Diners

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Please be forewarned that content might include
details of abuse and potentially triggering language.
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I passed it often – the fifties-relic corner restaurant — as a pre-teen cruising through the village on my emerald ten-speed Schwinn.  My best friend Eleanor and I often rode uptown from her home on Ash Street, which was conveniently situated just off the corner with Oak, the main drag, and a few blocks from the center of the tidy, tony town.  Standing to pedal hard for a few strokes, then suspending effort to lazily coast around the corner, we’d chat as we rode, talking about nothing and everything at the same time.  On Oak Street, the smooth stretch of stately colonials and tudors set back on wide, manicured lawns gave way to dense retail–picture windows and doorframes hugging the narrow small-town sidewalk.  Just past Reineker’s Automotive, and before the quarter-block sprawl of add-ons to the Lakeview Trail Restaurant, sat Billy’s, the yawn-inspiring lunch counter on the corner of the forgettable side street where the humble aluminum-awninged main entrance hid. 

I think I went to Lakeview Trail once, the Thanksgiving after we left Aunt Linda’s early, after the seemingly polite passive-aggressive sarcasm she and my mom practiced boiled over into pointed-finger bickering over who had put more effort into the holiday meal.  Before storming off to sit in the station wagon, my mom had declared, “I’m never cooking Thanksgiving dinner again.”  And for exactly one year, she stubbornly stuck to her pledge.  That year, in the formal, museum-like main dining room of Lakeview Trail, Thanksgiving dinner consisted of a self-serve buffet elevated in silver serving pieces atop white-linen tablecloths, right next to our assigned table.  There weren’t a lot of kids in the room, and we dressed up more than we did for a normal thanksgiving; my dad and brother traded familiar sweaters and khakis for navy blazers and gray slacks. Instead of running around chasing our younger cousins in their backyard before dinner, we sat amongst grumpy gray-haired locals who shot us stuffy looks, presumably expecting that a table with six little kids would somehow spoil the serene atmosphere and thereby ruin their pricy prix-fixe holiday meal. 

Although people did wear suits at Billy’s lunch counter, they were commuter bankers and business people dropping in midday as opposed to those following a “coats required” mandate.  On the days when Eleanor and played together, she generally engineered our adventures, and I followed.  Once on the way back to her house, riding no-handed on her brother’s Stingray, she turned and shouted over the noise of passing cars, “Let’s stop at Billy’s for a coke.”  I didn’t protest.  We parked our bikes in front of the picture window and dug for precious quarters amongst the smaller change lingering in our jean-shorts pockets. 

Eleanor pushed on the wide door, which was swollen from Midwest summer humidity.  It finally unjammed and swung open with a melodic tinkle from the trio of mini cowbells suspended from the inside frame.  Dotted with men our dads’ ages, the room became restlessly still as we, two self-conscious pre-teens, paused in the doorway.  My friend led the way, striding to the counter to say with confidence, “Can we get two cokes, please?”  She and I sipped in awkward silence, quickly left, and burst out with pent-up laughter as we mounted our bikes for the ride back to her house.  A victorious adventure.  But Billy’s was not a kids’ place, we decided. 

Juxtaposed with the fond memory of hanging out with my then best friend is a dark memory of that lunch place on the corner.  The unwelcome cluster of scenes have popped up in my mind occasionally—like a dusty picture book with cover and back sufficiently visible such that I know what’s inside without opening the album to flip through every single image in the middle.  From an outside perspective, the initial panorama is innocent enough.  A father home early from work, still dressed up, slides his index finger in the crease of his hat, ready to remove it. Simultaneously, he presses his bent arm against the hefty door, holding down the thumb latch with his opposite hand.  Pausing, he turns and looks down to smile at his play-clothes-clad daughter as she steps onto the gray-marbled linoleum.  A wafting wind of grilling meat, greasy fries, and radiator heat embraces them as they enter Billy’s. 

Although I’m naturally introverted, it’s no wonder I’d hesitated more than usual at twelve or so when Eleanor led me to Billy’s for a coke.  “I remember this place!” my heart thumped deep inside.  Stuffing down thoughts of previous visits, I successfully fought to stay in the present for the coke date with Eleanor.  I’ll look back to flip through some snapshot scenes now–from an afternoon about four years earlier, from a time when my dad picked me up from school and took me to Billy’s. 

The single employee present that afternoon, a man in a dingy white apron stained from splatters and smeared from wipes of his hands across his middle, stood behind the counter and raised a stainless-steel burger-flipping spatula to greet my father.  “Hey Doug,” he said with an upward nod, seamlessly turning back to his task.  A couple of stray late-lunch patrons sat and ate.  My father slipped off his jacket and slung it onto a wall hook.  He took a seat at the counter, and I slid into the chrome and vinyl swivel stool beside him.  Grilled cheese, my favorite!  Buttery golden crumbs from the toasty white bread latched onto my fingers and resisted transferring to the thin fold-over paper napkin the chef had placed next to my plate.  Saving my fries for later, I dipped my sandwich into the blob of ketchup my dad had coaxed out of the Heinz bottle for me.  My father didn’t eat.  “Burger, Doug?” the cook asked.  Before answering, my father rose and took a few paces to the screen door to the right of the cook station.  He nodded to the cook.  Then, half to me, and half to himself, “He’s here,” my father muttered with an impatient sigh.

Entering from the alleyway with a steep-apron transition to the small lot behind Billy’s kitchen, the hood of a long, low black sedan bobbed like a boat coming down from a wave.  I hadn’t finished my still-warm sandwich, nor had the ice-cream sundae my dad had hinted at yet appeared.  My father stood at the dumpster-view exit and gestured me over.  Putting his hand on the small of my back, he opened the screen door and pressed me toward the car that had pulled in front of the back restaurant door and waited a few feet away.  Like a well-trained dog, I obediently sprang through the car door behind the driver. 

Barely turning his head, “Climb over,” the man behind the wheel directed.  The zither-sound of a metal zipper echoed in my ear as the man touched me, sliding his hand up my back, stopping at the fine, downy new hair on the nape of my neck. Tugging my head toward the opening in his lap, he started to grunt intermittently.  Eventually he reached an arm around my hips to twist and thrust me onto my belly, my head now positioned toward the passenger door.  A small thing I hadn’t noticed earlier suddenly skeeved me:  his long nails.  I shuddered inside as one fingernail scratched the soft skin on my behind when he pulled my panties and pants down in one motion.  It was all I could think about.  His skeevy nail and the scratch that throbbed on my behind.  Would my mom notice it later?  And would I have to come up with a reason for why it happened?  I thought about the nail, and the scratch–and maybe the sundae I still hoped for.

I walked back into the restaurant alone, through the thin-framed door with torn screen next to the dumpster behind Billy’s kitchen. My dad slouched at the counter with a two-handed grip on a half-eaten hamburger.  Next to the now-cold remains of a grilled cheese sandwich on my plate, scraped ketchup stains where my fries had been incriminated my dad.  Mute, my father dragged a napkin back and forth across his mouth to clean his greasy lips.  My heart sank.  Miffed over the missing fries, I let the emotion of the moment swell to subdue the sting of what had happened in the sedan.  I sulked in the silence of my thoughts, clanking a cheap metal spoon against a clear, ruffle-top glass ice-cream dish.  Solace in a sundae.  There were so many diners.  And so many sundaes.  The tears of my musings melt together.  So many diners.  So many sundaes.

-Excerpt from work-in-progress memoir. All rights reserved.

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