Thomas looks up at the neon sign humming over the diner. As he reads the words “Old Country Diner”, the old man shakes the disbelief that his former hangout still exists after so many years. These days, the only small businesses around these parts are taverns and liquor stores. Thomas had thought his old hangout would be turned into a Starbucks or a Dunkin Donuts. A feeling of relief rushes through his wrinkled skin; it is a feeling he has not felt since the war. This sense of timelessness only comes from seeing a monument of memory last throughout many years. Whether it be a memorial or a small diner, it still warms Thomas’s slow beating heart.
Thomas kneels in front of his golden retriever Law, tying him to a nearby lamp post. The light glistens over the shiny fur of the canine, spotlighting his soft features in his dark surroundings. A brush of the night breeze ruffles the old man’s furrowed skin, from the top of his thinning head to the bottom of this forty year old, size 12 combat boots. With a quick pat and a smile from Thomas, Law lays on his belly on the frozen concrete sidewalk; his dark eyes follow his master into the diner.
As Thomas walks up the stairs toward the diner door, he notices the winter frost washes the concrete stairs, matching its color to the color of the sidewalk. The old door bell chimes sweetly in his ear. Unlike most places, this diner kept many of its old time appearances: the counter outside the kitchen with stools lined equally along it looking like the ice cream parlors Thomas used to go to as a boy, the small booths with the mini jukebox along the large windows, the chandelier light fixtures with glass crystal twinkling like small fireflies in the summer and the cashier counter which offers free mints and toothpicks to departing patrons. The smell of coffee and freshly baked donuts tickles his nose as Thomas walks to a nearby table. He removes his navy blue baseball jacket and slides it to the side. Then, the old man lays down his small black suitcase, producing a large checker board and several chess pieces. As Thomas places the piece on each square, the café waitress walks over to the table.
“Hi, and how are we today?” asks a nasally high toned voice.
Thomas looks up with his droopy eyes, seeing a shadow of a woman for a moment. “I’m good,” he replies, as his eyes adjust to the gleaming morning light.
“Can I start you off with something?” she asks, tapping her pen on her small notepad. The woman’s round face seems worn, after many year of taking orders and cooking in the back kitchen. It has a light orange tint, with some of her fizzy chocolate hair over her forehead and the rest pulled back into a bun. Her buggy eyes had crows feet coming down to her red tipped nose. Her tongue licks the top of her emerald colored lips, then the bottom as she wait for Thomas to order. The waitress wore a black pair of suit pant held up by a belt that squeezed at her belly folds. She also wore matching vest over her white collared blouse.
“I’m actually waiting for a friend. So, if you don’t mind waiting…”
“Sure, sure, just tell me when you’re ready, hon” The waitress leaves as Thomas goes back to placing chess pieces onto the board. After placing most of the pieces, Thomas pauses to remember whether the white queen goes on the white square or the black one. He switches the king and queen pieces back and forth, recalling past chess games with his old friend. Thomas remains confused until a familiar voice directs him to the right set up.
“It is a queen on a same color, signore,” he says. Thomas looks up with a light grin across his face. His friend was a bit worn since the last time they met. His eyes do not have the charming blue glow in his youth. His hair is a thinning, charcoal gray, instead of a deep brown color, sleeking backwards around his ears and toward his neck. He still wears a handle-bar mustache though it is not the usual coffee hue. On this occasion, though casual, he wears his light gray suit and dress pants, as if he is meeting some beautiful dame for a movie and dinner. Thomas’s friend limps to the other side of the table, dropping his cane to the side of him.
“It’s been a while, Jacob,” Thomas says, switching the queen and king to their places
“Yes, well a, I did not a see you. When-na did you a start wear-ring glasses?“
“Oh these,” Thomas says, placing his glasses in front of the chess board, “A couple of years now. I’ve been wearing them for so long that I was beginning to enjoy the anonymity. It feels nice.“
“Have you a been wait-ting long?”
“No, I was surprised you wanted to meet at night.”
“I have a work at the agency during a day. I a work better at a night anyway.”
“How is that?”
“How is work?”
“Good, good, busy, busy. Lots of a traveling, barely any a time to visit the States.”
“If you are so busy, we could do this another time.”
“No, no, I never a stray from a challenge, especially if a that challenge is a chess game.”
“How long has it been?”
“Since a when?”
“Since we’ve last played chess?”
“Hm, I a think we haven’t-ta played since the war. Never could a beat me then, don’t think-ka you could beat me now.”
“I’m feeling lucky today. Who starts, you or me?”
