The diner was just about empty. It was like that most evenings. On the far side of the counter stood the waiter. He was a heavier set man and his eyes were placed upon a young couple who sat near the door.
I passed the two lovers and took a seat close to the waiter. The man greeted me in a warm gregarious voice.
“Start you off with something?”
“Coffee. Please, “ I said.
“Just coffee for now.”
He turned his back and spoke while reaching for one of the pots on the burner.
“It ain’t gonna be light for long. I don’t know how people drink that stuff at this time. I mean, I take mine now, but I just got on the clock.”
When he came back around he placed the cup in front of me. I looked at his face then down. The mug had a chip in it.. It wasn’t a bad chip, just cracked a little on the inner edge near the lip. It didn’t leak so I said nothing about it.
“I like the warmth.”
“You a night owl?” he said.
“Not always.” I could feel his eyes examining me. I knew that if I looked up and acknowledged him, he would say something to me. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be left alone.
“You look like you need some rest, if you want my advice.”
I swore to myself and glanced upward. “Rest don’t pay the bills. I work nights up the road.”
“No. Old Hall’s Grocery. You know the place?”
“Yeah, I know it.”
“Yeah? Well, I stock the shelves.” I took a sip and gave him a look over. His clothes were well kept. There wasn’t a spot on him. He must have been the only man in town who kept himself that clean.
“How long you go until?”
“Changes, but typically until morning.”
He laughed. “Yeah, me too brother. Me too. Mind if I call you brother?”
“No.” I said. “I don’t mind.”
“Good.” He said. “‘Cause you and I are in a league together.”
“Yeah?” I finished my coffee in two, maybe three gulps. I had nothing in me all day.
“You want me to fill you up?”
He turned around. In a moment my mug was full.
“Yep.” He said, growing more excited. “Heaving away when the world is getting ready to fall asleep and sleeping when the rest of the world is going.”
He put the pot back on the burner then stood resting his arm on the counter close to me. “Let me ask you something. Aren’t ya afraid you’ll miss something? Working these hours, I’m afraid I’ll miss something.”
“What’s there to miss?”
“I don’t know. A lot of things can happen in a night.”
I shrugged my shoulders apathetically, laughed, and looked around the room repeating his phrase to myself. There wasn’t anything around besides those kids on the other end. “A jobs is a job, right? I had to take it. Especially considering how crazy it is out there.”
He nodded his head and stared blankly out the window. “Yeah. It is crazy out there.”
I had something else on the tip of my tongue, but it was lost when the ding of the bell in the window, which separated the back of the diner from the front, rang. Two plates sat upon the ledge. On one sat a hamburger with a side of potato chips and the other held a short stack of pancakes.
The waiter took the meals to the other end of the counter. The couple was young, maybe twenty or so, and their faces shone with all the promises of life. Those faces reminded me of mine when I was that age. It was nice then thinking that I had a lot to think about and worrying over things that were forgotten by morning.
I looked away. When the waiter came back to my end he leaned in the window and shouted something toward the kitchen. A minute later the cook came from out of the back. The man pretended to do something beside the waiter while he casually snuck glances toward the woman on the other end.
“Not bad,” the cook began, “it’s summertime too. They’re wearing less.”
“Yeah.” The waiter said with a smile. “Good times are here again. Tell you what, our next night off, we’re going out.”
They both laughed. The cook shook his head as he made his way back to the kitchen muttering something in Spanish and just before he disappeared behind the doors he shouted back, “What’s a night off again?”
The waiter laughed shaking his head while looking over to the woman one more time. I minded my own business. I looked up above at the television. The news was on. They never played anything but the news.
“You ever think about that?” The waiter turned his head toward me while he was in the middle of polishing silverware.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the first part.”
“Oh.” He looked down to examine the spoon he was on. “I was just talking about love. Do you see them?” He was pointing in the direction of the couple. “You’d think they spent the better part of the evening dancing under the stars.”
“What’s your point?”
“No point. I just like to make conversation. What did you do today?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Oh,” he said chuckling his way out of embarrassment, “that’s okay. I’ve been there brother. Trust me, I have. I’ll tell you what I did—nothing.”
