As Mary set down yet another plate of bacon and eggs at yet another table, she glanced to the corner booth and sighed. She wondered if he would be coming in today, as it had been nearly two weeks now since the last time she saw him. When Mary took the waitressing job at the diner —no name, just a damaged sign out front that read “DINER”— she swore to herself that it was only a temporary thing, it was only to raise enough money to leave town, to go on the great American road trip she’d always read about in books. Four years passed her by and although she had set aside more than enough cash to finally break free of the hell hole she had spent the first quarter of her life trying to escape, she never did. Mary often wondered why, she often stared at her ceiling (when she should have been asleep) and ran over every possible reason in her head for why she stayed. Four years of this and still no answer.
“Miss? I wanted the bagel with this, not the toast.” a voice broke Mary from her concentration, “And even if I wanted the toast, this is almost black.”
“Harry!” said the elderly woman sitting across from the disgruntled customer, “You can’t say black any more, they’ll think you’re racist.”
“What?” Mary asked. The woman blushed, or so Mary thought. She shook her head and took the plate of overly toasted bread with a smile.
“I wasn’t talking about a person or anything.” she heard Harry, the old man who obviously held a deep rooted racism toward toast of a darker color, say in his own defense. Mary turned the dial on the toaster down a touch, put in a sliced bagel, and pressed the button on the side down, to indicate that she was ready for the toasting process to begin. It was as she pressed the button that she heard the jingling of the bell above the front door.
“I’ll be with you in a minute.” she said, turning. No one was there. Her brow furrowed for a moment, but she soon shrugged and returned her focus to the bagel. Wouldn’t want to burn that, too.
Mary put the lightly toasted bagel halves onto a plate with small packets of butter and cream cheese and a small selection of miniature cups of jams and returned to Harry’s table. She gently placed the plate upon the table and smiled at Harry. Though that smile faded a bit when she noticed —behind Harry’s left shoulder— that the corner booth was occupied.
“You got blackberry?” Harry asked. Mary gave him a blank stare, as though he had just spat a string of foreign words at her.
“The jam! Do you have blackberry jam?!” Harry reiterated, “All you got here is grape and strawberry. I hate grape and strawberry. The strawberry is always too sweet and the grape has the consistency of cold snot.”
“I think that’s all we have.” Mary said, trying to rid herself of the thought of cold snot, “I might have some orange marmalade.”
“Aw hell, that’s even worse. Cold snot with little pieces of crap in it. Nevermind, I’ll just use the cream cheese.” Harry said. The woman with him shot him a look. “Thanks.” he added.
Mary returned to her station behind the counter. She picked up a clean mug and a carafe of coffee. She inhaled deeply, held it for just a moment, then exhaled sharply. Then she walked toward the corner booth. Mary had just started working at the diner, the first time she saw him. She remembered what he was wearing that day —pressed gray slacks, gray blazer, black button down shirt with a dark gray tie— because he wore the exact same thing every time he came in. Mary thought she had perhaps only imagined this, so one day she decided to keep a tally of what he wore every time she saw him. Since that day, which was only a few weeks after her very first shift at the diner four years prior, the inventory of clothing the man wore that she kept within her mind had never once changed or been updated. Pressed gray slacks, gray blazer, black button down shirt with a dark gray tie.
She remembered the first time she served him. He had only a cup of coffee that day, which was not unusual for him. Some days he had toast —though he never once complained about the shade or tone of the toast— and others he would order a single scrambled egg, but mostly he ordered only coffee. He was an older man. If she had to guess, Mary would say he was probably half way through his forties. His hair was a shade of gray too light to match his suit.
“Coffee?” Mary asked when she arrived at the table. The man looked up through his sunglasses and nodded. She set down the mug and poured the coffee. “You haven’t been around for a while.”
“Business.” he said. His voice seemed strained. Mary stopped pouring at looked at him closely, possibly for the first time, and noticed a bruise peeking out from underneath his sunglasses. It was then she realized that he hadn’t taken his sunglasses off when he sat down, which he had done quite literally every other time he had ever sat at that corner booth.
