I wrote this short story many years ago. At one point I took a creative writing class at College of Southern Nevada, though I think it was still calling it Clark County Community College even though it had already changed names. I turned this story in for one of the assignments and was told by the professor that it was the best student written short story he had ever read. He was one of the editors of the Red Rock Review at the time and even suggested that I submit it pending some changes he thought I should make. He thought there should be more dialog between the four characters in the middle. I've tried several times to add that in, but I never get anything I am happy with. I do love writing dialog, it just doesn't seem to fit without turning it into yet another version of the Canterbury Tales which isn't what I was going for. I never made the changes nor did I submit it for publication anywhere.
I'm gearing up for National Novel Writer's Month, NaNoWriMo to the cool kids, and decided to dig it out and and throw it up here on the blog. If anybody is still reading the blog, feel free to tell me what you think.
I looked up my professors name from a few old copies of Red Rock Review and found that he has gotten a few books published. Congrats! Here is his webpage: H. Lee Barns
The rain had lasted only a few moments, but it had been enough to wet the black pavement down like they do when filming movies. The reflection of a red neon bowling pin danced on the street in front of the all-night diner. It was sometime after midnight, but it was hot. The day had been completely unbearable and the intermittent rain only added to the misery instead of cooling it off.
The diner was one of those converted railcars that always looked misplaced among the large skyscrapers of the city. I had never really noticed it before, but there were a lot of things I hadn’t noticed before. In the last couple of hours I had lost more than I ever thought possible, and now I was noticing a lot of thing too late. My very reality had died and the world was decaying away. Everything was gone and I could see the infinity of darkness and death that was entropy. The sounds of my footsteps were hollow and muted as if there was nothing for them to echo off. There was more garbage in the street. The lone streetlight wasn’t lit. The cracks in the sidewalks were slithering up the buildings and starting to tear them down. The very air itself was gray, dark, and final.
I realized I had stopped in the middle of the street and was staring at the diner. There were lights on inside the car, but it was raised up so the windows were above eye level. There was something about it that looked too alive, too real on a night like this.
I had a bouquet of calla lilies under my arm. They were her favorite. I don’t remember what I had done with the ring.
I held the flowers up in front of me and stared at them. Their bright color, which had shone with such strength earlier in the evening, was now faded and dull. I opened my hand and let them drop. I didn’t watch the black street swallow them up, but instead walked on towards the diner.
The blue letters on the lit up sign simply read “All Night Café.” The shiny aluminum sides looked new in the wet moonlight. Mist crawled out from the sewer grates and obscured the concrete base it sat on. I could just imagine that it was still on its rails just waiting for that one last passenger before pulling out of the station.
A man standing perfectly still just outside the front door heightened the illusion. I hadn’t even noticed him till I was right on top of him. He had a dead look in his eyes and was obviously homeless. His red polyester jacket was worn through in spots and his beard was gray and tangled. His hand came up to ask, without words or eye-contact, for spare change and I pictured him as a porter waiting to take my luggage.
I realized my other hand still held my black leather Gucci briefcase. She had given it to me when her father had agreed to hire me into his firm. I simply handed it to him.
“What ever is in there is yours”, I said over my shoulder as I climbed the steep metal steps into the diner.
I looked back as I opened the door, but he was gone.
The inside of the diner was darker than it appeared from the outside. The lights were subdued but somehow more colorful. The plants were so green I first thought they were fake. The soft blue walls were cool and relaxing.
Marilyn Monroe was played by a girl who couldn’t have been older than 13. She sat at the far end of the counter clutching a small, overstuffed, suitcase to her chest. Her hair was matted and slept on. Tear tracks streaked her dirty face and her eyes were darting and afraid. After living in the city for a number of years it was easy to spot a run-away, but she look like she was straight from a made for TV movie.
James Dean was a young black man. His stained T-shirt was complete with pack of cigarettes rolled up in one of the sleeves. His hand beat on the counter in time to some song playing in his head. He had a big expectant smile that lit up his face and pointed me to the stool next to him.
Elvis wore a black concert shirt so old and faded you could no longer tell which band it was for. His dark hair was pulled back into a long, dirty, ponytail that dangled down his back. He was behind the counter flipping burgers on the grill with the skill of a professional pyromaniac.
