"Oh, for Pete's Sake!", he snorted, throwing his
dirty dishrag down in a frump on the tabletop that had been scrubbed
so often that day that it might have worn off the flower pattern
imbedded in the cheap Formica. "How can people be so ....",
his voice drifted off, and he stared out the old picture window into
the intersection outside.
Jim Etchinson cut a strange figure, thin and tired, tall and droopy,
and just plain tired of it all. He wore the same uniform from the
last 30 years of staring out that same window into that same
intersection, his black trousers and plain white shirt covered by a
full length, over the head white apron decorated with streaks and
stains from months and weeks ago, with new ones still there from this
morning. His white paper cap, unfolded from the flat pile he kept on
the small shelf in his tiny back office, replenished monthly from the
uniform supply company, met some obscure health code but more so told
the world, plain and simply, that this plain and simple man ran a
plain and simple diner in this little town lost in the backwoods of
the American south.
And now another hurricane was bearing down on him and his little
corner. "Just what we need", he said to nobody in
particular, and the two gruff men at the counter didn't even put down
their fork or grunt a response. Their stare was fixed on the ancient
television set hung over the kitchen doorway, tuned to the weather
report from the nearby town.
The voice had droned on, hour after hour, for the last three
days. First the storm was forming, then it was gaining strength, then
it was turning away headed north, then it was stalled and shore
warnings were posted. Today it was headed this way and hovering
between category 3 and 4. Each voice tried to outdo the other for
clarity, scientific terms, or pure enthusiasm but it was just so much folderol.
"Hey look at that crazy jack-ass", and Jim turned away from
the window to see Enos Wakins at the counter, pointing his red and
cracked finger at the TV set. "Dint your mother ever teach
you", and Enos started to laugh at his joke, first a chuckle,
then a few. Soon he started to laugh out load and repeat his own joke
to himself. "Dint your mother ever teach you", he mumbled
between his loud hearty laughs but crossed some line when he reached
across and pushed the shoulder of Jack Newman.
"I get it, Enos", was all the young man, soaked and sweaty,
shoveling down a four-egg omlett and full plate side of house
potatoes, would say. Jim now looked to the TV set to see a young man,
wrapped in rain gear and talking into a microphone wrapped in a
plastic bag. The man was being pelted by rain and wind and wanted
everybody to know that he was standing in the middle of a hurricane
as the perky blonde in the scarlett blazer and the gray haired man
with the white shirt and red tie asked him serious sounding pointless
questions. All the while the ratty old man laughed on and on, nearly
falling off his counter seat.
Jack had come inside less than 15 minutes ago, break time from the
hurricane relief work he had been doing for the last two days. Every
town needed a few men like Jack, especially during a crisis like
this. His soaked raincoat hung by the door and his yellow vest sat in
a heap beneath it. Jim couldn't stand it. He picked up the vest and
shook it out and laid it across the back of the booth right below the
clothes tree. Mrs Hipson's table, but she hasn't used it for the 10
years that she left for the nursing home and the 5 that she's been
laying across the street. Now only a stranger or a traveling salesman
uses that booth and nobody's going to be dropping in to visit today.
Jack had been working round the clock for two days, bringing supplies
to the church pantry, shuttling some of the homebound to higher
ground or to the bus stop out by the highway. "Why do people
live in mobile homes right smack in the middle of hurricane
alley?", Jim asked everybody and nobody at the same time. Jack
and the other volunteers had been running back and forth without stop
since the alert was first announced.
Jim knew exactly what Jack Newman was going through, because he
hadn't always been a 63 year old short order cook. What's the
difference between a short-order cook and the man that owns the
"Burger Farm"? The cook gets paid.
Yeah, Jim had seen good times, bountiful times, but now it was the
quiet times, and there weren't going to be a lot more of them. He'd
put the place up for sale a dozen years ago, and never got a nibble.
Once a man passed through and talked about buying the place and
tearing it down for the corner lot, but he somehow thought otherwise
just between the time you talk about spending money and you write the
check. No check that day, and none since then either.
The announcer droned on, "... the death count has reached
27 as Hurricane Richard continues to storm to the southwestern
district" when the screen went blank in unison to a large crash.
Jack jumped up and everybody pushed their faces to the window, trying
to peer sideways off to the north to see the tower, and to see it ...
laying flat on the hillside. "Geee-zuhs", he heard himself
mutter, "this is some storm".
