The sign at the exit ramp said “Next Services 63 Miles.” There was enough gas in the tank to skip a stop, but Atticus eased up on the accelerator, waffling. He’d thought of stopping each time he’d passed a rest area or motel, but with three miserable job interviews in Albequerque like ghosts chasing him west down the highway, he always kept driving. In eight hours, he’d downed a package of beef jerky and two energy drinks, doing his best not to taste any of it; now nausea and dizziness were creeping into his sinus cavity like mucus. He didn’t want to wait another hour to eat if he didn’t have to and the fork-and-knife symbol above the “next services” sign drove off the specter of dwindling employment opportunities long enough to scam him into pulling off of the highway.
He had been expecting a gas station with an attached fast food stand. What he saw as he paused at the end of the off ramp was an old-fashioned diner with several gas pumps that had probably been in service since the ‘70s in front of it. He felt a pang of disappointment in the vicinity of his empty stomach. There weren’t any cars parked in front and he checked his phone for the time. 11:48.
After wavering at the stop sign, Atticus turned onto the access road. It wouldn’t hurt to make sure the place was actually closed. In the worst case, he’d only waste a couple of minutes, and there might be a vending machine around the side. Something stale from a Middle Of Nowhere vending machine was better than nothing.
Habit had Atticus scanning the front window for help wanted signs as he pulled up opposite the front door. The familiar sensation of disappointment gurgled in his stomach, but it couldn’t be bothered to writhe around like it used to. Maybe he was too tired or too accustomed to it.
On the other hand, his feeling of relief at the handwritten “open” sign that was in the window instead swelled like a balloon animal. Squinting through the glass storefront, he made out a woman in an apron examining her lipstick in the back of a spoon behind the counter. There was a man sitting some distance away from her at the counter. Atticus shifted the car into park with one decisive swipe of his hand and cut the engine, though he didn’t forget his ritual of hitting the door lock three times and double-checking that the key was in his pocket before he finally went inside.
An off-pitch pin-pon accompanied his entrance and he adjusted his glasses in disquiet, looking to either side to avoid having to look at the woman behind the counter too soon. A row of booths lined the diner’s front wall below finger-print-encrusted windows, with the counter opposite it across a deer trail of stained linoleum. A phalanx of dusty mirror tiles ran the length of the wall behind the counter. Atticus had to wonder why the waitress was using a spoon when she had those at her disposal, but as he sat down, he noticed there was food caked around the lower edge of tile and thought he wouldn’t want to get too close to it either.
When he finally forced himself to look at her, the woman behind the counter was staring at Atticus from behind thick, wide-framed glasses. Caked-on makeup failed to hide wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, and her eyelashes clumped together like tiny spears. Her name tag, askew, had the name Madge affixed to it in the block-letters of an old embossed plastic label that was curling up around the e.
Atticus coughed into his shoulder and shifted. “Um. Can I see a menu?”
She was already pouring him a cup of unsolicited coffee, which she slid across the counter to him. It sloshed over the edge of the cup, but she seemed unperturbed as she tossed down several packets of sugar and single serving cups of creamer.
He didn’t know how much coffee cost here, but it was already too late to protest.
“Sure,” Madge finally said in a voice that made him think of a dying lawn overrun by grackles. She passed a menu across the counter to him and he pulled it closer. It was greasy in his hands.
Though choosing his meal wasn’t difficult, he still sat and stared at the single laminated page inside.
Breakfast (3 am - 11 am) ............. $5.00
Lunch (11 am - 4 pm) .................. $5.00
Dinner (4 pm - 3 am) ................... $5.00
Coffee (all day) ............................ $1.50
“I uh, guess I’ll have dinner,” Atticus said, closing the menu and sliding it back across the counter.
“One dinner,” Madge said, as though there was someone else there to hear her, and turned to a hot well behind her. She began to scoop things onto a chipped plate.
While he waited, Atticus pulled his coffee cup closer, careful not to spill more of it, and opened a disposable cup of creamer. He blinked at the congealed mess inside and decided to drink the coffee black.
Sipping the coffee—which wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be—Atticus glanced at the man at the end of the counter. He hunched over a cup of coffee, either very nervous or very tired. Atticus heard his cup rattle against the countertop as he lifted it with both hands and wondered if he should ask him if he was okay. The man’s rasping, damp breaths made him want to clear his own throat; Atticus swallowed, and then leaned over in his seat.
