It seemed to be more of a tavern than a diner.
There was a long bar with stools and a collection of video game consoles on one wall. The other wall had a series of tables with Formica tops, each with four chairs.
There were no windows. A dead giveaway. Definitely a bar.
I saw all this in a single glance after I pulled open the front door. The was one person sitting at the far end of the bar and the rest of the place was vacant. I shy away from eating places where no one else is eating, even in these pandemic times when low density is so prized.
I said, “There’s no one there,” and shut the door, but then my husband opened the door and said, “Yes, there is. There’s someone at the end of the bar.” And by then, we’d gotten noticed by the end of the bar sitter and she was hailing us to come in. There was also a bell on the door which had now rung twice to announce our arrival.
We sat at the first Formica table and looked around. In addition to the video games, there were pictures of women on the wall – not many, but several – and a whole area of the wall where it looked like someone had tried to pull off wallpaper. I puzzled over it, wondering if maybe it was an attempt at art.
Just when I said, “We should go,” the person at the end of the bar who happened to be a young woman in maybe her late twenties came to the table with two menus, typed up and printed on office paper and stapled in the upper left corner. When she handed us the menus, her arms peeked out of her long-sleeved shirt.
Her skin was dark and rough and arranged in ridges, hard ridges that looked like they couldn’t be smoothed or stretched, like they were permanent. The hardness softened midway down her hands and her fingers and nails were tapered and graceful. I looked up at her to order a hamburger and saw that the rough ridges were visible at the base of her neck, scattering into dark marks on the lower part of her face. Her skin was damaged, diseased, burned, there was no way of knowing.
“What do you want on your burger?” She wrote down my answer. My husband ordered a mushroom Swiss burger with chips. Then the two of us sat silently while she headed to the kitchen doorway to hand the order to the cook. The way they talked and how they stood made me decide that they were a couple, maybe husband and wife, and I constructed a life for them that involved something terrible happening to her – an awful disease – that she had survived and now they were trying to make a go of their place. They seemed in it together, if you get my meaning. Like they had been through a lot and were still whole in ways that people can’t readily see.
She brought us two cans of Diet Coke and set them on the table. We popped open the tops and drank them like we’d come in from a months long drought on the prairie. Then she brought silverware and napkins and I looked at her hands again and thought that some people would be repulsed by her skin, it was that startling, but I thanked her for bringing those things, and then later for bringing the catsup and mustard.
I watched the cook, maybe her partner, come out of the kitchen to chat with her. He wore a plaid shirt and a baseball cap. I figured the burgers would be pedestrian, maybe frozen, because how could they keep fresh food there with no customers but us. But the burgers were spectacular, juicy, perfectly cooked, on brioche buns that had had a swipe of melted butter on the top.
She came back to ask us how they were and we told her the burgers were fabulous. We gushed a little because we’d expected so little and because we appreciated her and her partner cook and felt bad for whatever had happened to her arms.
While we were eating, two young men came in and she showed them to a table. I heard them murmuring for a while and then she went to the kitchen with their order. She brought our bill and we paid and then we got up to leave and she told us about their fish fry on Friday, but we said we were from out of town and then she said, so brightly and friendly, “Thanks guys! Have a good day!” And we felt vaguely like we’d made a friend.
Back in our truck, my husband asked me if I’d heard what one of the young men sitting at the next table had said to her and I said no. He turned the ignition and looked in the rearview mirror to back up. “He said, I’m sorry for staring.”