For Jeremiah the diner’s main attraction was the AC. He wasn’t really hungry but it would be a long wait, so he ordered a regular glazed donut and iced coffee; black. The interior wasn’t particularly curated to look like a diner. A few mismatched chairs around cheap metal tables with raggedy booths and a long counter gave an impression of the form a diner might take, but the overall result was closer to a cafe. It was eponymous (of course.) ‘Tony’s Diner’ it proudly screamed from its neon sign outside, although Tony didn’t seem to be around.
A teenage waiter brought him his order with a nonchalant air that gave Jeremiah the feeling he wasn’t really needed as a customer. That was okay. As he often told himself, Jeremiah was a principled man. He ordered black coffee and a donut. He didn’t order a gracious hand to bring it to him. He had a gap between his previous appointment and the next, an hour or two, so it was better for the waiter to be unbothered by his presence as he intended to stay in the diner the whole time.
Outside, heat shimmers rose from the asphalt. The weather woman reported three heat related deaths the day before, and it was hotter on this day. Jeremiah’s next appointment was across the street, but he didn’t intend to wait under the sun for his man to arrive. The diner would have to do.
As Jeremiah sipped his coffee and watched an enormous family stampede by the window, a new customer entered with a gust of heat. He was impossibly thin and moved with a delicate fluidity that made him feel more arachnoid than human. He wore a t-shirt that hung from him like a flapper’s evening gown and the edge of a half smile perpetually pulled at the corner of his mouth. He was one of the most bizarre beings Jeremiah had ever seen.
“Hello Anwar,” the waiter said when the other man entered.
“Patrick, my dear,” Anwar responded softly before he took a seat on one of the stools at the high counter.
“Any news from home? Any discoveries?”
Anwar waved dismissively. “No news, we’ve been in debate for some time now. And your father? Where is he?”
“Oh, he’ll be in later,” the waiter replied. “He took the morning off to get a checkup at the doctor’s.”
“Is he unwell?”
“Not really, same stomach problems as always.”
“I am sorry, my dear.”
“Don’t worry, he loves you and your people. He doesn’t blame you at all.”
“Yes,” was all Anwar said in response. The thin man watched a TV hung from the corner and Jeremiah turned in his seat to see what was playing. The sound was off but captions were turned on. A news anchor stood in front of the capitol building in Washington DC.
“Today marks the first Presidential Appreciation Day. The national day of rest will be celebrated each year on the first Monday of May in celebration of the hard work and dedication, and sacrifice our president and great leader offers us every year.”
The camera panned to find a tiny group of protestors surrounded by riot police. “Of course, some believe this is one more step away from freedom, but in the wake of last year’s landslide victory, in the house and senate, the opposition voices are few.”
The program cut to an interview from the scene. Brian from Indiana had an American flag bandana wrapped around his head. “I just think it’s a good excuse to grab a beer, cook up some ribs and have a good time. I don’t know what it has to do with freedom. I’ve got my vehicle for that.”
“You’ve got your vehicle for freedom?”
“Yep, whenever I need to get away. I know what to do.”
“Get in my vehicle and drive,” Brian from Indiana said with a quizzical look.
Jeremiah turned away from the broadcast with a disgusted sigh. He went back to watching the heat rise off the pavement outside.
“You aren’t in favor of this new holiday?” Anwar spun lazily on his stool to half face Jeremiah.
“It’s a show of weakness. Only the weak beg for appreciation.”
Anwar left his seat. “Mind if I sit with you?”
Jeremiah cocked an eyebrow at first, but then shrugged. “I don’t need the seat. You want to sit there, doesn’t bother me.”
“I’m glad,” Anwar said softly. “I agree. The desire for a day of self-aggrandizement is a retrograde step.”
“Hm. One of many if you ask me.” Jeremiah gave Anwar a sideways glance before he sat back to face the odd man more fully. “You don’t feel like you’re from around here.”
“Oh,” Anwar smiled broadly. “How do I feel?”
“Like you belong in a library, no offense.”
“Why should I be offended? Libraries are the heart of curated wisdom.”
“Hm,” Jeremiah had to smile. “Curated wisdom, I like that.”
“Are you waiting for someone?”
“Say again?” Jeremiah responded.
“You’re quite interested in the building across the street. Are you waiting for someone?”
“Oh, yes I have a meeting.”
“And your meeting won’t happen for some time, so Tony’s Diner is a comfortably cool place to wait.” Anwar seemed to read Jeremiah’s mind.
