So I work at this diner. It’s called Wee Willie’s. It’s got a big neon sign rising up from the roof. A bright red crab with a movie star’s smile. On the front door, the same crab holds up a skillet that says “Best Darn Seafood. 24/7.” It’s true. The seafood is fresh. We’re two blocks from the Mississippi Sound. You can smell the salt.
Tonight you can’t smell anything, because it’s raining like hell, the night warm, the thunder booming merrily above the dark mansions lining the Sound. I can picture the trawlers and shrimpers and Sabots and Boston Whalers swinging at their moorings, given just enough slack to swing with the circling wind. The folks who live here know the water. Mr. Lawrence is too cheap to put up rain gutters. Sheets of water run down the plate-glass window. It’s kind of claustrophobic. Makes it hard to breathe. I’ve always been a little scared of the water, which is pretty funny given my upbringing, but that’s the way it is. I know it’s a disappointment to some.
It’s a Tuesday, a little past 3 a.m., so the diner is d-e-a-d dead. It’s just me, the cook, and a bunch of empty booths and barstools. Silverware’s laid out neat at the counter seats (thank you, me), and, just back from the counter, stacks of clean plates rest on gleaming stainless steel shelves (thanks again, me). Behind the shelves, the grill’s quiet. The cook, an old man named Richard Peeters who has been here almost as long as the Mississippi Sound, is asleep in his director’s chair. The chair was given to him as a joke, but it’s no joke. The man can cook. He pretty much makes the place.
Most often, I work the 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift. The owner, William Lawrence, says he assigns me the shift because I’m one of the few employees that doesn’t fall asleep on their feet. I like the shift, and I don’t. I like it because it’s lonely. I don’t like it because it’s lonely. Maybe you understand.
I got the boom box on. I told Mr. Peeters I didn’t have to listen to music if he wanted to sleep, but he waved me off and told me go ahead, because he knows how much I love music. Right now I got on Metallica’s Master of Puppets. I didn’t think anyone could sleep through Metallica, but there you go.
I walk around, straightening the silverware on the tables. Then I walk back into the kitchen just to make sure Mr. Peeters is still breathing. While I’m leaning close — his breath smells like old cheese; a poet might say onrushing death — the front door chimes. I look at my watch. Abilene’s not supposed to be in for an hour, but the girl always comes in early when I’m working. Mr. Peeters winks and says she likes visiting with me. Abilene doesn’t wink, but she says she doesn’t usually feel comfortable around boys her age. She talks a lot, but I like to listen to her talk. She has a soft voice, like sinking into down. Not always good on the graveyard shift.
When the door chimes, I shut the boom box off. Since Mr. Peeters can sleep through Metallica, I shout from the kitchen.
“Gooooo awaaaaaaay, Abilene! Christ almighty. Why you always clocking in early? How the hell are the rest of us supposed to keep up with you? I’m thinking maybe I’ll just live here.”
I’m walking out with a big smile on my face.
Abilene doesn’t say anything, but when I push open the swinging door to the kitchen and step out into the diner, the soaking wet man does.
“I admire Abilene’s work ethic,” he says.
The man is short with wide shoulders. He’s got a mop of white hair that drops down to sideburns, and a big hooked nose. Right now, he’s got a small upturned smile. Maybe that’s why I think he looks a little like those dwarves in The Hobbit, always a step away from getting into trouble. Whatever you might think he looks like, he’s soaked to the skin.
I can see through the plate-glass windows enough to see there’s no car in the parking lot.
He pulls at a sticking sleeve.
“I’ve been walking in the rain,” he says. “Like Robert Frost.”
“I have walked out in the rain — and back in the rain,” I say.
He’s surprised. The little mischievous smile goes big.
“My dad likes Robert Frost,” I say.
“I already like your father,” the man says.
