1 Hour 45
The diner sign sat high, in neon and brightness, and could be seen as soon as the Parkway ramp faded in the rearview mirror, just after leaving the toll. And it could be seen along the main drag beyond the store fronts that were active with tourists, families and teenagers. The sign was brighter than the other architecture, most laid shadow and subdued in the breezy, salt night. A beacon. A lighthouse on land to direct weary travelers, tourists, that their shore points were within reach, in station wagons packed with beach towels and groceries to make it through the week on crowded beaches mixed with locals and the others.
The others. For the locals, the beach was a way of life, one with the surf and the sand. The tourists, called shoobies, a digression, the one vacation a year at the Jersey shore.
The diner was two blocks off the boardwalk and the backdrop for hundreds of passersby on a summer night, families with naïveté laced in reddened, sunburned skin and bare skinned teenagers letting the cool night touch their bodies, the shirtless boys and bikini girls. A strange mix of freedom and conventional wholesomeness.
Less than four months a year, the flurry of activity filled the bowl to the brim that would come close to bursting, until the dark chill swept the inevitable fall into the Jersey shore town and sent the tourists away like clustered motel dust mites, far from the smells of the boardwalk and the feeling of sand between the toes, and returned a quiet, desolate town to its own solitude and introspection.
But not before its patrons absorbed every sun’s ray, every boardwalk pizza slice, every child’s laughter, every dizzy feeling on the boardwalk rides, every dollar that was confused with the thrill of happiness, every first kiss and every reflection that drew a stark conclusion of life, the moments are fleeting and slip through the fingers like beach sand.
The summer held on, and in its omniscient wisdom, knew the season had reached the half mark. There was a half-life, a half way to when the autumn would slip in with a chill to stop everything that felt it could be free no matter what elements faced it because love and freedom and happiness were all that mattered. The season reached in with a smirk of arrogance, knowing that no matter how the beach goers would feel, the immortality of their blissful freedom, the season was a witness to the dying.
From the shoreline, looking into the ocean, the deep night’s darkness, with only the sound of the waves and the feeling of sand between the toes for those left on the beach, there were kissing teenagers who fell subservient to the woos of unachievable expectations. There were the remaining partygoers with a half-done bottle or half smoked joint looking for an escape, and the contemplators staring out into the vast and all enlightened sea for answers. There was an overcast sky hiding its brilliant stars, a gray that sullied the moment in its muddied interpretation of possibility. Inside the gray, or existing outside its grasp of the void, there was a single light that penetrated the muddy, and it was absolutely magnificent.
Junior stood at the urinal with the newspaper dissected on the wall in front of him. Mr. Alexopoulos always tacked up the latest news in the men’s room, above the urinals, after he was done reading it. Junior’s denim was unzipped, it was the first time he had the chance to relieve himself the entire night. After a sweaty van ride where various smells were co-mingled inside the old utility van, musk and ammonia were the most prominent of fragrances. But there were other cleaning chemicals chewing on the clean air. And there was a faint smell of mold, from the mop buckets and dirty rags.
He worked overnight cleaning the local businesses, the vacuuming and scrubbing and mopping all of the disgusting things that others don’t consider when they leave for the day like clogged kitchen sinks and piss laden floors or disgusting toilets. Living at the shore, growing up in the sandy environment, he had taken for granted the privilege of existing so close to the ocean. Working for the cleaning company after high school had faded, the importance of familiar and pleasing smells occupied his thoughts, especially after the shift was over, after the toilets were cleaned and the chemicals put away, he hung his head out the window and took in the sweet salt air as the van sped down the road.
He had held his own desire for evacuation for hours and had raced up the cement steps through the glass doors of the diner to find a peace in the relief. A calming, maybe a form of meditation, that unattainable quiet his girlfriend often spoke of when they laid in bed and he pretended to be interested in the things that were important to her.
