Tom’s Diner-A Short Story

(In addition to running, I sometimes find other things to do. I do some photography, which I post some pictures of, and I read a lot. Normally the quotes I post are from books or authors that I have just read and enjoyed. Additionally, I write a bit. Here is a fictional story I recently wrote that has nothing to do with running, but hopefully, you will still find enjoyable.)

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Tom’s Diner

Charles wakes up at 6am, he does this everyday. His life is a routine. The alarm isn’t set for any particular reason, except to have a reason to get out of bed. It’s depressing to sleep in and to wake up only to realize there is nothing on the day’s agenda. Charles may be old, but he still has his mind, and he knows this little trick gives the allusion of purpose, rather than actually providing one. Being tired is good. People who do things, important things, feel tired. So Charles wakes up sleepy, gets out of the house, and starts the day. This is how things were before his regretful retirement, and they’ll most likely stay this way until he no longer can.

The railing that runs parallel to the stairs is Charles best friend. It’s there for him when he needs it, but it doesn’t need to be carried around to remind him of his weakness. That means no cane. His steps are slow, but he’s racing the sun. As it crests over the horizon in front of him, he steps into the same restaurant once again, with the cathedral casting a shadow over Broadway. He doesn’t order food; it’s already being prepared. Adolfo is wearing the same Yankee cap that he’s been wearing since 2001, and just like his wardrobe, his morning customers stay the same. The whole-wheat toast pops out, and he pours the coffee, and passes the cream cheese and strawberry jam. The stomach prefers monotony.

Charles gives Adolfo a nod, and opens up his newspaper to read what happened while he was asleep. There is no chatting to the same man that serves him everyday, or the widow who sits at the booth behind him. He goes about his business, and has his second cup of coffee, just as black as the first. Charles watches as the tourists come in, and he blames them for the higher menu prices. It wasn’t like this in the 1980’s, before this restaurant turned into a destination.

Charles pays $5 even, with the tip included, a small admission fee for the comfort of keeping things the same. He heads past the stream of students winding in and out of the sidewalk’s traffic to make it to class. He remembers the days he could move side to side with swift direction changes. Now he breaks up his commute into 25 steps at a time, resting for a moment to catch his breath at each checkpoint. Charles sits down on a bench in the middle of a split in the road, and he’s surrounded by a garden that is still holding onto the previous spring’s blossoms. In his back pocket is a book, just sleek enough to fit, like an oversized wallet. Before he opens it to read he takes an instant to relax. This day is satisfying for Charles. Most are. He’s walked the distance of a few blocks before 9am, and he’s exhausted, but happy.

He opens up his book midway through, to where a crisp dollar bill is holding the place of where he left off. It’s a thin book, but his eyes can’t scan like they once did. On the other side of the street corner’s garden, he sees a young man carrying a big fancy camera. He looks young and intently bohemian. The young man walks up to a man playing a guitar and drops a couple dollars into his hat. But he stands around and waits for the song to finish. He sits down on the bench beside the guitar player, and a conversation begins, but Charles loses interest and gets back to his book. His head turns slowly as they follow the words on the page. He’s consumed.

Charles hears an excusatory cough, and takes eyes off the paper to see a pair of beat up, navy blue converse shoes standing in front of him. It’s the young man.

 

-Excuse me sir, would you mind if I sat with you for a moment?

Charles just stares at him blankly. He’s ruffled by the forwardness of this gentleman to interrupt an old man sitting on a bench in peace. He looks at him, and tries to read his intent. There are countless benches surrounding his own, and he sees no need to sit on top of each other, except this man is obviously looking for a conversation. Charles does not say yes, but slides over half an inch to the left, which is invitation enough.

-My name is Wellington. I am a local student studying photography, and was wondering if you’d be willing to chat with me and assist me in a project I am working on. You may call me Well–it’s a nickname.

Charles has been awake for hours, but he hasn’t made a single sound with his mouth yet. There just hasn’t been anyone to talk to, and there’s been no reason. It’s not a choice, but lack of opportunity. Now sitting close enough to his right hip to feel the warmth of this student is Well, a stupid name. He seems interested, and Charles is uncomfortable with this. No one is supposed to be interested in anyone else in New York.

