I had been working at the diner for like, a year and a half. The place off the highway, outside that little butt-scrap of a town. It was an okay joint, with a couple of cracked vinyl seats and coffee stains on the tables that weren't gonna come out. Not the kind of job you dream about but good enough - it paid the rent and filled up my car.
At the start of the Sunday shifts, it was dead, then the after-Church crowd hit. The hustle would kill an hour or two and generally, the plump ladies in their pastel outfits and big hats were good tippers. They'd come in, arms filled with little girls dressed up like presents - those poor kids. White, scratchy skirts, socks with lace around the ankle. Pink-cheeked. Restless.
The grandmothers, aunts, cousins, would prompt, "And what do you say?" As I put their plates in front of them.
Sometimes they'd nod, "Thank you." Sometimes they'd stare into the black shine of their shoes, silently examining the straps traversing their feet.
A big TV took up most of the wall along the far side of the place. The boss had had it put in for sports games, I guess, but for the most part, it played the news and was scoffed at.
A few weeks before that day, one of the Churchgoers asked if she could put on the Christian channel. There was an Easter special playing out over a couple of weeks and she didn't want to miss an episode. Normally, I'd skip that station. The wild-eyed gumless preachers scared me more than the burning fires they shouted about. But, the place was filled with the flock, so who was I to say no? Might as well preach to the choir. The show ended up being what I'd expected. A bunch of surprisingly white men dressed in a bunch of surprisingly clean togas, looking earnestly past the camera, acting against a pink, painted backdrop. The main guy was taller, prettier than the rest of them. His eyes were a striking blue. I knew this story. I knew he was in for a bad time.
The show was playing the day she came in although It was too late for the Church rush. I got her seated in a booth, facing the door. Something seemed off about her even then. I think it was her hair? Pressed flat on one side of her head, the tight short curls sprung up on the other. The color was gray like a concrete wall of a prison. I thought maybe it just needed a good brushing, maybe she was down on her luck. But, when I came back with her drink, I got another sense that something wasn't right. She was short enough already but as she sat on the bench I could really get a look, like a plane flying over people's farms taking pictures of the crops. Her head was small, the skin rough and cakey. Her forehead was marred by these deep trenches of wrinkles, cutting along her brow. The bags under her eyes swooped down to her cheekbones while the lines next to her nose drove upwards from her chin. It caught me off guard. She stared at me, unblinking, through saucer-sized glasses with two bulgy eyes.
The script I knew by heart clicked in, "Hey there, how are you doing today?"
Her response was forced. "Oh, you know, fine. Just thought I'd take myself out for my birthday."
Before I realized I was taking the bait, I answered, "Oh! It's your birthday?" The end of my sentence rose up high, all squeaky-like.
Leaning back in the seat, she crossed her arms with a look of satisfaction, "It was my birthday on Wednesday." She drew out the sentence, "Nobody did nothing. My daughter didn't even call."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"Yep. It's just been me on my own since my husband died and I really expected to hear from her. I'm her mother and she's the only one I have left. It's hard being on your own."
"I bet," I said.
She kept going, "People just don't get it. Your whole life is built up into caring for and tending to a family. As a girl, my mother would always tell me that her wedding day was the happiest day of her life. That her children were her greatest accomplishment. There were supposed to be people around for me to look after. Someone to give me something to do. Maybe grandkids? Now I'm midway through my 50s and alone all the time." She huffed, "I can't even make my favorite recipes because I wind up with so much, I have to eat it over and over again."
"Hopefully, a bit of lunch will cheer you up. What can I get you?" She let out a sigh, but quickly ordered a grilled cheese and tomato soup. I walked the chit over to Reggie. Her elbows formed peaks on the table, fingers interlaced to a spot where her heavily ridged chin took rest. She stared at the empty doorway.
On the TV, the Easter show was still playing even though the holiday had passed. The men in robes were gathered in a poorly lit room, it had a sloped wooden ceiling. The sound was off, and the dining room echoed with the scuffs of Reg's sneakers. I watched as looks of fear and wonder spread across the crowd of actors as they notice the presence of the main guy. It was as if their eyes were suddenly breaking open like eight-day-old kittens. With unashamed earnestness, he peered at them, lifted his hands to show red, protruding marks, a matching set of scabby blisters. Pulling aside his toga he showed a third, larger mark, the center was a deep maroon. It anchored on the side of his waist and leaked out towards a set of sculpted abs. The bell dinged in the service window and I realized I was leaning on the back of a booth, my face cupped in my palm, totally engrossed in the show.
I carefully placed the overly full soup bowl down in front of her without letting any spill. Her sandwich was a bit burnt and I worried that she'd send it back, but she looked down and smiled, saying nothing. I got a few steps away, when I heard, "Excuse me?" As I looked back she shook her head, and said, "Oh never mind." Then ate her meal with an expression of defeat.
The men in the Easter show had left the attic. They were on a dusty road, but the main guy wasn't with them. All of the attention was focused on this young clean-shaven kid. The actors encircled him, nodding up and down and pointing. Things were getting heated, you could see it on their flustered faces. Suddenly, the adolescent swiveled to get away from the commotion, making as if he was about to run away. But, as turned he stopped dead in his tracks. There was our main guy, about a foot away, where he hadn't been a minute before. The kid was startled. As was I. He looked at the grown man's face. The older actor nodded and lifted his hands up to display the same crusty scarlet smears as he had shown before. The shocked adolescent took a step towards him and stretched out his left hand, reaching for the mar on the guy's waist. Gently, the lead actor guided it into his side. Dipping three of the kid's fingers into his body. Smiling but wincing. Removed the fingers were slick with blood. The adolescent had tears in his eyes. The main guy put his hands in the air and turned to the group then the station cut to commercial.
I returned to the lady in the booth, "How's everything?"
"Fine." She said. "Just the bill, please." Meeting me at the register, cash in hand.
"Happy belated birthday." I said one last time.
She grimaced, "Thanks."
I put the money in the till and watched her walk to her car. As she did, she briskly pulled off a curly ashen wig. From her purse, she withdrew a pack of wipes and cleared away the heavy lines from her forehead, under her eyes, and along her chin. I watched as she climbed into the driver's seat and her little car pulled onto the highway and drove off.