The Diner and That Same Old Feeling Again
by Jeff Brown
|Table of Contents|
|part 1 of 11|
Do you ever feel like you’re repeating yourself over and over, kind of going through the motions of a mundane existence? Well, the lead character in this story has that feeling — until someone vaguely familiar walks into the diner he is sitting in. Then the world takes on a new feel for him.
It was just like any other day. Or, at least it seemed that way to Dale. He sat in the tiny diner that sat on the corner of Lexington Avenue and Richmond Street. He was sipping at a cup of coffee (two creams and two sugars, please) and reading a newspaper that was laid out on the old white Formica-topped table. It was the same table he always sat at, with the same yuck brown, fake leather seat with the tear on the back of it on the right hand side. It was all old hat to him; nothing really seemed to change from day to day. It always seemed to begin in the little diner called Nick’s and always ended...
Dale thought for a moment, lifting his head from the newspaper and looking up at the waitress that was approaching him. His thought left him like a fleeting moment’s passing as the waitress reached the table.
She was an old woman, in her seventies, easily, with blue/gray hair. Dale never could quite figure out how a person could have blue hair. He just shrugged it off as coloring for the aged, except you didn’t need to buy this coloring in a store; it just came with time. Her skin sagged at just about every angle, the worst of it sagging under her chin, making her look like a tom turkey, and on the undersides of her biceps, where they hung, flapping each time she moved her arms upward. Her eyes were small and a dull gray in color. Dale thought they probably shined bright blue when she was younger. Closer to his age, he thought. She wore a white top and dress that came to just below her knees. A pair of tan colored hose covered her legs, rolled down to just below the hemline on the dress. A pair of white tennis shoes covered her feet.
“Yah gonna have anything else?” she asked, her voice old sounding and scratchy. Dale immediately thought her to be a redneck grandma and half expected her to spit her chew out into his coffee.
“No, Ma’am,” he said, politely. “Not at the moment. Thank you.”
She grunted at him, shrugging her old shoulders as she turned away from him. He watched her go, her steps slow and unsteady, before turning his eyes back to the newspaper he had been reading.
It was the usual blah, blah, blah in its usual spots in the paper, and for some reason, it all seemed familiar to Dale. Everything seemed familiar to him today, from the order of coffee (two creams and two sugars, please), to the green linoleum floor; from Mel, the fry cook at the kitchen window to Mrs. Martha, the aged waitress with the sagging skin; from the newspaper to the very clothes Dale was wearing. Everything seemed familiar.
Dale picked up one of the old metal napkin holders and looked into it at his own reflection therein. Even looking at himself Dale thought he looked ordinary, usual, even. His light brown hair was a little disheveled (as always), his white skin held a light tan. His green eyes didn’t seem to glitter like they used to, and even his thin lips and small nose looked somewhat ordinary. How could he feel that way at only nineteen? Ordinary? Usual? Dale Baxter had never been an ordinary person. Or usual. But there was a lingering feeling that continued to grow within him. A feeling that time had somehow begun to stand still.
Dale turned his eyes back to the newspaper and began to turn the page. It was then that something entirely unfamiliar happened. The bell on the old, dirty, glass door of Nick’s clanked loud as it opened. It was a sound Dale could not ever remember hearing in recent times, not even when he, himself, entered the door. He looked up.
Standing in the doorway was a man. He was tall, very tall at possibly six and a half feet of tall. He had short blonde hair that looked like it was a marine cut. He had a long face that was thin with a long, thin nose and thin lips. His ears were also long, standing out as the attention-getters on his head. He had deep blue eyes that held a wild bewilderment in them. He wore a pair of blue jeans and a white shirt with the words TOMMY HILFIGER in block letters running across it. He looked to be in his mid-thirties. He also looked a bit out of place in the diner.
The man looked around the diner at the many empty tables and stools before settling his eyes on Dale. He began to walk over to Dale, and as he did so, Dale watched him.
It was an uneasy feeling that crept over Dale as the man neared him. He was beginning to look as familiar to Dale as his surroundings did. But, he also looked different. Very different than somebody Dale knew.
“Hi,” the man said as he stopped at Dale’s table.
“Hi,” Dale responded, his eyes focusing on the familiar stranger in front of him.
“How are you?”
”Do I know you?” Dale responded. “Because you look familiar to me, but I can’t place you.”
“Yeah, you know me alright,” the guy said with a smile. It was a smile Dale definitely recognized. “Well, at least, you used to know me.”
Dale frowned, trying to figure out who this guy was.