Speaking just loud enough for the man to hear, he asked, “Hey. Are you alright?”
“Fine,” the man said a little too fast, his voice high-pitched, his gaze flickering back down to his cup of coffee. “I’m fine. Just tired.”
He seemed more nervous than tired, taking care to look only at his coffee, but Atticus nodded.
“I get that.” He was tired as well and not just from the drive. The thought of his financial situation, of his joblessness, of having to start at the bottom rung of the ladder after his own business collapsed, it all exhausted him.
“No.” The man was looking at him now, his eyes round and unblinking. Somehow, Atticus got the impression that he hadn’t actually moved, like a film reel missing frames. “You don’t. Not yet.”
Taken aback, Atticus met those bloodshot eyes for a moment before turning away to face forward, staring with fixed concentration at the set up behind the counter. As his uneasiness from his brief exchange with the other man dissipated, Atticus felt some relief that most all of the food seemed to come out of cans and boxes and went into hot wells or under lamps to keep it warm. When he considered who would have been doing the cooking, he wasn’t sure that he’d have stuck around to eat otherwise, even at this hour and so far from a real town.
Glancing at the mirror behind Madge, Atticus could see part of the countertop and his own chest. There were also plates of half eaten food, mugs with coffee dripping down the sides.
Atticus started in surprise. He grabbed the edge of the counter for balance and whipped his head to either side to find that there was nothing there. He stared back at the mirror for a moment, but could see nothing but himself and the bare countertop.
Tired. He was just tired, he told himself, and his mind was playing tricks.
At the end of the counter, the other man made an “mmhm” sound into his coffee cup. Atticus glanced at him, then back at Madge, who was looking at him with an ice cream scoop of macaroni and cheese in one hand. Flustered, Atticus adjusted his glasses. She dropped her payload onto the plate, then plunked that down in front of him. “Dinner”, apparently, was a shriveled piece of fried chicken, a biscuit like a hockey puck, and crusty macaroni and cheese.
“You better get started on that while it’s still warm.”
Atticus gave his dinner a disgruntled look, then picked up his fork and dug into the macaroni and cheese. The sooner he choked down his five dollars worth of food—which at this point seemed very overpriced—the sooner he could leave.
As he chewed, his eyes followed Madge down the counter. With the coffee pot in hand, she leaned toward the other customer.
“Have another, honey,” she said and poured. The man clenched his hands around his cup, shrinking back on his stool.
Madge drifted back to Atticus and leaned against the counter across from him. He looked down at his food and swallowed with some difficulty.
“We don’t get many customers,” Madge said, and Atticus wished that unsolicited conversation were against the law. “Not since the mine closed up. Before that though, this place was full every night. Miners loved it.”
The miners must have had no sense of taste and very low standards. Madge sighed and inspected the nails of her left hand. Despite the bright red coat of enamel, Atticus could see dirt trapped under them. He looked at his food again and decided he hadn’t noticed.
“Been a little better since that Waffle House and the gas station up the highway burned down. You probably saw the closed exit a couple miles before this one. Now there’s nothing else for fifty miles either way, at least.”
Although Atticus wasn’t looking at her, he could hear the smile in her voice. He shivered and put his fork down.
“These days, we do anything we have to to get customers.”
Atticus picked up his coffee and took a swallow. Glancing upward over the rim of his cup, he could see dishes and hands shoveling food into unseen mouths in the mirror.
He felt the blood drain from his face and put his cup down, bowing his head in unconscious imitation of the other customer. He didn’t dare look to either side along the counter as he finished his meal, choking it down with mechanical motions.
He only made it halfway through before groping in his pocket for his wallet. The only bill he had was a ten, and he put it down on the counter beside his plate as he got to his feet.
“Lemme get your change.” Madge picked up the bill and drifted in the direction of the register.
“Keep it.” Atticus was already halfway out the door.
Climbing back into his car, he felt like he’d barely escaped a deep sea leviathan in a row boat. But, shoving his key into the ignition and turning it, all he heard was a dull click. The engine didn’t even turn.
“...No.” He tried again, and then a third time. “No no no.”
When neither turning the key or exhorting the car to start worked, he hit the wheel with the heel of his hand and then rested his forehead against it. This couldn’t be happening. He couldn’t be stuck in the middle of nowhere with a crazy person and a woman who was old enough to know how to successfully apply makeup but still couldn’t.
