We slide into the booth just before closing time. The vinyl bench seat squeaks softly against our legs. A couple of older locals chew the fat with the waitress behind the counter as she wipes down the coffee makers. The glass dessert case stands beside the counter, a colorful assortment of pies all topped in whipped cream backlit against the chrome walls. Rob Thomas sings in the background, “It’s three a.m., I must be lonely.”
We’ve come to the diner in search of late night pie. You and I always drove by but never went inside. Tonight I’m taking her with the intention of making a memory — a mom-teen daughter date. This is the real deal, a 1954 rail car turned restaurant. Not like Johnny Rocket’s in the mall. It’s also cash-only, so I had to think ahead, make sure I had my wallet stuffed with bills. I’m not sure how much diner pie costs these days.
She’s fascinated by the jukebox, and I realize she’s never seen one before. We choose our pie slices — hers chocolate cream, mine strawberry rhubarb — and I answer her questions about music. Yes, the jukebox used to work. Yes, people really put money into a machine at their table to listen to a song. Yes, I’m old enough to remember pumping the juke with quarters for another go-around the roller rink to my favorite song. This girl, growing up on iTunes, podcasts and streaming music, can’t believe people actually lived this way.
Our pie arrives, and we do our family tradition, “Taste for Taste.” My bite of her chocolate cream takes me back to childhood summers. My mother’s buttery homemade crust filled to the edges with chocolate pudding filling, a smooth layer of Cool Whip spread atop. It’s exactly what you would have ordered. You would have loved it.
My strawberry-rhubarb pie bites in all the right ways. It’s the perfect mix of sweet and tart, with a dusting of powdered sugar on top. The filling makes me crave a swig of water, and I draw little swirls in the powdered sugar with my fork until my glass arrives. I tell her about the rhubarb that grew in your yard as a child, transplanted from your grandparents and lovingly tended by your father. I remember dating you and learning that your family loved rhubarb like mine did. Somehow feeling this was serendipitous.
We finish our pie and sit in quiet. The darkness outside makes me feel like we’re sitting in an Edward Hopper painting. The waitress busses nearby tables. The dishes clatter against each other, and I imagine you here with us. I see the future stretch out before me with a million little hometown diners, a million little places you’ll never see with me. In the background, Diana Ross croons, “Do you know where you’re going to? Do you like the things that life is showing you? Where are you going to? Do you know?”
We wipe our mouths on the paper napkins, and I leave my pile of cash and coins on the table. A former waitress, I always tip well. Tonight, I leave a little extra. A benediction for this little space of chrome and glass that you’ve somehow made sacred with your absence.