PRESSED into service at his uncle’s diner, J. set silverware, took orders, served food, refilled drinks, and bussed tables. He punched the antique cash register’s stiff brass keys, impaling his tickets upon the check spindle. If the dishwasher had the night off or called out sick, J. sank elbow deep into the sudsy privacy of the stainless-steel sink, rinsing masticated remnants and dregs off plates and utensils and cups and mugs while his uncle covered his tables. At the end of the evening and with no small measure of relief, J. flipped the door sign to “Closed.” He traded up the day’s gratuities for large bills from the register and tipped out the cook and dishwasher. He married the condiment bottles: ketchup nightly, scraping clotted sauce from the glass-threaded screw tops, and mustard about once a week — refilling the empties from economy-sized jugs. He topped off the salt and pepper shakers and the porcelain sugar-pack caddies. He cleaned out the coffee makers and measured grinds for the next morning. He extracted the pies from the display case, swaddled them in plastic wrap, and rendered them unto the cool embrace of the refrigerator. He wiped the tables and counters, stacked the chairs, swept and mopped the floors, and schlepped pendulous sacks of garbage to the dumpster. His fellaheen efforts were rewarded at the state-mandated rate of $4.74 hourly plus tips.
THE diner served breakfast all day: scrambled eggs, sunny-side-up eggs, poached eggs, eggs over easy, omelets, Denver omelets, Jack omelets, egg-white omelets, chili-bean omelets, cheese omelets, Special Omelettes, toasts French and domestic, bagels, pancakes, blueberry pancakes, banana pancakes, chocolate-chip pancakes (with or without whipped cream), waffles, sweet rolls, bacon, turkey bacon, sausage, home fries, fruit salad, oatmeal, Froot Loops, Corn Flakes, Cocoa Krispies, Frosted Flakes, blueberry muffins, lemon poppy seed muffins, English muffins, cherry Danishes, chocolate doughnuts, cinnamon doughnuts, sprinkled doughnuts, jelly doughnuts, glazed doughnuts, maple doughnuts, etc. (No grapefruit.)
They served cream of tomato soup, ham on rye (toasted or untoasted), peanut butter and jelly, Cobb salads, chef salads, mac and cheese, grilled cheese and tomato, French dip, meatloaf, steak, mashed potatoes, salmon, roasted chicken, fried chicken, chicken pot pie, chicken salad sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches, tuna melts, turkey melts, turkey sandwiches, hot turkey, open-faced turkey, turkey burgers, B.L.T.s, −Monte Cristo sandwiches,− hamburgers, cheeseburgers, double cheeseburgers, chili burgers, BBQ burgers, etc., with sides of fries, chili fries, onion rings, pickles, chips, crackers, rolls, coleslaw, etc.
They served lemon meringue pie, apple pie, blueberry pie, key lime pie, cherry pie, pumpkin pie, peach pie, strawberry ice cream, assorted cakes — e.g., coffee cake, carrot cake, chocolate cake, finger white cake — etc.
They served Coke, Cherry Coke, milk, iced tea, regular tea, herbal tea, hot chocolate, coffee, etc.
TO make the perfect burger, start with the right cut of meat. Befriend Sam the butcher; he has an eye for that Goldilocks sirloin, neither too fat nor too lean and unspoiled by gristle. Grind once. Splash with oyster sauce. Fold in a few breadcrumbs. Shape into an inch-tall puck. Shellac with melted butter. Slip onto a hot griddle. Flip once after a few minutes, seasoning each side with salt and pepper. Top with Cheddar cheese, an iceberg leaf, a tomato slice, a lachrymose loop of red onion, rest, and serve bleeding.
J. silently accepted these meals that were offered in silence, slid across the diner counter or waiting upon the kitchen table upstairs or placed in his occasionally outstretched palm, consecrated bovine body and blood, Americana madeleine, prepared by his uncle’s hand. A fairly unremarkable recipe, family heirloom passed from J.’s grandmother to grandfather to J.’s uncle, yet never before nor since had J. enjoyed a more perfect patty. It tasted like the beatified caesura between dodging his classmates at school and dodging customers at work, like lazing in the apartment’s leather lounger before his shift started and watching Golden-Age sitcom reruns or, if he ate late, crouching on a flipped-over milk crate alone in the stock room, plate propped atop his knees, burger in one hand, book in the other. It tasted like fire, it tasted like iron.
SOME of the diner’s quidnuncs had known J.’s grandmother or grandfather or great uncle or remembered when the diner was a hardware store or had gone to school with J.’s mother or uncle. “I knew your grandmother,” “I knew your grandfather,” “I knew your great uncle,” “I remember when the diner was a hardware store,” “I went to school with your mother,” “I went to school with your uncle,” they told J. They were born and grew up and thrived or just survived and grew down in the small town. Never escaped themselves or the place that they lived. Most would die and be buried in the cemetery behind the church like their parents and their parents’ parents and their parents’ parents’ parents and even their parents’ parents’ parents’ parents before them. Like J.’s great uncle, who died down in the Sunshine State and posthumously flew steerage to rest in peace beside his brother, all on the dime and effort of J.’s uncle. For what? The dead, unlike the living, rarely mind where they lay. Would J. ever be tasked to select plot, casket, stone, and inscription for his own uncle? Would he oblige? In the key of A major, God only knows.