“Not a damn thing, brother. I tried, but I couldn’t. I tried to read, but I couldn’t. I tried to watch something, but I couldn’t and you know after all that nothing what did I lose? A few hours. What’s a few more?”
I remained silent. I didn’t like him at all, but at the same time I enjoyed the company.
He looked down and patted his stomach. “You think I can hide this?” He broke into a laughter that dismantled whatever point he was leading himself on with and then after the laughter came a bit of spite. He hit the counter with the palm of his hand. It disturbed me, but the others at the opposite end were too wrapped up in their fairy tale to notice a thing.
He calmed down. “I know I’m not one for the magazines, but I get by. You understand. We have our league.”
“Sure.” I shrugged my shoulders, rolled my eyes, and wished I sat somewhere else.
“You are something.” He was shaking his head while examining a fork for the second time. “Listen, all I ever wanted was to be a waiter.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself despite the dismay that formed in the lines on his face. “You can laugh. Go ahead. Everybody else does. But you know how many people I know who want to be something important or something? I say no— no, not me. I wasn’t born in fantasy land.”
We both laughed. It felt nice sharing that. “Yeah.” I said, “Yeah, sure, but why do you want to be a waiter?”
“I like to provide a pleasant experience. I was in catering before this. High-end stuff, but those people aren’t my people. They have too much money. You want some more?”
“Please.” I didn’t realize he was talking about my mug until he went over to the burner.
“So how’d you end up here?”
“I quit.” He went back to the burner and then came back around.
“Just like that?”
“Yep. Just like that.” He reached over and grabbed a water pitcher then stood for a moment. He was thinking of something, but I didn’t know what and before he went to the opposite end of the counter to fill up the couple’s glasses he said, “The problem with getting old is that you always remember when you were young.”
I sat there thinking. It had been quite some time since I spoke to anyone. Of course at work I said things to fill the air but that was all.
On his return to our side of the counter the waiter’s low muttering took me away from my thoughts. I don’t know what he was saying to himself, but he didn’t look right.
In an attempt to snap him back, I leaned over the counter and asked, “What’s your name?”
“My name?” He exposed his yellow teeth when he grinned. “It’s been a long time since someone asked me that.”
“Well, I figure we’ve been talking.”
“Morgan. Alfred A. Morgan. You can call me Al.” He put the silverware down and grew a bit jolly as he immediately took my hand in a firm grip. His hand was surprisingly cold and for a moment, I thought, he would never let me go.
“Al, nice to meet you. My name is Joe. Joseph Carrey.”
While we shook hands a sullen air overtook him. “It’s nice to meet someone in such strange hours.”
“Yeah. It is. Isn’t it?”
From the other end of the counter the echo of two chairs being dragged across the floor filled the room. Al let go. We both looked over. The man kissed her hand and placed her light evening jacket through one arm after she slid the other in on her own and when she kissed him on the cheek, I looked away. I’m not sure what Al did.
“The money is on the table.” Her voice was delicate like a teacup.
Al’s voice ran out of confidence when he spoke. “Please, come again.”
I looked up toward Al, then back in their direction. They walked across the floor as if the tiles were made up of soft pink clouds. One of them found something highly amusing and her laughter with all its freshness filled the room while she looked over her shoulder. I doubt they were speaking about us, but the laughter took control over Al. He grew red with embarrassment. The life in his eyes died and slowly his face contorted like every emotion suddenly turned against him, which left him standing on a pale frontier all alone.
He turned back to the silverware as I turned around only to catch them shutting the door. Boy, it was dark out there.
I looked up toward the clock on the wall. My time was coming. Soon, I’d have to leave and now with my time approaching I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay with Al. “You know her?” I asked.
“No sir.” Al went over to the sink with its dried yellow stains, which could almost be rust along the silver edges. He stood for a moment until he remembered to remind himself how the simple thing worked.
“No, sir,” he said again, running his hands under the water before damping a paper towel to remove the perspiration from his forehead. “But I tell you what, brother. I see her everywhere I go.”
Michael Tuberdyke is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in English and is a full time woodworker in Boston, Massachusetts. His work has appeared in Rundelania and A Million Ways.