I don’t think this place has ever gotten my eggs right. For all the years I’ve been coming here you would think that at some point they’d learn how to make an egg over medium. Not over easy, not over hard; over medium. It’s not that tough a concept: you have to fry the egg enough so the whites are cooked to a perfect consistency but leave the yolk a little runny. And you need it runny because by the time you get through both eggs you’ve moved on to the toast, which is not only the perfect vessel for sopping up the remnants of the egg, but paired with jelly achieves that holy balance of savory and sweet. Every time though, the yolk is hard as a rock.
I understand they have to get orders out quickly but it isn’t like they’re ever that slammed with customers. It’s a small diner, a little greasy spoon tucked into a tight corner on a small back road that you’d easily miss unless your stomach was growling. Highways normally ruin this sort of eatery but a dedicated local clientele and fall tourists looking at leaves provides the owner enough money to keep it going. And I know for a fact that it’s not the same cook screwing it up each time because I saw the last guy on the news getting dragged out of here in cuffs. It’s a sizable state but certain things capture the local attention enough to hit the seven o’clock update on both Monday and Tuesday. Besides, I’ve been eating here for enough years that I’d think they’d get used to my order, but I guess they shouldn’t be expected to remember every semi regular visitor.
Every time I’m passing through I try to stop in, which is enough to know to order the “farmer’s rise and shine” with a side of hash browns instead of going for the “breakfast platter” - you save about $1.63 after tax - but apparently not so frequent that the staff remember my face. I suppose I’ll eventually learn to accept “hun” or “bud” as a new name.
Despite the bad eggs, it’s a good spot to grab a quick cup of coffee and a decent serving of food for a price that probably hasn’t changed since they hung that portrait of James Dean up on the wall. I usually get here fairly early in the morning, just as the first regulars are rolling in to take their positions at the counter. If I ever think to look down at the stools as I walk in, I’m almost certain I’ll see four distinct imprints from years of consistency. They sit hunched over steaming cups of muddy brew as they weave the same tales to each other, predict the inevitable poor choices of the newly elected town council, and pine over the lost gals they never had the courage to ask on a date.
I always grab the third booth from the door and sit right next to the window. The draft coming in off the road cuts through the ancient heating system so I try to position myself in the sunlight as best I can so that the sun hits my chest, stopping before it rises above my neck and into my eyes. Usually by refill three the light is threatening its way up to the ridge of my nose so I know when it’s time to pay the bill and go.
Those first few moments after sitting down and getting my mug filled, when the chill leaves my coat and the warm glow of a new morning starts to work its way through the cotton layers, are what I look forward to most. The air is dry but a morning mist still hangs above the frost, obscuring the small patches of grass that remain amongst the swaying trees. This fall has been a wet one so the birch tress have taken on a bit of a lean, almost as if they’re bending over trying to pick up the leaves that have yellowed and fallen off so they can conceal their branches, a modesty not shared by their maple neighbors who have at this point dropped most of their deep red foliage, revealing their graying bark. Curiously there are still some green holdouts on a few limbs which makes for a vibrant cascade of color as a gentle breeze works its way down the road, blowing the discarded leaves about in curls and plumes. Everything takes on a soft yellow tint from the sun as it begins to inch above the horizon trying to will itself out of its slumber with outstretched arms reaching up trying to loosen the prior day’s ache. This gentle radiance tumbles over the tree tops, takes the crooked turn towards the diner, and settles on my table, shining with a fresh film of disinfectant from the washcloth tucked into my waiter’s apron pocket.
“So sorry I didn’t see you sitting there bud, you’re too quick for my old eyes! I’ll be sure to bring you over a menu and silverware just as soon as I clear this mess” the waiter assures me. There is no real need to clean the table as it appears that I was the first to sit at this particular spot, but I let him perform his duty without giving any fuss. They offer late night service on the weekends with a lot of barflies coming through to sober up, so better to eat at a cleaner table anyway.
He promptly returns with a laminated menu and a tightly rolled napkin with silverware in it and places it all on the paper mat in front of me.
“Can I get you started with some coffee while you look over the menu?” asks the waiter.
