She was not the typical latch key kid of her generation: Instead of sitting at home alone, she became a regular customer at Denny’s – you know, the restaurant that was “always open.” This was where her mother worked and at one point, where almost her entire family worked.
After school, she would plop herself at the bright pink and orange counter and wait. She gradually developed a routine. She would do her homework or read. She would eat a bacon cheeseburger and sip Dr. Pepper slowly through a straw and wait for the evening shift to end. While she waited, the other regulars, an oddball collection of older men, would keep her company. They gave her lessons in life, based on their own hard luck woes. They told her all their stories and jokes – even the ones she was too young to hear – at least twice and sometimes three times for good measure. And they loaned her books so she would have a way to pass the time when there was a lull in the conversation.
She listened to the tales of these men, which were sometimes every bit fiction, but she preferred the books.
She particularly liked the books that Big John loaned to her. They called him Big John because he was just that: big. At 6’2″, he towered over the tiny girl. He had a massive beard and fuzzy hair mashed up under a frayed baseball cap. His booming voice was full of gravel, and he wore thick smudged glasses. His giant hands were heavily calloused and stained with oil. He looked dirty and a bit feral. The first time she met him, she cried because when he reached down to shake her hand in greeting, she thought he was going to swallow her whole. And she was not a child who cried easily.
He was a long distance truck driver who floated in and out of town but always found time to stop in at Denny’s. He would sit at the counter with the rest of the regulars, smoke cigarettes and drink strong black coffee for hours. He said less than the other men and mostly kept to his books. He loved science fiction – the stranger, the better – and westerns – which were really just love stories for grown men. She read whatever he read. And he always had a book in his truck for her.
Big John was a romantic. And he was a dreamer. He was one of the first people to give her the idea that another life was possible, one that could be very different and far richer than the one she inhabited. He would slide a new book toward her and tell her that there was a world beyond the counter at Denny’s.
And luckily, she believed him.