My dad’s a shrimper, he’s not a poet. Don’t get me wrong. He thinks a lot. He named his boat Blessed Assurance, partly because he knows life is anything but. You can’t predict anything. We’ve both learned this firsthand. When Dad was young, he spent time wandering around Australia, though he never wandered more than a few blocks from the water. For a time, he worked as a deckhand on a long liner out of Port Macquarie. You can look the place up to see where it is. One night he’s bored, so he fixes a piece of meat on this big hook, walks to the stern, and drops it in. He doesn’t know there’s a white shark just under the swim step, drawn there by dinner scraps and toilet flushes. The shark takes the meat, the hook, and the line that’s wrapped around Dad’s hand in one big gulp. Next thing Dad knows, he’s underwater, corkscrewing through burbling midnight. There are more sharks under the water, a lot more, and some of them bump him as he shoots through the dark. He must look strange to them. Somehow he cuts the line with his knife, gets to the surface, and swims back to the boat. He didn’t talk for two days. He told me the story once, and only once. Mom told me the part about him not talking.
Thunder rolls through the empty diner.
The man waits politely. I like this. There’s something about him that makes me feel at home.
“I saved all the tables for you,” I say.
He’s got a happy laugh. Real, like a dwarf’s. Dwarves laugh a lot. Practice makes perfect.
“How about a table by the window?” he says. “When the place fills up, I’ll move to the counter.” He looks down at his feet. His old Dockers stand in two puddles of water. “I’m sorry about the mess,” he says.
“It’s not a problem,” I say. “We got plenty of mops, and even a towel for customers who decide to boost their appetite with a swim first.”
He laughs again.
“Well it’s my lucky night,” he says. He drops into the booth like older people do, as if the happiest thing in the world is getting off their feet. Pushing the hair up from his eyes, he says, “I like a good rain, as long as it’s warm like this one. But I could use some coffee. I don’t stay warm as long as I once did.”
“Sure thing,” I say, handing him the menu.
I go and get the coffee and the towel. Mr. Peeters is still sleeping. I let him be. If the dwarf doesn’t order something complicated, I can cook it myself.
When I come back, I say, “Sorry about the yelling. It’s just that we don’t usually get customers at this time. The crabbers have already been in, and the breakfast regulars won’t be in for another two hours. Abilene’s one of the waitresses. And my friend.”
I’m a little surprised that I tell him this.
“It’s nice to have friends,” he says.
I wipe my hands on my apron, even though I don’t have to. I’m wearing the same dorky apron we all have to wear. It’s got the smiling crab on the front. Under the crab it says, “Get the Crabs at Wee Willie’s.” Willie ain’t the least bit wee, but it’s his restaurant so he can see himself how he likes.
Everyone’s got a comment about the apron.
The man says, “My name’s Samuel Watterson. You can call me Sam.”
I wasn’t raised that way. He’s old enough to be my grandfather.
He has this way of looking in your eyes, less like a dwarf and more like Gandalf.
“Go ahead,” he says. “Try it on for size. There’s no one else here.”
“Maybe use it in a sentence.”
“What would you like to eat? Sam.”
“Excellent,” he says. “Couldn’t have done better myself.”
It does feel kind of good, but I don’t know him well enough to say it. It occurs to me I don’t know him at all. Maybe only insane people walk in the rain at midnight. But my mother taught me to always give people a chance.
“Danny,” I say.
“Pleased to meet you, Danny.”
“Where did you walk from?”
The Gandalf eyes knew the question was coming.
“I was down by the Sound.”
Like I said, it’s only two blocks.
I’m scared of the water, but I like to walk beside it. It makes me feel peaceful.
“It’s nice down there,” I say. “Probably even now.”
“It is,” he says. “I love watching lightning. Tonight there’s bucket loads of it.”
“You don’t worry about getting hit?”
“One in thirteen thousand five hundred,” he says. “I’ll take those odds. It’s also true I’ve got less to lose if I happen to be an unlucky winner.”
There’s not much you can say when folks comment on their own demise. Well, sure, but the worms’ll love you.
He’s got the menu stood up on the table. Our menu is big, almost a book. We offer everything from grilled cheese to shrimp scampi. Still, people ask for things that aren’t on it.
