Melrose Diner

This is my 100th post and I’m very excited. It took a long time to get here, but hopefully the next hundred won’t take as long. I want to thank all those who follow me and have read my work. I really and truly appreciate you and your time. There are a million blogs out there on the interwebz that you can read, but you chose mine, so again thank you.

I have a new story below that I hope you’ll enjoy.

 

Melrose Diner

By Robert C Price

 

 

 

The blood pooled underneath his coat and expanded steadily. I could hardly make him out with tears blinding me and a shotgun barrel pointed at my head. Guy in the black coat screamed, “Get up, go to the booth,” as he stood over Franklin, “That was really stupid old man. Really freakin’ stupid.”

 

***

 

It was 3am on a cold ass Saturday morning and I hadn’t had a nibble from any Old Town Philadelphia types. I did the two-step over a steam grate hoping to get warm before my toes caught frostbite. Stupid me, shouldn’t have worn open-toe heels out there in the first place. Tried to show a little sexy. Wished I was home with my Massif snuggled up in bed watching Reality TV.

Bills needed to be paid and these rich tricks had the scratch to keep me and Tiger Lilly fed. I was down for anything at this point. Money was all that mattered. As soon as I had enough, Philly was in the rear-view. They pay, I play.

At least I didn’t have to worry about a pimp taking what I made. Granting favors to Philly’s Finest kept the wannabes out of my universe. My contribution to stress relief for our boys in blue.

Out of nowhere, a gust of wind smacked me like Donna Rozetti did back in the 11th grade when she thought I made out with her boyfriend.

“Screw this,” I screamed, “It’s too damn cold for this bullshit.”

I got off the grate and headed west on 5th and Pine towards the corner to hail a cab. Five hours of traipsing up and down Old Town left me frozen, tired, and craving for a big stack of pancakes. Some Melrose Diner pancakes. That would make this night half way bearable.

When I got to the curb, a black El Dorado shot out from a one-way street like a howling wraith. Luckily, I jumped back in time and almost fell on my ass. Not so for my purse.

“Hey, what the hell? Watch where ya goin’!”

The taillights blazed as the car reversed back to my spot. An old black man leaned over on the passenger side and gave a smile and wave after the window had shimmied down.

“I’m sorry young lady. I didn’t see you there. Are you all right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m good. You almost killed me,” as I tried to compose myself, but doing a terrible job.

For an old guy, he hopped out of his car with a quickness usually shown by young men as he held the bottom of his cashmere coat. I think he was trying to save it from getting caught in the heavy door.

He scooped up my purse and handed it back to me.

“Here you go miss. Again, I’m sorry about what happened. You sure you ok?”

“Yeah, I’ll be ok,” I replied.

“Well, can I drop you off somewhere? I gotta make it up to…”

He trailed off and stared at me. His head cocked to the side. It was a little creepy.

“What?” as I rummaged through my purse in search of that can of pepper spray hooked to my keychain.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to stare, but you look like someone I knew.”

I rolled my eyes and sighed a little.

“Listen, Pops. You ain’t gotta throw a line on me. If you want some fun, just ask. I got great rates. Tonight you’re in luck, I’m runnin’ a Senior Citizen special.”

Confusion shadowed his face, but then his eyes widened and smiled.

“Uh, no ma’am. I’m not lookin’ for company. You really look like an old friend of mine. You have her same red hair and freckles. Um, well, I can still drop you off at your home or somewhere. Get you outta this cold.”

He slid over to the car door, opened it, and stretched out his left hand to guide me into the vehicle. I ain’t never had a customer turn on the chivalry for me. Even though he said he wasn’t interested, men are men. When vagina’s around, they tend to pay attention. I still had my hand on the pepper spray just in case.

Burgundy velour caressed me as I sunk into the seat. Jazz tinkled out the speakers from the back. It was like sitting in one of those hazy lounges with a live quartet playing a riff.

I didn’t want to get too comfortable and forget what I do. I focused on my surroundings—noticed he had a gray fedora with a small red feather sitting beside him. His coat was the same color as the hat and his pants and shoes were both black.

Sitting next to him made me notice the long jagged scar that started from the base of his right temple and ended a little below his cheek. Something in me quivered. I wanted to know how he got it. Maybe because of the friend that looked like me.

“So where to Miss…?”

“Rachel.”

“Alright, Miss Rachel. Where am I takin’ you?”

“You ever been to Melrose Diner?”

He gave a soft smile, “I’ve been there a couple of times.”

“You can drop me there. I’m hungry as hell, Pops,” as I turned my attention to the outside world.

“Franklin.”

“What?”

“My name is Franklin. Please don’t call me Frank.”

 

****

 

We pulled into the rear parking lot of the diner that covered the whole block. Franklin kept the motor running as he let me out.

“Well, here you are Rachel. It’s been a pleasure to meet you. Sorry about how we met, but you have a good night, better yet a good morning,” he said.

I kept the door open, not wanting him to drive off just yet. Either I’m getting a story or I’ll wear him down until he breaks this monk mode he’s in.

