By Michael T. Kuester
As always there was a pleasant business to the place. Waitresses scurried from table to table with pencils tucked behind their ears, taking orders and pouring coffee. The kitchen hissed as Clint dropped more patties onto the griddle, meat touching steel with a rush of smoke. Order slips rode the carousel into the kitchen until at last their number came up. Soon after, piping hot burgers and fries left the kitchen on chipped plates, placed before grinning customers who chatted as they ate.
All of this mattered little to Ben. He sat in his usual booth, nursing a bottle of Coke, with no less than seven books arrayed in front of him. The notepad before him had been scribbled and scrawled and erased almost to uselessness. It was his third one this week, and there would surely be more as he kept scrawling out his equations, his charts, his measurements. As always, all of the books he had with him were on the subjects of astronomy and astrophysics. Thus he would while away the hours, hungrily absorbing the contents of his books and washing them down with cola.
His sandy hair was always a mess, and he itched his poorly-shaven face absently. Personal grooming mattered little; his mind was always elsewhere, and the concerns that weighed on most teenagers in a sleepy mountain town held little interest for him. He wore his favorite red and white plaid shirt and worn jeans with battered hiking boots, his dusty suede jacket folded neatly on the vinyl seat beside him. Delving into his work, he felt everything around him slip away, the sounds of the diner fading, replaced by comfortable silence.
His pen danced across the pages, scribbling equations as he allowed his mind to flow casually from one lofty topic to the next. He’d learned to use pens long ago; too often the lead in pencils would break, disrupting his flow. Now there was nothing stopping him, and as he immersed himself in questions of space and time, his mind floated free, lost in the infinite reaches of the cosmos. Closing his eyes for a moment, he soared past distant nebulae, circled the stars, sped past galaxies on the other side of the universe as his pen blazed the path through computation and analysis.
Engrossed in his work, Ben left the booth, he left the diner. His mind soared off through the great expanse of the cosmos, through distant worlds and endless clusters of stars he could only dream of. The vast, endless cosmos stretched out before him, drawing him ever onward, presenting him with enticing avenues for exploration that begged to be followed. Distant galaxies spun mightily before him, great hurricanes of gas and light, brilliant and far away. Nearer stars sailed through the void, circumstellar disks and planets following in their thrall.
There was so much to do…so much to learn. To get to those ancient stars, he needed a spacecraft, it would need to travel faster than any had before. No rocket would suffice. There would need to be radiation shielding, artificial gravity. It would require ages of food, or perhaps a way to make more? Plants grown in hydroponics? Aeroponics? Questions abounded, and answers always led to more questions. His pen raced across the pages, his eyes darting from book to book as he gathered data, weaving the discordant parts into a map that led inexorably to…
“Order up!” Clint bellowed from the kitchen, announcing a fresh plate of fries by slapping his call bell, which gave a shrill ding! Ben dropped his pen, nearly spilling his coke as he jumped from the start it gave him. He’d let himself wander too far again. Breathing heavily, he closed his eyes and steadied himself, eager to return to his flights of fancy.
“Ben, honey,” a waitress called from behind him. It was his mother. Her hair netted, a smear of mustard on her apron, she stood with drooping shoulders, hoisting three plates. “I’m sorry, but could you go in back and change? We’re getting swamped here and could really use some help.”
With a heavy sigh, he capped his pen, then went about closing each of his books, carefully dog-earing the pages he’d opened to. At last he piled them neatly together, stacked over his battered notebook and, gathered them in his arms, retreating glumly to the back. Minutes later he was back on the floor, having traded his plaid button down for a stained white shirt, a filthy apron covering his jeans. Grabbing a heavy plastic bin, he went about the dirty, mindless business of bussing tables, tossing plates, glasses, and silverware into the bin as his mind wandered off, bored. As he went through the programmed motions, in his head the calculations continued, and soon his flights to distant galaxies resumed. His eyes turned inward as a narrow sliver of his consciousness remained on the task at hand, just enough to keep from breaking anything.
Soon his bin was full and heavy. Hoisting it to his waist, he lugged the filthy place settings back to the kitchen, dropping them by the sink before grabbing the dish soap and a rough sponge. Scalding water poured from a corroded spigot, and soon his mind was again free to wander, his hands occupied by yet another menial task.
“Hey Benny,” Clint rasped from behind him. He turned for a moment, just long enough for a polite salutation. Clint was at the griddle, as always. He held a half-smoked cigarette in his left hand as his right gripped a greasy spatula, periodically flipping each of the ten or so odd burgers being made. To the left of the griddle the deep fryers popped and hissed anxiously. Pressing the cigarette between his lips every few minutes, he’d hoist the fry baskets with a splash of hot grease to check their progress. The grease always burned his hands. He never seemed to notice, or at least he didn’t care.
