Kings of the Counter
After the Fire, Bacon, and Eggs
by LINDSAY ELLIS
I flip the plastic menu closed. She looks at me, smiles, and comes closer, tilting the coffee pot to pour me my next cup.
“What can I get for you, hun?” she asks, her wet hair twisted into a low bun.
At 8:40 on a Saturday morning, I’m the youngest and only female customer at the counter of The Fort, Lebanon’s 24-hour diner and bakery. Two men sit to my right, eating what’s left of breakfast from a foam to-go container. An old man in a North Country Medical Center shirt faces me from the other side of the U-shaped counter. Between sips from a white mug, he lifts his eyes to mine. The counter’s smooth surface feels cool against my bare arms.
Throughout the morning, customers drift in and out of the wood-paneled restaurant adorned with wooden red stars and checkered curtains. Some of us arrive with The Valley News tucked under our arms. Others purchase muffins and donuts to go at the glass pastry container. We stay for ten minutes or two hours, and we chat, spinning small-town small talk as the youngest of us spin atop metal stools. An endless loop of country music sifts through still air.
I ask for an omelet just before two old men enter, waving at the waitress who taps my order to the kitchen. They walk behind me, sitting down at the stools near the short-sleeved, hunched coffee sipper across the counter.
“How you doing, Stan!” the first man says. He removes his black hat, with “Air Force” stitched on, and tips it in Stan’s direction, giving his shoulder a shake.
“I’m doing everyone I can,” Stan shoots back.
“Yeah, okay,” the veteran says. “Fifty years ago you were.”
Stan, satisfied, scoops a bite of scrambled eggs and hash browns, layered under thin lines of catsup. The veteran’s joke ripples around the counter.
I look up, meet three sets of male eyes, and the laughter fades.
“That’s a good looking girl by Gordon,” Stan says to the veteran, nodding at me. “You couldn’t get her 50 years ago.”
I let the flush take over my face and realize how much skin my tank top shows.
Gordon, Stan’s second friend, sits closest to me. “We’re harmless,” he says, hitting the table. “Don’t let us embarrass you. It’s too early in the day for that.”
The waitress returns with my omelet and two other plates, and the pot of coffee. She moves with ease, balancing overflowing plates and a fresh cup, tilting my food onto the counter and sliding it toward me with her elbow before she flits to the veteran, passing him two poached eggs atop an English muffin.
“Oh, there she is,” the veteran says. “Took you long enough.” He matches her grin with a half smile.
“You’ve been awful quiet this morning,” she says.
Stan waits for the waitress to get beyond earshot. He leans across the veteran to Gordon. “You go up to a girl like that in John’s hat, you don’t need to spin a GI Joe story,” he says. “He’s a veteran. I just tell the girls I know John, that seems to do it.”
John, the veteran, shakes his head and douses his eggs with pepper, pausing between bites to stack plastic containers of half-and-half, building hourglass-shaped statues by matching wide end to wide end, narrow to narrow.
* * *
“She’s 22, she hasn’t graduated college, she has this baby—and she’s sticking around,” says a short-haired girl, seemingly in her early twenties herself. Her hair, smooth by her ears, spikes forward at her forehead. She leans back in the booth, next to a young man with black, greasy hair. “I mean, just, it’s weird, you know?”
How long have they sat over nearly empty plates? How long have they known the not-yet-graduate? Was she one of them once?
The small clock high on the diner’s wall shows a few minutes before 6:00 a.m. Three waitresses—two of whom sit at the counter, reading the morning’s Valley News and counting the cash box—will soon begin their shift.
The pair faces a long-haired girl who explains that her sister keeps telling her boyfriend that she has to find herself before having kids.
Both girls are attractive in that confident, high-chinned way that makes you trust their words. The boy, simply, isn’t. He follows the conversation and jumps in when he can, but they talk circles around his unshowered hair, jumping from pregnancy and babies to boyfriends and subtle pressures, a world that feels so far from my corner counter perch. I sip coffee bitter with cream, feeling the warmth through the white ceramic. My tiredness weighs down on my shoulders and eyelids and feet, and with each sip I urge myself to wake faster, to grow alert to The Fort.
“My best friend in middle school,” the second girl says, “she got pregnant, too, senior year. She started drinking in eighth grade. I was like, that’s the saddest thing.”
