FICTION: At the Diner by Tom Minder

Sam and Lana leave their Prius on this ninety-nine degree day and half run to the entrance. On opening the metal and glass door, they are hit with a blast of arctic air that removes the sweat from their brows.

The Five Star Diner: Mecca to hungry Jersey folk seeking a cheap but filling meal. They shiver as they await the hostess’s attention. Sam inhales the aroma of freshly baked apple pie. Heaven on earth, he thinks.

The hostess is busy studying who-knows-what on her makeshift dais, but finally peeps up and sees the plaintive couple. “Two for dinner?”

Sam looks behind him. No one else is standing there. Why does she ask? Then he remembers that a Five Star gatekeeper is not to be trifled with. “Yes, please. Two.”

Mary Lee, by her name plate, scans her domain. “You want a booth or a table?”

Sam and Lana smile. “A booth would be great,” Sam replies.

Mary Lee picks up two enormous menus. “This way, please,” she says to the couple. During the runway walk, Sam observes his fellow gourmands, and they glace at him. There’s an elderly couple slurping soup, a family of five (three young kids) crammed into a booth best suited for four, and two men in overalls with smeared name tags quietly munching rolls.

Dropping the menus onto the booth in front of the men, she signals the busboy to bring silverware. “Have a nice dinner. Eugeneia will be your server.”

Sam slides into one side of the booth and Lana into the other. The pleather seat gives off a muffled sigh, welcoming the new guests. Sam smiles and calls out to Lana. “As the King of Queens once said, ‘a booth is a vacation for your ass.’”

The men in the next booth chuckle at this. Lana nods to them and shrugs.

Sam picks up his menu and immediately a smaller embossed sheet falls out—today’s specials. He looks over the list of typical diner fare: Meatloaf, chicken, flounder, and a few Greek specialties that he can’t pronounce and has no intent of ordering.

Lana grins. “Oh good, they have Spanakopitas. I saw these made on Barefoot Contessa.”

“I’m going more traditional. They have a good meatloaf here,” responds Sam.

A bubbly early twenties beauty in a frilly uniform walks up. “Hi. I’m Eugeneia. I’ll be your server. You can call me Jeannie.”

Sam is enthralled, but knows enough to focus on the eyes, the one body part that won’t get him in trouble with the missus. Lana smiles at Jeannie. “Eugeneia—what a beautiful name.”

“It’s Greek for ‘well born.’ My uncle owns this place, so I guess I am,” she giggles.

Flipping her order book, she clicks her pen. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“A Coke for me,” Sam answers. Lana hums an indecipherable tune as she looks over her choices. “I’ll have an iced tea.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Sam settles back into the foam bench seat and studies the congested road traffic outside. “Man, it must be a hundred out there. This is the place to be.”

In the next booth, Rob and Hal also gaze out the window. “My Chevy’s leaking something,” says Hal. “I hope it’s just condensation. I can’t afford any repairs now.”

Rob looks closer at the Impala parked in the first row of cars. “Yeah, probably just runoff from the AC.” He sits forward slightly. “Now, back to our discussion. I owe Larry a lot of money.”

“How much?”

“Two grand. My teams keep losing.”

Hal whistles. “How long do you have?”

“He wants it tonight—or its twenty five hundred tomorrow—and maybe a few broken fingers.”

Jeannie appears at their table, balancing a tray with fried chicken, top sirloin, and assorted sides. The busboy pulls out a metal stand just as she appears to be losing control. She puts the chicken in front of Hal, and places the beef in front of Rob. “Watch out, the plate is hot,” she warns Rob.

Side dishes are placed in front of both men, although she mismatches what they asked for. They reposition the small dishes. Jeannie shrugs and smiles. “Oh well, I got the entrée right, anyway.”

She heads over to Sam and Lana’s booth to deliver the Coke and Iced tea as Rob and Hal swap entrees. Hal emits an “ow” from handling the plate of roast beef.

Placing the drinks onto the table, she asks Sam and Lana, “Have you decided on your order?”

Sam waits for Lana to answer—ladies first. Lana studies the menu one last time. Why does she do this? Sam thinks. She’s already decided.

