by Lena Beck
Gina filled the kettle with tap water and rested it on the stove coil. After flipping a switch to the left of the stovetop, the coil lightened to a warm red. She pressed her hands together and looked around. Everything else was done.
Each square formica table was pristine: napkins stocked, menus folded. Most early morning guests ordered the same thing. The menus were for out-of-towners. She slid her notepad into the back pocket of her Levi’s, hooked her pen to the right side of her apron, and pulled a sweater tightly around her. Early summer mornings were brisk, but the sun would start to peek into The Canyon and break up the night sky, promising a warm afternoon. Gina poured herself a cup of hot water from the now screaming kettle, hopped up to sit on the counter, and mixed in some Insta-Joe. When the smell of the pebbly coffee hit her nose, Gina took a moment to breathe it in. The actual coffee was so bland it may as well have been made with chalky red dirt from The Canyon, but Gina couldn’t think of a single smell she liked better. Ten minutes remained until she’d open for service.
The Spaceworks Cafe was one of the only buildings within a canyon often forgotten by politicians, census-takers, and map-makers. Not even traveling salespeople managed to make it to The Canyon’s dusty main road. Considering that, it’s hard to say when exactly the Spaceworks Cafe first opened for service. No one in The Canyon could recall its original owner, though surely, people said, it had to have been new at some point. Canyons didn’t come with built-in diners. The cafe itself didn’t provide many clues either. The black and white floor tiles and vinyl booths may as well be legally required diner equipment, and though it seems vaguely reminiscent of the 1950s, it’s impossible to say for sure. The origins of the Spaceworks Cafe remain largely unknown, and regular customers like to halfheartedly debate its beginnings over pie and coffee after the lunch rush has come and gone. All that can be agreed upon is that at some point between today and millions of years ago, when the ancient glaciers first carved out their beloved canyon, the Spaceworks Cafe had been built and opened for service.
If you haven’t heard of the Spaceworks Cafe, or even of The Canyon, it’s because it’s quite an odd little place, located about three right turns from wherever things stopped making sense. If you adhere sternly to the normal laws of space, time, and physics, you likely won’t ever find yourself in a town like this, feeling the warm canyon heat on the back of your neck, maybe catching some spray from the backwards river as it sloshes up the mountain. However, if you are willing to bend the rules of reality like a child’s slinky tumbling down a set of stairs, you might make it to The Canyon by lunchtime. Grab a counter seat, and Gina will pour you a cup of coffee.
Our waitress is sitting on that counter now, lightly kicking her legs against a bar stool. Gina sipped from her mug, cognizant of the luxury this moment of stillness provided. The rest of the day would be spent on everyone else. From six until two, everything she did would be geared toward lunchtime at the Spaceworks Cafe.
Dexter walked in while Gina served eggs over-easy to her ninth customer of the day. He had a few short words with the two line cooks and set up his notebooks and correspondence at a corner booth. He nodded curtly to Gina. Dexter was the longtime manager of the Spaceworks Cafe, a smart, but bristly man who almost never ate or drank anything but tap water in his own restaurant. Gina took out two tall bar glasses, filled both with water, and dropped ice in one. Dexter looked up from his egg invoice when Gina set the iceless glass down in front of him.
“Thank you, Gina.” He made eye contact with her for a beat, then dropped his gaze back to the invoice. She carried the other one to the order counter, where she set the icy glass of water up for her sometimes-boyfriend Shane, and rang the order-up bell.
“Thanks.” His brow was already furrowed as he took a long gulp and crunched on one of the ice cubes.
It was hot in the kitchen. “Dex was already in a terrible mood.” Gina hooks her fingertips along the edge of the counter, leaning against it. “Don’t take him so personally, Shane.”
Shane holds a hand up to his side, as though to plead his innocence, say the Pledge of Allegiance, or volunteer for some kind of elective activity. “I get it, it’s the way he is. But he can get off my back.”
Gina shrugged. Her relationship with Dexter was of little words. Still, she felt more understanding with him than with most people, even Shane.
“Order up,” Shane said.
Lunchtime at the Spaceworks Cafe usually meant a line around the corner. Gina put a jamb in the door to let in the crowds, and plugged in the “Lunch is On!” sign by the window.
With the door propped open, the heat from the outside began competing with the heat from the kitchen, the two battling it out like boxers in a ring. Accordingly, Gina fanned herself with a napkin as she welcomed guests into the diner. If the breakfast crowd was a trickle, the lunch crowd was a coursing river, with patrons loitering outside until the lunch sign came on. Gina smiled brightly and seated everyone with the proficiency of a ballet dancer — not one wasted movement. She was up at the counter, pouring coffee at the bar, when the hairs on the back of her neck began to tingle.
