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The Diner by Ray Printer Friendly

Sitting in the diner, the rain is pouring down like a Hollywood effect, it’s ridiculous. I stare at the circle of spilled coffee on the table, trying to remember if it was there before I sat down or not. I guess it doesn’t matter. I notice that my hand is bleeding, just a little, from the cut on the back. It doesn’t matter, either.

I look back out the window, trying to remember what matters, but I’m coming up empty. I dip the edge of a paper napkin into my water glass and then wipe off my hand. When my hand is mostly clean, I wipe up the circle of coffee. Blood seeps to the top of the wound, but I don’t care about it anymore.

I see the cars outside, headlights blinding and useless against the torrent of rain, I see pedestrians running along the sidewalk, holding up umbrellas, wearing raincoats. Nothing helps—it’s raining hard and sideways, and stepping outside means you’re soaked. I hear the cook yell something like order up, and I hear the bell ring. I think for a second about turning to look, but then I decide not to. Not worth it.

A drop of blood falls from my hand to the table, lands with a little splatter, and seeing it on the white tabletop makes me uncomfortable. I lean back, and the fake red leather of the booth creaks.

The diner is streamlined and silver on the outside, just like the classics. On the inside, it’s spotless but worn with age and drunks. It’s the kind of place you end up at the end of the night, when you can’t go home, and can’t go anywhere else. It’s the kind of place where you expect to see the counter full of remorseful drunks, guys staring down into their coffee cups, wondering what they’ve lost this time.

It’s empty right now, except for me, the waitress, two kids that have been out all night, and the cook. It’s about eight in the morning, but you can’t tell—the rain has made everything outside too dark for morning, and it’s kept everyone away from the diner.

“Can I getcha anything yet?” The waitress asks me.

I pull a five dollar bill from my pocket and slide it towards her. “No thank you—just keep the coffee coming, please.”

“Can do.” The five is whisked away into one of her apron pockets, the coffee cup is filled to the top, and she’s gone. I look back out the window, wondering what I’m hoping to see. My stomach feels like it’s about to erupt from my mouth because I’m so nervous, and although I’m sure all the coffee isn’t helping, I can’t stop drinking it. I reach for a cigarette before I realize that I haven’t smoked in three years. I briefly consider walking to the nearest deli and buying myself a pack of smokes, but then I would have to stand outside to smoke, which I don’t want to do. Plus, I don’t think I have the seven dollars it would take to buy a pack.

To keep my hands occupied, I dump some sugar into my cup and stir it around a little. Then I add a little cream, stir it a little more. I don’t drink my coffee with sugar or cream, so I gulp this cup down more to get it out of the way than anything else.

I see the shadow fall over my table again while I’m looking out the window, and I expect it to be the waitress, back to fill up my cup again. When I don’t hear the pouring of liquid, I turn around to look at the owner of the shadow.

It’s him, but I don’t know how he got in without ringing the little bell that hangs over the door and clatters every time someone comes in or out.

“May I sit?” He asks. Like I have a choice.

“Sure, if you want,” I tell him. Like he has a choice, either.

He slides into the booth across from me, his rain-darkened trench-coat squeaking as it rubs against the vinyl. He signals to the waitress, but she’s picking up the used dishes of the kids, and doesn’t see him.

For a second, I almost have myself convinced that this guy isn’t real—that he’s a figment of my imagination, and this is all one horrible self-delusion. People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden. The corner of my mouth twitches up to a split-second smile as I think about the problems I must have if guys like this are the imaginary friends I’m thinking up.

“Something funny?” He asks, with a tone that suggests that nothing should be funny at this particular junction in time.

“No,” I tell him, and stir my coffee a little bit. There isn’t any coffee in the cup, so the spoon rattles around in the cup; the noise is out of place in the empty diner, it feels like when you laugh out loud in a library or an yell in a deserted church.

“You nervous, Nicky?” He’s the one smiling a little smile now, the same way that bullies smile at smaller kids in the school yard, right before they beat them down.

I toss the spoon carelessly into the cup and lean back to stare at him. I’m the picture of coolness, and my heart is about to explode. Of course I’m nervous. “Not at all—it’s been a long night, that’s all. I’m ready to get this shit over with, I’m ready to get out of this freakin’ rain. This whole thing’s been messed up since the very beginning.”

