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Miracle of the Empress Diner


Harry Buschman

In the Empress Diner Hughie sat overflowing the stool closest to the swinging kitchen door. It was warmest there and he had a good viewpoint from which he could see Sylvia in the kitchen. He was chilled to the bone after driving all night east from Cleveland, Ohio. After leaving the diner it would take another hour and a half to get to Macy’s truck dock on 34th Street.

His breakfast was on its way down - he had eggs over easy with sausage and home fries and a short stack with syrup. He was on his third cup of coffee when he spotted the prune Danish in the cake rack.

“Lemme have a prune Danish, would’ja Sylvia? That’s a good girl.”

Sylvia picked up a sheet of waxed paper and fished a prune Danish out of the rack. She put it on a small dish and turned to Hughie. “You want I should cut for ya, Hughie?”

Hughie didn’t answer so Sylvia left the Danish whole. She looked at it a long time before putting the dish in front of him. “What’s the matter with it?” Hughie asked.

“Now ain’t that the damnedest thing?”

“What? What? There somethin’ wrong with it?”

“No.” She turned it this way and that, then held it up to the light so Hughie could see. “What does it look like to you?”

“Prune Danish. What’sa matter with it, Sylvia?”

“Don’t that look like somethin’ to you? Look real close, Hughie -- can’t you see the face.”

Hughie squinted and tilted his head a little. “Yeah. Gee, ain’t that the damnedest thing -- it’s ... er ... er.”

“Pope John Paul.”

“It’s creepy, did the cook do that?

“No, they come from the baker. D’ya suppose it’s a miracle, Hughie?”

Hughie shrugged. He was late already and he didn’t really want the Danish anyway and he certainly didn’t want to get mixed up with a miracle. He thought to himself he shouldn’t have eaten that short stack with the maple syrup - he felt bloated and the thought of driving through the traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway didn’t sit too well.

But Sylvia, who had seen a million or more prune Danishes in her career, none of which ever resembled anyone, was convinced it was a miracle. “Pope John Paul, no less,” she told Phil, the manager of the Empress Diner in Paterson, New Jersey. Phil saw it as an intrusion of his profit margin to be the owner of an unsold prune Danish, but he finally gave in and let Sylvia keep it.

She took it home that afternoon, and to preserve the likeness she sprayed it with clear lacquer. She was a single girl, a simple, uncomplicated girl, and it occurred to her that no one would ever see it sitting in a dish on her bedside table, unless that slow poke Hughie made a move. It would be better off, more accessible she thought, if it were put on display in the Empress Diner.

For two weeks she worked on Phil. He would get a lot of free advertising mileage out of this particular prune Danish if he exhibited it at the diner, she told him.

“Miracles are good business, Phil.”

“I don’t want nobody comin’ in here lookin’ fer miracles - this is a diner, Sylvia.”

“They come in. They eat,” was her reply.

Sylvia was a good honest waitress. He didn’t want to lose her, so he gave in. The lifelike effigy of Pope John Paul was placed in a plastic cake container and given a seat of honor up front by the cash register. A tasteful hand lettered card was placed with it giving the date, the resemblance to the Pope and the wonder of it all.

The Empress was a popular diner on Route 80. Truckers and tourists alike stopped there just before they lined up for the George Washington Bridge. It was not long before the news got around. Word of the miracle of the Empress Diner spread and Phil never had it so good. By the end of the month he had to extend one end of the diner outwards into the parking lot, hire two more fry cooks and another waitress. He even added a Pope Burger Special to the menu.

Rarely do miracles occur singly. They seem to be epidemic once they get started. Miracles like company; witness Lourdes and Loch Ness which have become tourist traps. Some doubting Thomases have even called them Baedecker Miracles, that is miracles created to stimulate the tourist trade. Be that as it may, a downpour of miracles occurred soon after the miracle of the prune Danish on Route 80.

In the little town of Clifton, New Jersey - a mile or two from Paterson, a plumber telephoned the Jersey Herald and told them Holy Mother Mary appeared to him in his basement window during the half-time ceremonies of the New York Giants regularly every home game. A reporter was dispatched to check it out. He saw something strange in the window at half time, and the longer he looked the more convinced he was that the image was that of a woman with some sort of halo about her head. The paper went out on a limb far enough to suggest that perhaps there was a miracle going on in Clifton as well as Paterson.

