The local radio station played in the background, a non-offensive blend of modern western music that appealed to the usual customer of the diner. The place was lightly populated this morning when I came in. Usually, you couldn’t find a table, or even a stool at the counter, because of the regulars who knew the names of all the waitresses as well as the line cook and the busser.
I was in for breakfast while my hubby was at the dentist. I enjoyed my alone time, where I wasn’t just half of a couple. Don’t get me wrong. Married for over four decades I was happily married to my best friend. It’s just nice, sometimes, to be my own person.
Across the diner, I noticed a man in a ball cap. Even with my glasses on all I could read from the cap was World War II Veteran. Not a tall man, his face was wrinkled around his goatee with time but his eyes behind the large lenses of his glasses were alert and he noticed everything that went on within the diner walls.
He was alone in his booth, a newspaper open on the table beside him. It looked like he was having oatmeal for his breakfast. I wondered about his life. Had he been Army, Navy, a Marine during his war? Was he in the Pacific or Europe? Had he been a prisoner of war? What happened when he came home? I supposed, like most men of his era, he married, had children, worked in the steel mills or the booming auto industry or went to California and like my now deceased father-in-law, found work in the aerospace industry with one of the big airplane manufacturers. Maybe he used his G.I. Bill and went to college and became a businessman or a university professor, built a nice, middle-class home and contributed to his community.
Dress in our town is pretty casual. You generally couldn’t tell who had money and who didn’t by clothing alone. It was a point of pride among most of the town retiree population to buy most of their clothing from one of the many thrift stores in town. His attire didn’t really tell me anything about him, except for that hat, which looked fairly new.
More people came in—an older couple, a family with two young children. Two young men, boisterous and spouting millennial slang entered and sat in the booth behind me. “Bro” and “Man” punctuated every sentence they spoke in voices that carried across the diner drowning out all other conversation. Too loud and too familiar for my taste I wondered what the man, who I now labeled, The Vet, thought?
I saw the Vet stare at the young men behind me. They talked fast and laughed at their own jokes which echoed too loud across the sparsely populated diner. More people came in, older couples mostly but one young man came in alone. That brought the tally to three of us single diners. He sat alone, head down in the menu, as though he was ashamed to have to appear by himself.
The Vet finished his breakfast and pulled bills from his wallet, dropping a couple on his table. I watched him get up, bringing a portable oxygen concentrator with him. I hadn’t noticed an oxygen tube from my table. He moved the way I did, taking care and moving slowly, giving hips a chance to remember what they were supposed to do. Despite that, he walked to the register easily for a man that would be in his late eighties or even into his nineties. He paid his bill, joked a moment with the cashier, and left.
Through the windows, I watched him walk to a beat-up old Chevy pick-up truck with a cap on the back. The brown paint was dull, faded and peeling in places from the brutal Arizona sun. I saw a small dog leap up on the steering wheel to greet him. So, the Vet wasn’t totally alone. I was glad. I hoped, as he got in and pulled away, that he had family in the area. That he was able to play with his great-grandchildren. I hoped he belonged to the local veteran’s group, or car club, or anything else that allowed him to get out of a lonely house and stay active.
I found myself on the point of tears, worried for the Vet yet wishing him a happy life, whatever he had left of it. My breakfast was done when I saw my husband walk in the door of the diner. He waved and came over.
“Are you finished?”
I smiled up at him. “Yes.” I dropped three dollars on the table and stood up, slowly, my hips had to remember their job, after all and picked up the check. “How was the dentist?”
“Just a little filling,” he told me as we walked to the register. “See anyone you know?”
I smiled to myself. “No, not quite.”
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