5:30 am: Highway 290: Willow City Diner
The sallow traveler at the booth tried to read the breakfast menu through its coating of grease and dried orange juice. The crust resisted his scraping fingernail like a protective shell. He tossed the menu back into its cradle and decided to order a couple of hard-boiled eggs and toast, then spread his fingers on the tabletop and stared at his hands, wondering if it made any difference what he decided to eat. A few people took up a booth, some truckers squatted at the bar, but the diner seemed purged of any sort of employees. By the smell coming from the kitchen he thought maybe someone got annoyed and decided to cook the waitress.
The ancient Seeburg jukebox near the door scratched out a twangy tune about two doves in a tornado. The 3/4 rhythm perked up the vague throbbing pain behind his eyes, cajoling it into a waltz, and he wondered if he pulled the plug on the jukebox what the truckers singing along at the counter would do to him. He considered leaving, but the waitress materialized at his booth blocking his escape.
Someone might have thought her pretty once. He wondered if she was there when the doors first opened, waiting with a smile to write out the desires of the young men smiling eagerly back at her. She looked down at him like a mother about to scold her child, so he stopped speculating and ordered eggs and toast. He asked if the milk came in individual cartons, and she rolled her eyes, so he ordered a Coke.
As she strolled away in the general direction of the kitchen, his eyes drifted over the once white cinderblock walls and up to the crack-infested ceiling. He traced a path through the maze of lines until his neck hurt and he turned his gaze to the pitted battleground of the tabletop.
Half aware, he began to read the love chronicles gouged into the Formica.
I love Lanny
sPyD3R + 133100
The words could have been written in Russian for all the meaning they held for him, but he considered the people who left them, and how they thought they were carving a permanent memorial; but one day the diner would fall under the Final Judgement, or the Health Department, or Starbucks, and the scratchings would amount to dust.
Near where the table anchored to the wall, a small cluster of letters tugged at his mind. He wasn't sure why. The names were so far across the table that he couldn't quite make them out, but they beckoned him. He slid to the other side of the booth and read them right-side up. The corners of his lips twitched in an aborted smile. The scrawled names could have been a bit of his own past. He looked out the smeared window at the warped gray impression of the world outside, but that wasn't what he saw.
Funny, it was always her eyes. Not the blue-white pallor of her skin. Not the mesh of tubes and wires wound around her like a spider's web around a moth. No, that would come later. For the moment, he only saw twin reflections of twenty-four candles reduced to tiny blue sparkles on her irises. Her cheeks pushed her eyelids into a squint when he told her to make a wish. She closed her eyes and inhaled, holding the breath for a moment then releasing it in a gust that ended with a rattling cough. The flames pirouetted then gracefully vanished with a soft rustling.
Threads of smoke spiraled away, their tails attached to still glowing wicks.
"Aren't you going to tell me?" He ran his fingers over the back of her left hand.
"Tell you what?"
"What you wished for."
"If I do that, it won't come true!"
"That's a myth. Tell me."
She paused to pluck a dead candle from the white frosting. "O.K., I wished for us to be together forever."
"See, it's a myth."
"What do you mean?"
"Happy Birthday." He handed her the small, velvet covered box.
She lifted the lid and gasped at the silver circle inside.
"Don't just stare at it. Here, let me show you what to do." He took the ring from its casket and placed it on her left hand. "By the way, will you marry me?"
The bell on the diner's door clanged hoarsely. A girl, probably a student at the cosmetology school across the interstate, sauntered in carrying a bright yellow make-up case. Her jaw labored over a piece of gum and she groped him with her dull green eyes. The mechanical chewing ceased for a moment as her lips almost formed, "aren't you..." but her face reddened and she stared with her mouth open. He didn't look up, and she began to move as if some slipping gear between her brain and her legs finally caught. She skulked to a booth at the far end of the room, but sat where she could watch him.