As unfinished as it was dull, The Diner had fallen into a dilapidated existence. Old, yellowed lights buzzed overhead, the jukebox playing in the background crackled as it warbled out hit after hit from the “Ladies Of The 80’s” soundtrack; never had there been less appropriate theme music for a restaurant. The aged leather upholstery, long ago torn, had started to turn away even the gristliest of patrons.
A waitress behind the counter, tapped her pen absentmindedly against her order pad. Her elbow propped on the countertop, with her chin resting heavily in her palm. The seams at her skirt hemline had become unstitched sometime in the past year, unravelling wildly and tattering at the ends. She had noticed and fretted; unsure if it would tarnish whatever was left of her reputation with the manager. Her manager had never noticed or if she had, said nothing. So the waitress, too, chose to ignore the state of her uniform; even when giving herself a once over in the mirror before she left her apartment. The only thing she did notice was the grim cloud shadowing her face, and no matter how hard she would try it would never leave.
The few patrons seated in their separate booths, as far away from one another as the diner would allow, all dressed in smudges. Their clothes well worn, the original colours had long since faded. Their faces worked into stressed wrinkles without the faintest of expression as they chewed through their meal. One fumbled through his pockets and pulled out crumpled up notes before dropping them on the tabletop next to his empty plate – all but licked clean – before dropping a few coins alongside it. The faint rattling of coin on wood echoed in the waitress’s ears, and without looking away from the clock over the menu board guessed that should would go another shift without any tips.
A few more months, a year at most and she would hand in her resignation, she told herself. By then she was sure she’d have the money to leave and start anew someplace else. Anywhere would be an upgrade in consideration to where she was now, surely. Dropping her pen against her order pad, she went to collect the departed patron’s money. Her nails, no two the same length, scratched against the tabletop as she peeled the coins away. She hated that no matter how furiously she scrubbed the tables at the end of each night, the thin layer of grime never came away. She had long ago stopped caring of the manager’s opinion of how well the diner was cleaned; she had never seen the manager grimace or turn her nose up at the state of the tables.
The bell on the entrance door behind her chimed as she cleaned away the plates and glasses to return them to the kitchen. Without turning to greet the newcomer, she called over her shoulder:
“Take a seat, I’ll be with you in just a moment.”
She could hear how dull her voice sounded and she detested it. She’d hoped when she had first started at the diner that she would not succumb to the same numbness of the other waitresses. The newcomer’s footsteps faded off behind her into one of the empty booths as she retreated to the kitchen. Stealing a few moments as she dropped the dirty crockery into the sink, she stared at herself in the reflective panelling – willing herself to claim back the slightest amount of approachability she had once before. Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, she braced herself against the sink as her fingers shook. Remembering herself before she chose this path was dangerous; she would not cry in a place that had taken so much from her already. Under her breath, she counted to ten.
Back on the main floor of the diner she made her way over to the freshly occupied booth, picking up her order pad and pen on the way. The contrast between the newcomer and every façade of the diner was painstakingly shocking. She was accustomed to the usual norm of the patrons here, new and returning. The man seated before her was impeccable in sight, and she assumed without a doubt he would be impeccable to the ear. His hair, neatly combed and styled back away from his face; not a hair out of place. The suit he wore, navy blue, was striking against his skin tone. It fit him well, tailored specifically for him, she thought. Although she doubted he dressed down for the environment she could tell the suit was, in the least, a year old. The style reminded her of pictures in the magazines she would fondly flip through at the hair salon in the years before now. She could not see the man’s shoes, but she knew they were polished and would reflect everything as if through a fish eye lens.
“Good evening,” the man greeted her, his smile brief and pleasant; beautifully smeared against his lips that would have once made her swoon and bend at his every will.
“Welcome to the diner,” she spoke, after clearing her throat. Her pen and pad poised readily to take down the man’s order, “My name is Amy, I’ll be your waitress this evening. Would you like a moment to look through our menu, or are you ready to order?”
“I’ll just have a coffee, please. Black, no sugar,” he requested, still with the smile playing around his lips. If there were something amusing to this man, Amy could not see it. Perhaps it might have been the way her uniform looked, or the daunting look behind her eyes but she dared give it a moment’s thought.
“Certainly, one black coffee. No sugar,” Amy repeated as she scribbled the order down on her paper. “I’ll bring that right out.”
She hadn’t noticed, standing in front of the man, but when she returned to the kitchen to make the man’s order had she realised she’d been holding her breath from the moment he spoke. His deep baritone voice had given her goose bumps along her arm. Taking a deep breath, she readied herself to return his order.
“Will that be everything?” Amy asked politely, placing the man’s coffee in front of him as delicately as she could, careful not to spill a drop.
“Yes, thank you.”
Amy then resumed her position behind the counter – elbow propped on countertop, chin in her palm, and her pen tapping quietly to the beat of the music – only ever leaving to collect the money left on tables after the customers had left and returning the dirty dishes to the kitchen. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught glimpses of the handsome new customer taking a sip of his coffee or longingly gazing around the diner as if it were a hidden gem.
After some time, the man retrieved his fare from his leather bound wallet and graciously lay it beside his empty coffee cup. He spoke across the diner to Amy; loud enough for her to hear, yet quiet enough not to startle her.
“Thank you, Amy”
He stood and took one last longing look around the diner and looking back at her with the same pleasant smile he’d been wearing all evening before taking his leave and walking out the door. Waiting a few moments, ensuring he would not return and leave some small complaint regarding the hygiene of the diner, Amy collected his cup and money. She was astounded to see that he had left far more than what a coffee could be worth anywhere, let alone this diner, and could only hope sincerely that he had left the excess as a tip.
Over the next few weeks Amy found herself waiting expectantly for the man’s return, and every Thursday when he did arrive she would be pleasantly shocked into moments of breathy speechlessness. Every time the man ordered the same: black coffee, no sugar, wearing the same smile in an array of suits before leaving behind the same amount of money. Amy was grateful to his kindness, and after every Thursday shift Amy would tuck away the memory of him in the back of her mind, and the tips at the back of her drawers.