“Please, black is fine. And I’ll have the rise and shine with a side of hash browns - crispy - with bacon, wheat toast, and eggs over medium” I answer.
“A fine choice! I’ll get that started right away” he says, taking the menu from my hand and heading off towards the kitchen to relay my order to the cooks in the back.
A minute later he returns with a thick, white mug and a glass orb coffee pot. In one deft motion he fills my cup straight to the brim, leaving such a precarious meniscus that I have to lean over the table and take a sip as if I were drinking from a trough so I don’t risk spilling. Not my preferred method for the first cup of the day but my hands have begun to shake more so in recent years so I was guaranteed to have wound up with some on my pants if I had attempted to lift the cup to my lips. The steam is billowing off the top but thankfully it isn’t as scorching as I had anticipated. The bitter taste of burnt grounds from decades of neglected pot cleanings swirls around my tongue and down into my stomach, sending a warm tingle out to my fingertips and a spark of renewed life up my spine.
I begin to see everything clearer now as my mind sheds the haze of a caffeine starved morning. The crust under the ketchup bottle cap peers out at me as the light glinting off the metal napkin holder dances from the blowing trees outside in a rhythm I can’t figure out. The tick of an old clock advertising a forgotten soda brand is barely perceptible under the ebbing waves of a pedal steel guitar on the classic country radio station. I’m not sure if anyone here actually enjoys the music or if they keep it on to fulfill some expectation of what should be heard between plates of pie and pancakes. A younger couple has come in for a bite and are being handed menus from the waiter on his way over to drop off my order. He sets my plate down and gives me some throw away cliche about enjoying the meal as he walks to the stacked mugs on the corner of the counter.
Sunny side up. At least this is new.
I sink a piece of bacon into the barely cooked mass of orange and white and begin to eat my breakfast. Apart from the missed opportunity to get my eggs right, everything else is delicious and well done. I work my way around the plate in an orderly fashion, swiftly finishing my bacon and eggs before moving on to the hash browns between sips of coffee and bites of egg soaked toast. While I would never claim to be a fast eater, today my appetite must be fairly ravenous because the sun is barely under my Adam’s apple by the time my dish was clean. The waiter comes back with an impressed look in his eyes.
“Care to take any of that home with you?” he jokes. “Seems that you enjoyed it! Need a refill on the coffee?”
Since I had eaten so quickly I have a bit more time than anticipated, so I decide to relax for a few minutes before heading out. “Why not, another cup sounds pretty good.”
“Sure thing bud” the waiter replies, “I’m actually going on break for a few minutes here so I’m going to let that girl behind the counter know and she’ll be over to refill your cup pronto. Let her know whenever you want to settle up, but there’s no rush. Feel free to stay as long as you like.” With that, he took my empty plate, nods over my way to the waitress, and calls out to his boss in the kitchen that he is grabbing a smoke.
Soon enough, the waitress makes her way over to my table with a brown handled fishbowl full of coffee.
“Morning sir! Hope you’re having a fine day. My name’s Carla and I’m going to be helping you out with whatever you need! Would you like me to top off your coffee? Maybe a slice of our special fall harvest pie to go with it? Made fresh this morning!”
I reply that a refill is all I need and she tips the pot towards the awaiting mug. However, unlike the other waiter, she’s a bit overzealous with the pour and the coffee sloshes over the opposite end of the cup and pools around one side of its base, soaking into the paper placemat underneath.
“Oh my gosh, I am incredibly sorry for the mess! I haven’t had much chance to get used to how fast this damn thing pours out. Let me run and grab a washcloth and a new placemat for you. Again, so sorry for that sir!”
Her face didn’t ring a bell when she had first walked over and now I was starting to piece together that she must be the new hire. There’s never a whole lot of turn over here so new faces always seem to blend in with the older ones, as if their first hours on the job imbue them with the grease that years of 5 a.m. openings piles on. They go relatively unnoticed until one day they’re accepted into the same cyclical barbing matches the regulars instigate with the old waitstaff. She must not have been there more than a couple shifts though, she still had that wide eyed look of someone trying to get every detail of her position correct, continuously running the predesigned script in her head as she approached each table and writing down every word the customer said on her bright green pad of paper.