“You got it in one.”
Patrick the waiter set a plate piled with french fries in front of Anwar and put a bottle of tabasco next to it. Unlike his service with Jeremiah, Patrick seemed a little more deferential with the food. Anwar smiled and got to work soaking the fries in the hot sauce. Jeremiah had never seen someone use so much tabasco on anything.
“You like your fries with some heat, I see.”
“I can’t taste them of course, but I like to imagine. And there is a quality to using a resource. Something about the act of using it gives it value. Before I use this hot sauce it’s almost meaningless to me, but when I pour it on the french fries, I feel the value of it… even if I don’t taste it.”
“Why don’t you taste it? If you don’t mind my asking,” Jeremiah just couldn’t resist his curiosity.
“I don’t mind you asking. I’m not really here. What you see is just a biological projection of the being that I am. It’s made to fit in with your society, look like you, experience like you… But I am none of these things, I do none of these things. I am not built to taste, nor to smell. I am sensitive to sonic vibrations and to light, but not the same light as you. I see, if you can call it that, much more broadly than you do. And I’m sensitive to physical contact, of course.”
Jeremiah’s heavy stare didn’t end with Anwar’s speech. For a moment, they sat in silence, one seemingly unaware of anything odd, the other nearly overwhelmed by the oddness.
“I read about a girl once, deaf dumb and blind. Had an interesting life, I guess.” It was all Jeremiah could think to say.
Anwar didn’t answer. He began eating the fries one at a time but in rapid succession. As soon as he’d popped one in his mouth, he went for the next. Jeremiah just watched with one eyebrow cocked. When the plate was empty Patrick returned and took it away.
“Thank you, my dear,” Anwar said. “Are you waiting for someone important?”
“No, not really,” Jeremiah looked back outside. “Not to me, anyhow.”
“Who might they be important to?”
Jeremiah looked back. “To their family and friends I suppose. Although I think this one’s run out of friends.”
“And that’s why you’re waiting for him?”
“That’s basically it, yeh,” Jeremiah said.
For a moment no one spoke. Jeremiah watched the hot street, Anwar looked at the ceiling and Patrick watched the TV. But after a time, Jeremiah broke the silence.
“You’re saying you’re an alien of some sort?” He said this as though he was humoring an idea, not as though he actually believed it.
“Well, the being you see before you is more close to human, but it isn’t me. The entity that controls his biological projection is certainly not derived from the human world.” Anwar never took his eyes off the ceiling.
“You said projection again. What do you mean by that?”
“I mean, my dear… I exist thousands of light years away, but I’ve entangled my id and my ego with a puppet here on my world. And it in turn is entangled with a duplicate puppet there on your world. And through these puppets I can approximate the experience of being there with you.”
“Except for the hot sauce.” Jeremiah just had to play along if only to pass the time with a bit of fun.
“Except for the hot sauce, yes.”
“And why can’t you experience taste?”
“I can only experience what I can imagine. I can imagine sound so my avatar there with you can provide me with some insight into the experience of hearing, the way you do, and of seeing, and of sitting like you.” At this Anwar arranged his body in an almost perfect approximation of Jeremiah’s hunched shoulders and clasped hands.
“Are there many of you… walking among us?”
“Oh, all of us, at one time or another. My people, we aren’t so many like humans. We produce simply by aging into multiple beings, like some plants on Earth you might say. Although we become fully separate beings after we divide.”
“And that takes a long time?”
“It takes time, as you say.”
“So you aren’t trying to hide yourselves?” Jeremiah noticed something across the street.
“Many humans know us, but humans have…” but before Anwar could continue Jeremiah had risen from his seat.
“Sorry,” he said. “Looks like my appointment is earlier than I thought.” In a swirl of sweaty shirt and donned hat, Jeremiah exited the diner.
“Sir, you haven’t paid…” Patrick called after him, but he was too late. Together the waiter and the alien watched Jeremiah quickly cross the street and confront a man. They stood for a moment and then Jeremiah led him roughly inside the mixed use building.
For a minute nothing happened and Patrick began to clean away the half drunk black coffee and remains of the donut, but before he was able to cross the diner’s floor, Jeremiah exited the building and stepped briskly through the sun and back to the diner. He entered with a ‘ding’ from the doorbell.
“Sorry about that. I won’t walk out on the bill. The meeting I had was… time sensitive, you might say.” Jeremiah retook his seat across from Anwar.
