Fact: When you’re working closing shift at the diner you can always expect somebody to walk in just before close. It used to always be Johnny Hays and his little friends that race their cars after Johnny closes the garage, but they don’t come in anymore. I’m glad, too, because he’d probably bring that little tramp he says he’s got working over there now, like I believe that.
Sometimes a stranger comes in, so I wasn’t too surprised when he walked in just before midnight and sat himself back in the corner booth where Mr. Sanders usually sits and counts the cash drawer and what not. “Kitchen’s closed,” I lied. Well, it wasn’t really a lie. Mr. Taylor already cleaned the grill and everything, but Mr. Sanders’s rule is that if the door’s open so is the kitchen, so it was kind of a lie. I just said it out of habit, anyway. Serving one more customer was way better than going home to that lonely house anyway.
He said, “That’s okay, honey, I just want to sit a bit. I about fell asleep driving. That old rig is so smooth it will rock you to sleep.”
“Suit yourself,” I said. “You want coffee?”
“You got milk, honey?”
“Of course. Who don’t have milk?” I was kind of serious but kind of teasing. He was very nice and pretty handsome for an older man, at least as far as I could tell. His glasses had them lenses in them that sort of hid his eyes like sunglasses even though he was inside.
“A glass of milk if it ain’t no trouble, and a slice of pumpkin pie if you got it,” he said.
“Ain’t you going to get enough of that tomorrow?” I said.
“You can’t have too much pie,” he said.
“Suit yourself,” I said.
Fact: When an old man comes into a diner late on Wednesday night all alone, you know he don’t have nowhere to be for Thanksgiving, so I didn’t push it.
I walked back to the counter to get the stranger’s milk and pie. Out front I could see his rig, one of them big old Cadillacs like you see in old movies and TV shows and what not. It was shining in the street light, and the frost that was collecting on the windows was sparkling like diamonds. That old car looked like it was worth more than all the stupid pieces of junk Johnny Hays and them have between them.
Mr Taylor leaned through the window that connects the kitchen to the counter area. “You ever seen that fella in here before?” he asked me.
“I’ve never seen him anywhere,” I said.
“If I didn’t know better I’d say–nah, never mind,” Mr. Taylor said.
“Suit yourself,” I told him.
I walked back to the stranger’s booth and set down his plate and glass. “You need anything else?” I asked.
“That’s a good looking piece of pie, honey, I tell you what,” he said. “Yes, sir. You make this here?”
“We got a lady, Mrs. Proctor. She makes all the pies.”
“Been a long time since I had homemade pumpkin pie,” he said.
“You been gone somewhere?”
“I been gone everywhere,” he said, and when he laughed his top lip kind of curled crooked. “I just get in that rig and go.”
“Well, where you from then? You can’t be from everywhere.”
“I reckon Mississippi is as good of answer as any. Hey, you tell Mrs. Proctor this is the best pumpkin pie I ever ate,” he said. He hadn’t even touched it yet.
Back at the counter Mr. Taylor asked me what did he say. “He said he just drives around in that old car and that he’s from Mississippi and that we had the best pumpkin pie he’d ever had and he hadn’t even tried it yet.”
“Mississippi? You sure he said Mississippi?”
“Yeah, so what?” I said, and Mr. Taylor ran back to where the kitchen phone was dangling by the cord. He grabbed it and repeated everything I said and then he hung up and ran back to me.
“Don’t let him leave,” he said.
“How am I supposed to do that?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Be nice,” he said. It turned out it wasn’t any trouble at all. That old guy fell asleep right there in the booth as soon as he get that piece of pie down.
Mr. Sanders’s rule is that if there’s even one customer in the diner the door stays unlocked, so it wasn’t too surprising when the cowbell clanked about 15 minutes later and in walked Jock Douglas from the Hannover Herald. I worried the noise might wake up the stranger, but he just kept on snoring in front of his empty plate.
“What you doing out so late, Jock?” I said, and I poured him a coffee before he even got to the counter.
“Had to finish up a story on Mr. Quentin’s winning turkey. Thirty-two pounds, if you can believe it,” he said. “That him over there?”
“Is that who?” I said, and right about then Mr. Taylor came running out of the kitchen and he started whispering to Jock all excited and Jock just nodded and wrote in his notebook and stared at the sleeping old man.
“I guess I kind of see it, but you know how ridiculous it sounds, right?” Jock said. “There’s a better chance of aliens landing here in Hannover than what you’re proposing.”
“Just look at the facts,” Mr. Taylor whispered.
“I am, and the facts are that dead men don’t eat pumpkin pie at a diner in the middle of nowhere at midnight.”
“He ain’t dead, just asleep,” I said.
“No, what I’m saying is–,” Jock said, and then it was like his brain switched gears. “You know who we should get down here? Edith Donnelly. She calls me probably five times a year and tries to convince me to write a story about that time she caught a scarf.” Just like that Mr. Taylor had the phone book out and was flipping through the D’s.
I could hear the engines roaring out behind Johnny Hays’s garage and just a little bit of snow was beginning to fall. All that money he spent on that car of his, just to go fast in a straight line. Well, all that money of mine I suspect, but Mr. Sanders’s rule is if you don’t know something for a fact you best just keep it to yourself. He just means in the diner, but I think it’s good advice just for living. If more people around here did that this town might be a nice place to live.
The stranger did that thing where his head slumped forward so fast that it jerked him awake. He stuck a finger under his glasses and rubbed his eyes. The ring on his finger had more diamonds on it than all the ladies in town put together owned. I walked over with a pitcher and asked him if he wanted some more milk.
“Thank you, honey,” he said. “You got any more of that pie left?”
