Lillian always said she saw something in him; “I know what you can become.”
A little before seven in the morning, one early October day in 2003, Jake Anders unlocked the front door to the diner and held it open for a moment, letting in a waft of air that carried the bite of a light frost. Looking down, he spied four brown leaves, dried and curled at the edges, resting on the front step. When he swept them aside with his foot, they crumbled, leaving behind a trail like ashes.
He raised the shade on the door and switched the sign from “closed” to “open.” Leaning his tall frame against the door jamb, still lanky at 59 despite the soft belly that protruded over his belt buckle, Jake surveyed the sidewalk in front of the place he’d owned for 27 years and where he had worked for seven years before that. It wasn’t much, just a hole in the wall that served breakfast and lunch six days a week. But it was on the corner of Maple and Main, directly across from the commuter train station, making it one of the most coveted retail locations in town. As he stood there, the 6:58 to Chicago pulled into the station, and a crowd of blue, brown and gray was absorbed into the cars.
As the train pulled out, Jake let the door close and took four steps across the black-and-white checked floor. The time had come to make a move. If he were perfectly honest with himself the decision had already been made: He was going to accept the offer. The only questions were when and how. He knew he’d caught a lucky break when the Starbucks people came in one day and asked to speak to him. Other than a CD at the bank and a couple of mutual funds, he and his wife, Lillian, didn’t have much savings; instead, he’d always seen this old building as his bank roll. Over the years, Java Jake’s had done well enough, and Jake had been able to pay off the loan, giving him full title to a one-story building with a storefront and plenty of storage in the back. He had earned enough to let Lillian stay home when their son, Roger, was little, although she went back to work when their son was in high school to help put him through college. Then things began to change. The bacon-and-eggs crowd dwindled, especially during the week, and the diner no longer opened at six.
The town’s New Millennium campaign in 2000 had produced some painted flower boxes and new awnings along Main Street, but no real increase in business. Now, three years later, suburban downtowns all around Chicago had more empty spaces than a gap-toothed smile, including in his town of Brentville. If he didn’t accept the Starbucks offer some other merchant would.
Looking around at the diner’s cream-colored walls, yellowed with time and the residue of countless breakfasts cooked on the grill, and the red Formica-topped tables that bore the soft patina of a million tiny scratches, Jake knew that before long no one would recognize the place. It would be all wood tables, ceramic tiled floors, and recessed lighting.
In the old days, customers would be waiting to get in at six, usually men on their way to work and a few coming home from the nightshift. Busing tables that first year when he was 25 and still trying to straighten out his life, Jake used to wonder aloud about how much those guys were paid per hour, until one day Earl sat him down. “That ain’t for you,” Earl had said. “Those guys have been through strikes and layoffs. You couldn’t handle that. You’d be right back to your old tricks. Diner’s a good business. I’ll teach you the ropes. You save your money and you’ll buy this place when I retire.”
Jake couldn’t see that happening; he couldn’t see much of the future at all in those days. Things were still fuzzy after Vietnam and drifting around a bit, doing nothing much more than getting drunk and getting high. Earl had taken a chance on him, but never cut him any slack. Only once had he come to work messed up and burned himself pretty badly on the grill. He passed out and came to with his left hand in a bucket of ice with Earl standing over him with an ultimatum. “Clean up your act or get your ass out of here.” After that, he drank so much coffee to keep himself straight, they started calling him Java Jake.
In time, Earl promoted him to cook and taught him everything about the business, from ordering supplies to keeping a close eye on the inventory, which otherwise would have a way of walking out the back door. Then, in 1976, at the age of 32 with a wife and a four-year-old son, he’d bought the diner. Signing those papers with backing from Lillian’s father, who didn’t want his only daughter to go through life with a bum, he’d gone from fry cook to a member of the Brentville Chamber of Commerce.
By seven forty-five, the counter was nearly full and half the tables were occupied. Bev Samuels, who’d been waitressing there for as long as anyone remembered, shuffled from table to table dressed in a black skirt and a white blouse and nurse’s oxfords. Jake worked the counter, pinning orders inside the window and picking up the plates that Ernie, the cook, set on the stainless steel ledge.
