Thanksgiving At Denny's ~ JP

Thanksgiving At Denny's

It was somewhere around 11 pm and the wind outside seemed to blow right through you. You know the type, where no matter how high you turn up the heat in the truck, you can’t seem to get the ache of cold out of your bones. When I was a kid, the cold never seemed to bother me. I'd spend hours outside in the snow; sometimes with friends, sometimes just to stay out of the house. I took this job to stay away from home now, isolation is all that I am used to. My little apartment is barren. A couch, a TV, refrigerator. Table and chairs that never get used. Started out a new home for a new life and became just the place I store my stuff while I’m on the road. What a waste. I had hopes once upon a time. What the hell happened?

I could be home right now watching a movie or something but, everything is revolving around Thanksgiving now. Nothing but family movies on tv. More reminders that I chased everyone away focusing solely on myself and my work. What a waste. So, I said to hell with it and went to the only place I could think of to feel a little less alone and have a little nostalgia on a plate while I wallow in self-pity. For years now, this holiday simply means an extra trip to Denny’s® with the handful of other of society’s throw-aways to pretend life still has its purpose... You know the type of people who come here this late at night. The loaners, the angry, the emotionally checked out... Me, I had a family. I had a large group of friends that I considered family. Then they all got to know me and I, them. Now I have Thanksgiving dinner alone in a place where everyone else goes late at night when they finally admit to themselves that they are actually lonely. Funny, you push everyone away and still want to be around others. Whatever.

I had no trouble finding parking right near the door as the loser/late night crowd is thankfully small. Shutting off the truck I look the restaurant's interior over through the big plate glass windows that make most of these places look like a human terrarium and see just what I expected. Two people at the counter with three stools empty between them, one older guy having an animated conversation with his plate, an old couple who have made this stop part of their sad yearly ritual for I can't even guess how many years, probably because neither can cook a turkey I bet, and the same tired looking waitress at the register looking like her shift started decades ago and just never seems to move on to anything else. Actually, I think it's the same waitress that has been here every holiday since I was a kid. Who knows. Nameless and faceless for the most part. That's what makes this place perfect. I don't bother even looking in the semi-secluded booths because those people are even sadder to look at normally.

I finally take a deep breath before climbing out of the truck. Walking toward the door, the old couple look over at me and smile. Damn it, they recognize me. Thankfully they never really talk to anyone else. Entering the building, that familiar smell of coffee, bacon and floor cleaner hits me like a wave, making me feel right at home. Even the "Please Wait to be Seated" sign greets me like an old friend. Feels like the place time just keeps passing over. The only place left that I still feel like the same old me that I have always been. It sounds weird but, I actually smile at the thought that when I was a 20-year-old kid, I could swear that same old couple was here then as well. I guess I should have started paying attention sooner.

"Was wondering when you were going to get here." The waitress said with a smile as she grabs a menu and a pot of coffee. "Same booth?"

Okay, so I'm predictable. "That'd be great," I reply with a chuckle. "So, you've been working here what? A hundred years now? Do they pay that well?"

"It's the tips." She laughs as she pauses at the table where the guy who was talking to his plate now looks as if he's lost whatever argument he was having with it and now won't even talk to it anymore. Nothing said, she just pours more coffee into his cup and we continue to my favorite booth.

Deep into what used to be the "Smoking" section when I first started coming here, since then both I and the establishment have given it up, is the same booth I have sat in for what seems like a lifetime. Every Thanksgiving I wasn't with family. Every Christmas, Every Easter, Every... You get it. I take my jacket off and toss it in on the seat before sliding in next to it. My back facing the windows as I like to feel like time has actually stood still. Outside, time has changed the scenery but in here, it could still be 1988, 1998...hell, probably hasn't been remodeled since the 70's. I smile as she fills my coffee cup and silently wonder if she's even had the same uniform the whole time she's worked here. "Whatever happened to Helen?" I ask, testing her knowledge of waitresses of the past.

"Oh god." She sighs. "Honey, she passed away a couple years ago I heard." Shaking her head, she begins to dig through her apron to produce the handful of creamers that will sit unused on the table collecting friends throughout the evening. "You need a moment or are we just gonna put in the usual?"

