On my break I strolled around the block, admiring the trees which lined the streets. They had burst into pinks and whites over the weekend, making downtown smell like spring. They must be especially stalwart trees, I thought, to bloom so abundantly amid the concrete, asphalt, and exhaust fumes. The very idea of them was intoxicating.
At the last possible instant I saw and dodged a blond, pant-suited, high-heeled woman as she hurried in the other direction. Her eyes were glued to her smart phone. I kept walking but turned my head, seeking any sign that she’d noticed the near miss her large coffee and possibly her phone screen had just survived. It was pointless to snarl; she was already several yards behind me and moving fast. At least I wasn’t wearing her coffee.
Maybe she was watching premarket trades. I did, when I dressed like her for work. The markets would open in an hour. How many stockbrokers worked in these glass towers? How many lawyers and accountants?
The blow to the side of my head stopped me in my tracks. The temporary “ROAD WORK” sign hadn’t been there earlier. It was metal, but my skull hit it with a dull thud, not a clang, though I felt like a clapper.
I gathered my shattered thoughts, brushed off concerned questions from solicitous passersby who weren’t on their screens, and walked on. Five minutes later I was in the ladies’ room at work, deciding the bump wasn’t bleeding and wouldn’t be visible under my hair. Five minutes after that, I was at Table Six, trying to be pleasant and wishing the ibuprofen would kick in.
“Here you go, Frank,” I said. “One large, fresh-squeezed orange juice and your check. Thanks for coming in.”
He sat alone in his usual booth, the second from the end, looking too much like my grandpa. My memory of Grandpa, at least. It wasn’t a good look: wrinkly, saggy, haphazardly shaven, unsmiling, eightyish, with protruding, bloodshot eyes. I caught a whiff of old age, maybe stale urine, amid the breakfast aromas. His blue-gray-green plaid flannel shirt could have been Grandpa’s, if the cuffs had frayed. His limp gray slacks were Grandpa’s. So were his lonely strands of silver hair.
I knew Frank wasn’t Grandpa. Grandpa had been dead for years. I knew I was projecting my feelings about Grandpa onto Frank, but I did it anyway. I automatically braced myself for crankiness and disapproval.
He’d come well after the late breakfast rush, as usual, so we weren’t slammed. I could linger, while he turned the check over and examined it, also as usual. We still did checks by hand, but I figured he’d have doubted a computer’s calculations too.
“Did I get the math right?” I always did. Even with a headache, there weren’t that many ways to go wrong, adding up $4.85 for the juice and $0.35 for sales tax.
There was one good thing about seeing Frank almost daily. His tip would be two dollars, which was crazy generous, percentage-wise.
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Grandpa gave me two dollars once, when I was seventeen. Made me promise not to put it in my college fund, as I’d done with his larger gifts. Told me to find a boy and buy him an ice cream cone. Said I was turning into one of those “feministic” girls who studied too much and didn’t care enough about attracting a good man someday and settling down.
By then I’d long since abandoned hope for Grandpa’s approval, and I was tired of his criticism. So I told him I liked guys well enough, but I wouldn’t dumb down or sex up my personality for them.
He complained about my language.
I didn’t stop resenting him when he died. Now I remembered him by resenting Frank, who’d never said a critical word to me. I knew it didn’t make logical sense. But it made emotional sense.
Frank had been in almost every weekday for weeks. Lately he always sat in my area. He’d sip his juice for half an hour, then shuffle out. He never brought a newspaper or a book. I never saw Grandpa reading either, despite his floor-to-ceiling roomful of books.
They had the same blank stare.
I was only one-third of Frank’s age, give or take, but if I was ever old enough for grandchildren, I wanted to make my exit before I lost the capacity to be cheerful and kind to them. In any case I wanted to go before my life shriveled into dreary uselessness – which certain people thought had already happened. Mom, for example. She’d had such high hopes for me, visions of pant suits, heels, office buildings, corporate power – a life she never had – and now I waited tables in a diner. Worse – far worse – it was my choice.
“You always get the math right,” Frank rumbled. “You should be an accountant.”
“I am an accountant.”
He glanced up without moving his head. “You are?”
