by James Shaffer
My parents owned a truck-stop diner on Route 59, a busy highway that connected local business to the interstate that ran north to Albany and south to New York City. It drew a regular crowd in the hours after midnight, long after my bedtime.
I heard stories from my parents of crowded booths and counters, of customers who ordered a full breakfast at 2:00 a.m. or a full dinner at dawn. The truck drivers kept no official schedule. They ordered whatever their road-weary body clocks dictated.
The “59er” was a full-service diner, the only way it could operate to meet demand. Everything on the menu could be served up on short notice. The college students piled in after midnight, after a night at the movies or the local bar. They kept my daddy busy with orders of eggs over easy and home fries, food and smells they missed from home.
That night was relatively slow for a weekend night. I was too young to stay up late on school nights, but on weekends I helped out by bussing tables. I took orders for drinks; my mama took the big orders.
I was just returning after delivering drinks when a man reached out and grabbed my arm. I was already heading past his booth and didn’t see him till it was too late.
It was 1959. I was ten years old that year and average size for my age, but his grip on my arm was firm. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I pivoted on the end of his arm. I held my balance as momentum spun me around to face him.
I glanced at his hand on my arm then let my gaze drift up to his face. He kept hold of my arm as he turned away from me. I watched him drop a nickel in the tableside jukebox and punch some buttons.
Like a slow-moving freight train, the theme from Peter Gunn chugged its boogie-woogie bass line across the Formica tabletop. His free left hand tapped out the driving beat. I watched him and waited. He turned back to me. He looked over the top of my head at something in the space behind me. Then he let go of my arm.
I turned my head and saw my daddy in his white apron, feet planted, tattooed arms crossed, standing in the opening between the counters watching us. A toothpick jumped nervously in his mouth. The toothpick was the only thing that moved.
Mama stood behind him, watching too. Her hand gripped the handle of a full pot of steaming coffee resting on the counter in front of her like a weapon. I turned back to the man.
He was wearing a hat, a gray fedora with a stained band. The front brim bent down so it shadowed his misshapen face just above his eyes. His overcoat was open, and when he’d stretched out to grab me, the thick odor of sweat and damp wool had floated between us. It still hung there.
The left half of his face looked like the dented side of a cheap, stained lampshade, and the eye on that side sunk in its socket, almost hidden, unmoving. I figured it was a glass eye. The yellow cast in his face could have been from the diner lighting, or maybe he was sick. I wasn’t sure.
He stared at me with his one flat eye, then tilted to one side and reached into his coat pocket. I heard the clink of coins. He pulled out his hand and leaned toward me. “Can you get me a cold glass of water with ice?”
I felt his warm, stale breath on my face. Ice water was always on the menu.
“I got something for you, pardner, for your troubles. Hold out your hand.” The trombones blared their triplets from the jukebox. In tempo, he dropped two shiny coins in my outstretched hand. He tried to smile, but his damaged face wouldn’t let him.
I closed my hand over the coins and looked him in his good eye. “Water’s free,” I said.
He coughed a laugh and pulled a gray hanky from his coat pocket to wipe the corners of his mouth. He stretched his thin lips across yellowed teeth. The cough had brought some color to his face. “Oh I ain’t payin’ for the water, kid. That’s a tip,” he answered, nodding his head, certain of his statement.
I thought about it very briefly, as briefly as a ten-year old could who had two shiny coins tucked in his closed fist. I brightened. “Thanks, mister.”
Then I turned and hurried to where my daddy was watching. I looked up at him. My mama stepped forward to listen.
I placed my order in diner code. “Can I have an eighty-eight?”
My parents looked at one another, then back at me. “Please?” My mama grabbed a clean glass from under the counter. She packed it with ice and added water.
“What’d that man give you?” My daddy didn’t miss a thing.
“I got a tip.” I opened my hand to reveal two bright, Standing Liberty quarters. They looked like they were in mint condition. The sulphur oxide scent of real silver rose from my sweaty palm.
