The Nomad Diner
Sharon Frame Gay
Leaving my job at the Nomad Diner after midnight, I wander down quiet streets on weary feet. Sometimes I hide from the night skies and take a cab home, letting the stars dance without me. But not tonight. My footsteps echo through the sleeping streets, keeping time with my thoughts as I look up at the moon.
When I was a child, I'd look at the sky and pretend to take bites out of the moon. I imagined it was why it waxed and waned through its cycles. I chewed it into halves, crescents, and slivers. Then nibbled at the empty sky until it rose again.
Sometimes I still do...
I work the evening shift. Customers pass through the restaurant in phases. Early evening brings families, reaching for baskets of bread and wiping children's faces. Tables are strewn with sticky straw wrappers and crumbs. Vegetables linger on sodden plates, limp and sulky looking. I carry them into the kitchen to Juan, the equally sulky dishwasher.
He scrapes the plates into the garbage with a grunt. "Make that kid eat his corn! He didn't even touch the green beans!"
It is a personal offense to Juan. As a child, there was never enough to eat. Now he shakes his head and frowns, remembering a hungry belly. It is as though he visits his past each night when he cleans up. Juan turns away, stacks the plates in the washer, a limp piece of lettuce stuck to his shoe.
Later, the drunks wander in. The drinkers are surly, exuberant, angry, and joyful. Their moods shift like mercury. They flatter me when I walk up to their booth. Then I'm punished by whatever sets their minds ablaze, as the booze ignites and holds them hostage until they go home and sleep it off.
There's Bret, the town alcoholic, here every Friday. I've never seen him sober. The smell of whiskey follows him like a disciple as he douses himself with his own religion of regret. He's never kind. Nor does he leave a tip. I don't enjoy waiting on him. Petulant, I wipe the table when he sits down, and leave it wet. He puts angry elbows on the dampness and frowns.
Bret searches the diner for me, aims, and fires. “Shit, Mickey, get over here and dry this table off, for Christ's sake, “ he says, tossing a used napkin on the floor in a tantrum.
Several beers later, anger foreshadows sadness. He cries for his brother, killed so long ago in Viet Nam. "They couldn't even find half of his body!" he wails. He thirsts in his sorrow, eyes bleak with memories. The hair on the nape of his neck is too long. It peers out from under his baseball cap as he bows his head in grief.
I think about his brother, pieces of him missing in a delta far away. I think of severed hands clasped in prayer, lying in a rice paddy. Snot and tears trickle down Bret's face. I hand him another napkin. He grasps my wrist. His fingers linger. I feel the heat from his loss as it seeps into my spirit.
Then I gently remove his hand, walk away, and take my first moon bite of the night.
Lawrence is a horny drunk. His wife is asleep in their four-poster at home, tired from raising their children. Lawrence sits at the counter on his favorite stool. The one placed just so. This way, he can watch my ass when I bend over the cutlery tray and dig out the spoons. I turn around and catch his dreamy look, straighten my skirt, and glare.
He bares an oily grin. “Mickey, when are you going to come over here and let me give you a little kiss? “ he asks but doesn't wait for my reply. It's been the same answer for five years now.
He's not bad looking, with deep green eyes and russet hair, a fine body, and a slightly off-kilter nose that gives him a mysterious look. There's dirt under his fingernails. I imagine them kneading my breasts and stroking my belly as he hitches me up against him on the stool. His hair smells like a brand of shampoo women use. I picture him squeezing the bottle in the shower, setting it back on the ledge with his wife's razor and special soaps. I wonder if he thinks of me when he lathers himself in their matrimonial bathroom, hands gliding between his legs, rubbing, washing his desire down the drain. The drain she scrubs each week.
I turn away, ashamed. Step out the back door into the dark alley for a smoke, and take another bite. Let the moon wash over me and dry my wetness with its milky cloth.
