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I was carrying a camera Memnon had given me before we left. He said I would need it to play my part. “You’re going to be a photographer,” he told me. “There’s no film in it, but the flash still goes off when you press the button.”
“That’s important, huh?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Memnon. “They’ve got to think you’re really taking pictures.”
“The article we’re not writing for the New York Times…”
Memnon laid it all out for me. He’d called ahead to a place called Dottie’s and convinced the owner we were a couple of journalists in town to scout locations for a piece on America’s best diners. The owner, Dottie herself, had agreed to have us in for a meal and possible consideration for a feature in the article.
“Decent scam,” I said. “She didn’t want any references to check us out first?”
He shook his head.
“She only wanted to know when we were coming in.”
Dottie’s was an average diner with a reputation for serving average food at above average prices. In exchange for charging you more, they provided a jukebox and selected a secret song that could win everyone in the diner milkshakes if it were played. Over time, tourists began to love the place for its bland food and neutral décor that could make anyone from anywhere feel at home in the big city. It also became a rite of passage for visiting fathers to take their families to Dottie’s so they could go home with their own story about how much they’d spent on grilled cheese sandwiches.
The front of Dottie’s was made of glass and inside we could see an older woman, presumably Dottie, holding a meeting with her staff in front of a table with a little velvet rope around it. She gestured wildly at everyone standing there. The cooks. The waiters. The bus boys. Hostesses. Even a woman in a pantsuit who probably kept the books in the back. Each of them nodding their head when it was their turn to take directions from Dottie. Anxious to have the heat on somebody else.
“Listen,” I said to Memnon. “Why don’t we do this more often? There must be a million restaurants in the city. We could hit a different one every day. Who would know?”
“They’ll know,” he said. “Dottie’s probably bragged to half the city already. We show up someplace else, they’ll have heard of us first. Probably have more questions for us than Dottie did too. And if we’re found out, they’ll put the bracelets on us for sure.”
“Bracelets?” I asked.
“Prison,” said Memnon.
We went in.
Dottie picked us out right away. It was hard to miss me with that camera in my hands. She signaled and the rest of her staff scattered. The hostesses, the waiters, the dishwashers; everyone went back to their stations except for a single cook who had panicked and stood frozen where he was. Wide-eyed. Lost in the void between us. Very slowly, I watched him crouch beside our table and disappear beneath the cloth of the one next to it.
Dottie came walking over. She was a heavy-set woman in her late forties with shoulder length blonde hair. When I was growing up, I had a buddy named Ralph who had an aunt that looked just like her. Aunt Carla. There were pictures of her all over the house. Most of them from when she was younger. I remember spending a lot of time over there thinking about her when Ralph wasn’t around.
“You must be my friends from New York,” said Dottie.
We all shook hands.
“I’m Bobby Castellano,” said Memnon. “And this is my photographer, Michael Colucci.”
I held the camera up and smiled. Dottie struck a pose in front of me and I pretended to take her picture. FLASH. She liked that. I took another.
“Welcome to Dottie’s,” she said. “I hope you didn’t come all the way out here just for me. Is it polite to ask where else you’re eating while you’re in town?”
“Polite and pragmatic,” said Memnon. “But we made the trip for you, Dottie. Tomorrow we’re on to Seattle. And then to Boise after that.”
“Seattle,” she said. “Are you going to Robin’s in Pike Place?”
“We are,” said Memnon.
“Tell Robin I said hi, will you? She’s an old friend.”
“I’ll do you one better,” said Memnon. “Take a picture with me and I’ll show her when we get there. She’ll get a kick out of seeing you too.”
He put his arm around Dottie and the two of them smiled. I hit the button. FLASH.Dottie was having a good time. Memnon had that effect on people. He could make you laugh while he snuck your wallet right out of your pants.
“Follow me,” said Dottie. “Let me show you to your table.”
While we walked, I took some photos of the interior of the diner. The jukebox. The lunch counter. The main drag of tables in front of us. Dottie had all this kitschy shit up on the walls. Buffalo heads. Horse shoes. Highway signs. Hockey sticks. A hula hoop. Little things she’d picked out to spark a vague reminder of home for someone in town from anywhere.
I took photos of them too.
When we got to our table, Dottie undid the velvet rope and the two of us sat down. She handed us some menus and said someone would be right with us. We thanked her before she left. Then I looked at Memnon across the table.
“Well,” I said. “This is it, huh? Either they’re going to throw a net around us, or we’re eating for free.”
“We’re eating,” said Memnon. “Order whatever you want.”
I lifted the tablecloth next to me.
“What are you doing?”
“Checking on the cook,” I said.
But there was nobody there.
A waitress came by. The tag on her shirt said her name was Cindy.
“Hello, Cindy,” said Memnon. “Do you mind if I ask you some questions for the article we’re writing?” She shook her head and put down her pen and paper. “How long have you been working here at Dottie’s?”
“Three years now,” said Cindy.
“And you like it here?”
“Love it,” she said. “Everybody’s family at Dottie’s. That’s what makes this place so special. People come herefrom all over the country just to feel like they never left home. And they keep coming back, too, because we only use the freshest ingredients from the finest suppliers in town.”
She took a breath.
“Did Dottie ask you to say all that?”
Cindy glanced over her shoulder.
“It’s just something we all know,” she said.
“When’s the last time someone played the lucky record on the jukebox?” I asked.
“Not for a long time,” said Cindy. “Not since I’ve been here, anyway.”
“Must be a real stinker then, huh?”
“Maybe,” she said. “But somebody must like it, right? Why else would you go through all the trouble of making a record no one’s going to listen to?”
“I often wonder the same thing,” I said. “How about a photo?”
Cindy struck a pose with her pen and paper. I hit the button on my camera.
