The Diner at the End of the World
by Kristen Fox
With some effort, Edith swung the door of the old forest green Plymouth coupe shut and squinted in the white blaze of the afternoon Arizona sun. Her rose-patterned cotton blouse stuck to her back, wrinkles and hundreds of miles of her sweat molded the fabric into an abstract work of art. Twisting, she pulled at the material and the mottled fabric popped away from her body, letting in new air that cooled the skin on her back as it evaporated the perspiration. She looked down at her gauzy cotton skirt. Also in pretty bad shape. Ain’t nothin’ I can do about these wrinkles now, she thought, and quickly dismissed them. She patted her styled auburn hair back into shape and took a deep breath of warm, dry air.
She slowly stretched her left leg. Edith’s calf lengthened, bringing a smile to her face. Experimentally she flexed her right leg – something popped in her knee, but it actually felt better, less stiff. She rubbed it gently and chuckled to herself, If it’s this bad when I’m 24, how’s my knee going to feel when I’m a grandmother?
She gazed absently at the chrome rims that glinted in the sunshine. I wish this old Plymouth went farther to the gallon like those new fangled models in the showroom. Still, she patted the hood affectionately – it rode like a dream. Positioning her brown leather pocketbook in the elbow nook of her left arm, she strode across the dirt parking lot toward the front door of the diner.
Like the shiny rims on the Plymouth, the silver panels of the diner reflected the glaring sun, even under the perpetual layer of southwest dust.
She’d been on the road since mid-morning. The unchanging visage through the windshield had been playing tricks on her eyes. Wavering and fluttering blacktop, dots that disappeared when she looked directly at them – sometimes she imagined that the tires weren’t even touching the road, that she was just gliding along with the wind. Until she saw the diner, Edith began to doubt she would be able to tell what was real and what wasn’t.
The windowed front door swung open easily; stepping through, she smiled suddenly. The odors of grilled homefried potatoes and stiff coffee saturated the thick air. The omnipresent clink of thick china plates and the murmur of conversation reminded her of the diners back in her hometown of Binghamton, New York, up in the central part of the state, not near the city.
Edith always felt at home in a diner. Her parents used to drive out of their way to eat at a diner, even when they had to pass several fancier restaurants on the way. They insisted it was more like real food, more like home.
And they were still right. Her mother and father had been dead now for some time now – How long had it been? She didn’t remember exactly, but it was no matter – even Edith’s childhood house didn’t feel as much like home as any diner. Home had always been a place to be busy: to clean, to fix, to straighten, to organize. In a diner, you took time to eat and sit, and talk about things.
She walked past a few vacant red vinyl stools at the counter, finally claiming an entire booth for herself. The springs in the seat and the vinyl covering creaked as she slid in. She plopped her purse down next to her.
Edith relaxed with a sigh and unconsciously patted her hair into place as she took stock of the other patrons. Most looked a bit vague, unfocused, as she guessed that she must also look. The road did that to people. Most of them appeared to be traveling alone. There wasn’t one family here today, no children. Perhaps the supper crowd offered a different mix of people.
She clasped her hands and sighed again, and then remembered what she was here for. To her right, stuck behind the stainless ketchup and mustard tray, a menu stuck up at an odd angle where the last patron placed it. She slid the slick, plastic-covered sheet from its place and read the contents as she traced her finger down the page. Most of her favorites beckoned under the scripty “Entrees” heading. Another stroke of good luck!
As if on cue, a waitress in a crisp pink serving frock, complete with apron and pink paper crown, appeared at the end of the table and smiled. Edith looked up and couldn’t help but smile back. The waitress seemed young in her figure and hands, but her eyes twinkled with gentle, patient humor. Her long, thick, dark hair was tied at the nape of her neck with a matching pink ribbon. In a calm, unhurried voice, she said, “What can I get for you today, sweetie?” Her name, Uriel was engraved on the plastic name tag pinned to her pocket. Idly, Edith wondered if her name was really “Muriel” with the “M” worn away. But then, different names for different places, she wagered.