“Old ones, too. You can add them to your collection.” He bent down to take a closer look. “Fifty cents for a glass of water? Keep that up, boy, and we can retire.” He ruffled my hair and turned back toward his domain in the kitchen. The tension I’d felt left with him. I shoved the coins in my pocket and waited for my order.
My daddy was a great cook. Mama said that’s why she married him. It certainly wasn’t for his money, she always added. Then she’d laugh. I was a kid, but I knew it was a joke. If my daddy heard her say it and was close enough, he’d try to pinch her in a place kids weren’t supposed to talk about. Sometimes I wondered who the kids really were in our house.
Mama brought me the glass of water on a small tray. I took the tray from her and clasped it between both hands. I carried it to the man in the booth. I set the tray on the corner of the table then lifted the glass and set it in front of him.
In her waitress style, my mama had added a paper napkin to the order. Something nice and extra, she’d have called it. I picked up the napkin and placed it beside the glass.
“You know your stuff, kid. Thanks.” His hand, stretched and scarred across his knuckles, shot out from the sleeve of his overcoat. His thin, bony fingers curled around the glass. He lifted it to his mouth and drank down all the water in one go. When he tipped his head back, I saw a splotchy redness on his neck and awful scars. Grafted, mottled skin, stretched down from the base of his neck. It disappeared under the frayed edges of his shirt. Burn scars.
“That hit the spot,” he said. He set the empty glass down on the table but kept his hand curled around it like it might get away from him.
“You want another? That was mostly ice anyway,” I asked. He looked thirsty. He looked like if I threw water on him, steam would rise from his skin.
He looked at me. “Not for free, kid.” He reached into his pocket.
“You don’t have to tip me, mister.”
“Sure I do. No one rides for free, bud. Don’t you know that? You pay for everything, one way or the other.” He fished for the coins in his pocket. “It’s not a law on the books, mind you. ‘Least I never found it written anywhere. It’s more like... a natural law.” He pulled two more shiny coins out of his coat pocket. He held out his hand. “Come on. I’m mighty thirsty.”
I looked at his outstretched hand, then at him. His one good eye held my gaze. The other eye, in the dark under the brim of his hat, caught a spark of reflected light when he moved his head. I placed my open hand below his. Two coins dropped into my palm. I took his glass and set it on the tray.
“See how the law works, kid?”
“A kindness paid,” he said.
I scurried back to the counter where my mama had been topping up the “bottomless” coffee cups for the counter customers. “Mama, could you please fill this glass again? He’s thirsty.” She looked at me, then she looked at the man in the booth. I looked back at him too. Both his arms rested on the table top, his hands clenched together and his head bowed so his hat hid his face. It was almost a prayerful pose. She took the glass from my tray.
“You think he’s going to order?” she asked.
“I don’t know, mama, but he’s mighty thirsty. He gave me another tip.” I showed her the two fresh coins, the same kind as before. “I told him he didn’t have to. He said nothin’s for free. He’s got burn scars and a glass eye, I think.”
She filled the glass and set it on the tray.
“He don’t look too well neither.”
“OK. You take care of him. Maybe he was in the war, you know, like your daddy.”
My daddy had landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was in the last wave that landed. “Most of them who’d landed before me were killed,” he told me. Sometimes he’d talk about it when we were digging up the back garden so we could plant vegetables for the diner.
As soon as the tip of his spade hit the dark soil, he’d start talking. “Our feet hardly got wet. We ran across the bodies up on to the beach. Like walking on water, like the miracle from the Bible, you know? But that day... it was no miracle.”
He kept talking as he moved down the row, turning over the fresh soil as he spoke. “We won. We took the beach. It was a victory. Someone said so, so maybe it was. But mangled bodies on a narrow strip of beach was all that was left. Some victory. Me and twenty-nine other guys in our platoon were assigned burial detail. Our lieutenant told us it was our reward for being in the last wave. Some reward.”
His spade turned over a dark clod. I followed behind, breaking the clod into small pieces. “We buried hundreds of bodies, maybe thousands... seemed like thousands. There’s a memorial cemetery there now, above the beach. Did you know that?” It was a rhetorical question. “I helped fill it. I’ll never forget the sound of thirty spades cutting through the sandy soil, over and over and over again.”