“May I ask how old you are?” he says.
Everyone’s 18 is different. This man is smart enough to know this.
“Well, you might be a year or two older by the time I get through this menu. How’s the clam chowder?”
“The best you ever had. Sam.”
It’s the kind of laugh that makes you laugh too.
I can say it’s the best clam chowder Sam will ever have because Mr. Peeters has already made it up. A famous restaurant critic came here once, wrote an article saying it was the best clam chowder he’d ever tasted, but I tell Sam this because I know it in my heart. Mr. Peeters’ breath smells like limburger cheese, but he’s a magician.
“I guess there’s no one to second that,” Sam says, and he laughs again.
My dad, he’s not much of a laugher. He has his reasons now, but I don’t think he ever really was. He’s had a hard life. His face looks like an old belt you should have gotten rid of a long time ago. His right hip is shot. When he walks, he rocks like his boat. More and more, he uses a cane. Commercial fishing is hard. It breaks plenty. Lots of fishermen quit and find something else. The ones that stick it out, they just wear out. Dad started as a deckhand. He worked for all kinds of fishermen. He listened and learned. From the patient teachers and the SOBs. He wasn’t born into a fishing family. He started from scratch. He worked like a dog, and he didn’t let anything stop him. He’s a bulldog like that. When he met my mother, she was working as an accountant. He had two questions. “Will you do my books?” and “Will you go out to dinner?” They were married for 18 years. They only had me. A fisherman’s wife takes a fisherman’s life. When I was little, Mom would be driving in the truck and she’d find herself at the harbor. She’d turn off the engine and sit there, and then she’d smile in the rearview mirror at me. Tell me,Danny boy, where was I supposed to go?
Dad says I have her smile. He told me that once, after he’d had a few. Even as the words were coming out of his mouth, I could see they embarrassed him. But he’s a bulldog. He finished those few sentences, and then he looked away and went back to his quiet world. Sometimes I’ll lock the door and stand in the bathroom and smile in the mirror, but isn’t the same.
You hear that opposites attract. To some extent, I suppose that’s true. Mom was pin neat, a place for everything and everything in its place. Dad’s a mess. The wheelhouse of the Blessed Assuranceis something to see. There’s nautical charts and business cards push-pinned to the ceiling. The table’s buried in more charts, plus duct tape, rubber gloves, Tic Tacs, cigarettes, and the boxes of Advil Dad eats like candy. He needs a stronger painkiller, but the next step up is opiates, and he can’t take them and operate the boat. There’s a shotgun under his bunk. I worry about that.
Dad was a good fisherman. Fishermen call it the shoe. That’s short for the lucky horseshoe. For a long time, Dad had the shoe. Then Mom died, and he lost the shoe. It’s true too, we’ve fished the crud out of the shrimp. Plenty of shrimpers have turned to jellyfish. You heard me right. Jellyfish used to be a nuisance, clogging up the nets, but the Asians eat them and pay a pretty price. Dad won’t fish jellies. I doubt Mr. Lawrence will serve them either, though a few of the shrimpers have inquired. Dad’s a bulldog, but some things have cracked his heart.
Sam orders the short stack of pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream.
“My stomach says it’s breakfast time,” he says. “I’ll try the clam chowder another time.”
“It’ll be here,” I say, though I suppose there’s no guarantee of that either.
I can make pancakes, and I do.
I bring them back, steaming.
“Advantages to being the only customer,” Sam says. “Care to sit with me while I eat?”
It surprises me. I hesitate. It seems my whole life has been mostly about hesitating, always thinking things through. Maybe this makes me mad because, maybe a little too loudly, I say, “Sure. Why not?” like I’m master of my own destiny or something.
I sit across from him because anywhere else would be weird. I adjust the salt and pepper shakers, putting them between the ketchup and the hot sauce.
“Is there a cook back there?” Sam asks.
“He’s sleeping. He’s older now. He gets tired.”