“A good one. Worked a few years for one of the Big Four.”
His next question was, “Why’d you leave?” What I heard was, “Why on earth do you work here?”
The rest of my section was empty, so I could chat. It took my mind off my headache. “You really want to know?”
“I hated 80-hour weeks. And I didn’t want to impose them on other people either. Here I work hard five days a week, from 5:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., waiting tables and doing the books. Then I go home, have a life, and forget work until my next shift.”
“Substantial pay cut.”
“That’s okay. I have no debt, more savings than 98.7 percent of my age group, and some fairly successful investments.”
“Well, you’re good at this too.”
I chuckled, aggravating the pain in my head. “I bring you juice every morning. I get your check right. It’s not rocket science.”
He raised his furry, gray-and-white eyebrows in silence.
“I have mad skills serving whole meals too, if you ever want more.”
“Good to know,” he said.
“For example, tomorrow you could wash down a cinnamon roll with your juice. Or pancakes.” I envisioned him eating pancakes very slowly.
“No, thank you. Watching my carbs.”
“Nick’s omelets are the talk of downtown. He says so himself.”
“Don’t like eggs.”
“Ham, sausage, bacon?”
“Too much salt.”
He lifted his glass a half-inch. “This is fresh.”
“Well then, unless you come for lunch or dinner, I guess that leaves juice. Or the coffee’s pretty good.”
“Don’t drink it.”
“We have grapefruit juice.”
“Regrettably, it interacts with my medications.”
“Love it too, but the salt again. And apple’s too sweet. May I ask a question?”
“What is the proper level of gratuity for an establishment of this sort?”
“For an unpretentious downtown diner with great food and world-class service?”
There might have been a glint in his eye. “Something like that.”
“Fifteen percent is kind of the low end of acceptable. Twenty’s good. Twenty-five’s excellent.”
This was a longer conversation than I could remember having with Grandpa. Gruff sermons about correct behavior for girls and not raiding his raspberry patch weren’t conversations.
He focused on the check again. “Twenty-five percent would be $1.30. That would feel cheap.”
“Frank, I’ve never complained about your tips. You’re always very kind. Thank you!” I put a hand on his shoulder, then froze. I almost never touched customers who had outgrown booster seats.
He froze too. I removed my hand, and we were back to normal.
“Thanks for coming in,” I said. “See you tomorrow?”
“Most likely.” He looked up and squinted. “I’m sorry. I’ve never quite been able to read your nametag.”
“Millie. Short for Emily.”
His eyebrows rose again. “I have a granddaughter by that name.”
Of course he did. I scrambled for a response. “I hope she’s younger than me.”
“That’s younger,” I said.
The front door admitted two guys and a girl, all teenagers. They were probably cutting school. “I’ll get back to work.”
“Good day … Millie.”
“Good day, Frank.”
“That’s another thing,” he said before I turned away. “You don’t say, ‘Have a good rest of the day’ – which sounds like wishing someone a good nap.”
“Yeah, it does. See you tomorrow.”
On Sunday evening, Mom called, which was not the problem. The problem was that I answered, caller ID notwithstanding. An unforced error.
“I hate to think of you slaving away, waiting tables,” she said after small talk. “I know how people treat waitresses.”
“Did you ever wait tables?” I asked. I knew she hadn’t. The next thing I planned to say was, “Don’t judge what you haven’t tried.”
“No, but Grandma did.”
“I didn’t know that. Before she met Grandpa? Or was that how she met him?”
“Years later, when he was in the war. I was five or six, old enough to know it drove him nuts that she had to do that. I’m sending money.”
“No, thanks. I’m fine.” I had more money than she did.
“Decent wages, great tips, sound investments. I’m doing well.”
“I’ll send you $100.”
“I’ll send it back. Again.”
“I want to help. You could be a little grateful.”
“I said thanks.”
“You said no, thanks.”
That was plenty for one evening. “Mom, I have to go. Early shift, as usual.”
“You deserve so much better, Millie. You had a career path.”
“I know, Mom. Good night. Thanks for calling.”
Her words echoed in my mind as I prepared for bed: “You deserve so much better.”
