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The Rainbow Diner
Part I - Breakfast
At 5:15 a.m. Gordon Sharkey flung the bedcovers
aside and sat up. Even though it was still dark he
could see his breath and he judged the temperature
in his bedroom to be just above freezing. He groped
on the floor for his slippers and slid his cold
feet into them. He stood up in a semi-crouch and
made his way stiffly to the window. There was a
dull yellow brown light in the east giving the
promise of snow later in the day.
He shivered, scratched and yawned. The yawn almost
consumed him. He blew on his hands to warm them and
trotted an erratic path to the kitchen. His teapot
had been sitting on the back burner of the coal
stove all night. He poured a cup and it was thick,
viscous and black as iodine. He put two heaping
teaspoons of sugar in it and began drinking as he
made his way to the bathroom. He stared critically
at his face in the cloudy mirror and decided he
could go another day without shaving.
He took out his lower plate and rinsed it in the
icy water from the tap. Before replacing his
denture he looked at his upper teeth in the mirror
and decided to brush them only to remember he had
thrown the toothbrush away after using it to scrape
out the bottom of his teapot a week ago. He
squirted a dab of toothpaste on his forefinger and
rubbed it briskly across his upper teeth. There ...
that would have to do. He set the lower plate back
in place and bared his teeth in the mirror -- "Not
a good way to start the day," he mumbled.
He would have washed up, but to do that he needed
hot water -- and he didn't
have any. If he put a pot of water on the stove
last night like he should have, he would have hot
water this morning. He consoled himself by saying,
"Dammit! You can't think of everything."
Gordon was 63 years old, a widower, and for the
past three years he lived alone. He never learned
to cook or wash or mop a floor while his wife was
alive, and even his tiny apartment on the third
deck of Mady Christian's big old house would have
been too much for him if it wasn't for her. Mady
was his landlady and she did his laundry once a
week. He didn't have much to wash -- a pair of long
johns, two pairs of socks, a shirt, a towel and a
sheet. "He must be pretty mellow by the end of the
week," she would mutter to herself as she
gingerly dropped his clothes in her washing
machine. She would come up to his apartment while
he was at work and dust -- maybe even mop his
kitchen floor if she thought it needed it. She
would also check out his icebox ... well, her
icebox actually ... it came with the apartment. It
was usually empty, or at the most there would
be one or two peculiar looking leftovers from a
takeout diner that he forgot were there. She would
sniff at them
warily and, often as not, scrape them into the
Mady's husband died six years ago in a train
accident down at the freight yards a month before
his retirement. A lot of people say it was
carelessness on the railroad's part. But there had
always been a lot of drinking down at the
marshaling yards. Mady took it well and found
comfort in the remembrance of nearly thirty years
of a tolerably happy married life and a paid up
mortgage. She was in fact a contented widow with a
rosy sunset future ahead of her due to a generous
settlement with the railroad and a childless
marriage to look back upon. She was in good health,
had most of her teeth, a crush on the church
organist and a never ending round of afternoon teas
and evening bridge games with her girl friends
where she was known to play with the shrewdness of
a Mississippi riverboat gambler.
Most women are born widows and they take to it as
naturally as fish to water. Some people say it's
because they are smart enough to marry a man a year
or two their senior, others maintain it's because,
on the whole, their lives are not subject to the
day to day dangers that men must face on the job.
There is a third, and probably more accurate
explanation, and that is because they are stronger
and more durable than men. Most men will
reluctantly admit women are smarter, shiftier, and
faster on their feet than they are. In all respects
women are better fitted for the single life than
men. A critical look at Gordon and Mady would
settle the question.
Gordon finished his morning wash-up. He looked at
the kitchen clock and decided he would have just
enough time to make himself something for breakfast
before starting off to the shoe factory. His
mornings always went better with a nice warm
breakfast inside him. He checked the ice chest and
found two strips of fat Canadian bacon which he
spread neatly in an old black frying pan. He shook
down the ashes in the stove and added some coal,
then hunted through the top of the ice chest for
two brown eggs he remembered putting there last
week. He cut off a stale slice of bread and laid it
on the stove top next to the frying pan. Before
long the bacon disappeared in a bubbling puddle of
fat, and into this he broke his two eggs and turned
the slice of bread. The under side of the bread was
burned and the top was hard and dry. No sense
toasting that side, he thought. He looked into the
pan of eggs and smoking fat -- after three
years he hadn't gotten the hang of cooking.
Swearing under his breath he slid the whole mess
into a brown paper bag that stood in a corner of
the kitchen and decided to get something to eat
He shook himself into his old leather coat and
swigged down the lukewarm remains of his tea. He
fished the stub of last night's cigar out of the
ash tray on the windowsill, lit it and walked into
the bedroom. He pulled the sheet off his bed and
stuffed it into a laundry bag along with his dirty
long johns, shirt, socks, pants and towel. He slung
the bag over his shoulder, looked around the shabby
apartment, shook his head sadly and let himself out
the kitchen door. "What a life," he thought. He
walked down the stairs and left his bundle of dirty
laundry at Mady Christian's door.
Before leaving he momentarily considered the
possibility of returning to his apartment and going
back to bed. He did not, however, instead he stared
at his reflection in the glass of Mady Christian's
front door. He saw there a man utterly incapable of
caring for himself -- an elderly child.
"The widow Christian is getting along fine," he
grumbled, "how does she do it? Why can't I do it?"
He could hear her radio playing downstairs every
night -- and her damn bridge club! He watched her
bridge ladies arrive in the evening -- laughter and
loud talk 'til all hours. "All of 'em are widows,"
he reminded himself. "Not something a man would do.
