Thursday, April 18, 2013

Fiction: The Regulars

The world is only as big as one diner. At least, that's how it feels when you work almost daily double-shifts at said diner, a cliche greasy spoon known only as Pal's. Who is Pal? Or who was Pal? No one seems to know.  The sign above the door might once have read "Opal's," but it was hard to tell, and no one could remember an Opal anymore than a Pal.

Janine wipes down a table recently vacated by one drunk college kid and a badly dressed female whom Janine suspected was the boy's mother. Parents today are crazy, letting their children drink and then buying them burgers at 4 o'clock in the morning. Janine checks her watch. It's five, time for her regulars.

As if she'd summoned them with one brief wristward glance, Holland and Bob appear in the doorway, causing a little bell to tinkle them welcome and Janine to smile despite her fatigue. "Morning, doll." Holland is the older of the two men, but not by much. He'd celebrated his 85th birthday just a month earlier, and she knows Bob will celebrate his own in a week or two. By celebrate, she means they ordered or would order pancakes instead of eggs and bacon instead of whole wheat toast.

"Coffee?" Janine stands with her hands on her hips. The wet table rag hangs from one apron pocket.

"Black," Holland replies.

While Janine is getting the coffee, the old men slide into a freshly cleaned booth and Bob nods his head toward a car parked just outside their window. "You think she'll ever get tired of this?"

"Who? Martha? Don't be silly."

"She's about to have a baby, Land. She won't be getting a lot of sleep."

"Oh, don't worry about that. Sadie will bring us for a few months, while Martha adjusts. You already asked her, right?"

Sadie is Bob's oldest granddaughter. She's a personal trainer or something newfangled like that. She is always up by four and can easily drop them by the diner each weekday morning.

Bob looks bewildered for a moment. This happens more often since the stroke.

"I'll ask her," Holland says. He hopes to save Bob from recognizing he's forgotten something important once again. This is why he can no longer drive for the both of them. Holland's neuropathy makes gas and brake pedals impossible, leaving them both license-less.

"It's a boy," Holland continues on, as though there'd been no senior moment to recognize and deal with. "She says he'll be Holland Briggs Joyner. Holland for me and Briggs for Lewis' father. You know, he died with the cancer just a year ago."

"Hip wasn't it?"

"Stomach," Holland says.

Bob just nods, and Janine reappears with two cups of coffee. While Holland adds two sugars to his own mug, Bob sips his black.

"The usual, boys?" Janine holds her pad with a pencil poised above it, as if she needs to copy down their order, something she memorized more than a year ago.

"Two eggs, over easy," Holland says.

"Scrambled for me," Bob adds.

Their waitress disappears again, her yellow uniform skirt swishing against her legs. Bob watches her go, trying to remember her name. He just can't make it form in his brain, let alone on his tongue.

"It's Janine," Holland answers Bob's thought. They've always communicated this way, one brain for two men.

In the car, with the heater running, Martha sips from a bottle of green tea, one hand resting on her full belly. She can see the two men through the window, their familiar movements, the way her grandfather nods respectfully when Bob speaks, and the way Bob sometimes gets lost, his eyes drifting to the window and meeting her gaze. He stares blankly this time. He doesn't remember she is there. She fears he isn't long for this world, and she doesn't want to think about that. Losing their wives had been hard, but losing each other? The two men were raised together, shared a crib sometimes, when Bob's mother worked at the mill and Holland's mother kept him overnight. What in the world will her grandfather do without Bob?


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