Pop’s Diner stood, chrome and glass, duck-egg blue and flaming red. It hugged the road that went to the horizon in each direction, as if the building might fall into space.
Above Pop, the burning bowl of the cloudless sky, in every direction parched earth and dusty trees, and rocks striped with colour long before there were men. The old man looked at the empty road, from the empty diner, believing he was alone.
Those who watch everything watched the diner, with the same attention they used to study the poison lakes on a distant moon, and the mating of dinosaurs, and the flick of a lizard’s tail.
Pop’s thick hands were slippery wet, white suds on dark skin. An accident, his breakfast plate fell to the floor and shattered beyond repair. It wasn’t a diner one, but the set for his own meals, never washed in the diner’s machine. You can mend one break with glue, but not this.
The Japanese mend precious china with metal, so you can see the join. Pop read that, in the pile of old Reader’s Digests out back.
The Gift-Shop had been shuttered for three years and burned out for two. The gas station went bust five years before. Pop stayed, because the diner was home and job and pension and there was nowhere else to go.
Pop’s day ran from dawn to dusk, and his backache too. Customers? The one bus that still stopped here because no one remembered they didn’t have to. The long trucks that for a whim stopped here, rather than anywhere else. Cars too, even more unpredictable. Pop lumbered from kitchen to counter to kitchen for twelve hours a day or more, drinking a glass of ice water every hour. Maybe his weight stopped the diner floating up into the sky, gleaming like a child’s metallic balloon.
‘Hola, boss.’ Fernanda drove her car twelve miles here to wait tables, twelve back, as she’d done since the day he opened. Her hair was silvered, more silver than black, and his hair was gone.
You’ll understand Pop kept a shotgun and a baseball bat behind the counter. He’d been robbed twice in twenty years, and he said it was to protect her. You’ll forgive that at least.
Like a bartender, reading the room was part of the game. Spotting those who will run off without paying, do bad stuff in the restroom, maybe steal a postcard.
The kid was trouble. He must have hitched, because how else was he here? In the diner, the family eating a burger because the children were beyond whiny. A trucker who had the caution of the very tired. And the kid, sixteen, eighteen, on the reproduction banquettes in duck-egg blue. White and skinny with a swath of dust-coloured hair across one eye. Twitching and not right somehow. Clothes hung off him, and a ragged backpack. That look meant trouble behind, trouble ahead, stretching to the sky.
The kid counted out his dollars, and bought the most calories he could for it, with tax. Pop made him pay up front, sure there would be no tip.
Well, the trucker left, and the family left, and the kid went to the restroom twice, and filled up his water-bottles. There was just Pop and Fernanda and the kid, who was waiting for something. The motto on the day’s calendar was Least Said, Soonest Mended.
The third time, Pop followed the boy into the restroom. And there was the knife, and the boy struck, clumsy, like he didn’t know what he was doing. Sharp, sharp pain in Pop’s generous gut, but Pop knocked the knife from his hand. Pop lumbered, he had not run this century, back into the diner proper with his apron pressed to the wound. Fernanda screamed, as if anyone would hear but lizards, and the odd soaring bird.
Here came the kid with the knife, sweeping back his hair, and there was something in his eyes. The boy was lost, or something he had swallowed had seized control. Pop had the gun on the counter, and his hands on the gun. You will forgive him for that.
Pop kept his voice low and slow. Fernanda was praying aloud, Madre de Dios, and looking in her purse, doubtless for her phone.
‘Now put that down,’ said the old man, raising his gun just a little.
The boy ran knife in hand, running at Fernanda, or for the door? Pop was a careful man, but the shotgun jumped in his hands. And the kid fell to the floor, bright blood gushing from the chest.
The sun gold-bright across the twitching body.
‘Is he dead?’ the female voice.
Rattle of prayers.
Pop all the words gone.
Pop finding it hard to breathe.
Pop, the memory of the knife in his side.
Pop all the blood of the boy death spreading across a clean-enough floor.
Slow and painful to kneel, Pop holding onto a table. The boy’s throat did not pulse under thick fingers. Pop’s tears. Spilt salt.
