The first day of autumn Matt walked over to the diner. The air around him was an admixture of warmth and chill as day and night and now the seasons began to converge. He carried with him a copy of Prank, Chekhov’s own selection of the best of his early work. Matt thought the stories were hilarious, as Chekov poked fun at the quirky humanness he witnessed in all strata of Russian society.
The diner, just off Main Street, opened at 6 am. Matt left his place at 6:30 for some breakfast at the fifties-style haunt. Turning on to Main Street from the street where he lived, he could see that sunlight was beginning to find its way around the dark buildings. The advancing sunlight and the yellowish light from the street lamps made it possible for him to see the black and orange “We will crush the Titans!” painted on the store windows by high schoolers for homecoming:
Turning off Main Street and walking half a block Matt came to the diner. If anyone looked in the street window, he would see a counter which stretched from the cash register on the right to a small dining area on the left. The worn laminated counter with a dull chrome ribbon along its edge ran the length of the window. Near the entrance the counter holding the cash register began its run parallel with the sidewalk. Moving left, the counter then curved into a horseshoe shape out toward the street and then went straight again for five feet and then curved out into another horseshoe toward the street. Swivel stools with red vinyl tops were posted around the serpentine counter.
If anyone would walk in, they would see the cash register and a framed black and white photo on the wall next to the register. The diner had a street picture taken when it opened in 1952. Walking along the counter, they would likely hear the red-haired Colleen say “Good morning!” And, they would see the owner and cook, a white-haired Greek, looking out through the order window. If anyone walked in during the summer, they would meet Aleixo’s three high-school aged daughters and learn that they were into cross-country. They worked at the diner during their summer vacation.
Matt walked in and sat down on a stool at the corner of the first horseshoe counter. From there Matt could see three men, retirees by their in-no-hurry look of them, sitting around the other horseshoe counter drinking coffee. The scene was a familiar one, one that he encountered every time he came: old men sitting at horseshoe number two drinking coffee and talking about politics, their trucks, their projects at home and about women as Colleen listened and refilled their cups. “This is America, Matt thought. “Land of the free and the home of the diner.”
Colleen walked over to Matt with coffee and a glass of water. “Here you go hun.” Do you know what you want or do you need a menu?”
“I know what I want. Two eggs over easy, hash browns, pork sausage and English muffins.”
“Got it.” She walked over to the order window and called out, ‘Order.”
Colleen, a wisp of a woman in her early fifties, had a craggy face that bore the deep lines of someone who spends a lot of time in the sun. She always wore her hair pulled back, out of the way. Today she was wearing a tee shirt that said, “Love has four paws”. Matt had learned during one of his diner meals that Colleen had four large dogs and no children. Now, as she walked away with the order, Matt saw the decorative rivets on the back pockets of her jeans. A signature look for the sunny Colleen.
From past experience it would take about fifteen to twenty minutes to get a plate of food. At this hour in the morning Aleixo was busy in the back room getting thing ready for the day’s meals and perhaps feeding himself. No matter, Matt thought. Coffee and a good book would pass the time.
And from past experience the old men sitting at the other horseshoe would be talking and Matt would again listen in while reading. They were talking when another man came and sat down with them.
This fourth man had a white beard that came down to a point. He wore a ball cap on top of his short stature. By his demeanor he seemed feisty and ready to spar. As soon as he sat down and his coffee poured, he began to talk politics. He had something he wanted to get out:
“This president,” he pointed to the newspaper, “is a mob figure … he should be impeached …the whole administration is corrupt … “
The three men he was sitting with may have been politically conservative or just neutral on the topic or maybe they had heard this all before. They didn’t nod their heads when the fourth talked. They simply drank their coffee and let him have at it.
“You won’t believe this. My daughter went in to surgery for a knee replacement. During the surgery her blood count became dangerously low but she had refused a blood transfusion because the donor might have eaten meat. I had to go get the hospital minister to convince her to have the transfusion. He told her to take it or die.”
This time the three listeners, with puzzled looks, shook their heads. And Matt wondered how anyone would give up their life for veganism. No ideology was worth that.
Colleen brought over Matt’s breakfast and poured more coffee into his cup. A few minutes later Aleixo came out of the kitchen and sat down with the four men. When he picked up the newspaper the fourth began another litany of invectives and then added his own political ideology.
