It was early Saturday morning and Sal was already in a bad mood. His gruff responses and furrowed brow let the others know to keep out of his way. But the process had already started, even without their annoying interruptions. He was on his way to a full blown hissy fit.
They stayed away, keeping themselves occupied filling sugar jars and ketchup bottles.
“God, I love coffee,” Earl said, taking a sip from his mug before returning to the work of filling sugar jars. Sal let them drink coffee in the morning even though it slowed down the pace. Earl swore it was the only reason he worked there.
“All coffee?” Cheryl asked, unscrewing another bottle of ketchup for a refill. “Or only special coffee?” She wasn’t actually remotely interested, but the conversation killed the time and kept her out of the kitchen where Sal was rummaging about, banging things and cursing loudly. Anything to keep herself away from that was a good enough distraction.
“Real coffee,” Earl said, pouring the sugar as if it were gold powder and any spill would amount in a net loss of hundreds of dollars.
“What’s real coffee?” she asked without looking up.
“This is real coffee,” he said, hoisting his mug like a Viking hoisting a jug of ale after a raid.
“Diner coffee?” she asked, unable to keep the slight disdain out of her voice. Waitress at a New Hampshire diner was not what she’d signed up for in life and her disappointment seeped out when she wasn’t keeping up the act of perky waitress.
“Diner coffee? Listen to you! You’d think you didn’t know what this stuff was!” Earl exclaimed, sounding horrifically injured.
“Oh boy, here we go,” Cheryl groaned.
“This,” Earl said raising the mug up high over his head, “is the glue that holds this great country of ours together. This is the very fabric of the American way of life. All other coffee has become corrupted with free trade regulations for international imports. It’s a political statement to order coffee anywhere else, an economic approval of trading regulations with Guam or Botswana or whatever third-world hell hole they’re importing their beans from. You can’t even get a large cup of Joe anywhere else. You have to order with fancy names like “Venti” or “Grande”. It’s a travesty of the American way of life!” Earl was the one who had initiated the vote for “French Fries” to be called “Freedom Fries”.
“Ok, so you like coffee,” Cheryl said. “Even though what you’re drinking is Columbian” she muttered under her breath. She had never known anyone to make such impassioned claims about food. On good days it was damned entertaining and she enjoyed riling him, but on days like today she regretted giving him the floor.
“Like it?” he said, pushing up from his chair to face her. “That’s what you get from what I said? Like it?!”
Before she could respond a yell erupted from the back and she made frantic motions with her hands for Earl to sit back down before the beast could emerge.
“Are you knuckle heads getting paid to work or to shoot yer traps off?!” Sal yelled, stepping out of the kitchen wielding a spatula like a weapon.
“Hey, we’re working” Earl said defensively, lifting a half-filled jar of sugar to him like a penance.
“Well I want to hear the sounds of the door opening for customers in no less than five minutes, got it?” he snapped as he retreated back into the kitchen, the heavy door flapping back and forth after him like the tail of a retreating dragon.
"I don't know why you're so anxious, you know the regulars won't be here before ten," Earl mumbled.
"It's not the regulars i'm worried about," came a growl from the kitchen.
Earl shut his mouth, afraid to anger him further. Cheryl smiled to herself as she continued filling bottles. Silence filled the room as Earl returned to his task, carefully filling the jars in front of him. He lasted about three minutes before being overcome with the need to speak.
“All I’m saying is coffee is as American as apple pie. Coffee is the scaffolding that holds up the stage on which we play out our lives. In fact, my greatest fear is living life without coffee.” He waited for a response, an argument. When he heard nothing he turned around to look at Cheryl. She was passing out bottles of ketchup to the tables, ignoring him.
“What’s your greatest fear?” he asked her, unable to abide her lack of attention.
Before she could reply “never getting out of here” an excited squeal from the parking lot made them both stop and look up.
Outside, a large SUV was unloading a group of tourists, heavily clad in knit sweaters and Ugg boots. They looked like a troupe of Barbie dolls dressed in cabin wear.
“Oh my God- look how cute!” one of them exclaimed, pointing to the diner. “It’s like a little figurine or something! Can’t you just picture this in one of those little toy villages they build around train sets?!”
“Do you actually think we can eat here?” another asked, closing her door cautiously while eyeing the diner like a botox clinic someone had suggested even though it was in a bad neighborhood.
“Oh shut up, this is all part of the experience,” said a third, passing her fellow travelers and leading the way to the door.
“Hello,” the head one said, knocking on the door and looking inside at Earl and Cheryl who stood stunned. “So, are you guys open or what?” Cheryl was about to move to unlock the door when she heard the kitchen door swing open.
Sal stood there, spatula still in hand, looking pale and sticken.
“Peepers,” he declared, and braced himself as a solider preparing for a battle he doubted he would survive.