sob that comes from his mouth is as simple as his laughter; clear, loud, and unforced. It echoes through the quiet morning. The casino dealers look up from their first cup. Bent over her paper a ways down the counter, Milanna looks at me. I shake me head, telling her I don’t know.
“No one stopped to help, so it must have happened quickly.” He massages his thumb and index finger into his temples. His other hand trembles around the coffee mug. “No one saw, is what I mean. If someone saw, then someone would have helped, right? I mean, I walked away, so it couldn’t have been too graphic, right? If no one saw, and I walked away, and no one stopped, then it was only serious in my mind.”
When he drops his hand, his eyes are wet, his nose running.
“Wipe your lip, there,” I tell him softly. He uses the square napkins stacked on the counter. I tell myself his words only freak me out a little. “Were you in an accident?”
“An accident?” He looks genuinely surprised at the idea. When he speaks, it’s with careful measure. “Well, no. No, I don’t think so.”
Dawn breaks into a sunny morning. I love that moment, when the glaring fluorescents overhead give in to the natural light outside, tiny windows squares be damned. It’s ordinary magic, and it makes me glad to be awake and ready for the day. I have a man in front of me who’s suffering, but in building this diner, my diner, I’ve created a space where he can feel welcome.
“So what’s the verdict on the hash browns and bacon?”
He smiles and nods, still rubbing one temple. He stares as his coffee mug like he has no idea what it is, or how it got there.
“You look like you could use your hash browns loaded.”
“Peppers, onions, cheese. Cheese has good enzymes for your stomach. It’s why the French eat cheese for dessert.”
“The selfish ways I spend my time.” His eyes twitch and a tear falls. His lip trembles. “I spend my time in peppers, onions, cheese, and coffee. I spend my time in meetings. I spend my time at my computer. When’s the last time I . . . I . . .”
His mouth opens and closes like a fish. One hand gestures toward me to emphasize his point, until he loses whatever point he was trying to make. He looks from his empty hand to me and back. I clasp his forearm, help him lower it to the counter. After my earlier reluctance to get involved, maybe I’m overcompensating. I don’t care. I hold his arm until he meets my eyes again.
“You’ll be okay, buddy. A little breakfast will help you think.”
If the breakfast doesn’t help, my words have.
“Yes,” he says, closing his eyes, sighing gratefully. “Yes.”
“Trust me, you’ll love this.” I don’t work the flat top with a lot of show, but there is a dance to it. I put the ingredients in the same bowls in the same places every day. I keep my utensils and towels in the same spots. My movements are quick and confident, soothing in their complexity. The men who line this counter stare while I work with the primitive blankness of early man staring into fire. Soon, I have a spray of shredded potato and slices of bacon nicely browning, a smatter of red and green pepper. It’s all in the timing. Bacon, then potato, then peppers, and the onion last. The peppers should be soft but not soggy, the onion clear but still firm.
From the corner of my eye, I see the man at the counter isn’t watching. He’s holding his stomach with one hand, rubbing his temple with the other. He stands quickly, his jaw loose. He weaves like a drunk; I’m sure he’s going to pitch over.
Everything becomes clear. The sun, strong and proud, casting my tile floor in squared shadows. The casino workers in silhouette, talking quietly over the pie slices Milanna brought them. She’s still slumped over the counter, chin in her hands, reading the Daily Notes, edging from a girl into a young woman. All of them are too far away to do anything. Would I be able to leap over the counter in time to stop this guy from falling?
He rights himself by placing a hand on his stool. When I’m sure he’s under control, I mix the veggies into the potatoes. The guy looks around, the fingers of his free hand pressing into his temple.
“Where’s the . . ?”
I point with my spatula. It’s time for cheese. Extra cheese, in fact, what the hell.
“Don’t be too long. We’re almost done here.”
“Do you hear that?” he asks. He’s not looking at me as he says it. He’s shuffling toward the men’s room.
He stops and rests a hand on his thigh, kneading his flesh. He slaps his thigh like he’s an action hero in a movie and his leg is an ingenue that just fainted. He takes the hand away and looks at his open palm, flexing into a fist and back. He looks at me in confusion. “Do you hear that?”
He sways and falls to the floor.
I drop the handful of grated cheese. It dusts the hash browns, the flat top, the grill counter, the bar mats on the floor. I’m not sure how it happens but I’m over the counter, my arms around the man, bringing him closer to me. His arms are crossed over himself, defensive, fetal. The clear liquid running from his eyes and nose is too thick for tears. I realize the stains on his collar are not sweat but more liquid that’s leaked from his ears. While I stood here talking about breakfast, thinking about windows, the fluid around this man’s brain has been leaking from his skull.
“I can’t feel my leg,” he says.
“You’re okay,” I tell him.
“My family . . .” he says.
“Dad?” Milanna says. Her tone brings me back to my early twenties, lying next to my wife, the foot of sheet between us like a gulf. Milanna just had a nightmare, so she comes to our room. I quell the doubts that have been keeping me awake by offering my daughter comfort, the love I can’t give my wife. Come on in here, baby. Fall asleep with us.
Duran and Nicky are on their feet, but they don’t come any closer.
“Your family?” I want to keep him talking. If he’s still talking, he’ll be okay.
“Down the street.”
“Okay, you’re okay.”
“They are what matters to me.”
“I’ve got you.”
“Yes. What’s you’re name? We’ll get them for you.”
His mouth works around some sound or syllable too huge to pass his lips, while his eyes swirl around the room. I smooth his hair from his brow. It’s slick with sweat, softer than it looks. I speak to Milanna, low from the corner of my mouth, telling her to call Doctor Brown.
“The eye doctor?”
“He went to medical school and he’s right next door. Just do it, sweetie.”
In the time I’ve taken my attention from the man, something has happened. He’s stopped trembling. Instead of looking around the room, he’s looking at me. The light falling on him closes the pupil that can see me into a pen point; the other pupil remains wide, dark.
“I think I’m dying in your diner,” he says, smiling slightly. I can’t help but laugh. It’s a snort, really, small and filled with pain, but it’s a laugh. It’s all I can give him.
“I was in an accident once,” he tells me, “when I was a kid. It’s amazing how quickly you can go back to that place. Dying. I’ve been dying since I was a kid.”
“What’s your name, buddy? Let us call your family.”
“The whole family’s in town. We came up for a funeral, but mom got better. I’ll give ‘em a show.”
I try to think of what families are gathered together around someone dead or dying, but as mini-marts, kitsch stores, gas stations, and smoke shops shrink the land, the people grow further apart. I’m about to ask Duran and Nicky, but the man shudders in my arms. The smell of the man’s breakfast blackening on the flat top fills my diner. It’s like we can smell his death.
His weight settles into my arms. He has a smile on his face. He doesn’t go still, he just stops. Something vital leaves him, something more than awareness or last breath. One moment, he’s a dying man. The next, I’m holding a bag of meat. I don’t feel the passing of his soul, exactly, but there is something here, something beyond what I see.
It’s the moment I realize there’s more to life than what I’m giving it.
“Milanna, baby. Turn off the flat top for me, will you?”
“Sure, dad,” she says softly.