The diner was a long, yellow train car, permanently set into a cement slab, with a little caboose at the back where the cooks worked and white smoke rose from a tin-hatted vent on its roof, perfumed with grease, salty warm breads, and rich sauces. The middle-aged mother and teenage son tilted their heads to read the crooked railroad sign out front that read, ‘Velma’s — Home of the world’s heaviest chili dog!’
“I’m dieting mom,” said Sudama, “what am I supposed to get here?”
“Maybe they will have salad?” his mother said, clomping up the metal steps to the diner. “I want to sit down for a while, I’m beat. Come on, it looks sweet.”
The walls were lined in faded wallpaper, columns of flowers in alternating powder-blues, mustard-yellows, and dirty-reds; torn and peeling in the corners and above the tables where kids had clawed and scraped at it for years. At each booth hung a photograph or caricature of a different celebrity that had graced Velma’s with their presence: Jay Leno, William Shatner, Wayne Brady, Someone Sudama Didn’t Know.
The host greeted the mother and son with a dimpled smile. “Just the two?” she asked. She led them to a booth under a large, signed portrait of Lucille Ball, across from an old man with a yellowing-white mustache and thinning-white hair held with a rubber band at the base of his neck. Sudama eyed the old man as he settled onto the stiff cushions. The old man removed his sunglasses. He wasn’t watching at the son—he was watching his mother. “Hello there,” he said.
Sudama’s mother did not hear because she was busy digging through her purse. Sudama frowned at the old man, but either the old man did not see Sudama, or he was acting tough. He just smiled that mossy, crooked smile and returned to his food, taking a deep bite out of his Chili-Onion Dog Special. Sudama attempted to choose something from the menu, but he couldn’t concentrate through the slosh pumping past his ears. He slid closer to his mother and said in a low voice, “You see this jerk?” he said.
She swished her hair to the opposite shoulder and sat up straight, like his grandmother always nagged her about; she glanced up—expertly, and in an instant had evaluated the old man. She read her menu and grinned. “He looks like a happy guy,” she said, “what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with you today?”
Sudama leaned back into the cushions and sighed aloud as the cold sweat on the back of his shirt chilled his spine. “Just—uncomfortable,” he said. “Sweating. I’m hungry, feel like I can’t eat anything.”
“Are you eating enough calories?” his mother asked. “A salad isn’t enough, son, you need real food. Why don’t you have a chili dog? Don’t laugh. Why not?”
“I just can’t,” he said.
“Does this have to do with that girl—what’s her name? That little hugger-muffin of yours?”
“What are you talking about?” Sudama covered his face, leaning on his elbows. “Please, just stop talking.”
“You know what I mean,” she said. “The girl you went to SeaWorld with, who you yelled at me on the phone over.”
“I can’t let myself slip,” Sudama said. “Everything has changed since I lost the weight. Everything is new now, and I don’t want to mess that up.”
“You’ve gone through a big change,” his mother said. “It will be very different. But remember that different is not always better. Sometimes it’s just different.”
“Wow, thanks ma . . . but it’s easy to be different; best to be new. No one cares about bringing back the old stuff, the new stuff is always the best—you know?”
“Sure son. Your mother isn’t just a crazy old lady. You could learn a thing or two from your elders.”
“Excuse me, sweet heart.” It was the old man again, this time speaking more forcefully. He had to have been eighty—at least, and deeply browned from scalp to sandaled toe from too much time exposed. His shirt hung unbuttoned and the reflected light of a swinging dog-tag danced on his knotted chest. Sudama wondered who that old man thought he was fooling. His mother had heard the old man already and was smiling politely. “I just had to say,” the old man went on, “you are loveliest looking young lady I’ve seen in years and years.”
His mother giggled and covered her mouth. ”Well,” she said, “that is extremely sweet of you, sir. What is your name?”
“I love your beautiful hair,” said the old man.
“What’s that?” she said.
“I love your hair,” he said.
His mother flipped her hair and patted the cushion next to her, “How sweet! Would you like to scootch on over here and talk with us for a while?”
“Yes, yes, I very much would,” said the old man, standing with a groan from his booth and hobbling over to slip into theirs. He glanced at Sudama, “Oh, how are you son?”
Sudama just raised his eyebrows; he had enough to worry about without someone trying to pick up on his mother. The old man blinked and offered a half-nod, then he put his elbow on the back of the bench, his right hand just close enough to brush her shoulder if he extended his fingers, which he did first thing; he said, “You know what it is?”, pointing to the picture on the wall, “You remind me of Lucille Ball. That’s it!”
You’ve got to be kidding, thought Sudama. This old schmoozer. Maybe his mother wasn’t as unique as he figured, she idolized Lucy, even had a few dusty tin plates with colored paintings on them in the garage somewhere. But no, this old guy knew it somehow, he said, “I’ve never met a woman with such decency. Kindest woman a man could know. And, I would know, I’ve met the best and seen every secret these continents have to offer!”
