It was a grey morning: grey raindrops drizzled out of the grey sky into grey snow and washed across the broken grey concrete under the overpass. A man hunched his shoulders against the drizzling rain as he walked to the Skyline Diner. The nylon of his Mets windbreaker was soaked, slicking the sleeves awkwardly to his arms. Originally blue, a decade of wear and sun damage had left it mottled: pale at the cuffs and elbows while still dark on the back. Three small droplets of water hung on the edge of his baseball cap, swinging back and forth as he trudged along the sidewalk, not caring if his shoes went ankle deep in the mix of snow and road grit.
The man neared the diner noticing the universal signal of neglect in the burnt out letters of the sign. A McDonald's bag was plastered against the only sewer grate in the parking lot which had begun to fill up like a shower with the bar of soap blocking the drain. Waves bounced across the puddle's surface as cars drove through it, tires leaving four identical wakes that carried floating trash beyond the puddle's edge and deposited it there as the water receded. He went around the puddle, walking along the edge of the curb like a child testing their sense of balance. Too far to the left, freezing water. Too far to the right, mud.
He made his way to the door of the diner and kicked his tennis shoes against the single step. Slush fell out of the treads with a wet slapping sound. He opened the door and stepped inside, feet squelching on the sodden doormat, then walked over to a booth in the corner. The man slid into the booth over the bunches of padding sticking out through the cracked seat cover, his jacket leaving wet streaks on the red vinyl like the trail of a giant slug. The walls were covered in photographs, none newer than the 80s. A photo of the owners—a husband and wife—in front of their brand new diner, famous senators and celebrities in a booth, smiling customers sitting on the bar stools in the 50s, 60s, 70s. Pictures of their section of US 1, recording the succession of businesses: Farmland to motels to strip malls and car dealerships. The vaguely Art Deco clock on the wall hung at an angle and appeared to be stuck at 8:47. Seeing him sit down, a girl in a short apron and slacks came over, preemptively holding a steaming coffee pot. Her cinnamon hair was pulled back from her freckled oval face in a utilitarian ponytail. "Wouldya like coffee?" she asked with a cheerfulness that was only half faked.
"Ice water," he mumbled as he gazed at the tabletop. He failed to see the abashed expression that flitted across her face before her cheer reformed itself. "I'll bring that right up for ya."
The snow and rain carried in by the patrons on their clothing evaporated into a wet heat which conducted the smells from the kitchen into every corner. Eggs and bacon (extra crispy), sausage, and hash browns covered in ketchup. The miasma condensed against the chill, single-pane windows and formed heavy droplets that trapped the occasional fruit fly before losing their battle with gravity and running down to the sill. The man cleared the condensation with a swipe and looked out into the gloom.
The room shuddered as a fat man opened the door and entered accompanied by a gust of frigid air, then shuddered again as the door slammed shut. Tall and with an everyman face he was the kind of fat man America loved: John Goodman, not Orson Welles. He walked over to the booth and took off his ski coat which did little to reduce his girth then sat down on the other side of the table, settling himself in the groove of compacted foam formed by the thousands of similar asses that came before his. He slouched into the corner against the wall and stretched an arm along the top of the seat, the booth accommodating him with a groan of good humor. The waitress with the coffee came over again, retrieving a pen and notepad from her apron as she walked. She held them like her hands were more used to holding a cigarette and lighter than writing tools.
"What can I getcha?" she said to the fat man.
"Coffee would be great," he said with a smile, his boyish voice inconsistent with his size. "And could I get some hash browns and sausage?"
"Sure thing hon." She smiled back as she turned the cup on the table right-side-up in the saucer and poured the coffee out of the pot. "For you?" she asked, nodding towards the other man.
"Nothing," he mumbled.
"Ted'll have a burger," the fat man said, looking at him pointedly across the table.
"I'm fine," said Ted.
"Bring 'im a burger," the fat man repeated, looking at the waitress again with an apologetic smile.
Ted looked up for a moment, ready to protest again, but thought better of it and resumed gazing out the window. "Sounds great boys," said the waitress as she stashed the notepad in her apron once more and picked the coffee pot up off the table. The fat man absently watched her hips sway as she walked to the kitchen before he turned to Ted.
"What's up kid?"
Ted broke his gaze and looked at the fat man. "I didn't want anything," he said petulantly, "and don't call me kid."
"Hey, if you want to come here and mope like a sulky teenager that's fine, but if you're going to eat with me, you're gonna eat; like an adult." Ted glared across the table for a moment then softened into a resigned expression.
"Good. Now, kid, are you going to tell me why you're so pissy today or what?"
"I told you not to call me kid."
"You're a kid, Ted. You've got no job, no responsibilities, you're wearing the same jacket you wore when you were twelve. Hell, you can't even grow a beard right." The fat man rubbed at his chins, rasping against the stubble that the electric razor never quite managed to cut.
"Fuck you, Pete. You didn't have to bust your ass in college. You didn't even try to get a job until you were my age."
"Yeah, but I've had six more years than you to figure this shit out so I might just be able to pretend to know what I'm talking about." Pete reached over and sorted through the sugar packets in the holder, pulling two Dominos out onto the table. He tore off the ends and poured them into his coffee, then took a sip and cleared his throat.
"Listen, all the movies and songs and goody-goodies out there will try to tell you to follow your passion in life," Pete slid into a mocking falsetto, "'Finding your passion is the most important part of happiness!' It's bullshit. Some whiny poets managed to convince them that your 'feelings' were the most important thing in life and that you just needed to 'listen to your heart'. Guess what? Your feelings don't mean jack shit to the world."
Pete paused as the waitress returned with a dish in each hand and placed them in front of the two men. "Here you go gentlemen, enjoy." Pete smiled his thanks and grabbed the ketchup and salt, spreading both on his hash brows liberally. Ted hesitated for a few seconds, looking at the wilted lettuce and soggy bun of his burger before reluctantly picking it up and taking a bite. He chewed thoughtfully for a few moments then swallowed.
"Ok, but how do you stay motivated though? If you know you don't matter?"
"Are you serious? A man only has three motivations: money," he gestured with his fork at their meals, "food," and then nodded towards the waitress "and sex. And once you have the first one, the other two show up on their own." Pete waited half a second for the punchline to settle before he started chuckling. "It's called work for a reason, man. You think I like moving dirt around for a living?" Pete pushed the last of his hash browns across his plate, picking up as much sausage grease and ketchup as possible before shoveling it into his mouth.
"It can't work like that," Ted said, avoiding eye contact, "It doesn't make sense."
"People can't just go through life with nothing to strive for, nothing they love. It's just not possible that so many people could do that."
"Kid, you've missed the point." Pete caught the waitress's attention as she walked by the table and gestured toward Ted's empty plate. "Let's get him another burger."