As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I know I shouldn’t have said them. He leans forward across the table, knocking my cup out of the way. The noise is like a gunshot, and everyone in the diner stops what they’re doing and looks at us. Not good.

“You got greener pastures to roam in, you feel free to roam ‘em,” he stage-whispers at me. He might as well be screaming: all eyes are on us, and all ears are listening. “Otherwise, shut your fuckin’ mouth.”

This whole thing, he’s the one that set it up. That’s why he gets so damned mad if you dog it, and that’s why the entire thing was messed up since the very beginning. “I’m talking about the weather, man,” I tell him, and I motion with my head to indicate that people are looking at us.

He stares into my face for a few more seconds, then shoves me back into my booth as he settles back into his own. “You need to learn to express yourself a little better,” he says. Then he notices everyone looking, I guess, because he says, “And don’t you worry about none of these people—they keep staring and they’re about to have a gunshot to look at instead.”

I drop my eyes to the three drops of blood on the table. How did I ever get hooked up with this guy?

“I don’t care,” he says. “I’ll shoot every fuckin’ person in here, and then maybe I’ll make some eggs!”

I hear something clatter around in the kitchen, and I know it’s time for me to go. “Listen, man, you want this thing, or what?” I pull the pouch out of my coat pocket. It’s black felt, with a gold pull-string at the top.

“What, here?” He asks.

“Why not? You’ve already terrified everyone.” This isn’t meant as a compliment, but that’s how he takes it. He smiles, and reaches for the pouch. I pull it away, and his face instantly clouds. Not quite like the weather outside, but close. I realize that I’m not going to be able to work with him again after this. I’ll be lucky if I walk away alive, after this.

“Don’t screw with me, Nicky,” he says, as he reaches for the pouch again.

I pull the pouch back closer, and when he leans forward to snatch it from me, I lean forward and shove a pistol into his ribs. We’re both halfway standing, each with a hand on the pouch and me with a gun crammed into his mid-section like it’s all perfectly fine. If a cop walks by the window at this point, everyone in the diner is dead. This guy, he’s too unpredictable, too hair-trigger.

“I’m not screwing with you, man—this is just business, and we’re both just businessmen.” I let go of the pouch and it drops to the table. It lands in the little puddle of blood that has dripped out of my hand since he arrived. I reach down with my free hand, into his pocket, until I find the bundle of money. I remove it slowly, not looking at it, keeping my eyes on him. He’s seething, which is really too bad. It’s just business, and if he had been a professional, there wouldn’t have to be all these hurt feelings.

I glance down at the package, see that it’s real money, and out of the corner of my eye, I see movement in the kitchen.

I’ve been coming to this diner for three years, it’s my favorite diner in the entire city. It was just dumb luck that he picked this as a meeting place, and there was no way for me to decline, so here we are. I’ve seen what happens to customer who cause problems, no matter that I’ve been a loyal patron for years. It’s time to go.

I shoot a quick glance at the waitress. “I’m very sorry for the trouble,” I tell her.

“You’re prolly gonna be more sorry here in a few seconds.”

“I love this place,” I tell her. “I know it don’t mean anything, but I’m sorry this went down.” I see him move, and I direct my full attention back to him just before he pulls his piece. Crazy bastard. “Don’t you do it.” I should just splatter him, but I don’t want to do that here—too sentimental, I guess, but this is my favorite diner. Plus, I’m not really a killer.

I knock the pouch onto the ground, and take off at a jog down the narrow linoleum aisle that leads to the exit. “Stop right there!” the cook bellows, but I don’t stop. I’m too close to the door. He won’t risk shooting up his window if I’m already on my way out. Not with that sawed-off that he's always busting out. I just better not ever come back.

I shove through the door without looking back, into the pouring rain, I can barely see anything, and I immediately bump into some guy in a black slicker. “Watch it there, bud,” he says to me.

A cop. Dumb fuckin' luck. “Sorry, man. A little rain blind." I point at his black slicker, “You might as well be wearing camouflage in this rain.”

He sort of smiles, and then I see his attention wander to the diner. I hear a gunshot, and wonder who got shot. I think for a second about turning to look, but then I decide not to. Not worth it.

“What the hell?” He’s drawing his gun, moving towards the diner, I’m already vanishing into the rain. It seems like I hear more gunfire, but it might just be thunder, or it might just be my imagination.

I take a left on the next block, heading towards my second favorite diner in the city.


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