American Diner

DAWN STREAKS THROUGH THE ROSE-TINTED GLASS, bathing the diner in an auburn and golden haze. Columns of dust glow yellow, orange, red, caught floating between rows upon rows of rough, scarlet booths. Mildewing floor tiles glisten in the waning autumn sun. The building itself runs lengthwise along sleek lines of steel, bounded on both ends by worn patches of teal drywall. On them hang photographs that haven’t changed since 1958. One photograph depicts a cheerful nuclear family—a boy, a girl, a working-class father and mother standing in front of a faded American flag. Time has chipped away at the picture’s oversaturated joy, much like it has for the rest of the place. It’s clear the diner has seen better days. Even now, at breakfast hour, the many seats remain desolate and bleak.

     It’s morning in the diner, but only literally. It hasn't been anything more for a long time now.

Mr. McVeigh, the owner, stands half-hunched at the counter. He’s running through a stack of financial sheets and statements, flicking and drumming his haggard, boney fingers across the ledger. Near the bottom of the heap he finds a letter addressed from the municipality—the blue characters read like an overt formality. His establishment is due for a routine food safety inspection—five days from five days ago. He’s groaning in apprehension, shivering at recollections of the last time, when the ringing of the entrance bell chimes for his attention. With a jump he looks up, first with fear, then with eagerness—almost too eagerly, like a puppy who hasn’t been fed in weeks at the rattle of a can opener.

     Some things can do that to a man.

     Standing in the door frame is a man in an ink suit and carmine tie. He carries himself with near perfect grace—it’s only the crookedness of his collar that throws off his otherwise high-toned attire. The man glides his hand across the wooden bumps atop one of the empty booths. He puffs his nose like a pair of bellows, as if in a carefully choreographed dance to capture the aroma of—what? The sweet smell of sawdust? The odour of spilled coffee?

     Fresh wafts of dish cleaner and the clattering of plates startle McVeigh from his perplexing study. Beside him stands Martinez, the diner’s newly-employed busser boy. He asks McVeigh something about the cabinet in the kitchen, muddling his words with something about rising smoke and an inconspicuous padlock. McVeigh, sighing, waves him away, tells him to get back to work.

     “Can I get you something?” McVeigh calls out to the man, rising slowly—his skeleton cackling and crackling, his bones in as good of a condition as the rest of the place.

     The stranger, unhurried and relaxed, meanders his way to a stool in front of McVeigh. He takes a seat and gazes at the sprawling menu behind him. He narrows his eyes and gazes some more. “Yes,” he finally responds, “most certainly I would.” The man speaks with a most unusual cadence—he is without an ounce of tension or strain, but his sentences seem to run either too high or too low. “Can I have a nice, crisp, glass of milk?”

     “Unfortunately, sir, we do not serve milk.”

     The suit man leans in closer. “Well, surely you must have milk, even if you don’t sell it?”

     “Ah, well, yes.”

     “Then pour me a glass, will you? It’ll serve you well.”

     McVeigh calls for Martinez, who brings the strange man a glass of milk. A quick and laborious cleaning request by McVeigh impels the young employee away, just before he could complain about whatever it was he was complaining about earlier.

     The man, appearing satisfied, retrieves a spoon from a nearby plastic tray and begins to stir. Why he is stirring, exactly, is anyone’s guess, since there was absolutely nothing in the glass to stir.
After a brief pause, the man takes a sip of his homogenous cup of slightly-sweet nothingness.

     Without a moment’s hesitation he nods towards McVeigh’s pile of letters, notices, and records. At the top of the paper tower lies a marked-up page covered in red letters and scribbles. The red drips from the pages like blood, both freshly printed and months old. The man speaks and points towards the overwhelming heap, “Having a bit of a hard time, are you?”

     “Yeah,” McVeigh replies, “not much business passing through these parts.”

