Edition 6: Faye’s Diner by J.T. Seate
Faye’s Diner by J.T. Seate was placed third in the 2012 Story Quest Short Story Contest, and was deservedly given a winning award. This subtle horror piece explores the theme of the uncertainty of death, in a ‘down home’ setting. GH
Faye’s Diner was a haven for old timers. They got together to play games; talk about who’d died, or how the world was going to hell in a handbasket. The biggest event ever at Faye’s was when the twenty-one year young Judy Beth Dinglehooper came into the place, climbed on a tabletop, and took off her clothes to encourage donations for a one-way ticket out of town. Wearing only her red slippers, she’d raised enough for at least a start.
Three years had passed since that classic morning. The table she’d climbed on top of was still held in an odd kind of reverence by those who knew the story. Those who’d been in the diner for Judy Beth’s performance marveled at how quickly those three years had flown by. Lord, how time flew for old duffers.
By nine o’clock in the morning, the dining room smelled of men and fried onions. The usual crowd passed along greetings while Faye made the rounds with her coffee pot. The men ranged in age from mid-sixties to eighty, mostly Social Security wards. Josh Potts and the slightly cross-eyed George Fraily were already shoving dominoes around a plastic checkered tablecloth while they sipped coffee and waited for their orders of ham and eggs. Josh nibbled on the thumbnail of the hand holding a domino while George patiently waited for him to make a play. Josh’s turd-brown, porkpie hat, with the brim bent up in front, perched atop his head in glaring conflict with his faded blue overalls. He was a character seldom at a loss for words.
Lester Hobart’s fanny was planted on his favorite stool at the counter. He was a hulking bear of a man with twice as much chin as needed and short, white whiskers that made him look like a Santa Claus down on his luck. Faye’s regulars were such creatures of habit she didn’t need to ask what they wanted. She just shoved orders to Mendoza through a cubbyhole between the counter and the kitchen.
Faye returned to the counter and refilled Lester’s coffee cup. She’d been a good looking woman once upon a time, before living had taken its toll. Her thin-hipped figure had withstood a passel of kids and husbands, and over fifty years of gravity. She wore her hair ratted up and brushed back like a born-again, fading country-western singer. Still, her fallen arches and her face reflected any number of hard knocks, most notably highlighted by a crescent scar on her forehead—the result of running into an ex-husband’s fist way back when. She still wore a frayed and faded mustard-colored uniform. It gave her a modicum of professionalism, or purpose. Even way out here, this far from anything important, a person needed to feel they had a niche in life.
The bell over the front door jingled. Corky Trumball came trundling in with a “Howdy, assholes,” meant for everyone except Faye. Corky and Lester were two men who’d seen and done everything. In truth, they’d never been farther than the state line, but if you doubted they knew everything, you only had to ask them.
Corky was the town sot. Even his moniker came from his love affair and life-long battle with the fruit from the vine, sometimes accompanied by stronger spirits. Not that what he drank had ever seen a cork. A twist off cap was more in line with his financial means.
“My dancin’ and lovin’ days are gone, so what’s it matter if my organs turn to mush,” he announced to Faye’s customers. “I’ll be damned if I go to my maker drinking soda pop.” He was fine most mornings, opting for strong coffee to start his days.
“My Uncle Charlie told me pretty much the same thing,” Lester said, rolling a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. “Said wine, women, and song were his ruination, so he tossed his guitar and old lady out the door.”
Josh let loose a rusty guffaw. “I always figured you and Corky’s IQs were just a hair over the speed limit on the interstate. Not so sure now.”
When the bell jingled again, the crowd expected to see Tom Lassiter, a Highway Patrolman. It was around this time he came in for a cup of java. Instead of Tom, a man, a woman, and a young girl entered. There was nothing unusual about them other than they were drenched to the bone. It had rained up until sunrise, but not enough to look as if you’d been swimming in your clothes. The chatter quieted in the presence of this unfamiliar trio as the man led two females to a table in the far corner.
Faye sashayed over. “Looks like you folks ran into some bad weather. What can I get to warm you up? We’ve got a Chuck Wagon Special, sausage eggs, gravy, toast.”
“Coffee will be fine,” the man said.
“What’ll it be for the little princess?”
The child didn’t answer.
“How about a big mug of hot chocolate, on the house for cute little girls.”