It was a man like Lawrence who caught me during a Hunter's Moon. As the earth rotated, he spilled his seed into me. He never returned to the diner. But his blue eyes did, again and again, as I look at my four-year-old daughter and wonder what to tell her on the inevitable day she asks for truth. What is my truth? It was a summer night, a lonely heart, her father full as the lunar sphere, now off to the other side of the world where the sun comes up, leaving me alone in the darkness.
The ground rumbles as several eighteen-wheelers pull off the shoulder of the highway, and truckers stride in, stretching and yawning. They sit at the counter like turtles on a log, hunkered over their coffee cups, blinking under fluorescent lights.
Tim is one of them. We dated back in high school. I don't remember why we broke up. Tim's a good guy. He looks the same, lanky with blond hair that falls across his forehead and a cleft chin. I remember swaying with him on the dance floor. How he smelled of his father's Old Spice. How I rested my head on his chest. Now he has a wife and three kids in Sioux City.
“Hey Mick, come over here. I got somethin' for ya, “ he says and pulls a small packet out of his shirt pocket. It's a keychain from New Mexico, with Kokopelli dangling from it.
I lean over, take the keychain, place it on my ring finger, and give him a peck on the cheek. His day-old bristles tickle my lips and make me laugh. "Thank you, Timmy, “ I say. He gives me a one-armed hug, the way a brother would. I long for him to hold me. Kokopelli dances on my finger. I press it to my heart and wink.
Lawrence slams his bottle down on the counter, slides off the stool, and leaves. He sprays gravel as he guns the car out of the parking lot.
Late at night come the weary travelers. The Nomad Diner clings to the side of the highway like a barnacle, riding the underbelly of tarmac and hosting the schools of vagabonds who swim down a road leading to places I only dream about. They push through the door, pick up the menu, and navigate their order. I stand with pencil poised. They don't look up but rattle off the burgers with no onions, the endless cups of coffee, a cheese Danish. The wayfarers settle for only an hour or so, leaving fingerprints on the table for me to wipe away.
I peer out the window as they pile into cars and turn back on to the road, shedding the diner like leaves in the autumn. Then I turn away, sad, unable to figure out why. On those nights, I only nibble on the moon, careful to leave slivers for the walk home.
Jemma, my daughter, is why I eat the moon. I made a promise to keep her safe and fed, so I walk home in the darkness with sandwiches in my pockets and change in my purse. Tips lie at the bottom of the bag. Pennies and dimes. Who gives pennies? You'd be surprised. They go into a jar in the kitchen until it fills. Then the bank changes the coins for paper. I am always disappointed.
Tonight is a quarter moon. I have eaten enough of it to cheat the tide. And still I hunger. Tonight I yearn to walk to the highway's edge and let it pull me into another realm, where I'd scoop Jemma from her bed under the buttery light from the window. I'd tuck her into the back seat of the car I hope to buy someday, beneath her pink blanket and stuffed rabbit.
As we drive, I'll turn on the bright lights so I won't miss a thing. I don't want to miss the feral cat that turns radiant eyes towards us as we pass. Nor the way the night breeze stirs through the prairie grass, a river of wind that flows through empty plains. We'll see silhouettes of passengers in the lane next to us, faces illuminated as they light a cigarette and lean down to twist the radio dial. I'll turn on the local station; pretend we are all listening to the same song.
Blinking, I return from my dreams and place the “closed “ sign in the window. The Nomad Diner is quiet now, except for the churning of the dishwasher. Juan says goodnight and ducks out the back door with a bag of garbage, his footsteps fading down the alleyway.
Wiping down the counter, I hope the moon is full soon. Then, I will swallow it whole and let it shine through me on the walk home—an immigrant on a quest to somewhere better.
About the Author
Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. She has been internationally published in anthologies and literary magazines, including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thrice Fiction, Crannóg, Saddlebag Dispatches, and others. Her work has won prizes at Women on Writing, Rope and Wire Magazine, and The Writing District. She has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. Sharon's collection of short stories, Song of the Highway, is available on Amazon. Amazon @ https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01HN5AGXK Facebook: Sharon Frame Gay-Writer. Twitter: sharonframegay.