Near MGM’s building stood a ’50s-themed diner named Ed Debevic’s. The stainless steel, red vinyl, and neon were draws, but the real feature was the staff. The waiters and waitresses at Ed’s were actors playing the roles of waiters and waitresses. They took corny fifties sounding names like “Scooter,” tried to stick to mid-century slang, and when “Hand Jive” blared from the restaurant’s sound system they stopped whatever they were doing and danced. It was a lot of fun if you weren’t in a rush.
“What’s it gonna be, hon?” the waitress asked in a thick Brooklyn accent. She popped her gum behind her bright red lips, brown eyes bored behind her cat eye glasses.
“Zelda?” I said, and I pointed at her name tag. “Hi, I’m Scott.”
“Cute. I never heard that one before. Come on, hon. I don’t got all day.” She was stuffed into a blue waitress uniform that struggled to contain her. She was sex. She was a magic trick. I dreaded the moment that “Hand Jive” played her away, but I prayed it would so that I could watch her shake while her gum snapped and her Zelda face remained frozen into a mask of sheer boredom.
“What do you recommend for two soldiers on leave?” Joel said. I’d forgotten that he was even there. He beamed like a little boy in a theme park.
“Cheeseburger,” Zelda said, and then she turned to me. “What’s it gonna be, cutie?”
“Cheeseburger,” I said.
“You’re okay,” Zelda said, and she wiggled off.
“She likes you, James,” Joel said.
“No, she’s just playing a role,” I said.
“No, she likes you. You should ask her out. Hey, what’s going on over there?” Joel said.
I followed his gaze. A line of people waited in front of one of the booths. Stacked on the Formica table were boxes of Oreo cookies. A man sitting in the booth signed each box before handing it to the next person in line. He shook hands and posed for photos. “That’s Chubby Checker,” I said.
“Who’s that?” Joel asked.
“How can you not know who Chubby Checker is?”
“I don’t have a TV.”
“You don’t need a fucking TV,” I said. “It’s basic pop culture knowledge. Come on baby, let’s do the Twist….”
“Oh, he’s that guy?” What’s with the cookies?”
“He’s on those commercials where people twist open their Oreos to get to the delicious creamy filling.”
“See, you do need a TV,” Joel said.
“For the Oreos yeah, but Chubby Checker is kind of a legend,” I said. “Everybody knows who he is. He was the little Fats Domino — Chubby Checker, get it?”
“You should go get his autograph,” Joel said.
“I’m going to go get it for you then,” he said and he jumped up and ran to the back of the line.
Zelda passed by and filled my tea glass. A roar erupted from the back room. “What’s going on back there?” I asked.
“The guy who owns Hustler is having a birthday party,” Zelda said.
“No shit? Larry Flynt is throwing a birthday party here?”
“They keep asking me if I want to pose for their stupid magazine,” she said.
“That’s disgusting,” I said.
Zelda’s eyebrows rose above her cat eye frames. “Uh-huh. I’m sure you really think so, cutie,” she said. “Your food should be up soon.”
Joel returned with an autographed box of cookies. “I saw you talking to her. Did you ask her out?”
“No, we were talking about all the noise in the back room. Larry Flynt is having a birthday party.”
“Jesus Christ, Joel. What went so wrong with your childhood?”
The food came. It was fine. “Hand Jive” played, but Zelda’s curves were being objectified in the back room.
When we finished eating I tore a page out of my journal and wrote a note that pandered to the Ed Debevic’s fantasy land:
I ship out tomorrow. Where they’ll send me is top secret, but whatever it takes to end this damned war. I might not make it home, but it would be swell knowing I had a gal waiting for me.
So what do you say? Will you let a soldier take you out for a drink on what might be his last night on Earth?
I dropped the note onto the table and Joel and I walked back to the cutting room. When I got home that evening I was greeted by the flashing light of my new answering machine: “Hi, it’s Michelle from the restaurant. I loved your note, that was cute. Call me back.”
I stuck the cookie box on the empty shelf where Jody’s books used to be, turned on some music, and picked up the telephone.