“I used to know you?” he asked, still craning his neck upward.
“Yeah, almost fifteen years ago,” the man said. He let out a slight chuckle at his own statement.
Dale didn’t smile. Not at all. He just looked at the stranger while he did the math in his head. Fifteen from nineteen equals four.
“Fifteen years ago, you say?” Dale asked.
“Yeah, fifteen years ago.”
“That would have made me about four years old then.” Dale said this in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. He was calling the man on his obvious lie.
The smile faded from the stranger’s face. It was as if there was a realization that came over him. There was a thought of maybe he had just made a mistake, that this wasn’t a friend that he had known many years ago. But, no, it wasn’t that. It was the realization that Dale didn’t know that he was...
Dale didn’t know that time had stopped. At least for him it had. That was the realization that shrouded the stranger’s face now.
“Oh, my God,” the stranger said. “Oh, my God.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Dale asked. He was suddenly alarmed by the tone of the stranger’s voice. “What’s wrong?”
“You don’t know,” the man said. “You don’t know what’s happened, do you?”
“What are you talking about?” Dale demanded. He was becoming angry.
The stranger only stood there, not replying. His face had become slack-jawed and Dale could see he was thinking, trying to find the words to say.
Dale stood, already tired of the conversation and the odd stranger who seemed very familiar to him and that thought he knew Dale from the past. The uneasiness that had come over him before was now even more intense. As he stood, Dale pushed the stranger back, even though the man was easily half a foot taller and well over a hundred pounds heavier.
“What’s going on?” Dale questioned, almost yelling. “Who the hell are you?”
The stranger turned his head a little, cocking it sideways for a moment and then straightening it back to normal. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. For the longest time the stranger tried to talk, tried to tell Dale where he was and what was really going on.
“Are you just going to stand there or are you going to answer my question?”
It was obvious to the stranger that Dale Baxter was getting a little on the edgy side, pissed, even. Finally, he spoke, calmly.
“Dale, try and think back to the last time you woke up?”
“Hey, how did you know my name?” Dale asked, knowing he had not told the stranger
The stranger put both of his hands out in front of him in a defensive manner.
“Hold on, man,” he said. “If you want the answers to your questions, you’ll have to answer them yourself. And the way to do that is to think. Think back. Think way back to your last real memory.”
The stranger turned and began to walk away.
“Hey!” Dale yelled after him. “Wait!”
The stranger continued to walk slowly to the door. He nodded at Mrs. Martha as he passed her and continued on. The bell dangling at the entrance of Nick’s Diner clanged loudly as he opened the door and walked out.
He was gone just as quickly as he had come. With his leaving, though Dale felt no relief of the uneasiness he had begun to feel when the stranger had arrived. Dale had a mind to go after him, to chase him down and find out how he knew his name and just what did he mean by thinking back to his last real memory. Instead of doing that, Dale sat back down and stared toward the door.
Think back, the stranger had said. Think back to your last real memory.
As Dale sat he thought. He thought back as far as he could, trying to recall the last time he went to bed. That was easy to him.
It was the Friday before the lake trip with the guys over the weekend, he thought. But, even though the lake trip had just happened he couldn’t remember coming home. He couldn’t remember going to bed last night or waking up this morning. The last thing he remembered, really remembered, was sitting and drinking a cup of coffee (two creams and two sugars, please), while waiting for the guys to arrive to head out to the lake.
Dale frowned as he tried to think further past the diner. His eyes grew wide and his jaw remembered the next vague memory.
‘Oh, my God,” he said in a whisper as reality swept over him, taking him back to his last real memory.
The Island and the One Left Behind
There was an island that sat in the middle of Lake Murray, the large man-made lake that was in the heart of South Carolina. The island held many trees on it, along with a large mass of underbrush and tall green grass. The island had mostly a red clay surface close to the water, but the further inland you went the more the island began to look like a white-sanded beach on the coast. The island itself had been used as a bomb target for test flights for the Air Force during the Second World War. It was even said that some of the planes had gone down during the maneuvers and never been found.
The sky had been a beautiful blue with white streaks of clouds dotting along it. The sun had been high and very bright. There were birds overhead hawks, mostly, screeching their calls as they soared high above. The treetops swayed in the gentle breeze, their green leaves ruffling as the wind blew through them.
There had been four other men, boys really, that was just barely removed from high school and still not quite mature adults. The five of them had been friends for years, two of them as far back as primary school. The fifth of the five men was both the youngest and the newest to the group, having only been around since the beginning of high school. That had only been about five years at that point in life.