She takes a bite of hash browns, chews. The saddest thing. An unborn baby burdening a young woman’s life; her future woven into the fabric of another, of an unknown.
She swallows and finishes her thought. “That child will grow up with that mother, that’s the absolute saddest thing.”
* * *
Omelets don’t smell like much. This one, stuffed with cubes of peppers and onions and tomatoes, doesn’t taste like much, either. This morning, the counter is quiet; Stan and his buddies have not yet arrived.
When I’d left The Fort last week, I’d asked my waitress how long Stan, John, and Gordon had been regulars.
She’d smirked. She’d worked there just four-and-a-half years, she said. “Fournahaf.” They’d been coming at least since then. She guessed much, much longer.
Anne, another waitress, brings me coffee this morning. Unlike the four other women I’ve seen at The Fort, she does not wander from table to table. Instead, she stands at the counter, executing small pliés in place. Her face is smooth but for a glinting nose ring, and her fine dirty blonde hair is pulled back. She flips through a magazine at the counter.
“My legs don’t look like that anymore,” she says, pointing at a glossy page. She’s quick to tell her customers why—this morning is her first day back on the job after a knee replacement five weeks ago. Throughout the shift, she addresses customers by name, as if proving that she remembers, talking herself back into routine.
“Matthew, say hi to Anne,” she says to a young boy climbing atop his chair. She slowly leans down to his level. “You remember Anne, right?”
Behind me sits a large plastic bin of dishes, and the clank of one more joining the pile means I miss the door’s soft thud that announces Stan’s arrival. He sits two seats away from me. The veins and sunspots speckled across his arms distract me from the realization—he’s here. It’s 9:00, and he’s back.
“You’re back,” he says, but he directs it to Anne, not me. “You’re back with a titanium leg.” Stan remembers.
“I mean, I knew I’d need a new knee, but I thought it would be ten years down the line,” Anne says, flexing. “Eggs and home fries, still?”
“Just two home fries.” He looks at my plate. The mountain of potatoes remains relatively untouched. “This girl seems to have enough for both of us.”
“You haven’t changed much since last week,” he says. “Notebook and all.” His words aren’t firm, but they don’t tick upward, seeking laughter or affirmation. Stan tells me he knows The Fort. He knows Lebanon. “Lebanon. This diner, it was the Truck Stop, with beds and showers in the basement. I’ve been coming here for thirty-five, forty years, right, Anne?”
Anne, who’s reaching for her coffee pot, corrects him—The Fort’s only been open for about twenty-five years, she says, but he shakes his head. Twenty-five years, thirty-five, forty—when you hit 80, the decades run together, but for the few turning points that inevitably bubble to the surface.
* * *
The more facts of his pre-Fort life Stan gives me, the more gaps I see in his story. The dates and places switch in his retellings as he rubs his temples, kneads his hands.
Korea. 2nd Battalion, 2nd Division, 23rd Infantry Regiment. He worked for a few years at the mills in Hartford, but fires, spurring layoffs and closures, gutted the industry. Then, H.W. Carter, “cah-tuh,” shipping and warehouse advisor for thirty years. Stan stayed, but ownership changed, from the Jackson family to residents of Foxboro, Maine, then to a New York firm.
Or Stan was a catcher, and his ownership changed, too. He signed with the Boston Braves, the year before the Braves went west. Two years in Bluefield, West Virginia. One year in the Cape League and one in the Park League, back in Boston, with Triple A ballplayers and downgraded major leaguers. He first signed at 15 years old, and he’s drafted to Korea at 21. 2nd Battalion, 2nd Division, 23rd Infantry Regiment. He started high school at Lebanon High. Dropped out to play ball. Finished high school in basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Yet even as these narratives blur, Stan remains in focus. Stan likes numbers. Stan used to take 31 pills a day. He’s down to 10. He collects coins. He once rolled 1,800 pennies. He reminds himself to roll $2,000 in quarters but remembers: “I have time.” Five gold bars, in a safe deposit box. Silver dollars spanning from 1801-1921. Ten dollars in dimes, every one of them silver.
* * *
I wander into the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, a small building at the corner of the town’s green, to read the town history. I want to learn more about the Lebanon fire, the one Stan said changed everything. A bookshelf holds four copies of the town history book and a stack of pamphlets.