They still echoed on my walk to work at zero-dark-thirty, as Nick called it. He sounded like a soldier because he’d been one, in the same war as Dad.
“You deserve so much better.” What Mom meant was, “I’m so disappointed in you.”
I’d told Mom a hundred times, and it was true: I was happy. I enjoyed my job, and I had job security, even if I didn’t have a clear, upward career path. I went to plays and concerts, not always alone. I walked in the park and by the creek that burbled and sparkled through my little neighborhood. I volunteered at church. I sat in my favorite chair for entire evenings, reading books I loved. There hadn’t been time or energy for any of that, when I worked 16-hour days in a cube. And so what if my best friends were from work? My friends were real people now. They weren’t desperate to impress everyone.
I didn’t care that others thought I’d lost my mind. But I was wired to care what Mom thought.
The blossoms and the cool morning breeze had worked some of their magic by the time I reached the diner, and it was a good thing. The whole morning was a circus. We were down a server, and the breakfast rush stretched into the lunch rush.
Frank came at the usual time, and his usual booth happened to be open. He was gone before I saw his ten-dollar tip.
Tuesday was back to normal, so I had time to ask, when I brought his juice and check, “What’s up with yesterday’s tip? 192%?”
His voice was gruff. “Was it inappropriately large?”
“Then I apologize.”
While that hung in the air, I reminded myself that I was angry at Mom – and Grandpa – but Frank wasn’t either of them, and I was a better person than this.
“Actually, I apologize. You were very generous. Unnecessarily so. Thank you.”
An order was up, so I had to go. “Thanks for coming in, Frank.”
I had another spare minute before he finished his juice, so I asked him my other question. “Why yesterday? You got less attention from me than usual.”
He looked at me with upturned eyes. “If you must know, I heard those six patrons at that table behind you deciding to leave you a quarter each, glued to the table with pancake syrup – after they were profoundly rude to you in their words and their … liberties.”
I wouldn’t have said profoundly, but he wasn’t wrong. “It’s part of the job.”
“Perhaps. But you deserve better.”
I deserved better? He was Grandpa after all. Or Mom.
“Frank, you don’t know me. How would you know what I deserve?”
His eyebrows twitched upward. “I know your work, and you’re human. You deserve better on both counts.”
I actually hung my head a little. In actual shame. “Thank you, Frank. Have a great day.”
“You too,” he said.
On my birthday I had to answer Mom’s call, and I had to act enthusiastic about the box she’d mailed late, which was still en route. I didn’t care about the delay, and I was grateful for the gesture, but I didn’t expect much. Last year’s box had included some makeup I never used because the colors were too bold, the latest perky self-help book for women who wanted to have it all, and a cute but low-cut top she’d found for me, which I had worn exactly once, for two minutes, in front of my bedroom mirror.
“Ernst & Young is opening a big office here,” she said in her helpful voice. “I heard they’re having trouble finding enough accountants. You should apply. They’re Big Five, right?”
“It’s Big Four now. Arthur Andersen went away long ago.”
“That’s hardly the point,” she said. “Not liking one accounting job doesn’t mean you won’t like another. You should aspire to something more than living alone and waiting tables.”
There it was.
“That pretty much covers it, right, Mom? I’m twenty-seven and single. Grandpa would be so disappointed, even if he never really liked me. And I wait tables for a living, so you’re more than disappointed. You’re ashamed. I’ll bet Dad wouldn’t be ashamed of me if he were here.”
Dad died when I was eleven. His Humvee hit an IED in Afghanistan, three weeks before the end of a six-month deployment that had lasted almost two years.
On his last leave, over Christmas, he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wasn’t sure. Maybe a combat engineer like him. Maybe a teacher, because I loved my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Neville. Maybe a waitress, because we were on a New Year’s Eve lunch date, and the server was smart, pretty, and kind.
I decided to test him. “What if I want to drive a garbage truck?”
He grinned. “You’re testing me again, right?”
I couldn’t keep a straight face.
“Millie, you should be happy. If that means driving a garbage truck, just be really good at it. And shower thoroughly after work.”
“Okay,” I said. “But garbage is gross, so it probably won’t be that. Are you happy?”
