On the morning of her twenty-fifth birthday, a July day, Amie Lightstreet walked into the Twilight Diner, just off Exit 185, US 80 eastbound, in Pennsylvania. She went immediately to a table in the far corner, the last empty booth, just before a couple came in the door. The waitress hurried over with a menu and said, “Coffee, Hon?”
“I would love a cup of tea, if it’s no bother this early in the day.” Her voice was sweet, her eyes startlingly blue, and her clothes were a smooth combination of white and tan.
The waitress’s name was Sherry, just starting to get round, and she noticed how slim her new customer was and how beautiful, the way she once was and hoped she held some of it. She thought by the way the girl glanced around that she was waiting for someone. “You got it, Hon. You looking for someone special?”
“Aren’t we all looking for someone special?” Amie Lightstreet had a great smile that warmed Sherry in the midst of the morning rush.
“Unless we got him already,” Sherry said over her shoulder as she walked off to get the tea; she added, “Mine’s name is Josh. Good luck on yours.”
Amie had breakfast, dawdling over her food. She had a second cup of tea, and with every sip looked at the door if it opened and then out the window.
Noticing the clock as it neared eleven, Sherry hoped whoever the girl in the corner booth was looking for would come in before her shift was done. She wanted to feel that stab of goodness that now and then ran right through her.
All the customers had left except the girl in the corner and an elderly couple in another booth. Outside, the traffic thinned and came to a standstill. A light mist began fell. The elderly man left the diner, went to his car, and brought back an umbrella.
Sherry said to the girl in the corner booth, “Doesn’t that take all? I hope we both come to that. They look so sweet, those two old-timers.”
Amie said, “Don’t we all have a grandmother or grandfather story.” It was not a question. She looked at the door as another young couple walked in.
“We sure do. I got mine.” Sherry turned toward the grill and the burly man in an apron who told her, “Go on and git now. I got breakfast for you and Josh and the boys all wrapped up for you. See you in the morning. I’ll get that new couple.”
She wanted to feel that stab of goodness that now and then ran right through her.
The next morning, at about nine-thirty, Amie Lightstreet came into the Twilight Diner, looked around, and again found the corner booth available. This time, after a small delay with other customers being served, Sherry brought her a cup of tea. “I’m Sherry, and I hope Mr. Whoever shows up for you today.”
Amie, feeling the pleasant acceptance from Sherry, introduced herself. “I remember you saying yesterday that you had a grandmother story. I’d like to hear it sometime.”
Sherry, checking out her landscape, letting the clockwork in her head about servings, said, “I have a beauty, but it’ll take time to tell. If you’re around as long as yesterday, I’ll tell you. You live near here?”
“Oh, about seven or eight miles away. It’s a nice ride.”
“There’s got to be a few other diners between here and there.”
Amie cranked out that gorgeous smile again, and Sherry could almost reach back to touch her own youthful smile, the one that had crushed Josh. “I bet you’d agree with me that there’s only one Twilight Diner.”
She looked quickly at the entrance as the door swung inward. Two burly truckers walked in and sat at the counter. The man behind the grill greeted them by name. They leaned over and there was a short three-man convention. All three broke into hearty laughter. “It’s the joke of the day for Mike and the boys,” Sherry explained to Amie. “They used to play ball together years ago.” The summation came on her face before she said, “They’re nice guys. The good kind.”
Suddenly, with a serious look on her face, Amie asked, “Does happiness come with this place?”
Behind the grill, Mike yelled, “Two and three up, Sherry.” He and his pals still had wide morning grins. One of them was chuckling.
Traffic inside and outside came and went; the morning ebb had begun. The sun slanted steeply into the windows and touched the floor. Shadows of tables and booths became shorter. The sound of sizzling bacon had disappeared but the aroma held place in the air. A long semi, with a galloping horse logo spread on the side of the trailer, ground to a halt along the roadside. Two cars of customers pulled away from the diner.
Amie Lightstreet sat in the same booth with the same expectant attitude about her that Sherry swore she could measure. The good thoughts came back as she remembered Amie saying, “Does happiness come with this place?” In the back of her mind a thin dark piece of matter reached out to touch her consciousness. She could feel a literal connection had been made. The image of her grandmother rushed through her and she remembered her promise to Amie, at that moment looking hopefully as the door opened. A young couple walked in and Sherry could tell the girl was embarrassed that the boy was holding her hand. He would not let go, as if he was telling her something. Sherry smiled at both of them. “Kids,” she said to herself, and smiled again as her promise came back.
The clock said 10:55 and Mike held up Sherry’s breakfast doggie bag.
“I got those two kids, Mike,” she told him. “Then I’m going to sit with Amie for a while. I told Josh I’d be late with his breakfast.”
