She is a funny looking woman; finely dressed in a suit, pinned hat, big ruby brooch at her throat. She slides in next to me in the booth without asking and gives me a big smile, looking over her eye glasses which perch on the bridge of her nose like a bird about to take flight. She seems out of place here. But she orders an ice cream sundae without even glancing at the menu. A monster: double chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, a banana float, nuts, whipped cream and a cherry on top. She busies herself in her purse while she waits and we do not talk.
Neon flickers softly in the windows at the Second Chance diner and as the servers clip order tabs to the line hanging outside the serving hatch I can hear the sizzle of waffles hissing on the griddle and the accompaniment of whistling chefs who I see twirling grilling irons and juggling plates.
When her food arrives she regards it with spectacular satisfaction as the waitress slides it across the formica table top. She gives almost giving a little yelp of delight. I, on the other hand, slowly circle my spoon in the coffee cup in front of me, watching a whirlpool form, spin frantically then lose pace and fade.
“First time here?” she says to me looking up for the first time. She plucks the cherry from the top of its broke back mountain of cream and pops it into her mouth like a roman goddess sampling a bunch of grapes.
“Yes” I say simply. What else is there to say? And the truth is a good place to start.
“We get all kinds here dearie. Leonard over there survived cancer”. She nods towards a middle aged man with yellow hair who is attacking an omelette with gusto. “Phoebe was into crack and booze”. Phoebe catches my eye from her seat at the counter and gives me a little wave. “Terry’s wife left him for her tennis coach, took all his money and stole his kids”.
Terry looks unfeasibly upbeat to me, all things considered. Forty love!” he yells with a smile, motioning a mock tennis serve motion with his hands as he does so.
I do not know what to say, so I take a gulp of coffee. It is warm, slips down nicely. My partner is shovelling ice cream now like a rescue team in an avalanche. After a few mouthfuls she pauses and lays down her spoon.
“And what brings you here?” she asks me.
Now it is time to lie. I do not want to talk about this with this stranger; all the reasons, all the mistakes, all the insecurities, all the hurt. These are mine to carry.
“I don’t know” I say simply and avoid her gaze. The waitress comes over and refills my cup.
She recognizes the signs of course: hurt, unhappiness, bitterness. It is radiating out of me like the steam rising from my coffee.
“Well dearie, let me just say this and then I’ll let you be”. She chases the last scoop of ice cream around her plate.
“They serve second chances here; big helpings, small helpings, any size you like. It’s not your fancy restaurant food. But it’s warm and it’s nourishing. But you have to want to eat. I’ve seen people come in here famished but they won’t take a bite. Whatever you’ve done or has been done to you, everyone should get a second chance. Because people change, and time changes people. Louis over there he robbed banks and hung with the wrong crowd. He’s killed men just for the way they looked at him. But he’s started over, making a new start, piece by piece, day by day. Figured out what’s really important to him and he’s living his life that way. It ain’t easy for anyone here. But when folks come to this place, they learn to find a little piece of what tastes good and it brightens their day. You can drink black coffee if you like, but I wouldn’t recommend it. They got much sweeter stuff on the menu if you’re prepared to try it. Eat it while it’s hot. You might be surprised. It won’t choke you”.
And with that she slides out of the booth, pats my arm warmly and wanders away. At the door she settles her check, straightens her hat and, without looking back, she is out into the night and gone.