“I am. I’m good at my job, and I help people. I miss being home with you and Mom and your little brothers, but I’m protecting the people and things I love most, including you, and someday soon I’ll come home to stay.”
He came home that March. We buried him on a chilly, gray-brown day. After the school year ended, we moved three states away to be closer to Grandma and Grandpa.
Mom was still on the call, but my attacking her and Grandpa and invoking Dad’s memory all in the same twenty seconds had bludgeoned her into silence.
Remembering Dad brought tears to my eyes. I wiped them away.
“I miss Dad too,” she finally whispered. Then her voice got louder. “And you can stop saying Grandpa didn’t love you. He did. He wanted you to be happy.” I heard a deep breath. “And I’m not … I’m not ashamed of you, Millie. But all that education, all that work building a career.”
“Education is for life, not just work,” I said. “I read that somewhere. I have a life now.”
“If you insist on waiting tables, why does it have to be a diner? That’s just about the bottom rung of the ladder. You deserve better.”
“You should check our online reviews. People love us. Great food, great service, relaxed and friendly atmosphere, the whole deal. I’m proud of my work, and we’re not the bottom rung. The best part is, people are themselves in diners. Customers, workers, management. No pretense, no illusion. At least a lot less than other places.”
Just talking about it made me happier.
“I just want the best for you,” she said. “Do you still want marriage and family?”
“When the time and the man converge, yes.”
“How will that happen, waiting tables? How will you ever meet a good man in a diner? Or keep one interested, when he finds out where you work?”
“Would it help if I owned a diner?” I asked.
“You don’t, do you?”
“No, but never say never. That would be a career path.”
“Very funny,” she said. “You should be meeting good men.”
“I thought I’d start by being happy and having a life. Besides, Rosie Perez got Nicholas Cage in a diner. Julia Roberts got a guy in that pizza movie.”
“I just want you to be happy.”
My voice turned cold. “How many times do I have to say it? I’m happy. I’d be even happier, if my family didn’t consider me a failure and a lunatic. You’d think at least my mother might believe in me, but she doesn’t.”
She said nothing for a full five seconds, so I decided we were done.
“I have to crash, Mom. Thanks for calling.”
She retreated. “You’re welcome. Happy birthday.
I shouldn’t have replayed our conversation in my head on the way to work the next morning, but I did – especially the parts where Mom said she wasn’t ashamed of me, but I knew better, and where she refused to believe I was happy – which I really was, when I wasn’t on the phone with her.
There was no remedy on my route. The blossoms were long gone, the leaves seemed faded and tired, and there was no cool breeze, despite the early hour. The oppressive, muggy heat matched my feelings rather than improving them.
I hid my dark cloud from the customers, but when things relaxed after the breakfast rush, my façade must have slipped.
Frank asked, “Is everything okay, Millie?”
I was an instant waitress-in-a-diner stereotype: hands on hips, curt. “Why do you ask?”
“You don’t seem yourself today.”
I snapped at him. “Frank, you’re entitled to your juice, a place to sit while you drink it, and professional service, including an accurate check. Psychoanalyzing me is not in the package.”
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I did not mean to offend. Or psychoanalyze.”
I was trying to come down from my high horse. I should have waited to speak again until I’d succeeded. “What did you mean, exactly?”
He turned slowly toward me.
“To cheer you up a little. Encourage you. Offer some relief, however small and transitory.”
My feet were on the ground now, my cheeks were hot, and my high horse was trudging away in shame. “Thank you,” I murmured. “How were you going to do that?”
“I don’t know. But I wanted to try.”
His candor was disarming, but now he reminded me of Dad, not Grandpa, and I couldn’t handle being disarmed and thinking of Dad just then. “Thanks for that. Here’s your check. Have a good day.”
“You too, Millie.”
I couldn’t tell him it wouldn’t be good. He’d ask why, and I’d explain, including the fact that yesterday was my birthday. He’d wish me a happy belated birthday, and it would just be bad.
He left his usual two-dollar tip.
On Monday he came in with a man about my age, who was tallish, with short, curly blond hair I might have liked on myself but didn’t like on a guy. Frank introduced him as Brad, a neighbor. Brad didn’t say much, but he ordered an omelet and left a nice tip.
