“He’s a man way out there in the blue”
“Riding on a smile and a shoeshine”
A Salesperson’s job is a lonely and mostly thankless one. It is long nights and days that in the end go by in a blur. The product changes and so do the towns but at dawn you still find yourself staring out a hotel window trying to remember where you are and so it was with Ken Hardin.
Ken was driving along Highway 60. A two lane monotonous ribbon of asphalt that snaked between towns. It was a dark , cold, full mooned autumn night and he had made this particular trip more times then he chose to remember. Funny, he thought I pass different numbered road and destinations signs, but what did it matter the results were always the same.
The road was a living thing. How many people had it taken over the years from truck drivers to rock stars. It watched you as intently as you watched it. Waiting for a moment of inattention or for time to grind you down to become as the dust on your tires from countless dirt roads.
Ken nodded his head for a second or was it a second because time as quickly as it passes the outside window can seem to become non existent in the cocoon of your car.
A million miles of safe driving changed in a instant to the grinding of metal going through a guardrail and down into a ravine. He eventually regained consciousness. It could have been minutes or hours but the important thing was he was in one piece and at a quick glance, not hurt which is more than could be said for the car. He managed to get out and stand for a moment looking back at this twisted pile of wreckage. An ironic thought crossed his mind. He remembered when he had loved cars and the thrill of driving but that was in High School when the world was younger and so was he. To hell with cars he thought, a necessary evil now and one that pays the bills. At least I will live to fight another day.
He made his way slowly up the ravine to the highway. He thought about hitching a ride to the next populated area when he spotted a sign that read ‘Diner one half mile ahead”. He began to walk in its direction but in the time it took he saw no other vehicles in either direction or the usual sounds of the night. Probably normal he thought after all when was the last time he had walked anywhere especially in the middle of nowhere. He rounded a bend and there it was. The Diner, set back from the highway fronted by a gravel parking lot. Its garish lights shining out like a beacon in the night. It was one of those 50,s style retro places with neon signs, two-toned colored booths and swiveling stools at the counter. The letters N and R in the large Diner sign were flickering on and off and making that buzzing sound you hear from old neon. He entered and was met with a myriad of sights and sounds. Second hand smoke, stale beer, fried food and Elvis Presley blaring out Hound Dog from a Wurlitzer with bubbles running up each side. The crowded bar patrons turned to look at him for a moment and then went on with their business of drinking to forget their troubles. Ken walked up to the counter, took a seat and came face to face with a waitress dressed in a two-toned outfit to match the decor. She was painfully thin, had too much makeup on and a beehive hairdo which served as a pencil holder. She had a cigarette dangling from one side of her mouth and after giving Ken the once over pulled an order pad from her pocket . “What’ll ya have Hon” she asked in a bored voice. Coffee said Ken and a phone, I’ve had an accident down the road and I have to notify the police. You should have a beer she offered you don’t look so good. No, said Ken, I had better be sober when the police come.
We have a phone in back next to the washrooms she said pointing with her pencil but it doesn’t work. When will it be fixed asked Ken now seeing problems forming. Don’t know said Mabel. Mabel thought Ken reading the name embroidered on the uniform I probably could have guessed that. Can’t seem to remember when it stopped working she mumbled to no one in particular. Well, she said while I’m getting your coffee you should use the men’s room and clean up a little. Good idea said Ken and wound his way down the dimly lit side hallway.
It was like washrooms you could find in every small town in America except someone had broken the mirror. Come to think about it he had not seen a mirror since he had arrived. The urinal was on the wall in front of a small dirty window. He glanced out and was surprised to see a junkyard of wrecked cars and trucks from every decade. Strange he thought, no vehicles in the front and this mountain of metal in the back. What was this place doing filled with customers but no pick up trucks or rigs?.
He walked back to the counter and picked up his coffee. Three grizzled old truckers beckoned him to take a seat. Mabel tells us you had an accident up the road a spell said the man closest to him. No one hurt I hope. No said Ken no one hurt but I have to get to the next town and file a report. I’ll drive you myself said the old man. I’m going that way, my rigs out front he said jerking a thumb in that direction. Ken glanced past the man’s head to an empty parking lot but said nothing.
He excused himself and walked back up to the counter for a refill on his coffee. Mabel was hunched over a crossword puzzle deep in thought.”A ten letter word for the President” she muttered to herself and after a moment wrote in Eisenhower. Just as Ken was about to ask for his refill a voice from one of the booths asked for four beers. She dropped what she was doing filled the order and began to walk toward her thirsty customers. Ken watched her intently as she made her way across the room until she passed the glass front of the Juke Box. He gasped and almost fell off his stool. The vision in the glass was of a rotted corpse the cigarette still dangling from what was once her mouth but was now two rows of exposed teeth. Her hands were bones and small patches of parchment skin clung to her face, arms and legs. Once past the glass she became the waitress again and Ken told himself he was seeing things. Probably because of a head injury he thought. He quickly scanned the Diner for a mirror but there were none and then he remembered the washroom. He rushed down the hall and into the Men’s Room where he reached under the sink and retrieved the biggest shard of mirror he could find. A noise from the stall behind him notified him that he was not alone. a young man opened the door and came out. He looked normal but when Ken looked in the mirror at the man he saw a rubber band tied around his upper arm, a hypodermic needle dangling from his vein and dead eyes staring at him. Ken ran back out front. He took his seat once again on the stool and holding the mirror in one hand, angled it towards the table with the three truck drivers he had been sitting with and found them covered in blood. He rotated the surface 180 degrees around the room and saw that everyone there was in a different state of decay from skeletons to people who looked almost normal in this macabre saloon of horrors. He finally looked directly into the mirror and saw his face covered in blood. The din of noise in the room fell silent and in the mirror he saw they were all looking his way and getting up to walk toward him. When he glanced from the mirror to the tables they were all still seated as before so he looked in the mirror again. This time they were all closing in on him.
He dropped the mirror to the floor with a tinkling sound of glass breaking and ran from the Diner. He made his way back down the highway to the broken guardrail and stared down into the ravine. There was his car, the same wreck he had left, but not exactly, there was now something slumped over the steering wheel. The body of a man. He jumped back in fright trying to make sense of it all. He did not have a hitchhiker in the car and he certainly was not going to climb down to find out who it was. He would leave that to the police to figure out. He tried to walk back the way he was driving before the accident but after a hundred yards the pavement dropped off into a black abyss. He turned once more determined to walk past the Diner and if need be right to the next town. Eventually, he thought, someone would drive by and give him a lift. He rounded the bend for the second time that night and stopped to look at the Diner. It was in total darkness and as he got closer he could see that it was a dilapidated boarded up ruin. It must be a different place he thought. It’s the head injury, yes that’s it, the head injury. All of this is a bad dream. I’m lying in a hospital bed somewhere. If I just keep walking I will find someone or someplace where I can get help. Ken heard the murmur of many voices but after listening for a moment decided it was a trick of the wind and kept on walking. He was soon swallowed up by the mist. Behind the boarded up windows, lay a thick carpet of dust. Cobwebs hung from every corner of the interior and in front of the overturned tables and chairs stood the legion of the damned. They stared intently at him with dead eyes as he walked by.
He’ll be back said Mabel, they all come back she cackled. They all come back.
If you are ever driving alone at night and come across a lit Diner in the middle of a lonely highway stop in and have a coffee with Ken or maybe help Mabel with her crossword puzzle.
Ken has come to the end of his journey. To a Diner that never closes and patrons who welcome you with open arms.
By: JOHN STODDART