Sunrise Special  |  John Vicary

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             “You can’t smoke that in here.”
             The old man peered over his glasses at the slip of a girl who’d interrupted his morning cigarette. “Since when?”
             The waitress frowned. “Since always.”
             “That’s not true. I’ve been coming here for years. And I always sit right here—right in this very spot—and have my cigarette.” The old man held up his lighter, as if that provided proof.
             “There are no-smoking laws in New York. I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to go outside for that.” The waitress sighed. Seven in the morning, and people were already giving her grief.
             “Martha lets me,” the man said.
             “I’m not Martha,” the waitress countered.
             The man snorted. “I noticed. Where is she?”
             “I don’t know. I’m here to take your order today. Can I bring you anything? Coffee?” She swirled the remains of a half-empty pot.
             The man nodded. “Sure, sure. And lots of cream. Martha knows I like a lot of cream. I don’t have to tell her that.”
             As the waitress poured him his first cup, the man unfolded his newspaper. “So, I bet you hear a lot of things working here, am I right?”
             “It’s a diner, not a bar. Do you know what else you want, or do you need a minute?” The waitress tried not to tap her foot.
             “Yeah, I’ll have the Sunrise Special. So, no one ever tells you stuff, huh? What’s your name, anyway?”
             The waitress flicked her nametag. “How do you want your eggs cooked?”
             The man squinted. “Well, you’re not much of a talker, are you? Agnes. What kind of a name is Agnes for a girl like you?”
             Agnes shrugged. “I was named after my great aunt, you know? Eggs. How do you like them?”
             The man smiled. “Sunny side up, Agnes. It suits you. I’m Howard. Nice to meet you.”
             “I’m glad you approve. That comes with toast. There’s whole wheat, rye, sourdough, and white.”
             “Well, the kids these days and their names. It’s good to hear something solid. Something you can wear for the rest of your life. Names are like coats, you know. You want to pick one that’s going to last. Agnes will do you.”
             “Right. Well, my mom chose it, so next time she calls, I’ll be sure to tell her thanks for giving me a coat name. Toast?”
             “How come you aren’t writing this down? How are you going to remember my order?” the man asked.
             Agnes tried not to roll her eyes. “So far you haven’t ordered, mister.”
             “Howard. Call me Howard.”
             “Can you just decide on the toast, or do you need a minute?” the waitress asked. Old people took forever and a day to do anything.
             “You’re in such a rush. It isn’t like anyone else is even here. Rye, please. I’d like rye.”
             The waitress nodded. “It comes with a side of meat. There’s sausage links, patties, or turkey sausage. What will it be?”
             “Do you ever want to tell a secret to someone who doesn’t know you?” the man asked suddenly.
             “Why would I want to do that?” The waitress was too startled to bother with questions of meat. No one had ever asked her anything like that before.
             Howard creased his paper between his fingers. “Sometimes it’s easier to tell a stranger. That’s all. Someone who doesn’t know you might not judge you.”
             “That’s silly,” the waitress said, but as she said it, she didn’t really think it was. It seemed to make perfect sense.
             The man stared at her. “It’s easy. I’ll go first: I cheated on my wife.”
             “What?” The waitress set down the almost-empty coffee pot on the Formica table. “Why would you tell me that?”
             “I needed to,” the man said. “I had to tell someone. Your turn. Go ahead; it’s amazingly cathartic.”
             Agnes swallowed. “You’re crazy!” She didn’t want to look at him, this old man in a buttoned-down shirt, sitting there calmly after he’d just admitted to cheating on his wife. It was surreal; that’s what it was. People just didn’t say things like that! “You’re crazy.” Then, she thought he must be going senile, and she felt bad for saying it twice.
             “I’m a lot of things, but I’m not crazy.” Howard tore open a tub of cream and stirred it into his coffee. “I loved my wife, you know. Very much. I’m not saying that to make myself sound better; if anything, that makes it worse. The thing is, she never knew I cheated. I’m so glad she never did. It would have hurt her so much. She’s gone now, God rest her. But I had to tell someone, look someone in the face and admit that it happened. I mean, this was years ago. Years. Before you were a gleam in your mother’s eye, as we used to say. I just had to tell someone and be free of it. And you’re that someone, Agnes, so I thank you for that.”
             “But … why?” The waitress sat down across from the man, even if it was against the rules. It felt silly to be looming over him, and besides, the diner really was empty. “Why did you?”
             Howard sipped his coffee. “I’ve asked myself that so many times over the years, and every time I come up with a different answer. I don’t know that there is any one reason. Certainly not one that you’ll understand. I guess I just missed being in love. I didn’t realize I had been all along.”
             The weight of his earnest admission hung in the air between them, a terrible imbalance, and the waitress knew she had no obligation, but still, she wanted to tip the scale out of the valley of peculiarity they’d fallen into. “I never learned to tie my shoes,” she blurted out before she could stop herself.