     “Well, my friend,” he expounds as he takes another sip of his finely-blended milk, “I have a proposition for you.” He clasps his hands towards McVeigh, whose eyes watch him intently. “I am willing to transfer you a large sum of money. A considerable amount, in fact.”

     McVeigh raises his brow. “Really?”

     “Certainly! On one condition.”

     “And what is that?”

     The man retrieves a paper from his suit jacket and unfolds it across the countertop. “The one condition is that I receive a fifty-percent in this diner. Fifty percent for Blake Conway.”

     McVeigh skims across the document. With a tiny font size, it’s nearly completely unreadable. McVeigh reads with his eyes open and wide, though his pupils remain registerably dull.

     “This business,” Blake gestures, “will be a joint venture between you,” he makes a show of pointing at McVeigh, “and me. With my help, we’ll make this place,” he snaps his fingers several times in rapid succession, “we’ll make this place great again! Great again!” Blake holds out his pen. “So, what do you say? Sounds like a deal?”

     McVeigh glances at the document, then back at his countertop pile. The pages twirl before his eyes, the tiny letters infesting like ants. Hands shaking, he takes the pen, brings it to the paper, and—

     “How much money, exactly?”

     “More than enough.” Blake winks.

     —hesitates for a moment before scribbling his signature along the dotted line.

     “Excellent!” Blake applauds, “Now,” he rubs his hands the way a mischievous child might, “we’ve got some improvements to make.”

It’s early in the evening when the bell rings again. The fourth time that day—the first was Martinez, the third was an unlucky customer who got booted for committing the terrible sin of seeking to use the washroom without paying a cent. By then Blake had gotten his hands on everything in the place. He had told McVeigh to cut the vast menu, including its many soups and wraps and fried seafood, down to the bare essentials—coffee, pancakes, and a few hamburgers. “Like when all was swell,” he affirmed. They had dusted the decorations and returned them to their former glory—or as close was possible with their limited equipment. The traveller was rejected too, of course. Blake said something about the importance of contributing value, although McVeigh couldn’t really remember. It was drowned out in the cacophony of the endless other things that Blake had said. As much as the diner was an impromptu joint effort, it was much more Blake’s now than McVeigh’s. Blake had gotten his hands on everything.

     Well, not quite. Not quite everything.

     He hadn’t gotten to the kitchen yet.

A frail man steps through the door, accompanied by the harsh blast of the late New England wind. The neon interior shimmers in his broad-rimmed spectacles, obstructing the grey clouds that appear to live in his soul. With a faint accent, he begins, “Good evening. This diner is Mr. McVeigh’s?”

     “Yes, and you might be?”

     “I am Mr. Petrukhin, on behalf of the Food Safety and Inspection Service.”

     McVeigh shakes his hand. “Hello, Mr. Petrukhin, I’m Saul McVeigh. And this is my business partner, Mr. Conway.”

     Petrukhin’s face scrunches like an accordion. “I don’t recall you having a business partner,” he told McVeigh, “All of our records show that this is a sole proprietor business.”

     He extends his quivering hand to Blake, who remains as still as a statue.

     “It’s a new arrangement.” Blake mumbles, still refusing to budge.

     Petrukhin retracts his hand. “In any case, I am here for your routine food safety inspections,” he turns to McVeigh, “shall we go out back?” He scribbles something on his clipboard and marches inward. McVeigh gulps like a comical ‘90s Sunday cartoon.

     Blake whispers in his ear. “I don’t think we should trust this guy. I think he’s in on it.”

The kitchen is lit dimly by two hanging fluorescents. Pots, pans, and dishes are stacked haphazardly together, strewn across the sink in the nice fashion that the Leaning Tower of Pisa was built. Electric humming radiates from the refrigerator—and the lights, and the ventilation, and even the sink somehow. Nevermind the floor, with its fine veneer of mysterious sludge. Petrukhin writes something, notes something else, and scribbles some more.

     Near the kitchen door, McVeigh is shivering. He glances at Blake, who shakes his head lethargically.