He scanned the pages of today’s Asbury Park Press, July 9th, 1978, tacked to the wall at eye level. An investigation of the violent tremors that shook the shore on December 2nd, beginning a year prior. It happened over several months and left towns along the Jersey coast, and some further inland, unnerved. The reaction ranged from serious uneasiness to sheer terror. There were worries about a Russian invasion, a series of earthquakes, military testing and a cover-up, UFOs. The FAA commented, so did the Airforce. There were denials, that anything was even experienced. The authorities didn’t feel what they, the locals, felt. There were theories from nearly every category of scientist, and none of those theories could stand the rigorous application of the scientific method. No one knew the cause and at one point the tremors had become so violent, the nearby nuclear plant was evacuated.
Tired eyes scanned the dissected pages, pondering the mystery and remembering what it was like that night driving home when the entire car, and road, shook. Junior let his body relax to the flow of the tension that left him.
It was a pitstop while driving the van to various businesses to clean, a chore to take him well into the early morning hours. Washing his hands, Junior thought about his partner who was drinking coffee at the counter while he washed up. The man was the owner’s brother-in-law Charley, a barely functional drunk, who was so far gone that keeping him sober through the cleaning shift would only amount to the shakes and God knows what else, and if he was too drunk, then nothing would get done. So, the young man found himself the moderator of a much older partner’s alcohol intake, just enough to keep him moving, not too much to hinder the work.
Junior looked in the mirror as he washed up and stared at himself, a boy, not yet a man, not yet twenty, longing for the days when he could pass the time away on the beach. His reflection stared back, older, and for the first time Junior knew the ride would not stop moving, no ticket taker, no off switch like the rides on the boardwalk.
Outside the men’s room, couples finished dessert. People were getting off work, others on their way to the nightlife, or on their way back from the bar. Locals, tourists, teens to the elderly. A man dressed unusually for a summer night at the shore in a black suit, white shirt and thin black tie.
Bruce Springsteen filled the air, everywhere. In the diner, he played because he was one of their own. He was one of them, who made it, one of them, who told the stories of the neighborhood, every neighborhood in New Jersey, especially the shore, because he was there and from there. The soundtrack of summer nights who brought in the summer night.
Marjorie arranged the oversized sugar dispensers on a plastic tray for delivery to the booths and the sweetness, delicately balanced on a flimsy platform meant only for the most skilled acrobats.
She sang to herself. She always did. Marjorie was one of those people who believed life should have a soundtrack and it didn’t matter how profound or trivial the moment was, there was a song for it.
She seemed well suited for a soundtrack. Everything she did was cinematic. Even the way she filled the sugar dispensers, her hands moving with the care of a surgeon, the care taken and at the same time done with speed and accuracy. She could have been diffusing a bomb, or putting together a piece of art made of metal and glass, and the movements in sync with the song she sang.
The song, she knew every word and sang quietly but confidently, after humming the Springsteen ballad playing in the background of the diner, to something altogether different, a song revolving only within her invisible universe, the lyrics matching the big and bright smile she was wearing. Perhaps there were moments when she sang sad songs to match that mood, if there was such a thing for Marjorie. In front of the world, she was always happy and the mood, her big bright smile, was contagious.
She wore the blue and tan diner uniform, but the pants and polo version. Marjorie had always hated dresses and the diner dress was holding onto a time that was dying because the world was changing. So was the term tomboy. Marjorie would tell anyone who needed to know she was all woman, but gender defined by her terms and not some objectified magazine ad wrapped in pink and frillies. She was a beacon of confidence to be admired.
‘Then what did she ever see in him?’ Ed thought.
Ed sat at the end of the counter drinking his third cup of coffee. He accepted two refills only to postpone the departure. It was Ed’s way of controlling time, forcing it to stand still so he could be around her a bit longer. He would give up days from his life in exchange for even a minute extra in that diner to hear her sing and to experience the bewitching of that smile.
Marjorie and Ed had known each other since they were young. He was a loner, the kind that never seemed to fit in. She was a whirlwind from the womb and was the center of attention without any effort or intent. She was strong, intelligent, beautiful, sweet, and the light in any room no matter how dark it was before she entered. Ed, on the other hand, tried to blend in with the walls, and was one of the many in awe of her presence. It had always been that way.