Frank didn’t appear the next day – or for the rest of the week. I worried that he was ill or out of town. Or maybe he’d taken delayed offense at my little tantrum.
At lunchtime the next Monday, Brad came in alone, ordered a BLT on wheat toast and a cup of chicken soup, and did his best Frank impression. He stared straight ahead while he ate, not even looking at his smart phone.
As he finished his meal, I stopped at his table.
“Can I interest you in some pie?”
He looked up and nodded. I still hadn’t seen him smile. “Sure. What do you have?”
When I brought his cherry pie, I asked about Frank.
“He hasn’t felt like going out,” Brad said.
“I hope he’s not ill,” I said.
“I think he’d prefer to be ill. His wife passed away last Monday evening.”
My heart fell further than I knew it could fall over someone else’s troubles. “I’m so sorry. Is he okay?” It was a stupid question.
Brad shrugged. “Not the first word I’d use. Wasn’t a great surprise, but you know.”
“What’s his story? He’s been coming here for months, but he never talks about himself. Or his wife.”
“A while back she slipped into a coma. Wasn’t a stroke. Something else. She came out of it, but not all the way out. She could eat and smile, and usually say hello and goodbye, but a lot of her was just gone.
“They put her in that place around the block, and he started spending every day there. He’d arrive by 7:00 a.m. and take a break later, while they bathed her and so on, which is when he’d come here. Then he’d go back and stay until late. He fed her, if she was too weak, but mostly he read to her for hours and hours. Jane Austen, the Bible, all her favorite books. She liked that, but he wondered how much she understood. Maybe she just liked his voice.”
The more Brad said, the less Frank resembled Grandpa – unless I’d misjudged Grandpa too. I probably hadn’t.
“Last Monday was their 57th anniversary. I took the morning off to help him celebrate by helping her celebrate, sort of. I don’t think she understood, but he had a good day – until she passed away that evening. He said she squeezed his hand for a long time. Said she loved him, smiled when he said he loved her, then just sort of switched off.”
He glanced up, shrugged, and looked down at his pie.
I couldn’t move. “That’s either really sad or really … wonderful.”
Brad nodded. “I’m going with wonderful.”
My eyes were about to drip, it was so wonderful.
“You’re the one who objected to a big tip, right?” he asked.
“Guilty as charged,” I said. “Why does he tip so well? Is he rich?”
“Not at all. Just generous. Besides, he likes you. You’re reliable, friendly, intelligent. You remind him of his granddaughters. He doesn’t get to see them very often.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“What’s to say? He’s lonely, he’s old, and coming here helps.” He looked up. “Thanks for that. He’s a good man.”
“You’re welcome. He’s welcome.” I smiled wryly. “Everybody’s welcome. Will he be back?”
“Probably, when he feels like facing life again. He lives in the next building, close to me. Speaking of which, can I get orange juice in a to-go cup, please?”
“Of course. I need to go in back for a minute. Then the juice is on the house.”
I hurried to the office I shared with Nick, grabbed a sheet of official stationery and a matching envelope, and sat at my little desk. Maybe I did know what to say.
Dear Frank, Brad told me you’ve been spending all day, every day with your wife, reading to her.
Something struck me.
No wonder your voice was hoarse, even in the mornings, with all that reading. He said she passed away last week. I’m so sorry. When you’re ready to go out again, we’ll be happy to see you here. Best wishes, Millie
For a couple of weeks I watched for him, but he didn’t come. On a Friday I traded shifts with a girl who had a date that evening. I worried that Frank might come in the morning, and I’d miss him, but I was starting to think he might never come back.
When I showed up for the lunch rush, Nick said, “Hey, that old guy asked for you this morning. I told him you traded shifts with Kaycee, so she could have her hot date tonight. Too much information, maybe? He looks even older now.”
“His wife just died.”
“Sorry to hear that. Anyway, he said you’re very good at your job. Professional, kind, good at arithmetic. I said I’ll talk to my accountant about getting you a raise. He seemed to know that’s you.”
“I don’t need a raise, Nick. You gave me one three months –”
He was already gone.