He closed his eyes and let out a long breath. This wasn’t the end of the world, he knew, but it sure felt like it after the day he’d had. Hearing the words “We’ll be in touch” and “We’ve decided to go in another direction” and “That’s not really the skill set we’re looking for” during the day had certainly set the stage for an awful night, but he’d expected that to mean he wouldn’t be able to sleep once he got home, not that he’d be stuck at the grossest diner in the history of diners all night.
And it would be all night, he was certain. Even if there was a tow truck that would come at this time of night, the exit was so far from anything that it could take hours for it to reach him.
Digging his phone out of his pocket, he tried to wake it up so that he could find the number for a towing company. The screen didn’t light up.
He stared for a moment and like with the car, tried two more times before giving in to the fact that the phone was dead. It shouldn’t have been—it had been plugged in the entire time he’d been driving—but it was. Not only was he truly stranded now, but he also was going to have to buy a new phone when he finally did get back. One more expense he didn’t need and couldn’t afford.
He dragged himself out of the car again, not bothering this time to lock it, and went back into the diner. The door clanked closed behind him with the same tired chime and he went back up to the counter, frowning.
“My car won’t start.”
Madge peered around him through the windows. “Shame,” she said. “No one’s going to come out here this time of night. You’ll have to wait till morning.”
He turned to look at the front windows and found his reflection staring back at him.
“Do you...have a phone I can use?” he asked his own reflection before looking over his shoulder at Madge. She didn’t look up from examining her nails.
“There’s a pay phone around the side of the building.” She pointed with her free hand in the direction of the man at the end of the counter. Atticus glanced at him, then went out through the door, the sound of the chime cut off as it swung closed.
He circled the building, keeping close to the wall like something might spring out at him if he were out in the open, and almost ran into the phone when he reached it in the dark. Shaking his head, disconcerted still, he groped in his pocket and the expedition returned him two quarters, which he shoved into the phone’s slot. He’d never used a payphone in his life, but remembered from old movies that there was supposed to be an operator available if he pressed 0. He had no idea if that was still true—it seemed like a job that would be largely defunct in an age of mobile phones—but he had no idea what else to try. He’d have to go back inside to ask Madge if she had the number for him to call a tow truck and he had a feeling of what the answer would be.
He punched the 0 button and waited.
“...Um.” Surprised, he couldn’t remember what he was going to say for a moment. “I need to call a tow truck.”
“Where are you located?”
“Ah...exit 132? I’m at that old diner off the highway…” He probably shouldn’t have assumed she’d know which diner that was, but he didn’t even know what its name was. The neon sign just said “iner.”
“I know the one.” The operator sounded like she was chewing gum, the smacking sound making Atticus grimace. “We’ll send some guys out right away.”
“You’ll— Don’t I need to call someone?”
“We’ll take care of it, sweetie,” she said, “Though it might not be until morning.”
“Well...thanks.” He’d have to shelter in place until then, to his dismay.
The operator disconnected and he returned the receiver to its cradle. His quarters came back to him but it was a long moment before he retrieved them from the change slot, his eyes trained on the phone’s keypad. He couldn’t shake an eerie feeling that clung to him like spiderwebs. Something—or maybe several somethings—was off about this situation, but he felt like he was groping around in the dark when he tried to focus on what exactly it was that seemed so strange.
Nothing had changed inside the diner when he went back in. Maybe he’d be better off walking to the next exit, he thought, nevermind how late it was. He might be able to hitch a ride. Or maybe he could convince the strange man at the counter to give him a ride, though after their brief conversation, Atticus wasn’t sure he wanted to get into a vehicle with him. Now that he thought about it, though, he had jumper cables in his trunk. The man might be willing to give him a jump.
Turning to look out the windows, his eyes roamed the tiny lot in vain. His was the only car.
He didn’t hear Madge approach behind him.
“Poor thing, you have a seat,” she said, wrapping one long-nailed hand around his shoulder in what was probably meant to be a consoling gesture. Atticus only felt trapped.
He did as she said, resuming his seat at the counter. Madge pushed a fresh cup of coffee toward him. As she leaned across the counter, her glasses flashed the reflection of the room back at him and he stared at the wide-chested figures lined up close behind him like sentinels.
“Have another,” she said, and smiled, showing lipstick-stained teeth. The sound of coffee being poured drowned out everything else.