The door chime jingles as Nora picks a fleck of dried egg yolk from one of the chrome jelly stackers. She lifts her head wearily, watches as a couple breezes in. The man looks prosperous in his business casual sport shirt and well-tailored slacks, the woman, chic and lovely in her gleaming white wrap blouse and colorful gauze skirt. A waft of air from the closing door catches the woman's kerchief hem; it streams like a dancing kite's tail.
They stand in the doorway, blinking, uncertain whether to sit or wait for Nora to seat them. Nora pretends they don't exist, and a half-smile curves her lips. The woman annoys her, how she hangs from the man's arm, clinging like he's her anchor. Nora hates these fragile windblown sprites, these high-bred, shallow, fairy pixie dollies. The ceiling fan stirs the chic boutique skirt. As far as Nora's concerned, they can fly off any time.
They choose the cleanest booth, number ten, close to the kitchen and adjacent to the basement stairs. Now there are three clean tables left. The woman bends over to whisper to the man. Nora imagines she says, Why doesn't she clear those tables?
The explanation's too simple and too long.
Nora drops her eyes and keeps stacking jelly packets.
She knows she should greet them, offer coffee, but the menus are on the table already and she feels so tired today, even more than usual. Besides, Nora knows they won't like anything here anyway. So why not start things like how she knows they'll finish? It's all the same in the end.
The man pulls the menus from the clip at the window end of the table and hands one to his wife.
Nora figures she has five minutes.
A plate slides under the warming lamp with a rasp and Nora stops what she's doing to fetch it, along with the order ticket hanging from the rack. She knows what it is without looking--Wayne's Denver omelet with American fries and white toast. She hears Roberto scraping the grill in back as she carries the plate to the far end of the counter.
"Anything else, Wayne?"
Wayne is one of the grizzled regulars, dried and shrunken from years of heavy smoking like a raisin that was once a juicy grape.
"Maybe a little more coffee."
She fetches the pot and pours.
The man at table ten closes his menu and returns it to the clip.
Nora returns the coffee pot to the burner. She walks quickly past the mirror on the back wall, careful not to catch her own reflection. She knows what she looks like—snatched up ponytail threaded with gray, Kmart clearance clothes that never did fit right. As she walks over to ten, she pulls her pen and order pad from the pocket of her spattered apron.
"What can I get you?" She doesn't meet their eyes, which isn't easy. The man seems the type who wants to show you he's the boss; his wife, the type who wants to show how kind and compassionate she is. Everyone equal and all that bull.
Nora looks out the window at the passing cars.
"How's the ham today?" the man asks.
"Same as every day," Nora says, looking down at her pad. "It's ham. There isn't a lot of range to it."
The man thinks about this a moment, as if trying to size up Nora's character by determining whether she's funny or rude.
"Don't be such a fusspot," his wife says. "He'll take the ham and cheese on rye. Swiss, if you have it."
"And a coffee," the man adds. "If it's fresh." The way he says it brushes Nora the wrong way, like a place this filthy couldn't possibly have fresh coffee, not with such a lazy, slovenly waitress.
"Then a coffee." He looks at the empty silver cup with the crusted white ring in the bottom, obviously used for half-and-half packets. "With cream."
Out the window, the light on 16 changes and traffic, such as it is in this backwater town, begins to move again.
"And for you?"
The woman re-opens her menu. "The club sandwich on whole wheat, please. With an iced tea to drink. No lemon."
Nora turns away, glad to be done.
"Thank you," the woman says.
Nora bites her tongue against the woman's kindness.
She tears the order off her pad, slides it under the clip and swings the rack around for Roberto. She wants to feel angry, but only feels pitiful over how bare the rack looks, how Roberto grabs the slip so eagerly.
She serves their beverages and returns to the counter, then remembers the cream and takes that over, too.
"So this place is for sale?" the man asks, just like every other stranger asks, because the realty sign in the window is an oddity in a small town like Portage, where everything seems so settled and content, as if it's been here forever and always will be.
"Jimmy retiring?" The man nods his head towards the kitchen where Nora could see Roberto reaching for the loaf of rye bread over the grill. It's a common mistake, people who weren't from around here thinking Roberto is the Jimmy of Jimmy's Corner Café.
And something must have snuck out in her voice in spite of the clamp she'd put on it, because the woman says, "I'm sorry for your loss," as if Jimmy were dead instead of simply gone, gone with the money, gone with her hope, gone with the future she'd tied up in the lousy son-of-a-bitch and the years she'd wasted wandering this piece of crap diner, waiting on the same pitiful regulars, her youth and her dreams and her prospects fading.
The traffic light on 16 changes again and a new flock of cars slides by.
"What will you do when this place closes?" The woman asks it like she really cares. Nora tells herself it's the same kind of caring the privileged bestow at church, the kind forgotten once they reached their cars.
"I'm sure I'll go somewhere."
The answer seems to satisfy them.
She hears plates rasp against the stainless steel window as Roberto calls, "Order up, Nora."
She turns to retrieve their plates, sees the clutter choking the diner, the unfinished work, the dirty tables, the dust hanging everywhere, clinging to years of grease and the sticky yellow-brown tar from smoldering cigarettes. The sadness of it hangs on her until she thinks she'll suffocate. Yes, she'll have to go somewhere once here is gone; there will be no here left to hang on to. But where is the mystery she's been working on for seventeen years, since the first time she walked in the door. There's more out there; she's seen it. In the passing cars, in the strangers with their fresh, young faces. Once, she'd believed she could find where they went. That she'd go there herself, start anew.
Roberto rings the bell, calls "Order up," again.
She crosses the scuffed linoleum, past Wayne snuffling into his plate, comes around the corner into her domain. Things feel safe here, behind the counter. Safe like quicksand.
She retrieves the plates and goes out into the world again.
The realty sign in the window catches her eye, reminds her that her days here are numbered. Where will she go? She knows the answer.
Most likely somewhere just like this.
About the author:
Greta is a former technical writer and self-proclaimed Jack-of-all-Trades. Her short fiction has been published most recently in Long Story Short and Tuesday Shorts. Another short-short story, "Ashes to Ashes," is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of Six Sentences.
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