by Todd Skaggs
The first thing that hits you when you walk through the door of the Last Chance Diner is the smell of grease traps that are about twenty years past needing to be empty. The second is the thin film of desperation that covers everything. It hangs in the air like the wisp of a spider web you never mean to walk through yet somehow shake off for the next few minutes, wondering where in the world it came from.
The music coming out of the two tweed covered boxes hanging above the griddle and filling the nearly empty dining room was clearly from some station. The music seemed right at home amongst the table tops and booths that had been recovered in countless layers of vinyl over the decades.
The diner, to most just passing through, seemed to be a place out of time. To us locals, though, it was the heart of our community. In spite of the first impression it cast to the unknowing eye, the Last Chance Diner was the soul of what made our little town of Mabock, home.
Currently Jan and Dean were singing about a senior citizen from California who apparently has a lead foot and loves to race.
The place was called the Last Chance Diner, but there was some disagreement about how it came to have that name. The tourists are all told the same thing. It's called the Last Chance Diner because it’s the “Last chance for a decent meal for 3 hours anyway you leave town.”
That part was true. The only hot food you could get before you got to the city was sitting on a roller for hours just waiting for the next hungry person to fuel up their car.
One story that only the locals seemed to know was that the diner was an ultimatum. Over seventy years ago, Old Man Tabas and his Missus were having problems. He sunk their entire savings in to the diner. He said it was the last chance to save their marriage.
Another locals only legend has it that the Last Chance Diner was the only thing that the fire of ‘63 happened to skip when it threatened to burn the town down. It was the town’s last chance to not fade in to ashen oblivion.
There was probably someone in the town who knew the truth, but they weren’t talking.
I looked around. A few ladies fresh from the woman’s auxiliary or some other churchy group sat at the bar. Their low conversation occasionally interrupted when one of them let loose with a cackle that split the dull murmur of the diner like a shotgun blast on a still night. The outburst was usually short lived and they quickly went back to their shared order of fries and coveted slices of pie: blueberry, chocolate, and a banana creme that was to die for.
“To die for.” The waitress made sure to emphasize it twice.
In the fancier restaurants in the bigger cities, they didn’t call them waitresses. They called them servers.
In a place like the Last Chance, they were waitresses. Literally waiting for something, anything, to happen. For some kind of magic to walk in.
The universe has a funny way of rewarding those who resign themselves to waiting.
The Leader of the Pack abruptly cut, as though the needle of the record were being angrily dragged across the vinyl. Static. Then Nina Simone started in crooning in a sensuously lazy way about a spell she was putting on some poor unfortunate soul.
The door to the diner swung wide as the first strains of the chorus poured out of the speakers.
“You’re not welcome here.” The voice, angry came out from the opening in the wall that looked in to the kitchen.
I looked up. Something had the normally unflappable Pops riled up. No, not something, someone.
“Aww, c’mon Pops. The prodigal son has returned.”
The prodigal son, as he called himself, stood just shy of six-feet. Average build. Everything about him was completely forgettable.
Except his eyes.
His eyes had the glint of a new dime in the summer sun. No matter how much you wanted to look, the flare was too intense. A second was the longest I could look at him before I had to turn back to the plate on my table.
The food so colorful and fresh just a minute before looked….flat. Somehow not as vibrant.
I, too, felt flat, as the gray blanket of indifference covered me.
“Sorry, brother. You looked a little too long. It’ll wear off soon.”
It took me a minute to figure out that he was talking to me.
“Mmm hmm. Um..thanks?” I didn’t register that the words were coming out of my mouth, but there they were.
The man smiled at that and turned back to the kitchen. His walk was slow and with a purpose.
It reminded me of a jungle cat stalking a wounded gazelle.
The waitress, soft in all the right places, but still hardened by years of working third shift, stepped in his path.
“Oh darlin’, you do not want to be doing that.” The amicable tone had a dark edge to it.
I was fighting the urge to face him full on and watch the scene unfold, but the fear kept me from fully engaging. I settled for a slight tilt, giving my peripheral vision a slight boost.
I was seeing what appeared to be a stand-off. The mystery man stopped short. The waitress stood two feet in front of him, blocking his way to the kitchen. Blocking his way to Pops.
“Nadene, please close out your tables. We’re closing early.” The command came slowly, deliberately from the kitchen behind the waitress. There was a tone of resignation in the voice.
I couldn’t believe my ears. In the years that I had been coming here, I never saw Pops close a shift early. He prided himself on keeping up with the three other cooks in his employ.
“Sorry folks. I need to ask you to finish up. Nadene will get you to-go boxes. Your meals are on the house tonight. It appears I have a family reunion.” Pops voice quietly filled the diner. He wasn’t shouting, yet somehow, everyone heard him as though he were at each table making the announcement personally to each patron.
The figure stood silently in the center of the diner. A slight smile slithered across his face as he saw everyone bustling about like panicked ants that had crossed a trail of cinnamon powder and suddenly lost their way.
Nadene was at my table before I knew fully what was happening, styrofoam to-go container in hand.