“Well a, you are white so I will-la go first.” Jacob makes his first move; his hand quivers as he touches the pawn.
The waitress moves to the two old men as they begin their game, “Excuse me but can I start you off with anything? Drinks, coffee?”
Jacob speaks first, “Of a course, signora. I will a have a coffee, black.”
“Just a glass of milk,” Thomas adds. The waitress leaves, taking their orders. The two old men continue their game.
“How is a Jane?” Jacob asks Thomas, moving his piece forward.
“Oh, she’s fine, I visited her the other day. She got a tube in every place you can think of but she’s well.”
“And a Frank?”
“He’s doing well. Got a grand kid on the way. You believe that, a grand kid. Makes me feel a bit older every time I say it.”
“Yes, I a saw Law outside. It is a like she never-ra ages.”
“Actually, that’s Law’s puppy, Law II. Law died a while ago.”
“Oh, I am a sorry.”
“She was a good dog. Law was a trooper until the end.”
“You named a her puppy a Law?”
“You know me, I’m a nostalgic kind of man. You can relate. I see you still have your old cane.”
“Yes, has a not left my a side since the war. Kentaro gave a this to me.”
“Kentaro, you mean the shogun Kentaro.”
“Yes, yes. He told a me in this new age, there was no a need for it.”
The waitress arrives to the table with a tray. She places the ceramic coffee cup in front of Jacob and the clear glass of sweating water to Thomas. “You boys ready to order?”
Jacob starts again, “You have a any soups?”
“We have New England Clam, Matzoh Ball, Chicken Noodle, Minestrone…”
“Ah, a Minestrone will-la do.”
“And for you?” the waitress asks Thomas.
“Steak and eggs.” The waitress looks at Thomas for a moment before jotting down the order.
“And how would you like your steak?”
“And your eggs?”
“Okay, I’ll take those menus from you.” Before she leaves, Thomas asks, “Excuse me but would you happen to know if Harriet is still around?”
“Harriet? I’m sorry, no one by that name around here.”
“Then her daughter, Fran. Is Fran still working here?”
“Fran? Oh you mean Auntie Fran. No, she died a while back. Poor woman died of lung cancer.”
“I‘m sorry. I was just curious.”
As the waitress walks away, Thomas hangs his head. “See what I mean,” he says to Jacob, who is sipping his coffee.
“It is a change, signore. Just a be thankful this place is still-la around and that we have survived it all.”
“It’s not that. I just feel we could have done something back when.”
“Not a this conversation again. Signore, there was nothing you could a done. McCarthy gave a us no choice and retiring was a only way out. It was a different-ta time.”
“Nowadays, I wish I was in that time.”
“How a so?”
“Everything was black and white back then. We were the good guys, the Nazis were the bad guys. We fought for freedom and liberty, they stood for injustice and tyranny. Now, we say one thing and mean the other. We say we want peace in the Middle East, but take away people’s rights and turn their countries into military states to preserve democracy. We say we stand for morals and ethics, but take liberties when dealing with war. We imprison our own people without trials or laws. It makes me sick sometimes that this is what we fought for during the war.”
“Well, I a never saw the world as a black and a white-at, only a many shades of gray. We a, as the Allies, were a much a lighter shade of gray than the Nazis, or the Communists, and even the Arabs-sa. Even in a our time, we put a Japanese into the concentration camps.”
Thomas sits silently for a moment. “That was different,” he finally mumbles.
“No, signore, after sixty years, America still has not respect-at for a rights of their people. Only a this time it’s the Arabs instead of a Japanese.”
“But they attacked America first.”
“So? America was a responding to a attacks of 9/11.”
“But America caused the Arabs to become extremists.”
“And who is a to say we were not responsible for a rise of the Axis after World War I?”
Thomas sits silently again. His friend brings up a good point. As much as he wants to believe he fought for the right cause decades ago, his America may not have been that different from the America today.
Thomas looks vacantly out the window. “Maybe you’re right, Jacob. I just wish things would be clearer as to who’s good and who’s evil.”
“Signore, our enemies are not as a evil as we think, and we’re not always as a good.”
The two silently continue their game. After twenty minutes, Jacob checkmates and Thomas demands a rematch. His friend gladly obliges. They continue on their second game when the waitress arrives with their meals.