Sherry waited on the new customers, the only others beside Amie in the Twilight Diner. She put her carry-out on Amie’s table and sat down with a cup of coffee. “You want another tea, Hon?” The sudden lack of motion created a sense of suspense in the diner, as Mike behind the counter had gone into a back room, and the young couple was silent, only eyes working. Both Amie and Sherry were aware of the change.
“No, I’m set,” Amie said, “but I’d love to hear that grandmother story of yours.”
“Only if you tell me yours,” Sherry said, “and it’s not too long.”
“Oh, I’ll be here again tomorrow. I think I’ll be here every day until I leave town in September. I’ll be going to Chicago.”
The whole story flashed through Sherry’s mind and said so on her face. Amie could read the happiness and the pain, as both the hurt and the good times took turns on Sherry’s face. Finally, a happy grin took over. Amie made up her mind that it would all end up as a happy story.
Sherry began her story. “Once I was almost as pretty as you are. I’m 31 now and have three kids. Young Josh is almost 16, my daughter McKenzie is 13, and my baby Cavan is 9. My husband’s name is Josh and I have been in love with him since I was 12 and he was a neighbor. When he was a big football hero for the high school and I was a cheerleader and had all the equipment in the right places, he knew I liked him and someone told me he liked me. Anyway, one night we ended up in the back seat of his father’s car. Oh, he was so clumsy and nervous, but so damned nice. Can you imagine a great big football player who could run like the devil was chasing him, having trouble with my bra?
“So, you know what happened. I got pregnant and he refused to go off to college. He had a chance to go to Penn State. But Josh wanted his child to be his child, not some other guy’s. We got married right after my 16th birthday and after he graduated and he went right to work. He wouldn’t take anything from his father, who had two other sons.”
Sherry looked at the clock again and continued. “I keep looking at the clock because I don’t like to be too late. Josh is in a wheelchair now, but he takes care of the kids in his way and I’m in here at five in the morning helping Mike who loves me like I’m his kid sister.”
Amie’s face gathered into a grimace of pain.“What happened to Josh?”
“Times were tough. But he had learned how to use tools from his father, so he did a lot of different kinds of jobs. And he joined the Army Reserves to get some extra money. You know what happened then? He went off to Iraq and they kicked the crap out of him and he came home in a wheelchair and things were real tough, but my grandmother stepped in. This is the nice part of my grandmother story. She was widowed and had an old house with four bedrooms and she told Josh and me we could move in and we’d have the house after she died. She was a sweetheart, let me tell you. Never went out with a single guy after my grandfather died in a car crash. Her name was Mathie Brown without an e, but I’ll tell you about that later.
“Josh finally relented and took something from somebody. He was never sorry for himself. Never cried once. Some of the good parts are coming back for him now, because young Josh promises to be even better as a football player than his father. Anyway, he relented and said we’d take my grandmother’s offer, but there was a problem. There was no ramp to get him in or out. But his father, who was a widower, and his older brother, who’s an assistant principal but handy with tools, came to my grandmother and said they’d build a ramp for Josh. But there was another problem. The front porch was in such bad shape, they’d have to make it to the back door, but they promised they’d eventually build one out front.
“They built the back ramp and we moved in, and then Josh’s father went to my grandmother and said, Mrs. Brown, I’d like to build a new front porch at no cost to you. We’ll always keep out of your way, as much as we can. Jeff and I will do the work. Some friends, who remember how well Josh could run, have promised the supplies to get it done. She said to go ahead. They were relentless. They came every weekend, like they were driven to atone for something. But I was wrong there; it was out of love. They were special people. They made Josh what he was and is, me and my kids being the lucky ones. They built a new porch out front, with a special ramp, and it was like they wanted to tie the one in front to the one out back. Then they put new stairs up from the front hall, and a new railing, and then a new front hall floor, and they put up new cabinets in the kitchen, and new windows in every room and new doors. They worked there, usually Josh’s dad and Jeff, and sometimes just his dad when Jeff was off with his wife and kids or on some school thing.”
Amie was smiling and happiness bubbled on her face, and Sherry knew its warmth.
“My married name now is Sherry Browne with an e. It used to be Sherry Brown without an e.” She grinned as if savoring the good part. “You see, almost two years after they started working on the house, with all that time around us, and the kids loving them all, Josh’s dad said to my grandmother one day, ‘Mrs. Brown, why don’t you put an e on the end of your name and come live with me in my house. We’ll leave this one to the kids, and you’ll have mine if I pass on before you.’ And she smiled at him, after all that time of being alone, and then being around him, and said, ‘Mr. Browne, I would love to do that.’”
With tears in the corners of her eyes, Sherry reached over and patted Amie on her arm and said, “I’ve talked too long, Amie. I’ve got to run. See you tomorrow?”
“I’ll be here.”
For the first time in the Twilight Diner, Sherry was afraid to approach a customer.
