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The Rainbow Diner


Harry Buschman

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 trash.

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 downtown.

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 here."

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 loaded?"

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 better.

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 tea."

The woman pulled a pencil out of her orange hair, licked the end of it and began to write. "No juice?"

"What's your name?"

"Lois, why?"

"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 way."

"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 juice.

"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.

Part Two

©Harry Buschman 2003

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