“Here we are then,” the waitress interjects, “The Minestrone soup.” She places a steaming ceramic bowl in front of Jacob. The surface of hot brown soup reflects the light fixtures from above. The stream flares a vegetable aroma, roaming over his moustache and into this nose. “And the medium steak and pouched eggs.” She places the large oval dish and then a smaller circle plate in front of Thomas. The skin of the steak is still sizzling; it is a brown color with black charcoal grill lines over it and black marks around the edges. It is about a half an inch thick; the shape of the meat almost resembles the state of Maine. The two eggs are a pure milky ivory color with a soft bubble in the middle. One of the eggs wobbles up and down, like a white heart on Thomas’s dish. “Can I get you gentlemen anything else?” The two men shake their heads, prompting the waitress to leave.
Jacob skims the plane of the soup; the spoon trembles when his mouth sips it dry. Thomas, who has not eaten since leaving the nursing home, barrels into his steak, letting the chewy soft morsel melt in his mouth. As Thomas digs into his eggs and the oily yolk oozes out, Jacob asks, “You a sure you can eat that, signore?”
“Well a I think at a your age you’d be watching you’re a cholesterol or a your heart condition.”
“I’m going to die anyway, Jacob. Why prolong the inevitable when I could be enjoying the good things in life?”
“You have a good a point.” The two continue eating in silence, moving chess pieces on their turn. Finally towards the end of their meal, Jacob wins again.
“Another game, signore?”
“Nope, I think I’ve had enough of a butt whooping for one day.”
“Of course a. I shall get the check-ka.” Jacob calls over for the waitress for the check. Thomas reaches for his wallet, but realizes that he did not receive his Social Security check for this month yet.
“Could you get his one?” Thomas pleads to his old friend. Jacob smiles and nods his head. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course a, signore.”
“Do you know why I can’t win at chess?”
“Well, a see, you a always never sacrifice any a pieces unless you have a to. I a however, always think about a winning the game.”
“Oh, I see.”
“It is a just like-ka real life. You are a not willing to sacrifice your a men in battle to win. I am a.
The pair walks out of the booth, towards the cashier. Thomas waits near the doorway as his friend pays the bill. “Signore,” Jacob said to his friend, “You a forgot your coat a.” Thomas, looking across to the table, sees his coat on the side and reaches for it. In the corner of his eye he peers out the window to see his dog barking, and an alarm goes off in him.
Jacob also heard growling, asking, “Was a that Law?”
The two dash out the door of the diner. Near the lamppost, Thomas’s dog is in attack position, snarling at three figures in the dark. Scattered green pieces of glass lay in front of Law and wet beer covers his fur. The three figure are tainting the dog, spitting and kicking him, then jumping backwards as Law is jerked backwards with his leash. The three boys had on the same outfit, an oversized black bubble jacket reaching over the torso with a pair of baggy blue jeans shagging downward. One of the boys, a tall lanky fellow, wears a red bandana over his pimple forehead. Another, a more bulkier, stouter, overweight gentleman wears a black Yankee’s cap backward and his thick pink cheeks fades into his pale complexion. The last, a short skinny teenager, has a more tanner skin his other companions, with thinly faded hairs over his mouth. Thomas, with Jacob in tow, rushes to his dog’s aid.
“What the hell you think you’re doing?” Thomas scolds the teenagers.
“Is this your dog old man?” the boy in the red bandana asks
“It looks like fucking Lassie,” the cap wearing teenager exclaims.
“Lassie was a collie asshole,” the shorter friend comments.
“Yes, this is a his dog,” Jacob says, “now if a you boys would kindly leave, we a can put this-sa whole-la mess behind us before it a gets ugly.”
“Ugly? Sounds like-ka these old timers wanna-na fight, hey Vin,” the tallest boy mocks.
“I a believe so. Got something to prove old man.” The fatter teenager shoves Jacob back as Thomas unties Law. Jacob is about retaliate but instead turns to his firend and says, “Come on, signore. These guys are a not worth it.” The two old men turn their backs and prepare to leave.
The boys begin to taunt, “Yeah, run away ya bag of bones.”
“Go eat your viagra or something.”
“Yeah, they probably have to like take a shit for like an hour.”
“So who’s the man in bed you old faggots?”
The boys continue to ridicule and laugh as Thomas looks over to Jacob. “I’ve had enough off laying down for society. How about you?“
“Me a too,” Jacob whispers back.
“You up for this?”
“Depends-sa. You still a stand for the truth, justice and the a American Way?” Thomas smiles; he has not heard that phrase in a long time. He shouts for Law to “sick ‘em” while Jacob unsheathes his cane, revealing a razor-sharp rapier. The pair charges into battle once more. Heroes of old, The American Yankee and the Casanova, the World’s Finest, together again.