Mr. Alexopoulos yelled from behind the register for Chris to put on his shirt as the boy entered through the glass doors with a group of teens. Surfer boys and their uniform. It wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. Summertime and sunshine, and the beach and the waves, they called to local boys. Barefoot and no shirt until the autumn brought back the chill to the Jersey shore town. The boy was the cover of a teen magazine, the kind of look that made the girls swoon, tanned skin, lean and muscular frame, babyface with a thick mound of long and golden curls that seemed to spill over like a waterfall.
On the other side of the diner, in the least populated area, in the booth furthest from the register, sat the man in an awkwardly fitted black suit. He was tall, strikingly so, thin, with forearms that jetted from the suit jacket. The material was thick, too heavy for the summertime, and the design, the fit, was old fashioned, something an undertaker would wear before the turn of the century.
The man was pale, under any backdrop, but was an exclamation point in a summer shore town. Pale as in blanched and powder white as opposed to fair skin. The texture was gritty, like wiping powder on sandpaper. He could have caked on stage makeup, or dipped his face in a bat of flour. He could have not been real at all, a wax figure old and dried out, except for the gleam in his electric blue eyes and the big evolving grin.
The man stood out to Mr. Alexopoulos as much as the owner’s gaudy diner sign did to cars pulling through the Parkway toll. To him, an obvious anomaly. To the rest of the diner, staff and patrons, the man was nothing out of the ordinary. He was part of the normal scenery, or as if he was not there at all. Not a one paid attention, except for Mr. Alexopoulos who tried not to stare. The Greek transplant who came to the country twenty some years prior was seeing it all from the register of his busy business. Broken souls who came back from Vietnam, the hippies, the backwards racists and unaccepted peoples fighting for theirs, the disco crowd, the surfers, the dawn of punk rock, the changes and ever morphing self-expression.
Chris took a seat with Adam, Kenny and Steph. They were all surfers. They wore the tan like a badge of honor, like a club tattoo that anointed and segregated them from the other teens who hung out on the beach and on the boardwalk – the tourists, the weekenders or day trippers, the shoobies. They lived in town all year round, it was their life and they had no hesitation in expressing a resentment for the herds that crowded their home in the summer.
Steph was beautiful, a summer girl with bikini top hidden by an old zip up sweatshirt. She loved to surf and hung with the surfer boys. Sometimes she kissed a surfer boy because that is what teens do, in her world at least, a time when conservative families butted up against a desire to express.
Kenny accepted a nudge from Adam to look over to the tourist girl their age in the booth next to them suffering from boredom with her parents. Adam motioned for him to check out her legs and Kenny did so because that is what teen boys did. They checked out the girls wearing more skin than not. They nudged each other and made lewd comments and acted like they were in control of the world that spinned whether they were on it or not.
Chris watched the girls too, with his friends, even though he didn’t like girls, not like his friends did. And sometimes he cried in his bed alone at night because what he wanted was something no one would ever accept. Not his parents. Not his friends. He wished for a time when it could all be different, but he watched the girls and he laughed when his friends made suggestive inclinations and he never let on, and they never knew.
Ed saw Marjorie every Tuesday and Thursday at the diner for nearly a year. He sold insurance and was on the road for the better part of the week. He made his own schedule so he could visit the diner for at least two of Marjorie’s shifts. He would get there at about eight o’clock at night, which meant the three cups of coffee that were often consumed ensured sleeplessness two nights a week.
They always made small talk, rarely about the past, because it had been over twenty years since graduating high school. Marjorie was sweet to him, always had been. Ed made jokes, and she laughed. Her smile was beaming and he swore one day it would blind him. And he didn’t care.
Her chestnut hair was pulled back. She didn’t wear make-up, never did, and even into her early forties, there was a natural glow that the make-up companies would kill to be able to duplicate. Ed often thought about many of the women he knew when he watched Marjorie. How much time they spent creating a mask to hide the flaws. Marjorie let it all show and she was all the more beautiful for it.