"Nah, not too bad", was Jack's reply, "That tower's
been standin there, in the weather for pert near 40 years and they
haven't put a lick of paint to it for twenty."
I remember the day they put it up" was all Jim said, failing to
mention that he recalled the men and their faces and their orders,
scrambled eggs with ketchup and coffee, 2 black and one with cream.
So he shook his head and stepped behind the counter to clear Jack's
plates and work his old dishcloth on the crumbs and the ketchup. Jack
was standing at the door, fixing up his raincoat and looking at his
vest, laying out on the chair back. He stayed there a minute, and
smiled a little. He looked right into Jim's eyes and said,
"Thanks for the eggs" and "Back to work" and
"How long you staying open?"
Until they haul me out in a box was what Jim thought, "All night
long" was what he said.
"We'll be keeping an eye on Mrs Harrison, so I'll probably be
coming by later. Ed Mickson's out there right now. His wife's out of
town for all the stupid luck..."
"Where his kid? I'll go get him if it'll help". Jim might
be gray and a little slower these days, but he new very well that
every hand in the storm has work to do.
"Nah, he's at home and everybody on the crew has an eye on him.
He's o.k. but thanks for asking. I mean ... thanks for Ed and
all." And then he was gone and only the tinkling bells from the
closing door pierced the whoosh and drone of the wind and the rain.
Enos finished his coffee and walked around behind the counter
to put the dirty cup away and wash the countertop as Jim stared out
at the oversized hamburger on his old and tired sign. There was a
time when that sign was in fine shape, there was a time when it was
new. There was a time that this little town was full of families and
kids and everybody came to the Burger Farm for lunch or a dinner and
they would have every seat filled on a Saturday night.
The boys and girls, drinking ice cream sodas and staring at each
other just like the animals at the zoo. Jim had watched them brought
in by their parents and strapped into highchairs, then show up on
their bicycles one day, then for a burger after the prom. Soon they'd
be going off to school or off to war or just plain off. They'd come
back to see those parents, or to lay them out across the street, but
they never came to stay. Not for a long long time now.
Back then he had four full time waitresses and two full time cooks.
He was so busy that he didn't even have a job for a while, just fill
in and working during the rush. Back then the truck came every other
day and unloaded for 20 or 30 minutes. Now they could just about mail
his bread delivery or carry it all in one trip with one handcart.
Those were great days, and Marybelle was at his side.
Now all he needed was Mae Pippins, and she had wisely took off two
days ago to spend the week-end with her daughter that works at the
capital. She'd be better off there during this storm. Hell, she'd be
better off there period. Thank God she hasn't figured that out yet.
Or maybe she had.
Enos had started loading the dishwasher, keeping himself busy.
He was funny that way ever since his wife Dolly passed away, what
now, 2 years ago. He just about lived here and that was fine. Jim
read him the newspaper every day, when it was just the two of them
after breakfast and before lunch. Enos had been on disability from
the mill since just after his youngest graduated from school and got
herself married. Once a month she sends him pictures of those smiling
kids, every year a little older, and Jim reads him the letters, too.
Marybelle never could have kids, and that was just that. Back then
you just did what the Lord wanted you to do. And somehow he was
supposed to muster out of the army, marry Marybelle, and bring her
back here to her hometown to look after her parents.
It was a fluke that old man Jenkins decided to sell his diner and
move to Florida, and it seemed so smart to take the little nest egg
that Marybelle had saved up from his GI pay and put it down on his
place. The note was paid off in 5 years, then the new signs went up
from all the money. Money enough for a new car every year, and the
trips to the seashore and, later, to Las Vegas. Marybelle was always
so happy in Las Vegas but Jim never understood why. He never went
back there after her heart attack. This little restaurant, this
little town, so far out in the country finally end up killing
Marybelle just like it had killed a part of him.
He poured himself another cup of coffee and cupped it in his hands
while looking out the window. Sometimes he just wished a storm like
this would blow him away. Othertimes, when the sky was blue, it felt
good to just be alive. Then he stared open mouthed as a tiny car
turned the corner, obviously lost, and drove up the street. He could
just see it hit the puddle, try crater, and stall out in the high
water. He was too old and had long ago lost the instinct to jump up
and grab a jacket to help. He just waited until Jack appeared, then
Ed, in their rain gear and vests to help out that stupid driver. He
rose to put on another pot of coffee, as he would surely have guests soon.
But Enos had already started one, and Jim put up the dishes that were
clean and started wiping down the counter and waiting for the
visitors. They would be walking through his door in two or three minutes.