“First, a big glass of water, if you please. And, well, all morning I’ve been thinking about some thinly sliced smoked ham and white gravy over a heap of mashed potatoes. I’m really suprised to see you have it on the menu.” Edith then blushed, feeling somewhat foolish telling the waitress a story that the woman, no doubt, didn’t particularly care about. But after driving alone for so long, any conversation was worth it.
The waitress just smiled back at her, “And today’s your lucky day, because it’s also the special.” Without looking, she gestured to the chalkboard over her right shoulder, near the front door.
“I must’ve missed that when I came in.” Edith’s eyebrows raised and she grinned. “Talk about a coincidence, eh?”
As the waitress scribbled the order on her small pad, she said, “There’s no such thing as a coincidence.” And then she winked at Edith and walked back toward the kitchen.
A small tingle flittered up Edith’s spine. Her mother had always insisted that everything happened for a reason, that God never left nothin’ to chance. She muttered to herself, “I guess that short conversation just proved it!” and she smiled in spite of herself. Edith wondered what was the importance to her that she should stop in THIS diner. In any case, it was a godsend.
Edith tucked a stray auburn hair behind her right ear and looked out the dusty window. On the desert plain, the heat shimmered above the ground, making the earth seem insubstantial and transient, as if a strong wind could blow it away. The diner was definitely more comfortable than the temperature outside; two steel fans mounted near the ceiling kept the air from slowing down enough to feel too sticky.
Her eyes drifted toward her car, parked one row away from the diner. A few years before she died, her mother had wanted to get rid of the car and buy “something that didn’t look as old as I did.” Instead, Edith had talked her mother into giving it to her, since she’d be needing a car when she went away to the teaching college.
Suddenly, she frowned. Something tugged at her memory. Something about that Plymouth. Did she forget to check the oil? No. It wasn’t like that. She shook her head. Something about her mother and the car.
A clunk interrupted her thoughts. Uriel had set the dewy glass of ice water on the table in front of her. Edith smiled at the waitress again, unconsciously, and Uriel smiled back, like a doting mother. Or grandmother, depending on how old she really was. Again, Edith felt a little silly, like she was missing something. “That sure is quite a view. Seems to go on forever.”
Uriel nodded, looking out the window herself. “Some things do just that.” Then she sighed and turned purposefully to Edith, “And some things just seem like they will.” Edith chuckled when Uriel left. A waitress or a philosophy student? She gripped the cold, slick glass and guzzled the water until she felt she had to stop to breathe. Setting the glass back down on the table, she looked for a napkin to wipe her wet hand but found none.Then, searching the dining area for Uriel, but not finding her, she rose from the booth to get a napkin herself.
Expecting to feel stiffness in her legs from the long hours driving, Edith was surprised that she moved smoothly across the green and white flecked tiled floor. From the counter, she took a small stack of paper napkins from the pile and walked back to her seat.
In her booth again, Edith dabbed at her hand with the fragile napkin. Suddenly, as if pulled by an invisible cord, her head swiveled to the right. In the booth behind her, an old man with a crinkled face and bemused eyes stared at her. Edith jumped in surprise, regarded him for a moment, smiled politely, and then turned back to her table. She shook her head to dismiss the event, but still felt his eyes on her.
The booth shuddered as the old man shifted position. Edith tried to ignore him, but it wasn’t possible. A young woman traveling alone needed to play it safe. But she actually DID feel perfectly safe, especially in the diner, so she dared a look over at him again.
His head was mostly bald, with white frazzled hair fringing his ears. His hand gripped the vinyl back of his booth. His fingers were long and thin, almost delicate. And his fingernails were well-groomed. He wore a dark green windbreaker over a cotton plaid shirt.
“Did you know,” he spoke with a mellow voice, another surprise, “that in some native tribes, when they die, a beautiful white horse comes to take them away?” His speech came slowly, as if he was remembering how. Then, without waiting for a response, he turned back to his table and stuffed a few french fries in his mouth.