Junior saw Steph out of the corner of his eye as he exited the bathroom on the way to the long, shiny diner counter. She wasn’t paying attention and he pretended not to recognize her, because she was an old friend’s kid sister and if he acknowledged what he was seeing then maybe he would have some responsibility to do something. What he didn’t want was any more responsibility. What he wanted was to go back, to be shedding sand on the diner floor like the ones at that table, kids holding onto a time committed to the waves and probably unaware of how the clock was ticking, that the tide for them would soon retreat from the shoreline.
Jacob motioned to Marjorie for a re-fresh on coffee. He had a Christian name, son of Isaac, founder of twelve tribes. Jacob hated the Christian reference. He didn’t know what he believed but he didn’t buy what the preacher was selling. Not an atheist. Maybe an agnostic. Comfortable with the term secular humanist. So much banked on the interpretations of others, interpretation that justified hate as much as it did love. What he wanted, as ridiculous as it seemed that others couldn’t understand, was to be good for good’s sake, not because there was a reward or punishment at the end of the road. The world was changing. He was watching it happen like standing on top of a mountain looking over all of the pieces taking different shapes, connecting in new ways and unveiling new truths. Others resisted, but Jacob new in his cells that it was only a matter of time.
He landed there, for a brief moment, a stop on the way to a bigger journey after the first leg of college. The small towns never seemed to change, farms or beaches, tourists or desolation.
Two truckers that he watched leave their rigs in the parking lot earlier, were sitting at the other end of the counter. One was telling the other a blatantly racist joke, as if he wasn’t there, or maybe because he was. Jacob folded the napkin over and over, his mind focused on something else to avoid a confrontation, because it would undoubtedly end up bad for him. That was how small towns always treated it, no blame on the racists having fun.
Mr. Alexopoulos processed the paper checks the patrons brought to him, ringing them into the register. He scanned the prices of the food and beverages on the checks while keeping his eye on the strange man in the corner booth. Mr. Alexopoulos counted the cups of coffee. The stranger had occupied the booth for nearly two hours and had consumed eleven cups.
The light over the ocean got larger and brighter. Two lovers on the beach looking into the black abyss noticed the isolated star with barely an acknowledgement, more enthralled with the sound of the ocean waves and the boardwalk off in the distance, and the utter floating feeling they felt from staring into the black, until the tiny star began to expand, swallowing the black around it.
Junior sat next to his coworker Charley, the owner’s brother-in-law. The man was a mess and Junior hoped that nothing would ever weigh so heavily on his senses that there could be a need for self-distorted goggles, spectacles so muddied that even the closest relations were distant blobs too contorted to truly love, only bearable through clouded eyes. He watched Charley sip the coffee and nibble on a biscuit. The man, older than his age and so bloated that all features, especially the cheeks and belly, looked as though they would burst. Uncomfortable, nauseous, trying to balance some semblance of normalcy from drink, to not, to drink.
Ed knew Marjorie had separated from her husband, Lance. His family owned more than half of the boardwalk businesses and had for what seemed like forever. Lance took it over about ten years ago. He was successful by the standards of most in the town, and well liked. Always had been. To Ed, he would always be a cruel bully. Those traits don’t go away.
The three were the same age. Marjorie dated Lance in high school. Even then, the only times Ed had witnessed her brightness dim in the slightest was when she was around Lance. The two broke it off several times, mostly over his cruelty to others, to the few who didn’t matter. One or more of those times involved Ed, the worst of it was as physically damaging as it was humiliating. The scar above his eye would always be a reminder.
Steph was so high, her eyelids mere slits and her smile big and cartoonish, like her face was elastic and could stretch as much as it wanted to, as much as the euphoric happiness needed to express itself. Chris held her tight. He wanted to protect her from the incoming, whatever it was that night. Police. Parents. Those judging her when she didn’t need judging. Her pain was real and no different from the hypocrites casting an evil eye to decide what she was and could be.
Charlie looked around, then discreetly poured a shot from the flask he kept in his shirt pocket into the coffee cup. He looked at Junior who was watching his movements the way a parent has to watch a toddler to prevent a choking hazard. Charlie smiled, then poured two more shots in the coffee cup.
