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The Rainbow Diner


Harry Buschman

Part 2 - Lunch

Gordon turned up the collar of his coat, hunched his shoulders against the driving snow and hurried into Cooper's Orthopedic Shoe factory. He knew every nook and cranny of the old mill building, his father worked here years ago, back in the golden age of shoes in New England. That golden age was gone now, today's shoes were made by tiny brown women in Malaysia. In the old days the factory filled this four story mill running on two shifts. Now it shared space on the second floor with a dental appliance repair shop.

Old man Cooper threw in the towel, quit the ready-made shoe business and turned to making orthopedic shoes for people with extraordinary feet. Row on row of aluminum lasts stood on shelves along one wall, the lasts bore the names of people who bought their shoes by special order from Cooper's. No ready mades for them -- not these people. The shoes made by tiny brown women in Malaysia could never fit feet such as these. Some shoes were wider than they were long, some didn't match left to right, and some even lacked a mate. Shoes for these unfortunate people were made slowly, two shoes at a time -- and cost upwards of $850 a pair.

Gordon punched in. He turned the order page to today's date and ran his finger down to his name. Just to the right of his name was the penciled note "Brown WT/O. 57986." It meant Brown Wing Tip Oxford with the last number 57986. On the shelf he found the correct last number -- "Hmm, extra boxy toe. No arch at all. Poor man," he thought. "His toes must overlap like a bunch of baby carrots." Gordon looked at shoes differently than most people did. He looked at them the way ordinary people look at feet. He could see the crippled feet inside them.

Gordon learned long ago that from the day a child takes his first halting step, his two feet will bear the weight of his body for the rest of his walking days. They will not rest until he takes to his bed for the last time -- uncomplaining -- trudging up and down the rough roads of life.

But 57986 was not so fortunate. His feet failed him and, if he walked at all, he walked with extreme difficulty -- and like all people with bad feet he must have a nasty disposition. Gordon's working day was filled with these idle thoughts. He talked to the shoes he made, as though their future owner sat there with him, watching every move and waiting for him to finish. In the case of 57986, Gordon took special care with the arch of the toe. There lay the seat of the man's discontent, inside, the cramped and overlapping toes fought for ascendancy -- each toe sending a personal stab of pain upwards through the legs and the torso past the heart all the way to the brain.

His mind drifted back to the remembered joy of walking with Jossie when they were young -- the fun of walking together in the spring in Harvard Square. They often spent weekends at Revere Beach in the summer, strolling the boardwalk, eating fish and chips. Those were the days. "What was the name of the roller coaster? Must be getting senile," he thought. "Hurricane, that was it!" After a summer of coaxing she finally gave in -- "All right! All right I'll go," she said. "Oh, it was a wild ride, wasn't it, Jossie -- I was as scared as she was," he remembered. Then, all too quickly, it was over and she wanted to go around again. He told her, "No, you can't go around again." It was like life -- wonderful the first time but you can't go around again. Why was her trip so short? Why did she have to finish before him?

His breakfast was sitting comfortably in his stomach, he was getting drowsy -- it didn't matter. He could be half asleep and work just as well. How long had he been a shoemaker anyway? Had to be thirty years at least -- he could make shoes in his sleep.

Nobody cared if you smoked at Cooper's. The smell of leather, glue and polish covered everything. Gordon reached in his shirt pocket for the fat cigar he bought at the Rainbow Diner and removed the cellophane wrapper. He cut the end off carefully with his curved leather knife, not trusting his rocky lower dentures. He lit the fat end, rotating the cigar slowly until it was evenly lit, he puffed twice, then he turned back and slowly fitted the leather around the last of 57986.

About the time his cigar had burned down halfway, he looked over at old man Cripps. He was working on a pair of women's shoes -- alligator. "My God!" Gordon wondered, "Why would a woman with feet like that want to draw attention to them? She must have bunions like billiard balls."

"Pretty fancy, Cripps -- alligator huh?"

"Yeah, fancy." Since Cripps' stroke last year he suffered from echolalia, he found it difficult to speak until he repeated what he heard. It gave him a running start.

"I mean with feet like hers -- they gonna be brown or black?

"Brown or black, yeah. I don't know, I'll have to check." He turned his order sheet over, "Red ... know what her name is?"

Gordon put his cigar down and stared at Cripps. "You're kidding -- can't be red. What's her name?"

"Her name, yeah. Her name's Jocelyn."

