Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Manik pulled up to the curb, powered down the engine and looked across the dusty roadway at the diner.
As if on command, the neon sign over the doorway sputtered to life, strobing weakly at first before coming on strong, ‘Starlight’ in deep blue over ‘Restaurant’ in brilliant orange, with a sky-blue arrow underlining both before turning up toward the night sky.
Reflexively he looked up and down the roadway before crossing, a precaution hardwired from youth, wasted for more years than he cared to count.
The door put up a little resistance, the detritus of neglect drifting against it over time, but once he pulled it clear he was able to step inside, and the door closed easily behind him.
Inside it never changed.
The long low dinner counter down the left side, stools topped in polished vinyl, the laminate surface trimmed in chrome, screwed neatly along the edge at regular intervals. Behind the counter, several dozen bottles filled a small, tiered back-bar, a black bottle of Hendricks Gin front and center.
As he made his way down the narrow aisle from the door to where the room widened, Rosie materialized behind the cash register, crisp blue short sleeved shirt, collar open and short hair wrapped up in a kerchief.
“Table for…,” she waited.
“Just me,” Manik replied, taking off his jacket and folding it over his arm.
Rosie slipped through the countertop, a menu appearing in one hand and a bundle of cutlery wrapped in a napkin in the other, and Manik followed her to a booth halfway down one side of the restaurant.
“Coffee?” Rosie asked.
“Please,” he answered, “just black.”
Rosie produced a mug and a steaming pot from which she poured him a measure.
He sat in silence, cradling the heavy vessel in both hands, feeling the warmth work its way through him.
The walls were the familiar old wood paneling, a string of tiny coloured lanterns was hung haphazardly along the walls just above eye level. The booths a rich burgundy, and the ceiling dissolved into a deep blue-black night sky, flecked with a million stars or more, winking in and out of existence as he watched.
“Will you be eating?” Rosie was back, waiting patiently. “The specials are on the board,” she pointed to one of the black chalk-paint sections of wall on which a series of dishes had been described by hand.
“Steak and eggs please, medium rare and over easy.”
She was gone again, and as Manik waited he closed his eyes, and for a moment lost himself in the sound of Santo & Johnny, and the murmur of remembered conversations.
“Here you go,” she was back in what felt like no time, slipping a large dinner plate heaped with steak, eggs, toast, and hashbrowns onto the table in front of him. “Enjoy!” she chirped before disappearing once more.
He ate in silence, the food every bit as tasty as he remembered, and when he’d finished, Rosie cleared the plate and refilled his coffee several times without him having to ask.
A wave of overwhelming nostalgia hit him, and for a long moment the room was filled with people eating, waitresses running plates, and drinks, and pots of coffee. The murmur of conversations grew to a roar, and Manik’s head spun. He put the mug down, closed his eyes and held onto the table.
As quickly as it came, it was gone, and when he opened his eyes once more, the room was empty.
He stood up slowly, knowing it was time to leave, but wanting to savour each remaining moment.
He collected his coat, waved at the typewriter style cash register and smiled at the familiar clunk and ring, as the transaction registered and the drawer popped open.
Rosie was there to push it back closed.
“Thanks,” she smiled, “see you again soon?”
“Absolutely,” he smiled back, shouldering into his coat and pushing open the door.
He almost made it out without looking back, but reflex got the better of him and he turned. The space was again empty, the lights slowly going out. In the kitchen, he knew, the replicator had already powered off and as the door closed cleaning machines would erase all trace of him. Rosie would be relegated once again to memory until some future time when he returned.
He looked up and down the street again, the windowless shop fronts and pot-holed asphalt all that remained of another time.
He wondered, as he turned to head back towards the city, what would become of Rosie when he could no longer make the trip.
Would she miss him too?