Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Pete’s Diner; Part 1

 This is a short story written nearly twenty-five years ago. It will be posted in three parts. This is part one.

Pete's diner was a small building with chipped and peeling yellow paint. A tattered green awning shaded the front window, but the grime and grease kept out the sun. It was surrounded by a gravel parking lot with two abandoned gas pumps.

Pete was approaching his mid-fifties. He was thin with a sunken chest and only shaved on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. He wore grease-soaked basketball shoes, faded jeans, a white undershirt, a paper cooks cap with a jagged sweat stain, and an apron pulled tight around his waist. The apron was saturated with grease splatters, coffee stains, and dried blood. A tattoo of a dagger dripping blood was on his left forearm and a lightning bolt on the right. He had a cynical slant on life and his disposition was bitter and irreverent.

The door opened and the little bell above it jingled.

"You'll have ta wait for a while, we're kinda between breakfast and lunch right now," Pete said without looking up from a Louis Lamour paperback. Pete never served anybody between ten and eleven.

A young man, reeking of men's cologne, shut the door, straddled a stool, and sat down. The young man was dressed in jeans, a brown corduroy jacket, and a red plaid shirt. He had a clean shave and groomed brown hair parted in the middle and swept back on the sides. His cheeks were robust, red, and smooth like ripening plums. His black-rimmed glasses slid low on his nose and he habitually pushed them back even when they remained in place. He wrangled with his gum.

"I'm not here as a customer." he said, "I'm Justin Weeks of the 'Evening Ledger' and I came to do a story on you and the diner." He adjusted his glasses and sat proudly like a dog with a bone expecting some sort of adulation.

Pete sipped his coffee and said, "Take a flyin' leap."

Justin wobbled on his stool surprised at Pete's indifference. "Have you ever read my column?"

"No," Pet said.

"Those whom I featured have noticed a substantial increase in business," Justin said.

"Already got enough business. I don't want no more," Pete said.

"What!" Justin said. The concept was completely foreign to him. He thought Pete was being modest and some persuasion might dislodge his stubbornness. "Nothing big just a little about the place - the history, your specialties, and maybe a few words from some customers."

From a smirk dangled a cigarette and from the cigarette dangled the ashes. His arms were folded with a cup of black coffee in his right hand. "There ain't nothin' ta write about here," Pete said. "The place is a grease pit."

Inside it was narrow and cramped. A green Formica counter ran the length of the room and the top was cluttered with etchings and initials. The counter had eight oak swivel stools, worn smooth and shiny like the butt of a rifle. The gaps in the hardwood floor were impacted with soil and grease and worn smooth like marble. Pete had two grills: one for breakfast items and the other for his specialty -hamburgers. The grill for hamburgers had two inches of liquid grease. The burgers were virtually deep-fried. Next to them was a deep fryer for French fries and a toaster. When the "burger crowd" arrived a jar of pickles, a bowl of onions, a jar of mustard, and ketchup were next. A ten-gallon stainless steel coffee urn stood at the end of the back counter.

Justin looked around the diner. ‘Indeed,’ he thought, ‘it is a grease pit.’ Above him were two ceiling fans that were gummy with grease, sometimes a glob flung across the room and splattered against the wall. The room was shaded in amber like a sunset casting its final ray into a musty forsaken room.

"Look how about just a small piece on the place and that will be it," Justin said.

Pete tossed the cigarette angrily to the floor and crushed it with his foot. He turned to face Justin. His head swayed back and forth like a willow tree in a wind storm. "Ya write one word about me or this place and I'll sue you, yer paper, and the horse ya rode in on."

Justin reached into his pocket and slammed a quarter on the counter. "Coffee, black," he demanded.

"I said we're between breakfast and lunch," Pete said emphatically and punctuated with a fist to the counter.

"The sign on the door says 'open' and I want served," Justin said stiff-chinned.

Pete studied Justin's eyes, looking for the slightest movement or evidence of retraction.

Justin's eyes were dry and unrelenting.

Pete went to the urn and drew the coffee and sat it before Justin splattering some over the sides of the cup.

"Thanks," Justin said. He moved the cup to his lips blowing the steam from the surface. He squinted as he sipped. His face screwed up. "Geez, that's the worst damn coffee I've ever had. When was it fresh yesterday?"

"That's pretty good," Pete said. "Now kin ya tell me what time?"

Justin displayed a shrinking smile, turned serious, and said "I can do a story on this place with or without you," Justin said, " and there is no way you can stop me." Justin rejected the cup sliding it away with the back of his hand. He rejected the attempted intimidation from Pete.

"Why this place?" Pete said.

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