Henry is an old man with a story to tell. Taking place partly in 1972 and largely during World War I, this is something I originally wrote for a short story contest.
Roxie’s, on the corner of Stonecreek and Main, was like any other small town American diner in 1972. The black and white checkerboard tile floor accented the gaudy red leather booths and bar stools; a jukebox vied for attention in the midst. Records and a vibrant clock adorned the white walls, and an unenthused waitress getting too old for her short skirt struggled to stay awake behind the counter. Only one customer had come in that morning for his coffee and eggs, occupying a booth in the corner according to habit.
The old man was never bothered by the contrast of the loud, cluttered decor and the quiet emptiness of the place. He was blind, after all. As for loneliness, it had joined him in his booth every morning since his wife’s death several years ago. Nothing besides the music had ever changed about the old place, or at least nothing he could notice, and it was small comfort in his dark world. As a world of change erupted around him, he and the diner remained constant, sustaining each other. The waitress came by with his black coffee and eggs with bacon.
“Here you go, Mr. Barnett,” she said. “Over easy, as always.” It made her sad to see him so alone each morning, and on occasion, she mustered up the energy to converse with him. “How’s your morning been so far?”
“Good as it gets,” he said.
She rolled her eyes at the vagueness of his response, but of course such a gesture was lost on him. “You just let me know if you need anything else, okay Hun?”
“Sure thing, Suzie.”
Sometimes Henry Barnett pined for actual conversation, long talks with his wife and others who had long since disappeared into the past. While today was such a day, he never liked to share much with Suzie. He could tell from her tone that her feigned interest stemmed only from pity and obligation. Henry was a storyteller at heart. He could see everything so clearly in his mind’s eye and more was the pity to have no outlet for it. No one cared. His heart physically ached on these days. The only remedy for the ache was a brief night’s rest.
Relief would come in a different way today. An unforeseen, more healing relief presented itself in the form of Esther Lawrence, a stranger to Henry’s little town. A freelance journalist, she had recently become interested in writing an article containing an interview with a veteran. Her father was a veteran of WWII, and she knew his story well. This prompted her to look for other stories that needed to be told from other forgotten veterans who had given so much of themselves for others.
She was looking for a new story. Her father, who lived in the city, had suggested that she look in some smaller towns where folks were a little more friendly and might be willing to share their stories with her. Waking early, she had decided to start with some coffee in a small nearby town at a diner called Roxie’s. Walking into the diner, Esther watched as the waitress jumped, removing the hand that she had been using to prop her weary head.
“Gotta be a way to make that entrance bell less startling,” Suzie tried to cover her tracks. “What can I do for you?” she asked the stranger, looking her up and down. Henry listened with curiosity.
“Um,” Esther said. Why do I always start with ‘um’? she wondered. Writing was a passion for Esther, but she had never overcome her fear of talking to strangers. So childish, she berated herself secretly. “I’ll just have a cup of coffee, thanks,” her eyes wandered around the empty diner until she caught sight of an old man sitting alone. Maybe he has a story.