The bell attached to the glass entryway door rang as an old man with heavy eyes inched his way into the dimly lit diner. He could barely pick his feet up off the ground as he moved to a nearby open table. He sat in a corner booth with torn vinyl upholstery that had an indiscriminate white fuzz peaking through. As the old man waited with a subdued composure that only comes with age he fiddled with the flaking wood veneer table top that easily matched him in years. There were only a handful or so of other customers at that time of night, and still the waitress took her time as she made her way over to the old man. His face, in a constant state of drooping grumpiness, showed an unexpressed and deeply buried impatience. His eyes longed to control time itself, to take things back and to make things right, yet his body sat still in acquiescence.
The waitress sensed his divided energy and teased him as she weaved through the empty tables in a playful slow motion. She calmly twisted the end of one of her braided pigtails as she approached.
“Isn’t time a funny thing?” She said softly.
The old man, surprised at the unexpected opening line, replied, “In more ways than one. But you seem too young to speak of such philosophical rabbit holes.”
“Do I? A minute is a measured minute, and yet in the darkness of night it seems longer than with the rising of the sun.”
She was even more surprising now. Her braids gave the impression of youth yet her words sang a song of a soul that lived somewhere high above the ether.
“You are a rare breed…” The old man looked at her name tag “…Suzie.”
Again, she smiled softly. “What can I get you?”
“I’ll have a tuna sandwich.”
Suzie began to scribble on her notepad.
“No wait. An egg salad sandwich.”
“We don’t have just egg salad sandwiches.”
“Ok, the tuna then."
“How about a mix of both?” Suzie’s voice perked up with excitement.
“How could I have a mix if you don’t have egg salad?”
Perplexed, the old man furrowed his brow and looked at the waitress sideways.
“Just tuna is fine.” His tone questioned her young sanity.
“And a bowl of water?” Suzie’s higher pitch seemed to be leading him to something.
“No. Coffee. In a cup please.” He looked at her wondering if she was alright.
Suzie’s shoulders dropped slightly with mild disappointment as she turned on her heels and moved towards the kitchen window, tuna sandwich ticket in hand.
“One tuna sandwich.” She said as she handed the ticket over the curly haired line cook. His ears perked up with a tinge of excitement.
“Just tuna, Henry.” She sighed.
Henry’s face settled and he placed the simple order next in line with the other tickets. The diner was mostly quiet at that time of night with hungry patrons deep in thought as they waited for their meals. The sound of food sizzling on the griddle offered a constant hum to the otherwise dense air.
With a sudden pop flames burst forth dancing atop the griddle reaching high above the hood, through the window, and kissed the No Substitutions sign that reigned over the diner. The fire drank in the grease thirstily, like a determined man aching to see the bottom of a bottle. Screams shot out from every direction as the late night patrons of Sam’s Diner pushed past each other to secure their exists. The old man at the back of the crowd hurried his shuffling footsteps. Suzie rushed through the dining area to the front door making sure everyone was out and safe.
Henry was left, spatula still in hand, transfixed by the fire that now changed color as it grew. It spread across the ceiling engulfing the kitchen and Henry with it. He stood there tranquil and motionless.
“You are not afraid?!” A low vibrating voice came leaping out of the wild flames.
Henry closed his eyes and with a single inhale felt a calm wave wash over him. He stood easily silent, deep in his own being. The fire quickly pulled back its fury and in all its might bowed in reverence.
“I did not know it was you.” It whispered apologetically. “Please forgive me.”
The fire lingered, hunched over, waiting for a response from the line cook covered in grease stains. Henry slowly opened his translucent blue eyes and with a subtle smile spoke.
“It’s quite alright. Be on your way now.”
The flames vanished as quickly as they came, as though they had been touched by the mouth of a vacuum sucking them out of existence. Spatula still in hand Henry jovially threw it high up into the air. It flipped and spun as it arched its way down into his right hand. He stretched out across the griddle matching together burgers with their buns and pancakes with their eggs as if nothing at all had happened. Not a single order showed any mark of a burn or scorch. He placed the plates on the window sill tapping the service bell that lived beside the hot sauce and in a sing-song tone belted out “Order up!”.
Across the diner Suzie cautiously cracked open the glass front door peeking through with a crowd of shocked and hungry customers at her back, all waiting to see the extent of the drama.
“You alright in there Henry?”
Suzie squeaked with a tinge of projected worry. Her face glistened with bright red light, illuminated by the neon OPEN 24 HOURS sign directly overhead.
“All good! Come on back in, we’ve got orders to serve.” Henry replied.
Suzie led the patrons back to their tables, picking up overturned chairs and fallen cutlery along the way. The old man, with a practiced and keen sense of awareness, wondered what had really happened there. He felt Suzie’s soft touch as she held his arm and led him back to his booth.
“I’ll grab you some more coffee.” She said gently as she wiped up the spilt remains of the previous cup.