“Are you- Are you hurt?” she asked. He cleared his throat, but gave no answer. She finished pouring the coffee. “I don’t suppose there’s any point in my bringing over some sugar or cream this time.”
“Black coffee is fine.” he replied. She nodded and stared at him for a moment. He stared back.
“Miss!” a voice shouted from behind her. It was Harry again. Mary sighed and turned around.
“I’d like some of that coffee too, please.” he said. Mary retrieved another clean mug from her station and brought Harry a fresh cup of coffee.
“You don’t have cream here?” he asked. Mary didn’t quite hear the question, because she was too busy watching the man in the corner booth cough into a napkin. He stared gravely —through his sunglasses— down at the napkin and then put it into his pocket.
“Miss, I said do you have any cream?”
“What? Oh. Yes, sorry. Hold on.” Mary left the table and went to the corner booth, “Do you need me to call someone?”
“No. I’ll be fine.” he said.
“You don’t look fine. Jesus, four years you’ve been coming here and I don’t even know your name.”
“Names complicate matters more than you might think.” he replied. He coughed again and took a sip of his coffee. Mary could hear Harry sighing in frustration at the table behind her. She didn’t need to turn around to know that he was burning holes in the back of her head with his glare. The man smiled softly. “Customer’s always right.”
Mary got the cream and sugar from her station and set them, and the check, on Harry’s table with a force that was supposed to convey what she was thinking —which was “leave me alone now, you old bastard”— and then she went back for the carafe of coffee and another clean mug. Mary carried the carafe and the mug over to the corner booth, gently set them on the table, and then Mary did something she had not done in her four years of working at the diner; she slid into the booth and sat directly across from the man in the gray suit.
“What are you-” he began to say, but she stopped him by raising her hand.
“It’s time I took a break.” She poured herself a cup of black coffee, “And you look like you could use some company.”
“I’m not comfortable with-“
“You know what? It’s been four years.” she said, “You’ve been coming here for four years. Hell, you might have been coming here even longer than that, for all I know. I just know that, for the four years that I have worked here, you’ve been here every single day. You’ve worn the exact same clothing, you’ve sat in the exact same booth, you’ve ordered almost the exact same thing. Every day. Four years! I don’t really care what you’re comfortable with.”
He stared at her. He looked over at Harry, almost willing him to make some sort of inane request; more cream, lighter coffee, anything to get her out of this booth. But no such request came. He sighed and took another sip of his coffee.
“Now, are you going to tell me where you got that bruise?” she asked, “What kind of business are you in, anyway?”
“I got the bruise from a gentleman with whom I had a slight disagreement.”
“Only a slight one, huh? I’d hate to see what he does to people he really argues with.” Mary replied.
“You should see what I did to him.” he said.
“Actually, no. It’s probably best you don’t.” he said. He took the napkin from his pocket and violently coughed into it, doing his best to hide it from her sight. She caught a tinge of crimson on one corner of the napkin.
“Oh my god.” she gasped, “You need a doctor, I’m calling 911.” She stood from the booth, but he grabbed her arm.
She paused for a moment, took a clean napkin from the next booth over and wiped the tiny bit of blood from the corner of his mouth. She sat down again and they were both silent for a time.
“I’m sorry for grabbing you.” he finally said. She looked at her arm, but there was no bruise or markings at all.
“It’s fine. I’m usually grabbed somewhere else by customers, anyway.” she said. He smiled softly and she mirrored it back to him. “So, you didn’t say what it is you do.”
“I know.” he said. He cleared his throat. He took his sunglasses off and Mary gasped again. The bruise was much larger than it appeared, the swelling of it made it so his eye was almost completely shut. What little of his eye she could see was the color of blood.
“You’re making it very hard for me to not call 911 right now.”
“You don’t realize how badly that would end for everyone in here.” he replied, looking at her with his good eye. She looked around the diner, half jokingly, half to avoid having to look at the badly injured man in front of her.