             The man blinked, his eyes owlish behind the trifocals.
             Agnes held out her ankle, showing off the Velcro-ed shoe. “My parents weren’t around much, and I just never learned when I should have. Then, I felt silly when I got too old, and I was embarrassed to ask. So that’s it. My deep, dark secret.”
             “Feel better?”
             The waitress smiled. “Kind of, yeah.” She stood. “I’ll go place your order and bring you a refill on that coffee.”
             “I’d be most obliged, Agnes.”
             There was one other girl on the day shift, and Agnes motioned her over as she set another pot of coffee on to brew. “You see that guy in my section?” Agnes asked. “The old guy in the striped shirt?”
             Heather nodded. “Howard? Yeah. He’s a regular. Been coming for years. Why? He giving you trouble?”
             “No, no. I was just wondering if he ever talked to you.”
             Heather shook her head. “Usually, he’s in Martha’s section. I’ve had him once or twice, but I don’t think he’s said anything to me. Did he say something nasty? Try to hit on you?”
             “Ew. Heather. That’s gross.” Agnes wrinkled her nose. “He’s nice. He’s not like that.”
             Heather raised her eyebrows. “They’re all like that, honey. You should know that by now.”
             Agnes made a face and took the man his refill. “Here’s the cream. I didn’t forget.”
             Howard lowered the paper he’d been reading. “I got arrested one time.”
             The waitress’ hand wavered, and she spilled a drop. “Excuse me?” Maybe Heather was right. Maybe it was indecent exposure …
             “I’ve spent time in jail. You’re looking at someone who has a misdemeanor on his record. I’m a criminal.”
             The waitress mopped up the spill with a rag from her apron pocket. “You don’t seem like a hardened criminal,” she said.
             “I am,” he answered.
             “What did you do? Or is that the secret?” Please don’t be creepy, she thought.
             “I organized a strike. It turned ugly, and someone was hurt in the scramble that followed. Although, it isn’t really a secret, I guess. It just bothers me; that’s all. I never meant for anyone to be injured. If I could, I’d take it all back. That’s something I regret, that people were hurt because of me. So, yeah, I’m a felon.”
             How could she have thought the worst of him? “Well, not in the strictest sense. A felon has a felony record. So you’re not a felon … Howard.”
             The man reached for his cup. “I guess you’re as good’a waitress as Martha.”
             “Thanks.” The waitress scratched her forehead. “I had a baby.” She tried not to cringe when she said it.
             Howard set his cup down but said nothing.
             Agnes kept talking, the words spilling out in a rush. “I was only sixteen, you know. Too young for a baby. They told me I could hold her, say goodbye, but I didn’t want to. I know they thought I didn’t care, and that bothered me. I did care. I did. I knew if I held her and smelled that baby smell, I’d never give her up. I moved up here the next summer, and I’ve never told anyone about that, never.” She smoothed her apron. “Aren’t you going to say anything? Aren’t you going to say you’re sorry or whatever it is people say? I always thought when I finally told someone that’s what he’d say.”
             The man looked at her. “Do you want me to?”
             “No. That’s stupid.” The waitress wiped her eyes. “Why would you be? You don’t even know me.”
             “I am sorry, but I wasn’t going to say it. I think you’re sorry enough. You don’t need to hear it from a stranger. You just need to tell it. Have someone hear you.” The man tightened his mouth into a line.
             “Yeah. Your food should be ready by now. I’ll be right back.” The waitress turned and marched to the counter. His Sunrise Special was the only one there, ready to be delivered. She picked it up and took it to him without further comment. She’d said enough already. God knows what Howard thought of her.
             When it was time to bring him the bill, he cleared his throat. The waitress braced herself. He was probably going to say something, tell her how terrible she was, what an awful person—
             “I’m dying.”
             Agnes blinked. “What?”
             The man rolled the bill into a cylinder between his fingers as he talked. “I’m dying. I have cancer. It’s these cigarettes—that’s what they tell me. I guess it isn’t a secret, my dying, but it was for a long time. This is my last day here, living my life the way I want to. My terms. My son is coming up from Georgia, and I’m going to hospice this afternoon. All my things, my house … well, none of this matters to you, Agnes. Agnes with the name that will last. I can say this, though. Quit the things you need to. And the things you can’t, well … you might as well enjoy them right up until the end.” He unrolled the slip of paper and breathed out as he stared at the words. “Will you please tell Martha I sent her my regards?”
             The waitress nodded. She didn’t trust herself to speak.
             “Thank you, my dear.” The man stood, and she could see now how fragile he was beneath that cotton shirt. Why did it matter? Yet, she was surprised to find that it did. “You have a lovely day. It’s just starting, don’t you know?”
             The waitress watched him shuffle out, and she didn’t know if she felt like laughing or crying. Maybe it was a little of both.

♥ End ♥

John Vicary is an author from rural Michigan. He’s been published in various anthologies, including Dead Men’s Tales, Plague, and The Longest Hours. He enjoys playing the piano and hanging out with his five kids.

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