Adults hold fast to the past, for ahead loomed the dolmen realms and those fat graveyard worms inching ever closer, waiting to dine on their remains. Et ego in Arcadia. The young don’t care where they’re from, only where they’re going.
OVER the pass hung a blackboard that proclaimed the day’s specials. J.’s uncle periodically provided updates, but the board, like telephone wire, was a too-familiar background that patrons looked at without ever seeing. Each change, therefore, meant less than zero. But try to convince his uncle wiping away the Egg White Omelet and Turkey Bacon to replace them with Banana Pancakes and a Different Omelet.
“Nothing’s special about those specials,” J. said, brushing the dirt from a day’s worth of soles into a dustpan. “No one’s going to notice. No one’s going to care.”
“Keep sweeping,” his uncle said, squinting with concentration as he white-knuckled the chalk, weaving his wobbly letters in a choppy swell up and down the board and finishing with a flourish of unparalleled lines under each item.
A few nights later, while his uncle slept, J. snuck down and updated the sign. Not until halfway through the following lunch rush did a flummoxed customer finally ask J.’s uncle just what exactly was so special about today’s tap water, anyways? J. returned from school, bounded past his uncle and up the stairs as a slight satisfied smirk briefly crossed his lips, and entered the apartment to find the sign lolling on the couch, his amendment erased and replaced with this telegraphically succinct message:
L___’S SPECIAL OMELET $4.95
PLEASE FIX ASAP
J. dry-wiped the board with a paper towel. A pastel-dusted cigar box sat on the coffee table. Normally left under the counter, it held, at various times, Connecticut-wrapped panatelas, baseball cards, and now the remaindered fragments of extruded multicolored calcium carbonate blackboard chalk. Selecting an ivory nub from the stash, J. dashed off the text in thin cuneiform slashes. He stepped back and imagined the amazing Technicolor eyes of all tomorrow’s patrons raised in supplication at his work. A town without pity, a town called malice, even a really big nothing town still deserved a better Today’s Special sign than this.
J. wiped it down again, this time with a damp rag, and left it to air dry. Flipped through a stack of CDs and, after some consideration, popped one into a small portable stereo. Sank into the couch, cradling his spiral-bound notebook. Sketched out the words with a №2 Ticonderoga on azure college-ruled staves between a drawing of the Sex Pistols’ ransom-note logo and the first verse of “London Calling” — notes from English class. Grabbed a handful of colors. Copied his sketch onto the board. Adjusted the letters’ width and weight to match the TODAY’S SPECIAL printed across the top of the board. On the stereo, Ziggy told J. not to blow it ’cause he knew it was all worthwhile — maybe that explained the fuchsia six-pointed star he added to fill some space.
J. carried the board down to the diner and handed it to his uncle.
“You spelled it wrong,” his uncle said. “Oh em ee el ee tee, full stop. Not tee tee ee.”
“Oh, okay. Fine. I mean, they invented the thing, right?”
“But not the fries.”
“Is that a knife on fire under the price?”
“Look at this guy with the jeweler’s eye.”
“You wanted a sign? You got a sign. If you want happy little trees, the chalk is upstairs.”
J.’s uncle held the board at arm’s length and stared at it for a long moment, nodded to himself in satisfaction, and returned it to the wall, carefully — perhaps even a little gently — adjusting the picture wire on the mounting hooks to ensure the frame stayed level.
The diner’s diners gazed at this incandescent heir to Campbell’s Soup Cans fresh off The Factory floor that now crowned the pass. No calligraphy classes for J.; the young man’s hand burned with a prodigious scrivening talent forged in paperback peripheries. A damp teary glass settled over the onlookers’ dilating pupils. Entranced, beatified, their jaws slackened. Spittle drip drip dripped onto plastic-sleeved menus. Hands drifted into the air to change already-placed orders to the special. Passersby rubbernecked on the sidewalk, pressing faces to glass. A mob accumulated, surged through the doors. They crowded the tables and wallflowered shoulder to shoulder. The waiters, unable to press through the pack, passed plates like a bucket brigade. The special sold better than any special in the history of the diner. Word spread to New Preston, to Bethlehem, to Woodbury, across the Naugatuck Valley, throughout Greater Bridgeport, and beyond. A deluge of customers drowned the town. Traffic stacked up along every street and avenue. Egg shortages blossomed throughout the state.
Your brain might set off similar pyrotechnics if a certain soft voice sidled up to your register and, with a knowing tone, said, “Nice sign.”
MORNINGS on her way to the bus stop and afternoons before heading home, Blue breezed into the diner in saddle shoes, black nylons in winter or knee-highs in spring and fall, plaid skirt, bleached-bone or cornflower Oxford, pearl snap cross tie, and private school navy blazer she swam in despite her mother’s alterations. Borne upon her back, a goldenrod pack so swollen with books that when she hefted it — graceful as a shot putter — off her sinewy shoulders to stash under a seat, her spine rebounded with an audible whipcrack.