“I’m so sorry, sweetie. I don’t know what any of this is about.” I heard her apologizing, but the words sounded like they were coming from a radio station that wasn’t quite fully in tune. I knew what the words were, but it took me longer to put together what they actually were. And there was a hiss of static surrounding them.
“He’s not going to be processing things normally for a hot minute, darling.”
Those words I heard. Crystal clear. They came from him. From the man that had Pops spooked enough to close the Last Chance early. Something that hadn’t happened since the day of Ma’s funeral. And even then, Pops was working the griddle, tie loosened and sleeves rolled up. He said cooking eased the aching in his soul. He said that Ma would want him to take care of their friends, especially when she couldn’t be there to do it.
But this wasn’t like that at all. This was different.
I looked at the empty styrofoam container on the table next to the half eaten bacon cheddar burger on my plate.
I knew what needed to happen. Logically it made sense. I needed to put the food on the plate into the container on the table. And I needed to get the fuck out of there.
But I, I couldn’t. Something was just...off. I saw all of the pieces of the puzzle and knew the picture they were supposed to make, but for some reason I couldn’t put the pieces together.
Then I felt it. The chill that comes on a winter morning when you roll over in bed and the sheet falls to the floor. The cool air of the room hits your body like a bucket of ice. This was that same feeling.
And suddenly the pieces clicked.
“Annnnd, he’s back.”
I heard the voice, but I didn’t dare look. This last...holy shit, has it really been….twenty minutes was hell. I quickly scooped the food into the container, and left a few bucks on the table. Just because this asshole was causing Pops to close early and I knew Nadene was counting on those tips.
“You take care, Mikey.” I heard Pops call behind me, but I still couldn’t turn to look. I shot up a hand to give a wave as I pushed the thick glass door open and stepped out to meet the cold night air.
I heard Pops saying something as the door closed behind me, but I couldn’t make out the words. The thick double pane glass taking its turn at blurring the words coming to my ears. I got to my car a few seconds later. The thoughts that had been camping out like the snow cap on a mountain fell down in an avalanche of confusion as I tried to make sense of what happened.
As I was pulling out of my parking spot, I saw Nadene walking out to her car. I slowed, waiting to make sure she got in safely. As I continued my departure, I saw the lights flickering inside the diner. The neon ‘OPEN’ sign went dark as did the large sign facing the highway.
Neither of which had ever happened in my lifetime.
It wasn’t a far drive home. It wasn’t a far drove from any place to any other place in Mabock. The town’s second and third traffic lights had been erected in my lifetime.
I pulled into McHenry Estates and weaved my way through the single and double-wides until I came to my home. A 32-foot double that had been left to me by my uncle, the only family I ever remembered.
I grabbed the to-go container from the passenger seat and climbed the three steps to my postage-stamp of a porch. I could hear shuffling behind the door. I braced myself for the pounding I would get as soon as I crossed the threshold.
Sure enough, the thick paws of the grey-brown elkhound landed just below my chest as I walked in.
“Hey there Samson!” I knew he was excited to see me, his tail told me as much. I learned long ago not to keep anything valuable no lower than 4ft from the ground or somehow it would get whacked by his tail.
“Let me set this stuff down then we’ll go for our walk, buddy. I know. Oh, I know. I missed you, too.” I raised Samson from a pup. I got him the same week I got the keys to the trailer. I grew up in the trailer and the thought of being the only living thing in there just didn’t sit well with me. Barry over on Rt. 38 had a litter of pups from his bitch and I got first pick. I didn’t pick Samson, he picked me. That was seven years ago and he still had the energy he had when he was a pup.
I opened the fridge and looked for a place to put the to-go container. I settled on putting it on top of the 12 pack of PBR on the bottom shelf. There were no other take home containers on that shelf, so it would be easy to remember that it was the most recent.
I should probably clean that fridge out soon. My thoughts were interrupted by an anxious elkhound holding a leash in his mouth and looking at me expectantly.
Ruffling the fur on his head I smiled. “Ok buddy, just a quick walk around the park. It’s late and there’s some crazy shit going on out there tonight.” I remembered the weirdness at the Last Chance and wondered what was happening with Pops right now. I still felt the remnants of whatever voodoo whammy that guy threw my way. It wasn’t prominent like it had been in his presence, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was still there, lingering. That was enough send a chill up my spine. I reached for the fleece hanging on the hook by the door. I threw it on and then latched the leash in to Samson’s collar before stepping out in to the cool autumn air.
***The trailer park was well lit and none of the uneasiness I felt on the drive home followed me around as I let Samson get his daily walk in.
As we circled back from our circuit and approached the trailer, though, something felt off. I noticed Samson slowing. He felt it too. I heard a low, steady growl and when I looked down, the hackles on his neck were standing at full attention
We both stopped.