Now I come here often, and the usual could be steak and eggs or a Grand Slam but, Thanksgiving is the only night I get a meal that isn't breakfast food. Tonight, I follow a tradition started years ago with friends who have since drifted off on their own tides leaving me on my own holding the torch, so to speak. The Denny's® Thanksgiving Dinner. It used to begin with a bottle of Wild Turkey® but that stopped a few years back. Some say I have matured, I say I'm saving money on cab fare so...damn it, they're right. Anyway, it now begins with coffee. In Denny's® everything begins with coffee, period. Each landmark event in my life started with one of these scratched up, tired looking cups of questionable java. It's a rite of passage, I think. Followed by a salad that I have always found humor in the abnormal amount of water that is left in the bottom of the bowl. I used to joke that it was soup and salad all in one. Then it is on to the main course. Turkey and gravy, mixed vegetables, stuffing, mashed potato, and cranberry jelly. With this, more coffee. Then for dessert, pumpkin pie with whipped cream and yes, more coffee until either you jitter your way out the door or they throw you out, so they can dust off the table. Recent years have given me less reason to leave without it being hinted toward so, let's assume I'm in for the long haul and no one gets disappointed.

"Well, I could pretend to look at the menu for a while but we both know that's just for show. The usual would be great." I reply getting an approving nod from the waitress. After watching her shush the man who is now having an argument with no one, I scan the rest of the room and notice a kid, probably about 16 or so sitting in the other corner booth facing me. His table had nothing but a single glass of water and extra place settings. He didn't look up and notice me, so I was able to see that his eyes were all red and puffy, as if he had been crying. Just as I was half tempted to walk over to check if he was okay, my waitress came out with my salad.

"Here you go hun," she smiled as she sat the bowl down. "Just be a few minutes for your dinner."

"Thanks," I reply, still looking over at the boy. "Do you know if he's okay? He looks upset." I ask, simply looking at the boy.

She looked back at the man who was now holding his face and rocking in his chair, obviously unhappy with whatever his imaginary friend just said and sighed. "Yeah, he always looks that way," and turning on one foot, went back to the kitchen.

"That's not..." I began but she was too fast for me. I look back at the kid and something kept gnawing at my conscience. As I was pondering his predicament, the old couple suddenly got quiet and soon after the noise reduction, I felt a hand on my shoulder.

"Ah, you see him too," The old man stated in a matter-of-fact tone. "I hear he came in with his whole family and they up and left him sitting there all alone some time ago. Poor kid hasn't even eaten anything, and he got here well before me and the Mrs."

I shook my head and looked up into the old man's eyes. "Has anyone talked to him?"

"I haven't the foggiest." He replied. Patting my shoulder twice before retrieving his hand. "Shame so many people alone on a night that's supposed to include family." He continued as he began to continue on to the bathroom.

"Depends on the family." I get out with a chuckle. Now I could sit here and just ignore this kid or, let my human side out and see if this guy needs help. Sure, looks like he does. With a shrug, I stand up and approach his table. Clearing my throat loudly, I stop one table away and hope that he will at least look up. No response, damn. "Big table for just one guy," I get out in the least creepy way I can manage, failing miserably. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine." The boy says wiping his eyes once more before looking directly at me. My distraction shaking the foundation of his reserve and the tears begin to stream down each cheek.

"Whoa there, buddy," I say grabbing the napkin from the place setting from the table next to me and offering it to him. "Looks like the dam burst, that's not what I was aiming to do."

Almost a full minute later he seemed to calm down and simply stared out the window, a light frustrated laugh confirming that I probably should have stayed in my booth. "My family was supposed to meet here tonight. My mom and dad, younger sister, older brother and his wife. Two of my cousins and my grandfather."

Almost an eternity passed as I waited for him to continue as he kept mopping up the stray tear and sniffling. Finally, I tilt my head and decide I've already opened the door to the drama department, may as well step in the rest of the way. "I take it they didn't show? Did you have the wrong restaurant?"

"Oh no," He laughed with a slight gurgle from the crying. "They all showed. They were all here and we were about to order then..." He trailed off, his lower lip beginning to quiver.

"Mind if I sit?" I ask timidly, his single shrug letting me know that he didn't care. "Something bad happened? An argument?" I begin to prod. "My family used to argue all the time. This one time..."

"I'm gay." He cut me off.