 

-Sure you may. I don’t see how I could be of help, however.

-As I said, I am a photography student and I am working on a project. The project is about the people of New York. I’d like to take your picture.

-If that’s all you want, I suppose so.

-But I’d also like to hear about you, and just get an idea of who it is you are. It’ll help me portray you better, and how to represent you. A picture can tell an incredible story, but with just a few details, an audience can connect and get to know the subject.

-My name is Charles. I am 83. I live in New York. Is that it?

-Ha, that’s a start. What do you do?

-Nothing, I am retired. That’s why I am sitting on this bench on a Tuesday morning and not in an office.

-What did you previously do?

-I was a butcher. I owned a shop up in Yonkers with my brother. That was twenty years ago.

-What happened to the shop?

-It’s gone. What does this have to do with me in one of your pictures? Was the guitar player not good enough for you, son?

Charles wiggled his body away from his inquisitive interviewer. This was the worst question he could have asked. Seemingly innocent, but it’s not the type of story Charles shares. It still stings. If his brother were still alive, he’d punish him for some of the stunts he pulled. He was supposed to handle the numbers, and leave the butchering to Charles. Their hands told the different stories. Charles had thick sausage-like fingers. They carried things and they cut things. Not his brother. He was not the physical type, unless you count talking as physical. He was overtly unctuous, and could excuse his way out of a ticket. But he tried to be too sly, and his false accounting was eventually found out. He died the week before the IRS came knocking. Charles went from crying while expressing his love for his brother during an emotional eulogy before a small crowd of distant friends, to hating him for all the same reasons that he was so loved. He found shortcuts, and he took the easy way out, but he was so likably open about his flaws. It was attractive in a sense. He could fill a room with laughter instead, and a day was better with his quips. But keeping the tax forms honest was apparently too much work. Twenty years later, and Charles is still struggling to forgive that mistake, but he can accept it.

-I’m sorry, how about that book? What are you reading?

-‘The Stranger,’ it’s by Albert Camus. I have read it a lot.

-Why do you read the same book so many times?

-I like this one. I will read others, but I always come back to this. Meursault, that’s the name of the main character, no matter how many times I read it, I can’t figure him out.

-Isn’t that the same guy who wrote about the guy who carries that rock up the mountain every day?

-Yes, Sisyphus. When he gets the rock to the top, it rolls back down. His life is filled with this, everyday the same, but he is happy. I am sure this will help you make a great photograph.

-Forget the project, that’s not important. I am curious to hear more about you.

-I’m glad an old man on a bench with a book can be so entertaining to you, but I have to go. I am going to be late to meet a friend.

As Charles was gathering himself, and motioning to stand up, Wellington jumped up. At this surprise, Charles sat back down. The picture. Wellington asked him to show his book, and to look away. He would take five pictures, fiddle with his camera, and change his angle. It seemed rushed. He did not want to take up anymore of this man’s time, so he worked quickly. Charles didn’t know what to do. It was awkward. Before walking away, Wellington offered to send Charles the picture when it was finished.

-I have plenty of pictures from when I had more hair.

Charles put his book on his pocket, and began the next part of his day. He’d be late, by only a minute, but a minute wasn’t too long for Fred to worry. Fred is a veteran. His wife passed away a few years ago, and now the difference between a good and bad day is if he can win this chess match. Their record is mostly even. They never keep score, but it seems that way. Charles never had a wife. He was close. It’d be nice to have someone to sit with in the evening, but he’s content in his independence. Charles has friends who can spend hours on the couch in complete silence with their wives. He does not know what that is like, but it sounds dull.

-Why didn’t you ever get married?

-It didn’t work out. You only have so many chances with these things, and mine didn’t work out.

Charles has this tendency of ending conversation abruptly. An answer that is vague enough to avoid the question. Fred and Charles met late in life. They are not the childhood friends who know each other’s history. They only met a couple of years ago. Charles had never known Fred’s wife. But now they’re so intertwined in the monotony of it all, they couldn’t remember what it was like previously. Before they sat down to start their game, they purchased a hot dog from the cart on the north side of the street. Always with sauerkraut. Fred introduced Charles to a world beyond ketchup and mustard. The match is never timed, it’s quietly competitive, but slamming a clock at the end of each turn would stir too many emotions.