Gina sensed him before she saw him. A presence that made no noise, yet cut through the friendly bustle of the lunch rush like a knife. She turned to the doorway, and saw him standing there, his large frame nearly taking up the entire space. His face was blank of expression, his jaw slack and mouth agape, as though gasping for air, though certainly he could breathe just fine.
Gina flipped through the rolodex of her mind, waiting to recognize the face, but nothing surfaced. A stranger. But perhaps even more noteworthy about this man than his unknown identity, was the fact that he wore no shoes. Even from the counter, Gina could tell that his bare feet were dirty and blistered, red canyon dust cemented up to his ankles like the world’s worst boots. Gina could tell, she simply knew, that this man had traveled a long way. A long, long way, likely on foot. Before she began her tenure as a waitress, she might have hung back, suspicious of this man. But her training in hospitality took over, and the one thought that percolated to the top of her mind was, I bet he could use some lunch.
The stranger had been staring at the menu that Gina had placed into his hands for the better part of an hour. Still, he willingly drank the coffee that Gina poured him, which she took as a good sign. She had sat him down at a bar stool along the counter, and explained the menu options and the daily special, while he said nothing. She had checked on him countless times since, but whenever she asked what he would like to eat, he looked at her blankly. Gina asked him his name exactly once, and after the look of horror on his face, she had dropped it immediately. She looked on as a few regulars seated near him tried to strike up a conversation about fishing for backwards fish in The Canyon’s backwards river, but they were met with even less of a reaction than Gina was.
Drumming her fingers on the counter, Gina thought to herself for a moment and then took matters into her own hands. She walked over to the order window and whispered a few choice words to Shane, who shrugged before nodding in acquiescence. Pleased with herself, Gina printed a few guest checks from the register and made the rounds, handing them to customers who were finishing up.
Just minutes later, Shane slid a full plate into the order window, heavy with a giant hamburger and a smattering of french fries, hot and glistening with grease. A hearty slice of tomato stuck out from the sesame bun, and cheese was already dripping onto the hot plate.
Seconds after Shane dinged the bell, Gina scooped the plate and, in one continuous motion, transferred it onto the counter, right in front of the barefoot stranger. She felt some self-satisfied affirmation when she saw his eyes grow large at the sight of the plate, the universal sentiment of soon-to-be fulfilled pleasure alighting his face. After locking his eyes on the hamburger the way a jaguar might eye an armadillo, he looked up at Gina and suddenly spoke.
“I don’t know where I am.”
Gina gave a warm smile, a marked trait of a good hostess.
“Eat,” she said, “and I’ll tell you.”
The stranger wolfed down his meal, chasing it with hot coffee, and ten minutes after the plate had been set in front of him, Gina was pulling the empty dish away and the stranger was licking grease from his fingers. Gina refilled his coffee cup.
“Better?” She asked.
The man shrugged, but looked up at her again, “Thank you.”
Gina nodded. “I can tell you’re new around here,” she said, propping her elbows down on the counter. “Where are you from?” She noticed out of the corner of her eye that a few other patrons were listening in, curious.
The man licked his lips, started to speak, and then stopped. He tried again. “I — I don’t remember.”
“Well, where are you going?” Piped a customer from a few stools over. The stranger whipped his head to one side, as though he’d forgotten other people were there, too. He was quiet.
“I don’t know,” he said, looking at his hands. “I’ve forgotten everything.”
Lunchtime at the Spaceworks Cafe brings in people from all over The Canyon. There’s a river that cuts through town, shaped like an ‘S’ and cool as a cucumber. It flows backwards, back up into the mountains from which most rivers come. Stare at it too long, and it feels like an optical illusion. There’s a large rock on the bank that children like to jump off in the summer, and they swim against the current to climb back up and do it again. For most of the day, the river is packed with excitement and action. But around lunchtime, The Canyon appears to be a ghost town, with everybody packed into its sole diner.
And when lunch is over, people filter back out with a happy buzz in the air. Their bellies are full, their smiles are wide, and they call out to each other happily. The crowd making its way out the door was so loud that Gina couldn’t even hear the music. She went to the window and clicked off the “Lunch is On!” sign. She then closed the door and moved toward the kettle, where she started preparing a pot of decaf. Dark beans and boiling water made a smell that would stick to her clothes even more intensely than bacon grease. After closing up at two o’clock, the employees of the Spaceworks Cafe set about cleaning the restaurant completely, and also doing meal preparations for the next day. Shane and the other cooks in the back were chopping potatoes, dicing onions and cracking eggs, while Gina was wiping down counters with the towel that she normally kept tucked in the belt loop of her Levi’s.