I sit home alone wondering what the hell happened
to my life." Convinced that widowers were not meant
to be, he buttoned his old leather jacket and
headed off to work.
He stood at the bus stop shifting his weight from
foot to foot. As the cold of the sidewalk worked
its way through the thin sole of one shoe he would
put the other foot down and lift the cold one.
After two or three shifts both feet were cold as
ice, and he felt as though he had no feet at all.
The bus appeared in the distance -- a speck on the
horizon and seemingly in no hurry to reach Gordon
at the bus stop. When it finally arrived it slowed
down rather than stopped and he was forced to jump
in and grab the rail for support. He glared at the
bus driver, who glared back belligerently. "Pick
'em up old timer -- tryin' t'keep on a schedule
He was too tired and chilled to argue, operating on
an empty stomach too. Gordon paid his fare and
found a seat next to an enormous woman with two
shopping bags, she stared at him belligerently as
though she, too, was trying to keep on a schedule
and slowing down to pick him up was an intrusion of
her plans for the morning. They rode, swaying in
unison from side to side in the wildly careening
bus until suddenly the woman put one of her bags in
Gordon's lap and pulled the signal cord with her
free hand, then she made two or three preparatory
lurches and staggered to her feet. When the bus
swung to the curb and stopped, Gordon got up and
handed the woman her shopping bag. She snatched it
from him as though he had made an attempt to steal
it from her, then lumbered her way to the exit.
"You getting' out or what, lady?" the bus driver
growled from up front.
"Hold yer Goddamn horses! Can't'cha see I'm
It was plain to see the day had started badly for
everybody, and here he was almost at the shoe
factory -- waiting vainly for a sign of
improvement. The "Rainbow Diner" stood just across
the street from the employees entrance to
the shoe factory, and with fifteen minutes before
punch-in, Gordon decided to put something in his
stomach -- maybe things would look a little
brighter, maybe life would take a turn for the
It was lovely and warm inside; body temperature at
least, and the sweet smell of onions, ketchup,
coffee and bacon fat made him think of his mother's
kitchen. He felt as though he would like to stay
here in the Rainbow Diner all day. Why couldn't his
kitchen feel and smell this way? Why was his so
cold and why did the faint aroma of rotting
vegetables always greet him when he got home?
"What can I gitcha, Hon?"
What beautiful, warm and friendly words, he
thought. Before answering, Gordon played them back
in his troubled mind. "What kin y'git me," he said
aloud. "Let me see -- two eggs over easy with bacon
-- the thick Canadian kind. A side of white toast
and tea -- with two tea bags, okay? I like strong
The woman pulled a pencil out of her orange hair,
licked the end of it and began to write. "No
"What's your name?"
"I don't know," Gordon shrugged. "It's just that
nobody uses names any more. They say 'hey you' or 'hon,'
or even 'pick 'em up old timer, I'm tryin' t'keep
on a schedule here.'"
"You want juice or not?"
"My name is Gordon, Gordon Sharkey."
"You don't mind me sayin' so, Mister, you're only
an old guy in a black leather coat and a baseball
cap sittin' on stool number 4. It's easier that
"Gordon Sharkey would like orange juice."
The orange headed waitress added the orange juice
to the order and shaking her head slowly, walked
back to the kitchen. Gordon watched her carefully,
she walked lazily, without haste -- as though she
were a customer. 'Lois' was not a name that fitted
her -- he seemed to remember reading years ago that
waitresses never gave their right name. Why was
that, he wondered? She came back from the kitchen
and walked up to the other end of the counter
adding up checks. She put them in front of three
other diners. She looked at Gordon, turned quickly
and walked back into the kitchen and brought his
"Eggs are comin', want'cha tea now, Hon?"
"Yes, Lois. Gordon would like his tea." The
waitress looked at him critically, as though he
might have been a visitor from another country.
"Here y'go, Hon -- two bags y'said, right? Gotta
charge y'for two cups'a tea, but'cha kin have all
the water y'want."
"Imagine," Gordon thought. "All the water I want."
He drank his orange juice, savoring the puckering
tang of it and as he tilted his head back he looked
at the pastry exhibit on the back counter, cheese
and prune Danishes, snowy white sugar doughnuts.
His eyes lingered lovingly on the specials of the
day, the BBQ Meatball Platters, the Corn dog
Nuggets, the Turkey Bacon Croissant. A man could
live like a king in the Rainbow forever, he
thought. Orange haired women like Lois would smile
and ask, "What kin I git'cha, hon?" There would
never be a discouraging word, he could sit on this
stool all day and eat at his own pace -- whatever
he wanted would be brought to him with a smile, a
clean knife, a fork, and a spoon.
"Yes," he decided! "This is Paradise -- the Rainbow
Diner is the place for me. I shall never leave
here." He finished his breakfast and sat back with
a sigh. The waitress cleared away his dishes, wiped
the counter vigorously and placed the check in
front of him. "I shall tip Lois 100 percent," he
decided. "Maybe even more. I want her to like me, I
want everyone at the Rainbow Diner to like me."
He left the tip, and thinking he was paying the
bill, Lois told him to pay at the register. "I
will, Lois. I will. That's for you."
"Thanks -- Gordon."
"Yes," he thought, "the route to a man's heart is
by way of his stomach, and now I know the heart of
the waitress lies snugly in her side pocket." He
tipped his cap to Lois, bought the largest cigar on
display at the check-out counter, paid the girl at
the register and stepped outside. The first flakes
of an early spring snow had just begun to fall from
a sodden sky, but looking back he could see the
Rainbow Diner over his shoulder.
©Harry Buschman 2003
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