Fred wins today. They sit looking out on the Hudson for some time. When bikers or runners pass by, they’ll maybe turn to each other and comment. Nothing exciting happens, which is normal. A handshake and a farewell; and Charles heads in the direction of the grocery store. The rest of the day is fairly typical. He heads to the frozen section in the pack, and finds a half price meat. It is about to go bad, if it has not already. He has money. But he is still frugal. That is after all, why he has money. He heads to the canned aisle, and gets a vegetable. This makes it simple when he is home. He puts meat and the canned vegetable on the stove at a low simmer. He has the time.

After dinner, he sits in the chair next to the TV. There is a fat cushion on the wooden rocker, making the uncomfortable chair slightly tolerable. He opens his book to read, as Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune creates  background noise. He’ll look up to watch for a few minutes if there is a category he favors. But he doesn’t really care for “Islands of the Caribbean” or “The Art of Shaving.” Just as the sun is barely ducking beneath the sky, he changes into a pair of loose flannel pants and takes his socks and collared shirt off. He collapses into bed, and when his head rests on the pillow, he is asleep. Tomorrow will be much like today, and it will be draining.

At 6:29 AM, Adolfo drops the bread into the toaster. He turns towards the door when the bell rings over head and there is a woman. She approaches him, and asks to sit at the counter. She is middle aged, with hair that is fighting to remain dark.  Her name is Megan. She orders a cup of tea, with milk. At 6:30, she is sitting alone, with her body faced towards the door. She is waiting for Charles, who she was told would be here at this time. Charles doesn’t normally have many visitors, but when he does, they know where to find him. He has lived his whole life like a clock, and you can predict what’s next.

But not today. Today will not be like yesterday for Charles. His body peacefully rests in the bed of his third floor apartment. Today was not a tragedy for Charles, he accepted this day long ago. As he passed, he was not aware, and how and when did not matter. At least not to Charles.

At 6:32, Adolfo keeps checking the door. This is the latest Charles had ever been. Megan orders a couple of eggs cooked sunny side up, and an order of toast to soak up the yolk. Adolfo doesn’t know Charles, at least not as a friend. But he is a part of his life; he is a constant. When his world is chaos, Charles remains simply, there.

-Excuse me, I am looking for an old bald man, his name is Charles. I was told I would be able to meet him here at this time. Am I mistaken?

-Miss, Charles comes in every day. He always sits at the spot next to where you wait. But he is not here today. I am sorry.

The toaster popped a long time ago, and the warmed bread is now cooling. Adolfo removes the toast and places it upon a plate. He hesitantly puts it in front of Megan, as she waits for her eggs. She pays her bill and before she goes she checks with Adolfo one more time.

 

-So you are absolutely certain a man name Charles comes in here every morning?

-Yes, he was in yesterday, and the day before and the day before. I don’t know where he is. If I see him, I can tell him you were looking for him. What is your name?

-My name is Megan. Could you have him call me on this number please?

-Of course. Should I tell him anything else? What’s your relation?

-I’m his daughter.

-I didn’t know he had a daughter.

-Neither did he.

Megan walks past the register with her heels dragging behind her. It took her a long time to collect the courage to come and try and meet her father, and the day she finally does, he is not the one place she was told he would certainly be. Her heart is still beating, and she feels deflated. She had pictured today going differently. And now she imagines her father getting a note with a number saying that his daughter had come in looking for him. He’ll be so confused, this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Before the door shuts behind her, she pokes her head back in and yells to Adolfo.

 

-Actually, forget it. I just moved nearby. I’ll come in again–tomorrow. 

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Author: kylemerber

Kyle Merber is a professional runner for HOKA One One and the New Jersey*New York Track Club. He has personal bests of 3:34/3:52 but would prefer that not be included in his bio because he believes his writing should be judged independently. He tweets a lot @TheRealMerb.

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