Apart from the staff, there was only one person left in the diner: the barefoot stranger. He looked less confused than when he’d walked through the door several hours earlier, but just as dismayed. He held his coffee cup squarely between his hands, and stared down into the milky brown liquid. Absently, Gina wondered what he was looking for in there. She had a pretty good idea. And now that he’d eaten, the time was just about right.
She took a break from cleaning and sat down on the stool next to him. She looked at him gently and set her hand on the counter near his.
“Do you remember now?” She whispered.
Slowly, he nodded, solemnly. Gina nodded back.
“We can talk about it, if you want,” she said.
The man shook his head, but even as he did so, he began to speak. His eyes were glassy, and Gina made note that if any of his tears should fall into his coffee, she should get him a fresh cup. “I didn’t get to say goodbye,” he said, his voice thick. “It was really quick.”
“And then you were here,” Gina murmured.
He nodded. “And then I was here.” He looked up at Gina. “Will they be okay?”
There it was. There were a lot of things that brought out-of-towners into the Spaceworks Cafe, but this was one of the most common ones. Concern for those left behind. It was one of Gina’s favorite things about people — their ability to love others so much. Gina smiled softly, and pushed the kitchen towel back and forth with one hand in front of her, though she’d already cleaned this spot many times.
“Yes,” she said. “They’re sad, and they will be for a while. But they’re okay.”
The dam broke on the man’s face, albeit silently. They both sat there not speaking for a minute, listening to the music crooning on the diner speakers and plates clanging in the kitchen.
Shane tended to wash dishes with reckless abandon.
The man looked up and met Gina’s eyes. “What now?” His voice cracked, but she could see he was coming to terms with things. Faster than most.
“Well, you can’t go back,” she said this firmly. She’d found that this was best, easier on people, to be direct and to say this without room for doubt. “But you do have a choice. You can keep going — follow the river up to the top of the mountain.”
“What’s up there?”
In response, Gina just smiled. “It’s not a hard climb, just don’t stray from the riverbank.” She slowly pushed herself off the stool, standing by the counter. “Or, you can stay here. A lot of people do. Eventually, they forget.”
The man’s brow furrowed in confusion. “All the people who were here for lunch…?”
Gina nodded. “Yes. All of us.”
The man’s head tipped sideways. “You didn’t forget,” he said.
“No,” Gina admitted. “But that’s because someone has to make the coffee.”
He seemed to consider this. “Why do people stay?”
Gina shrugged. “A lot of reasons. They aren’t ready. And the food is pretty good.”
The man looked down at his hands again. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”
Gina walked behind the counter, tucking her towel into the back pocket of her jeans. She cut a slice of blackberry pie from the display and poured a fresh cup of decaf, sliding them across the counter with a soft smile.
“It’s easier to think things over with some pie,” she said.
By the time Gina had finished cleaning, most of the other staff had already left. Dexter on foot, Shane in his Silverado, and now it was just Gina, pulling the door shut behind her. Just minutes before, the stranger had slid off his stool with determination, and left without saying goodbye. Gina had heard the bell on the door jingle as he left, and she watched him from the window, smiling as he fell in stride alongside the river, before disappearing out of sight up the mountain.
She locked the door. The Canyon breeze had a chill to it, but it was a warm evening. The air smelled like summer twilight — jasmine, pollen, and evaporated sunshine. She heard, from somewhere far off, the faint tinkling of a solo piano…she recognized the tune, but barely, and before she could cling to it, it faded from earshot. Most things do.
Tonight she will rest and tomorrow morning she will do it all again. Because if anything has ever been true in all of space and time, it’s the importance of someone serving coffee and pie during lunchtime at the Spaceworks Cafe.
It’s Whom for Dinner
by Ronald Walker
Lena Beck is a writer and journalist based in Montana, USA. She has reported stories about environmental science for The Counter, The Guardian, Coastal Review and more. Contact her on Twitter @LenaJLBeck.
Mr. Walker works in a painting style he terms “Suburban Primitive”. This style combines his interest in the origins and functions of art along with life in the suburbs, which he views in both a physical and psychological manner. His work has been shown in 45 solo exhibits and numerous group shows over the years. He holds both a MFA and a MA degree in painting and drawing.