In time all the customers' heightened senses dropped back down again. With the passing of just a few moments and a few bites of food they all seemed to have forgotten the burn-less, stainless fire that drove them outside to safety. The quiet of night settled in once again and Suzie quietly surveyed the diner from the back wall where she hunched over the bar top. Her elbows rested on the counter as she twirled the ends of her pigtails around one index finger and watched as her customers ate. The mechanical movements of chewing seemed so obvious in the out of body late night hours. She stared, finding a rhythm in the mastication. Henry came out from the kitchen to join her as they waited. He stood tall and said nothing as Suzie’s sigh pushed open her lips. The moments collected into waves of time and after a few undulations back and forth wading on the surface Henry broke the silence.
“Ooo. Yes please.” Suzie stood tall keenly aware of her drifting nature. The pair moved back into the kitchen where Henry kept a small red cooler.
“What do you want?”
“What’s that one that I loved so much? The one we got from the monks that time?”
“Yes, I know the one.”
Henry dug his large hand into the ice and moved around pushing his forearm further in as he searched. With a touch of cold exhilaration he pulled out his arm holding onto a perfectly poured pint in a frosty glass and served it to his friend and co-worker. In his hand went again as he dug around for an ice cold brew to satisfy his craving. This time what came out was a wooden mug that had a decorated shield attached to the iron seams holding the barrel shaped cup together.
“Ah, good choice. They did make delicious beer, didn’t they?” Suzie asked rhetorically.
“Cheers.” Henry reached out with his beer and tapped Suzie’s glass. They both took a long synchronized sip savoring a break from the monotony as well as the frothy cold golden liquid. Behind the pass through window they could hear the bell on the front door ring again with new business.
“Uh. I just started this.” Suzie moaned looking down at her beer.
“It’s alright. I’ll keep it fresh for you.” Henry took the still frozen glass out of her hand and pushed both drinks back down beneath the ice from which they came.
“We may be needed.” Henry told Suzie as he handed her her ticket book and pencil.
“Not likely, but alright.”
Out she went to greet the new customer. Her body language anticipated the lackluster task of jotting down yet another late night craving for a burger and fries. As she rounded the corner into the dining area she saw a young man with short shining black hair that was parted to the side and carefully slicked back. He glowed with a sense of wholeness and gave off a sense of deep and unwavering appreciation. There was an ease about him that preceded his physical arrival. Suzie smiled and pulled back her shoulders having totally forgotten about the delicious brew she had to postpone drinking. She could feel herself being sucked in by this man’s luminescent skin. As he took a seat at the bar Suzie approached grinning.
“What can I get you?”
“I’ll take an egg salad and tuna sandwich, extra onions… Or was it a tuna and egg salad?... I don’t remember... Oh! And a bowl of water.”
Without a word Suzie gleefully moved along the back of the bar toward the kitchen window and excitedly told Henry the unusually odd order, which she had been eagerly anticipating for days. Henry’s eyes widened knowingly and the two late night diner operators, now livened by their newest customer, radiated in unison. Time quickened its step and within seconds the pungent mixed sandwich was ready as the service bell rang for delivery. Suzie, barely able to hold back her excitement, placed the full order, sandwich and water bowl, on the bar in front of the dapper black haired man. He picked up the sandwich in one hand and raised it in salute to both Henry and Suzie.
“Goodbye, for now.”
The stranger smiled as he dunked one corner of the sandwich into the bowl of water and took a big bite of the soggy, messy, drooping concoction. In a moment beyond time everything happened at once. All the other patrons of Sam’s 24/7 diner froze mid action. The air buzzed with new energy vibrating through the very fabric of reality.
Off in the distance the sound of hooves galloped closer and closer until they seemed to be right on top of the bar, though there was nothing visible to the unknowing eye. The man with the blackest of hair reached up into the air above him, grabbing hold of an invisible anchor and swinging himself up on top of the hoofed spirit. The diner’s walls expanded into infinity as the man enthusiastically rode atop the ghostly creature. He waved one arm high above his head like a cowboy riding a fierce bull. Far into the reaches of limitlessness the walls moved, and in the exhilaration of freedom the man rode off into the expanse until he disappeared. The walls suddenly snapped back into place as the rest of the diners continued their meals in a normalcy that never left.
Suzie cleared the sandwich plate and bowl taking them back into the kitchen. As she threw the sandwich with a single bitten indent into the trash she looked up at Henry.
“You know the last time I went back I was flown through, carried in the hook of a melody.”
“I think my favorite ship so far was being painted onto a canvas and carried under the armpit of the artist.” Henry fondly recounted.
Suzie laughed at Henry’s wonderful ability to create from a place where life folds in on itself. He sensed reality the way an origami master can imagine other dimensions in a single sheet of flat paper.
“Do you remember when Kevin got carried away by a horde of ants?” Suzie chuckled as she recalled the scene.
“He couldn’t stop giggling at how much it tickled!”
They both laughed as Henry opened the cooler and pulled out their perfectly poured time traveling beers once more.
“Oh, by they way, what did that fire want?” Suzie inquired after a moment’s pause.
Henry smiled at her playfully. “Not much... Wrong number.”