For the last five years, Rich and Bike took the time to meet me at Blakes Diner at least twice a week. We used the pretext of breakfast to get together. We had no real schedule. Blakes was at the epicenter of a map of each of our houses. Outside, near the road, a sign proudly bragged, “Home of the World’s Best Biscuits.” We often joked we should sue them for misleading marketing. The biscuits at Blakes were a lot of things, but good wasn’t one of them. Each of us would meticulously order a breakfast plate. None of us ate anything except the hash browns. For purely antiseptic reasons, we doused them in Louisiana hot sauce before eating. The coffee was incredible, though. Each of drank at least four cups per visit.
Earl, the owner, was the cook. He was a retired Navy man. His idea of good food was “a lot of it.” Everyone loved him, and he was often asked to run for mayor of our quiet little town. If he missed a day, his wife cooked in his place. She was not lovable. If a tourist or someone passing through made the mistake of coming in and saying something critical, Earl’s wife had no qualms about tossing an f-bomb grenade on them as they scrambled to escape the diner. The Yelp reviews provided a reliable map to determine on which days Earl was absent.
After we initially started frequenting Blakes for breakfast, Rich casually asked Earl who the namesake Blake was. “I got the signs for free from a surplus sign shop.” It seemed like a logical enough reason for the three of us. “Why is the word ‘Blakes’ missing an apostrophe and upside down?” Earl turned away from his stove for a moment. “I wanted people to look at the sign and have questions. Curious people tend to come inside.” Rich slapped the table and said, “Good enough for me!”
Rich retired as a policeman after getting shot four times in the neck and chest ten years ago. To his wife’s surprise, he went back to college and finished his degree and then earned his accreditation as a teacher. He worked a day each week as a substitute and also tutored a few of the local kids who needed it. Bike, however, was one of those people who could earn a dollar just sitting on a park bench. For several years, he somehow made a decent living buying and selling obscure bicycle parts to enthusiasts and collectors. As for me, I retired at fifty-one. My partner bought out my half of the business we mutually owned in exchange for a comfortable annuity. I spent most of my days walking and reading. I had decided I’d get a new hobby once I depleted the town library book collection. Bike kept interrupting my plan by handing me a surprising variety of great books he found online. While I never saw him reading, I was certain he read voraciously. His vocabulary was stellar, and he loved using words no one would dare use in normal conversation. “Logomaniac,” he’d say, as if the word meant something to us mortals.
Alice, the veteran waitress, asked me, “Hey Kirk, are you going to eat your food this morning?”
“Is it safe?” I asked her, winking.
“Safe isn’t a real thing. This isn’t the Marathon Man, although I would like to pull a couple of your teeth.” Alice smiled. We did the dance of wit every time we met.
“I’ll let you get back to your other tables, Alice.” She laughed. Except for us, there were only two other diners, and both sat at the counter chatting like old friends. In this town, we figured they probably knew each other’s business already.
“Bike, Rich, you need nothing, so I won’t ask.” She placed a full carafe of coffee on the edge of the table we shared, knowing she’d find it empty when she cleared the table.
Bike quipped, “My jentacular needs are indeed all addressed, Alice.” Both Alice and Bike looked at each other as if a duel were imminent before smiling. Rich laughed, but without the habitual large smile I’d grown used to.
As Alice walked away, Bike threw his inevitable parting shot, “Were that your voice would be as euphonious as your figure is lithesome.” I couldn’t help it. I snorted, even though technically Bike offered a compliment hidden in an insult. I’m certain Alice smiled as she departed, though I couldn’t see her face as she moved away.
For a couple of minutes, we alternated between drowning our hash browns in hot sauce and gulping coffee. Like all great friends, we didn’t need an intensity of words to keep us company. Earl hollered across the diner, “Enjoy your food, gentleman!” and waved his spatula in the air in our general direction. We saluted with our coffee cups, another of our many rituals.
For fifteen minutes we gossiped. We’d deny it amounted to that outside the confines of the diner. Our conversations were stuffed with anecdotes, riffs, one-liners, and a barrage of rapid-fire nonsense once we started talking. Through it all, Rich was almost his usual self.
As I stood up and climbed out of the booth, I threw a $10 tip on the table. Bike waited until I was out before moving. Rich also stepped out of the booth and turned his back toward the counter. He took his right hand out of his jacket pocket. In his hand, he held a pistol. He laid it on the table and quietly whispered, “I need your help. I haven’t needed this in years, but I think I’m going to.”
Bike stopped and sat back down as all three of us looked at the gun. “Holy howitzer!” He whispered.