Call the police, or not? Sobbing, Fernanda patched Pop’s wound, and no-one came. At her suggestion, they dragged the boy onto a tarp, so Fernanda could mop the floor. No-one came. Fernanda was legal, as they say, but her husband twelve miles away was not. Pop had sweated days in a cell when he was the kid’s age, he had been stopped often. In his early life where trees were lush and hot and green, the white cops had shaken down Pop for free food and yet not come when he needed them. Yet what else could Pop and Fernanda do?
A car passed, but you cannot see the diner floor from the road. Nor the short walk to the shed. Fernanda had a plan. Under the bright sun the old man and the old woman dragged the boy out back, and under cover. Every breath Pop thought, someone will walk around a corner and see. Those who watched everything saw, of course, but no-one came.
Pop’s crisp white uniform was smeared with two types of blood. He needed to change. If the police came, would Fernanda confess? Eighteen years ago, they had a brief affair. It had felt a time of plenty, but it made them both too guilty. They had kept the secret.
They talked, the two of them could drive out to a narrow gully that went deep, deep, and they could throw the body down it. A hitch-hiker, a drifter. Fernanda said, if anyone came asking – and who would? – Pop need only say the kid put out his thumb and disappeared. A foreign car? Grey? I don’t remember. There were a million miles of road a kid could have gone up and not come back.
The sun had started its descent, and they had still not called the police. The longer they waited, the guiltier their actions seemed. Pop had no thought of the Christian God when he pleaded for help. Someone, something, anything, mend this.
They came, those that watched over everything. What were they? Careful. Skilled. Subtle. I guess they have come before, when people need things mending. I guess, they come at the call, and use their art as they see fit.
The boy was broken so they mended him. He had lost his human’s blood, so they filled him with the gold of desert sunlight. They patched his skinny ribs with the stones of the desert, and put the desert wind into his lungs. They brightened his dead eyes with the sky. Pop’s hopes and dreams lay cast off round the diner, like the dry husks shed by insects, and they used those to mend the boy’s heart. They used the strong shadow cast by moonlight to mend Pop’s side, and the gleam from the chrome of the diner to fix his back.
Come now, up the road of burning sun to The Famous Original Pop’s Diner, under the endless heat of the sky. It must be Famous and Original, for its website and Twitter proclaim it so, along with tall tales so glorious they need not be flagged as lies. You will forgive that at least.
The building itself gleams a little brighter and looks more prosperous. Catch a moment where they are not busy, and the boy may be on the roof, looking each way along the road, gleaming white. He needs no sunglasses and his golden skin never burns.
More likely, you will park, and you will be greeted by the boy, whose hair now gleams like gold, and whose teeth and shirt compete in brilliant white. ‘Hi, I’m Sonny.’ He is not as these things go, good looking, but he is warm in his welcome. Generous for its own sake.
Fernanda now sits at the till, and sells the T-shirts and souvenirs, and the little paintings of the desert and her town she did in quieter times. ‘Oh, Ted, this is charming. How much is this one?’
Now people who stop, often come by again, and tell their friends. For the boy is gentle and friendly, with his gauche charm. When he makes mistakes with who wants which drinks, which is often, it becomes the joke of the day. He flatters the old, cajoles the weary young, and flirts with the gruff truckers. To run around this diner twelve hours a day is all he wants. He tells stories – the diner is the centre of the universe. Long ago, a murder happened. There was a miracle. People laugh, and the tip jar is lush and full and green.
On the rare days of rain, his eyes are grey, and his voice is quiet. And when there is a storm, he disappears out into the strength of it, a wild thing on the run, sometimes for days. But the older two don’t worry, because he forgave them. The boy will return.
Pop is older now and stiffer backed. Yet he smiles more, mended like the boy was, with precious things. Sonny flirts with him, and calls him sir. On those nights the old man is restless, Sonny comes into Pop’s bed, and his warmth sends them both to sleep. Pop needs nothing more, for the boy lives and brings hope. The old couple love him, for they see him as their son.
A rainbow gleam from a beetle’s wing and those who watch everything move on.
Photos: Dani King (Unsplash); Fre Sonneveld (Unsplash); checking; pexels.com