The man across from me shuddered hard like someone fighting off a deep doze. Then he went perfectly still, his eyes straight ahead as if afraid to look around. All angles, he was, with a scraggly excuse for a beard. I watched his eyes turn upward, puzzling out the brim of his fedora. Then slowly he turned his head to look out at the empty street through the glass behind me. I don’t think he’d even noticed the woman beside him in the red dress. The counterman set a cup of joe and a pitcher of cream in front of him. The dude stared, completely confused.
In a wondering, almost childish voice he said, “It’s a diner,” and I chuckled to hear him. The woman giggled. Somewhere in the background maybe Tom Waits was playing, who knows? He glanced at the woman beside him. “Hello.”
“Hello, yourself.” She grinned at him and pulled a cigarette from her bag. “Got a light?”
You could tell he was just about to ask her not to smoke, and then he realized it really didn’t matter. Nothing really mattered. He found matches with the name of the diner across the flap and lit the lady’s cigarette like a real gent. She took a deep drag and let the smoke from her lungs curl back out slowly through her nostrils, rising in rings around her hair. “They call me Evie,” she said.
“I like that. Steve and Evie. We could go on stage.”
“Yes, I suppose we could.”
She pushed her cup at the counterman. “Don’t be so slow with the refills, Rudy.”
Steve looked at me and said, “This is a hell of a place for a Buddhist to end up.”
I shrugged. “We get all kinds.” Rudy poured fresh coffee for Evie, then poured out Steve’s cup and refilled it.
He waited while giving Steve a meaningful stare. “Sorry,” Steve said, and slurped some of the too hot coffee. “It’s very nice.”
Mollified, Rudy wiped at the counter. “It’s okay. I’ve made better.”
Evie pointed at me. “That’s Don, and this here’s Rudy. Rudy runs the diner. Rudy runs the universe. But it’s Don’s place.”
He looked at me and asked, “So what happens next?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been brave enough to find out. Rudy knows, but he doesn’t tell me. He rarely says anything you can really use.”
Steve picked up the matchbook again and read aloud, “Eden After Hours. So I’m supposed to believe what, that this is paradise? Instead of ‘Adam and Eve’ it’s ‘Don and Evie?’”
“Moses took lousy notes,” I offered, and Rudy chimed in, “It’s true. Horrible notes.”
“And God is named ‘Rudy,’ is that right?”
“You’re wasting time. You could be eating pie,” I said.
Evie spoke: “Pie! When I was a young girl I could fly like a hawk, relaxed and soaring until the hunger came over me; then I would plummet, brown death streaking through the air until I struck my prey and assuaged my desire. I could run like a cheetah swift and glimmering and gleaming with my own good sweat and I carried a mighty sledge-hammer like Thor’s Mjolnir and I ran, brown mayhem streaking through an amphitheater where the mindless millions in slack-jawed trances watched endless images on a screen, and I spun like the gyroscope that keeps the earth aright around and around and around until the hammer flew from my hand crashing into the screen, and I watched as the work of my own thews destroyed and reshaped the world. Today I sit in this diner, forever perched on this stool, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and the hunger never comes over me anymore, while beyond this enchanted glass sits a multitude of slack-jawed, loa-ridden eloi watching endless images on a billion screens. So what I’m telling you, what you can take with you on your next stop to the great oneness is that it’s taken me all these years since 1980 to realize that I would trade it all, all the whizz-bangery and gee-whizzery for the simple zest of a Dale Cooper, a truly enlightened modern man who knows the value of a great cup of coffee and a swell piece of cherry pie.”
Her rant surprised Steve. He didn’t seem to know if he was being criticized or hailed. He decided it was criticism.
“I built a lot of good stuff,” he said, defensively.
“Me, too,” said Rudy. “How are the kids doing with it?”
“I guess they’re kind of messing it up,” he admitted.
“Yeah, see, that’ll happen to your stuff, too.” Rudy refilled Steve’s coffee. “Tell you what. I like you. I’m going to let you ask me one question and I’ll answer it. For real. One time. You can ask me anything. Anything, and I, God, will give you a straight-up answer.”
“Anything at all?”
“Wow.” Steve looked at me, back at Rudy, over at Edie, then back to his coffee cup. “Let me think about that a minute.”
“Sure thing,” Rudy said. He winked at me and began to sing, “Eggs and coffee, and a side of toast…”
And before we knew it, the lead-pipe morning fell.