Sam smiles his Hobbit smile.
“Sleep is the enemy,” he says.
I think That’s easy to say if you don’t have to work the graveyard shift, and then come back at noon.
Sam eats politely too. He puts his fork down after each bite.
“These are fine pancakes,” he says.
“What do you like to eat?”
“Rye toast.” I could just stop there, but I don’t. “Honestly, nothing but rye toast.”
Everybody at the restaurant knows it’s all I eat, and they all weigh in on it, everybody except Mr. Peeters, who took me aside once and said, “Son, you eat whatever makes you happy.” I got myself a theory about the rye toast. When I was little, my mom made me rye toast with butter every morning for breakfast. So rye toast takes me back to when things were simpler. A few times, I’ve thought about sharing this theory with Mr. Peeters, but folks only want to know so much.
“Rye toast makes me comfortable,” I say. “I know it’s strange.”
Sam sips his coffee.
“No need to explain your behavior to a man who walks around in the middle of the night in the rain,” he says.
He puts the mug down with a bump.
His hand trembles a little.
“I’ll get you more coffee,” I say, sliding out of the booth.
“That would be much appreciated.”
I come back with the coffee. I also bring another dish towel and a dry T-shirt. It’s a Metallica shirt. There are bolts of lightning on the front.
“Sorry,” I say. “I know it’s not the kind of shirt you’d wear, but it’s the only one I’ve got here. You can keep it. I’ve got plenty.”
Mom used to say that giving is receiving.
Sam’s smile is different. Even better than the dwarf one.
“Thank you,” he says. “I am kind of cold.”
“I’ll wring out the one you have on and put it in a Hefty bag.”
“That’s very kind.”
He squeaks his way across the seat, and stands. When he takes off his shirt, he looks like a plucked chicken.
Maybe I’m staring, because he looks down at himself.
He doesn’t laugh, but he does smile.
“Nowadays when I look at myself, I can’t believe it’s me.”
He looks so much like a cadaver it scares me, but I try not to show it on my face.
“Better to be thin,” I say.
“To a point,” Sam says, slipping on the shirt, and hiding himself away again.
He slides back into the booth.
He picks up the fork.
“I’m the only one who probably still has their appetite,” he says.
Sometimes I can see in people’s eyes too. I see that Sam is about to make the conversation turn.
“Do you like poetry?” he asks.
I love poetry. I’ve loved it ever since my mom started reading meWhere the Sidewalk Endsby Shel Silverstein. When I was in middle school, I told my best friend what poetry meant to me. From pretty much that recess on, I got beat up. In the hallways, boys knocked books out of my hands. In the locker room, I got wedgies. Now I keep the poetry pretty much to myself, like a lot of people do with things. I think we all have two sides.
Sam picks up his fork.
“I love poetry,” he says. “Sometimes I think it’s the only reason I hang around. Do you have a favorite poet?”
Maybe I’m tired. Maybe his smile has fooled me, like my best friend’s did. Maybe with the rain still pouring curtains down the windows, the diner feels private. Maybe right now, I just don’t care.
“I love Seamus Heaney,” I say.
Sam puts his fork down with the square of pancake still skewered on it.
“Get out of here,” he says.
One word at a time. Like a kid. It’s so damn funny, I nearly fall out of the booth. I laugh and I laugh. A real bellyacher. Oh, Lord.
When I finish, he says, “That feels good, doesn’t it?”
Sam says, “Anything can happen. The tallest towers be overturned, those in high places daunted,
those overlooked regarded.”
“I like that poem a lot,” I say.
Once a customer told me a story about when he was a kid hitchhiking. A man picked him up in a blue Plymouth Valiant. The customer, he was only a kid, but he was already smoking. The guy driving says, “I like your mouth,” and he puts his hand on his thigh. The customer tells me that first he burnt the man’s hand. Then he told him, The next one goes in your eye. The driver drops him off alongside the road. He walks to the house of a kid he kind of knows. He gets there just as a blue Plymouth Valiant bumps up into the driveway. When the customer finished the story, I laughed, but when he paid the tab he didn’t leave me a tip. I know he saw it in my face.