“We only got one more spot to clean, right?”
Junior shook his head in defeat and let his attention drift back to Steph, trying to be as discreet in his surveillance as Charlie and his sneaky flask. Steph’s long, sun bleached hair spilled onto the table like a golden waterfall and hid her face from him. Junior couldn’t see her eyes, that instrument humans used to gauge danger, distress, all sorts of vulnerabilities. The first indication of a person’s emotional or physical wellbeing was in the eyes. Steph’s were hidden. Her head was slowly succumbing to gravity, its weight too much for her body.
After high school, Lance went to work in the family business on the boardwalk. Marjorie received an academic scholarship and went east. She virtually disappeared for two years. Then there was an incident, people said, and Marjorie left school to return home. Expectations of what Marjorie would be like when she returned were not met. She was the same as she had always been – warm, friendly and outgoing.
Ed wondered if anyone got to see the other side, the part that couldn’t smile.
When Marjorie returned to town, she found Lance again. They slipped back into those high school roles as if the bond had never been broken, and maybe it never was. Eventually they got married, and had three children. Ed never understood the attraction between Lance and Marjorie. Aside from the fact that they were both classically good-looking people, that was where commonalties ended. ‘Love is strange,’ he thought.
Marjorie left. Her and the kids, three beautiful children whom she adored and was the most amazing mom for, moved in with her mother. She took a job waiting tables at the diner to define her independence and started going back to school.
Ed closed his eyes and soaked in the music that left her lips, Marjorie’s voice like an elixir that warmed the entire body when consumed. In high school, Ed cherished the moments he could be around her when she was singing, and when he made her laugh. He could always make her laugh. They didn’t hang out. Ed was certainly not one accepted into the ranks of teenage royalty. Their interactions were more happenstance, being put together for a science project, or volunteering together at church. He would make funny observations, and she would let out a sing song giggle, and on the rarest of occasions an involuntary snort that always left her red-faced.
The light had the attention of everyone left on the beach. A night’s anomaly, caught in the hysteria of the vibrations that shook the beach only months ago. Locals mainly wanted answers, and now there was something strange, hovering over the shores. They stood with the tourists. A contrast between those without context there to see a show, and those worried about their homes.
Jacob left a tip on the counter and walked by the truckers on the way to the men’s room. He heard those words, the ones that down south would be shouted with confidence. Up north, they were said under the breath because things were changing faster here. Too many times to count that he had to walk away from the ignorance and the hatred. The truckers laughed and Jacob clenched his fists. It would be so easy to take either one of them by the throat and pin him against the counter. Jacob was bigger than average, and fit. He was confident with what he could do, if he ever needed to do it. He heard his mother’s voice over the vulgarity, the words of an activist, proclaiming that violence emboldens the ignorant. He smiled at them, a cool, confident smile. His mother’s voice also quoting the words of George Herbert, that there was no better revenge than living a good, successful and happy life. A life changing, cross country trek, then back to finishing his Ph.D., fall in love, buy a house, and be his mother’s dream. The truckers looked back, quiet and uneasy at a man unphased with an impenetrable smile.
On a normal night at the diner, Mr. Alexopoulos would put his eyes on every patron in the place. From the booths to the counter and everywhere in between, he knew what was happening. He was a proud owner of a Jersey diner and was there to make sure every night was the best experience he could provide, from the food to the service. That night, however, he was experiencing tunnel vision. The diner and all of the activity seemed to stand still. He couldn’t take it in, any of it. He couldn’t take his eyes off the strange man in the back booth.
The lights flickered. There was nothing out of the ordinary that evening. No high winds coming off the ocean. No storms. It was a typical breezy shore night. No reason to see the flickering, and if a pole had come down from a car accident, the lights would have gone out altogether. They flickered, and when Mr. Alexopoulos stepped from behind the register and stood in the middle of the diner to get a better look at things, the seemingly randomness of the intermittent power shifted to a steady light that faded black, and back to light. Equal parts light and dark, in such perfect rhythmic succession that a song could have been written around the tempo.
