A Realization Before a Diner Menu
by Eli Karlo
It was there, as his eyes rested, but attended to nothing, on the second page of the laminated diner menu that he finally realized what it was he wanted. The realization came as such a surprise and came so clearly to him that he laughed aloud. The heads of the teenagers seated across from him turned. They appraised him and gave him long disgusted stares. Yet he was so delighted to know at last, after so many hours, after so many years, what he truly wanted, that he didn’t notice. What he wanted, he realized, was simply to hear a new song. To escape, for five minutes, the haunting pop songs of his youth. To escape the ghosts of summers past and the phantoms of all the girls he’d ever loved.
The diner had been playing their only CD on repeat since opening. It was a haphazard playlist of pop and alternative rock songs from the 70s to the 90s. Just the kind of songs he wanted to escape. For, with every grunge tune he could recall a humid summer’s afternoon spent kicking up dust with his boyhood best friend. Every arena rock anthem called up memories of first kisses on unmowed lawns, and each 80’s smash hit summoned memories of heavy petting in parent’s basements. But what made the songs unbearable was not that they brought back these memories. It was that they did not stop at those memories. They called back not just the bonfires and the fireflies’ on again off again burning on darkened summer lawns, but everything that came after. The juvenile fistfights with his best friend and the wounds left behind that never healed. The promises made to girls beneath a billion stars as both his and her arms stung from mosquito bites, and all the ways those promises had been broken. With every wanderlust anthem of the 90’s came the memory of how the night could not really be saved, how the break of dawn could not, in the end, be fought. And how no car, no matter how fast, could drive them away from here, and away from their mediocre fates. No, none of them had escaped their hometown, and yet how far apart they wound up just the same, he and all the rest that vowed to stay together. Where were those summer girls now, he thought.
A new song. He said the words to himself as if quoting scripture. Was this the reason they repeated those words in church Sunday after Sunday? I will sing to the Lord a new song. He felt as if he understood something hidden even from the psalmist, that God like us, must not need, but perhaps delight in, some new unburdened tune. There is a pleasure, he thought, a divine pleasure surely, in a melody that has never been sung, in one that your heart has never broken too and that has never been the soundtrack to your shedding of tears.
He looked over at the teenagers sitting across from him. One of the boys in a letterman jacket was putting his arm around a girl. The Doobie Brothers were singing about the things a fool believes. The girl was pulling away playfully and glancing around the diner, giving the boy a look that meant not here. How long had it been since he’d been a boy like that with his arm around a girl like that? He could still remember playing footsie under a diner table, all the while above it he, and his girl pretending not to notice one another, carrying on conversations with their friends, coyly keeping their love undercover. What song was playing then? My Heart Can’t Tell You No. That was it, and as he hummed the tune to himself he could still smell his date’s flat-ironed hair, see the purple nail polish chipping off her fingers. He looked at the couple across from him and wondered if someday they too would wish for new songs, and wish to finally be free of the burden of remembering those nights, these nights.
The girl, now comfortably settled into the leathery arm of the boy’s letterman jacket caught him staring, and drew her head back in disgust. She leaned in and whispered something to the boy who had been absentmindedly moving hash browns around his plate with his free hand. He turned and looked at the man. The boy stuck his chin out towards him and narrowed his eyes.
“You got a problem,” he asked. His voice broke as he said it, and his right eyebrow twitched from embarrassment.
The man quickly looked to the left and to the right, looked back, met the eyes of the boy, and raised his eyebrows. He shook his head.
“No, I was just wondering,” he wanted to tell him what he had discovered, to save him the time of having to figure it out for himself. He wanted to tell him that he that he had found a way to escape the ghost of tonight. That he had found a way to cure the disease of nostalgia. All it took was a new song. He looked at the boy, at the down on his upper lip, at the few hairs struggling to be born on his chin. He remembered the cracking voice and understood that this evening was not yet for him a ghost but living thing, the only real thing. He would not understand. He could not understand. Not yet. The man laughed, a soft quiet laugh, and shook his head. He picked up his menu and tossed it back down.
“Sorry, I was just trying to figure out what I wanted.”
Eli Karlo is a fiction writer from the Midwest with Bsc. Behavioral Science and Comparative Religion. His short story Somebody's Hell was a finalist in Dappled Things' 2018 J.F. Powers Short Fiction contest.