Tony had been the leader, so to speak, and had been the first out of the boat. He had dark, shoulder-length hair and wore no shirt over his tanned upper body. A pair of old cut-off jean shorts and worn tennis shoes and no socks rounded out his clothes.
“Come on, you guys,” he had called as he headed away from the water and toward the trees.
The next two out of the boat and into the water were Dolan and Pete. They were pulling the boat onto shore as the other two held the ropes and anchors to secure the old, military green john boat onto the island.
Dolan’s hair was blonde and cut short. His skin was fair and his eyes blue. He and Pete both had played football in high school and they both had chiseled physiques. Pete was the shortest of the five at possibly five and a half feet in height. His features would have been average had it not been for all of the weight-lifting in school. Brown hair and blue eyes and a wide nose with a crooked bridge from a break caused by a fist to the face made up the majority of his facial features. Pete was also Tony’s best friend and had been since the great desk-tipping incident in the first grade.
The last two out of the boat were Dale, a lanky nineteen-year old with dark hair and green eyes and Calvin, who was much taller than all of them with blonde hair and not-so-affectionately called “Big Bird.” Dale was the younger of the two — the youngest in the group, truth be told — by two months and a day and the newest member of “The Group,” which is how everyone referred to them.
“Get the lead out, Big Bird,” Dolan yelled as he and Pete ran the boat ashore with the help of the low tide pushing in on the island.
Calvin and Dale were out of the boat and tossing the anchors onto dry ground while Pete and Dolan followed Tony into the woods. Soon Calvin and Dale followed them.
“Give it a shot, Dale,” Tony said, trying to egg him on.
“I don’t know,” Dale said as he looked upward toward the top of the thin “rubber” tree that stood in front of them. “I’ve never done that before.”
“It’s not that hard,” Pete said. “I’ll show you. Make sure and watch this time.”
“Yeah, take some notes,” Tony said sarcastically. “’Cause, you’re next, Baxter.”
“First, you shimmy up the tree,” Pete said as he grabbed the almost completely branchless tree and began to hoist himself up. He wrapped his legs around the tree, pushing up with them and pulling with his arms. The tree began to sway slightly when Pete reached about halfway up.
“When the tree starts to sway,” he yelled down to Dale, “you begin leaning with it.”
Pete began to lean a little as the tree swayed one way. When it swayed the other way he leaned into it also. When realizing the tree wasn’t going to bend at that point, Pete began to climb higher.
The tree began to sway more as Pete climbed several more feet up. He leaned into each sway of the tree until he finally let go with his legs and held on with just his hands.
“When the tree... really begins to lean...” Pete yelled through heavy breaths, “you let go with your legs and hold on tight with your hands...”
It was insane to watch Dale thought. But, it had to be even more insane to actually do it. Pete swayed back and forth with the tree, his legs dangling, until the tree began to bend.
“Then you ride...” he yelled as he descended to the ground, bringing the top of the tree with him.
Pete let out a whoop of excitement when he reached the ground and let go of the tree. The tree rebounded only about halfway back up before stopping in its new permanent bent over position. Tony and Dolan let out loud cheers as they ran to Pete. They patted him on the back and gave him high fives.
“Did you get all of that, Dale?” Pete asked as he walked to where Calvin and Dale stood.
“I think so,” Dale responded.
“Good,” Tony said with a wicked smile crossing over his face. “’Cause, it’s your turn, now.”
“It’s a rush, man” Pete said as he clapped Dale on the back. “It’s an amazing rush.”
“I’m sure it is,” Dale said as he looked upward at the “rubber” trees around him.
“I must be out of my mind,” Dale said to himself as he looked down from almost twenty feet in the air. His four friends were on the ground with their eyes turned skyward, looking at him. He hadn’t bothered putting up much of an argument with Tony or Pete or Dolan. They were the nucleus of their little group, being friends the longest. If there was one thing Dale had learned it was that what they said is how it was and if he didn’t like it he could leave. Dale knew it wasn’t really that easy, though. Leave at any time, go ahead. That would be fine. But to leave at a time like this, over something like putting your ass on the line to do something daring was to leave the friendship also.
I’m out of here after this, Dale thought to himself as he pulled himself further up the tree. It was the first time he had ever thought the friendships — the group — was not worth it. Sooner or later their thrill-seeking would get someone killed.
Probably me, he thought and then froze where he was at. The thought ran through his head several more times as if he had just been shown an omen — something bad. He shook his head trying to shake off the thought and the sudden feeling of dread that had risen in his body.
Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Brown