Matthew Garner

Midnight in a Diner

fiction
Grasping his last cigarette with nicotine-stained fingers, the tips dyed a sickly yellow from years of use, the aging manager lifted the white cylinder to his lips. His break was coming to a close as the hands of his watch slowly inched towards the half hour.

Underneath the fluorescent light of the break room, every bump, scratch, and pockmark on his skin was illuminated by the sterile screeching of the light. Shaking his last couple of deathsticks back into the carton, the manager slipped it inside his uniform and went to man the open register out front.

The lobby was empty.

He stacked and organized condiments and cups, caring for the tiny individual salt and pepper pouches, and placing all of the packets of ketchup into a dingy bin that stayed on the counter. He checked change, broke up larger dollar bills, and cleaned out the other registers, shutting them down for the night.

When the man in the gray jacket walked in, the manager barely lifted his balding head, keeping his eyes downcast upon the cheap counter that was his only buffer against customers. He ordered and took the table at the back. The manager brought him a tray of napkins to him with his hamburger, and then sat down in the empty seat.
He sat still, wrinkled fingers laced on the sticky surface, glasses perched on the indentation eroded into the bridge of his nose.

The illusion of the normalcy of the late night meal was convincing, a thick wool pulled over the restaurant.

The old man finished the greasy sandwich and wiped the corners of his mouth with a napkin.

“Hey,” the words were rusty notes from an used instrument.

The manager smiled, letting his stained teeth shine behind pinkish gums.

The old man picked up the newspaper and glanced over it, flipping the pages through his fingers as he fancied the
pictures more than the text. Then he finally spoke,

“Well, I made it. Who are you?”

The manager lit another cigarette, blowing the soulless smoke out of the corners of his mouth.

“During the day, I run this diner. Past closing hours, I help people transition. Do you know why you’re here?”

“Stroke, actually.”

“Stroke?”

“Yeah, it seems I died.”

“Funny you remember it. Most people don’t.”

The manager pulled his lips together in a tight line and glanced towards the double glass doors that fronted the entrance.

“Well, you’re the last dead person I’m going to have tonight,” he explained, “so I’m gonna start to close up shop.”

“Really? Jesus.”

“Nah, he hasn’t stopped by tonight. Been busy lately, something about the Middle East.”

The old man sighed and looked around the room. He breathed in the stale air. It was a mix of cigarette butts and midnight, the air only the dead inhaled.

Strolling back to the booth, the manager sat down with some glossy literature, emblazoned with bright colors and flashy typefaces, the kind of reading material you’d see on the rack in the doctor’s office or in the sterile room of a campaign manager.

“I’m actually pretty impressed. You’re taking being dead very well. Most people break down by now. Start crying, sobbing, that sort of thing.”

The old man stared across the booth.

“I’ve tried crying. I can’t. I want to, but the tears aren’t coming. I have a wife and two grandchildren. What are they going to do? How are they going to make it? Can I pray up here?”

“Pray? Sure. Your wife is scheduled for six months after you, so you won’t be alone for long. Please, pray if you like, if it makes you feel like it helps. Not sure it does.”

As the manager arranged the artificial brochures out in a semi-circle, the old man began to pray, clasping palms together and closing tired eyes. He cracked open his eyes.

“Yeah, you’re not sleeping. Most people pray to wake up, but you’re definitely not in your bed. You’re sitting in a booth, sitting across from me.” His smile was cold and calculated, something that was automatic.

“That’s a scary thought, isn’t it? That this is actually happening. That you aren’t dreaming. Most people think of clouds and golden gates, but its just me in a booth with some fake brochures.” He waved his hand with the audacity of a used car salesman.

“I would say your Wednesday has taken a turn for the worse.”

Rising, hearing his bones cradle his body and creak with every movement, the old man went to the glass doors. He pounded with frailty and screamed with a quiet voice, grasping to make language. The manager pulled out another deathstick and lit the ends with his fingers, flame evaporating from the dyed tips and vanishing to back within his skin. The manager, eyes still bearing forward, rose his voice,

“Where do you think you are?”

Slumped against the door with his back to the world, the old man didn’t respond. His closed eyes and folded hands on his lap made him look as if he were lying in a coffin, ready for rest.

The manager walked over and tapped his cheek with the lit end of the cigarette, ash burning the frayed ends of his skin with a cold flame. He opened his eyes, the irises dark blue and frozen, like there was nothing left to see.

“Ah, he lives. Sorry, poor choice of words. Let’s go, back to the booth, we gotta finish this date”
The old man lumbered over to his plastic chair.

“Am I in purgatory?”

He snorted, “No. Doesn’t exist, I’m afraid. That was just the Catholic Church’s way of compensating for its lost lambs, those who “strayed” from the path.”

No ‘Heaven’ or ‘Hell’ either, which is really a shame. All those years of church, the early mornings and condescending lectures. Was your priest a prick? Mine was. Always going on about “sinning” and the fires of hell, scaring the shit out of little eight year olds. God, every Sunday was like Halloween. People dressed up and put on fake smiles.”

His skin sagged as he slumped into the chair, the heels of his palms in his eyes.