“Wheat, Ernie, not white.” Jake pushed an order of toast back inside the window.
“Not what your ticket said.” Ernie stood, bowed-legged, his dark hair covered by a white cap that matched his cook’s uniform.
“Read it again.” Jake withdrew from the order window and grabbed the coffee pot to refill mugs down the counter.
“I can read. You can’t write,” Ernie hollered back.
“Doesn’t matter what you think it says, the customer wants wheat.” Jake topped off another coffee cup.
“You two argue more than Congress,” somebody piped up and another person laughed.
“Yeah, but at least we get something done.” Jake put the pot back on the burner. Sadness sank inside him like a stone down a deep well when he thought about how much he would miss this place.
By ten, the diner was empty. Bev sat in the last of the four booths along the far wall, reading the paper and drinking orange soda from a fountain glass. Ernie turned up the volume on the radio in the kitchen, while his son, Joey, washed dishes.
“Going out,” Jake yelled over his shoulder as he left the diner with a thin vinyl money bag that bore the original name of the bank, three mergers ago. As he waited in line for the business accounts teller, his cell phone rang. Squinting at the screen without his glasses, he made out the area code for Phoenix and knew it was Roger.
“I’m in the bank. Lemme call you back,” Jake told him.
“I only have a minute, Dad.” Roger yelled above noise that sounded like he was in a wind tunnel. He was driving.
Cupping the phone to the side of his face, Jake strained to hear every word as his son, who worked for the largest real estate development firm in Arizona, explained all he’d learned about Starbucks leasing deals. From the sound of it, there wouldn’t be much room to negotiate, except maybe a little extra up front to make up for the loss of the diner income.
“You don’t want to miss this, Dad,” Roger said. “If you want me to help you with the deal, I’ll come out.”
“Nah, I’ll be fine.” Jake had wanted to say yes, that he needed the help, because even with an attorney to look things over he was nervous about negotiating with people who did that sort of thing for a living. But just once he wanted Roger to be proud of his old man, to hear his son ask him questions about how he’d done a successful deal—and not the other way around. “I got this covered,” he told him.
They talked for another minute, and then said good-bye. Jake stuffed the phone in his pocket, and stepped up to the teller.
Word of the Starbucks deal was on the street in no time, thanks to some loud mouth at the Chamber. The florist on the opposite corner asked so many detailed questions Jake began to wonder if he was angling for someone to buy him out. Frank Cardoza of Hi-Fashion Jewelers next door stopped him on the sidewalk one afternoon to offer congratulations in a way that sounded like condolences. “A fortuitous move,” Frank said, hiking up his sleeves as he anchored his hands on his hips, a movement that made his gold cufflinks flash in the sun. “Every merchant in town knows how tough it is to own a business these days.”
“Yeah, how so?” Jake straightened and took a half step toward Frank.
“Well, I mean that I heard—not any particulars of course—that things weren’t as, shall we say, vibrant at the diner as they once were. Businesses run into trouble, there’s no shame. We’re not doing the volume we once did…”
“Sorry to hear that,” Jake interrupted, “but the diner’s not in trouble. If this deal goes through, I’ll sit home and collect rent. If it doesn’t, I’ll keep working and do just fine.”
“Didn’t mean to offend,” Frank said.
Jake flashed a short wave as he continued up the street.
The insinuation irked him, and that night when he couldn’t sleep he replayed Frank’s pompous words. Jake sat up, angling his long legs over the edge of the mattress, his bare feet flat on the floor. He was in-between getting up and laying back down to try to sleep a little longer when Lillian stirred beside him. “What’s wrong?” she mumbled.
“Go back to sleep.”
In the darkened room he could barely make out her sleepy face and soft brown hair mussed against the pillows. He thought back to when they were first married and living in a walk-up apartment over a shoe store and how he’d sometimes sit up in bed and watch her sleep, not quite believing that this woman loved him enough to bet her future on him.
