``Turkey or Ham,'' Joe Stefson said, the echo of his raspy voice coming back at him from the curved metal and plastic of the diner's ceiling. All day long he had repeated those two words to the host of last minute shoppers who had invaded the new strip mall up the road, many of whom were still loyal enough not come here instead of going to Ginos.
Grease stains showed on his apron from a full day of service, turkey blood, ham drippings, and splattering of mashed potato and gravy. The apron also bulged with forty pounds of excess weight he'd been unable to reduce, unable to resist the temptation to sample his own cooking all day long. Today, he sampled pinches of white meat, pinches of pink, with a few cranberry's thrown in for good measure. Other days, he constantly stuffed a fry or two into his maw with each new batch.
After seven years, he had transformed himself into the classic cartoon image of short order cook, his chin haggard with a two day old beard, his eyes red from hours short of sleep. Even the clusters of pale scars on his hands and arms served as evidence to his profession, wounds from splattering grease, scalding water or a careless turned knife. He had transformed himself into a mirror image of the men who came and went, blue color, overweight and aging souls who bought their coffee in the morning and their soup at night, who huddled and nodded at the counter for hours afraid or too tired to go home to their wives.
He walked like many of them, too, each step an endurance test of pain as his bunions and flat feet complained -- feet so flat the army didn't even want him, refusing to continue the physical the minute he removed his shoes. How he managed the daily patrol from kitchen to counter was as big a mystery to Joe as to anyone, though with Nelly here, he largely didn't have to make the trip so often, and he wondered what he would now do with her gone.
``What?'' the hippie said, staring up at Joe with a face so scarred from former pimples, the boy's mother wouldn't have recognized him. With the long strands of hair hanging down either side of his head, the hippie looked as beautiful as a toad. He even perched on the stool like a toad, legs crossed in front of him so strangely as to make him look about to fall off. The boy, also, had an annoying way of rocking back and forth, driving Joe crazy with his nervousness. The boy's brown eyes -- bloated by two thick lenses -- stared up at Joe questioningly like a ten year old kid professing an utterly innocent expression, making it nearly impossible for Joe to wring his skinny neck.
``That's all you got?'' the boy asked, still staring at Joe instead of the hand drawn special menu Joe had scotch taped over the usual specials. Not that the boy needed to look anywhere for his order, having ordered enough hamburgers, fries and cokes to guarantee choked arteries by age 45 -- as much a regular in Joe's Diner as any customer, coming mornings, afternoons and evenings as if he owned the diner and not Joe.
``That's all,'' Joe said, having repeated this same statement for countless customers during the day, aggravated enough to toss the hippie out at the slightest provocation they way he had during the good old days when the boy had come in with the gang of hippies, who looked and acted the way this one did now. Only God knew for what happened to the others, grown up, no doubt, cut their hair in favor of serious jobs. This one alone had refused the bus ticket to success, choosing to haunt Joe's Diner instead.
``What about a hamburger?'' the hippie asked, dull eyes looking up at Joe with their utter innocence, taking no blame for his annoyance.
``For Christ's sake, boy, it's Christmas Eve,'' Joe said, voice reflecting his aggravated mood, so near now to tossing the boy out, he had to check himself. It was Christmas Eve. The boy didn't likely have any place else to go. Most of those who came here at night didn't, clinging to the diner's bright lights for company. But this boy wasn't like the others, his young face still flushed with the hope elder men like Joe lacked. He wanted to grab the boy up by the collar and shake sense into him.
``Why don't you go find a good job, boy?'' he imagined himself saying. ``Why don't you start a business, make love to a girl, or find yourself a hobby? Why on earth did you need to hang out here?''
But the boy's stare defeated Joe, and blank as his own at that age, full of visions Joe could no longer remember, and hopes Joe could no longer believe. All the young wore it; all of them parading through here daily without regard to the disasters that life had waiting for them only a few years away.
``Turkey, I got,'' Joe said, leaning towards the boy, his big hands flat on the counter between them, his hairy, abused knuckles as red and abused as the back of a cooked crab. ``Ham I go. If you want hamburger, go to Ginos. It's right up the street.''
``Ginos is closed,'' the hippie said, his defiant stare saying he wouldn't have gone to Ginos anyway, challenging Joe to find some other place to send him.
Joe sighed, all too aware of the boy's wily mood, which would have Joe bickering with him all night over insignificant issues such as these. It made Joe wish he had closed the diner earlier when all the wiser merchants in the strip mall had, sending their patrons and employees drifting home to Christmas trees and family before the promised blizzard arrived. Joe had hoped for a quiet night, serving a few stragglers to whom he could wish a Merry Christmas while taking a few bucks in on sales. But Christmas seemed to drag more weirdoes out of the woodwork than Halloween.
The hippie was only one example. Wilting Marco had come in a half hour earlier, staggering over to the opposite counter before falling over a stool. Joe actually had to lift him into a seat before asking for his order -- which amounted to one cup of coffee and a string of refills. Now he hung over the cup like a hound dog, his jowls quivering through repeated self-pitying sighs, as the coffee penetrated down through the alcoholic haze and brought back all those issues he'd sought to forget with his drinking.
In direct contrast to his feelings about the hippie, Joe actually felt sorry for the man, the wrinkled suit and crooked tie suggested a life as a business or salesman. Marco came in from time to time, though there were huge gaps in which he traveled. Joe made the mistake once of trying to sort through the catalogue of the man's woes, sitting through the list of complaints for an hour before politely escaping. Marco's was an intricate tale of miseries that no stranger could unravel, a tale without beginning or end, looping around upon itself, leaving both teller and listener confused. Yet the effort had won Marco's affection, and kept him returning during his nights in town, often visiting after he had already visited the local bar. Often his visits accompanied a flood of tears, and then sobering, a long process of nodding himself to sleep. On more than one occasion, Joe bedded the man in a booth before locking up for the night, and Joe knew that the man's visit tonight would likely wind up with the same overnight arrangements.