“How ‘bout I treatcha’ to some breakfast. It’s my way of sayin’ thank you. Plus I don’t feel like eatin’ alone.”

I gave him the puppy dogs to top it off. He pursed his lips and let it roll around in his brain for a minute. I hit a smile with my perfectly straight teeth that set my mom back a whole paycheck.

“Yeah, alright,” he said.

 

The diner was semi-empty; a couple of old truckers sat at the front counter eating along with the party crowd and a few hospital workers from St. Agnes. Doris, my best friend, sat over in the corner refilling the condiments. She gave a wave and a sign that she’d be over in a minute.

I looked back at Franklin and noticed his brow knitted tight that it made a ‘W’ between his eyes. I didn’t notice the patrons staring at us, but my get-up did scream “Lady of The Evening”. I stopped giving a fuck a long time ago, so stare if they must.

We made our way to the back booth next to the window overlooking Snyder Ave. Again, he went the chivalry route and let me slide in first, but made sure he was standing next to the seat facing the front door.

“Little paranoid there, Franklin,” I asked with a grin.

“No ma’am. Just cautious. I like to see who’s comin’ in. Old habit,” he replied grinning back.

Doris lumbered up with a menu and asked if I wanted the usual which I didn’t refuse. She then turned around to Franklin, eyebrow arched, with her pencil anxious to scribble his order—coffee and a bowl of oatmeal. We looked at each other as Doris shrugged and took his menu.

“I said breakfast on me. You can order more,” I said.

“I eat light in the morning. I don’t like all that heavy food sittin’ in my gut. Stomach problems. Such is life,” he said rubbing his belly.

Doris came back with a pot of coffee and poured him a cup while checking him out. They made eye contact. She started to look away, but he gave this smile like a man used to the scrutiny and patted her on her hand. Doris stood there for a second with her penciled-in eyebrows in a permanent upside down ‘V.’ She smiled back, squeezed me on my shoulder, and sauntered over to the server station.

“So how long have you two known each other?” asked Franklin taking a sip from his cup.

“Doris? I’ve known her my whole life. We grew up in Northeast. I come here after work, visit her, and eat. She’s my best friend next to my dog at home.”

“And she don’t mind the work you do?”

“No, she doesn’t judge me if that’s what you getting’ at. I can’t do what she does. Tried it, don’t have the patience. Bosses are always hittin’ on me anyway, I’d rather get paid better money for it.”

I shrugged at my reasoning and he gave that smile again like everything’s right in the world.

“We’re a balance, y’know. Me and Doris. She does the straight thing and I bring pleasure to the world,” as I batted my eyes.

A couple of patrol cars sped by with sirens blaring and lights twirling on their way to the next crime scene of the morning. Everyone turned to the direction of the sounds, but Franklin and I sat there unnerved by the commotion.

“So tell me, if you’re not lookin’ for someone to warm your bed why in the hell are you out here?” I asked.

“Simple insomnia. It seems the older you get the less sleep you need. To be honest, I never was that much of a sleeper. Six hours was all I needed. Now if I get an hour I’ve done somethin’. Drivin’ helps me relax. Clears my head and such.”

“Does it help you forget her? The girl I remind you of?”

He got real quiet and the smile dimmed. I hit the nerve.

“You’ve ever been locked up, Rachel?” he asked with his voice lowered.

“Nope. I keep a steady stream of policemen well satisfied to avoid cages. Nice dodge of the question, though,” I said.

He gave a deep chuckle, “Good for you. You don’t ever wanna go. It’ll do two things; show you just how weak you are or make you stronger. And that depends on how you use that strength. For good or bad.”

“What you go in for?”

“Breakin’ and enterin’. In my younger days, I stole for people. I was good at it. Did my fair share of foolishness, too. Now I live day by day, makin’ the most of what time I have left.”

“Are you about to die or somethin’?” I asked just as Doris brought our meals.

“Not yet, but we’re all gonna die someday, so I gotta enjoy my life while I can.”

I noticed Franklin eyeball these two white guys coming in from the parking lot.

They wore big overcoats and skull caps as they headed over to a booth on the other side of the diner. I took a glance at them and wondered if they were twins. The two looked so similar that if it wasn’t for the color of their coats—one wore black, the other gray— they could’ve been the same person.

“You know them?” I asked.

“Not at all, but I know the type,” he replied.

They sat and chit-chatted with Sandra, one of the servers, after she took the orders. Gray Coat said something funny that made her giggle, but it seemed to piss off Black Coat. After that she hurried to the counter.

I brought my attention back to Franklin.

“Don’t think I let you off the hook. You still gotta tell me about this obvious beautiful woman since she looks like me,” I said in between a bite of sausage.

As he gazed out the window, it looked as if his face was dragged down with a 50lb weight. But something in the ice puddle jarred a memory that perked him right up.

“Y’know, uh, she was fresh off the train from Florida. Lake City if I remember correctly. Green as the grass in Fairmount Park. Poor girl.