One afternoon in 1964, two young men—21, 16—entered the long-abandoned blacksmith’s shop, hoping to scare drunk vagrants for which the building had become a “haven,” according to Roger Carroll’s Lebanon, 1761-1994: The Evolution of a Resilient New Hampshire City. They lit a rolled-up rug on fire. The two firefighters on duty called for backup, but even 150 men, volunteers from Claremont, from Fairlee, from Sunapee, from Woodstock, couldn’t stop the flames, driven by heavy winds, from tearing through New Hampshire’s June air. “The fire Friday left a large portion of Lebanon looking as though it had been hit by a bomb,” reported The Nashua Telegraph. George LeMay, 67, and Henry LaBlond, 70, shared an apartment swallowed by the blaze, which took their lives as well. Albert Healey, the 21-year-old, pleaded innocent. Police said Healey—described by the paper as sporting a “beatle” haircut—sawed at his wrists in his cell with a wooden fork the night before his hearing.
The Lebanon Historical Society also produced a thirty-page booklet detailing the “History in a Nutshell” of Lebanon in 1972. There’s a sketch of a nut on the cover. The iris-colored packet holds postage stamp-sized sketches next to brief summaries of notable events.
A feather-capped man rows in a canoe next to the 1700 entry: “Before the coming of the white man Lebanon and the Mascoma valley were the hunting territory of the Squakheag Indian, Mascommah, whose name is still a common word in this locality. The Indians had ceased living in this region, possibly as early as 1700.”
A noose hangs next to 1844: “At the 1844 town meeting Lebanon townspeople voted on the question, ‘Shall capital punishment be abolished?’ The result of the vote was 70 in favor and 159 against abolition.”
The booklet lists wars and veterans: 91 local men fought in the American Revolution, 373 Lebanon residents served in World War I, 963 in World War II. I flip and flip but the history ends before Korea, before the fire.
* * *
“At one time, all there was to do was roam the streets,” Stan says.
John takes a swig and puts his coffee mug back on the counter. “It was a town then, before that fire. There were the restaurants, the beer joints.”
And, sitting on either side of me at The Fort’s counter, they start listing. Landers’, Tony’s Café. Bikini’s, that place on High Street.
“They went out when the city burned down,” John says. “But before, we’d stand on the corner and watch the drunks come out of Tony’s. Once, a guy was standing on the corner and just peed himself. You could just see it trickling down.”
* * *
On Sunday night, I sit at the counter next to a bulging man with a handlebar mustache. He holds the check outstretched over his plates, from which he ate a few fries and a bite of steak. Soon, he walks away, leaving a signed receipt on the counter. Though it’s almost midnight, the restaurant’s window shades remain open. Headlights periodically cut through the dark parking lot.
The Fort, Stan told me, was once Fort Lou’s, but before that, it was known as the Truck Stop, then Fort Harry’s. The regulars still call it by its original name.
I can tell my waitress is older than Anne by her slouch, her vacant eyes, her thinning black hair that rests on her back in a low ponytail, tied together in a large, pink and purple bow.
“I’ll just be a moment,” she says, eyeing the full plate to my right. She hesitates with each word and walks with unsteady steps toward the customers sitting in the main dining area, at the booths. Her bow shifts left, right, left as her feet drag.
My back, as always, is to a wooden divider with bulletin board of cutout faces, each pinned into place by bright pushpins. Glossy copies of waitresses, cooks, and regulars, shining in The Fort’s florescent light, stick out tongues or smile or wink. Customers lean together and scrunch their eyes or sit solo, holding forks. I see snapshots from Sox games and from the diner itself, a few familiar faces and a man with a stick-on mustache.
Our waitress brings me a mug with three plastic half-and-half containers. I empty one and watch the near-clear coffee thicken before I sip the bitterness, feeling the hot air against my neck. She leans against the inside of the counter, her back to me, before returning to the left-behind plate, picking up the nibbled steak and wrapping it in a napkin.
“Food for my puppy, Maggie,” she says. Her low mumble hums each word. “I’ve never owned a female dog before. Maggie’s a handful.”
I finish my coffee in small sips.
* * *
John joins Stan and me at the counter. “Can I sit next to this young lady?” he asks, taking off his black cap. Before Stan can respond, John fills the stool next to me.
“If you behave yourself,” Stan says.
