It wasn’t really morning yet. Mom had no idea what time it was, her watch was still set to time at our house and we’d barely gone to bed for the night. Where the sisters were, somewhere in Arkansas along Interstate 40, the edges of the sky began to warm toward dawn. Aunt Arlene paced swinging her arms back and forth, hunching and relaxing her shoulders, like a prizefighter preparing for a bout. All she needed to do was recite some poetry and hop about a little and she would have been doing her Mohammad Ali impersonation. The two men at the counter paid no attention to the sisters at all.
At the Coffee Cupboard wasn’t a big place, there were only four booths on either side of the front door. Mom sat in the second booth on the right side. Arlene paced from the wall to the door, in slow steady steps passing by empty tables. Then she’d turn and go back the other way. The whole circuit less than twenty steps. When she passed their table my aunt would pause to tap her cigarette on the edge of the ashtray. Mom had pushed the dirty little glass ashtray to the end of the table and pressed herself into the corner of the booth nearest the plate glass window. Mom sat directly under the UP in the word Cupboard painted on the window. She yawned over her bottomless cup of black coffee. She stretched her legs under the table, resting them on the bench seat opposite. Mom flexed and relaxed her toes.
“Are you going to sit down and look at the menu?” Mom asked as Arlene stalked past.
Aunt Arlene rolled her neck, took a drag on her cigarette. She held out her hand for a menu, Mom stared back at her. “Can’t sit anymore. Been sitting all night. I feel like if I sit down I’ll collapse.” Mom pushed one of the plastic coated pages towards Arlene, it slid haltingly over the rag-damp surface.
Mom blinked at her own menu. The print looked like the page had gotten wet and smeared enough to make the words furry. There was a spot in the small of her back ached where the hard metal part of the seatbelt dug into her while she dozed on the back seat. In a dim gas station bathroom, Mom’d managed to get her contacts out and into the little case she carried in her purse. Her eyes had burned the last hour she’d driven, now with the lens out her eyes felt like there was sand under the lids. She couldn’t put them back in without cleaning them, and Mom was not about to clean her contacts on the table in a diner. She took her paper napkin and rubbed at the table just in front of her. She tried to return to reading the menu holding it at arms length. “What looks good?”
My aunt made a considering noise, took a long drag on her cigarette and blew it out before answering. “The pie looks good, I think I’ll have that.”
“Pie?” Mom’s question got lost in a yawn.
“Yeah.” Aunt Arlene tapped her cigarette on the edge of the ashtray. She picked up her coffee cup from its saucer and took a sip. She tossed the menu onto the table, it made a small thwack. My aunt leaned over the table and took the sugar dispenser, poured a long glittering stream into her cup, stirred it with Ellen’s spoon and drank.
“Back to sugar?” Mom drank her coffee black. My aunt spent most of the previous year training herself to drink coffee without sugar. She called it training. I remember sometimes Aunt Arlene humming the theme from the movie Rocky as she raised a cup of black coffee to her lips. Angie and Michelle rolled their eyes when she did it. I’d thought it a marvelous joke every time.
“This coffee needs something to make it drinkable.”
Mom hushed Arlene, looked around the diner. The waitress in the turquoise uniform was seating a man who’d just come in on the opposite side of the room.
“At least eat a real breakfast, Arlene.”
My aunt licked her lips. Her lip stick was mostly gone, spread over the edge of the coffee cup and on her cigarette butts. “Some of the best days of my life started with desert for breakfast.” She waited for an answer, but Mom was squinting at her menu as if she could make the letters resolve by force of will. “Come on Ellen, live a little.”
“If I eat pie on an empty stomach, I’ll get a headache.” Mom pressed her hands to her forehead.
“And if I eat a whole breakfast now I’ll never go to sleep.” My aunt took another long drag and drummed the fingers of her left hand on the table.
The waitress came to refill their bottomless coffee cups, Ellen put her cup down roughly sloshing a little back smear onto the table. The waitress produced a rag from the pocket of her starched little apron and flicked up the mess with a practiced swipe. Her nametag said MARY in all capital letters, black on white. The tag centered on a stiff piece of lace pinned like a broach to he left shoulder. The lace almost covered an old grease stain. There was a bit of clotted egg yolk on her right sleeve. Mom pulled her wrinkled blouse straight and sat upright.
Mary sidled up to Arlene, holding up the coffee pot like presenting her credentials. She could have been the subject of a Robert Frank photo, Truck Stop Waitress at nearly dawn. “More coffee ladies?”