The child smiled weakly. Faye headed for the counter for fresh coffee and chocolate. The two adults sat on either side of the little girl. They appeared to be comforting her with unspoken glances from their place of refuge. The customers stealthily snuck peeks at the out-of-place family.
Lester craned his neck in the family’s direction and chanced conversation. “You folks just passing through?” At first, Lester thought they hadn’t heard, but the man finally answered without looking away from the girl.
“That’s right. Passing through.”
Lester stared a moment longer then swiveled back to the counter. “What do you make of them, Faye? Driving a fish tank, maybe?”
Faye shrugged and headed toward the threesome in case they’d decided in favor of breakfast. When she reached the corner table, the woman spoke.
“May we use your restroom?”
“Sure, just around the corner of the building. It’s a unisex, so lock the door behind you.”
“Thank you,” the woman whispered.
She and the girl got up. Hand in hand, they walked through the door and out of sight, their drinks barely touched.
“Can I get you something else, Sir?”
The man shook his head. In doing so, he looked into Faye’s green eyes with his brown ones. What she saw was a complex mixture of curiosity, anger, and secrecy. The sadness could have garnered an award-winning statuette.
“You’ve given us shelter,” he said. “That is enough.”
Faye smiled although she felt like crying over the story she saw in those eyes, a story she’d never hear. She walked away. Mendoza had another order setting in the cubbyhole. For a moment Faye let down her usual seamless service.
“That’d be my steak and eggs there, Faye,” Lester said nicely. “You okay?”
“Fine, hang on a minute.”
The man was getting up from the table. The woman and child hadn’t been gone long, but he seemed worried. He walked out the door and around the building in the direction of the restroom.
“What’s up with those people, Miss Faye?” Mendoza asked, his eyes peeking through the cubbyhole.
“You don’t suppose they’re walkin’ the check, do you?” George added.
“Hope no one fell in the toilet. They already have water issues,” Josh snickered.
“Just a family of tourists off their feed, seems like,” Faye responded.
“What’d they drive up in anyway?” Corky stood to peer out of the plate-glass window. Don’t see a vehicle except for the ones that belong to you birds. You suppose they walked here?”
Faye was about to go out through the back storeroom door and check on the family when Tom’s patrol car rolled to a stop out front. Instead, she sat a fresh cup of coffee on the counter. Faye liked to check Tom out, even flirted with him on occasion if the mood struck her, but today wouldn’t be one of those times. As he came in, she noticed the cuffs of his trouser and shoes were muddy. Uncharacteristic. Tom was spit and polish. He grabbed the stool two down from Lester and smiled half-heartedly at Faye.
“What’s up, Tom?” Lester offered.
The trooper held the coffee cup with both hands checking its temperature and then gulped down half of its contents. “Been a tough morning,” he said. “A real disaster, in fact.”
Tom wasn’t his usual, sit-up-straight, good natured self. They all took notice and waited for more.
“There was a terrible accident at the bridge on the Menyack River an hour ago. A sedan jumped the pilings and went into the water. Took a family with it. Found two females still in the car a bit ago. Just now found a male downstream. Probably tried to swim for help. River’s swollen from the rain. That didn’t help. Had a hell of a time fishing him out.”
It was as if a window shade had been lowered against the outside world for the spark had gone out of casual conversation.
“Nobody we know,” Tom continued. “Out-of-state plates.” He swallowed the rest of his coffee. “Yeah, a guy, his wife, and their daughter, I reckon. Hell of a thing.”
It was deathly quiet in the diner. Josh looked at George. The color in his face had drained away. Outside a soft rain started to fall.
Tom looked like he was stifling an emotional reaction. Faye’s crescent scar got whiter when she flushed. She’d never seen Tom cross the sensitivity line in his duties.
He quickly recovered, putting his hand over his coffee cup before Faye could refill it. “Well, got to get on back to town. Work to do, identifications and such. Thanks, Faye.” He tried to grin. The attempt was a hideous failure. “I’ll see you boys another day.”
The patrolman was gone almost before he’d arrived. That window shade over conversation remained lowered a while longer.
Corky watched Tom drive away then went out the door himself and around the corner of the diner. Although raised Evangelical from his parent’s knee, he crossed himself and wondered if it was the laws of nature or the laws of spirituality that needed modifying.
“Ain’t nobody back there,” he declared when he returned. “Nothing but this here, laying on the path.”
