“Remember Arn Anderson?”
I didn’t hear any response. The guys are in a booth and I’m at the counter. My head hurts and I pour Cholula on my omelet in order to give it flavor.
“He was a wrestler,” the same guy continues. “Oh my god. He had a brother, right? Well, do you remember when we would watch TBS on like Sunday nights? It was always the final match of the episode or whatever right when dinner was ready? This was the days when Mom insisted the TV had to be off.”
He stops. Perhaps to sip his coffee. I get a crispy nugget of bacon stuck in my teeth. The Western is shaping up. My feet are cold. It’s a steamy day inside and out. The cook whose head pops up through the pass-through window from time to time must be sweltering back there.
“Dammit, man. We must’ve watched that shit every week for what…a year? More?”
He laughs. I bite. Chelsea, the lone counter girl, scrolls through her phone.
I can’t hear the friend’s responses because he’s facing away from me. It’s weird to sit here and hear one side of a conversation. I pretend to look at the classifieds that somebody who had been beside me left. Did he give me a glance and assume I needed a job or is that something that people do at diners? I’m not a regular or anything. I just wanted to sit at a counter and have coffee and not think about work or home or my kids. For an hour.
“Oh man. Those were some crazy fun times, right? Seems like a lifetime ago.” He pauses again. I want to order two buckets of coffee to shove my feet into.
The classifieds are shit. And, though it takes me a moment to realize, they’re four days old. I have no choice but to imagine how many uncleaned hands have scanned this creased paper and how washing my hands has to happen even though I’m using a fork.
“Guess it sorta was,” he says, I assume, in reference to the ‘lifetime ago’ comment. I don’t know if he said anything in between.
“Order up!” the tiny man from behind the window calls.
Chelsea springs into action as quickly as anyone else her age with a phone such as hers. That is, she sighs, scrolls a bit more, squeezes her phone into her apron’s pocket, and stretches in the same manner that people who actually work while they’re at work do.
“I’m so tired,” I hear her say to no one. Somebody down the counter says she can use his hotel room while he’s at the office. I think she says “Not that tired,” but someone around me clanged some dishes and I may have missed it.
Without staring, I casually watch her—eyes on newspaper, eyes on her, back and forth—whisk two plates toward the guy’s table behind me. The wrestling guy whose booth-mate is inaudible.
“Your friend not coming?” I hear her say.
“As fate would have it…”
She puts down both plates, though I’m still pretending not to be engaged in this.
“Well, I’ll take it back–”
“Could you leave it?” he asks.
“Umm…” She probably bites her lip here. I can tell this exchange will be a major part of her Snap story this afternoon. “What’s that?”
“That’s…my friend Matt.”
“What’s his picture doin’ over there?”
“Well, I’ll tell ya…is it Chelsea?”
She agrees to his pronunciation.
“I’ll tell ya, Chelsea. That there is my best friend Matt and he’s not here in body, but he’s here in spirit. Do you believe in that?”
“What, the spirits?”
It hits her. “Oh my! Did your friend…pass away?”
Her reaction to his apparent nod confirms her suspicions and deductions.
“Sir, I am so sorry,” she says, finally. “I didn’t mean to–”
“No, I mean…I was…not so nice earlier.” I don’t know what she’s referencing, so I’m left to assume she was less than courteous when she first talked to him and offered coffee.
“It’s fine, dear. You couldn’t have known. He was my friend. And my brother. My actual brother—not like one of those guys who you call brother but–you get it. Different dads though.”
“Oh,” was all she could muster.
“Thank you. It’s fine. We used to come in here a lot more often back in the day. My therapist said if I talked to him more—god, I sounds crazy when I say it out loud like that.”
“I am so sorry, sir. Here. Look.”
I hear paper torn. “My manager says he’ll allow me one screw-up per shift for the first month. After that, I gotta pay for my mistakes.”
It seemed like a fair policy, and the wrestling guy agreed verbally. My feet got icier somehow and my omelet was just as cold as my feet.
“Enjoy your pancakes, sir. I’ll be back with some coffee later.” He told her it wasn’t necessary.
I don’t need the classifieds. That is, unless there’s an opportunity for me to go back a week and not tell Turner what I said that led to getting fired. I’d love a job, but forty-one is not usually the desired audience of the listings that announce “Trainees Needed.”
I get up. It’s time for me to go. I have to change something in my life. The wrestling fan is well into his bottom pancake. I didn’t know some people ate them one at a time and worked their way down. There is no one in the booth across from him. There is, however, a wooden-framed picture across from him. Kind of behind a syrup bottle. The guy has on a John Belushi “College” sweatshirt and holds a football. I see all this in the split second that I glance at the table.
I remember losing my brother a decade ago. This guy and I could be friends in another life. But who talks to strangers in a diner other than the waitresses?
I gotta piss. This has been happening more and more lately. It just hits me with little warning. I’ve been pissing more and more in public these days.
The diner restroom is exactly as you’re picturing. Its odor is the combination of cheap air freshener and truck driver stools.
The door swings open and I’m mid-flow. It’s the wrestler guy.
“Yeah. It was mostly improvised.”
“Huh?” I say.
“Told ’em you just died. Brought that picture from school.” He listened for a second more. I zipped up.
“Aight, buddy. I’ll be over soon,” he said. He zipped and turned toward me and tapped a button on the bluetooth in his right ear. “What’s good, man?” he asks me.