“Did you achieve your goal in the meeting?” Anwar asked.
“I did. I always do.”
“You must be an excellent asset for your employer,” Anwar replied.
“I am. Do you come to this diner often?”
As Jeremiah asked this, a woman dressed in a flowery apron white tee-shirt and dungarees ran from the building across the street. She bolted in front of a car and was struck sideways. The car screeched to a stop and the driver jumped out. The woman staggered back to her feet and immediately reached out, as if blind, for support from the driver. Together they sat on the curb. The sound of the woman’s wails was muffled through the window of the diner.
Anwar watched this scene unfold but he replied with the same dreamy kindness he’d been using all along. “I do, yes. I made the acquaintance of Tony, the owner and his son Patrick, this boy serving us today. Not a perfect beginning to our friendship but it all came from simple misunderstanding. We’ve sorted it out.”
Anwar paused to watch the events outside. The woman and driver stood together. They called someone on the driver’s phone.
Then he continued. “Do you harbor any fear of the potential repercussions you might suffer from the inherent conflict found in your line of work?”
Jeremiah smiled. “That’s one way to put it, sure enough. I used to… have fear I mean. But not anymore. At some point I just got tired of being afraid.”
Anwar looked back at Jeremiah with a bright, piercing stare. “My people as well. At some point, we just got tired of the fear. An excellent way to phrase it.”
Patrick returned to their table with a hamburger; double patty on a simple bun. Onion and pickles drooped from the side. He put the plate in front of Anwar, but instead of retreating to the kitchen he took a seat at the table with the other two.
“Mess outside, eh? She must have gone nuts from the heat,” he said.
Anwar looked sideways at Jeremiah before he replied to Patrick. “I’m sure the heat was a factor in her delirium.”
Just then a patrol car pulled up and the woman motioned for them to go inside. They disappeared beyond the door for just a few seconds before they returned to the stoop and immediately began calling for help on the radio. A crowd began to develop around the scene. It expanded across the street. The large family that passed by earlier returned and stood, backs to the diner window to see what was happening.
Jeremiah watched them from behind for a few seconds before he turned to Patrick. “Can I pay for my donut and coffee, kid? I got lucky, work let me out early today. Probably, I’ll be able to grab an earlier flight home if I hurry.”
Patrick did a tiny calculation in his head. “Three fifty,” he said. “Tax included.”
Jeremiah set four dollars on the table. “ I hope you take cash?”
Patrick picked up the money as if he didn’t see it very often. “I guess we do. Why not?”
“Nice to meet you,” Jeremiah said to Anwar. “Have a good one, kid.” And with that he strode out.
Jeremiah threaded his way through the thickening crowd, past some nervous police officers and up the street to his rental mini cooper convertible. He didn’t know why the organization got him this car in particular but it wasn’t his style and if he could pick, he’d certainly choose something with a little more room and a little less ‘show’.
He hopped in and flipped it on. The airport was only an hour away, but it was better to take it easy on days like these. He didn’t want anyone looking too closely. As he pulled out into traffic, he mused over the odd man in the diner. Amazing how people could delude themselves into believing they were aliens, he thought. And others went along with them in the delusion. That kid for instance… Just as lost in it as the man himself. But he was an odd one, that’s for sure.
Jeremiah turned up the on-ramp. He accelerated to merge with the interstate and before anyone could mark his presence he was gone.
Back at Tony’s Diner, the crowd began to thin. They never once turned around to see what was behind them. They didn’t notice Jeremiah on his way out, or the strange, impossibly thin man devouring a hamburger in a single bite. They watched the woman who’d been struck by the car in her distress. She cried while the driver hovered nearby. He was clearly uncomfortable. More police arrived and the crowd was dispersed.
“Move along, go on, nothing here. Nothing to see here.” One of the new police officers said. “We’ve got it under control. Let’s give everyone some space.”
But from behind, Anwar watched them. He watched how they moved, how they each exerted a little emotional pull on those around them, how they unconsciously moved slower in the heat, how they talked, how their eyes snapped back and forth. He watched because he knew they weren’t looking. He watched them because he knew he couldn’t be seen. He existed behind a mirror; a reflection of the self they understood and accepted.
And when they all had gone and only the police were there, hanging around outside, scrolling on their phones, Anwar stood from the booth. “Patrick, my dear, a pleasure as always.”
“Okay, Anwar, see you around.”
“Yes I’m certain of it,” he said. And with that he slid into the heat of a distant sun.