“Have you?” she said, “Were you in the military?”
“Navy,” said the old man, “yes ma’am.”
The server passed by, noticing the man at the table. Concern twisted her brow and she made eye contact with Sudama. She mouthed: ‘Is he bothering you?’ Sudama rolled his eyes; he hadn’t thought about it. He looked at his mother, then at the man, then his mother. The server finished with her other tables and came for their order. Sudama was so busy with the old man, he did not choose a meal. “Ma,” he said. “What are you getting?”
He nudged her shin with his sandal; his mother turned with widened eyes, “Um, I don’t know right now hun, hold on okay? Go ahead and order what you want.” Then she looked him straight in the eyes and he saw tears in them.
Sudama’s breath felt expanded in his chest as he looked to the old man, still molesting his mother with his eyes and grinning—grinning. “Hey!” he growled; the old man did not notice. It was his mother’s turn to kick him in the shin, She didn’t want to make a scene about it, she didn’t know if it was dangerous. Sudama knew. He looked back up to the server with a pleading look and she understood.
“We’ll take care of it,” she said, “do you know what you want yet?”
He snatched up his menu and started scanning for the healthiest plate he could find. There was Chili burgers, hotdogs, burgers without chili, polish dogs, French fries, cheese fries, chili cheese fries, tuna melts, quesadillas, chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla shakes, ice cream bars, chocolate monkey tails and—
”I’ll have the small green salad,” he said, “please. With balsamic?”
The server frowned, pouting her lip. “We don’t have balsamic,” she said.
“Of course you don’t have balsamic,” Sudama said. “Just bring whatever your lightest dressing is.”
The old man talked with wide hand gestures. He gestured slowly and controlled; a man who didn’t care whose time he wasted. The old man became so engaged in the conversation, that he slid his hips a cushion seat closer to Sudama’s mother. So close that she blushed and had to move away.
That’s when Sudama saw it; his mother’s fear, until then he was not sure, but now he knew. She looked at him and blinked slowly, not a regular blink, a slow signaling blink like this—the lids contracting smoothly. But it wasn’t just the blink; when she turned to look at Sudama, she struck him hard with one knee; a clear signal of distress! Sudama’s adrenaline leaked into his nerves from his shoulders and he involuntarily shook his head like a dog.
He couldn’t hear what they were saying anymore, all he could see was his flapping lips and his smooth glances at him that made sure to keep him quiet and in his place. Then he did it, he slipped one of his gestures into an approach and rubbed his mother’s golden locks through greasy, gnarled fingers, then laughed too hard when she was just too afraid to move away, breathing onion in her cool face—the young man smacked the table, rattling silverware; nearby tables gasped.
“Get your old hands away from my mom dude!” said Sam.
His mother shrieked, “Sudama Jujhar!”
The old man uncrossed his legs and folded his hands over his lap, shaking his head, mouth groping for defense, absolute surprise in his eyes. “Oh, my goodness, I’m sorry, I—I wasn’t. I just thought—,” he tried to say, but then he was being tapped on the shoulder by another server, this time a tall, well built man with dark features saying, “Hey George, let’s leave these nice people alone, okay?”
His blood surged; Sudama was ready for anything . . .
“She reminds me of my daughter. I didn’t mean for . . .”
“Sir,” said the tall server, “Sir, now, we’re going to have to ask you to go please, now.”
The old man sputtered. “I’m sorry, I was just—”
Suddenly, like she just then could manage the breath, his mother stood up and cried, “No, please stay!”
“Shush Sudama Jujhar, you—Ugh!” she said, then to the old man, “Please. What’s your name sir? I do want to talk with you, my son is just,” waves a hand at him, “he didn’t mean it.” But he is nearly out the door in the server’s guiding hands.
The old man looks confused and feeble and can only say he is sorry before being ushered out the door.
Their server set down a limp salad, smothered in a thick white unguent, in front of Sudama. “Sorry about that,” she said. “He’s just an old regular, been coming here since they opened, I guess. How does that dressing work for you?”
The young man imagined the look on the old man’s face; his shame; his embarrassment. He wished his mother said something, but she sat still; tight lips and real tears on her cheeks. And Sudama wanted to cry, he wanted to eat. “What is it?”he asked the server.
“House dressing,” she said, “it’s the lightest we have.”
“Ranch?” Sudama said. The server nodded then returned to her other duties. That’s around six hundred calories, Sudama thought. He poked at his salad three times, then laid the fork in the dressing, pushed the plate away, and said, “I’m not hungry.”
This has been a practice scene I wrote yesterday into today. It was taking too long to finish and I had to cut editing short, so please excuse any errors. As always, thanks for reading, I write for you!