Brenda and I were sitting in Classics, a first-rate diner in Hillsboro last week, having breakfast when our conversation, for obvious reasons, turned to the subject of diners.
Classics is indeed classic, with great breakfasts and friendly owners. We savored sitting at the long counter on the red and silver stools, looking at the three-pronged milkshake mixer in the background, dreaming about the orangesicle milkshakes featured on the menu board.
Assortments of old movie pictures were hanging on the walls. A poster of Dr. Zhivago and a picture of actor Anthony Quinn particularly captured our attention. We remembered reading that Quinn lost his young son when the boy wandered onto a Hollywood neighbor’s fishpond and drowned.
Quinn was never able to talk about his son’s death. When asked about it, he would only say Christopher had moved to San Francisco. It was the only way he could deal with the death of his son, he said.
The diner, and Quinn’s method of dealing with his son’s death, reminded us of another story, in another diner, at another time.
We were sitting in the Lincoln Diner in Gettysburg, Pa. when a middle-aged waitress, Wanda, was just getting off work. We had had a nice conversation with her a few minutes earlier, but were surprised when she sat down on one of the stools beside us.
Wanda looked like a woman with a story to tell. She put down the book she had been reading. “Did I ever tell you about my two long-time customers who used to sit over by that window?” she asked.
“No, you never did,” I replied.
She cleared her throat and told us this story:
Edgar and Louis had come to the Lincoln Diner for breakfast every morning. They always sat at the same table, ordered the same meal, and told the same jokes for the past 37 years. The two 80-year-old men were very close, and knew each other’s deepest secrets.
They were a two-man breakfast club. They loved to talk, and did so for hours, before one of them inevitably stood up and announced, “I need to see a man about a horse.” Then they quietly walked out the door together.
Wanda said she had been their only waitress for two decades at their table by the window, and she came to know them well and cherished them.
Edgar had owned two tire stores in town for many years. He eventually sold them with plans to retire to the warm sands of Myrtle Beach. His plans for the good life were abandoned when his dear wife, Elizabeth, died unexpectedly just months after selling the stores.
“Well, Louis, if we want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans,” Edgar said to his friend without a trace of bitterness. His new reality was to remain in the comfortable home in Gettysburg, where he had lived with Elizabeth for the past 49 years.
Louis had been the best mechanic in town before he retired a few years after Edgar. He was a lifelong bachelor. One of Lewis’ few pleasures in life was his daily breakfast with his friend Edgar.
One morning, Wanda swung open the kitchen doors, balancing two glasses of water on a small tray, and then stopped. She saw Louis sitting alone at the table. “Where is Edgar?’ Wanda asked.
“He’s gone. He won’t be here today or ever again,” Louis said. Wanda became weak-kneed. Then, she did something she had never done before. She sat down at that table.
“He’s gone? Edgar’s gone?” she asked.
“Yes, last Friday about a quarter ‘til eight,” Louis replied.
Wanda didn’t know what to say. “I can’t believe he’s gone,” she said.
“Gone to Georgia. He boarded a train last Friday night at 7:45,” Louis said. “Edgar got married and headed off to Atlanta. He met a woman on the internet and fell in love.”
Wanda finally caught her breath. Louis walked out, and Wanda was left standing at the register with Dave, the manager.
“Did you hear about Edgar?” Wanda asked.
“I sure did,” Dave answered.
“He got married and moved to Georgia. Can you believe it?” Wanda asked.
“He didn’t get married!” Dave said, looking at her abruptly. “He died last Friday about 7:45. It was in the newspaper.”
The story rattled inside my head most of the way back to Wilmington. It seemed familiar somehow. When we arrived home, I pulled one of my favorite books, “Half and Half,” from our library.
On page 38 was the exact same story Wanda had told us in Gettysburg.
To this day, we don’t know if the story Wanda had shared with us about Edgar and Louis was true or not. She may have just been a gifted storyteller who happened along that day after reading a good book.
But now you understand why we love diners.
Pat Haley is former Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.