I met her at 30th St Station waitin’ on a partner of mine that was coming down from New York. As I said, I was a thief and I had a job lined up payin’ big money back in ‘75. Ten grand which is still big money now. I was sittin’ on one of the benches waitin’ for him and she was ridin’ up the escalator. I’m embarrassed to say it now cuz I feel like a snot-nosed teenager, but when I saw her, my heart stopped.”

I smiled at that last spot as I placed my fork down with a bunch of pancakes still attached. He had me hooked like a worm. There’s no way I was leaving until the story was finished.

“Back then, it was all Black Power, I’m black and I’m proud, yada, yada, yada. I didn’t care about none of that. All I cared about was money and women and when you got a lot of it, people tend to go colorblind, y’see.

It was something about her that looked fresh and untouched. Her red hair hung down straight on her T-shirt that read FREE—the worse shirt to wear in this city—and some jeans. She stuck out like a dandelion growin’ from a crack in the sidewalk.

I never felt the urge to take care of anyone in my life, but she looked so vulnerable. I didn’t want to see her get caught in the avalanche that is Philly. She kept lookin’ around the train station like it was a big concert hall. I knew pimps were gonna zoom in on her and trick ‘er out. When she walked out the station, I followed her,

“Y’know that’s creepy,” I said.

“Yeah, I guess it was at the time, but I wasn’t thinkin’. I just wanted her to be safe. Sure enough there were two knuckleheads stakin’ out passengers comin’ outta the building. I saw them on my way in and made a mental note in case somethin’ went down.

They could hardly contain themselves. I knew they were gonna try and snatch her gold cross from around her neck and guitar she was carryin’. As soon as they got close to her, I kindly stepped in front of ‘em and sucker punched the first kid. Laid him out like Ali did Liston. The second one sprinted across Market St like Satan himself was after him.

I turned to her and asked if she was alright. She gave a smile that lit up heaven and her green eyes were like Chinese jade. I fell in love with her in an instant.”

“So what’s her name? I asked.

“Janet. She told me her name was Janet.”

“And you two were inseparable from that moment.” I declared.

His eyes shifted back to the ice puddle.

“For a time, we were. Back in those days, people weren’t all that PC. It’s a little better now, but, y’know, it was rough on her. She had that peace, love, Hippie mess goin’ on. Tryin’ to change the world. Too fragile a person to really see what’s underneath. I tried to school her, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

I didn’t want to think the worse, but I had to know.

“What happened to Janet?” as I placed my hand on his. He never took his eyes away from the puddle.

“We got into an argument around the corner from here. I shouldn’t have had her with me but she could be stubborn sometimes. I had to meet up with an associate. She wanted me to stop at a store so she could get a soda. I told her we didn’t have time, but she insisted and got out the car in front of these white boys hangin out on the corner. They started messin with her. I get out the car, they see me, look at her and it’s all downhill from there.

I got this scar cuz one of them had a knife and cut me from the start. They’re beatin’ the livin’ shit out of me. She tried to step in and gets shanked. Died right there on the concrete. Fuckin’ cops arrested me for it. If it wasn’t for the store owner, I’d be servin’ time.”

I saw the tear roll down his cheek, right over his jagged scar. I held his hand until he turned from that puddle; a little bleary eyed than before.

“Janet’s been on my mind a lot lately. You start dwellin’ on past mistakes, people you’ve lost, the usual stuff you think about when you get old. Lookin’ at you reminds me I was young once and thoroughly in love,” he said patting my hand.

Noise came from the other side of the diner that made me spin around in my seat. I spotted Sandra stumbling backwards and falling to the floor, screaming hysterically. Black Coat struck her with the butt of a sawed-off shot gun, while everyone sat stunned and confused.

“Alright, I need wallets and jewelry on the table, NOW! My associate is coming around with a bag to get your shit. Please don’t do anything stupid. We can all get out of here safe,” said Gray Coat as he stood by the booth with an automatic.

Black Coat ran around the place barking orders and sticking his gun in people’s faces, while Franklin followed his every step. He squeezed my hand tight until I felt it go prickly and had to tap out.

“Are you ok?” I whispered.

He didn’t say a thing but the muscles in his jaw twitched. The gunman got to us and saw that we hadn’t put anything on the table yet.

“What da fuck? Get your shit on the table. We on a schedule!” as he pointed the shotgun in my face.

I went to grab my purse when I heard, “Leave her the hell alone.”

My eyes went big and I shook my head to calm Franklin down. Black Coat swung around towards him and Franklin tilted the barrel upwards once he grabbed it. A shot went off in to the ceiling causing people to panic. I ducked down while my friend struggled with the robber.

Franklin had his back toward the second gunman when the bullet pierced on his left. He collapsed in Black Coat’s arms. The robber pushed him off and Franklin fell on his back.

I just started screaming. Blinded by tears, I couldn’t recognize my friend. And Black Coat stuck that fuckin’ shotgun in my face again. Gray Coat yells at him to get the loot and they bolt out the door.

I heard someone call 911 while I knelt down beside Franklin, holding his hand close to my heart. His breathing sounded shallow, hand growing colder by the second, but his eyes were fixed on me.

We stayed huddled next to our booth. I labored with him, matching breath for breath until his sweet smile told me to stop.

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