The light that hovered over the waves, steady in its consistent brightness but not so bright that the audience could not comfortably fix their eyes upon it, changed suddenly, an action that as a consequence drew open mouthed reactions from the beach voyeurs. A pattern emerged and along with it a color change. On blue, off, on yellow, off, on pink, off, repeating the pattern.
The diner went quiet in the midst of the strange, lighted intervention. For seconds that seemed like minutes or even longer, there was complete silence. The clanging of glasses and dishes bussed from an empty table, the door swinging open as orders were taken into the kitchen and food taken out, the loud conversations, it all ceased for that fraction of time. There was a collective concentration on the activity of the diner lights. Then gradually sound re-entered the confused scene. People whispered to each other, kids asked questions, younger kids proclaimed they were afraid.
The whispering grew into louder, more boisterous expressions, multiple conversations and proclamations all happening at once. The voices were merging into chaos, no one voice distinguishable from the other. And when the room had reached a tumultuous crescendo, the power went completely out for long enough to elicit a chorus of gasps and shrieks and screams, then back on and back to normal.
Mr. Alexopoulos pulled himself from the bizarre digression to try to interpret what was before him. He heard sighs of relief, nervous laughter and transitions back to a normal night at the diner. Aside from a few conversations around him fixated on understanding the peculiar light occurrence, most concluding that a logical explanation such as a power surge was warranted, the rest of the place went back to what they were doing before. The same could be said for the stranger in the back booth. Mr. Alexopolous did not take notice of the man during the power problem, he could only acknowledge that beforehand the man was smiling that oversized grin and looking straight at him, and now that the power problem had settled itself, the man was still holding that big smile and looking straight at him.
As Marjorie moved by him on the way to gather her things at the end of the shift, Ed recovered from the confusion and made a funny observation about what they had witnessed. It was the same type of musing he had made for her enjoyment so many times, and she giggled and touched his shoulder. Ed listened to the bells clang above the door as Marjorie left the diner and he rehearsed the lines silently, the words floating off the page of the carefully crafted script in his mind. The script was written a long time ago, just slightly altered to reflect life’s changes and the passing of time. He would rehearse, then lose his nerve and vow to go through with it the next time. That was how it always was, except for that night. Ed stood up and with more deliberate action then he had ever mustered, he marched through the clanging bells and into the parking lot.
A feeling of guilt overcame Junior. The kind of feeling that gripped the stomach and squeezed tight and all that could be done was to relinquish to that feeling and understanding of what was weighing heavy. He kept his eyes on Steph who was completely limp in the booth. Her body was void of expression, as inanimate as anything meant to stand still. He thought of seaweed, its movement only the cause of the waves.
Junior reached inside Charley’s pocket and retrieved the flask and whatever was left in it. When Charley flinched and attempted to grab the flask, Junior held up a single finger, his index finger, as if to say, ‘don’t even think about it.’
Charlie backed off, seeing the seriousness in Junior’s eyes. Enough seriousness to bring a drunk to his knees.
People began to leave the sugary smells and carnival sounds of the boardwalk and flock to the beach. The solitude of the darkness and the waves, cushioned by the activity behind, was becoming the activity. The quiet of a night beach was merging with the excitement of the boardwalk atmosphere. The new carnivalesque attraction was many sandy footsteps from the Ferris wheel and games of chance. Couples and families enjoying the boardwalk nighttime tourist fantasy, and the local and seasonal teens working the rides and games, even the police waiting for the nightly summer disturbances, all left the wooden planks for the sand. They were drawn in by the eerily beautiful object in the sky, getting larger, coming closer. It was nearing the shoreline, about thirty feet above the breaking waves.
The side show in the sky was an invitation to the curious. Most were so enthralled by the eccentricity; they didn’t consider the implications. Most interpreted the sight as another marvel of the boardwalk experience, more lights to add to the amusements and to accompanying overstimulation of the hyper zany sounds. Most were caught up in the fun of their vacation escape. It seemed only the locals, or the majority of that faction, were trying to come to grips with a manifestation the likes they had never seen.
