By Ella St. John
The diner was part of a filling station and sat along the highway on the outskirts of town. It was mid-afternoon and cold, nine inches of February snow on the ground. At a table for two, next to a frosty window, the girl sat alone. Each chime of the bell hanging from the door sent her eyes darting to the entrance. She flashed a hopeful, but brief smile, then her attention returned to Walter Cronkite’s voice booming from the black and white television behind the counter. Astronaut John Glenn had begun his reentry from orbit. At the counter, hunched-over men leaned in closer toward the news coverage.
“Seven, this is Cape. Over.”
“Go ahead, Cape. Friendship 7. Over,” Glenn answered, his voice crackling with static from space.
Laughter from a cluster of ladies quieted, and their eyes fixed on the screen. Their children, full of late-winter energy, scuttled between the booths and counter. A blue and yellow ball bounced toward the girl. She smiled, tossing it back to its toddler owner, her gaze lingered on him waddling back to his mother.
The waiter approached the girl. “You ready, sweetheart?”
“Two coffees, please.” The girl said, glancing toward the door. “No, just one. I’m still waiting for my—” she paused. “boyfriend.” The girl looked at the timer on the screen, it showed 04:40:51, Glenn had been in orbit for almost five hours. She’d been orbiting too, she thought, but with a hell of a lot more gravity.
The waiter took the order pad from the pocket of his faded red apron and scribbled on it.
“Sorry, scratch that.” She hesitated, “I’ll just have milk.”
“Sure thing, doll,” the waiter said, then turned his head to the bell chiming from the door. The girl did too, tightening her scarf around her neck against the gust of cold air sweeping in. A man waved to the girl and stomped snow from his boots.
“A coffee too, please,” the girl said brightly to the waiter as he moved away. She stood, smoothing her hair and skirt.
“Howdy kitten.” The man pecked the girl’s cheek. “Your cheeks are so cold,” he draped his coat over her shoulders, then turned toward Glenn’s voice crackling from behind the counter.
“This is Friendship 7. Going to fly-by-wire. I’m down to about fifteen percent on manual.”
“Sounds like Old Glenny’s got his hands full,” the man said. “How’s life in the salt mines, honey?”
“Salty as ever, buddy,” the girl answered, echoing his mood. She tugged his coat tighter around her chest.
The waiter set the glass of milk and the coffee cup on the table.
“I’ll have what Old Glenny had before lift off.” the man said. “Two eggs scrambled, steak, toast and jelly, and a big glass of fresh American orange juice.” He smiled wide at the waiter, then to the girl, “You’re not eating?”
“Your girl’s already getting chubby. You know what the doctor said,” the girl answered.
“Come on honey, order something.” the man said, she shook her head at the waiter.
“I’m having milk,” she took a big gulp that left a white mustache above her lip.
“Milk isn’t food.”
“What is it then?”
“It’s for babies.”
“Yes. It’s for babies.” she said, wiping away the mustache. “And I’m not a baby, anymore.”
“Alrighty,” the waiter said, and left toward the kitchen.
“Can’t see why Glenn would go manual. I’d be flying by wire; makes more sense, don’t you think?” The man’s eyes were still on the screen.
“If you say so.” the girl said, dabbing her lips, leaving lipstick kisses on her napkin. “I have other things on my mind.”
“Don’t start.” the man interrupted.
The girl dropped her napkin, bent down slowly to pick it up. “Start?” She said with her head still below the table.
Across the diner, a little boy selected ‘Beyond The Sea’ in the jukebox, and everyone in the diner turned toward the music.
“I love Bobby Darin.” the girl said to the man and began to sing. “It’s far beyond the stars. It’s near beyond the moon…”
“Colonel Glenn special.” The waiter put the plate and orange juice in front of the man.
“You know, just because you claim it’s so, doesn’t mean it is.” The man said to the girl. He cut a big hunk of filet and forked it into his mouth. “You don’t think I have things on my mind too?”
The girl’s Bobby Darin smile faded. “Like what?”
“Like it’s going to be okay. That’s what.” The man put down his knife, reached across the table and squeezed the girl’s hand. “Come on, eat something honey.” He waved to the waiter. “She’ll have what I’m having,” he called out.
“The doctor said I should make sure not to gain too much weight.” She turned her head toward the television showing a picture of Glenn and his wife, standing behind their son and daughter. He is kissing his wife, and his arm is around their children.
“Mrs. Glenn sure is brave.” the girl said, still looking at the screen. “More than him, even.”
The man’s face flushed. “You kidding me? He’s up in space in a tin can that could blow up at any minute. She’s probably sitting on the couch, watching this on television. He’s got the tough job, the responsibility.” He turned toward the T.V. “All she has to do is wait for me.”
The girl paused, her eyes narrowing slightly, “Yeah, all she has to do is wait for you.”
“Not me–him, Glenn. Dammit, you know what I mean.”
“It’s easier to leave, even in a tin can. She’s just gotta be brave there on the couch not able to do anything at all about anything–not knowing if he’ll be next to her in bed tonight, or ever. None of it is her choice. Seems all those people and cameras and all of this talk of history wouldn’t make a bit of difference to her; she loves him, not all that. I just know it, and he wants to come back to her too. They look happy. Don’t they?”
“I don’t know if they’re happy, and neither do you.” He paused. “Okay, sure they look happy enough at least.” The man looked at the girl. “Everyone in this place seems happy enough. That ain’t the point though, the point is doing what you have to do, that’s the point.” The man turned towards the men at the counter. “Glenn’s up there doing what he has to do.”
The waiter interrupted. “So, another Glenn special?”
“I’ll have half a grapefruit.” the girl said to him.
“You want sugar on that?” the waiter asked.
“No thank you, I prefer salt.” she said and reached for the salt shaker.
“Salt? I was joking about the salt mines, kitten.” the man smirked. “Are we rationing sugar in the U.S. of A again?” He asked, looking at the waiter. “Bring a little sugar? Wouldya, pal?”
“I like it with salt.” She called to the waiter, who had already moved behind the counter.
“I think you’ll like it better with sugar. Please, be a good girl, just try it.” the man said playfully.
“Darling, I–” The girl shook salt onto the table, and ran her finger in circles through it as they sat in silence. “I just wish that this could have been the way I always thought it would be.” The girl breathed in, held it and moved her hand to her belly. “I wanted this to be a joyful thing.”
“That’s the thing, isn’t it, there are no straight shots.”
“I can do this on my own. I will if I have to. I don’t want you to feel held down.”
“We’re here. I’m here, right now.” The man looked at her, lightly patting her hand. “And I don’t think I’m ever going to space in a tin can.” He did one quiet snort. She slowly pulled her hand from under his, took her napkin and dabbed her already dry lips.
“How about here on earth, I–” She stopped short; a commotion erupted near the counter.
The hunched-over men had jumped up, cheering, and the kids did the same, but the kids didn’t know what they were cheering for and the mothers quieted their children. Glenn splashed down, and they’ve got him. He was better than fine. The girl thought about Mrs. Glenn.
“They’ve got him honey, he’s made it!” The man turned to her. “I told you, it’s gonna be okay, baby.” He took the girl in his arms, lifted her off her feet, and they spun around, and around–weightless for a moment. She felt his coat slipping from her shoulders; she tried but couldn’t stop it from falling to the floor beneath her.
* * *
Ella St. John, a native of the remote Mojave Desert, weaves the stark beauty of her upbringing into her narratives. She lives with her wife and their dog Fred, splitting time between Los Angeles and the mountains of North Idaho.