The bell jangled merrily above my head as I opened the door. I cringed at the loud sound, stepping into the diner and gazing around. The room was filled with red vinyl booths, crowded against stained tables. There were bar stools lined up against the counter and a jukebox sat in a lonely corner, silent. The lights were fluorescent and the wallpaper was flowery, littered with framed photos and newspaper articles. This is not what I had expected, walking in here.
A waitress flew past me, her long, blonde hair trailing behind her from a high ponytail. She threw me a harried smile in passing.
“Be right with you!” She trilled chirply, but I could hear an undertone of panic. I was curious, because as I looked around, there was only one table occupied by two ladies and a lone man sitting at the counter, nursing a mug of coffee.
I shrugged to myself, taking myself to a booth in the corner. I sat with my back against the wall, so that I could easily watch the room and its occupants. The women were three tables away from me and one of them was laughing obnoxiously loud while her friend seemed to be ducking her head down, almost in embarrassment? I wondered what they could be laughing at but the thought was interrupted by the loud lady’s eyes following the waitress, a smirk curling her red, painted lips.
Suddenly, her eyes flew to me, our stares clashing. She fell silent, the smile falling off her lips and, after a moment, her gaze dropping to stare at the table. Her friend looked over her shoulder, trying to discern what had caught the other woman’s attention. She saw me, gasped and quickly spun to face the other way again.
I turned away from the ladies, my gaze staring out the dirty window next to me and a frown tugging at my own lips. I wondered what the hell was going on but quickly decided it was all in my head. It was usually all in my head.
“What can I getcha?” A perky voice suddenly said, and I swung around to peer at the waitress. My eyes travelled up from her worn, white skates up to the cocked hip, covered in a bright pink pleated skirt. A garish yellow blouse, covered in a stained white apron, was tucked into the waistband and buttoned up to the white collar that looked like it could be pinching her neck. It was a terrible uniform.
I don’t know how much time had passed while I assessed her, but I became aware of a raised eyebrow and a smile threatening to slip with impatience. She tapped her pencil against her notepad, waiting.
“Just coffee. Black, please.” I finally said, clearing my throat awkwardly.
“Absolutely!” The smile was back full force, so bright that I almost felt the need to blink. She whirled away, her skates rolling easily on the tile linoleum. My gaze followed her, watching as she easily grabbed a clean mug and a pot of filter coffee, her movements efficient as if she’d does countless times. She was back record time, plopping the mug delicately down in front of me and then pouring the steaming liquid into it.
“Is your shift nearly over?” The question left my lips without permission, making me frown. I didn’t really want to know that. It was like when asked someone how they were and expected, or hoped, for the trite reply of ‘fine’. I looked up at the waitress warily, hoping she wouldn’t take my question as an invitation. I found her own eyes on me, watching intently. Her head was tilted to the side as she studied my face, her eyes curious.
“Nearly over?” She shook her head, a tendril of hair escaping the ponytail and flying around her face. “No, I don’t think so.” I floundered for a moment, not knowing how to respond to the unexpected response.
“Uh, okay. So… it’s a 24 hour diner then?” I queried before mentally hitting myself in the head. What was I doing? I didn’t want to start this conversation in the first place!
“I guess you could say that,” she said wryly, a twinkle in her eye. “I guess it depends on if your brain ever shuts off.” Before I could reply, she had turned and rolled off with a flounce of her pleated skirt. I stared after her, disconcertment strong as I mulled over her words in my head. As I watched, all the other diners stood in unison and, without looking around, moved to leave the diner. I watched until the bell had finished chiming, the door closing shut firmly behind them. Quiet settled over the diner. I couldn’t hear any music, any sounds coming from the kitchen… nothing.
Suddenly, the waitress was next to my table, her appearance sudden and silent. I stared up at her, her face stern.
“I-I thought you said this was a 24 hour place?” I stammered, leaning back as she bent to refill my coffee that I don’t recall drinking.
“Why is everyone leaving then? It looks like you’re closing.”
She glanced towards the door and then back at me, confusion filling her face.
“You’re the one who made them leave.”
“Excuse me? I didn’t say anything to them!”She shrugged, looking tired as she leaned one palm down on the table, as if she needed to take the weight off her feet. “You always make people leave at this time of night. Never me, though.” The last was said in a whisper of sound. “I never get to leave.”