He finally started crying. Between sobs of anger and shock, he spit out words like bitter soap.

“I went to church weekly. My wife insisted we take the grand-kids. It was very formal, black ties and colorful dresses. Everyone knew what they were doing, knew all the words to every song. Even my grand-kids did. I volunteered for ministry service. I did it all.”

“Well, you’re still dead. And I’m here to help you transition to your next stop. You got some choices of where you wanna go next, someone up top made these nice advertisements for them. It’s almost like an eternal nursing home, except you aren’t waiting for anything, and young people aren’t tip toeing around holding their breath.”

He cried more, the tears running down dirty cheeks, washing away the years of his life as he realized it was over. He finally lifted his head, not glancing at the papers scattered over the table.

“How did you get here? Why didn’t you pass on to the next stop? Why are you so different?”

The manager stopped, his words fumbling over one another as he tried to respond, like a screeching needle on a record, tearing through the vinyl.

“That’s a lot of questions.”

“Where is my God? The one I prayed to for so long?”

“He’s not here. All I know is that you’re leaving here when I’m done with you. You’re going to walk out into that void and move on, move to some place where you and other dead people can congregate, talk about how you died, or the things you miss.”

“And you aren’t?”

The manager slammed his balled fist onto the papers, skin pulled taut over skinny bones,  tension coursing throughout, tendons of energy rippling through flesh.

He inhaled deeply.

“No, I’m not. I’m here. Forever. People keep dying, so I’m not going anywhere.”

He shifted in his seat and began to survey the old man’s options for death after him.

The man continued to sob. He moaned for his wife, for his grandchildren. He moaned for God. He started to scream.

“Where is he?! I went there weekly! I want to talk to him!”

The manager continued to take long pulls from his cigarette, letting the smoke gather in front of his nostrils before blowing it out.

“You wouldn’t be the first. But he’s not here. Neither is Jesus. It’s just me. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t have a beard and a white robe. They’re both somewhere, but they’re not here.”

Now his tears were falling faster.

“I had faith! I had it all! I don’t deserve this! Why do you get to be in charge? Who are you?”

The manager’s nostrils flared, he flicked ash onto the floor.

“I don’t know why its like this, why you don’t go to Heaven. You just don’t. You come here. I’m here because I was assigned here. I don’t get to go home, I get to go to a flat upstairs. Then every day I take people like you, and push them out into that abyss..”

He pointed outside the glass windows.

“Then I wake up, and do it all again. And do you know why? Do you know?”

The old man stopped crying, remnants of tears staining his skin.

“No.”

“Of course you don’t. So be quiet and stop crying. I’m tired, and I have more dead people coming in tomorrow. Do you think I wanna process all of them? Check them off as they move on? You aren’t alone up here. You had faith. Your wife is coming in six months, and then you’ll be with her.”

He stopped. The words abruptly shut off, as if by a valve. He let the smoke gather in front of his face. He didn’t bother blowing it away.

“Why don’t you get to leave?”

“God, I don’t know. I don’t know a lot, if you haven’t noticed. All I know is that I help people who have died move on to the other side. That’s it. I’ve been waiting for ten years for my wife to walk through those glass doors. And you know what? She’s going to walk through, and then walk on out to “Sunnyside Living” or “Moonlit Shores,” or some other crappy place I show her in these pamphlets, and then walk right out of those doors again. And I won’t be following her. I’ll still be here.”

He raised his head. “Ten years?”

“Yeah, ten years. I gotta live with her being widowed and walking in on my body and only the handful of people at the funeral. I think she was the only one there crying, too. Do you know how sad that is? She went home to an empty house, slept in an empty bed, and ate at an empty table. All that time I’ve been pushing dead people out of this diner, waiting for her to walk in. And if she does? She won’t even recognize me. Death took my appearance and gave it away.” The words dribbled from his mouth like a child.

He looked resigned, almost defeated, his glasses were left to rest on the tip of his nose as sweat ran over the bridge.  After he and the old man decided where he would reside after his time at the diner, he walked him out to the doors. The streetlights riddled the street with patches of orange tinged light.  The manager stopped at the threshold.

“Well, good night.”

The old man just nodded, silently pushing the handle and walking out into the parking lot. A yellow taxi pulled up, parting the rain like a curtain as it pulled to the edge of the curb. The old man got in.

He climbed the stairs to the small living space above the restaurant. The bare bulb flooded the room with hollow light, and the cot sat in a corner by the small shower and sink. The Bible lay next to his bed on a wooden table; it was gathering dust. Removing his glasses and setting them on the table, he buried his face into his palms, exhaustion washing over him. With the threadbare sheets covering him, and the sweat shining off of his balding head, he laid in bed, and for the first time in a very long time, he wept for his wife.

The next night, the manager went and cleaned the counters and counted the money from that day. He mopped the floor, washing away the memories of the actual living people that walked through that hall. He counted change and made sure everything was stocked up for the next day. Lighting a bad habit and sticking it in his mouth, he gnawed at the edge of his cigarette. He sat at the plastic booth and watched the doors.