The All Night Diner
Robert wasn't planning to go to the diner. But he found himself sitting on a stool staring at the menu specials posted behind the counter. He was aware of the coffee urn spitting and the churning of the orange juice vat mixing around and around. It had a comforting down home smell of coffee and toast and maybe cinnamon. Robert wasn't big on what went into cooking. He just liked to eat. Tonight, though, he wasn't all that hungry, for some reason. From the corner of his eye he saw the waitress approaching, so he picked up the printed menu and pretended to study it. He heard her voice."Hiya, Hon, what can I get you?"
"Er....." He looked up into a pale face with large, almost colorless eyes like crystals, he thought. She was smiling encouragingly and waiting patiently.
Robert answered, "I, I'm not sure."
She nodded and said, "Well, we're not busy right now. Take all the time you want." Then she glided off down the counter.
Robert relaxed. He put down the menu and glanced around. Seemed like quite a few older people here tonight. He thought he might know that old man in the far corner, actually. He heard a song begin and guessed they had installed a jukebox. The music played softly. Good thing at this time of night. He looked at his watch, then shook it. Blast it! It had stopped.
He twirled around on the stool. Maybe he should sit in a booth. He got up and walked to an empty one. There were quite a few. It was comfortable sitting here where he could lean back and study the customers. They seemed a lot like him, just quietly passing the time. He wondered if they actually had homes to go to. Maybe they didn't. It was very cold outside. Not a night to go out into if you didn't really have to do it. It was a bad snowstorm, a blizzard, really, and that black ice was a real killer. He shivered and closed his eyes. With a suddenness that woke him up, a man slid into the booth across from him.
"Do you mind?
Robert shook his head. "Actually, I'd like the company tonight."
The man was big and strong. He wore work clothes and it occured to Robert that he might be a firefighter. There were dark stains like smoke and charcoal on his face and hands. He took a napkin and tried to wipe them off.
Robert handed him the menu. The man nodded thanks and began to read it. After a bit, he put it down. He looked at Robert again.
"Got the time?"
Robert shook his head. "Sorry, looks like my watch stopped. Probably needs batteries."
The man laughed. "Mine too. I trash a lot of watches. Hit them on things."
He continued, "My name's Burt."
Robert reached out a hand, "Pleased to meet you. I'm Robert."
Burt grinned. "What brings you here on such a night of wild weather?"
Robert looked out the window. He watched the force of the wind and the driving snow.
He thought. "You know, I'm not sure. Something happened to my car near here. All I remember is getting here and feeling very cold and then coming into this place where it's so bright and warm."
Burt frowned. "Yeah, now you mention it, it's the cold I remember. First we were fighting that fire and it was hellishly hot and out of control, and the water was turning to ice and for some reason, I guess we were called off. It happens that way, sometimes. Nothing we can do anymore. Too dangerous. Then I guess I was so tired I just came over here, freezing my tail off. Yes, it's so bright and warm in here. It feels good, doesn't it?
Robert nodded. "Yes, I feel relaxed just sitting here. Waiting for the storm to be over."
The waitress came by. "Gentlemen, anything I can do for you?"
They smiled at her and shook their heads. "Nothing right now. But thanks."
She replied, "Take all the time you want. We're an all night diner. The sun will be up soon."
Robert was a little puzzled. "The sun will be up? How long have I been here, anyway?"
Burt shook his head. "I'm a little fuzzy on time myself. As she says, though, it's an all night diner. Not to worry."
Robert asked, "You're a fireman?"
Burt grinned. "Well, I've led a lively life. I was a big dumb kid. Got into some things that might have crossed the line a few years back. But when I got into fire fighting I found my calling."
Robert fiddled with the silverware. "I'm what you might call a paper pusher but now, of course, everything is on the computer. I sit in a cubicle all day and talk about insurance. It's a living. I don't have an exciting life like you."
Robert felt a current of cold air and looked to see the door opening. A tall man came in. Another man standing by the door shut the door quickly again to keep the heat in. The tall man was looking around and Robert thought that people were avoiding his eye. The man had longish dark hair and his overcoat was black with the collar turned up. When he turned his face in Robert's direction, Robert could see that his eyes were deep sunken. He seemed to be carrying a walking stick but as he paced along the diner, he didn't seem to need its support. Rather, he was swinging it. Almost like a weapon, Robert thought.
Burt turned his head. Robert thought there was an expression almost of fear in Burt's eyes.
"I think I've seen that guy before somewhere."
Robert asked, "Where?""
Burt shook his head. "Can't remember. All I seem to remember is the fire.
Robert said, "Well, that's understandable. Its a terrible thing."
Burt repeated after him, "Terrible, terrible."
Then the man reached their booth. "Hello. Not a good night, is it?" He looked at each of them. "I'm giving a few people a lift tonight. I've got room for more." For some reason he laughed.
Robert shook his head. "No thanks. I'm going to stay here." He gripped his seat tightly. It felt as though it could easily detach and float away, somehow.
Burt seemed mesmerized by the man's glance. He began to rise as though he would follow him.
Robert gripped his arm. "Burt, Burt! Look at me!"
Burt turned his head slowly. Robert said clearly. "Stay here."
Burt hesitated and then sat slowly down again, lowering his head as though exhausted.
"Suit yourselves." The man walked on. He reached the end of the aisle and turned back to finally wait by the door again. Whether he had spoken to the customers or not, Robert didn't know, but a group of them got up and followed the man to the door. Their heads were down and they shuffled, wrapped in their coats. As they passed by, Robert felt a wave of emotions touch him. Sorrow, anger, hate, despair. He shook himself. What a strange idea! It must be that middle of the night, dream-like atmosphere. And he had a talent for reading people, didn't he?
The man opened the door and a gust of wind blew the freezing air in. Robert had a fit of shivering and when he looked again, they had all gone.
The waitress was going by again. "The sun will soon be up, friends," she told them, smiling.
Robert nodded. Burt was rubbing his hands together again, trying to remove the stains without success.
Robert said, "Might as well just wait it out."
Burt looked up and smiled. "Yeah."
Robert watched him. "You know, Burt, maybe it's odd, but I think it was a good thing we stuck it out here tonight.
Burt laughed and looked surprised. " Oh yeah? My buddy. Thanks for keeping me company."
A new voice spoke from the direction of the counter. They looked to see the cook who had come out of the kitchen. He had a big smile and looked around at the remaining people.
"It's all good. The storm is passing now. The All Night Diner will shelter you until sunrise. You're safe now, good people."
Robert felt a strange jolt of joy. He could see that Burt was gazing at the cook, too.
Safe, they were safe. And he felt sure that at sunrise, he would remember all kinds of things.