Friday, November 12, 2010

Red Hair

She was not alarmed by the ringing of the bell as she pulled the door open. But she was alarmed when she realized that everyone in the diner was staring at her. It was as if they had been warned that a stranger was coming to town and that she just might be it.

It felt like forty-five minutes before she finally recovered from the alarm and decided that she had better find a seat. As she looked around the room, she saw that there were no solitary seats. All the tables in the center were end to end. All the tables on the sides were occupied. It was strangely European here in the middle of the West. You were forced to sit at a table you would never have selected in California. She prayed they wouldn’t look out the window and spot her license plates. But that didn’t really matter anyway—it was clear by her clothing that she was not native to corn, field, or harvest.

Every man in the diner wore denim and caps. No need to take their caps off. They all knew that revealing their starched white foreheads was just not done, except in front of their most intimate associates—their wives, their children, and on rare occasions their ministers.
The women wore cotton or polyester. No city cloth here. No rayon or silk, no lycra or linen—just gabardine and cotton. Theirs were completely durable, colorful, and economical weaves. That’s all that was needed.

The tables were made of chipped Formica and thick particleboard. Years of food remains had been plastered into the cracks and darkened as amber in a petrified forest. It was clean enough as long you didn’t dig into the soap varnish left by thousands of passes of the washrag.

The dishes were faded Melmac, the nuclear bomb–resistant food ware designed in the fifties. She was sure if taken to the firing range they would repel bullets. Clearly there was no reason to get new ones. The mismatched silverware might feel badly.

She sat down next to an elderly gentleman. There was an empty chair on his other side. The uncomfortable silence was briefly broken when she quietly greeted him. He mumbled a rather low reply because it was perfunctory.

She decided to study the menu stitched into its sheathing by some ancient book-sewing machine. The prices were reasonable, probably because they couldn’t get the yellowed cardstock out.
Chicken fried steak and eggs were the morning special. You could get your choice of grits smothered in gravy, biscuits smothered in gravy, or pancakes smothered in syrup. Ah, the food of the gods—or the artery-clogged.

She wondered how long one could stare at a menu. Every now and then she would look up and around, hoping a waitress would come soon. Her eyes met cold non-inquisitive stares instead. She felt as if they had no desire to meet her; they just wanted her out of their one-silo town.
She decided to stick this out. She was very hungry and did not know how far the next town would be or if she would get a reception worse than this. So stick to it she did—like the food that was going to stick to her ribs.

Finally a waitress reluctantly brought her a glass of tepid water. She was told that her menu selection was unavailable. Her second choice was unavailable. Her third choice she could get, but not with pancakes. Okay, take and eat.

She didn’t know what was going to happen next. Did the waitress go back and tip off the cook that the stranger was there? Was there a secret rural code she would not recognize whereby all the people would rise like zombies, slowly shuffle toward her, and remove her bodily from the diner, destroying her car by some ancient magic and leaving her to wander the fields until she was taken in by a family of speaking foxes to be raised as an outsider the rest of her days? She really should stop watching those B movies on Saturday afternoon.

A door in the back of the restaurant swung open. She saw the red hair first. Actually it was orange—bright orange and piled in airy cumulus clouds on top of a cheerful countenance. She could see the sheen of hairspray reflecting the gray diner lighting.

The red hair bounced toward the front of the diner and glided into the chair next to the mumbling man. Immediately, the atmosphere and aura at that chipped table changed for the better. Bright eyes met hers, and conversation was initiated.

“Where are you from?”
“California.”
“Where are you going?”
“Minnesota.”
“Why did you stop in this little town?”
“I was hungry.”
The red hair chatted away. Her husband barely moved. A dull stare seemed to be his greatest effort of the day—besides eating.

They had grown up here and had just come back to bring her mother to a retirement home. Her mother had been ill for some time and now wanted to come home to die. She did not want to die in the city. So Red Hair was glad to be home for a while.

The food came for their table. It was not what she had ordered.

Red Hair kept talking pleasantly and musically while her husband dove into his plate as if it were his last meal.

Her chatting seemed to be the conduit for old memories. There was a cave outside of town by the railroad tracks. That’s where she and her friends used to go to drink and dance. Whoo! What a time they had!

The little town had a newspaper. Now, the newspaper did not exist to tell the news. No! Everyone in town knew what had happened the night before, but everyone snapped up a paper the next morning to find out who did it!

The food wasn’t so bad. The table’s wobble and cracks could become endearing. The diner seemed a bit brighter, the water less warm. The husband smiled across the table. The staring residents had all faded into the background as Red Hair kept talking.

Copyright 2010 M.R.HYDE