map Diner

by Ronald Sparling

Published in Issue No. 222 ~ November, 2015
Photo by Jackson Carson

Photo by Jackson Carson

The bus jolted across the dirt shoulder and skidded to a halt on the blacktop outside the diner where it sat expectantly while the dust caught up in the wheel wells drifted by and settled. The driver pushed hard on the big steel knob and the door swung open. Eddie stood in the aisle bent low looking out the window at the diner while he waited for the others seated forward to lumber off with the awkwardness born of a long bout of sitting. Then he followed, stepping down and out of the protection of air-conditioning and tinted glass and stood squinting in the hot dry sun.

We’ll stay here for one hour, the bus driver was telling them all. Get yourself something to eat and do whatever else it is you gotta do. There isn’t another stop for over three hours. And don’t go wandering off. We’ve got a schedule to keep, and we can’t be looking over hell’s half acre for nobody.

Eddie stood by the bus and looked down the street into town. It looked like any other lakeside town he’d ever been to, the main street stretching itself a few blocks to accommodate shops brimming with antiques and handicrafts, racks of T-shirts out front on the sidewalk waving in the light breeze off the lake. Even the Value Mart had T-shirts and large wire mesh baskets of beach balls and multi-coloured blow up toys in various shapes and sizes. Eddie stood by the bus and squinted down the street until the driver called to him from the door of the diner, reminding him they only had one hour. Eddie waved to show he was coming.

Inside Eddie chose a stool at the counter, swinging his leg over it in what he hoped looked like a comfortable gesture and settled on his haunches letting his back curve out and the weight of his body fall partially on his elbows which now rested on the counter.

What d’ya got? he asked the waitress when she approached. He smiled at her in a way he thought was teasing, but she just pointed with her pencil at the menu that stood wedged between the salt and pepper shakers and the bottle of sugar and said, take a look and let me know. She was a blonde with big hair and a tag that said Cheryl. She wasn’t bad looking and reminded Eddie of the waitresses he’d seen in movies that the heroes always joked around with and he had the strangest urge to do the same. It was something Eddie did, trying to fit into places he didn’t belong, imitating parts he’d seen in movies or read in books. He liked to think he belonged wherever he found himself.

So what’s Norm’s speciality? Eddie used the name Cheryl had called through the kitchen window. Cheryl eyed him for a brief second before yelling over her shoulder. Bus fellow here wants to know what your speciality is, Norm.

You’re my speciality, Honey, a booming voice replied. You wish, Cheryl said not loud enough for Norm to hear. He makes a fine shepherds pie, but that’s all gone now. If I was you, I’d stick to the burgers and fries. Even Norm can’t mess that up.

I heard that, the voice inside the window said.

Well, then how come you can’t hear nothing I ever order, Cheryl replied. She smiled and winked at Eddie as though he were a little boy even though in all likelihood Eddie was five years older than her.

Eddie watched Cheryl work as he waited for his burger and listened to her and Norm throw innocent barbs at one another without either of them taking the other seriously or worrying about who heard or what anyone thought about it. He watched her work and thought about how it must be nice to have a job where no one cares if you’re having a bad day because they’d just make fun of it anyway and sooner or later you’d have to laugh and then you wouldn’t be in a bad mood anymore. He watched the way Cheryl moved with a tired comfort through the diner and thought about how fine it would be to meet her outside at the end of her shift and to walk her home and to hear about the people that came into the restaurant that day and how every once in a while someone interesting or famous or maybe even both would come in and you’d have a good story to tell about how they wanted to take you to Hollywood and make you a star but you said no because you had everything you needed right here and a little fame would only ruin it all anyway.

When the burger was ready, Norm himself peered out the window and asked if Eddie was the fellow that wanted the burger and told Eddie how he was one lucky fellow because Cheryl wasn’t lying when she said he made the best burger this side of Toronto. Then he laughed because he knew Cheryl had said no such thing and he knew Eddie knew, so it was like they were sharing a little joke on Cheryl, and Eddie felt so good he wanted to order a scotch or a beer but couldn’t because the joint wasn’t licensed and so he pulled the flask out of his jacket pocket and poured a little into his coffee when no one was looking.