For three days, Amie did not show up. Sherry felt the loss and wondered, knowing that Amie was looking for something special, if she had been driven off by her story. Mike noticed the change in Sherry’s attitude. “Something bothering you, Sherry? Looks like you lost a pal.”
“You know what that girl—Amie, who sat in the corner booth—said to me? ‘Does happiness come with this place?’”
Mike nodded, his bald head catching some of the overhead light, softness still managing to display itself around him. “Hey, kid, we ain’t done bad here. Neither one of us will be a millionaire, but we’ll get by. You’re a damned good worker and I couldn’t have done it without you, and I know you never lifted a buck from me—I’ve had a few who did.”
“You’re an old softie, Mike.”
“That makes us the odd pair, kid. It’s a pleasure to know you.”
At that moment the door opened and Amie, sad in the face, came into the diner. She sat in her usual place.
For the first time in the Twilight Diner, Sherry was afraid to approach a customer. She stood back, looking at Amie who finally looked up and motioned her over.
“I had some bad news. I lost my grandmother. She’d been ill, and I had to be with my mother, but I kept thinking about your story and knew I had to tell you mine—whenever you’re ready.”
“Oh, Hon, I told Josh every day I might be a bit late, thinking you’d be coming in. You just sit here and wait until I get finished. I’ll get your tea.”
She walked off lighter on her feet than she’d been in three days. Mike saw the change immediately and nodded, then saw his two old teammates walk in the door and the Twilight Diner was back in motion.
Sherry finally sat with Amie in the corner booth. “I’m sorry for your loss, Amie. I was thinking about you. How’s everything else?” Each of them understood she meant the reason for Amie’s vigilance at the Twilight Diner.
At length, with another look at the door and new customers—two middle-aged women—entering, Amie said, “My grandmother told me this story a thousand times. She told it to me to the very last day, almost whispering at the end to my mother and me, not sure who was there or who was listening: ‘Tell Amie his name is Travis. His grandmother said he’d come. I know he will.’”
“Who’s Travis?” Sherry said. “Is that Mr. Special?”
Amie nodded and said, “You may not believe this story, now what I have made of it, but it has taken hold of my life.”
“I have all morning, Hon.” Sherry put her elbows on the table and set her eyes on Amie’s eyes.
“It began right here.” Amie pointed to the one large table near her booth that could seat six people. “Right at that table, or one just like it, and all of twenty years ago.”
The sun was now at their feet and touching them lightly. Amie’s tea was tepid and Sherry’s coffee mug was empty. The diner was silent. Mike was off behind the counter someplace.
“My grandmother, my mother, my two sisters, and I were in here having breakfast. I was five years old. Sara was eight and Grace was eleven. An older couple came in. My grandmother said she liked them right off as they toasted each other with their coffee cups. She remembered they both had black coffee—it was as if she could recall every detail. The woman was thin and wore glasses and had a nice smile. He was a little heavy around the belly and wore a baseball cap with the name of a hockey team on it, so it must have been a hockey cap. Grandma said I had bangs just like her and that I was a beautiful child, and this older couple kept looking over at us. And finally the man said, ‘The children are very well behaved and very beautiful, all of them.’ Grandma said she almost busted loose, it made her feel so good. She said she felt all this goodness pouring through her.”
Sherry nodded. “I know that feeling. Do you really think it’s this place? ‘Member when you asked me if this place brings happiness?”
“I knew then that I’d have to tell you my story sometime, because I can use all the help I can get.”
“What is it, Hon? Is it a guy? I’m on pins and needles.”
“Well, the couple kept looking over at us and smiling, and then they’d go on talking. Grandma said it was like sometimes there was nobody else in the room for them. She said the man’s cap said Saugus Hockey and he wore a blue Penn State T-shirt and light pants and black sneakers. The way she described them, it was like she was trying to put every detail in place.”
“What about his wife?”
“She wore glasses, blue jeans, a blue short sleeve shirt, a gold bracelet, a watch, and had two rings on her fingers. One was a diamond ring.”
“So, they were a married couple?”
“Oh, my grandmother knew that at first glance. Then they got their bill from the waitress and the woman counted out the money from her pocketbook. They got up to leave, the man letting her go ahead of him. They got right abreast of my grandmother and the woman looked down at me and said to my grandma, ‘I have a special grandson whose name is Travis, and someday, about twenty years from now, if he becomes the man I am sure he will become, he will come looking for her.’ She nodded down at me. Grandma said a bolt of something went right through her and I have felt that same thing most of my life, each and every time she tells the story. I bet she told it a thousand times, like she was foretelling my future every time.”
“Oh, Amie. That’s a beautiful story. I’ll pray he walks in here today or tomorrow. Oh, yes.”
“Tell him I waited twenty years or so and just have someplace else to go.”
