Ed Clinkscales was an old gorilla of a man. He liked to call himself a veteran cynic, a hardnose with a native skill for thrift. It was no empty boast. He was so close-fisted he had once filched another man’s name rather than use his own.
After a long shift at the diner one night, he had come home to a wrongly-delivered bill in his mailbox. He had almost thrown it away, chuckling to the thick summer night at the hopeless debt on the account, when he saw the strange fact about the name on it. How sharp and short the the first name was, how long and ostentatious the last. He’d ripped up the bill and tossed it, but slipped the name in his shirt pocket.
And now he had a headache.
The diner was empty, an unusual thing for a Thursday night. Sure, on Fridays it was always dead. He had enough sense to expect that; not many people spent the end of their week in a craphole dive like his. The diner was on the edge of town, and never flooded with business on its best days…but a Thursday? There should be one or two patrons at least, nursing a beer or wolfing a pimiento cheeseburger, his prized specialty.
It would help the hours to pass if there were work to do, but it was only him tonight. Ed and the diner, and the greasy, ghostly aura it had when the place was empty.
The diner was an institution. A declining one, but that meant little from Ed’s way of thinking. His own grandfather had built the place in 1938, and his grandmother had run during in the war. Then Ed’s own mother had taken over in her turn. Ed had been the family rebel. He’d tried his luck first as a used car salesman, then as an insurance adjuster, but found little satisfaction in either. The diner kept calling him back.
It was in his blood, after all; one of the things that made him Ed Clinkscales — even though he really wasn’t.
It was a useful name to have, though. It meant he didn’t have to fix the neon sign above the Redfish Diner, which had started losing letters almost six years ago. First the F had gone, making it the Red ish Diner, which wasn’t true. The buildings original yellow and green paint had long ago faded to an indistinct color, but it was by no means reddish, or even “redish.” Then the H had flickered out, and he was stuck with the Red is Diner, which was nonsense, but at least real English words. Finally, after a week and a half on the fritz, the R and I had vanished over two back-to-back nights, leaving him stuck with Ed s Diner.
It had seemed revelatory that day, so many years past, when he found the misdelivered bill. If he were Ed Clinkscales…well, that solved everything. He could be Ed and it could be Ed’s Diner, and everyone would be happy. Until the sign lost another letter or two. But he had never lived much in the future; today had enough of its own trouble.
Ed held forth behind the counter of Ed’s Diner for breakfast, lunch and dinner, making his patrons feel better about their lives by griping about his. It was a service he provided, and another way in which the diner had become an institution.
Just not tonight. His head throbbed, the pain thickened in his brow with every heartbeat. He had tried eating, hair of the dog — thinking of the two or six beers at lunch when the rush had been slower than usual. He’d polished the tables at least ten times, though he knew the most caustic cleaning materials he had could not remove the film of smoke and grease the diner had acquired in its threescore and sixteen years.
Ed groaned. This waste of a shift would never end, and the diner would remain empty. He was sure of it.
The door chimed and Ed winced at the sound. He rubbed his forehead, irritated. From across the room the newcomer was taking in the diner’s features: a single young man, scatterbrained by his looks. He walked with a slow gait and a stunned, frayed look in his eyes.
“Welcome to Ed’s,” Ed croaked unwelcomingly. “How many in your party tonight?”
The young man frowned at the question. It was one Ed always asked when singles entered the diner; it made them fidget, which was a thing he liked to see.
“Uh…one. Can I sit at the bar?”
“Be my guest.” Ed gave a quick nod, which made his head hurt more. He shuffled behind the counter. “What’ll it be?”
No answer. The stranger seemed deep in thought; then he met Ed’s glance as if just remembering why he’d come. “Is there a towing company in this town? Or a body shop?”
“Sure there is. You want a drink?”
“No.” The guy shook his head, glancing over the menu board behind Ed. “No, but I could use a fish sandwich.”
Ed smirked. “You don’t want the fish sandwich, believe me. Try the chicken and biscuit.”
“Oh. All right, as long as it’s food. I’ve had a long night.”
Ed grunted. Tell me about it.
Though from the look of it, the guy probably wasn’t lying. Fresh scrapes on the forehead and cheek, jeans torn. Ed grunted again, turned to the tarnished flat-top, switched on the fryer. The stranger gave a deep sigh as he breathed the scent of heated oil. Ed knew the feeling. Food could do wonders on a hard day; if only the smell alone could take one’s pain away.
A short time later the chicken was fried and jammed between a halved biscuit, dry, flaky, and plenteous. It was almost torture to watch the stranger tear into it with such gusto, and Ed wavered between sympathy and good old-fashioned resentment.
The stranger glanced up from his sandwich, only now realizing he was watched. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and swallowed hard.
“Where’s the closest place that can fix up a car?”
“Closest? Southcoast. They’re in the Pages.” Ed jerked his thumb carelessly toward a pay-phone in the corner that hadn’t worked in over a decade, where a phone book that hadn’t been current in even longer hung from a cheap aluminum ball-chain.
“Thanks,” the stranger muttered, not at all sure it was deserved.
Ed said nothing and continued to watch. The stranger finished the biscuit and brushed away the crumbs.
“Listen,” he began. “You aren’t hiring, are you? I don’t have much money, and — no, no, I can pay for the food! But my car’s pretty wrecked and I’ll need income if it’s going to get fixed. And I’ve worked jobs like this before.”
“What are you, then?” Ed gave a hard stare. “Some kinda drifter?”
“I’m not homeless. I have money. Just not enough to pay for this kind of damage.”
“No insurance either, than.” Ed grunted. “Does it look like I need help?” He waved his hand at the empty array of tables and chairs.
“I could do anything. Cook, wash dishes. Mop or wait tables…or even deliver, if you have a bike or a car.”
“I don’t think you’ll be touching my car, considering.”
The young man deflated. He shook his head, ran a jittery hand through the mop of tawny hair. Ed noticed again the buried cheek, the torn and mud-stained clothing. Guilt niggled in the back of his mind. Who had put it there? Something felt odd about the whole scene — as if things had been decided without him noticing.
“I do hate washing dishes,” Ed groaned, eyelids heavy. “And you might could help with tables during rush…if it ever does rush. But don’t expect me to put you up. There’s a motel quarter mile east. Cheapest in town if you can stand bedbugs.”
Gratitude flowed visibly over the stranger. His eyes seemed calm for the first time since he’d entered the diner. He offered a hand. “Jay,” he said.
Ed gave the hand a wry smile. “Ed.” He grabbed a dish towel and wiped off the counter.
Jay lowered the hand. He opened his mouth, then thought better of it. He set down a ten and turned to leave.
“Hey,” Ed found himself calling. Jay met his eyes. Ed studied him a long moment before speaking. “You want Mixon’s place. On River Road. Not Southcoast. They’ll rip you off and take their sweet time doing it.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“One last thing,” Jay paused as he neared the door. “Is there a girl who lives close by? I saw her across the road walking here, but there were no driveways I could see. She was wearing white.”
Ed stared at him. “No.”
“Oh,” Jay shrugged. “Well…see you tomorrow?”
“Thank you,” Jay said, and slipped into the muggy night with the clattering of the bell.
* * *
Alone again — but not for long, it seemed. The morning was a good way off, but now it felt too damn close. Why had Ed given the job? He wasn’t aswim in cash, after all. The loan on the diner had been long paid off, but taxes were climbing, and had been since all the people from off had been coming to the city and development threatened the islands and little towns nearby. It spread more every year, and with it land values he could never afford if he were looking to buy today.
Ed could see the end of the diner — another ten years maybe, not much more than that. It was getting to be more than he could handle. And he had never been a man apt to change.
So why had he given the job? He wasn’t sure there was a real answer to that. It was just one of those things.
He breathed in deep and cradled his skull, split down the middle with pain — worse than ever.