Mornings were for fleeting kaffeeklatsches before classes, but afternoons allowed a more languid café après-midi, albeit one marked by a cairn of textbooks, notepads, folders, handouts, highlighters, pens, and pencils carefully piled at counter or table.
Blue also appeared in mufti for evening dinners, weekend brunches, and late nights after town halls or movie screenings at the bookstore either alone or chaperoned by Blue Sr. or her best and only friend, a girl called Neal. Infrequently, wearing running pants and an ecstatic, aesthetic face, like Ares came Blue’s Midwest billboard-built gigantic high school loverboy, taller far than a tallboy.
Conversations between Blue and J. played out at postal rates. “Václav Havel was a big Velvet Underground fan,” she said between wincing sips of her hot coffee, pointing at J.’s White Light/White Heat tee shirt, which he often wore at work because black hid stains best. Before he could reply, Blue spotted the inbound to Hartford and backpedaled out the door. Dew misted beneath her crepe soles as she leapt across the town square only to return hours later lassoed in white phosphor dusklight arcing through the park trees (her school paper meeting ran late). Flickering streetlamp lights poked holes in the inky windowpanes as she packed her books to head home. J. pulled a copy of Between Thought and Expression from his back pocket and flipped it onto the table.
“Room for one more?” he asked. Blue examined Lou Reed’s blurry matte profile on the front cover and the pull quotes on the back. She riffled the pages to her receipt, which he had tucked in as a bookmark. “It’s mostly poems,” J. said, “Lyrics, actually, but near the end, there’s an interview with Havel just after he was elected president.”
Blue very carefully wedged it into her mobile library. She hoisted her burden, spun slowly on her heels, homeward bound, and opened the door to leave.
“If you close the door,” J. said, “the night could last forever.”
“I’d never have to see the day again,” she sang over her shoulder without missing a step.
They overshot each other the following a.m., but she stopped by the diner between nones and vespers.
“Why couldn’t Lou just have said ‘yes’ in the first place when Havel asked him to play that show?” Blue asked, returning the book. “He was so slippery about it until the very end of the interview. His music clearly meant so much to Havel, to the Velvet Revolution.”
J. shrugged. “Some people,” he replied, “prefer to hide their light under a bushel.” He held the book back out to her. “You can keep it longer if you want.”
“I already finished it. It was hard to read the early pieces without the songs sounding through.”
“I liked his snarky little liner notes — or whatever you call the poetry equivalent of liner notes. We’re going to try and dig up the Moe Tucker cover that Lou mentioned.” Blue glanced at Neal, restively tapping time on the street curb outside the diner. “I should go.”
J. tucked the book back into his pocket. That weekend, Blue and Blue Sr., arms linked jauntily at the elbow, stopped by for lunch. J.’s uncle took their order and served their food; J. had his own tables to tend to. Still, he cleared their plates and mugs when Blue Sr. went to the counter to settle up.
“Before I forget,” Blue said, “here.” She took a book from her bag, Letters to Olga. J. shifted the bus tub to one arm to accept her proffer with his free hand. “It’s the collection of letters Havel wrote to his wife, one a week almost every week for four years, while he was in prison.”
“He mentions it to Lou.”
“Right. Rushdie said it was one of the few books he kept with him during the fatwa. This and Ulysses. Anyway, I thought you might be interested.”
“I’m always in the market for words of comfort to cushion myself from the persecution of provincial Stasi.”
Blue’s eyes rolled skyward. “Hardly.”
“Well, if it’s good enough for Rushdie…” J. tucked the book under his arm and hoisted the tub away before Blue Sr. returned.
Havel complained to Olga about his hemorrhoids, back aches, fevers. He harangued her for not writing more letters and for not writing the type of letters he wanted to read. He begged her for vitamins, tea, cigarettes. He asked her to post a note to Vonnegut, a friend of his. He mentioned books he was reading, The Pickwick Papers, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Stranger, Brod’s biography of Kafka, some Hemingway, Herzog. He reflected on the specificity of homesickness that afflicts the imprisoned: longing to swim in the public pool, to go to the movies, to drink at a favorite bar, to eat steak, barbecued chicken, cake with whipped cream. He dreamed of a horizon beyond the walls that enclosed him, a horizon beyond all horizons. J. looked out the window to the looming mountain of Mien Mo, hunkered blacker than black against the starpricked void, and tried and tried and tried to picture past it to that jagged luminous silhouette of the island of the Manhattoes.
Some days, Blue and J. spoke little, some days not at all. Still, no matter which way he faced, he sensed her presence in the diner by the subtle disarrangement of all his bodily fluids listing toward her — a moon claiming its tides. Days their paths missed by minutes or miles were long. J. had thought himself corroded iron through and through, but when Blue landed in his life, he discovered that underneath his patina of rust lay a damp Plaster of Paris, for the force of her impact left a perfect negative mold, an emptiness that only she filled. Politesse kept townspeople from pointing and laughing outright at his new deformity. He tried to hide it, he tried to deny it, but the symptoms were incontrovertible: he had been crushed by Blue.