Miracles continued to develop at an alarming rate. In Upper Saddle River the leaky down spout of the Methodist Episcopal Church revealed the face of Lord Jesus himself. There was no doubt about this one. The down spout was broken and rusty and it deposited a remarkable sepia portrait on the white stucco wall that could be seen from the street. Word spread like wildfire and the traffic through the sleepy town of Upper Saddle River required twenty-four hour shifts to be instituted by the small four man police department. Police barriers had to be set up to keep crowds from trampling the church grounds and the handicapped from throwing their crutches and prosthetic devices at the foot of the miracle.

Channelers, conduits and other soothsayers claiming to speak for the dead began setting up shop in the parking lot of the Empress Diner, near the plumber’s home in Clifton and the effigy in Upper Saddle River, promising direct communication with Princess Diana, Mother Theresa, Marilyn Monroe and even Frank Sinatra. For twenty five dollars a pop you could purchase CD recordings of conversations, guaranteed to have been made live during seances with the actual voices of the beloved and internationally known loved ones.

Interaction with the hereafter was definitely on the move in northern New Jersey ... but the mark of decay is always embedded in the blossom, just as our miracles, in time, grew commonplace. The face on the church wall faded. The football season ground to a halt and Mother Mary no longer came to visit the plumber at half time. People can get used to anything it seems, even miracles.

Hughie still stopped at the newly enlarged Empress Diner on the eastward bound leg of his run from Cleveland to Macy’s Department store in Manhattan. Together, he and Sylvia would check out the Pope John Paul prune Danish still on display in the cake rack next to Phil’s cash register. The little artifact had brought Hughie and Sylvia close together, as close as it is possible for a traveling man and a waitress to be. They were, after all, the first two people in the world to recognize the Danish for what it was and although they were not Catholic they accepted the Pope as a great world leader in the Judeo/Christian religion. They also knew that he had brought them together.

Yet, they were not blind to the fact that, as time passed, the prune Danish was looking less like Pope John Paul than it once did.

“I dunno,” Hughie remarked as they looked at it together, “the eyes ... the left one. It ain’t there no more.”

“Yeah,” Sylvia agreed, “ ... and the smile ... he looks the way a man without teeth looks when he smiles.”

“Hold it down, you two,” Phil said under his breath, “that kinda talk can ruin business.” Interest on Phil’s bank loan for the diner extension was due the end of the month.

It was apparent, even to Phil, that the prune Danish was deteriorating. He considered rearranging some of its twists and twirls it as best he could to make the resemblance more striking, but realizing his talents did not lie in that direction, he decided to leave well enough alone -- it had an uncontested reputation anyway -- that, and a series of excellent color photographs for sale that in the end might make the actual artifact redundant. He kept his eyes open for possible successors to the Pope John Paul miracle but aside from a few that resembled members of his own family, he found nothing.

Hughie and Sylvia were no longer interested in miracles. They had found something far more rewarding. On Hughie’s westward return trips to Cleveland, Ohio, he invariably stopped again to have lunch at the Empress diner. He always sat at the corner closest to the swinging kitchen door so he could watch Sylvia in the kitchen. The unexpected dichotomy between her brown eyes, black brows and bright brassy hair mesmerized him. He sat up straight and held his stomach in as best he could when talking to her. He tried to minimize his broad mid-western twang while discussing his adventures on the road, and keeping his swearing to an absolute minimum.

Sylvia was both impressed and touched by his attention. She was also conscious of the power of the prune Danish that had brought them together. To say she was attracted to Hughie does not probe the depth of her affection. She had never been in love and counter girls are normally immune to truck driver blandishment. The attachment is unexplainable in rational terms and the route to Sylvia’s heart was like a road under construction - full of detours and dangers. Hughie drove carefully and followed each and every sign along the way.

On his westward trips back to Cleveland his round, well fed form became a frequent overnight visitor at Sylvia’s modest apartment in Paterson, New Jersey. It was during one of the re-runs of The Price is Right - they were sitting together on Sylvia’s blue chenille sofa and Hughie guessed the retail price of a Whirlpool Washing Machine would be $775. They looked at each other in amazement when that identical price was flashed on the screen.

“I told you,” Hughie smiled.

“You’re something else!” Sylvia shook her head in admiration. They looked at each other and it was immediately apparent to both of them that they could not bear to be apart. Hughie could not drive off to Cleveland in the morning leaving Sylvia alone in Paterson, New Jersey. She would have to go with him -- they were one.

There were no other permanent miracles in New Jersey that year - and none since.

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