Vernon looked at the menu. He saw
in a box in the lower left-hand corner. That included orange juice, eggs, grits, coffee and a pastry. But he was in the mood for a proper chowdown. A matronly waitress came over and said, “What’ll it be, sweetie?” Vernon said, “I’ll have the pancakes, then the eggs and sausages. Fried eggs. What kind of pie you got?” The waitress said, “Apple, cherry, blueberry, pecan, lemon meringue.” Vernon said, “Yeah, give me blueberry – no, no, make that lemon meringue.” The waitress poured his coffee and brought him the pancakes with a small pitcher of maple syrup and a few pats of butter in a dish.
Vernon looked around. Getting a diner to operate was like getting a man on the moon. For a diner to operate you had to have a whole society organized in a certain way, a society that supplied waitresses, busboys, short order cooks and dishwashers and made sure they showed up for work every day. You also had to have gas and electricity, food suppliers, fleets of delivery trucks, storage facilities and waste disposal systems, not to mention restraints and penalties to keep the waitresses from dumping pots of coffee on customers’ heads or the customers from walking out without paying. And entrepreneurs. Someone would have to own all this of course. The diner would be his life, occupying his thoughts nearly every waking hour of the day, and sometimes his dreams as well. Vernon could see himself owning a diner. He liked the action, and the idea of having all those waitresses under his thumb.
The diner was full. It must have been a popular place, catering to everyone – men in suits and men in overalls, tourists, teenagers. There were the booths and the long counter. You had these diners all over the country. The movies immortalized them, immortalized the waitress types who talked like Vernon’s waitress but also had some kind of story that you could use in a movie. Sometimes, in these movies, the waitress type hooked up with the customer type, who may or may not have talked like Vernon but usually had a story too. Together they would be part of a mythological landscape that told the story of America.
He put a pat of butter under each pancake and doused the whole thing with the syrup, watching it run down the sides and spread in the plate like an oil slick. Then he dug in. All these diners served the same food and sugar was sugar anywhere. He’d thought about cutting down on the sugar but even if you didn’t heap it in yourself they got it into you one way or the other. The best thing to do was burn it off. Vernon counted on his way of life to keep him fit. Out behind him on the highway the cars kept going past, though he couldn’t see or hear them, just sensing they were out there as they were out there around the clock. People never sat still. A fire hydrant could sit on the sidewalk for a hundred years but people needed a change of scenery. Vernon was a traveler too. He moved from state to state and never stayed anywhere too long. He’d been here a month and it was time to move on. The big breakfast would hold him till the middle of the afternoon. He was like a whale drinking in the air and going under for a few hours at a time. Then he’d surface and hit another of these diners before getting on the road again.
Vernon finished the pancakes and got a refill on the coffee. He liked to take his time over a big meal in these places and soak in the atmosphere. When it was quiet he could also do some serious thinking. It wasn’t especially quiet this morning but he had a lot on his mind so he did some thinking anyway, letting the noise in the background wash over him like the sound of the surf when you were standing alone on the beach on a wintry day. The sound of the surf gave your thoughts a little push and so did the sounds in the diner, the scrape and clink and clatter of dishes and a kind of busy hum or buzz all around him like you got in a ballpark between innings. Vernon had serious problems. It wasn’t easy to think about them. He preferred to have answers jump into his head but he had no answers now. He chewed a piece of sausage and shoveled some of the egg into his mouth. In the mirror opposite him he could see the booths and the movement behind him. He started counting the booths because the thoughts weren’t really coming and he liked to keep his mind occupied. Anything could come into his head at any time and he was always ready to act as circumstances warranted. The thoughts came into his head like the edge of a knife, obliquely and with a rush of feeling. He counted eight occupied booths and the counter was pretty full as well. There was a blue collar type on his left with a bad smell dropping ashes into a coffee cup though he had an ashtray in front of him and an old women on his right eating some kind of sandwich with fancy toothpicks stuck in it to give the place a ritzy look. He liked to sit next to good-looking women in these diners and strike up a conversation. Vernon had a rugged look and wore a lumber jacket and woolen watch cap so people were surprised by his fairly refined way of talking. No one would mistake him for a white collar type but once he opened his mouth no one would mistake him for a common laborer either. He had a good head on his shoulders and regretted not having gotten a better education. After finishing high school he had enlisted in the Marines, then worked in construction for a while and could have been a foreman if he’d stuck to it. After that he’d had a little roofing business with a brother-in-law but that hadn’t worked out either. He often thought about how strange it was the way these problems tied you to the world. Otherwise you’d be alone inside your head with no one to bother you. People found you and identified you and sunk their teeth into you. You were a name on someone’s list. In the diner he was anonymous for a while. That was a good feeling. He felt coiled and tight like a fist, self-contained, as if someone had drawn a circle around him and no one could cross the line.
