For the past Six years, a family of four frequented the diner.
There was a tiny black haired three year old boy with striking brown eyes and a habit for knocking over cherry milkshakes. His sister, five, was no better with the salt. They took after the father in the way of hair color but everything else was their mothers. The bow shaped lips, the slight tilt of their eyes and the deep dimple.
Their mother was a silent kind of beauty. Gorgeous in the understated way. Like in the way she would sweep her hair back into a bright pink hair band that she carried incase her daughter lost hers. Or the way she would wear her watch upside down some mornings and tilt her head to the side to discern the upside-down time. Or it was how she ordered pancakes and let her children eat no matter how many they wanted; even if it left her on an empty stomach.
The father was loud in every way. Not only in the deep timbre of his voice or the rich baritone of his laugh; but in the way his love would scream through his eyes, magnified through his glasses and blazing over his family. He too would starve for his children if it made them happy. But he always reprimanded them when they spilt their food over the laminated table top. And for six years the diner had watched the family grow into a family. Watch them grow from two to three and finally to four with the same benevolence of proud grandparents.
They were late this morning. Strange but not unusual for a family whose toddler loved running but hated clothes. But when the hours stretched past in a crashing crescendo of a tsunami, there was still no family.
And after school had been let out and the time allotted for screaming children and the clinking of glasses on the table top had slid by with the stealth of a timid elephant.
A plate of Pancakes was growing cold where they were stranded on the counter.
The wait staff were throwing lingering glances at the unswinging door as they served their customers. There was a vein of unease running through the diner. Throbbing like a pulse through them all.
The family didn’t show up for three days. The pancakes were no longer prepared and the wait staff only cleaned up one puddle of water left by sodden shoes of a wayward women. So, when the family returned, it was like a shot of cool relief through the Diner on the warm afternoon. Their worry lifted off their shoulder. The chef left to the kitchen instantly to make the pancakes, the waiter got her mop ready and a table seating four was already dusted off.
He had barely stepped in the door.
The waiter glided towards him, a teasing smile on her lips, forgot about us? Was dancing on her tongue. But the tongue suddenly stuck to the top of her parched mouth. I think everything in the diner had frozen in that dry air.
That pulse was thundering through the diner.
The man stood alone.
Like a tree without leaves he stood rooted to the stares of the diner staff. He breathed in their confusion and for a long time he didn’t exhale. He was watching them, glasses pushed back into his hair, and the bruises under his eyes looked like they weighed a thousand pounds. He was in a suit, the jacket lost somewhere along the way. Untucked salmon pink shirt with black pants with grass stains on the knees. His eyes were swollen. And tender like raw meat. There was a bandage wrapped on his forearm. There were wrinkles on his face that weren’t there three days ago.
The kitchen door crashed like a heart attack. The staff jumped and turned to face the two plates of pancakes and the Cherry milkshakes make their way to the families table, balanced on the palm of a deaf chef who could not hear the tension over his shattered ear drums and the hum of his ignorance. His eyes however could not deceive him.
He hovered at the edge of the table, eyes lingering at the empty spots beside the father. And maybe the deaf man could see more with his eyes than the rest of them could, and maybe that was why he looked so aggrieved as he frantically tried to clear away the plates. In his haste, his arm swept against a drink and sent its contents splashing over the table, like a milky red blood stain.
“Just leave it,” his voice deeper, scratchier. Like the first time a record is played after a decade. He moved with the stiffness of a rusted tool, the smoothness of a person with no destination. He found himself falling into a seat at the set table. At the table set for four. “Just leave it.” This time it was a whisper.
The wait staff retreated behind the counter, suddenly painfully aware of just how empty the diner was.
Only the chef stood beside the man. “please, just,” he struggled to control his mouth. But he failed and his words cracked, they shattered. The chef left, but only after sliding his hand over the fathers shoulders.
They tried to give him his privacy. Tried to let him have his own moment. But they were always there, staring at him through their periphery. As they had always. They watched.
He picked up his knife, his fork and they hovered in the air as his throat convulsed rather violently. They landed with a clatter against the table. He pried his glasses from the tangle of his hair with a violent sound from the back of his throat and tossed them into the bloodstain. His palms were rusted with mud, there was dirt under his nails.
And then he peered at the violent red against the laminate. You could almost see the sheepish toothless grin that followed. Could almost hear the soft laugh of a quiet women, who was quiet in everything.
His hands trembled, and his throat convulsed. He was blinking hard.
He could see dainty slim finger plucking the napkins and sopping up the red. A smaller, chubbier hand trying to copy the action. Him reaching over and patting the little boys hand. Then there would follow the salt, as it always did not long after the drink falls. And the children would sweet talk their parents into giving up their pancakes and the parents could not resist. And they would gaze at their children as they fussed over the syrup and they would smile that secret coping smile that only parents had.
But this time the salt did not fall.
Instead, he did. He fell and fell and he landed in his palms. Hands pressed, forced into eye sockets, trying to stem the flow of the drops. But they streamed from between his fingers like little miserable rivers. His convulsing throat, that had tried so hard to gulp back the sound was overpowered and it poured out of him, ripped from his throat.
He was weeping.
Tears landing on the cold pancakes and icy red blood milkshake was dripping on his lap.
The diner had watched the family grow into a family. Watched it go from two, to three to four. The diner had watched the family grow, and it was inevitable that one day it would have to watch the family shrink.
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