Part II: Diner

Photo: Augusta Sagnelli

They say what makes Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks so special is there’s no door in the diner. Look it up. You can’t find it. Trust me, I’ve tried. There’s no way to get in or get out of that place. I’ve tried to figure it out multiple times.

One time—you’ll love this—a girlfriend and I printed out fifty copies of the painting and taped them all over the kitchen, on the walls and the refrigerator, on that glass panel over the microwave. And then we took 150 micrograms of acid.

We tripped. Hard. We wanted to get inside the painting to try and figure it out. But we couldn’t figure it out. We were up all night.

Anywho. How are we doing over here? I stopped doing that kind of stuff after my second MFA. But you know what they say is true: you can never stop learning. I was working on a PhD for a while but I ran out of steam. The program did open a lot of doors for me, though, professionally speaking. I’ll tell you about it later. For now, though, how about I get you all some more water—easy on the ice, yep, duly noted—and I haven’t forgotten about you, buddy, those mozzarella sticks should be coming right up!

***

Alexander English, forty-one, salt and pepper hair, bright smile, is the only waiter at Elmo’s Roadside Diner. He’s on a mission to create a recipe for the perfect breakfast burrito. The eggs are fluffy and the Cholula sauce is cooked into them—fine—but the chef chops up the avocados, and Alexander says this is wrong.

What you have to do is, you have to scoop out the avocado with a spoon and spread it on the flour tortilla, like a sauce. What with the bacon, you’ve got to balance out the crunch. It’s all about balance. You can chop up the tomatoes or slice them, as you want. The onions have to be caramelized, obviously. But the avocado is key. It has to be spread with a spoon on the tortilla and not cut with a knife. Otherwise, you can’t control the distribution and you end up eating most of the avocado in the first bites.

It’s only at the very end that you can tell if you’ve done it right. This is what Alex says to the couple asking for the check at table nine. He’s coming.

***

Alex came to Elmo’s Roadside Diner one year after the Great Demise of 2030. With a mean mortality rate of 20.3%, he’s lucky to be alive. The few customers that do come in these days are happy just to talk. Most of them are unemployed widows and widowers in need of conversation, which is why Alex’s boss never reprimands him for talking too much. They need the conversation, and he needs it, too.

Working as a waiter is decent money and honest work, Alex says. It’s also a way to improve his storytelling, which is why Alex is here, really: Alex is a novelist.

He’s currently finishing his fourth book, he tells the couple on table nine. Not that he’s published three novels, he explains, but at least they’re done, he got them out. Not into the world, necessarily, but out of himself. The couple smiles politely and waits for him to finish before they put on their coats and say goodbye.

Taneshia calls Alex over to the diner counter with her lime-green nail polish and her elegant grey suit. She’s one of the regulars.

“What you doing telling them your life story? Tell me your life story. I didn’t know you were a writer.”   

Alex explains how yes, he published his first novel when he was twenty-five but that he wasn’t proud of his second or third novels, not the way a writer is supposed to be. But they did lead to his fourth book, he says, and after a few more edits it should be ready.

“Ready for what?” Taneshia asks.

Who knows, Alex says, he just knows he’s almost done with it. It’s been twelve years and what with the accident and then the divorce and the kids and now the pandemic, it’s been hard to find the time. But it’s almost ready, he says.

Marty, the other regular sitting at the counter, thick brown Carhart jacket and a voice that smokes menthols, tells Alex he should be proud and that he’d love to try the new breakfast burrito recipe. Alex says sure thing. He puts in the order and takes a break to sit at the counter and share a cup of coffee with them.

“What you working on now then?” Taneshia asks. Alex is grateful for this question and though he doesn’t know if she’s just being polite or if she’s actually interested, Alex is thankful that she’s listening.

 Alex says he’s got an idea for a fifth novel. It’s about a fifty-year-old writer who works at a diner. A bad car accident left him with severe migraines, which makes it impossible for him to keep teaching at the local college. He loves his kids and he doesn’t hate his ex-wife, but this novel isn’t really about family. The protagonist has a dream of finishing a doctorate. The story is mostly about what happens when he’s not with the kids, when he’s working at the diner, talking to customers, trying to make sense of his life. It’s about sadness and loneliness and hope and heartbreak, Alex says, but it’s also about finding hapiness working at a diner.

Taneshia laughs. “You’ve got all of that in your head? You know you could make a whole lot more money sitting at a desk. It’d take a lot less time, too.”

Alex says sure, but then he’d never write. He doesn’t mind having a bit less money, he says. Life would be boring without problems to solve.

Taneshia laughs again. “Not having money isn’t a problem. That’s life. Seems to me like your biggest problem is figuring out how to make the perfect breakfast burrito.”

Alex thinks about what she just said, wonders if it’s true.

Taneshia smiles and takes a last sip of her coffee.

“But that’s not your real problem,” Taneshia stands up and puts on her long black coat. Taneshia is always honest. “Your problem is you still believe in perfection.”

***

Three years from now, Alexander English will win a local literary prize for a novel about an adjunct professor going through a divorce and losing his mind. Two years after that, Alex will be long-listed for a PEN/Faulkner Award for a collection of short stories, one of which is told from the perspective of a burrito. This particular story will appear in The New Yorker and will remain viral for one week after a popular Tex-Mex fast food restaurant tweets about it.

A year after that, Alex will publish a book about a fifty-two year old man working at a diner. Sometime the following autumn, a New York Times critic will applaud Alexander English’s “honest prose and uncanny ability to paint a poignant portrait of small-town America after the Great Demise. Edward Hopper’s imagery has finally found its voice in this century. Loneliness in America, the decline of empire … reviewers and critics should be thankful for Breakfast Burrito: this year’s literary awards have already been decided.”

By the time he is sixty years old, Alexander English will be a household name and will have made it according to all accounts. But for now, Alex has forgotten about Marty’s breakfast burrito order.

Alex apologizes. He’s coming.

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