Lana harrumphs. “I’ll have the Chicken soup, and the Spanakopitas.” Jeannie scribbles and looks at Sam.

“I’ll have the meatloaf, French fries, and green beans.” Sam senses that something monumental has gone unsaid. He smiles. “Oh, and the bean soup.”

She finishes writing and clicks her pen. “Ok. I’ll put in your orders and bring Cheesy Bread.”

As she closes her order book, she glances at Hal and Rob. Hal is sucking his hand while Rob is laughing and manipulating a piece of chicken.

Rob wipes his hands in a napkin and examines his plate of chicken bones. “Man—that was good. How was yours?”

His friend glances down at his plate. “No evidence that food was ever there. So I’d say pretty good.”

Rob sits back and takes in the activity around him. “Boy, this place is always mobbed.” He leans forward and smiles at Hal. “I wonder how much they take in every day.”

“Several thousand I would think,” says Hal. He shivers at Rob’s slight smile. He hates that smile. It’s up to no good. “What do you have in mind? They have security here and they are probably connected. You don’t want to mess with these people. They remember who screws them.”

Rob shrugs. “We can do it at closing. Less people then.” He studies his diner mate. “Hal. Look at us, we’re just two stiffs having dinner. People you wouldn’t remember. If we do it right, we can pocket some real money.”

“If we do it wrong we both go upstate. I’m not going back there.”

Drumming his fingers, Rob examines his friend. “Don’t be a wuss, Hal. We’ll be loaded tomorrow. Trust me.”

Before Hal can respond, Jeannie appears before them. “Anything for desert, gentlemen?”

A saintly smile emerges from Rob. “How’s the apple pie tonight?”

“Fresh made and perfect with ice cream.”

“Apple pie it is then.” He nods at Hal. “My friend hates pie. What would you recommend?”

Jeannie studies Hal who smiles showing roast beef between his front teeth.  “He looks like maybe a pudding fan.”

“Tapioca for me—please.”

She giggles, jots down the order and walks away. Rob appreciates the retreating waitress. “How old do you think?”

Hal shakes his head. “Too young. Another way to get a trip upstate.” He waves his hand and snaps his fingers. “Earth to Rob, come in Rob.”

His friend returns a grimace more disturbing than the smile. “Chill, Hal. Just thinking out loud.”

Mary Lee points towards Rob and Hal and heads down the aisle followed by two local cops. Rob’s jaw drops slightly. “Shit—what now.”

Hal turns, sees the locals, and smiles at his booth mate. “Your turn to chill Rob. They’re probably just here for something to eat.”

The hostess drops two menus at a table past Sam and Lana and adjacent to the men. “Here you go officers. Enjoy your meal.”

One of the men looks Hal and Rob over and speaks into his handset. “Going on break now. We’re at Five Star.” The patrolman nods at Rob.

Rob has temporarily lost bladder control but recovers. “Have a good dinner officers.”

Jeannie returns with the deserts: apple pie with a mound of ice cream, and tapioca pudding with enough whipped cream to extinguish a small fire. The officers marvel at the tray as do Sam and Lana.

Rob digs into the pie. He notices his neighbors awaiting a reaction. He takes a bite and waves his fork, signaling bliss. Sam, Lana, and the officers smile.

Hal starts in with his tapioca. This doesn’t draw much interest from the crowd. He laughs. “Rob, you’re the guy they’ll remember.”

Jeannie brings Sam and Lana’s meal to their table just as Hal and Rob shuffle by with the check. They have to turn sideways to get past Jeannie in the narrow aisle.

Sam eyes his meatloaf while the Spanakopitas are placed in front of Lana. “Did I get that right?’” Jeannie asks.

Sam smiles. “Sure did. Looks good.”

The waitress smiles. “I got the order wrong for those fellas,” she says nodding to the men leaving.

Sam looks towards the cashier. “Oh, Hal and Rob.”

“How did you know their names?” Jeannie asks.

“It’s on their overalls. I guess they can’t exactly hide who they are.”

The officers also notice the exit of the men. Wally nudges Bill. “I know the tall guy from somewhere.”

