It’s late when I pull into the diner parking lot. This one’s got a view of the interstate, with the hum of traffic droning in your ears. You get through the door, there’s last week’s grease hanging in the air. The walls are nicotine-yellow from ancient days when you could smoke in restaurants.
There’s nobody inside except a couple of tired-looking waitresses and a bored fry cook in the back, and he’s not doing anything but staring at his reflection in his spatula. I hit it is the sweet spot: after the dinner crowd, before the drunks roll in.
I take myself a spot at the counter. A waitress pops some bubble gum, reaches a menu toward me, but I wave it away.
“Patty melt and hash browns, with a side of eggs over easy,” I say. “Coffee to drink. Lots of coffee.”
Her pencil dancing across her order pad. “How you want them browns, darling?”
“All the way.”
“You got it.”
She calls the order back to the fry cook, and the griddle sizzles to life. She sets a mug in front of me and pours my coffee. I drink it black.
“What kind of pie you got tonight?” I say.
She’s about my age, not much older, with a life lived in the lines etched into her face. Crispy blonde hair’s pulled back into a bun. No wedding ring. She’d be fun for a night of bad decisions.
“We got apple, blueberry, peach cobbler, and pecan,” she says.
“Bring me over a slice of pecan while I’m waiting. Make it a big one.”
Little twinkle in her eye. “Sure thing, darling.”
I’ve lived a life on the road. Zipping down endless strips of interstate, one job to the next. When I started, the guy training me, he’d take me to these places at the end of the day. Said to eat here as often as possible, that it becomes the only familiarity you get on the road. Last count, I’ve chalked up meals in these joints in 16 states.
The pie comes. The first bite is the same first bite I’ve had a thousand times before. That’s comforting, something you appreciate when you’ve got no other fixed points. Hell, I don’t even know the address on my driver’s license anymore. I’m not sure I’ve ever even lived there.
The waitress tops off my coffee. “Nice to see a man with an appetite.” That twinkle again. She’d be game, I can tell.
Used to be, I checked waitress’ name tag. Ruth. Lucille. Rose. Midge. Names started changing a few years back. Got younger. Names like Celeste and Kinsley and Ensley. Names that sound like sneezes. I stopped looking then.
For old’s time sake, I glance at her name tag. It makes me happy.
“Well, Opal,” I say, “long ago someone told me that life is short, so sometimes that means eating dessert first.”
“That was a wise person,” she says.
He was. Damn shame he’s not around anymore, a chance to see what I’d made of myself. Taught me everything I know. Can’t say that he’d have been proud, but he might still have approved somehow.
The flashing lights coming off the interstate show first, the blue strobe breaking up the darkness. The cook dings the bell, calling my food up, but it’s almost drowned out by sirens welling up in the distance, getting louder, closer by the second.
Opal brings my food over, pays no mind to the sirens. Long enough, it’s nothing but white noise.
I reach under my jacket and bring out my pistol, set it on the counter as the first cop car squeals into the parking lot. Goddammit. Doesn’t look like I’ll get my supper after all.