“I always behave myself.”
“No, you don’t,” Stan retorts. The regulars have returned, and I’m sitting next to the guys at the counter who everybody knows. I’ve long finished my eggs and have ordered my third cup of coffee. About an hour has passed. I want to keep sitting at the counter, but even I know that in diner-counter-time, an hour’s too long for a solo customer. Anne’s already dropped a folded receipt at my full plate, a heart scribbled atop the final tab.
“Is there anything else I can get for you, hun? Want me to box that up?”
“I’m picking, thank you,” I say, lifting my fork once more into the pile of home fries.
John waits for Anne to return to the kitchen. “Do you like jokes?” he asks. His eyes meet mine as I wash down the seasoned crisp with a sip of now-lukewarm coffee. He takes my silence as a yes, opening his arms into the diner’s warm air. “An 80-year-old man is sitting on his couch, watching television. The doorbell rings. He gets up, sees a full-bodied woman at the door. You know, young. Smooth. Totally naked.”
John’s hands grip the air, as if outlining her body. Stan shakes his head, a half smiling mouth chewing. I smile, buzzing with caffeine.
“She asks him, ‘Supersex?’” Two seconds of silence, as close to silence that can grace a Saturday morning diner, build the punch line. “The old man says, ‘I’ll take the soup!’”
* * *
The only empty seat at the counter is next to a man about twenty years Stan’s junior. He looks up at me as I approach and I feel his stare. His hair shines. Longer by his ears, the brown strands thin into a short trim atop his head, and his matching mustache draws a line that separates his mouth from his eyes.
Stan and Gordon sit at the counter’s bridge, separated by two other older men. They total six today—seven, including my neighbor—and I’m greeted before my jeans hit the plastic seat. Stan nods big in my direction, his motions cartoonish, proving to his cohorts that we know each other. “How ya doing?”
One of the new guys, his round face blocked by square glasses, sits a few seats down from Stan, facing me.
“Don’t pay attention to that side of the table,” he says, waving toward the people I know.
“You’re just jealous because we got a head start, heh,” Gordon says, leaning forward as he speaks to reveal rumpled hair from behind Dennis.
I smile at them and shake my head, too far away to expect them to hear any words I mutter.
It might be because I’m far from the people I recognize, or because their movements are so much bigger than I remember. Maybe it’s because I’m so overwhelmed by their combined ages that I cannot pretend to hold my own. But for the first time at The Fort, I don’t want to order food or linger at the counter. I want to drink my cup of coffee and drive away and re-enter the College-On-The-Hill’s bubble that feels so far from the Americana décor and country music and ever-present smell of bacon.
“You smell great,” my neighbor says, not looking at me directly. “Perfume?”
SPF 50 sunscreen.
A waitress that could have been Anne’s twin, but for her lack of limp and unpierced nose, drops a menu at my place.
“It’s like a seedy bar, with their jokes,” she says to me, a co-conspirator. I stay.
* * *
Pieces of Anne’s story emerge from slices of conversation across the counters.
She texted while driving, Anne’s look-alike had said. But Anne doesn’t tell me that in her version.
“That was a hell of an accident,” Gordon says, shaking his head, one of few sentences he doesn’t punctuate “heh.”
The subsequent Saturday, Anne works the counter briefly but soon wanders to a few tables, her steps slow. She carries plates across the diner but cycles back each time to the counter’s inner U, where she leans against the fake marble, putting her weight on her good leg.
After the crash, she didn’t get treatment, didn’t do physical therapy, the other waitress tells me.
“Soon she’ll be dancin’ and twirlin’,” the waitress says. “She’s strong. She’ll come back.”
“Building muscle is, at this point, hard,” Anne says, flexing.
She’s learned a lot of lessons, Gordon says.
* * *
Stan reads every page of The Valley News for four hours each morning, starting from the front cover. He follows the Saint Louis Cardinals, the Red Sox if he’s desperate. He still holds a grudge—50 years later, or 60, or 70—against Boston’s “other” team. The Braves, who went to Atlanta, aren’t even worth considering.
“You don’t get paid a goddamn thing there,” he says. “They don't give a shit about their players.”
I imagine Stan follows teams like he now watches Anne limp around The Fort. She moves from table to table, and he watches her navigate, stumble, then continue. She fails then finds steadiness.