“Is it a mistake, Lil?” he asked.
“Hmmph?” she answered.
“Selling the diner. Frank Cardoza thinks I’m going bankrupt and had to sell.”
“Frank’s a horse’s ass,” Lil said, clearing her throat. “Who care what he thinks.”
“But will people think I was defeated—that I went down a loser?”
“He’s just jealous because Starbucks is renting from you, and he’s stuck with overpriced dusty merchandise.” Lillian curled on her side and closed her eyes.
Jake kissed her cheek and heard her sigh. As he sat on the bed, the darkness became a screen for the projection of his memories, returning as always to the first time he saw her when she was 21 and working for her father who had a small law practice. In those days he hadn’t made it beyond busboy as yet. He’d seen her pass by the diner, with those long legs and skirts that rode a couple of inches above her knees. Her hair was dark then, worn long and straight to her shoulders. Passing her on the sidewalk one day, he’d said something meant to be a joke, but as usual his words were off: “You think you own this street?”
Her glare had cut him deeply, making him hate himself for being such a wiseass, always shooting off his mouth at the wrong people or at the wrong time. A month later, she came in the diner at lunchtime and sat alone at the counter. He never forgot the date—April 8, 1970—and it was a Wednesday. Seeing her through the order window, he scrambled to find some excuse to go out to the counter, but didn’t want to be seen clearing dirty dishes or wiping down tables. So he’d walked up to Earl at the cash register and told him they were running low on coffee and needed to reorder soon.
Laughing silently to himself, Jake remembered how Earl had sputtered that they’d just had a delivery, two days before. Lillian looked up at him from her tuna on white toast, and he smiled at her, but dropped his eyes before she could snub him. Lillian came in the diner more often after that and they’d talk. It took him a month to ask her out, and she accepted. Earl got in his face, told him that Lillian Fenton was a nice girl from a good family. “You get out of line with her and I’ll run ya through the potato peeler!”
Gus Fenton disliked him and thought his daughter could do better, which was the gospel truth—same then as now. But Lillian always said she saw something in him; “I know what you can become.”
Laying his hand on the quilt over the rise of her hip, Jake could feel the warmth of her body through the covers. “You saved me, you know,” he said softly.
Lillian stirred, her voice drugged with sleep. “What?”
“I said you saved me,” Jake repeated, annoyed at himself for having awakened her for a second time. At least it was Saturday, and Lillian could sleep in.
“No, honey, you saved yourself,” Lillian said between yawns. “I just cheered you on a little.”
He lay back down beside her, but couldn’t sleep. His mind drifted and churned as he watched the gap between the window shade and the frame slowly lighten with the approach of morning.
Jake Anders drove to work at five and was sitting at a booth with a cup of coffee, a pad of paper, and a pen when Ernie entered the back door at six. Ernie came out of the kitchen and sat at the booth with Jake. “So what’s up? You can’t sleep? You worried?”
Jake shook his head. “Couldn’t sleep, but I don’t have anything to worry about. Nobody does.” As he explained everything, including how he was using some of the upfront money from Starbucks to give everybody a severance package—Ernie, Bev, and Carol, the part-time waitress.
Ernie nodded with gratitude. “I think maybe we’ll move to Florida My sister lives there. Lots going on in Florida.”
Then Jake told Ernie about his other plan that he had just put down in writing.
“But that’s crazy. Why you wanna do that for?” Ernie leaned back and crossed his arms.
“Because I do.”
The diner was busy that morning, and by eight the counter was full. Jake could tell by the way Carol and Bev kept looking over at him that Ernie had told them everything. He decided it was time for an announcement, so everybody heard the news at once. Clapping his hands twice and then rubbing the palms together, Jake raised his voice above the murmur and clatter of the diner. “Folks, I’ve got something to say.”
The conversation died down along the counter, and only the occupants of the far table kept talking until someone shushed them. “You know, Java Jake’s has been here since the Ice Age.”