Amie was true to her grandmother. She came every day, and the two women talked. Amie heard about young Josh doing well at practice and his father able to watch him and his grandfather and new grandmother sitting in a car at the other end of the field and able to pick out Josh’s every move on the field.
Sherry told her about the other kids, and Amie told Sherry about her sisters and how things were with them. Summer advanced and late August dumped down on the Twilight Diner as if the evening moon had disappeared.
Amie came in one morning, got her tea, and told a story with her face. “I’m all packed now, Sherry. Today’s my last day. I have to go to Chicago if I want to keep that new position.” She looked as the door opened and two girls and their father walked in and sat at the counter. She and Sherry shrugged their shoulders.
An hour passed; Amie got fidgety and finally stood up. Sherry gave her a hug and said, “If he comes in, I’ll tell him you waited almost the whole summer for him.” She hugged Amie again.
“Tell him I waited twenty years or so and just have someplace else to go.” Amie went out the door and yelled out, “Good luck, Mike. Sherry’s a princess, but you know that.”
He waved back. “Good luck, Amie.”
Her little red car drove out of the diner parking lot.
Two minutes later a handsome young man walked in the door. He had blond hair and blue eyes and looked like a peach of a kid. Sherry almost fainted as she looked at his T-shirt that read, in blue letters, Travis.
Sherry looked at the clock again and rushed over to him. “Are you looking for someone—a girl?”
He stared at her blankly.
“Her name is Amie,” Sherry went on. “Did your grandmother ever tell you a story?”
His eyes lit up. “For twenty years almost, she told me the same story over and over, about this place.”
“Amie waited all summer for you. Now, she’s on her way to Chicago. She’s in a small red car. Said she’s gonna drive straight through.”
“I’ve seen all kinds of little red cars. What kind of a red car?”
“Oh, just red. Just small. She’s a beautiful girl. Go after her. Don’t lose her. She thinks happiness comes from this little diner. I know it does.”
“No idea of what kind of car?”
Sherry ran to the menu board and grabbed a bright red marker. She handed it to Travis. “Her name is Amie. She knows your name is Travis. Your grandmother told your name to her grandmother right here in this room, twenty years ago, right there at that table. Write a message on the back window of your car, something she’ll see and know. Oh, Travis, chase her, don’t miss her. I know she’ll love you and you’ll love her. Both of you have waited most of your lives for this. Go! Go! Go! Go now!”
She was pushing him and yelling, and Mike ran out from behind the counter. Sherry held up her hand. “Hurry, Travis, hurry.”
Mike understood in a second that he and Sherry had been part of something special. The two of them watched as Travis ran out and began writing on the back window of a silver-blue minivan. They could not read what he had written as the van buzzed out of the parking lot, swung left and climbed to the westbound side of Route 80.
Sherry and Mike carried on the diner’s ministry of happiness, as they began to call it. Then one lovely April day, more than a year and a half later, Sherry was at home, and the children were out back where their grandfather was putting the finishing touches on a gazebo. Sherry was wondering again about Amie, as she did just about every day. All the options, all the chances, all the possibilities had flooded her mind.
Sherry saw a car coming down the road leading to their house, the sun flashing off the windshield. She shook herself out of the swirl of daydreaming. Moments later Josh heard her crying and propelled his wheelchair hurriedly into the front room. Sherry was leaning over the front room table where she had been working on a scrapbook. Sobs were rolling out of her.
“What’s the matter? What’s wrong?” Josh yelled. His wheelchair crashed into her chair.
“Oh, Josh,” she said, “I’m so happy I could scream.”
He saw the movement out the window: A young woman was bundling up a newborn, a young man was holding the door for her. Josh knew everything that had come from the Twilight Diner, where Sherry and happiness happened and hung out together, all as told so long ago.
Tom Sheehan served in 31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52. His books are: Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; Collection of Friends; From the Quickening; The Saugus Book; Ah, Devon Unbowed; Reflections from Vinegar Hill; This Rare Earth & Other Flights, and Vigilantes East. eBooks include Korean Echoes (nominated for a Distinguished Military Award), The Westering, (nominated for National Book Award); from Danse Macabre are eBooks Murder at the Forum (NHL mystery), Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment, and An Accountable Death. In the Garden of Long Shadows, The Nations (2014), Where Skies Grow Wide and Cross Trails (2015) were published by Pocol Press, and Six Guns, Inc., 2015, by Nazar Look. He has work in Ocean Magazine, Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield Review, KYSO Flash, La Joie Magazine, Soundings East, Vermont Literary Review, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voices Journal, Frontier Tales, Western Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, Vine Leaves Journal, Eastlit, Rope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, FaithHopeandFiction.com, The Cenacle, etc. He has 30 Pushcart nominations, and five Best of the Net nominations (and one winner) and short story awards from Nazar Look for 2012- 2015.