He tells me one morning that baseball now bores him. But he says he watches his TV screen and reads the box scores, seeing who hit the home runs. Here, he cannot take his eyes off of Anne.
* * *
The first time, it happened so quickly I couldn’t shrink away. John, standing behind me, rested his hand on my bare shoulder before he turned to leave. The fingers felt heavy on sunburned skin. I tugged at my pink fleece clenched between my knees, wishing I hadn’t slipped it off when I’d sat at the counter.
John, walking behind me, gave me another a protective pat when a Tuesday regular directed my attention away from Stan, John, and Gordon. I saw pale flesh approach my collarbone and anticipated the slight wrinkles of his thumb against my body, the heel of his palm shaking my shoulder just a touch.
I don’t expect it the third time, don’t expect to feel the breath, the whiskers, the flesh so close to mine.
Anne’s look alike drops the white folded receipt, standing like a tent, on the countertop before me.
“Who’s gonna pay this time?” Stan asks, opening his arms up to the counter. John paid for my runny yellow eggs the previous Saturday after badgering me until I was too embarrassed to say no.
Now, John insists Stan or Gordon’ll take it. I insist that I will. The Tuesday customers stay silent. The conversation cycles from chivalry and checks to Gordon’s mail route and did-you-hears of former co-workers and the friends that have fallen away.
I meet Gordon’s eyes as I scan the counter, and he holds them with a stare. Then he swoops. He leans in from my right and presses his cheek into mine. His warm breath across my face feels light but not faint; Gordon, half-deaf Gordon with untrimmed hair, breathes with force. Scarce stubble tickles my skin. His left arm traces my back as he leans in to grip my left arm. His right arm arcs in a half moon toward me, his fingers pinch the air in front of my face, and he takes it, grasps the white rectangle receipt, and pulls it away from me.
I’m sure the hoots have carried through this capture but when I hear them now I notice, notice the calls, the counter slaps. I mutter a “thank you” and smile toward Gordon but don’t lift my eyes to his.
* * *
2009. Anne’s driving home from a shift, from The Fort to Canaan. A lady takes a last-minute left. Anne sees her and starts to swerve away.
A bus, coming from the other direction, hits Anne’s car.
“The dash got below my knee, shoved it right out,” she tells me today, wearing a clean red shirt with The Fort in curved white font. “I broke my neck, too.”
“You broke your neck?”
After the injury, Anne was out of work for seven months. Customers signed a book for her. The Fort put out a donation bin and raised $2,700. When she tells me this she waits for a reaction.
The knee surgery was this spring. By May 4, Stan’s welcoming her titanium leg back to work.
* * *
His hands push against the counter. He stands. I turn away from him after his first wobble, not wanting to stare at his struggle. I feel Stan pass behind me, my eyes against the empty coffee cup smudged with the remains of ground-up beans. Three distinct sounds hit the tile with each step—the firm tap of cane-against-ceramic followed by a far footstep, a closer footstep. I wait ten seconds, eyes glued to my mug, before I stand, giving him time before I follow.
Our procession of two edges along the U-shaped counter, turning left toward the door separating The Fort from Jiffy Mart. We pass the clear case of muffins, which feel so distinct from the counter’s smooth wood.
Each step he takes seems planned, each placement of his cane deliberate. He waits for a woman to pass, carrying stacks of plates. He shakes. He doesn’t look at her.
“Goodbye,” he says.
His caneless hand pulls the black door handle open, letting the glass swing toward him, toward us. He steps through and releases. It shuts before I can grab the edged handle.
His eyes don’t depart from the far doors, the ones that open into sticky heat and low-hanging fog. I wonder if Stan has a driver, if the King of the Counter who moves with an almost-frail step can navigate with confidence from The Fort to his home. His hand reaches into his pants pocket, finds a black set of keys, pushes a button.
The 2010 Cadillac flashes to life, the wide grill parallel to The Fort’s windows. Black paint. Doors shining. He pulls one open while leaning a little heavier on his cane, and he moves his right leg into the car. Left leg. Leans forward, bends inside. The car does not rumble to power, it ascends. With red lights it arches backward, twisting tires away from me. Stan’s fingers curve around the wheel. His eyes meet mine. He lifts a hand in a salute and bends the black car out of the wide driveway, onto the empty main road.
Published June 2013