When Cheryl had finished serving the others she came and leaned on the counter and asked where Eddie was from and he named a small town outside of Toronto even though he wasn’t from there because he knew how people felt about people from the city and the reputation they had for being snobs.

Never heard of it, she said. Figured Eddie was from the city but then she should have known better because people from the city generally don’t come in here, especially not on buses. People in the city all have their own cars, especially those jeeps, she said. Now you tell me what a person living in Toronto needs with a jeep? But Eddie just shook his head and said he didn’t know either but it was a damn shame the way they polluted and everything, and Cheryl nodded her head in agreement and Eddie was feeling good that they were talking and agreeing on something, so he said, let’s ask Norm but Norm didn’t know either, but – and he came to the window to look at Eddie as he said this – he knew one thing. It was a bloody waste of good gas and good traction that the good people right here in Kowanie could use, not that they could afford it.

They all shook their heads in agreement and Eddie felt so good that he pulled his flask out again and tilted it towards Norm who smiled and said, don’t mind if I do. Cheryl handed it to Norm and then back to Eddie refusing to take any herself, but pouring Eddie another half cup of coffee to go with his scotch and they each sort of smiled off into the distance and reflected upon the stupidity of Toronto people and their need for big jeeps and Eddie thought about how he’d like to walk Cheryl home and climb in between her big white thighs and stay there for a month of Sundays.

It was not like they’d miss him at the office. Hell, he was on precarious ground as it was. Sales was getting too damn technical, that was the problem. Everyone had a goddamned university degree for Christ’s sake. What the hell that had to do with sales, Eddie would never know. What he did know was that kids ten years his junior were getting the jobs he’d always thought were meant for him and his paycheque wasn’t getting any bigger even though his bills were. What would happen, he wondered, if he just didn’t go home? The office would be rid of him, which they were probably trying to do anyway, and his wife could sleep with whomever she damn well pleased and he wouldn’t have to hear about it the next week when an indiscreet but fully intended comment dropped from one of his friend’s mouths. And his son, well Christ, his son barely spoke to him as it was. Probably take him a month to figure out Eddie was gone. Always moping about the house, grumbling about one thing or another. Sometimes Eddie would turn and catch his son peering at him with what Eddie could only describe as a sneer of revulsion. Eddie had even dreamed he woke up one night with a knife in his chest and his son standing over him smiling. It wasn’t that Eddie didn’t love the kid. He was Eddie’s own flesh and blood, for God’s sake. But sometimes he just didn’t like him.

No, if Eddie disappeared on the road one day, he didn’t think it would make much of a dent in anyone’s life. And that, Eddie suddenly realised, was damned depressing. To think he’d slaved his whole life to get where he was, and where he was was butt-fuck nowhere. Forty-three years and he didn’t even have a mother – God rest her soul – to miss him.

The voice of Cheryl asking what he did for a living brought Eddie back to his surroundings. He didn’t want to tell her the truth, didn’t want her to guess everything about him in one blink of an eye. A carpenter, he said, and it wasn’t so far from the truth. Hadn’t he built a new deck on their house just last summer. The boy was supposed to help him but, of course, never stuck around the house long enough to lift a single board and so Eddie been forced to hire the same fellow who’d done his neighbour Jack’s deck a few weeks earlier. Eddie had stayed by his side the whole way, helping as he could and trying to emulate the easy way the carpenter had moved about the wood and moved about with his tools as though they were natural extensions of his arms. He’d even bought himself a good leather tool and nail pouch and had spent several evenings working the leather and scraping it against the red brick of his house until the leather looked old and worn and well used.

I build decks, he continued. Tool sheds. Small things like that.

Cheryl peered down at his hands. You got awfully smooth skin.