He figured they were open here till one or two in the morning and started the day at six. The waitresses wore light green uniforms with very short skirts. The place would have its routine: when the deliveries came, when they took the garbage away, changing shifts, washing down the floor and so on and so forth. There was a manager who kept an eye on things. This was a little world sitting on the side of the highway like a railroad car with petunias in window boxes and a neon sign. After the roofing business had failed Vernon and his brother-in-law had thought about opening a steakhouse with a little bar but they’d argued about this and that and parted ways. Vernon liked the idea of the bar and maybe entertainment once or twice a week as in a lounge with sultry types doing the entertaining. He remembered the dancers at a resort he’d worked in as a kid when they had the floor show with a singer and comedian too. The women on the stage had an aura though Vernon was older and wiser now and understood that they were just hard-used types bumping and grinding for their suppers with maybe the kind of dreams such women are encouraged to have. Up at the resort he’d lost his cherry to a thin Boston girl with cold, bony fingers who’d wanted him to come and visit her during the Christmas holidays though he was just sixteen and he understood she was in college. She’d written to him for a while and he could see she wasn’t right in the head but wouldn’t have minded it if she had been the one to visit him and they might hole up in some hotel for the weekend where no one would know them and no one would care what they did as long as they paid for the room. Vernon could no longer remember her face, or the faces of other women he’d known. Vernon had never loved a woman and didn’t regret it. He never gave too much of himself away. Maybe that was the attraction. Women always wanted to open you up and when they didn’t succeed they just kept picking away.
The smell coming out of the kitchen was a little strong. It was the smell of grease. He might have changed his seat but he figured his waitress had a stake in him now and didn’t want to disappoint her though for sure they divvied up the tips. Vernon took a general interest in the technicalities of the restaurant trade, from a proprietor’s point of view. He liked to calculate costs and profits. He figured the diner did pretty well. He tried to visualize the proprietor. It would be someone who looked prosperous and smoked a cigar. Maybe he owned a few diners, and a restaurant or two. There’d be some tension in the air when he came around. He’d look at one waitress and then another and make a remark about her uniform or the way she carried a tray. Sometimes he gave one of these types a hard stare and that never failed to disconcert them because they couldn’t size him up. But at the same time they recognized the distance between them so they recovered fast enough and brushed him off as they would a fly.
Vernon felt good. Eating always put him in a good mood and then his mind began to race, filling up with pictures and heated thoughts. It was a miracle how the ideas and pictures came at him from out of nowhere, as though they had been buried in him all this time and needed just a little spark to set them off. Without the spark there would be nothing, just a pot simmering until the juices boiled themselves out. Sometimes it was a good meal that did the trick, sometimes it was seeing a woman in the street. That was how he’d gotten up this morning, with nothing particular in his mind, the thoughts just floating through his head like feathers in the air, and now a little thicker as he ate. Once an idea was there you couldn’t really get rid of it. It started to grow in you like an appetite. He could hear himself saying, Now it will start, knowing already how it would end.
Vernon took a quick look around the diner and considered how one minute you could be sitting there taking in the sights and sounds with your head full of thoughts and the next minute be lying dead on the floor with nothing there anymore. That was just a passing thought. Vernon wasn’t the morbid type. His mother had called him an observant type. Vernon liked to take note of things. Maybe he’d gotten that from his father. The old man had dragged the family to a hundred places in a beat-up Ford with the five kids squeezed into the back and would stop the car every mile to point out the sights, which drove his mother crazy, and then the old man had ditched them one fine day without so much as a by your leave or howdy-do. His mother said he’d found another woman and didn’t seem to mind and he hated him for it and hated the woman too. That was another kind of story that people had. You waltzed into one of these diners with your little story and played it over and over in your head while you shoveled in the grits or fries, or just stared into space until people started wondering what was wrong with you or you got distracted by someone banging on a plate or waving his arms around.
The tourist types behind him at the far end of the diner, on his right if he turned around, were clearly from out of state as they kept checking a map and looked like they didn’t belong – two couples in their thirties, he figured, one of the women quite a dish. Next to them a nondescript couple, then the teenagers, some old people, three hardhats, two suits, a family with two kids and a woman alone. The woman was a classy-looking redhead made up to look thirty though she was pushing forty for sure. The types at the counter were unpromising. He tuned himself out for a few minutes and focused on chewing his food. He got another refill and pushed his plate away. He felt full. Unlike the bloated types he knew, food went to his chest. He had a barrel chest and in general a fine physique. He wasn’t very tall but had big bones so his face was solid and square, a brutal face, you could say, and the head big too, massive like a bull’s, but the look still youthful and the eyes clear so women somehow felt safe with him.