This left me to be Bogart. I sat down and picked up the surprisingly clean menu even though I wasn’t in the least bit hungry. I tried to imagine what Bogart would order, but I never understood what he was doing in the ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ version of the “Nighthawks” diner picture anyway. Had he died early and tragically? I never really thought about it before.
I looked up to see Elvis waiting on me while cleaning out a glass with a bright white cloth.
“Catch of the day is Salmon, though I would recommend the filet mignon,” he said with a smile.
“Filet sounds good to me, but I would still like the white wine instead of the red. 1998 Cheval Blanc I think would hit the spot,” I answered mirroring his smile.
“Ah monsieur, I was saving a bottle just for you. He put down the glass in front of me, filled it with ice water from a pitcher, and threw another cheeseburger on the grill.
“Buy her one too,” James said nodding over his shoulder. “She won’t take anything from me; I think she is a bit scared.”
I could see the dark red stain of dried blood on his left side that had been hidden from me earlier.
“What?” exclaimed Elvis. “You mean one of you actually has money!”
He laughed with genuine good humor. Something you don’t hear coming from adults anymore. Something I hadn’t heard in a long time. It lifted the heavy mood that I had brought in with me and even Marilyn smiled.
“Burgers and milk shakes all round my good man,” I said tossing my money-clipped wad of bills onto the counter.
The conversation started with small talk. Little jokes and humorous observations that eventually lead to introductions and then finally to the tales we all had to tell.
Their stories were the ones you’d expect to hear and told more by their appearance than their words. There were regrets and bad decisions, but they were honest and without blame.
I told mine in turn and without hesitation. I told the truth and revealed even the lies I had told myself, even the lies that I had believed.
Sharing freed us of them. The pain, guilt and sorry faded away. We left those worlds behind over the best hamburgers I had ever tasted. We were moving toward something brighter, something new. An excitement came over us and we began to share our dreams of this new world.
“I never wanted a pony,” Marilyn said. “All the other girls I knew in school always said they wanted a pony. A pony can’t curl up at the foot of your bed at night. A dog would be better. I am going to have a Cocker Spaniel. His name is gonna be diamond.”
“A diamond ring,” Elvis said. His voice was airy and his eyes wandered away. Nothing too big or gaudy, but something that would look good on either formal or causal occasions. Something that she would be proud to wear when I had my arm around her. She will sneak glances it at it all the time when I’m not around, because it will make her think of me. I will have bought it a month before I actually get up the courage to propose to her.”
“What’s her name?” I asked.
Elvis thought about it for a second. “Missy,” he said.
We all thought about it for a second.
“No,” I said slowly. “That isn’t quite right.”
“Melissa!” James said.
“Yeah!” Marilyn said. “That’s much better.”
“Melissa,” Elvis said and repeated it a couple of times silently. He smiled finally in agreement.
“What about you?” James asked me.
“I am a writer,” I said and then quickly added, “a song writer.”
“Are you going to write a song about us?” Marilyn asked.
I knew I wouldn’t, but thought about saying I would. I realized that telling the truth was more important.
“I don’t think I should,” I said.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “That way it will stay special.”
“I am going to be one of those people who doesn’t have a job, but still wears a suit everyday,” James said suddenly.
“An out of work politician?” Elvis asked.
“You mean some of them work?” I countered.
Marilyn laughed much easier this time.
James had helped with the dishes after apple pie, and Marilyn showed me how to make a cat’s cradle with a piece of yarn. None of us noticed the time slipping by. The sun was straight up and bright light shone through the spotless windows behind us. Nobody else had come in during the night, but we never expected that anybody would.
We gathered up our things and were all smiles, handshakes and hugs. Elvis took off his apron and left it on the counter. He was now wearing a button down white polo shirt. Marilyn no longer had her suitcase and her golden hair shone in the morning light. James fixed his tie and handed me my guitar case.
When the door opened, the warm friendly sounds of the world greeted us with open arms. We each stepped out in turn and went our separate ways. I stopped half a block away and started to turn to look back at the dinner. I thought better of it and went back to humming a little ditty that I was composing.