Corky opened his hand. He held a wet wallet. It contained a driver’s license with a picture of the man who’d been in their presence only ten minutes earlier.
“I’ve heard tell that souls of the dead have to stick around until they’ve been found,” Josh said prophetically.
The old men looked at each other then looked at the empty table in the corner.
“Suppose they were in whaddayacallit, some kind of limbo or something,” Lester said.
“One thing for sure. Can’t boil this down to logic,” George added.
“Another thing sure, Lester.” Corky again. “Your old lady will love this spook story.”
Several of them laughed, but it was uneasy laughter that quickly stuttered into silence.
“Not sure I’ll want to tell her, or anyone else. Seems like when you get to seventy, people stop taking what you say serious. Hell, most don’t even consider you a man anymore.”
“Maybe it’s better if we don’t say anything,” Josh said.
“What about the wallet?” Corky asked. “We got to tell Tom what we found.”
“Rain ghosts,” George, the least talkative of the bunch said. “That’s what the Injuns called them.” His eyes seemed to be observing his own nose when he got excited about something.
“What the heck are you talking about?” Josh asked.
“My mother told me about them. People that lived here hundreds of years ago called them rain ghosts—spirits of the dead who stay on earth until the rains stop and they’re free of the water.”
The expected “You’re full of horse-hockey” or “You pulled that Indian legend right out of your ass” from one man or another didn’t come. Instead, the assemblage turned their heads toward the woman in the room, the one who’d filled their cups and set plates in front of them for more years than they cared to consider. It was Faye’s place after all, and perhaps it was she who should pronounce a final edict on what should be said or done.
“We can’t be sure of anything unless a picture of the family is in the Telegram, can we?” she said in a plaintive voice, looking like a woman trying to smile in spite of a toothache.
“No, guess we can’t be sure.”
“You remember that young couple who came in one morning close to three years ago?” Lester said. “I think you were here, Corky, maybe George too. The reason I remember when it was is because it wasn’t long after Judy Beth had done her high wire act on the table top. Anyway, this couple came in and sat down at the same table in the corn—”
“I remember them,” Faye interrupted, an odd, surprised look on her face like some pup had snuck up and cold-nosed her.
“George was here,” Corky chimed in. “I was here too. They were quiet and kinda scared-looking, just like that bunch today.”
Lester again. “And we heard the next day about two kids getting killed in a wreck during that bad electrical storm passing through.”
“Did it rain that night?” Josh asked.
“Ever know an electrical storm that didn’t bring rain with it?” Lester looked out the window as if his mind had left the diner while beads of rain pelted the glass panes like a million teardrops.
Everyone looked strange for a few moments, rolling this collection of facts around in their noggins. Corky removed a pint container from his coat pocket and emptied its contents into his coffee cup.
“No wonder lawmen burn out,” Faye said to no one in particular. A tear gleamed in the corner of an eye that had seen almost everything over the years. “They see too much and know too much and little of it makes any damn sense.”
But they knew somehow. All of them knew. Three souls had sought a place of refuge until all their bodies were found and pulled from a watery grave. Maybe it hadn’t been the first time. Maybe Faye’s diner was some kind of haven on a journey none of them could imagine, a tear in the fabric of daily life through which the unnatural could pass. One thing was certain, none of the regulars would ever again chose that little table in the corner to have their biscuits and cream gravy, or to play dominoes, or to tell their tales. It would be looked upon with a totally different kind of reverence than Judy Beth’s storied tabletop.
Ghosts became very real in the lives of those who frequented Faye’s Diner. From that day on, the table in the corner would be reserved for wayward travelers seeking refuge from whatever dimension they arrived.
“I think we could all use a fresh cup of coffee,” Faye told the old friends who seemed glued to their seats. “It looks like we’re in for more rain.”
Jay has written everything from humor to the erotic to the macabre, and is especially keen on stories that transcend genre pigeon-holing. Although he enjoys writing in all genres, as well as non-fiction, it’s the mysterious and the macabre that seem to influence the funny monkey in his brain the most. In addition to his novels and novellas, his short stories and memoirs appear in numerous magazines, newspapers, anthologies and webzines. Recent publications can be found at www.melange-books.com, www.whispershome.com, and www.museituppublishing.com for those who like their tales intertwined with the paranormal. See more on www.troyseateauthor.webs.com and on amazon.com.