The cold metal of the diner door handle felt good beneath Lorna’s hand. It had been hot in her car, because of the busted heater she didn’t dare take to a mechanic and risk something else breaking right afterward. The frigid air escaping from Ray’s Diner steadied her, and her long dark lashes tickled the tops of her cheeks as she pondered the feeling, wondering exactly what it was about the coolness of greasy spoons that was appealing.
“One, two, three.” With each word, she opened and shut the heavy hinged door, the muscles in her arm tensing as she did so. Shadows crunched in the darkness to her right, and the monsters in her head clamored to be the source of the fright. Panic swooped over Lorna like the wraiths in stories her mother read her when she was a child, and she whirled around wildly, preparing to run away.
A woman leaned against the faintly glowing sign advertising “Children under 5 eat free,” her hefty frame blocking half the message, so that it simply read, “Eat free.”
Lorna stopped in her tracks, eyes wide, heart pumping, silently counting the beats, tapping her index finger on her thigh in rhythm.
The two women appraised each other, one searching for a dominance frequently denied her and the other willing herself to simply maintain eye contact. Seizing authority, the hefty woman groaned her weight forward, throwing her face into the light reaching out feebly from the dirty diner windows.
“Well ‘re ya goin in er not?” she growled, her voice like gravel in a blender. Her face matched the harshness of her voice so perfectly it was almost as though she had been this age her entire life. Age had etched rough markings all over the canvas of skin, grizzled gray hair was pulled up into a bun, failing to hide the bare patches of flaking scalp bursting through.
A lit cigarette hung carelessly in her mouth, as if remaining there of it’s own accord, the sagging skin around her mouth, puckered by time and slackened by habit, doing nothing to hold it steady. Her knee-length, aged brown dress stretched over wide stomach and hips, unforgiving of the extra weight she now carried since she had bought it a number of decades ago.
Lorna, still tapping out her heartbeats, became aware that she was staring. She swallowed-One-two-three-and struggled to remember the question. “Do you know if they serve waffles here?” she blurted instead.
What was left of the woman’s eyebrows raised. “My husband serves waffles if ya aks fer ‘em. Ray is my husband. This here his diner.” Something like pride underlined those words. “Don’t get many cust’mers at this hour, mos’ people git here ‘round six.” She took a drag of her cigarette, moving suddenly, as if she had just remembered she was smoking.
Lorna nodded, not knowing what to say or why the woman was still staring at her like she expected an answer. She moved to go inside. When her hand touched the door, gravel spun in the blender again. “Name’s Gretchen.”
Lorna winced. Gretchen. Gretchen. Gretchen. An old name, like her own. An introduction was necessary. She was bad at these. “Lorna,” she managed.
Gretchen leaned forward. “Laura? Pretty name.” She followed Lorna indoors, her orthopedic shoes squeaking on the faded linoleum.
“No, no, it’s Lorna. Lor-na. Lorna.” One-two-three.
Gretchen nodded without hearing and gestured to the tables. “Pick a seat. I’ll be back.” She shuffled to the counter, and banged a meaty fist down.
Lorna looked down and picked at her cuticles, resisting the urge to leap up and hit the bell two more times. Nothing happened. Gretchen hit the bell again.
Lorna held her breath, cuticles forgotten. “Fork-spoon-knife one-two-three salt pepper sugar one-two-three,” she recited without thinking.
Gretchen abandoned the bell and went a more direct route, sticking her head through a small ordering window and yelling. “Ray! Cust’mer!” An avalanche echoed in the empty space, the rocks falling and fading as a man appeared from the back.
Lorna assumed he was Ray, if only because he was wearing a chef’s hat and seemed to be the only other person in the place. His head was massive, covered with sheets of silver hair that he had harnessed in a ponytail.
His face was tan and worn, with laugh lines in abundance. In contrast, his chin was pale, dusted with a sheen of red and speckled with spots of shaving cream, suggesting he had been interrupted in the middle of shaving off a beard. Where age had been cruel to his wife, it seemed to have done nothing more than slap him on the wrist.
Ray glanced over at Lorna, and if he was at all surprised at the appearance of a customer, his face didn’t show it. He leaned his angular body down, resting his elbows on the ordering window’s ledge.