There was a rumble, like thunder, but with a force that actually shook the beach, like an earthquake, the vibration enough to stir up the sand, and make some on the beach lose their balance. Some screamed in fear, others in sheer excitement.
Junior knelt beside the table, eye level with the place where Steph rested her head. He gently brushed the long, sun bleached hair from her face. The girl’s eyes were closed. Mouth gaped. Breathing labored. Junior stroked her cheek, his old friend’s kid sister, the one who watched them surf, from the safety of the sand, the once young girl with the sparkle in her eye, adventurous and looking up to her big brother and his friends.
“We need to get her to the hospital,” Junior announced.
Adam and Kenny were frozen in the same face. Guilt matched with self-preservation. The look that said if Steph goes to the hospital, what will happen to me?
Not Chris. He squeezed Steph’s shoulders and looked Junior in the eyes. He felt like a kid then and there, just young and vulnerable to the bigger world around him. For that moment, Chris had forgotten that he had transcended childhood to the realm of the teenager where the delusion of immortality was an affliction for all passing through hormonal bedlam. Junior was the adult and Junior was taking over, and Chris was going to do whatever Junior told him.
They could see it as clear as the planes that towed the banner advertising for crowded weekend beaches on a bright afternoon. Against the darkness, the spherical and multicolored object rotated like a mini planet. It was the size of a large house and stayed in place long enough for the gatherers, feet submerged in the sand and heads to the sky, to see it completely and revel in a moment of wonder.
Then it slowly floated from the shoreline, over the beach, and the boardwalk, to over the crowded sidewalks and streets just beyond the amusements. The gatherers from the beach followed, and joined others from the boardwalk, and the streets, and they walked toward the diner, never taking their eyes off of the strange and beautiful object.
Outside, the artificial light from the street lamps and the gaudy neon diner sign took away the mystery of the night. Before him was Marjorie, as beautiful as she had ever been. She was still singing and Ed recognized the song. It was the one that was playing the first time he saw his boyhood crush in the arms of another. His heart sunk the same way it did in adolescence. Not for the song, because he didn’t get the significance until later.
Marjorie opened the passenger side door and got into Lance’s truck. The husband, the one she had separated from, the boyfriend from high school, the bully from long ago. He thought he saw hesitation, or maybe it was the neon playing tricks on him. As the pickup truck backed out of the parking spot, their eyes met and she gave Ed a warm smile, like she always did and he kept eye contact for as long as he could until he could see her eyes no more.
Ed was stirred from his Marjorie dream by the disturbance coming through the glass doors behind him. Junior and Chris were carrying Steph whose head flopped about like a rubber ball fastened by an elastic band to a wooden paddle, her head bouncing like a child’s toy.
“Is she O.K. Junior?”
“We need to get her to the hospital,” Junior replied.
“I’ll drive,” Ed told them and they piled into his green Cadillac.
Jacob paid his check at the register. Mr. Alexopolous handed Jacob his change while keeping an eye on the truckers who were staring down Jacob from the counter. Mrs. Alexopolous joined her husband at the place he liked to call his central command, a cramped space with a stool, the register and an always full dish of mints with a spoon. She was a sturdy, stout woman with a serious look. Her English was not as good as her husband’s, the Greek accent was thick. She motioned to the truckers at the counter and her husband nodded with understanding.
Jacob smiled; the close-lipped kind that was more a physical expression derived from introspection. He was thinking about the concern from the old couple, for him.
“I’m O.K.,” Jacob said and extended a real smile.
“There is a baseball bat behind the counter,” the old woman declared. “If they try to follow you out of here, I will split their heads.”
“There will be no violence Althea,” Mr. Alexopolous rebutted.
Jacob took the old woman’s hand. “I will be O.K. Save the head splitting for another time.”
Jacob left through the glass doors. Mr. Alexopolous watched him stroll down the concrete steps into the parking lot before his attention was drawn to the sky. Mrs. Alexopolous stepped from behind the register, put her hands on her hips and stared down the truckers with a look as damaging as a baseball bat.