"Okay," I reply, not sure what kind of a response he was looking for. "I'm not." I manage to get out with a shrug, still wondering what I had hoped to accomplish here.

"They didn't know, and I knew they would be mad if they did so I wasn't going to tell them." Finally, he looked directly at me and I could literally feel the pain in his expression. "I a boyfriend that they didn't know about."

"Had?" I question.

"Yeah," he sniffled. "He must have decided to come here with his family. They knew about us but..." His eyes filled back up and he fought to hold the tears back. "I never told him that I couldn't tell my family."

"Why not?" I ask. Offering him another napkin.

"They hate fags." He broke and began to sob.

"That's awful," I say, looking around the room for the waitress with no luck. "I'm guessing they know about your boyfriend now?" I risked.

"Yup." He replied before blowing his nose. "Ex-boyfriend." He added before taking a sip of his water and visibly working to calm himself down. "You don't need to hear this. I'm ruining your holiday."

With that, I laughed, which caught him off guard and got a surprised smile from him. "Oh my god kid. This holiday was ruined years ago. Nothing you could say or do could make it worse." I say as I stood back up. "Look," I continue. "If you would like to talk about it or not talk about it, why not do it over dinner. You are welcomed to join me if you like."

"I can't," He replied and looked back out the window. "I don't have any money on me and now..." He began to cry again, " I have nowhere to go."

I could have just minded my own business but no, I had to stick my nose in where it didn't belong. Well, the damage has been done I suppose. "You can come over to my table and we can add to my order," I stated with as big a smile as I could force as I stood and motioned to the other booth. "Or you could just sit there, and I can go away, whatever works for you.

Tears still streaming, I could tell that my words made it through to him. He smiled and wiped his eyes before nodding his head. "You sure mister?"

"Yeah, I'm sure," I replied and turned to walk back to my booth. I reached the booth in time for the waitress to come out of the kitchen and started placing my dinner on the table. "Could you do me a huge favor and double that order?" I asked standing behind her with my back to the boy.

"Double it?" She laughed. "Suddenly hungrier than you thought?" She continued with a smile.

"No," I began pointing my thumb over my shoulder. "My new friend here is going to be joining me tonight," I smiled. "Hey, I never caught your name..." I started to say as I turned back and saw that the boy's table was empty. No sign anyone had been sitting there. "Where'd he go?"

"Where'd who go?" She laughed. "No one's sat there all night."

"The kid who was sitting all alone at that table. He was just right there." I waved my hands to emphasize my statement.

Just then the old man came out of the bathroom and stopped on his way by. "Kelly, you'll need to add his name to the list." He said before shooting me a bright smile. "He's one of the good ones alright."

"Wait, what?" I shook my head as my waitress also gave me a warm smile. "What list, what are you talking about?"

My waitress waved the old man back to his seat and then turned to face me. "That boy's name was Ethan. He came here to have Thanksgiving dinner with his family. While the family were preparing to order, another young man by the name of Alex approached the table to say hi. Evidently, Ethan had lied to Alex and told him that they knew the two of them were a couple." She folded her arms and shook her head. "The family left in an uproar yelling at Ethan to never show his face again and on the way out threatened Alex if he was ever to show his face at their house again."

The story seemed to fit but one thing was still bothering me. "So where did Ethan go? I was just talking to him."

She smiled, reached over and mussed my hair. "Oh honey, this all happened about 20 years ago. Only the regulars can see him and even then, only if they are good enough people to want to help him."

Just then, the man who had been arguing with no one at his table smiled and held up a $5 bill my waitress walked over and plucked out of his hand. Grabbing a fresh pot of coffee, she returned and refilled my cup. "What was that about?" I scratched my head.

"I bet him that you would be the next one to talk to Ethan." She smiled. "On the first night, you came in here."

As she turned to refill cups of coffee for all those present, I looked over and saw the boy smile back at me with another young man of about the same age sitting next to him.  On the wall behind them was a framed newspaper article that I had never noticed before. From my seat I could read the headline, '2 local teens found dead of exposure, family refuse to comment' with a picture of the two boys who were now smiling at me.  "A test?" I ask and they both smile wider.

No matter how weird this place gets, it still feels like home if you are lucky enough to become one of the regulars. I wonder what else I don't know about this place.