Diane Burger

Terence absent-mindedly toyed with his spoon, sitting at the end of the long lunch counter in the Diane Burger. The diner had only two other customers, obviously regulars, who chatted with Kim the waitress. It was almost ten and very dark outside. The little village of Minto, Saskatchewan was invisible past the windows’ bright reflection of the interior. Kim the waitress was apparently a Neil Diamond fan, as his greatest hits howled away on the stereo.

Terence had just finished his cup of coffee. He was hoping to get another hour’s driving behind him before finding somewhere to sleep, with any luck in the slightly larger town of Cornfleet. He pictured the map that had been his sole companion in the last two days, from his start in Vancouver to here. Terence had planned to make it to Cornfleet, but he had stopped for a nap that afternoon and was now struggling to get back on schedule.

Kim walked over with a carafe and asked if he wanted any more coffee; Terence refused. She offered him some pie, but Terence said no, and Kim smiled at him and walked away. Terence assumed that she had gone away to write out the bill for him, but she just rejoined the regulars, leaving him sitting and fretting.

*           *           *

Terence’s journey had begun when Kate left. Without her, he no longer had the strength to put up with the job he hated or the city that bored and frustrated him. A friend from school, who now lived in Waterloo, said that he could get Terence a job. Terence thought about it for less than an hour before beginning to pack.

After three years—it was just amazing how fast everything had fallen apart. But as the distance began to stretch behind him, the doubts began to mount.

They had been going through a bad patch; that had been obvious. Maybe Terence had underestimated it. He certainly had wanted things to work out—there was no question that he loved her, was in love with her—but somehow they never managed to… connect, maybe, was the word. They never connected any more.

A few hours after he left Vancouver, as his car approached the looming shadows of the Rocky Mountains, he thought about a time when he and Kate were driving out to see her parents, and he had shouted at her in the car. The problem had been her nose. They both had allergies, he knew that, but why didn’t she just blow her nose? Or stop sniffling? He began to drive faster and faster, to change gears almost violently, shifting in his seat.

He just couldn’t admit to it bothering him. First, she’d be angry with him, as though he was wrong to say anything about it. And second—well, he just felt stupid saying anything. And he began to resent it even more.

Almost twenty minutes of that. Then, finally, he said, “do you have to keep sniffing?” As always, he had tried to make it sound offhand and light, but it came out bitter and hollow.

And Kate simply said, “I was about to say the same thing to you.”

He had been so angry after that, and about what? He no longer knew. It was so long ago, now, the anger so long buried. And Kate had shouted right back at him, too—“You’re always like this”, she had said—and he had thought to himself, how unfair. Maybe it wasn’t really that unfair, now that he thought about it, now that his anger was gone, all of it, and replaced with a tough inner skin.

Terence had begun to think about Kate herself more and more as he continued through the mountains. He realised with alarm that they had broken up a few months ago. As the little incidents returned to him, began to play back, he found himself becoming angrier again, angry and ashamed. He had stopped in a park, in a nice shady spot, and slept for an hour or two to clear his head.

When he woke, he had felt a little better. He soon set off, thinking that maybe he wasn’t all at fault—Kate wasn’t the easiest person to live with. It’s not as though she had never been angry, over similarly trivial things. He turned up the stereo and forced himself to watch the numbers on the odometer tick by.

*           *           *

Kim—he knew her name only because she wore a name tag—was still talking to those regulars. Every minute he waited, Terence was almost two kilometres farther from Cornfleet. He wished that the one guy, the older guy, would just shut up. Honestly, who gave a damn about his opinions on the election? And the other two sat in rapt silence, open-mouthed. Why didn’t Kim just collect his dollar and release him?

He glared down the counter for a minute, maybe even longer, at the little group. They didn’t notice. Time was slipping away. He tapped his spoon against his saucer, first quietly, then louder. Neil Diamond sang on.

*           *           *

As he descended from the Rockies, in the cold dim light of the afternoon, more and more memories returned to him. He remembered an incident from the distant, distant past, shortly before Kate had moved in with him. He didn’t know what had brought it back; he was hardly sure he had ever thought about it since it had happened. Surely Kate had not thought about it, either.

It was a beautiful summer morning, and the air was heavy and warm. They had driven downtown to have a nice breakfast at one of the cafes there, and then Kate had to go to work. Terence didn’t have any plans for the day, really. It was supposed to be a quiet, relaxing morning.

Instead—what had it been about? Terence had been furious with the café, with the waiter in particular. He found it difficult, now, to remember what it had been. He remembered sitting there fuming, Kate patting his hand. Terence hadn’t been able to look at her, he kept casting about for the waiter instead—maybe that’s what it was, the waiter had been ignoring them, but why had he been so mad about that?

Eventually he had left three dollars on the table—the bill was probably more, but Terence had insisted that that was exactly what they deserved. When Kate didn’t get up with him, he glared fiercely down at her. She stood resentfully, and they drove in silence to the park. There, by the water, Terence demanded to know what was wrong.

“Why do you have to be so angry all the time?” she screamed. She had probably said “pissed off”, really, and worse. Terence had a habit of censoring Kate when he played back what she said.

He had answered indignantly about that waiter, and about that place—he had every right to be angry, and so on. But Kate started crying and couldn’t stop, so Terence apologised, and held her until she was quiet, and he brought her home and put her in his bed and made tea and called in sick for her. They spent the whole day right there, drinking tea and talking softly. That was the first time Terence had suggested that Kate move in with him. And of course he had apologised. He felt awful about the whole incident; he admitted that he should have just relaxed and let it go. They talked for hours before eventually falling asleep together. All in all, it had turned out to be a pretty nice day, and he wondered why he had not thought about that day more often.

*           *           *

It had been at least fifteen minutes now, and Terence was staring hard at the TV. He decided—not for the first time, though—that he would wait just one more minute for Kim to come over to him, or he would leave without paying. Still she ignored him.

Finally, Terence just got up and walked over to where she and the others were talking. He stood there, glaring, for an instant as the trio turned and stared at him, shocked and silent. Terence was secretly elated at their reactions.

“What do I owe you?”

He spoke fiercely, between gritted teeth.

Kim smiled but her eyes were confused. “For what?”

This almost threw Terence into a rage. “The—” he could barely make his voice work. “The—the coffee.” He was warming up now. He felt that he was being made a fool of, that these locals had been talking about him the whole time, laughing at him. Terence’s voice rose. “I had—I had two cups…” He trailed off.

“That’s okay,” Kim said, smiling warmly, not the mocking smile he had expected. “We never charge for coffee at night.”

Terence left the Diane Burger quickly, thanking her, nodding to the locals, left it all behind him. But as he drove east, east, through the night, the Diane Burger stayed with him, the corner of shame in the back of his mind bringing her back again and again.