Here’s a piece of flash fiction I wrote a couple of years ago that, I suppose, is semi-autobiographical. It’s about loneliness and the yearning for human connection.
I decided to sit next to the older man at the counter today. He nodded as I sidled up on the stool and grabbed a menu. He was slouched in his usual spot, reading the newspaper and eager to talk to someone, anyone.
So was I.
As I faked looking over the menu, I deliberated on how to start a conversation with him. My social skills were so bad – I was working on it in therapy.
Finally, I decided to just say, “How you doing?”
The man looked up from behind his big, rectangular glasses with a smile. He put the newspaper down. “Okay. How are you?”
He went on to say his name was Frank and he was a proud regular of the Denny’s. I had seen him before; he always sat at the end of the counter, butting into conversations with people and talking to the waitresses. Today, he wore tan khakis and a green golf shirt, but the khakis were stained, and shirt frayed.
There was something off about him: the wild look in his brown eyes, his tense smile. And he was always here alone. But I came here alone, too – I tried to remember that.
“Hey there, Frank,” a waitress said. “Can I get you anything?”
I recognized the waitress; her name tag read “Marlene.” She was a buxom middle-aged woman with dyed red hair and a smoking-scarred voice. I sometimes fantasized about her.
“You know what I want,” Frank said.
“I’ll never understand why you like the chicken soup that much.”
“It’s just like my wife used to make.”
The waitress turned to me. “What about you, hun?”
My cheeks flushed when she called me “hun.” “Scrambled eggs and bacon, please.”
She smiled and took my menu, and I watched her big hips sway hypnotically as she walked back to the kitchen. It had been months since I’d been with a female, and it seemed like it’d been years since I had any genuine human connection. Maybe longer.
“You come here often?” Frank asked.
“Yeah. I live close by. I guess I come here when I don’t feel like cooking.”
It was a partial truth. I really went there when I was tired of sitting in my studio apartment alone; even if I came to Denny’s and said four or five words to a waitress, it was better than sitting on the couch and watching TV by myself.
“I’m here all the time,” Frank said. “This place is like my second home.”
Without lowering his voice, he said, “It’s a long story. My wife and kids died in a fire two years ago. Electrical fire. I was at work and the house burned down. I was devastated. I had nowhere to go, and I was sleeping in my car in the parking lot here.”
He paused to take a sip of coffee. I was amazed at the level of personal detail he was sharing with me, a stranger. I was used to sharing secrets from my time in group therapy, but I didn’t expect it from a guy I just met.
“A waitress found me in my car, and they brought me in a gave me a meal. Such nice people. I’ve been coming back ever since.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, and I meant it, not like those standard lines you give when someone says something terrible. “It’s great that they helped you out.”
“Yeah, they’re really something. Some days are harder than others. But I get by.”
Marlene appeared from the kitchen with our meals on a tray. “Chicken soup for you. And scrambled eggs and bacon for you, hun. Anything else I can get you guys?”
We both shook our heads and dug into the food. From the corner of my eye, I watched Frank sip the soup’s broth, like a little kid drinks the sugary milk after he’s done a bowl of cereal.
“I like to save the noodles and chicken bits for last,” he said. “They’re my favorite part.”
I nodded as I chewed on a piece of bacon. Then I pictured Frank in the days following his family’s death in the fire. There he was, huddled in his car under the unforgiving stars, sleeping under his coat. It made me think of resilience and the ability of people to survive great tragedies. I was amazed by him, really. It made me think of my own trials and how I was trying to work through them.
Most of all, it was good just to talk to someone. I could feel a connection with Frank.
I ended up staying for at least another hour talking, as Marlene came by and refilled our coffees. Frank told me he worked in a Home Depot distribution center, the same one for 20 years, and he was recently promoted. He told me that, and much more, along with ranting about various things, like how athletes make too much money nowadays.
Finally, I picked up the check and said good-bye. I was going to the art museum, alone, though I didn’t tell him. I was eager to talk to him again, though.
“See you soon?” I asked.
“You know where to find me.”