As soon as my mama set the full glass on the tray, I carried it over to his table.
When I set the tray on the table, the customer raised his head. “Look at that,” he said. I placed the fresh glass of water in front of him. This time he just stared at it.
I sat down on the bench opposite him. “More water than ice this time. It’s real cold though,” I said.
“You did good, bud.” He reached for the glass and lifted it to his lips. He sipped it this time. The diner was quiet. Everyone was eating. I pulled a coin out of my pocket. The date was clear: 1925. The milled edges were sharp. The coin was a bright spot in my hand.
“Were you in the war, mister?” Over the edge of the glass, his one good eye locked on my two. He held my gaze as he set down the glass and put his hands flat on the table top.
“I told my mama about your face and burn scars. She said maybe you were in the war. My daddy was in the big one on D-day. He had to bury all the dead soldiers. He still talks about it.”
“War leaves all kinds of scars, boy. Some you can see. Some you can’t.”
I turned the coin over. Squinting, I read the inscription between the eagle’s wings. “E plur-i-bus... u-num.”
“It’s Latin. Out of many, one.”
The diner door blew open. Two guys rushed in. They wore sacks over their heads, holes cut for eyes. Both pointed guns and waved them around. One guy watched the customers. “Don’t nobody move.” He waved the gun around and pointed at the counter then at the booths then back at the counter.
No one moved. The other guy went for the cash register. I saw Mama frozen in place, backed against the pie cooler. She held a full pot of coffee in her hand. “
“You! Get over here!” The gunman motioned to her.
“Bud.” The old man spoke softly, firmly. I looked at him. He sat perfectly still. Only his lips moved. “Move back in the corner.”
I slid over the seat and leaned against the wall under the window. Then I saw the coin — my coin -- lying in full view, flat on the table. I grabbed at it. It skittered toward the edge.
The old man’s hand shot out and grabbed the coin. He never took his eyes off the gunmen.
The sudden movement caught the eye of the covering gunman. “Hey!” He yelled and strode toward our booth. He came right up to the edge of the table. The gun pointed at me first, then he swung it to the old man.
Bing! Bing! My daddy hit the order-ready bell. Both gunmen turned toward the sound. Mama threw the full pot of hot coffee on the cash-register gunman and ducked behind the counter. He screamed and dropped his gun, grabbing at his steaming face. His gun slid under the kitchen door.
I screamed. “Mama!”
When his partner turned to fire, the old man jumped from his seat, tackled the gunman and pushed him to the floor. With his knee in his back, he smashed the gunman’s hand on the tile floor until the gun shot free.
A customer picked up the gun and pointed it at the robber’s head. I shot out of the booth and hurdled the mayhem. Mama was still huddled against the counter below the cash register.
“It’s over, Mama,” I said. We hugged.
Daddy shot out of the kitchen. He was holding the other robber’s gun on everyone. “OK. Don’t nobody move,” he said.
* * *
The old man and I kept in touch over the years. His health failed him in the end. The injuries he’d suffered during the war had taken their toll. “No one lives forever,” he said. The veteran hospital took him in. I visited him every weekend.
He’d been on the Arizona at Pearl Harbor. He’d help pull many men from the flames, but an explosion had knocked him out.
“I should have died that day, kid. I should have gone down with the rest,” he said. He was staring back at the past and still called me “kid.”
I was there because we’d shared a moment in the past I would never forget. “I’m glad you didn’t. You still had one more life to save.”
The day he died, I learned he had willed me his coin collection. It was all Standing Liberty quarters, neatly packed and folded in blue collection books. The inheritance wasn’t contested; he had no family. Among the collection were his military medals: the Navy Cross and a Purple Heart.
What makes a hero? I wasn’t sure, but I sensed it had something to do with the moment and the person and nothing more. No one lives forever, that was true, but he was my hero, and heroes never die.
Copyright © 2015 by James Shaffer