I worked on the books in back for a while, then returned to the floor as dinner loomed. We were never crowded for Friday dinner. We’d get a few young couples who didn’t have much money, for whom going out at all was a treat. We had cheap specials for them. Younger patrons usually didn’t tip well, but on Friday evenings the guys wanted to impress the girls.
When I saw Frank at a table – his usual booth was occupied – I nearly dropped four plates. He stuck out like a sore, wrinkled, stooped old thumb, but I was happy to see him. I greeted him more solicitously than usual, but he did nothing to encourage conversation. He wasn’t impolite or grouchy, just monosyllabic.
I didn’t press him to talk – until I saw him drop a crisp $50 bill next to the spotless plate where his meat loaf had been. He was halfway to a standing position when I closed the two yards between us and put my hand on his arm.
“Wait, Frank. I think you made a mistake.”
He furrowed his brow and stared at me, saying nothing.
“I’m sure you didn’t mean to leave that much.”
He looked down at the table. “No mistake. Good evening, Millie.”
I still held his arm. “I can’t accept that.”
“Is it inappropriate?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.” I took a deep breath. “I guess I need to know why.”
Our eyes met again, but his grave expression didn’t change. He spoke slowly, as usual. “It’s Friday evening. You took your colleague’s shift, I understand, because she has a date and you don’t. The young males of our species must be hopelessly addled. All I can do is demonstrate that someone appreciates what you do and how well you do it.” He cleared his throat with Grandpa’s four staccato coughs, which was eerie. His Adam’s apple bobbed, and his voice was noticeably gruffer. “And who you are.”
Blood rushed to my cheeks, and tears pooled in my eyes. “Your wife was a lucky woman.” His eyes darted to my hand on his arm, and I let go.
“I was lucky. I meant to thank you for the juice the other day. And your thoughtful note.”
“You’re welcome. Thanks for coming.” My usual words sounded too routine, and now my voice was gruff. “It’s good to see you. I’m so sorry about your wife.”
The next Monday, he came at the usual time, sat in the usual booth – and asked for a menu and ordered breakfast.
“What about carbs and sodium and all that?”
He smiled faintly. “My wife is gone, my usefulness is waning, and it’s too late for me to die prematurely. I’ve decided to eat what I like. Could you pack me a cinnamon roll, please, for a snack?”
This went on for weeks, with five-dollar tips. He put on weight and looked slightly less old.
On Christmas Eve, an hour before I planned to hit the road for Christmas with Mom and my brothers, he came in for a late lunch, after coming for breakfast that morning. He left me a ten and a hundred. “This is no mistake,” he said solemnly. “I’d be grateful if you’d accept it without protest. You’ve been good to me all these months.”
A lead weight formed in my gut, and my voice trembled. “Is this goodbye?”
“No,” he rumbled. “I’m flying off to spend a week with family, but I’ll be back. This is the same gift my nine grandchildren are getting. Merry Christmas.”
The immediate cause for tears was gone, but my eyes teared up anyway.
I tried for a mischievous smile. “For my college fund?”
“For whatever you wish.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Even without this generous gift, I’d miss you if, you know.”
“I would miss you.” He stood to leave.
“Frank, could you use a hug today?”
“I, well …”
While he decided, I hugged him. His frail arms shook as he hugged me back. We let go, I wished him a merry Christmas, and he shuffled out the door.
I clocked out and sat in his booth with bowl of beef barley soup. While it cooled, I pulled out my phone to text Mom. Then I switched to e-mail. It was less interactive.
Hi, Mom. Quick lunch, then driving. Good day for soup here (beef barley). I wish you knew some of our regulars. One old man reminds me of Grandpa, or sometimes Dad. He’s eighty-something and newly widowed. Also generous and kind. His neighbor, a guy about my age, comes in sometimes. He seems like a good man too. He wears a wedding ring, so it’s not what you’re hoping. But there are good men in diners. At least this one. Hope you’re well. I’m happy. M
My peripheral vision caught movement, and I turned to the window. A swirling winter breeze pushed a few brown leaves and bits of litter around the sidewalk.
It was definitely a good day for hot soup.
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