The object. The light. The colorful rotating globe. It stopped at the diner and hovered over the rooftop. The brilliant colors reflected off the diner’s stainless steel and aluminum outer shell, making the building look as carnivalesque as the rides on the boardwalk. The crowds filled in the parking lot, the sidewalk, even spilling into the street.
Mr. Alexopolous had watched it approach, like a whirling amusement, a floating mystery heading straight for the diner, the magnificence of the sight enough to draw him away from central command with the register left wide open. He lost sight of the object as it rose above the view from the window. But he knew that whatever it was had not gone away. Outside that same window, he saw well over a hundred people looking above the diner, all eyes fixed on one place in the sky.
Chris caught a glimpse of its brilliance as they sped out of the parking lot, avoiding the preoccupied pedestrians. ‘Beautiful,’ he thought briefly. The green Cadillac thundered down the Jersey shore road toward the hospital.
Jacob smiled. He was in awe as much as anyone gathered for the show in the salty night air. His eyes, however, were on the crowds as much as they were on the floating object breaking up the night, interpreting the unknown as that which brings people together.
The rest of the diner piled out to see what had attracted the masses. Mrs. Alexopolous, the truckers, the surfers, the tourists, left half drank coffees and milkshakes, half eaten burgers and pasta.
The glowing object began to rotate at an incredible speed. Bursts of color spun off and dissipated in the night air. The intensity of the movement made the crowds take steps back, almost in sync. Their eyes were still glued to the attraction. No one desired to miss anything, anticipating something amazing that night. In an instant, the finale. The object darted straight up into the sky, at an immeasurable speed, thousands of feet, and disappeared completely.
Inside the diner, Mr. Alexopolous watched his wife standing in the parking lot in a sea of faces. He witnessed Mrs. Alexopolous, and others, together, express a communal gasp at whatever it was that was happening above his diner, and stopped looking into the sky. There were cheers, crying, locals were talking to tourists. The excitement shifted to the ground, origins where feet were firmly planted.
The only customer left in the building, the tall man in the black suit, shuffled up the aisle toward the register. He held onto the backs of the booths, long arms extending from one side of the aisle to the other. The diner owner didn’t hear him, too fixated on the utter pouring of emotion that was taking place in front of his business. Strangers were hugging each other. There was mutual joy, and others consoling. People from all walks of life together. It was a jarring sight for a man who had seen too much death in his years, long before touching the American shores, what people could do to each other. His eyes scanned the crowd, the many faces, and when they came back to his wife, the strongest person he knew, tears were running like a river down her cheeks and she was holding hands with a teenage girl, and they were jumping up and down with tear drenched smiles.
When he turned back to the register, a last check before going out to join his love, he was met with his last customer. Startled, Mr. Alexopolous gathered his composure.
“You sure drink a lot of coffee.”
The man’s smile was still frozen like it was stuck there, a big toothy grin, the pearly whites an unnatural shine that resembled fake plastic Halloween teeth.
“This place has promise,” the man said.
Mr. Alexopolous looked around his diner with pride. It wasn’t a palace, but it made a living. It supported a family. It gave back to the shore community that welcomed him so many years ago. Locals liked it. Tourists came back every year for the comfort of the food and the experience.
“It’s not a bad place for a bite to eat. Coffee is not bad either.”
The man apologized for his awkwardness, still getting acclimated to the subtleties of nuance within the language.
“What I mean to say is your world has promise. You just need to figure out how to stop hating each other.”
The man left three shiny gold coins next to the register and walked through the glass doors. Mr. Alexopolous watched the strange, grinning man stroll down the concrete steps and into the parking lot, through the crowds of people caught up in the emotion of what they had seen, completely unnoticed like he was a phantom, and disappeared into the disarray.
Mr. Alexopolous arranged the three gold coins in several formations on the glass, and thought about the last words the strange man spoke. Such an easy concept, such a difficult task. He wasn’t one for an abundance of laughter, but something had overtaken him and a chuckle perfused his chest. The old diner owner, now infected with a boisterous laugh, left the coins next to the register and went outside to join his wife and the party in the parking lot.