“It’s just you, me and Harry.” she said, “And Harry’s girlfriend, or whatever.”
“Sometimes something is so bad that it doesn’t matter how many or few people it happens to, Mary.”
“How did you-” she began to say, but then she remembered her name tag. He replaced the sunglasses on his face and Mary tried to hide her relief. She felt so sorry for him, but he didn’t need to know that. Of course, she felt sorry for him long before she saw his bruised face. Mary often wondered why he was always alone, as he wasn’t all together unattractive and he seemed very nice, though somewhat distant, during the few times she had exchanged words with him.
“I can’t tell you what business I’m in, Mary.” he said, “I can’t tell you what it is I do, I can’t tell you who it is I do it for. I can’t even tell you my name, because honestly, the less you know, the better off everyone will be.”
“You’re scaring me.”
“Good.” he said, “What I can tell you is that this diner has the single best cup of black coffee I have ever had anywhere. I’m a man who drinks black coffee every morning, no matter where I am, and I have never had a better cup of coffee than what I get here. What I have continued to get here, for the last four years.”
It took the words a few moments before they actually sunk in, but once they did, Mary smiled.
“It’s just Maxwell House, or something. Might even be store brand, for all I know.”
“I don’t want to know the secret of how you bring me the perfect cup of coffee every morning, I just want you to know how much I have appreciated it.” he said. He took a sip from the coffee, as if to punctuate his statement with the coffee itself.
“Why is this the first time we’ve actually spoken? I mean, four years and barely a word outside of your order.” she asked, pouring more coffee into his mug.
“Today is different.” he said. He said it with a tone of melancholy that very nearly broke Mary’s heart.
“Why is today different?”
“I can’t tell you that, either.” he said.
“Miss!” Harry called from his table. He looked upset and his female acquaintance looked exhausted. Mary rolled her eyes, blocking Harry’s view with her palm while she did so. The man chuckled, which sent him into another coughing fit. Mary regretted making him laugh. She stood from the booth and began to walk over Harry’s table.
“Mary.” the man said. She turned and looked at him. “Thank you.”
“Not a problem.” she replied, “Besides, I’ll be right back.”
“I just wanted to you to know that this was one of the worst meals I’ve ever had in my life.” Harry said, “And you will most definitely not be getting a tip from me.”
“Harry, that was rude!” his female companion said, “I mean, I agree totally, but you don’t just tell someone that!”
“That’s okay. I wouldn’t accept a tip from someone like you, anyway.” Mary said. Harry seemed shocked by this, so much so that he threw his money —the exact amount of the bill— on the table and left the diner, without helping the old lady across from him to her feet.
“Could you…?” the elderly woman asked. Mary sighed and helped her up, then watched her shuffle out of the diner after Harry. Mary shook her head and laughed.
“Can you believe that?” she said, turning back to the corner booth. But it was empty. Mary looked around the diner, in which she now found herself alone. She knocked on the men’s room door, but received no answer. She looked outside, but saw only Harry trying to open his car door. She poked her head into the kitchen, but there was only Roger, the short order cook.
“Did a guy come through here a minute ago?” she asked. Roger looked at her sideways.
“No reason.” she replied. She returned to the booth to find an envelope marked “MARY’S TIP” in large black permanent marker. She flipped it over and, inscribed on the back, also in large black permanent marker, were the words “THANKS AGAIN”. She opened the envelope and found that it held two thousand dollars. Mary’s mouth fell open and she dropped the envelope onto the table. She stared at it and blinked several times, fully expecting it to disappear, though it didn’t. She began laughing to herself.
Mary continued working at the diner for exactly one month, always waiting for the man in the gray suit to come back. He never did. At the close of that month, as she decided the day he left her an envelope full of money, she quit her job and finally started her cross-country road trip. She never forgot about the gray haired man, though she wished she could have properly thanked him for his generosity, and she never stopped hoping that he was still out there somewhere, enjoying a cup of black coffee.