     “What’s this?”

     Petrukhin points to the cupboard in the corner. It’s seeping a cloud of some sort of grey substance—lighter than air, clearly, since it’s rising rather than falling. There’s no hum from the cupboard, but rather a sort of crinkle and crackle.

     Petrukhin fixes his glasses and examines closer. “Not a gas leak, certainly.” He straightens up again. “Mr. McVeigh? What is this? Can you unlock it?”

     McVeigh rushes into the cloud, between inspector Petrukhin and the cupboard, the source of the strange gas. “It’s nothing!” he assures Petrukhin, “It’s just a… little decoration! Yes, a small embellishment for this otherwise dreary place.” A smile plants itself on McVeigh’s face. Petrukhin tilts uneasily.

     “A decoration in a commercial kitchen?”

     “Yes, it certainly is.” McVeigh looks over Petrukhin’s shoulder at Blake. “Here, er, Mr. Petrukhin, I am sure you’ve gotten everything there is. How about we return to the front to conclude our little nice investigation?”

     Petrukhin sighs. “Must be a cultural thing.”

“Well then, Mr. McVeigh,” Petrukhin lowers his clipboard, “there is one other thing I must tell you. An oriental restaurant down the road from here has recently reported a particularly bad food poisoning outbreak. We are still investigating it, but given all of your, er,” he gestures broadly at the kitchen, “suboptimal practices, I think it might be helpful to close down for a while or at least implement more forceful hygienic practices.”

     “Now, now, now, Mr. Petrukhin,” Blake urges, “we’ll do whatever we choose to do. Now, leave.” He nudges Petrukhin toward the exit. “Saul, help me, will you?”

     McVeigh and Blake together escort Petrukhin out and into the black night. His incessant drone, about cleaning procedures and cross-contamination and something about personal protective equipment, was swiftly silenced by Blake’s graceful slamming of the door in his face.

     The two return to the diner, Blake grinning from ear to ear. “Well, Saul McVeigh, I appear to have further errands that I must run tonight. I eagerly anticipate our continued collaboration.” From his pocket, he retrieves a cheque book and jots down a one followed by five zeros. He tears it from its binding and places it carefully in McVeigh’s hand.

     “For you, of course!” he bellows, “and soon, we shall continue with our refurnishing of this institution into something great!”

     Blake Conway walks halfway out the door before he stops and turns around. “One more thing,” he adds, his tone for once low and steady, “you’ve got to fire that busser boy of yours. He’s no fit for this new establishment.”

     McVeigh hesitates, then calls for Martinez and sends him off with the cheque.

The moon is bright by the time he returns. He sculks in, his eyes at the floor and his shoes dragging.

     “What happened?” asks McVeigh.

     Martinez hands him back the cheque. “It bounced.”

Once Martinez had concluded the last shift he would ever do and the establishment fell into that disquieting silence that so characterises rundown places, McVeigh remained still, hunching at the counter alone. Then, with a jolt, he rises, turns to the back. He navigates through the kitchen to the cabinet and, taking out a rusted key, unhinges the padlock from its place on the handle. The cupboard leads into a tunnel, which leads further into an underground room.

     A shrine rises from the abyss, its flanks decorated with an assortment of strange, unusual objects. A copper cross flanks the left. On the right is a picture frame—it’s a picture familiar, of a boy, a girl, and a middle class family. Only this one isn’t old or broken or covered in dust—it’s near brand new. In the centre is the flame—emanating a constant stream of white smoke and ash. The flame itself is surrounded by stacks of dollar bills—stacks and stacks!

     McVeigh lays the cheque in the fire and watches it burn. Then, as if for good measure, he takes a handful of cash and throws it in too. He puts his hands together, squeezes his eyes shut, and whispers something that only he can hear.

     Many minutes later, he finally speaks aloud.

     “The time has come.”

     The white smoke rises out of the basement and out into the world.

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