He stands behind the counter, sliding out plates overloaded with breakfast potatoes and bacon. He is tall, just the right height where the top half of his face is hidden from my view. A thick, silver metal bar where customer orders hang covers his nose, eyes and forehead. I straighten my back and crane my neck, trying to get a better angle. But while he moves back and forth along the line, never once does he lean forward enough for me to see his face clearly. As I start to leave my chair in another attempt to catch a glance, the waitress appears in front of me.
She is middle-aged, caught somewhere between 40 and 50. Her brown hair is streaked with gray and pulled into a loose ponytail at the bottom of her neck. Her black apron is dusted with flour and old food stains, the mark of someone who has worked here for a while. I have seen her here before, buzzing around the small dining area, smiling, taking orders, moving tables to accommodate larger parties. This seems to be more than just a job to her. I wonder if she is the owner. But she asks if I want coffee and I keep my musings to myself.
I gratefully accept, extending the mug until it is filled and the swirling tendrils of steam are rising up from it. I add a little of this and a little of that until it is the color of caramel. She quickly moves on down the row of customers, all holding out their cups for refills. The menu sits wedged between the condiments. I already know what I want, but I lay it open in front of me for something to do. My eyes are looking over the laminated list of specials when a laugh reaches my ears above the din of the other customers. It is loud and strong. And as I look up, I have a feeling I already know who it came from.
His face still has the lingering effects of laughter. His mouth is turned up at one corner, creating a dimple in his left cheek and exposing just a few of his teeth. And although I still can’t see them, I have an inkling the laughter has traveled to his eyes, making whatever color they are shine brighter. His arm reaches out and slaps the back of the person to his left. Another bout of laughter ensues. My seat is about 20 feet away. In a different setting, I would be close enough to hear the jokes, the rhythm of his voice. But in a crowded diner, all but his laugh is muffled. I wonder if I have seen him before. Maybe the answer to this mystery rests inside my mind.
I focus on the features I can see, trying to jog some kind of memory. His jaw is strong and defined but covered in stubble. It has spread up along his jawline. A Cardinals cap, brim frayed and sweat stained, is on his head. He keeps adjusting, pulling it tighter down over his forehead only to take it off. I see a mop of wavy brown hair but only for a moment before his fingers run through it, gathering the stray locks. His other hand holds the cap which now returns to his head, this time placed on backwards. It is a move that is second nature. Done over and over without thought or necessity. Someone calls out. John needs to start an order of hash browns. The man I have been contemplating for the last five minutes is the one who responds. He turns, still keeping his face out of sight and now faces the grill. His name must be John. It seems to fit.
The waitress is asking if I’ve had enough time with the menu. I place my order and return the menu to its home between the ketchup and hot sauce. She is already at the kitchen window. I see her tear the paper containing my order off her notepad. I can imagine the ripping noise it makes as it is removed from the perforated edges. She must have called his name because he has turned back around. The paper is now in his hands, which are white with a dusting of flour. He gives it not more than a glance and it is placed behind a long line of others that were there first. He turns his attention back to the grill, but mine is still on him.
*Part three to follow tomorrow.