Edith also turned away. She didn’t know much about native culture death beliefs, even in the United States, but she guessed that it could be true. She’d never spent much thought on what happens when you die at all, let along other cultures. Sure was on odd thing to say though. Her stomach grumbled in response.
Again, right on cue, Uriel appeared. In front of Edith, she set down an oblong plate steaming with hot ham with white gravy, and mashed potatoes. Edith’s mouth began to water. The waitress also placed a small dish of red cabbage and a small basket with two dinner rolls on the table.
“Is there anything else you’d like, sweetie?”
Edith shook her head and smiled, her mouth already full of mashed potatoes. Nodding, Uriel left her to her meal.
She made short work of the food. Just as delicious as she’d imagined it would taste. She smacked her lips and wiped the gravy from the edges of her mouth.
Uriel drifted by her table and looked with amusement at the empty plate. “Hungry, eh?” Edith shook her head with mock negation. “So where you headed today?”
Edith opened her mouth, but stopped when no words came. She turned and stared out the window at the shimmering desert, captivated for a long moment by the illusory dance. With a start, she realized that Uriel was still there and turned back quickly.
Edith sputtered an apology, “I’m such a feather head. I got distracted by the view. What did you say again?”
Uriel patted her arm, “I asked you if you’d like to have some dessert.” Then her eyes softened, “You’re not from around here. Where’d you come from?”
“My family’s from Binghamton, New York. That’s upstate New York, not near the city.”
The waitress nodded and Edith relaxed a bit. “I’ve never been to New York,” Uriel added pleasantly, and then nodded out the window, “that green car yours?”
Absently, Edith nodded in response and looked out the window again. Something about the car. What was it? Her voice slow as if in a dream, “Yes, it was my mother’s.” And that wasn’t quite right either.
Unconsciously, her hands gripped the edge of her seat tighter. She felt blank. She turned to look at Uriel, who still stood next to the table, gazing out the window. Edith stared at Uriel but didn’t see her.
The words came slowly, “I…..the car….my mother sold that car when I was in elementary school. The body was completely rusted away. You could see the ground through the floorboards.” Yet, there it sat, shimmering and shining in the Arizona heat.
Uriel nodded, as if Edith had merely mentioned that it was hot outside. Then she looked around, and sat down across from Edith. “You seem a little distraught, honey. What’s your name?”
“Edith,” she said automatically. “Edith Rhinehart.” She stared at the table as if to keep her focal point from moving. “I KNOW Mother sold that car. Then she bought that huge burgundy Chrysler. That Chrysler ran forever.”
“Like I said before, some things only seem to last forever.” Edith looked up. The inside of the diner glowed brighter and clearer than it appeared before, as if the grease from the cooking food had settled out of the air. But Edith still smelled the coffee and homefries. She looked at all of the other customers, but no one reacted.
An image flashed through her mind. A picture of herself as an old woman, lying in a large bed, with her husband sleeping at her side. The oversized swan down quilt covered them snugly. She viewed the scene as if floating above it. She watched Wilson, that was her husband’s name – his chest moved up and down in deep rhythm.
Then, for an eternity, she watched her own form. It was as still as death.
Then, Edith remembered more. She wasn’t twenty-four, she was eighty-three. Yet, she looked at her hands – they were young. She grabbed her silver knife and held it up in front of her. Through the splotches of white gravy she saw a young face, and the auburn hair she’d always been so proud of in her younger days. She stared blankly.
She slowly set the knife down and looked to Uriel. Uriel herself appeared to glow. So soft, the light was so soft. “This lifetime did not last forever, but you do.”
She touched Edith gently on the cheek. As if Uriel’s hand cleared away all cobwebs, Edith understood. The warm wave of knowing washed over her, leaving her lighter and happier than ever.
The surrounding white light grew brighter and brighter.
The diner gradually faded and then completely disappeared, but Uriel stayed. Edith looked at her for an eternity. Then she smiled.
(c)1995, Kristen Fox. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy or distribute without the author’s permission.