Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942, Oil on Canvas, 33 x 60 in. (approx), Art Institute of Chicago,Chicago,Illinois
We have this fellow who shows up every week or so in our shop, and sits in a chair while he pores through our atlases as if he were trying once and for all to resolve some sticky border dispute between France and Spain. We who work there know this to be a ruse. He is actually waiting for some other customer to enter the travel section where he can trick them into conversation while pretending to be interested in their vacation plans. He is a genius at this. He is a kind of conversational tick that buries its gibbering head so deeply in the flesh of polite discourse that ordinary attempts to dislodge him and close the conversation are simply useless. Finally, the victim will either flee in terror as our tick lists the major agricultural products of Peru, or they will seek to deter him through threats of violence, or by lighting matches and holding them under his nose.
We hate this man, but since, technically, he is not doing anything illegal we cannot ask him to leave. Instead, I dream of revenge.
In my daydream, he runs a little diner with a proper counter for gentlemen in hats to sit at and drink coffee. It is the late rush with the clubs emptying as I enter and take the last spot at the counter. Somewhat harassed, but generally pleasant, he leans across the linoleum and says, “What’ll it be?”
“Coffee,” I say, “and a sinker.”
“Certainly,” he says reaching for the pot.
I speak. “You know what a sinker is, don’t you? It’s a donut. They used to call them sinkers. Especially in places like this. Little diners, like this one, they used to call donuts sinkers.” I point my finger and smile slyly as he pours the coffee, while his other hand slides a donut toward me on a saucer. “But you knew that, right away, didn’t you? Because you’re a professional. A diner man is what you are, hip to all the traditional diner lingo even if it is a lost art nowadays. And it is lost, isn’t it? The lingo. Gone forever. Or it would be if not for you and guys like you, God bless you sir. But did you know why? Why they call them sinkers?” I let my challenge ring as I pick up my coffee. I can see the panic in his face. People are waiting. But he has to answer. He’s that kind of guy.
“Because people dunk them in their coffee.”
“Got it in one,” I shout and slam my flat palm hard against the counter. Three or four diners look up, startled, as silverware dances from the force of my blow. “Because they dunk them in their coffee, they sink them. And diner men encouraged them, they encouraged people to dunk them in their coffee. They did. ‘This is a free-dunk zone’ rang out the banners draped across the diners of America. They trained Americans like so many Pavlovian dogs to shake and quiver with anticipation until they got that donut lowered into the coffee cup. Because a dunked donut tastes great even if the donut is two days old. Even three days old, it tastes great. And the diner men could buy the older donuts for almost nothing and still sell them for a dime and no one the wiser once they were soaked in joe.”
“That’s really interesting, but I’ve got to get back to my customers.”
“By all means, by all means. I am not a man to stand in the way of custom. No sir. Thank you for the succor, sir. Return to your trade.” He skitters away with a worried look on his face. I pick up my donut, hold it for a minute, peer at it carefully, then put it back on the saucer. To the gentleman next to me I ask, “Would you feel my sinker and tell me how old you guess it to be?” I point to the saucer to be sure he understands which donut exactly I mean.
“Look buddy, forget it. I don’t want to feel your donut.”
“I shall have to rely on my own opinion then and in my opinion it was probably made today. Shame, I prefer them a day or two older.” I lean over and peer into the other man’s plate. He moves just the tiniest bit away from me. “Pancakes, eh? I never order pancakes anymore. Do you know why I never order pancakes anymore?”
“Why don’t you eat your donut?”
“I don’t order pancakes because of the worms. Specifically, the Uruguayan reticulated pancake worm.“ I dunk my donut and take a bite. The diner man casts a worried glance in my direction.
“The what?” pancake man asks.
Mouth still partially filled with soggy donut I lean closer and repeat with liquid gusto, “The Uruguayan reticulated pancake worm.” I swallow. “Geneticists in Uruguay have developed a worm which excretes a kind of natural pancake batter from its nether regions. The worms are fed a diet of macabo, an unguentine gel taken from between the cayman’s toes. It is a substance of which there is a great surfeit in Uruguay at this time. The worm’s digestive system works its miracle and two hours later out comes pancake batter.”
“You are full of shit.”
“No sir, I am not. But,” here I point to his plate, “I am not sure I could vouch equally for you should your pancakes be of Uruguayan origin.”
“Worms do not shit pancake batter.”
From the other side a guy says, “Hey, they get silk from worms, don’t they?”
“Exactly,” I agree. “Very apt comparison, sir, if I may say so. Apt, indeed. Compared to the incredibly complex task of spinning silk in your gut then passing it on to your interested parties as a bit of lovely thread, I should think squeezing out the odd dollop of pancake batter is a walk in the park.” The pancake man looks dubiously into his plate, then pushes it away.
The Diner man is back in front of me like a flash, “Look, buddy, people here are trying to eat. I want you out of here.”
“What, no free refills?”
“Not for you. Beat it.”
Sighing deeply like a man injured beyond belief, but bearing it, I rise. “It is a sad day when a man gets ejected from a diner for ordinary conversation. A sad day.” With that I leave quietly.
I return in seconds.
“I told you to get out of here.”
“Forgot your tip,” I say. From my pocket I pull out a date that has been curing in a jar of onion juice for the last month. It is slightly furry, slimy, and has a somewhat greenish cast. I put it on the counter. The odor is strong and I hear someone retch.
“What the hell is that?” my victim asks.
“Not sure,” I say. “I got it off a goat. G’night.”