“Longer!’ someone yelled, and everybody laughed.
“But the end has come. Starbucks has made me an offer I can’t refuse. So in two weeks, I’m done.”
“Geez, Jake. That’s too bad,” somebody interjected.
“No, it’s a good deal and I’d be a fool not to take it. That’s what my son tells me, anyway, and he’s mister big shot real estate. Two weeks from today—Saturday, October 26—will be my last day. And so, in honor of Earl Nardette who started this place back when it was Earl’s Diner, and for all of you who’ve come here over the years, it will be breakfast on the house on the last day.”
“You’re gonna feed the whole town?” Bev gasped.
“No, just the regulars, and a couple of freeloaders—like you, Tom!” Jake laughed and pointed at Tom Wilson who drove a truck for the cable company and came in for breakfast every Saturday morning for peace and quiet away from his wife and four daughters.
Over the next week, Ernie complained daily that it was impossible to guess how many people might show up for a free breakfast and had no idea how much to order. “Why couldn’t you just charge people and give away the money if you wanted?” Ernie groused. “You ask ’em to part with a buck, that’ll keep them away!”
“Because I want to do it this way,” Jake shot back, a little more forcefully than he intended, but Ernie’s nagging was getting to him. “Double the order—or triple it, I don’t care. Just make sure we have enough.”
On Tuesday the 22nd, Carol called Jake and told him that she’d been hired by Olive Garden at the mall and would start training on Saturday. “You can’t do this to me, Carol,” Jake groaned. “I’m gonna need you.” After talking it over with her new boss, Carol promised to stay until noon, but had to be at Olive Garden by twelve-thirty.
Every customer who came in the last week was reminded to come back on Saturday for what Jake called the “Farewell Breakfast.” He posted a sign in the window and told people to pass the word. The local newspaper wrote an article about Starbucks coming to town and interviewed Jake about his plans to retire and free breakfast on the last day.
Lillian made a little flyer and gave it to everyone at the Department of Public Works where she’d been an administrative assistant for the past 15 years. When she told Jake what she’d done, he hugged her and admitted how worried he was that people would think it was some kind of gimmick. What he didn’t admit was his bigger fear, that no one cared enough about him or the diner to bother stopping by.
After a restless night, Jake got up at four on the 26th. When he came out of the shower, Lillian was up and getting ready. “You don’t think you’re going there alone,” she told him. “I wouldn’t miss helping out on this day.” When they got there at five, Ernie was already there along with his wife, Carmella, who had come to help him cook. “You don’t understand free food.” Ernie pointed a spatula in Jake’s direction. “We’re going to be swamped.”
“I certainly hope so,” Jake said, and left the two of them to start breakfast.
Standing on the other side of the swinging doors into the kitchen, Jake paused a moment. Lillian reached for his hand and gently squeezed his fingers.
“Ah, Lil, it’s the end for this place.” Tears dampened Jake’s cheeks.
Jake flicked on the lights and, still holding Lillian’s hand, walked over to unlock the front door for the last time.
At six-fifty, the first person came in, a man who looked vaguely familiar, but certainly not a regular. When he introduced himself he explained how he used to come to Java Jake’s years ago but hadn’t been there for a while. “Cholesterol got a little high—had to cut out the eggs and bacon,” he said apologetically. He ordered both for breakfast and said he didn’t mind paying.
“Nope, on the house today!” Jake clipped the slip inside the order window. Ernie snatched it a second later. Looking into the kitchen, Jake noticed Ernie’s son, Joey, had come in already along with a younger boy, Ernie’s other son, Phil. He’d make sure the kids left with sizeable tips for the day.
By seven-thirty, the place was hopping. Carmella not only helped cook, but also ferried plates from the kitchen to help out Bev and Carol. Jake heard Ernie barking orders to the boys to pick up the pace washing the dishes.
By eight-thirty, when a line formed out the door, Jake went outside to greet everyone. A man introduced his young son and told Jake how he used to come to the diner every Saturday with his father when he was the boy’s age. “This place is part of my history,” the man said. “I used to come once in a while, and every time I did I thought of my father.”
