December 18, 2020
At the Diner
By Wayne Scheer
Don Newlander watched his fifteen-year-old son, Carl, study the menu at CJ’s Diner as if decoding a message from outer space. The table was still wet where the waitress had wiped it and a remainder from the last customer’s meal—perhaps a bit of cornmeal stuffing—rested next to the napkin dispenser. Don flicked it with his index finger and it stuck to the wall.
He needed to say something wise and reassuring to his son, but the boy covered his face with the menu.
The waitress, a bleached blonde in her fifties, approached the table. “What looks good to you, boys?” she asked, holding her order pad in front of her as if she’d been born in that pose.
Don resorted to his salesman banter. “You look good to me, but I don’t see you on the menu.”
Carl rolled his eyes.
The waitress smiled. “If I was on the menu, honey, you couldn’t afford me.” Her voice had a practiced friendliness, which enabled her to flirt without being personal. She gave Don a moment to laugh at her comeback. “Now what’ll you have?”
“The meatloaf good today?” he asked.
“Had it yesterday. It was good then.”
“My wife’s meatloaf is always better the next day. I’ll have that with mashed potatoes and extra gravy. And creamed corn.”
“You got it.” The waitress turned to Carl. “What’ll it be, hon?”
“The CJ burger with fries. And a Coke.”
“I’ll have a cup of coffee,” Don said.
“I’ll get right on it, boys.”
Snow fell haphazardly over parked cars. It was cold and late, but they weren’t eager to return to their motel room.
Don turned to his son. “Your mother looked good today, didn’t she? She’s getting stronger.”
“Yeah,” Carl said, showing no expression.
“The doctor said she might be discharged tomorrow.”
Don saw his wife’s deep, dark eyes in his son. He once felt happy that Carl had Mary’s eyes. Now they frightened him.
“You miss her, don’t you?” Don asked.
He wanted to reach out and grab the boy’s hands, but he knew Carl would pull away. “It’s okay to admit you miss her. I miss her.”
Carl remained silent.
The waitress returned with their drinks. Don wrapped both hands around the hot cup, raised it to his mouth and blew gently. The rising steam comforted him.
“You from around here?” asked the waitress. “Thought I saw you yesterday.”
“We’re just visiting. From Effingham.”
“What keeps you in town?”
“The hospital. My wife’s a patient.”
The waitress lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry.” After an awkward silence, she said, “Well, if you’re here tomorrow we have our all-you-can-eat fish fry.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Don said. “Me and fish don’t get along but I bet my son here can eat enough for the two of us.”
She looked at Carl, whose expression never changed. “Your food should be coming right out.” She offered Don a sympathetic glance before turning toward the kitchen.
The thought of another meal away from home sickened him. He wanted his life back. He wanted Mary out of the hospital and back home with him and Carl. He remembered how the three of them would play Monopoly on the kitchen table when Carl was young. He and Mary would arrange bad trades so Carl would win. That felt so long ago.
It was easy to laugh back then. And to share words of love. He’d tell Mary he loved her and she’d say, “I love you more.” And Carl would chime in, “I love both of you even more than that.” When he became a teenager, Carl would just shake his head. “Get a room, you two.” And they’d laugh like a happy family.
He turned to his son, but the boy looked away. After a long silence, Don spoke. “Look, your mother loves you. You know that, don’t you?”
Carl sipped his Coke.
“She loves you. You have to believe that.”
“No guessing. She loves you more than…more than anything.” There was so much he wanted to say, but all he could do was repeat, “Your mother loves you.”
“Here’s your food, boys. Told you it was coming right out.” The waitress placed two plates on the table. “CJ’s special burger for the good looking young man and yesterday’s meatloaf for the old one.”
Don nodded and thanked her.
“Let me know if there’s anything else I can bring you,” she said, and left them alone.
Before Don could say anything, Carl grabbed the ketchup and poured it over the fries. He blotted the excess ketchup with the bun and put three fries in his burger, the way he had since he was a child, leaving the lettuce and tomato on the plate. He took a big bite. Ketchup dripped from the side of his mouth.
“Good thing your mother doesn’t see you eat like that.” Don used the side of his fork to cut a piece of meatloaf, spear it and submerge it in the mashed potatoes and creamed corn. The white potatoes, the brown gravy and the yellow corn formed a gooey, beige paste over the meat. “Since she’s not here to complain, I may as well eat like this, too.”
Carl looked up. Don could see anger in his son’s eyes. “You think she cares how we eat?”
They ate in silence. Don recalled how fragile Mary looked, especially in that damned hospital gown. His mind jumped to the pink sweater she wore on their first date. She was sixteen, only a year older than Carl was now. She loved to dance and sing, landing the lead in their school’s production of South Pacific. He could still see the envious looks of his classmates as they walked the school halls hand in hand.
“Your mother wanted to be an actress. Did you know that? She loved musicals.”
“I know,” Carl said. “She’d drag me to them when you had to work.”
Don shook his head. He leaned forward to share a secret. “You want to know the truth? I’d arrange appointments with clients when I knew there was a play she wanted to see.” He smiled. “God, I hate musicals.”
“Tell me about it.”
For the first time in what seemed like forever, they laughed.
“You want to know something else? Your mom knew what I was doing. But she didn’t mind because she liked being with you.” Don felt his face flush. He turned to the window. “Snow’s beginning to stick.”
Carl took a bite of his burger.
Don knew Mary wasn’t happy. He had known that for a long time. He thought she had learned to accept her life, working at Wal-Mart so she could afford extras like season tickets to their local theater group. He had never wanted to sell insurance, but it beat starving to death.
“Your mom tried out for this season’s production, but she didn’t make it. I told her she should try again for their next show.”
Carl put down his burger. “You think that’s why she…she took the pills?” His eyes glistened.
Don had wondered that, too. “The doc said it probably wasn’t any one thing.”
This was his chance, Don thought. But what could he say? He turned to see how the snow had covered the ruts in the parking lot so it looked smooth and clean.
“He said when she gets home, we shouldn’t try to force her to tell us why she did it. She probably doesn’t know herself.” His voice quivered. “And she’s ashamed.”
Carl’s hands shook. “The day before....” His voice drifted to an almost inaudible whisper. “The day before it happened, me and Mom had a fight. I told her I wasn’t gonna wear that stupid sweater she bought me.” Tears rolled down his cheeks.
“It was ugly, wasn’t it? She told me you didn’t want it, but that it would probably fit me.”
Carl wiped his face with the back of his hand. “Serves you right. You can wear it when you two see the next play.”
“That’s a deal. But we’re buying an extra ticket for you.”
“To see you wear that sweater in public, it’ll be worth it.”
The snow continued to fall. Their motel wasn’t far, but it was getting dark and cold. Still, neither of them moved from the booth.
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