“Did you hear the mayor of New York say that money is in the wrong hands? I agree with that. The rich don’t need all that money. Just think what could be done with all that money in the right hands. The rich and the corporations are screwing the little guy …”
One of the men put his coffee down and replied, “With the large rat population in New York it’s not surprising that one of them became mayor.” The other men laughed but the fourth not at all. He put his coffee down, rose up straight on his stool and began to point his index finger as if to lecture the group when the diner door opened and someone walked in.
When the door opened Matt felt a chill go up his spine. Had it turned cold outside? Matt turned to see. A young man came in. He was wearing a black hoodie and had a canvas satchel clinging to his side. His left hand was holding a handkerchief to his face as if he were about to sneeze or cough, like he was carrying something contagious. He walked past the Matt and the group of men and looked into the dining room. No one was sitting in the booths.
“Good morning!” Colleen greeted him. He said nothing
“Would you like a booth?” Again, he said nothing. The five men were looking him up and down trying to figure him out.
As the man walked to the counter between the horseshoe counters Matt could see the man’s searing black eyes darting back and forth, looking for who knows what. The man lifted the strap of the satchel off of his shoulder and put the satchel down on the counter. He lifted the flap.
“Can I get you some coffee?” Colleen offered. The man said nothing. He dug his hand into the satchel. Would he pull out a book?
He pulled out a gun.
One of the men began to plead with the man. “Son, don’t do this. You are young. What are you? 22 years old? You have your whole life in front of you.”
With the handkerchief still over his mouth the man shot back, “Shut up old man. I’m 24. And I’m not your son.”
“What’s your name, son?”
“That’s for me to know and for you to find out. And don’t call me son, old man. I want everyone to put their wallets on the counter and pass them to me very slowly. You (pointing the gun at Colleen) go open the cash register and bring the drawer here. Now!”
The men proceeded to take their wallets out of their pockets and place them on the counter. Matt did the same. Colleen opened the cash register and brought the drawer over to the counter where the man was standing. The man wanted her tips, too. But Aleixo interceded. He told him no one had finished their meals. There were no tips yet. “You have all you are going to get from us.”
Then Aleixo, trying to mediate the situation but not sure what to say, asked, “Why are you doing this? Do you need money? I have three daughters … Maybe your dad needs the money.”
“He has plenty old man. But he cut me off anyway. He cut off my allowance. I have rent due and food I have to buy. I have a student loan I have to repay. My dad cut me off. Now, you guys will have to pay up.”
With that the man gathered up the wallets and the cash from the drawer and stuffed them into his satchel. He closed the flap and then ran out the door and down the street. The men left their seats and went to the window hoping someone had see the man. But the street was empty and the sun, still behind the building across the street, cast a large shadow across the street and onto the diner.
Standing at the window, one of the men said, “That kid will make someone a good jail-mate someday.” Another wondered, “What did that kid study a university?” And the third man said, “Probably himself.”
The fourth, back in sparring mode, said, “See! That’s what I’ve been talking about…”
The other men waved him off and one of them said, “Enough, already. Let it be.”
Colleen called the police. Two cars showed in just minutes. The officers came in and began questioning each one. They asked if the diner had a security camera and Aleixo said no, he didn’t think he needed one. Everyone who came in was friendly until today. “Just local people come in.”
The officers filled out their report with each question asked. What was the height and weight and look of the suspect? What was his age. What was he wearing? What was stolen? When they had finished, they gave a copy to everyone. Each of them would have to deal with their loss. Aleixo wondered out loud if he could file an insurance claim. One officer thought he could.
The officers called in the robbery and gave the suspect’s description to the dispatcher. A squad was sent out to search the nearby neighborhood. Before the officers left Aleixo offered them some coffee. They thanked him and said they wanted to drive around to see if they could catch the guy. Aleixo thanked them and said that they could come for a free breakfast anytime. With that the officers left.
And though no one felt they had been in any real danger of being shot, the whole episode shook them to the core. The men wagged their heads in disbelief and disgust. Colleen was so shaken that she paced back and forth behind the counter as if to shake off the feeling of terror that clung to her. Matt, who had finished his meal, was frustrated that he couldn’t pay for it. Aleixo said “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
The three diners walked out still wagging their heads. The fourth, the man with the pointy beard, followed talking in a strained high-pitched voice about how tuition should be free and then kids wouldn’t have to take things into their own hands. The three men ignored him and drove off.
Matt walked slowly home carrying the Prank and a copy of the police report. He would have to call the credit card companies and his bank and inform the state that his driver’s license had been stolen. He would tell them that his money and his identity were in the wrong hands.
© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved