Photograph by Louis Droege
The bottomless coffees tell stories here. Some are an unadulterated black, topped with tiny foamy bubbles from pouring. Some are walnut coloured, some a creamy russet. The roots of coffee pouring run deep here. It has consoled many an aching soul, revived many a fatigued heart. It is the end all and be all of this country, the blood that courses through its veins, the oil that keeps the machine going. And here is where it all runs together.
8 a.m. Amber is the first person to enter the diner. She sits down at the far end of the counter, hidden from view. Not so incidentally, this is the best seat if one wants to overlook the entire space. Amber glances at the waitress. She’s securing her apron, fastening her black face mask, and pulling her ponytail tight. She already knows Amber’s order: a strong coffee, no sugar, no milk, coming right up. Amber doesn’t like tampering with what’s already perfect. Her coffee arrives, steaming hot, its sweet smell belying its bitterness. Her day begins.
Cassidy pushes the door open with her shoulder, a large briefcase in her left hand, a stack of books tucked under her right armpit, her entire person emanating stress. This early in the morning, there are only a few people here, just the way she likes it. A masked waitress with a loosening ponytail greets her, Cassidy nods her head at her, and makes her way to a ruby red booth. She hates the decor but she loves the food. Despite the early hour, she orders a burger with a side of curly fries. Well done. Always well done. She cannot abide the thought of anything bloody in front of her. Her friends think she’s a vegetarian but when no one is looking, she treats herself to a plate of animal. The waitress brings her a cup and fills it with a black liquid. When she’s gone, Cassidy glances over her shoulder, makes sure no one’s watching, and mixes it with another clear liquid. She pulls down her own pink face mask and upends the contents of the cup into her mouth all at once. Teaching is a tough job but she’s found a way to hold the walls of her mind together. She leans back into the bench and sighs.
Amber barely notices the woman with the briefcase. She is busy fraying a blue napkin. Her body won’t listen to her anymore. She can feel the tips of her nerves ache dully. Keeping her hands busy distracts her from an eternity of discomfort.
11 a.m. Bill hurries to get to the diner before every booth is taken. Every day is the same but today is different. He’s lucky, there’s a booth close to the entrance. Not the best spot: it’s drafty and noisy but it’s better than the counter. His body won’t stop quivering; he trembles from top to toe. He orders some sparkling water, no food. He’s scared his stomach will (r)eject anything non liquid. He takes out his phone, takes off his green face mask, and uses the black mirror to check his teeth. He repeatedly runs a hand through his hair and corrects the position of every strand. A soft clicking sound unlocks his phone: Be there in two. His body has now become an earthquake. Can anyone feel his shaking? Any stronger and the ground will open up and swallow him. Let the ground open up and swallow me, he thinks. Two minutes have come and passed. The door chime sounds and Bill suddenly looks into the dark eyes of a handsome man with a smile on his lips (no mask). He sits down opposite Bill. Great to finally meet you in person, the stranger says. Bill’s heart stumbles, the earthquake now entirely in his stomach, his lips reciprocating the smile.
Amber sees a man close to her luridly staring at a pair of men sitting by the entrance. She doesn’t understand the frigid ire in his gaze. She raises her cup slightly and smiles at one of the two men as he looks her way.
1 p.m. The fed workforce has gone and left the diner almost empty. The large room with its chrome furniture draws in a deep breath, holds it in, then exhales.
Emma steps slowly, a walker supporting her weight. A faceless woman holds the door for her and disappears into the day. Emma sits down at the counter, close to a woman who appears not much younger than herself, albeit without a crutch to walk on. Some people are luckier than others. As so often lately, she thinks of her husband Thomas and her eyes begin to burn. She orders a piece of apple pie, à la mode, with a hazelnut milkshake. His favorite. Then a coffee, some milk, no sugar. Her favorite. As the food arrives, her burning eyes overflow. A friendly waitress with a loose ponytail smiles at her. Emma takes a napkin and dabs her tears away. A lump in her throat won’t let her eat even a bite. She sees Thomas in everything, even in the reflection staring back at her from her black coffee, before she pours the milk in it. It’s not fair that he still gets to have a hold on her. He promised life would be hers again but it was still all his. Emma fiddles with a ring on her left hand. She can’t bear the empathic and pitiful look from the walker less woman across the counter. She hides her face in a brown mask, puts money on the counter, and struggles to leave. Thomas lied to her. She is not ready to face the world without him. Maybe she never will be.
Amber is not surprised as the woman leaves the diner. Many people cannot abide her face. It either teems with expression or it is devoid thereof. Or maybe it’s her two missing teeth. The waitress with the loose apron grabs the apple pie and milkshake of the woman who just left and puts it in front of Amber. She brings a clean fork. Enjoy, she says. She will.
4 p.m. Joyce and Christine are laughing heartily outside the diner. Amber can hear them as she sips her umpteenth coffee. When they push their way through the doors, they’re still jubilant. They’ve been friends for close to twenty years and their intimacy fills the diner. The glumness on the patrons’ faces dissipates and turns instead into a lukewarm glow. When together, they always make the light seem just a tad brighter. They excitedly hold hands as they order half a cherry pie, two coffees (half and half), and two all day breakfast omelets. The time they’ve been apart has made them ravenous. The food breaks the ice that doesn’t exist between them, a conversation starter not needed. They tell each other stories of their present, delve into their shared past, and reminisce about the future. A routine that feels right. They used to hold hands and skip around their neighborhood, singing nursery rhymes. They used to follow old train tracks, attempting to find secret lands known only to them. They don’t sing or follow tracks anymore. It’s difficult enough getting together like this. They lament each other’s absence. They laugh, they eat, they share more stories, more gossip. The time spent apart grows smaller by the minute and soon becomes infinitesimally neglectable. Another sip of coffee, finish off the last bite, and—oh gosh!—where has the time gone? They hug each other as though they won’t meet again for a year. They won’t meet again for a year. They’re still laughing even as they part ways.
Amber’s back now hurts. She’s been a spectator of lives for a few years now and no day is ever the same. The lives may seem similar: the makeup is the same, the outfits are the same, attitudes are often alike. But her back hurts day in and day out and all the lives she’s observed flit about like so many agitated water striders, ever changing patterns intertwining with hers, keeping her rooted in place.
At 7:30 p.m., the diners are cast in glum colors. Outside, the sky turns a suffocating indigo as angry storm clouds push their way in front of the sun. Timid raindrops dip their toes into the waters that are the pedestrians below, only to swell and pelt them when they deem it safe. Their cacophony is accompanied by the low growl of clouds discharging somewhere distant. Mississippi one, Mississippi two. A promising day has turned into a drenching mess, and more people seek shelter at the diner.
Liam is grateful for the briefcase someone’s given him for his birthday. He can’t remember who it was but it doesn’t matter to the briefcase’s purpose. It does what it’s supposed to do, no matter its origins. Liam is annoyed because the rain caught him unawares and he assumes the diner requires the wearing of a mask upon entry. His white mask got drenched and now he has to pay money just to stay dry. The inconvenience of the day weighs him down. Liam is glad he found a lonely booth in the very far corner of the diner. He likes to work without interruption and though he thought his day was already done, he uses this opportunity to get in a few words. Even just ten words spell progress. He doesn’t consider himself an opportunist but nonetheless, opportunities long to be seized. Liam is ready to order: a vegetarian pizza with faux meat and a cappuccino. The beverage is frothy when it arrives. He prepares himself for his task; he takes a few deep breaths and looks around the diner. Anybody could be a subject. He sees a group of people toasting to something with their sodas. Too ordinary. He regards the waitress with disheveled hair. Too messy. Then his gaze falls on a woman at the opposite end of the diner. She sits at the counter and seems to be looking at him, too. She looks ragged, ground down by the grains of time. She is perfect. Liam opens his laptop and begins to write a description of her. Out of the corner of his eyes, he keeps looking at her, trying to avoid her gaze. He knows he can make people uncomfortable but it is the other way round now. She doesn’t seem to stop looking: he wonders if she is studying him. Has the watcher become the watched? It doesn’t matter. All that matters to him is the story. He keeps typing, her uneasy presence filling him with ideas. Why is it always the deprived that make such good stories? He smiles, typing away his night.
9:45 p.m. Amber gets ready to leave. Day has turned into night and the rain won’t let up. She has no umbrella and had no knowledge of forecasted rain today. The pony and apron less waitress looks Amber’s way. There’s some emotion in her look that Amber can’t quite read. She finds it unnerving. A lightning bolt piques the waitress’s attention and Amber is glad her eyes no longer bind her. She steels herself for the force of nature about to assault her. See you tomorrow, mom, says the waitress. Amber raises her right hand but doesn’t look back. All that rests in her heart—unspoken, unstirred—pulls her along as she walks aimlessly down dark streets. Where is home? Tonight, it will be a bench protected by an awning. And tomorrow?