At the Diner by Neil Plakcy

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A young man attempts to reconnect with his estranged father over meals at a small-town diner. Can a love of food overcome the pain of a dad and son pulled apart?

We buried my mom in a cemetery just north of Albany, in a plot that looks out over the Hudson River. I liked that. I thought maybe she could look out from her grave sometimes, if there was anything left of her that could see, or feel, and the river would be there moving along on its way to the sea, and it would be good. It was a bitter cold day in February, and we stayed around just long enough to see the coffin begin to drop down into the earth.

My father didn't say anything to me the whole day, not at the house, the funeral home, in the limousine or at the cemetery. He had not spoken to me for about three weeks before she died, and it was another two months before he said anything at all.

"A regular coffee and a donut, please," he said finally, standing in front of me at the diner where I work in the mornings. "To go."

I was surprised. But I was cool. I gave him his coffee and a donut in a little white paper bag, with Sweet’N Low and extra cream, the way he likes it. I said, "A dollar eighty, please," and he gave me a five and left. I had to go in the back and sit down for a minute, I was shaking so bad.

You could pass the Shaker Square a dozen times and never notice it. It's just outside the city limits on Washington Avenue, and if you're doing the speed limit (or maybe a little more) it wouldn't look like much. It's just a standard roadside diner like a railroad car, with a long stainless steel counter, a row of stools and a couple of booths against the front window.

My regulars and I feel like a family in the mornings. We get a pretty good class of people in, guys that work out at the power plant, businessmen, suburban widows who love to have somebody else do the dishes, and a couple of doctors, too. I talk to everybody and they tell me their problems, sort of like a bartender.

I love to see how everybody likes to hang out together. I went to college once, for a semester, and going to meals was my favorite thing. Of course, that probably comes from my mom, who was a great cook. I used to hang out in the kitchen with her while she cooked dinner or baked cookies, watching and learning and talking to her. And even when she wasn’t cooking, we’d sit in the living room together after all my homework was done and read her food magazines, passing back and forth the recipes and the pictures. She could only make us the most basic things, because my dad was a real meat-and-potatoes guy, but we read those magazines anyway and imagined how those fancy recipes tasted.

My father and I never got along. I was a disappointment from day one, when I wouldn't go out and play ball with the other boys in the neighborhood. I dropped out of college, I hung around with the wrong kind of people, and I came to work here at the Shaker Square. He was worried his friends would see me behind the counter, in my grease-stained apron, with my hair tied into a ponytail and an earring in my ear. "Men don't wear earrings," he told me once, but I didn't tell him then just what kind of man I was.

  • Published by: Untreed Reads

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