"Coffee," I say, remembering to add a "please" just in time. With my jeans, Nine Inch Nails T-Shirt and black leather jacket, I may as well tattoo "young hood" on my forehead. Fortunately, I've frequented this diner often enough now that Mel (his real name) knows me.
I just need to remember to be polite and keep my language clean. That last one is harder than it sounds. I grew up around people who use "fuck" as punctuation.
Mel slides a cup in front of me and fills it with java. "Would you like to try a piece of pie?" he asks. "My wife makes the best pie in the whole county, and she's got the ribbons to prove it."
It's an old ritual. I pretend to hem and haw for a few seconds before finally deciding to try a slice of cherry. That's why I come here, after all. The coffee is mediocre—about as good as I'd get from a 7-Eleven or McDonald's and nowhere near as good as your average Tim Horton's Donuts—but the pie is absolute heaven.
He puts it in front of me as I'm adding cream and sugar to the coffee. I take a fork-full and chew it slowly, letting the cherries sit in my mouth for a moment before washing it down with a swallow of too-sweet coffee. It almost makes up for the utterly shitty day I've had.
This place is one of those things you don't use up all at once. I only come here when I want to celebrate a minor victory or put some brightness into an otherwise abusive day. Lately, I've been coming here a lot.
The diner is the sort of place nostalgia restaurants try to imitate—a dozen booths and a long counter fronted with stools. I'm sitting on a stool and the far booth is occupied by some guy munching a burger. The buzz of an aging neon sign is almost drowned out by an anemic radio playing big-band music.
The floor is slightly grubby from the dirt of the day's customers. Mel mops the place out once a day, you see, just after closing. It's not as dirty as usual though. There's not a lot of traffic today. In fact, most of the town is closed and I was surprised that the diner was open, what with everyone at home glued to radio or TV and waiting for the bombs to fall.
I glance at my watch, my digital watch with a date function that starts in 1980. It's eighteen years too late, but at least the leap-year works out right this way. When people ask me about it, I tell them that it's one of those cheap Japanese gimmicks my uncle in the air force sent me. See, it doesn't even get the date right, I'd say. No wonder they lost the war.
So, subtracting twenty-four years, it places me in mid-western America on October 28, 1962. Which means it's time for ol' Nikita to back down on those Cuban missile silos. Everybody can go back to their normal lives, open their shops again, and stop accusing me of being a commie infiltrator.
About fucking time. I eat another fork-full of pie. And another, washed down with coffee.
Mel walks over to me holding—I kid you not—a dish towel and glass. He's cleaning one with the other, though I'm not sure which is which. Briefly, I ponder the death of the common cliche, pulled from its natural habitat—here—and paraded in front of all of America by Hollywood until it expires of embarrassment.
"So," he says, looking me over as he wipes. He's going to say something else but his gaze catches on my shirt. "What's 'Nine Inch Nails' mean?"
"It's a musical group," I say. "They're gonna be the next big thing. I saw them do a concert up in Memphis last month."
"Rock and roll?"
I nod. "But with a bit of a Gospel-ish sound. They do this one song called 'Closer to God' that's really neat."
"Can't stand that sort of music," Mel says. "It's just a bunch of long-haired freaks yelling and screaming. No offence," he adds, glancing at my hair.
I sip my coffee. "None taken. We all have our own opinions."
The conversation lulls there, so I finish my pie and another third of the coffee. I ask myself if I want more pie, but decide to pass. My day wasn't that bad, shotgun-toting hick farmers to the contrary.
"So why are you open?" I ask Mel.
He polishes a glass—the same glass, I think. "I'd go crazy just waiting at home. Here, I can do something. Besides, I've got a reputation to keep up. If this place closes, then that'll really be a reason to panic."
He puts down the glass—finally—and takes another, polishing it with a nervous devotion. "So, what do you think'll happen?"
I sip my coffee. "Khrushchev will give in and everything will go back to normal. And it'll all happen today."
"What makes you so sure?"
"We Russian agents get the inside dope first."
Mel laughs nervously.
"Are you a betting man, Mel?"
"Well then," I say in my con man voice. "I'll bet you this ten dollar bill"—pulled out of my wallet with a flourish—"against the cost of my food that my prediction is right. Deal?"
Mel grins and nods.
I should be ashamed of myself but frankly, I'm not.
I finish my coffee. As I put the empty cup down, the music coming from the radio stops. I hear an announcer say something, then a few strains of (I think) "Hail to the Chief".
Mel turns up the volume and suddenly I can hear Kennedy's voice, distorted by AM modulation and punctured with static.
Finally, it will all be over.
"My fellow Americans," says Kennedy. "half an hour ago, the embassy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics delivered to us a formal declaration of war..."
There is a tinkle of breaking glass. Mel stands there, stunned. The guy in the corner sprints to the door, leaving his food and briefcase behind. A moment later, as Kennedy says something about bomb shelters, we see his headlights strafing across the diner's back wall.
"Fuck!" I say. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" I repeat the mantra until my head stops spinning. Mel is staring at me by the time I'm done.
I want to laugh like a madman. Instead, I take out my wallet, drop a ten on the counter, weighed down with two quarters, and slide it across. "Mel," I say. "I want a refill on my coffee and another slice of pie. Please."