He looked his waitress over but put the thought out of his mind. He’d never been with a woman that old though he could imagine it. Maybe when he was older himself. Vernon was thirty-four. He liked this time of life. He felt a little more settled, a little more sure of himself, able to plan and calculate. He thought of himself as a force, practically invincible, though there were men who could check him with a wave of the hand. They had all the big guns and he had none. It was in the street that he was invincible, one on one, and in diners like this. It was a shame he hadn’t taken his natural talents further. He could have been a warlord in another time. In the Marines he’d killed a few times and had gotten to like it. He had of course known he would like it and had looked forward to it and even sought it out and it had marked him and set him apart like a secret. He knew people who never stopped thinking about the people they killed. Vernon wasn’t one of them. He only thought about the people he was going to kill.
Vernon had steered clear of the law, though cops always gave him a long hard look. People who had an eye for these things figured he’d done time but most people got their ideas from television and couldn’t spot a con if their lives depended on it. The truth was, neither could Vernon. He wasn’t the social type. He liked to start the day with the big breakfast and collect his thoughts. Sometimes he’d look at the paper if there was one around. Sometimes he didn’t really talk to anyone for weeks. He just kept his eyes open.
The pie was a little too sweet It canceled out the sugar in the coffee so that the coffee didn’t taste like anything at all. He watched the redhead out of the corner of his eye. She was drinking coffee too. When they’d had the roofing business they’d sit around all day drinking coffee and waiting for the orders that never came. Vernon had been restless then. He liked to move around. He was the one who went out to give the estimates. That was part of the myth too: the lonely housewife types and the construction worker types and maybe he’d turn out to be a decent type just when you started wondering what he had in mind and in the end of course they would embrace or maybe there’d be a torrid bedroom scene just before the climax of the film when someone you never would have suspected climbs through a window with a knife or a gun in his hand. Vernon liked these movies. He identified with the stalkers and liked to work out the logistics of taking the woman being stalked though it was never as simple as it seemed and these things usually turned out to be a mess.
The teenagers left and another nondescript couple came in. Vernon was not always put off by plain women. Some of them he even considered worthy of pursuit, having a certain quality that aroused him. These were mysteries. Vernon was not a contemplative type. He was more like an animal picking up a scent. He finished his coffee and waited patiently for the check, idly picking his teeth. He liked to measure himself against other men in a room. He turned around and studied the faces in the booths. They had an amorphous, unfocused look and he imagined that the men would fall apart under his steady gaze, even the hardhats who may have been solidly put together but could never stand up to him. His body was his tool. He took good care of it and was wily too.
He paid the check and left a nice tip. Fortunately money had never been a problem from day to day, though for the last few years he had been living from hand to mouth. When he needed money he knew where to get it. He believed he could survive anywhere. His needs were simple. He had his room and his meals and that was it. He wasn’t a drinker or even a smoker. He ran in the park in a sweatsuit, throwing punches like a prizefighter, and had learned to skip rope. You could always find women in the park, sometimes a student with a book. The thought that he was in training, had a serious and legitimate purpose in the larger world, would have been appealing to anyone attracted to the physical type, especially of the soft-spoken variety. Vernon always asked about the book. You had to get lucky but sometimes you did. It was like gears meshing. You never knew until you tried.
People came and went. The diner was just a stop on the road. Nobody would remember it, or the people they’d seen eating there like themselves, or if they did they wouldn’t remember in which diner they’d seen them. What they took away was the idea of the diner, for all diners were the same diner: eight booths and a long counter, petunias in a window box and a neon sign. Men like Vernon were part of the scenery too. There were thousands if not millions of men like Vernon across the land. You couldn’t say who they were or what went through their heads. That was why you told your kids not to talk to them.
He decided to wait for the redhead outside. If she had a car he’d ask her for a ride. If she didn’t he’d get her into his. He would have preferred the tourists but then he’d have to get the men out of the way. You didn’t always get what you wanted on the road. The redhead looked good from where he sat. He tried to get her attention in a subtle way, get her already to be thinking about him before she left the diner and maybe be the one to make the first move. He got up and looked at her and she acknowledged the look with a little smile. It was going to be the redhead for sure.
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