Ben resumed his work, a for a time the two men worked in silence. Clint could never stand the quiet, though, not when someone else was back there with him. Unable to help himself, after a time he turned to Ben once again.
“So, how’s school, Benny?” Ben hated being called Benny, but he’d learned long ago to accept it from Clint. It wasn’t that Clint didn’t care…he just didn’t seem to understand, which was fine.
“Fine, I guess,” Ben replied, absently.
Clint met this with a gravelly chuckle. “Just fine, eh? Why just fine? Your mom tells me you’re a real smart kid…talks about you all the time, but school’s just fine? What are they teaching you in that school? Nothing you don’t already know, huh?”
“Well, nothing interesting,” Ben replied, scarcely aware of what he’d said.
At this, Clint turned down the heat on the griddle and slid the spatula into a metal loop at one end. Wiping his hands on his filthy apron as best he could, he walked over to Ben, his thick knuckles practically creaking as he clasped a beefy hand over his shoulder, shaking him affectionately. “You’re a real good kid, Benny,” Clint croaked sincerely. “I know kids can be rough, and I know places like this don’t see a lot of kids with bright futures, but you’re special. I can tell. I seen you, you know…when you’re looking at those books your mind is someplace else, someplace none of us could ever go.”
He squeezed Ben’s shoulder a little. “You keep your nose in those books, kid. No matter what anybody tells you. You keep your nose in those books and you’ll go everywhere.” With that he lowered his hand and returned to the griddle. Ben, for his part, returned to his work as well. There were a lot of dishes to clean.
After about an hour, the dinner crowd started to thin. The conversations softened, checks were requested, the sounds of forks and knives scraping plates were replaced with those of tinkling of change being shuffled. Table by table they slid out of their worn booths and left, the tables smudged, cigarette butts still smoldering in the ashtrays. As the sun fell beneath the trees Ben wiped down the last of the tables, then emptied the ashtrays. His work complete, he did Clint a favor and emptied the trash.
Dragging two heavy black bags behind him, he shoved the back door open with his shoulder, stumbling into the cool night air. A breeze carried foul odors from the festering dumpster behind the diner. He swung open the lid, holding his breath against the stench wafting forth, then heaved the bags into the dumpster, their landing within eliciting a sharp crunch and a shower of flies, their rest disturbed by the new arrival.
Finished at last, Ben leaned against the side of the dumpster and raised a grimy forearm to wipe the sweat from his brow. A cool breeze blew across his face, making him smile, and as he did he finally managed to look up. High above the stars twinkled, little points of light like tiny holes poked in a soft blanket. It was late summer, and out here so far from the lights of any city the edge of the galaxy stretched across the sky like a cloudy ribbon. Hundreds of thousands of stars, millions of planets, gas clouds and dust lanes, all arrayed in brilliant splendor on a calm Pennsylvania night. The awesome spectacle coupled with the dead silence made him feel very, very small.
Hoping to get back to his work, Ben returned to the dining room only to find it was nearly closing time. His mom locked the front door and flipped the hanging sign from “Open” to “Closed”, while the other waitress swept up. Clint was at the register, counting out the day’s haul. Ben took the opportunity to change and gather his books. As he stepped back into the dining room, his mother was at the register with Clint, along with the other waitress, getting her share of the night’s tips. Upon seeing him, Clint turned and raised his voice, beckoning him to join them.
“Hey, Benny, great work tonight. Thanks a bunch for helping out,” he said with a creased grin. He drew Ben’s hand into a firm shake, yet Ben felt something else in his calloused palm. As Clint drew back, Ben found a fifty, neatly folded, sat in the palm of his hand. His mother, finished with the tips, gave Clint a hasty “Good night” as she turned toward the door, asking Ben to follow, yet Ben hesitated. Turning back toward Clint, he held out the fifty and whispered that he couldn’t accept it.
“Sure you can,” Clint rasped with a sideways grin. “You always need more books, right? And hey, a kid who watches the sky needs a telescope, right? You got a telescope? Well, now you can go buy one.”
Ben smiled, touched. Hoisting himself from the stool behind the register, Clint trundled over to him, again clasping a hand to his shoulder. “You’re a good kid, Benny. You’re a smart one, and you’ll go places. I know it. I can tell. Besides,” he ended with a smile, “this is an investment, yeah? I don’t want to do this forever. You go and be big, make lots of money, then you come back here someday and buy this dump, huh?” With this he turned and walked away, chuckling.
Pocketing the bill with a pleasant sigh, Ben turned and left to join his mother in the car. As he opened the back door a cool breeze greeted him once again. He stood once more beneath a radiant dome of twinkling light, and as he looked up, high up into the sky, he reached upward. It was a symbolic gesture, nothing more, but in a way it meant everything. All the universe could be his. Standing beneath the majesty of the galaxy sprawling before him, he felt very small, yet that feeling made him very happy; it meant there was a lot of exploring yet to be done.