Monday, June 19, 2006

Fiction Files

I do recall what this story was – a high-concept portrait of a diner in the Deep South so ingrained in its own confederate bitterness that the owner wouldn’t accept five dollar bills because they had Lincoln’s face on them. Some time back, I gave the idea away to a poet friend, thinking a poem could make more of the idea than the story could. I don’t remember when that was, and I don’t remember writing this. As usual, finishing the thing proved…elusive.

Arnie wheeled the wide front of the LTD up a makeshift ramp, scaled too high to fit the parking lot. Misjudging the rut already worn into it, he scraped his axle, then gunned the engine to avoid getting plowed in. Four pickups were parked backward in front of the high square windows of the diner. A flop-eared dog stood up in the back of one and gave Arnie an expressionless stare. Arnie gave the big car a wide berth, and elected to skip several spots between him and the pickups. Instead he chose the corner, facing the road. It was fall in Mississippi, but the relieving break in the humidity was offset by the thick smell of pulp paper in the air.

Arnie hitched up the waist of his pants, shook down his wrinkled-up cuffs, and headed toward the door with a purposeful, but not overly hurried, gait. A hand-painted wheelchair symbol nailed to a two-by-four stood in the one empty spot by the door. The sky-blue paint was a little too bright, and had dripped from being put up wet. Another useless gravel ramp led to the curb.

From the highway, the diner called Parson’s had looked like a grimy brick box – an old honky-tonk perhaps, or a converted rest stop. Arnie was almost disappointed when he stepped inside and found it bright and airy, tables instead of booths, no open kitchen, and no counter, where he had expected those pickup drivers to be. They had a door sticker, sponsored by Winstons, that listed the operating hours. Beneath it, a sign in magic marker, its ink faded to a rusty red by the sun: “Please pay Jackson. No Credit Cards.”

The door opened silently and Arnie let it shut against his back. Catching the waitress’ glance, he raised his eyebrows. She hollered, “Anywhere you like,” and kept on walking. When she returned, with a coffee pot in each hand, she asked, “Know what you’d like?” The drawl seemed not to suit her, as if she had been poorly dubbed. She had a high head of black hair and a round moonish face. Her large high breasts were counter-balanced by her leg-o-mutton arms, which now bulged a little from holding the coffees.

“Regular,” said Arnie, and watched her pour. She had a Mediterranean look, which in other parts of the country would readily identify her as Italian, but her family name Montivero had long ago been relaxed to Monniver. Avoiding the dart of her sleeveless white blouse, so close to his eye, Arnie glanced up at her face. Along the way, he noticed her plastic name tag read “waitress” in small letters. “That’s pretty funny,” he said, flicking his eye down toward it.

“I think it is,” she said, and lowered the pots to her hips, as if there might be holsters there to hold them.

“Do you have pancakes?” asked Arnie, who had not yet been offered a menu.

“Three in a stack,” she said, and Arnie ordered them.

He added, “What’s your name really?” and she quickly replied, “Debbie,” though it wasn’t. “Is that with a y or an i?” Arnie lifted his steaming cup.

“Writin’ a book?”

There was a loud squeak of vinyl, and Arnie spotted the pickup drivers. They were at a table off to his left, and had shifted as one to check out this uninvited guest who was talking too long to not-Debbie Monniver. “Just the pancakes, then,” said Arnie. “Bacon. Orange juice.” She nodded, took her pots to the drivers and silently gave them refills.

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