We’re sitting in the booth we always sit in, or he always sits in, direct center along the diner windows. My father says it’s because the sun hits just right upon rising but I know it’s because he has an angle to see Martha when she comes from behind the counter without her noticing he’s looking. He gets the chicken-fried steak and eggs with pepper gravy and hashbrowns. Coffee black. I don’t order but receive coffee and a pecan waffle anyway.
He comes here every morning and orders the same thing. I don’t know how he affords it without a job. Maybe he worked out a deal with the owner. Maybe he makes more money with his silly metal detector out in the woods than I realize. Finding trinkets and pawing them. Trash and treasure and all that, however the saying goes. In the end it doesn’t matter. He’s a force here, a staple. Reading his paper, sipping coffee. He’ll pray with you if you ask. He might even if you don’t.
Why don’t you ever get the chicken-fried steak? He asks. I’m buying and it’s the best thing on the menu.
When I don’t respond he asks if I’ve been working. I make up something about small gigs that I hope turn into something more consistent. It’s too early. I don’t know why I keep coming to meet him. The birds are still sleeping. The goddamn morning glories are still out. He says something I can’t make out. I ask him to take the gristle out of his mouth. There’s no gristle, Martha hollers from behind the counter. It’s lined with empty stools.
Should I tell her? I ask. I have his full attention for the first time.
Tell her what? When I don’t respond. He asks me again. Eye contact and everything. Which is how I know he’s a very carefully crafted version of himself here. Lines drawn with care. She must have heard the stories. But he’s so kind… He’s so gentle… He never would have taken advantage of those women he was counseling like they say. And what if he did? We all deserve a second chance don’t we?
He snaps his fingers at me. Hey. Where’d you go?
I pick at the tabletop. What is this Formica?
He looks confused. Maybe struggling to keep up. It’s a laminate of some kind.
I push my finger into a hole in the back of the booth. And this? Pleather?
Why do you care what it’s made of?
You come here everyday. Everyday. And you don’t know what it’s made of?
He shakes his head and cuts off a large chunk of steak, piles it with egg and hashbrowns, dips the whole laden fork into a pool of A1.
Why are you on one this morning?
I look around and the diner shimmers, from tip to timber. Like static breaking through.
The diner shifts cartoon-y in my vision. Pixelates. Into one of those old-school cartoons where the wolf can’t keep his lolling tongue in his mouth. The empty stools spin and then begin to whistle a tune. Martha’s more Betty Boop. That high pitched voice. She chimes in with the stools. And a peach pie takes a solo.
My plate, my waffle, are still real and one pecan looks exactly how a pecan should look.
Who cares what all this is made of? It’s about the ambiance and experience. I taught you better than that.
All the pecans are perfect. I pick them out one by one. The whole diner sways now, bouncing to the music. The plates and flatware wash themselves in a sink in the back. A coatrack spins, dancing with no one. I inspect the pecans, rub their grain between my thumb and forefinger. These tiny specks of reality. My father stares at my shredded waffle, wolfish eyes too big for his face. I knock everything from our table to floor before it begins to move.
Is this about your mother? he asks.
I leave the diner, his cartoon cathedral. At the park across the street, beneath a sunny spot of grass, I bury the pecans. One will grow, surely. I picture them slowly spreading, taking over this small, stupid, silly town. Perhaps when they’re grown, I’ll pass out the pecans to residents here. Perhaps when they’re grown, I’ll build myself a palace among their branches.
Through the window, I see Martha and my father stand together inside the dancing diner. She looks shaken but it could just be the sway of everything around her. My father doesn’t seem to notice, his hands on her shoulders comforting her. Or maybe a trick of that perfect light falling through the window.
I look around for some water to speed along the growth of the pecan tree but there’s nothing. Maybe it will rain soon. We could really use the moisture.