The door to my trailer stood open. It wasn’t opened wide, but it was definitely not closed. I was certain I had closed it. I could see movement inside. Whoever was in there was not randomly tossing the place. I could see through the curtained windows that they were moving from the front of the trailer to the back. I decided to let it play out. There was nothing of value in the trailer. Anyone who knows me knows I use it as a place to sleep and write. And occasionally drink and screw. The most valuable thing that was ever in that trailer was at the end of the three foot leash I was holding, growing more agitated by the second.
“Easy, buddy. Won’t be long now.” I walked to a bench in a green patch of land the trailer park owners called a park. A Walmart swing set, sandbox, and a couple of park benches didn’t make it a park, but it still served its purpose. Tonight its purpose was letting me get a good look at whomever was in my apartment.
I sat in the bench that afforded me a direct view of my trailer. Samson lay at my feet. To the untrained eye, he looked like he was napping. He wasn’t. He was still aggravated and ready to spring in to action at a moment’s notice. For the moment, he was taking his cues from me. I was chill. He was chill.
The doorway to the trailer darkened as a figure loomed, momentarily filling the whole opening as it ducked and crossed the threshold. Stepping out onto the porch, it looked left and then right. Before leaving, it turned and took one last look inside the trailer.
I could feel Samson tense up at my feet. Something had him more on edge than I’d ever seen him. That made me decidedly less chill as I watched this intruder leave.
As he turned to walk off, I saw the moonlight flash in his eyes. The queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach was all the reminder I needed. I knew those eyes. They belonged to the asshat that had put the whammy on me at Pops. What the fuck could I have that he would be looking for.
I did my best impersonation of a statue. When I saw the figure leave the porch and go around the side of the trailer, I finally let out the breath I’d been holding. My chest burned as I stood. Samson was eager to return.
I crossed the distance of the courtyard and hit the porch of the trailer taking the steps two at a time. Samson also bounded up the steps, keeping pace. I stopped at the doorway and looked in.
Not one single thing was out of place. Not. One. Single. Thing.
What the fuck? I thought. This makes no sense. Why go through the trouble of cleaning my trailer up. Unless he didn’t want me to know that he was there. And if that was the case, why would he leave the door open? None of this made any sense at all.
I walked in and that’s when it hit me. The wave of nausea wrapped around me like a blanket. I turned as I started falling to the floor, vision fading. Samson was on the porch looking concerned but he didn’t come inside.
“Goddamned threshold spell.” I mumbled. Before things went dark, I saw a shadowy figure coming up the stairs and stand just behind Samson.
“Good boy,” he said, patting Samson’s head. “Dogs are always smarter than humans when it comes to detecting magic. You really should have listened to yours, Mikey. I could hear him trying to warn you. Have a good nap. We’ll talk more in the morning my friend.”
Friend? The word didn’t make any sense. Nothing made any sense right now.
Except the darkness. The blanket of darkness that was wrapping around me brought me to a place that was far more comforting than it should be, considering the danger I was in.
The first thing that hits you when you walk through the door of Sonny’s Diner is the smell of a new day. It’s like walking through the best parts of your favorite air freshener. It seems that no matter what the day is like outside, when you walk in, there is always a light of hope. It’s an odd sensation. Most newcomers to the diner don’t quite know how to explain the feeling. Most of the locals have grown used to it.
The music coming from the barely noticeable Bose sound cubes is usually a mix of folksy alternative and an eclectic mix of music that would rival most big city coffee houses. On Friday nights, there’s usually a small band or combo set up in the corner. The music was a stark but welcome contrast to the worn table tops and mismatched vinyl covering the seats of most of the booths in the place.
To most passing through, the place had an air of nostalgia. There was enough of the diner vibe to harken back to a time when going to a greasy spoon was not simply an after-bar destination.
Sonny had taken over the diner from Pops and had renamed it. No one in the town could quite remember when that all had happened. In the minds of most, it had always been Sonny’s Diner.
I sat there looking at his bacon burger with a sense of unease.
This is so fucking weird. I thought as I tried to work out the missing pieces to this puzzle.
“What’s weird, Mikey?” A figure was by my table side. I didn’t see him come out of the kitchen, yet here he way, by my table.
It was Sonny himself. Unlike what people remembered of Pops, Sonny was always around. He could be seen going from table to table, mingling with the guests and making sure the got what they needed and they had the best meal they could have for the low price they were paying.
“I was just thinking that something seems off, Sonny. I can’t put my finger on it, but something isn’t right.”
I don’t know why I was telling Sonny this. As far as I could remember, we were best friends. I’d known Sonny since I was a kid. There’s pictures of us up on the walls here and there in the diner in various stages of our lives. I have to be honest, though, when I look at the pictures, I see me, but I have absolutely no memory of whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing in the pictures.
Doesn’t much matter, though. Sonny seems to always be there just in time to fill in any missing gaps.
His eyes always shone with the fiery glint of a newly minted dime in the summer sun. As he smiled at me, all felt right and I went back to eating the best bacon cheeseburger in Mabock.
Nina Simone started playing quietly over the speakers. I always did love this song. I think that’s why Sonny kept it on the playlist. Somehow he knew.
He always knows.