There’s a scene in the movie Good Will Hunting, where Matt Damon tells Robin Williams he’s had a date with this girl he really likes, but he’s not going to call her again. Maybe he likes it better now, when they’re both still perfect in each other’s eyes. Robin Williams leans back in his chair and says, “Well I think that’s a super philosophy, Will. That way you can go through your entire life without having to really know anybody.” He tells Will about how his wife used to fart when she was nervous, and that he loved that he was the only one who knew that. “We have to choose who we let into our weird little worlds,” Robin Williams says.
I know we’re all a little weird. I just don’t know how other people hide it.
Sam picks up his fork.
“You have fine taste in poets,” Sam says.
“Dad likes Seamus Heaney too. Probably because Heaney is Irish. Our last name’s Shaughnessy.”
I wait for a joke. Get out of here. That explains the freckles and the red hair.
“Every Irishman has a poet’s soul,” says Sam. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you different.”
I don’t know how to respond to this either, so I just keep quiet.
Sam carefully scrapes up the whipped cream and eats the last three pieces of pancake. He smacks his lips as he chews. He rolls his eyes.
“These pancakes are better than the clam chowder,” he says.
He knows I know he knows I made them.
“They aren’t,” I say.
“Maybe one day you’ll make the world’s best clam chowder, too,” he says.
I try not to look pleased. I’m also embarrassed. All of this shows on my face, like it always has.
“I doubt it,” I say.
For a second, I wonder if he’s going to reach across under the table and put his hand on my thigh.
But he just smiles.
“Anything can happen,” says Sam.
We both know it’s the title of Seamus Heaney’s poem.
My dad never talked much, but he talks a lot less now.He had a few friends, most of them friends of Mom’s that inherited him, but he’s let them all go. Mostly he shrimps, and when he’s not out on the boat, he plays the piano. He’s really good on the piano. Often, I sit by the edge of the marsh and listen. He wouldn’t like it if I sat in the living room. I know this, just like I know if he leans forward a little bit, he can see me while he plays. I tested this out one time when he wasn’t home. I don’t know whether he leans forward a lot when he’s playing, or not.
Once when he finished playing, he walked down to the edge of the marsh and sat down next to me. The sun was about three inches off the water and the mosquitoes were starting to come out, but my dad has skin that’s been weather-blasted to leather. The mosquitoes were eating the crud out of me, but I would have sat there until I was nothing but bones.
He didn’t say anything for a time.
The sun lowered two inches, and shadows crept up out of the water and surrounded us on the grass.
“People dwell too much on what they don’t have, instead of being thankful for what they do have,” he said, and then he pushed himself up and walked back to the house and sat back down at the piano, the chords drifting out across the screen porch and into the gloaming. I know what the gloaming is because of poems.
I think it was as close as my father ever came to apologizing.
It should have made me happy. Instead I sat there by the edge of the marsh, getting eaten alive, thinking about Dad’s shotgun.
Wee Willie’s placemats are maps of the United States. I look down at mine. There’s a drop of water somewhere near Biloxi. Like a tear.
Sam has gone quiet. Like my dad.
I start arranging the red, white, and blue sugar packets, grouping them by color. They hop over each other like checkers.
“My father named me after the song,” I say.
“Danny Boy,” Sam says softly.
I haven’t looked at him, and he hasn’t looked at me.
I know he knows. “Danny Boy” is a sad song. Most say the song is a woman singing to a man. But some say it’s a father singing to a lost son.
When I left the house tonight, Dad was drinking. Rain makes him sad. We both know why. I wanted to say something to him, at least goodbye, but his eyes said he wanted me gone, so I just let the screen door clack behind me. When I got in the car and turned the windshield wipers on, I could see him sitting in the arm chair. His arm went up, lifting the glass to his mouth.
The thunder booms.
Anything can happen.
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