The apron she has on looks brand new, barely a food stain to be found. The owner must’ve had to buy another since the previous waitress’s body was found with her apron still on. Supposedly the cook had been smitten with her for some time before announcing his desires to her when they were closing up, but to his dismay his love went unrequited, which set him off. The guy had a tendency to get deep into a bottle on his shift so he claimed he had spent the night passed out behind the dumpster outside, although it’s hard to argue away the evidence when you’re covered in it.
The new waitress reappears with a grin on her face. “Here we go! And it must be your lucky day. Happened to have a fresh pot coming out just as I emptied the last one onto your table!” She says with a slight giggle at her own joke.
Although she lacks the fundamentals of food service, she is delightfully cheery for it being so early, I’ll give her that. Most times when I put in my order here it’s to a drowsy old timer who looks at me as if I were reading them excerpts from a dusty manuscript I brought from home. Not that I need them to be thrilled when I bestow upon them my fascinating decision regarding the choice of white or wheat toast, but it’s nice to have this new waitress seem interested when I ask for some sugar and tell her I don’t normally use it in my coffee.
“Sounds good to me sir, I believe we should all strive to be a little sweeter anyway!” She responds, taking a couple packets from the table behind me.
As I sit and drank my coffee, every few minutes she pops back over to warm up my cup and chat for a bit before heading over to her other tables. Like most mornings, there wasn’t much of a breakfast rush so her visits start becoming more frequent and the topics of discussion wider ranging. Soon enough she is sitting across from me quickly draining her own cup of coffee, telling me how her parents had actually met at this diner when they were teenagers, then musing on how she credits her existence on a shared piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie and the irony in her choice to seek out culinary school. I make a corny joke about how the desire must be “baked into her” and she gives a satisfying, nasally chuckle that typically I’d assume was charitable but her reaction appears quite genuine. While she is several years my junior she seems to have an ease in conversation that can span any generational rift. I’ve met few people who balance charm and wit so effortlessly.
We chat and sip our coffee for what feels like hours until a four top arrives to get some food and take in the scenery. I’m already well into my third cup and starting to feel the effects so I get up to use the restroom while she takes the group’s order. On my way past the end of the counter, heading towards the bathroom, I notice an older gentleman peering out of the porthole window on the swinging metal door to the kitchen. I recognize him as the owner by the cleanliness of his striped pastel button down and shiny golden name tag. We had met on occasion as he stopped by each table, introducing himself with a touch of warmth and an air of indifference. Now here he was trying to be inconspicuous as he stared out, his eyes transfixed on the backside of the new waitress.
I roll my eyes. “How typical could you be?” I think as I walk by this panting old man, his face virtually pressed against the window. Admittedly, she was a pretty girl and hard not to notice, but I was still struck by his brazenness, especially towards an employee. By the time I wash my hands and start back to my table he’s mindlessly reorganizing a shelf of condiments, his fascination exhausted. Although it may not make any difference, I can’t help wonder if he even knew anything about her. Had he ever spoken to her? How much time had he spent learning about her life rather than studying her figure? Seems like the more you know about someone, the less you would see them as a piece of meat, but perhaps that’s naive of me.
Regardless of his conversational habits with new hires, seeing him standing behind that kitchen door makes me wary of what might happen if Carla stays working here too long. Even though our conversations have been relatively short, there’s an air about her not typical of people I’ve met around here. As if she were this colorful air balloon and had a faint, warm breeze following her that was going lift her above this place and propel her far beyond confines of the county line. Unfortunately though, places such as this have a way of deflating those sorts of folks, keeping them grounded down here with the rest of us; the kind of people who don’t always recognize and reward potential, but instead prefer everyone to be easily definable —whether as an object of desire or a conduit to a coffee refill.
