The sign at the diner read “PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED”, but Harry did not wait. He had a plane to catch. Instead, he strode up to the counter and sat down.
The cook came over to him. His pants, shirt, hat, and apron had all been white at one time, but they were now thoroughly stained and discolored from frequent use and washing. He smiled at Harry and clapped his hands together. “Morning. Like to see a menu?”
Harry removed his glasses and began cleaning them with a napkin. “No thank you, I’m in a hurry. I’ll just have scrambled eggs, Canadian bacon, whole wheat toast–dark–and coffee. No potatoes please.”
They were alone in the diner. The cook–who was not quite middle-aged–continued talking to Harry as he turned his back to him, cracked two eggs single-handedly, and began to beat them. “No potatoes? How can you have eggs without potatoes?”
“I’m on a diet.” Harry removed his tweed jacket and hung it on the back of his stool. “I’m watching my carbohydrate and fat intake.”
The cook glanced over his shoulder as he beat the eggs. “You don’t look fat to me.”
“Thank you. I’m just trying to stay healthy, you know?”
Harry removed some documents from his briefcase and began to study them. The cook poured a cup of coffee in front of him. “Cream?”
“Yes, please.” The coffee cup was paper–the kind that was blue and had cheesy faux-Greek lettering on it that Harry hadn’t seen in years.
“What’s your hurry?”
“Got to catch a plane.”
“Really? Where you going?”
“Nice.” The cook placed Harry’s breakfast on the counter. As Harry ate, the cook folded his arms and leaned against the stove. “I usually go to Europe for a week every year.”
“Yeah?” Harry said, placing a bite of eggs and bacon in his mouth. “Whereabouts?”
“Visit my family in Greece for the holidays.” The cook seemed oddly hairless; not only was his head shaved, but there was no stubble anywhere on his face. His arms were smooth. Even his eyebrows were almost non-existent.
“You like it there?” Harry said through a mouthful of food.
The cook laughed. “Yeah, but I can’t take it very long.”
“Why not?” Harry was undisturbed by conversation as he ate.
“They don’t live in the real world over there.”
“They don’t work. They just lay around all day.” The cook scratched his head. “They lay out in the sun, they go to the beach. That isn’t life. They work for what–a couple of hours a day.”
Harry bit into his toast. “You don’t say.”
“Hell, yeah. They don’t know nothing about work–about real life. Let me tell you something. I haven’t taken a day off in two months. I’m here every day from five o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock at night. That’s real life. You think those guys in Greece could handle that? Just let’em try. “˜Come over here,’ I tell’em. “˜Come over here and try working fifteen-hour shifts a day, every day, with no days off. Then tell me what life is like.”
“You haven’t had a day off in two months?”
“Not even the Fourth of July.”
“What does your wife say about that?”
“You think a wife would put up with this schedule?”
“A man who works that much must be rich.”
The cook laughed. “If I were rich, would I be flipping burgers for fifteen hours a day? But these guys in Greece, they don’t want to know from work. They want to get nice cushy desk jobs and take a three-hour lunch break. That ain’t real work.”
“What’s your name, friend?”
“Chris.” The cook–Chris–extended his hand. Harry took it and introduced himself.
“What do you do for a living, Harry?”
“I’m a college professor.”
“I couldn’t afford to go to college.”
“Neither could I. I’m still paying off my loans.”
“I don’t believe in loans. That’s the problem with this country–people are buying stuff with money they don’t even have. I’ll never do that. I work for what I have. You know I don’t even own a credit card.”
Chris spoke steadily as Harry finished his breakfast, but his conversation was just different variations on what he’d already said.
Harry wiped his face and checked his watch. “May I have the check, buddy? I have to go.”
“Sure thing.” The cook slapped down the check. “What are you going to London for?”
“Business–I have to deliver a lecture at a University there.”
“How long is that going to take?”
“Just one evening–I’ll be back in America in five days.”
The cook laughed. “Look who I’m talking to. You get paid to take a vacation. You don’t live in the real world either.”
“Perhaps you’re right.”
The bill was only ten dollars. Harry left a two-dollar tip, thought about it for a moment, and threw down an extra dollar. He said goodbye to the Chris. Chris laughed and shook his head. “Some life.”
Harry stood, gathered his things, and stepped once more into the unreal world.
JR Pinto received his MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he currently teaches.