“All you want,” I said.
“Let’s just start with another piece and see how she goes,” he said with that funny smile.
I looked over and saw Jock and Mr. Taylor watching us. “Hey, it’s none of my business, but are you somebody?” I asked.
“No, I ain’t nobody. Are you somebody?” he said.
“Ain’t nobody around here’s somebody,” I said. “I hate this town.”
“Why do you stay then?”
“I don’t know, trapped I guess. Money, unfinished business, you know.”
“Yeah, I know, honey,” he said. “Well, I ain’t nobody, but I get that all the time, though.”
“Who do people think you are?”
“If you don’t know I don’t want to say,” the old man said.
“Suit yourself,” I said.
Fact: People who come in that late don’t usually want to talk about their business. I get that. When the money I was saving up vanished and Johnny Hays stopped coming around and then that tramp started “working” at the garage I didn’t feel like talking to nobody, either. Word got around what happened anyway, but that’s just how it is here.
Well, it didn’t take long before Edith Donnelly came through the door with those three old biddies that sit for two hours drinking coffee and never leave me a tip. They plopped their big butts down in their usual booth and I didn’t even ask them what they wanted. When I set down their coffees they started right away with the questions: “Is that his car? Did you see his eyes? What color are they? Is he wearing any rings or a pendant? How tall is he? What’s his voice sound like? Did he say anything about having a daughter?” On and on, like I was some kind of expert on the stranger.
“I don’t know, why don’t you go ask him?” I said, and they giggled like a bunch of school girls. It was embarrassing.
About that time Jock walked over to the table and said, “What do you think, Mrs. Donnelly?”
“Well he, I don’t know. I suppose it’s possible. He looks the right age and all, and I happen to know from someone who knows someone–and don’t you ask me for names–that that whole story was a fake. He was just tired of living like a gorilla in a zoo. Even back when he personally gave me this scarf I could see in his eyes how unhappy he was. My theory is that’s why he built the Jungle Room, because he felt trapped like an animal.”
“That’s right, that’s what I heard,” one of the biddies said. They all looked over at the same time, like a bunch of chickens who heard a hound dog coming or something, but the old man wasn’t doing nothing.
I walked over to the stranger and filled his glass. “If them cackling hens are bugging you, you let me know,” I said.
“Thank you, honey, but they don’t mean no harm.”
“They might not mean no harm, but they do enough of it. Gossipy no tipping bitches,” I said. “Excuse my French.”
“People love to gossip, honey, that’s just how it is. Best you can do is keep to yourself.”
“I reckon, but that’s no excuse for not tipping. I got dreams just like everybody else, and dreams cost money,” I said.
By two a.m. the diner looked like it was lunch rush. Mr. Taylor had the grill going and I was in the weeds. Normally we have three waitresses for a rush like that, so I was running from table to table as fast as I could. Mr. Sanders came in and worked the counter. From the waist up he was all business, but behind the counter you could see he still had on his pajama bottoms. He was all smiles, though. There ain’t nothing Mr. Sanders likes more than the sound of bells, and by that I mean the one on the front door and the one on the cash register.
Nobody bothered the stranger, but all eyes were on him. He just stared at his milk and pie or slept on and off like nothing special was happening, but it was special. It was like when you’re little and your folks let you stay up on New Year’s Eve even though you don’t really understand what’s going on. It’s late and everybody’s kind of happy and excited and waiting for something to happen. That’s just what it was like.
I was tired and had those shivers you get when you’re up too late, but I had to admit that it was fun being the only one in town who knew the stranger, even if all I really did was wait on him. It made me feel special in a way I hadn’t felt since back when Johnny Hays used to pick me up and set me on the hood of his car. I may have been the only girl behind the garage on those nights, but I felt like the only girl in the world.
“You doing okay over here?” I asked the stranger on my way past to bus a table.
“You got any more of that pie, honey?” he said.
“I think there’s one more piece, I can’t believe we’re almost out. I don’t know what happened,” I said.
“I reckon I know,” he curly smiled.
Right then there was a boom outside, not like thunder but like, well, like just what it was. By the time people got out the front door, we could see the smoke and the orange glow coming from behind the garage. Everybody started running that way. When we got through the alley you could see the marks in the little bit of snow where Johnny skidded and hit the storage tank. His car was on fire and so was the garage, but he sat on the curb looking okay but kind of crazy, and that girl had her arms around him and was crying. That’s when I knew for sure.
The sun was up by the time the volunteers got the fire out and me and Mr. Franklin and Mr. Sanders got back to the diner. Mr. Sanders wrote “Closed For Thanksgiving” on a piece of paper and taped it to the door. “Why don’t you go on home?” he said to me.
“I’m fine. I’ll just bus these tables,” I said.
“We got it. You go on,” he said.
I started crying. “Please don’t make me go home,” I said.
I don’t even know why I said it exactly, but I think Mr. Sanders did. He smiled at me. It was a sad kind of smile, and not at all crooked like the stranger’s. “Suit yourself,” he said.
I grabbed a bus tray and started clearing tables. There wasn’t any tips because of how everybody left, but I didn’t care. I doubt Mr. Sanders cared that nobody paid, either, no matter how much he liked to hear that cash register ring. I worked my way over to the stranger’s booth and put his glass in my tray. I picked up his plate, and there was his diamond ring, stuck just under the edge. There was nothing to say, so I just kept to myself like he said and put it in my pocket and finished busing the tables.
After work I got in my car and just started driving. I didn’t know where I was going, maybe nowhere, maybe everywhere. I just got in my car and started going, and thanks to that stranger’s tip I haven’t had to stop yet.
Wherever I end up is fine, as long as there’s pie.