Business hasn’t exactly been good, Eddie said, and Cheryl nodded her head and said ain’t that always the truth and Eddie liked her even more for understanding the plight of the average working man and wanted to tell her that but knew there was no way to make her understand what he was thinking. Knew there was no way for her to know he wanted to be a carpenter for real and to live in a small town like Kowanie with a woman like her who understood that life wasn’t always about having cars and televisions and fancy clothes to go to work in and giving dinner parties where people you don’t give two shits about stand around your house drinking your booze while they judge your success by your possessions.

Eddie wanted to be a carpenter in this small town with her, with Cheryl. And if there was no other work then he’d get a job as a bag boy at the Value Mart down the street and that would be just fine because at the end of his shift he could walk one block and take his usual stool at the counter and everyone would say, Hi Eddie. How are you doing? and he’d tell them just fine and ask how they were and they’d talk about the weather and the Blue Jays or the Maple Leaf game the night before and discuss their chances of making the playoffs and he’d have a piece of lemon meringue pie while he waited for Cheryl and then they’d walk back to their place somewhere down by the lake and sit outside on their dock in each others arms and watch the sun go down over Lake Superior and then go into the house and crawl into bed and make love the way only people really in love can, with her taking as much pleasure out of it as Eddie, instead of letting him do it the way a woman lets a man have a few beers and watch the ball game – because it’s the easiest thing to do.

And Eddie looks up and wants to tell Cheryl these things because – who knows? – she might understand and say, you know, I’ve always been looking for those same things and then she’d tell Norm, I need the rest of the day off to discover my destiny and they’d walk off together right then and there and go back to her place and she’d make him a coffee or maybe they’d have a cold beer on the porch but they wouldn’t even finish them before they’d tumble into her bed and make love like they knew they were supposed to be there together and then afterward they’d lie in bed for hours talking and then, maybe later, after they made love again, this time slow and easy, they’d go back out onto the porch and sip a beer and watch the stars overhead and not say too much because there was no need to – but Eddie can’t say a thing.

Suddenly the driver is at Eddie’s elbow telling him to finish up his lunch because they have to leave in five minutes and Eddie yells goodbye to Norm through the kitchen window and Norm peeks through and gives him a wave and Cheryl at the cash smiles and tells him to take care and says be seeing you around and when he walks outside and sees all the fat asses waddling their way back toward the bus Eddie is damned if he’s going to follow. Without a word he turns right and walks into town ignoring the driver’s calls and steps through a corner doorway under a dead neon sign of a martini glass with cocktails scrawled across it and pauses on the threshold of the dark sanctuary.

After his eyes get used to the dark, Eddie walks to the bar and swings his leg lazily over a stool in his best western style approach and calls to the bartend for a scotch without too much ice because he doesn’t want the thing going watery on him and then swings around to view his surroundings. He nods with satisfaction at the place he’s chosen. This was more like it. Fuck the bus. Fuck the job. And most of all, fuck the family. What the hell did they know about him anyway?

This is a fine establishment you have here, friend, he told the barkeep as he swept up his glass from the bar. Eddie raised his drink in a toast. To it and your long and happy life, he said and then threw back his drink. The nectar of the god’s, he said when he had caught his breath. Another please. Then Eddie turned to an old bugger seated two stools away. There was no time like the present to start making friends in what he had just decided was to be his new home. And you, my friend. What’ll it be?

The old man eyed him suspiciously, then turned to the barkeep. Same as always, Brett. And don’t give me that goddamned water-downed crap you try to pass off as whiskey, you cheap bastard.

Ain’t nothing watered down in here except your brain, you old fart.

Smartass maggot.

Shut up, you malignant tumour.

Eddie listened and smiled and reached for his glass as he felt the warmth of the whiskey spread through his chest.

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Ronald Sparling is a Canadian writer and photographer who has been based in S.E. Asia for the past 16 years. His stories, articles and photographs have appeared in magazines throughout S.E. Asia and Canada. Currently, Sparling lives in Kuala Lumpur where he teaches photography at Sunway University.