“Morning,” his deep voice resonated in her direction like far-away thunder, before he turned his head towards Gretchen and began talking in low tones.
Lorna smiled faintly. She remembered the story of Beauty and the Beast. If any couple personified that tale, it was Gretchen and Ray.
The voice that narrated her thoughts spoke up now. Those fairy tales aren’t real. Your mother lied to you. Disney made you believe in a perfect life. You know the real fairy tales, the ones full of blood and lies, murder and rape, betrayal and false endings. What happens after you stop reading the story? Where do the characters go?
Immediately Lorna felt the dirt under her fingernails, the germs climbing over her hands, and knew what came next. Eyeing Gretchen, who was now preoccupied with putting out a small fire she had apparently caused by dropping the cigarette near flammable, Lorna slid out of her booth and made a bee-line to the restroom advertised in ugly yellow letters that looked like a dog had marked it’s spot.
Open the door. One-two-three. In.
Lock the door. One-two-three. Breath.
The water from the sink was cold, and the soap was the syrupy pink kind that came from a dispenser. She lathered her hands, washing once, twice, three times. Three. Clean.
She ripped three paper towels from the roll on the rack and realized how big of a cliche she was. Sitting at Ray’s Diner, if you can believe that name, at 4:15 on a Tuesday morning. Alone. She couldn’t remember the last time she was out at this hour.
She shouldn’t be out. She should go home. Gritting her teeth and thinking of the delicious waffle that awaited her, she silenced her fears and walked determinedly back to her table.
Gravel crunched near her ear. “Eggs n’ bacon fer ya. Ray’s makin’ yer waffle special.” Gretchen set a plate and mug down quickly and moved back behind the counter, turning away from Lorna and mumbling, “mos’ people git here around six.”
Lorna picked up her fork. There were three bacon strips, which she organized in a row, and two eggs, over-easy. The eggs were cold, but the plate was too hot, as if trying to compensate for Ray’s apathy. Feeling like Goldilocks, Lorna ate the bacon and left the eggs, two unseeing eyes on an otherwise empty plate.
The voice in her head trilled, “A chicken’s menstrual cycle.” She swallowed, shook her head again, and pulled the mug towards her. Steam from what appeared to be coffee rose over the edge to greet her, and, preferring the smell over taste, she breathed it in.
Gretchen appeared again. This time, she put the plate down without a word and walked away. Lorna noticed Ray observing her discreetly through the window, hovering over an unwashed dish he was pretending to dry off, a friendly smile on his face. Lorna knew that smile. He was lonely. They both were probably lonely. It was the only reason she could think of why they would be open 24 hours if they didn’t get many customers at night.
Lorna took in the waffle, looking for any obvious signs of tampering or poison out of habit, but everything seemed to be in place. She counted the dollops of butter Ray had dropped onto the deliciously warm dish. One-two-three. It was perfect.
As she ate, she reflected on just exactly how she had ended up here.
It was not unusual for Lorna to find herself awake in the early morning, but the idea of an excursion was insanity. Her town of 218 people was an anomaly at that hour, one that she had no desire to discover or adapt to at all. Mostly, her mornings were spent in battle. Lorna would go room to room, armed with Pledge and windex and her trusty swiffer vacuum, fighting the corruption of dirt and grime and dust that she knew had infiltrated her sanitary sanctuary, however invisible they were.
But this morning was different. This morning she had woken up with an inexplicable craving for a waffle. Maybe it was the new dosage of Anafranil she was taking. Maybe it was the weed she had smoked earlier.
Either way, she had found herself driving to this place, Ray’s, where children under 5 eat free, the epitome of the dinkiest of diners. But it was a 24-hour diner, and that settled that.
Even if she was alone. Alone. Not alone. Gretchen and Ray. Gretchen-Lorna-Ray. One-two-three.
Not alone, but still lonely. A lonely figure, with fairy tales and voices and habits for company. And as the last lonely bite of a perfect waffle disappeared into Lorna’s mouth, she was surprised to find out that she was crying just a little. One tear fell out of her eyes. Another one joined it on the other cheek. She waited for a third, but it never came. Lorna didn’t care.
Today Is: Johnny Appleseed Day. Have YOU celebrated properly?
Song of the Day: "Toothbrush" by Wax
Lesson Learned: I take toilet paper for granted.