Gordon turned back to his last quickly. Jocelyn was his wife's name and it always hurt when he heard someone else speak her name. Jossie, Thirty years together! It takes forever get used to living without someone you've lived with thirty years -- "Shame about their son Howie. How did he manage to get in so much trouble without us knowing -- he grew up so fast. From a toddler to a drug dealer overnight. Tough on Jossie too -- didn't do her heart any good. Damn kid! Twenty years to life -- due out when he's forty. I won't be around to see him when they let him out -- Damn kid!" Gordon stubbed out the cigar and looked at the wall clock. 11:30. Another half hour he'd be back in the Rainbow Diner and all this would be forgotten.

He put the finishing touches on the shoes for 57986, then laced them carefully making sure the laces were not twisted as they traced their way through the grommets. He wrapped them in the black tissue that was the Cooper hallmark and put them heel to toe in the gold pasteboard box along with the order. His mind slipped back to Jocelyn again. "It's been three years now Jossie," he told himself. "Why does it seem like yesterday?"

Gordon put the box on the finished goods shelf and picked up another order. This one read Black HT/CS 39505. Black high top with cleated soles -- last number 39505. One look at the last and he knew this would be an all afternoon job. Too late to start it now. "The poor man," he mumbled. Anyone could see the deformity -- no toes at all, bulging instep, more hoof than foot. The vision of the wolf man flashed before him. It would be a long afternoon.

"I'm going to lunch," he called over to old man Cripps.

"Yeah, goin' -- go ahead, I'm gonna finish these slippers."

Gordon washed his hands quickly and punched out. He took his old leather coat from the hook on the wall and shrugged himself into it. He could see the neon sign "Rainbow Diner" glowing like a beacon in the blowing snow. He hurried across the street and as he neared the entrance, the weight of the morning lifted from his shoulders. The windows were steamy, brightly lit and the welcome aroma of frying onions drifted out to meet him. He couldn't wait -- "What would it be? No problem." He already decided back at breakfast what he'd have for lunch. The Turkey Bacon croissant would be just what the doctor ordered -- then maybe a slice of coconut custard pie and a killer cup of tea. That would take the curse off last No. 39505.

Lois was not there. A different girl, thinner, wearing a visored cap with the word "Rainbow" in block letters on the front. Her hair was as artificially blond as Lois's was artificially orange. He wondered if Lois alerted her to the generous old man in the black leather jacket. She smiled a posterish smile that flashed on and off as abruptly as a man might turn up a playing card. Gordon sat on the same stool he sat on that morning and looked around him. A man in white overalls from a television cable company -- another man in a brown uniform from UPS and a third man in jeans and a checkered shirt. He was telling a joke to the other two and waiting for the waitress to come close enough to hear the punch line.

"Git this, Clara -- 'he has to try it on before he buys it' -- ain't that a howl?" He rocked to and fro with a strangulated laugh that sounded like a rooting pig. The two men in uniform laughed with polite enthusiasm.

Clara looked blankly at the three of them and shrugged her shoulders. "You want a refill on that coffee, Earl?" She refilled Earl's cup, put the carafe back and walked down to Gordon.

"Wanna menu, hon?"

Ah, it was obvious she hadn't spoken to Lois. "Yes, thank you Clara -- my name is Gordon, by the way, Gordon Sharkey."

She looked at him blankly and handed him a menu from under the counter. "The chili's good. Cook just made it."

"I work in Cooper's Shoes across the street. I had breakfast here this morning -- you weren't here this morning."

"I work lunch and afternoons. Lois works all night -- you want the chili?"

He wanted to know her better, not for any particular reason, but to find a place for her in his vision of the Rainbow Diner. He knew Lois was mercenary, as long as her tip equaled the tab she would remember Gordon to her dying day, and in the end that was the important thing ... to be remembered.

"What's a Turkey Bacon Croissant? it sounds good?

Clara looked grim. "You never had one?"

"No. All I've ever had were two eggs over easy and ...."

"Well he fries up two strips of bacon -- turkey flavored bacon. Then he crumbles it up with shredded lettuce and sliced cucumber, then he drops the whole thing in a pan of scrambled eggs, then he folds it over in a hot cross ant." She took a deep breath and shifted her gum to the other side of her mouth.

"You make it sound better than it probably is, Clara. You ever had one?"

"Uh-uh," she shook her head.

"Gordon will have one, Clara -- and a cup of tea with two tea bags."

"Who's Gordon?"

"I'm Gordon ... Gordon Sharkey, and I know about charging me for two teas."