The florist up the block stopped by with a bouquet of roses that Jake tried to make room for on the counter, plus corsages for Bev and Carol. Jake handed him a stack of pancakes and four link sausages in a foil to-go container.
“What are we gonna do with the money, Jake?” Bev whispered loudly to him.
“No money today, Bev, remember?” Jake looked past her to a table that opened up as Joey cleared the dishes and Lillian wiped it down.
“But people are leaving tens and twenties behind. One guy put a fifty in my apron pocket!”
Jake blew out his cheeks and shook his head. “You can all divvy it up at the end. Just get these people fed.”
An old man spun around on a stool and the counter and reached for Jake’s arm to stop him. “I came here on a blind date in 1962. Don’t think you was here then, though.”
“That was Earl. He started this place,” Jake told him. “So how’d it go with the blind date?”
“Not bad. We went out for a little while, but I ended up marrying her sister.”
Jake would have liked to hear the rest of that one, but the entire high school track team came in the door. Until then, he wasn’t sure if anyone remembered that Roger had been a track star in his high school days. Jake called Roger on his cell phone and handed it to the coach, who plugged one ear and shouted over the din.
By ten-thirty, they were still going strong, and Jake sent Lillian out to buy more eggs and bacon as she could. In the rush, one of the busboys dropped and broke four coffee cups, and immediately looked over at Jake. “Maybe we’ll break ‘em all in the end—keep Starbucks from having all the fun on demolition day,” Jake laughed. “Just don’t break it all yet.”
“I wish you could stay,” a woman from the library said. “This is quite the historical corner. Did you know that there used to be a blacksmith shop down the block?”
“Didn’t know that,” Jake replied, trying to listen as he helped clear two more tables. Beneath one plate were a twenty-dollar bill and a note that read, “Thanks for everything.”
After eleven o’clock, customers still arrived, some just for coffee and others to wish Jake well. Almost all of them had a story about the diner. One young woman who said she worked in the private client department of a big bank downtown told him how she used to come to the diner with her grandfather during the summer before going fishing. “Guess he really wanted a grandson,” she explained. “But he taught me to fish and I taught him that girls can do anything.” She laid a ten dollar bill on the counter and finished her coffee.
Frank Cardoza arrived shortly before noon and declined Jake’s offer of breakfast, holding his hands against his stomach as if he were as round as Santa Claus and not a forty-year-old who worked out regularly. “Actually, I have something for you.”
Extracting a Hi-Fashion Jewelers’ box from his pocket, Frank held it out in his palm. Inside was a pair of silver cufflinks, engraved J.J. “I was going to do J.A. for your initials, but this seemed more appropriate.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Jake examined the scrolling script of the J’s and smiled. “It’s very generous of you.”
“Java Jake’s has been a good neighbor. So many times I’d come to the store after a snowstorm and find that you or Ernie had cleaned in front of your place and mine and my back steps, too.” Frank held out his hand. “You’ll be missed Jake.”
Jake thanked him again for the cufflinks, thinking that now Lillian would have to buy him one of those fancy dress shirts so he could wear them.
“So why’d you do it?” Frank asked. “The free breakfast, I mean.”
Jake realized then that it had nothing to do with Frank’s previous comments that made it sound like the diner was going bankrupt. That had irritated him, but surely the Farewell Breakfast meant more to him. He had wanted the diner to be full of customers like in the old days when Earl was behind the counter and he was the busboy who needed all his concentration to keep from dropping a tray of dirty dishes. He owed this send-off to Earl, dead and gone a dozen years ago, and he owed it to the diner, his lifeboat and anchor.
“Maybe we can’t predict when we’ll go,” Jake told him, “but we do have a say in how, and I wanted the diner to go out in style.”
He raised his eyes to look out the plate glass window with its black letters that read Java Jake’s and noticed the crowd of people on the sidewalk, coming and going from the diner across from the train station, the best spot in town.