Stationed behind the counter, Claire had an unimpeded view through the large windows surrounding the dining room of customers approaching from the parking lot. Whenever she noticed Fred pull into a space in his black pickup truck, she removed the fork from the left side of the placemat and relocated it to the right with the knife and spoon. Knowing Fred’s unblemished adherence to his seating preference, Claire nonetheless asked, with a head bob and her affable smile,
“On the left?”
Fred did not reply verbally, only nodding, his eyes fixed into the kitchen. Fred invariably sat at the counter, which offered a better vantage point than the booths along the windows. He preferred the stool at the far end of the counter, beyond which there were no further seats to his left. This had been his pattern for nearly a year, following an instance in which a young boy seated to his left brought about the grim reminder of Fred’s missing appendage,
“What’s wrong with his shirt!?” he shrieked to his father, fighting through incipient tears. Fred did not turn to view the boy’s face, assuming, rightly, that witnessing the facial incarnation of the child’s horror could do little more than make it worse. Two nights in the emergency room, three weeks in the hospital and six months of therapy did not prepare him for the mental persecution he would face once he regained the confidence to appear in public.
To Fred’s dismay, Greg did not visit him once while he was in the hospital or during his recovery. Fred was at first unsure whether anyone told Greg about the accident, in which, while attempting to clear a jam in the printing press, his arm became stuck and severed by the machine. It was Claire who confirmed that Greg knew of the accident, on Fred’s first visit to the diner after regaining sufficient mobility to feel comfortable enough to be in public. Seeing him after several months, Claire, flustered from the combination of Fred’s return and his disfigured state, shouted across the the countertop to Fred as he held the door with his right arm to keep it from slamming:
“Oh my god, where have you been, what happened!?”
Fred had tired of answering the question, letting out with an exhausted sigh, “accident at work, I’m ok.” He looked down when he gave this response, still not comfortable discussing it, and walked to take a seat at the counter. Still posturing himself onto the stool, Claire confirmed what Fred feared,
“Greg told us what happened when we asked why you stopped coming.”
Fred, now seated, shook his head, looking back down to focus on the placemat in front of him with sufficient attention to notice a stain in the corner. Despair overwhelmed his thoughts upon the confirmation that Greg indeed learned of the incident, but chose not to visit.
Owing to the fact that Fred did not go to the diner while he was recovering, Fred and Greg did not see each other for nearly four months. Their last encounter before the accident was the morning of Fred’s fateful shift, a Tuesday morning, the only day Greg worked as a line cook during breakfast. Greg ignored Fred’s presence that morning, save for a fleeting moment of eye contact through the polished chrome fixtures and a partial tilt forward of his head, not quite sufficient to constitute a nod. Neither spoke a word, as became their understanding.
Fred was reluctant to make the adaptations necessary to adjust to his suddenly-inflicted disability. He refused his doctor’s recommendation that he transplant a mechanical arm or that he at least place a plastic appendage so that Fred would have the option to use it if he wanted.
“Let me insert the joint, your insurance will cover it and you can choose whether or not to use it,” the doctor insisted. Fred nodded to decline. “I don’t want a fake arm, I’m going to make due” he asserted, a whimper clouding his once steady voice.
Six months of his physical therapy behind him, Fred made no attempt to obscure his lacking arm, clipping the bottom of his sleeve to his left shoulder and leaving the remainder to hang. A gust or a breeze caused the dangling sleeve to sway. The force did not physically bother him, but served as a painful reminder of the vacancy on his shoulder. Until the young boy in the diner, not a single person verbalized what they saw within sufficient earshot for Fred to hear it. Claire prodded him with questions the first time back to the diner, and by then, Fred had a canned response to them all.
“How is it out there?” Claire asked, an uncomfortable smile returning to her face as she concluded the question. “I’m getting used to it, but I can feel people staring. Everything else I’m still working on,” Fred shot back, lacking the hesitation that plagued his response months earlier when he first started answering it.
That Greg seemed indifferent bothered him the most, despite their difficulties. Since the close of the proceedings two years before the accident, their only interactions were through the plate racks separating the kitchen from the counter space in the diner. Greg refused to answer phone calls, letters and even an e-mail Fred sent, having learned the medium in an attempt to contact him.
“Dear Greg. I know we had our troubles. I miss you, see you at the diner. Dad.”
No response. Sitting unresponded to in his sent mail folder, Fred triple checked the e-mail address against what he wrote on the diner’s business card, which he took down with careful precision, requesting that Joanna, another waitress, spell it for him. E-mail was a far cry from Fred’s comfort zone but was necessary if he hoped to have contact, as his visits to the diner seemed unwelcome at times. The first two times Greg noticed Fred at the counter, he stormed out, mid-shift, returning to the line after ensuring that Fred’s discomfort compelled him to leave. While Greg’s manager sided with his frustration, he refrained from disallowing Fred into the diner.
“Do you want me to ask him to leave?” the manager asked, sensing Greg’s angst at the sight of Fred in his presence. “No, please don’t, he’ll leave on his own, he can’t stand being uncomfortable like this” Greg replied, ashamed to be the awkward focus of unwelcome sympathy. Greg eventually acquiesced to Fred’s visits, but avoided speaking to him, still sore about the situation.