She looked up quickly, again her poster smile flashed on and off so quickly that Gordon almost missed it. The two uniformed diners pushed themselves backward off their stools and stood up, they waved goodbye to Clara and walked to the register. The man in the checkered shirt sat silently staring at his bill and sipping his coffee. The ambiance was different than it was this morning -- the crowd was different -- Clara was different than Lois. By craning his neck a bit to the left he could see into the kitchen -- the cook was still the same, he was in there this morning. He wore a visor like Clara's and he seemed to be doing three or four things at the same time.

Once more Gordon looked around the Rainbow Diner. Couples sat in booths lined along the window and the stools at the counter were almost full, but there was a chill in the place that he didn't notice this morning. He couldn't put it into words, but he had a feeling of being alone -- not being remembered. Everybody knew each other by their first names. Clara, Earl. The two men in uniform had their names embroidered on the left pocket flap of their jackets, but nobody knew Gordon -- he was out of the loop.

Suddenly he was furious.

He slid off the stool and stood between the counter and the tables at the windows. "I want you all to know me," he shouted. "My name is Gordon -- Gordon Sharkey ... does that name ring a bell with anybody?" Clara, just emerging from the kitchen with his turkey-bacon croissant, turned around and walked back into the kitchen again. People at the tables looked up briefly then looked down again without making eye contact. Those at the counter, pricked up their ears but didn't turn around.

"I guess nobody wants to say hello to Gordon." He said this more to himself than the others. He felt giddy -- like a child who knows he's done something naughty. "I'm a widower. You all know what a widower is don't you? A widow man -- no more lonely person in the fuckin' world than a widow man." He staggered a bit and sat down abruptly at a table occupied by two women.

"Everything ends in death ladies. You know that don't you? The more two people love each other the sadder the story is. My wife went and took me with her." He began to cry and reached for a napkin to wipe his eyes. "The man who outlives a good woman -- is the saddest man of all. There can be no happy ending." He lay his head on the table and shut his eyes.

The cook came out of the kitchen wiping his hands. Clara stood behind him and pointed to Gordon at the table with the two women. One of the women stood up with her hands to her face, staring at Gordon but the other could not get out, she was trapped between him and the window.

The cook looked down at him, then squatted so their heads were at the same level. He was about to speak when Gordon suddenly sat up again and looked around him confused. "What ... wh ... where am I, what am I doing here?"

"You're in the Rainbow, old timer -- the Rainbow Diner."

"Yes, I know. But I was sitting on a stool over there. How did I get here?" He looked at the frightened woman next to him. "Do I know you, madam?"

"No!" She turned to the cook, "Please get him out of here."

Gordon stood up. "I'm all right," he said as the cook took his arm. "I"m myself now. Me. Gordon Sharkey I mean. I make shoes across the street -- Cooper's. They know me over there."

They made their way to the counter only to find someone sitting on his stool, stool number 4. "A good excuse to leave," he thought. He was too embarrassed to eat lunch now. What on earth had gotten into him -- sitting with those women -- "They must think I'm crazy!"

He buttoned his coat, pulled up his collar and left without a backward glance. It was high noon but the day was as gray as it was this morning. The skinny urban trees lining the curb clutched at the sky with their naked branches. No one would ever think spring was just around the corner.

It is the lowest time of the year, he thought. It was about this time, three years ago that poor Jossie died and he remembered the trees at the cemetery looked like these. It was hard to put her down in the cold ground with nothing but the trees for company. He came back every week for a year, sometimes he would bring flowers and put them in a little tin container near the small brass marker that bore her number. 2140 it was -- "Hell of a thing, not to be able to carry your name to your grave."

"We will notify you immediately when the cemetery decides to permit headstones," they said. Until then the gardeners had full access to the lawn -- it looked like a fairway and it was strange to see people bearing bouquets, searching in the grass for the brass markers, looking as though they had dropped something.

He stood outside the door to The Rainbow Diner and tried to rationalize his actions of the last few minutes. He wasn't hungry and he wasn't eager to go back to work. Why couldn't 39505 and his bulging insteps wait until Monday for his shoes. If he could find a place that was warm; where people called you by your name and shook your hand and said they were glad to see you -- like the travel ads in the Sunday paper. But no, he was stuck in the south side of Boston in the cruelest month of the year.

"The thing to do," he thought. "Don't think too far ahead -- Don't think too far back either. One minute at a time." There are shoes to be made this afternoon. "Just think about the shoes."

Part Three

©Harry Buschman 2003

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