“One more,” she said. “Just in case I look funny.”
I hit the button again. Cindy was all smiles.
“This is more fun than it should be,” she said. “You’re not like the New Yorkers in movies, are you?”
“How do you mean?”
“She means we’re not assholes,” said Memnon.
Cindy went white in the face.
“Relax,” he said. “I know what they say about us. We’re jerks.”
“But why?” she asked. “You seem just as nice as anyone from anywhere else.”
“That’s because we are,” said Memnon. “We just get lost in the crowd.” He lit a smoke and smiled. “Look at this way, Cindy. Let’s say you filled a room with ten people. How many of those ten people do you think will turn out to be an asshole?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “How many?”
“As many as you want,” said Memnon. “It’s based on your experience. But let’s say that two out of every ten people are assholes. Here, you’ve got three quarters of a million people. So, two out of ten; that’s a hundred and fifty thousand assholes. Sounds like a lot, right? But in New York, we’ve got eight million people. And that means one-point-six million of us are assholes, which is ten times as many assholes as there are here or anywhere else. Spend enough time outside and you’re going to run into one. You know what I mean?”
She nodded. We placed our orders. Pancakes. Toast. Eggs. Side of bacon. Side of potatoes. Coffees and cream. Cindy was on her way.
“Did you clock the bill?” asked Memnon. “Ten dollars for a five-dollar meal anywhere else.”
I lit a smoke and dumped some change onto the table between us.
“Don’t do it,” he said. “If you wanted a shake, you should have ordered one.”
I gestured at the other people in there with us.
“I don’t want it for me,” I said. “I want it for them.”
I got up and hit the jukebox. I must have pumped thirty or forty cents into it and started picking the worst songs I could find. The stuff I figured nobody ever played. Perry Como. Sheb Wooley. Pat Boone. Even Jacques Brel. Some of the most intolerable recordings on earth. Many of which were considered minor forms of torture when played for enemy combatants across the globe. If I didn’t hit the song, I thought, people were going to be pissed off.
And they were.
Halfway through our meal, The Purple People Eater came on and there were requests to change it. The staff skipped the box forward one song and four or five people actually got up and left when they heard Hot Diggity Dog. One of them even called me an asshole on his way out and I shrugged him off thinking I was doing him a favor.
But as every record began and ended, it was business as usual from the kitchen behind us. No song and dance routine for the winner. No announcement made to the diners fortunate enough to be there for it either. I started thinking maybe there wasn’t a lucky song in the jukebox after all. And that maybe this was just another con like everything else.
“Relax,” said Memnon. “Even with forty cents in the wind, this shit was ten dollars.”
“I actually liked the food,” I said.
“Me too,” he told me. “But I got her all figured out, anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“How she’s getting away with charging tourists all this dough.”
A few minutes later, Dottie stopped by the table to wrap things up.
“So,” she said. “Now that your meal’s in the books, what did you think?”
Memnon gave her a wink.
“The freshest ingredients from the finest suppliers in town.”
“I guess Cindy was kind enough to toot our own horn.”
“She was,” said Memnon. He lit another smoke. “You mind if I ask you something before we leave? It’s about the business.”
“Not at all,” said Dottie. She handed us each a piece of paper. “But I’ve already made up these little fact sheets for you. I get writers in here all the time. It makes things easier for the both of us.”
We looked over the papers in our hands.
“Founded in 1941,” said Memnon.
“That’s right,” said Dottie. “I opened this place with my husband just before he left for the war.”
“Can we meet him too?”
“He’s no longer with us.”
“Sorry to hear that,” said Memnon.
This time it was Dottie who winked.
“Don’t be,” she said.
The three of us laughed about her husband’s death.
“What I want to ask isn’t on the paper,” said Memnon. “And it’s not on the record either, if you know what I mean. It’s only a personal question from me to you.” He hit his smoke. “The prices on the menu,” he said. “They’re a lot higher than the other diners on our list but tourists keep coming in anyway. Is it a reflection on the finest suppliers of the freshest ingredients in town, or part of a larger game you’re playing with them while they’re here?”
“Game?” she asked.
“A manipulation,” said Memnon. “Your clientele is from out of town. One way to stay open is to keep them talking about you after they leave. Small-town people have small-town pride. The Jeffersons will always want to one up the Joneses, and the Joneses are always going to want the Jeffersons to know what’s in their pocket. So, when the Jeffersons hear the Joneses came to the city and spent twenty-five dollars at Dottie’s, they’ll come to Dottie’s too, and spend twice as much money as the Joneses did, just to go home and tell the Joneses all about it….”
“The Joneses,” she said.
“Off the record, of course.”
Dottie took a moment to herself and laughed.
“You writers,” she said. “Sometimes you let your ideas go to your head.”
She ripped the top sheet off the pad of paper in her pocket and handed it to Memnon.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Your bill,” she said.
“But I thought we’d agreed to a meal on the house?”
“We have,” said Dottie. “Once I see my name in the paper, you boys come back and order anything you like.” She tapped me on the arm. “How about one for the road, huh?” I held the camera up and hit the button. FLASH. “And don’t forget to tell Robin I said hello…”
The two of us watched as Dottie disappeared back behind her kitchen doors.
I turned to Memnon.
“Well,” I said. “What do we do now?”
He put out one smoke and lit another. I kept waiting for him to blow up but he just sat there on his side of the table. Then he reached into his pocket and dumped a pile of small change between us. Fifty or sixty cents in nickels and dimes.
“What’s all this?” I asked.
“There’s ten or twelve people in here and the shakes are three dollars apiece.”
“So, get your ass up and hit the song this time,” he said. “I want to cost this place some money.”
Frank Weisberg lives in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in George Mason University's Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art; Michigan State University's The Offbeat; and the independent literary journals Levee and Palooka.