His favorite diner
“I need a column idea,” I said as I sat down to my cousin’s birthday dinner.
It was Friday night, and we’d all gathered to celebrate his… 29th? 30th? I don’t know, this is kind of a sordid family sore spot, truth be told. But we were celebrating him, and his birth, an unknown amount of years ago, and we were all together, and I was sure that these people could help me pull my column out of the slump.
As a writer, you develop a sort of intuition, over the years, about whether what you’re trying to wrangle onto the page is a pearl or a pebble.
I had a pebble started as I rushed out the door to dinner, letting Jon know that I’d be back in two hours, tops, to clean up this heinous mess of a column.
The girls at one end of the long table did some casual brainstorming, but nothing ever did get nailed down, and I resigned myself to the fact that I’d be polishing a pebble as soon as I finished the steak that was now arriving.
And then it happened.
A (luckily) frequent tiny, magnificent moment for me tends to be the bestowal of story. Where it comes from, I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure the universe can feel me struggling, like my kids trying to sound words out and me trying to keep from telling them the answer so they can feel really really cool when they figure it out on their own. But sometimes I just have to give them the answer. Not often. But it happens. That’s what the universe does for me, pretty sure, when it really is the 11th hour or I’m really, badly stuck.
My aunt started talking about psychics, and then another in the party started off on his own riff regarding ghost stories, and pretty soon my uncle, as he tends to do, swaggered in with the cherry for the top of the storytelling sundae.
And it really is a great story.
One of those family stories that makes up the foundation of family lore.
My uncle, the one telling the story to a group of people slowly wrapping up their individual breakout sessions to rejoin the group under his mastery with yarn spinning, began to recall the day my grandfather died.
Before he’d left for bike week in Daytona, my grandfather and my uncle went to the Peppermill — a family hangout since the dawn of time — and they did what everyone does at the Peppermill. They saw someone they knew and got to talking as they ate. If you knew my grandfather (he’s the angry German fella who shows up a lot in my columns, and who I actually really loved even though I call him old man all the time), you’d know that bike week in Daytona was basically the last place anyone ever expected him to wind up in this wide, wicked world.
“You know,” this woman who knew my grandfather told him, “what goes to Florida stays in Florida.”
“Yes it does,” my uncle said my grandfather said.
They had a great time in Florida. My grandfather looked a lot like Robert De Niro, always, but he really made the effort in preparation for his last big hurrah. I think he knew that that was precisely what it was, too. Like, in his heart. My grandmother had died five years earlier, and two weeks before she did she predicted it. Something about being near to death tends to make us a little psychic, I think. “He won’t live past five years,” my grandmother told my uncle two weeks before she went. “He’ll die within five years. Of a broken heart.”
And, exactly five years following her death, after having what my uncle said was one of my grandfather’s favorite Daytona experiences at a random, classic 50’s diner, he went to cross a highway, made it to the median strip, and dropped like a box of hammers.
That was always one of his sayings.
Box of hammers.
Anyhow, he went down and that was that, my uncle said. He died five years later, just like she said, and not one stitch of my grandmother’s clothing had left that closet in those five years. Bottles of her medicine remained in the cupboards, with her writing on them. Notes she’d left. Grocery lists in drawers. When they flew my grandfather back for his funeral, and when we started cleaning out the house, she could have died the day before. She never left.
He’d have told you that himself. “It’s Sandra’s house,” he used to tell my uncle, when he’d try to get my grandfather to get rid of a little of this or a little of that. “I’m just borrowing it.”
And can I just say… that?
That was precisely what I intended when I got married.
That was the only thing I’ve ever wanted in this life. That kind of commitment. To grow that old together with someone, and to grow that fond of them. Their marriage was my model for perfect love.
Anyhow, my uncle said, my grandfather just loved that diner. Like, more than any of the other places they’d been that week. He just kept looking around and pointing at things and smiling, he said. Loved every single thing about it.
And at his viewing, this woman who’d seen my uncle and my grandfather at the Peppermill earlier that month, the woman who’d told my grandfather that what goes to Florida stays in Florida?
She caught my uncle’s ear in the receiving line and she said, feet from my grandfather’s body that breathed its last breath in Florida, that she woke up the morning that his death notice ran in the paper and had a shock.
When she saw his name in black, on white, letting everyone know that he was good and gone, she said, she ran a little cold because of the dream she’d just hours earlier been having. It had been about my grandfather.
In the dream, she said, “he was in this restaurant in Florida. And he just loved it. He kept looking around and pointing at things. And this woman walked in. To the restaurant. And he smiled. And he stood up, and he put his arm around her, and they turned around and left.”
And hours later, he had a brain aneurysm and died.
In real life.
Because what goes to Florida stays there.
Tiny, magnificent moments can be really sad sometimes, too.