During my visits here I often overhear the old boys at the counter asking the waitstaff about long gone family members or for updates on who was getting close to dying next, before rehashing local history. I’ve seen the waiter who left for a smoke go through this several times. They’d chat about his dad’s business for a while, but eventually talk would turn to the waiter’s glory days at a starting running back for the local high school, and how a damn knee injury — due to a clearly dirty hit from the school’s rival team — sidelined him for good. He had been working at the diner on weekends through high school and the counter liked to joke that ever since the hit he was much slower getting their food out then he used to be as a kid.
I begin to see her story as a waitress at this Podunk diner fold out before her like an aged, bifold menu. She’d have plenty of options to choose from, it was only a matter of how hungry she was when it came time to order. Scanning over the offerings on the right side her eyes would widen at the potential, the sheer amount that would be before her should she decide to go for any of the big plates like the “lumberjack” with its three eggs, three pancakes, a load of hash browns, and every kind of meat available. Licking her lips she knew she had it in her to finish all of it but as the waiter begins to stroll over, panic sets in. Maybe it was too expensive, maybe she couldn’t eat it all, maybe she didn’t deserve to have such a meal. By the time the server asks what she’d like to drink, Carla is quickly looking over at the small plates on the left of the menu and settling on one that seems appropriate for her. When the meal is over, she won’t be starving, but there will still be room left in the pit of stomach. Enough to remind her of the hunger she had and the chance she wasted.
Then I think of that poor waitress, the one whose life was cut short on the same linoleum floor that Carla now walks on. All I had known about the waitress’s life was from the synopsis the news provided, which mostly revolved around her time at the diner. What had she been like, what did she look forward to when her shift ended? Perhaps she had been a dancer, gliding across the floor cleaning under each table after locking up, broom in hand, swinging herself around it as if remembering the touch of a partner from a distant past. Or it could’ve been that on her breaks she’d steal herself away to her car to study books of old court cases to prepare for the law degree she had been working towards. Whatever it was, she must have been more than an apron and a name on a receipt.
Carla, having finished with the new arrivals, comes back to sit with me for a few more minutes. We make small talk about the town, and poke fun at the bewildered looks of “leaf peepers” coming in from out of state, but as we chat I keep making a point to wind the conversation back around to her plans for school and a life away from here. I want her to hear in her own voice the possibility she has for such a life, and to give her hints about how achievable it all is for her.
By the time I get to a point where it seems like we’re getting somewhere, someone calls her over for more orange juice. As she walks away I notice the sun has crept up enough into the sky to be shining directly in my eyes. I look at the old clock and realize that if I don’t leave now, I have no chance of making it to my first appointment. When Carla comes back I inform her of this unfortunate circumstance and ask for the check. She gives me an endearing pout and a wink as she heads to the register. My mind races for a solution, for one last thing I can do to open her eyes to the bright road she’s on.
We say our goodbyes, share a moment about seeing each other on my next trip through, and she’s off to her other tables. Inside my wallet is a fifty dollar bill that I normally save for emergencies, so I pull it out and stick a corner underneath the empty ceramic mug on the table. On the bottom of the receipt I write, “Good luck with school!” and sign my name. I put on my jacket and look down at my message, hoping that it and the tip are enough.
Looking around the room, I think that this will probably be the last time I set foot in here. My boss has already been talking about switching my route, which would make this enough of a detour to force me to another breakfast spot. And although the prices are good, the food here isn’t exactly worth the extra mileage.
But, if I were to be honest with myself, that isn’t the real reason. Something about this old diner has changed for me. It’s not the taste of the food, or the worn out furnishings, or that they can never seem to get my order right. I think it’s that I don’t feel good about eating at a place that has a habit of claiming lives in cruel or ordinary ways.
The door slowly recedes behind me as I walk out towards my car. The air inside is chilly and my breath fogs up the windshield as the engine turns over. Pulling out onto the road I look back at the diner, thinking of Carla and her parents and the years of culinary school I hope are ahead of her. I look at the leaves swirling around in my wake and think of the spring when the trees will bud again. Then the fall with its resulting shift in color, precipitating next year’s loss.
I drive on through the narrow, curvy backroads, taking my time and letting my mind wander. Maybe I’ll take a week off soon and go somewhere warm, or maybe I’ll look into dancing lessons. And I decide that from now on, I’m going to cook my own eggs.