Bill laughs. “Relax Wally. You think everyone’s a perp.”

“I guess so. But there’s something about him,” says Wally.

The men jump into the Impala. Hal squirms in pain. “Ow, this seat is hot. The sun’s been beating on it the whole time.”

“It’s ok on this side, Hal” responds Rob laughing. He opens the glove compartment and reaches in. “Now where’s that post-dinner weed that always hits the spot?”

Hal turns the ignition and hears only a desperate cough.  He tries again—same outcome. “Fuck,” shouts Hal. “This old piece of crap won’t start in this heat.”

He notices that the woman who sat in the next booth has seen this and is saying something to her husband. The husband points up at the sun.

Hal tries again. No luck, and now a loud backfire with black smoke. He prepares another f-bomb but stops when he realizes Lana and Sam are still watching. Then the cops lean over the booth and watch.

Hal raises his hands palms up and forces a smile at his audience. The cops head towards the front of the diner. One of them is speaking into his headset. Rob turns towards his companion. “Jesus, Hal. Who doesn’t know we’re here now?”

The officers leave the diner and walk over to the car. “Hey, buddy, step out a minute,” says Bill to Hal. Hal exits the driver’s side and before further instruction, leans face first on the car, hands on the roof and legs spread-eagled.

Bill taps Hal on the shoulder. “Whoa, chill buddy. Just trying to start your car for you. I’m not patting you down.”

Rob mutters a “Jeez,” as Wally motions Rob to roll his window down. Rob sees the marijuana exposed in the glove compartment and abruptly closes it before rolling the window.

Wally has caught a glimpse of what looks like a brown baggy, but decides to let it go—for now.

“What’s up with your friend—Rob? We just came over to help start the car?”

“He’s seen too many cop shows officer.”

Wally winces. “Hey—I know you.”

Rob puts his wrists together anticipating handcuffs.

“You went to high school with my sister—Ann Johnson. You’re Rob Stinson. So how have you been?”

Rob puts his hands down and eyes Wally. “Just great officer. Wait! — You’re Wally Johnson. Weren’t you sent off to juvenile for shoplifting?”

“In the flesh,” he laughs. “Bad boy makes good.”

Sam and Lana enjoy their meal. Lana maybe too much. She is chowing down feverishly, allowing only a break to sip iced tea and wipe crumbs from her chin. Sam knows the onions will haunt the both of them later.

A meep-meep-meep disturbs her voracious destruction of Greek cuisine and causes them both to stare out the large window next to them. Towne Towing is hitching a truck to Hal and Rob’s disabled Impala. The men are standing to the side talking to the two police who were helping them just a few minutes ago.

Pulling out a cigarette, Rob reaches for a match. Before he can light up, Wally flicks a Bic and holds it in front of his Salem. Rob steadies his own hand and nods at Wally, accepting the offer.

Hal looks at his car being lifted by its front end. He gasps. “My stash!”

Rob gags on his cig as Wally remembers the baggie. He motions to Bill who walks over to Hal. “You’re what?” Bill asks, standing close enough for the inadvertent spit to land on Hal’s nose.

“Um—I mean my collection of CDs. Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers—you know.”

Wally turns to Rob as Bill grabs Hal’s arm. Wally says, “Gentlemen— why don’t you join us at the station? You can have your car back after we inspect it for any contraband.”

The men are placed in the back of the patrol car. Hal hits his head on the door frame and utters one last expletive.

Sam and Lana both order apple pie a la mode. They watch as the tow truck and patrol car drive away. “The officers are taking those men away. I wonder what they did,” says Lana.

Her husband turns and examines their table. “Looks like they stiffed Jeannie.” He picks up his fork and anticipates apple pie bliss. “There are some things you just don’t do in Jersey.”

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Tom Minder lives in Gloucester County, New Jersey with his wife Paula, is retired, and writes novels and short fiction. He is a member of the South Jersey Writers’ Group and The Writers Coffeehouse.

He has fiction published in CommuterLit, Fiction on The Web, 101 Words, and soon in the Beach Nights anthology to be published by Cat & Mouse Press.

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