The waitress’s name tag said “Cindi,” with a faded yellow smiley-face sticker next to the last “i.” Cindi looked decidedly unsmiley as she yanked the pot of stale coffee off of the double-pot coffee maker and replaced it with an empty pot of questionable cleanliness. She tore into a shiny silver package of generic brand coffee, spilling half the grounds on the counter, and jammed the little red switch on the machine desultorily. At the counter, a scruffy and bedraggled-looking truck driver was hunched over a plate of runny eggs, his eyes tracking the back of the waitress’s skirt as she disappeared through the swinging door into the kitchen.
It was quarter to two when Nick Shannon had pulled into the parking lot. At first he thought he had made a wrong turn somehow, although he had followed the ‘rest area’ signs directly from the winding exit ramp. He had expected one of those modern, well-lit buildings that can be found spaced along highway exits county-wide now, the ones with a welcome desk and vending machines, most often in close proximity to a full service gas station. What he got was the Blue Star Diner, a small brick building with a glass picture-window front, set in lonely isolation on a dark road. Behind the building was a wooded area, no more than a panorama of black silhouettes in the moonless night. In a circle of wan yellow light from a spotlight on the left side of the diner sat two old-fashioned looking gas pumps. At the sight of those old pumps, like strange rusted dinosaurs in that waxen light, Nick was momentarily struck by an irrational impulse to bang a u-turn and hop back on the highway until he reached the next rest area. But his eyes were burning and the light but steady snow that had been falling when he had set out from Manchester was getting heavier, the wind beginning to gust ephemeral scrims across the highway.
Earlier that day, Nick had caught the weather forecast. A smiling weatherman had mentioned in an almost offhand manner that there was a massive storm-cell developing, with the potential to turn into a nor-Easter that would dump snow all over New England if the weather stayed as unseasonably cool as it had been. The potential. The possibility. But Nick had hoped to be back in Maryland, maybe even home, heating a microwave dinner and watching TV with Harvey snoring contentedly under the footrest of the recliner, before any substantial snowfall. Once again, he cursed the weather guy under his breath, not because the forecast had been wrong, but because it was easier to blame the weatherman then to admit to himself that he had actually believed that if he powered through the night, he could beat any worse storm that might be brewing. Hadn’t someone once said it isn’t nice to fool mother nature? Nick knew he should have just laid over in a motel for the night, but the temptation to be home after a week spent bouncing around to different business meetings all over New England was just too great. However, instead of his modest but warm home, his favorite easy chair, and a dopey Shepherd mutt that was his ‘man’s-best-friend’, Nick found himself drinking shitty coffee in the middle of the night, and in the middle of nowhere. Watching the trucker, who looked mildly like a B-rate movie serial killer, molest the cranky help with his eyes.
Though tepid at best, and going stale, the first cup of coffee was doing its work, and Nick began to feel a bit more awake. His eyes still felt scratchy, as if sand had been ground into the surface of his corneas, so he asked the waitress for a refill when the fresh coffee came off the burner, and then headed for the men’s room, which was plainly marked with a sign above a dim alcove on the left side of the diner.
The men’s room was a single room deal, surprisingly clean. The walls were papered in a Victorian-looking floral pattern of cream, mauve, and sage. The only light fixture was a low wattage sconce-type, mounted on the wall beside the mirror above the sink. Nick detected a light floral scent that reminded him of the potpourri his mother used to keep in a small sachet in one of her dresser drawers. In one corner was a tiny wooden stand upon which was perched a wicker basket filled with toilet paper. The good kind, Nick noted, not the cheap shit. It was as if someone- the owners of the diner no doubt- had tried to make the restroom as homey as possible to make up for what their establishment lacked in elegance and size. Still, in spite of the effort, or perhaps even because of it, the restroom seemed like a quietly desperate place.
Nick chuckled to himself and shook his head as he stepped up to the sink. He was being what his mother would have called ‘maudlin.’ It was her way of saying he was thinking too much about something, make of more of something than was there. Probably, he thought, because I’m overtired. And right on the heels of that came another association. His thoughts hop-skipped to his ex. Whenever Lori had not gotten enough sleep, when she slept poorly or was shorted more than a couple hours of sleep, she was prone to burst into tears at the least provocation. It was something that Nick always simultaneously wondered at and found extremely discomfiting. His inability to ‘be more supportive and understanding’ was one of the excuses Lori had given him when she finally moved out of their shared apartment (and into her new boyfriend’s place.)
Nick shook his head again, as if the very act could evict his ex-girlfriend from his thoughts. He turned on the faucet and splashed cool water in his eyes. He tore a paper towel off the roll sitting on the back of the toilet and dabbed his face dry.
By the time Nick returned from the bathroom, several more people had trickled into the diner, apparently seeking refuge from the worsening storm. In the limp glow of the sodium lights in the small parking area out front, Nick noted that the wind had picked up during the few moments he had been in the other room. Or perhaps it had happened even as he had sat stolidly sipping mud, with his back to the double set of doors giving way to parking lot and the darkness beyond. For the first time he noticed the high keening sound that was the wind, not yet quite ferocious enough to be called a howl, but seemingly building as it gusted intermittent curtains of sheer white that obfuscated the view beyond the Blue Star’s parking lot.