Dust swirled thickly around the man like a column of smoke from a coal engine. He took a deep breath through his handkerchief, which was wrapped tightly around his face, which allowed him to breathe. He could taste the dust in his mouth even though the fabric filtered most of it out, but it was impossible to keep it all away, especially on a day like today.
The wind was fierce today and the dust unruly. If he had not known better he would have thought that there was a brown fog or even a haze in the air, but he knew the difference. He had traveled far and wide and had never had a distaste for something as fierce as these black blizzards that swept through.
Dust slowly poured into his shoe, filling it to the brim. It felt not unlike having a shoe filled with water, but instead of squelching with every step it rubbed his feet a little more raw than before. He looked into the sky hoping to see the sun, but there was nothing to be seen other than the dirt. He took another mouth full of contaminated air and began to walk forward.
He knew where he was headed, even if he could not see more than four feet in front of himself. The wind screamed past his ears as it began to pick up again. He lowered his head against the gale and tipped his hat into it, hoping to slice his way through the gust. With one hand on his hat the other checked to see if the collar on his duster was still snapped upright. He felt that it was, but it was difficult to tell because his hands were covered in filth and everything felt far away to him.
His feet sank into the dirt, on what used to be a road, up to his ankles. He no longer tried to lift his feet out of the dunes, but shuffled along. He parted the dirt sea before him, still angling himself into the winds. His breath came quick to him now as he walked more quickly, but he could feel the surrounding area around him change.
Sand dunes were no longer as high as they used to be and the wind had quieted. He looked and squinted even though he was behind a pair of thick googles. He could see dull lights around him.
Must be houses, the man thought to himself, not wanting to open his mouth to invite the Martian-like landscape inside.
He could hear shutters nearby slamming against the homes. Normally, he imagined this street would be filled with women and children, while their husbands worked the neighboring fields. But not many lived in these parts anymore. Most of them had gone out West. He knew better than to do that.
Scores of people traveled to the coast hoping to avoid the Bowl or just to find something that did not feel as impoverished at the rest of the country. There was nowhere to escape the latter and the former stretched almost coast to coast.
Plus, he was meant to be here.
He continued to make his way through the empty streets. Lights were clearly flickering and he realized that they must have be oil lanterns or candles. He wondered if the place where he was going would be powered by electricity or by other means. He knew it was new, so he hoped that flames were not the only source of light, where he was going.
His stomach lurched.
He knew what this meant. It gave him a twinge that almost made him double over, which he refrained from doing. The last thing that he wanted was to have even more dust snake down his clothes.
He stopped in his tracks and waited for the next pain. He began to count to himself quietly.
“One… two… three…” he started trying his best to not open his mouth.
“…twelve… thirteen…” he grunted as the pain started.
This time he was able to pinpoint where the pain originated. It was approximately six inches from his belly button on his right hand side. He had to do this quickly, because he knew time was not on his side. As the pain coursed through his abdomen, he twisted his torso towards the pain. As he did the pain moved from his side and closer to his center. When he felt that it was centered properly and stopped and began to count again.
“One… two… three…” he said more quietly this time as the pain passed.
He coughed as dirt entered one of his lungs, but he still tried to count as best as he could in his mind. The coughing subsided as he counted to eleven and the pain flared up again, but this time directly over his belly button.
Fighting through the pain he began to make his way straight, ignoring the fact that some of the lights were starting to angle more towards him. His foot struck something beneath the dirt and he realized that he was stepping out of the street and onto the side of the road out of the rain gutter. Stepping over it he could now see ghastly images in front of himself. They were large rectangular, shadows that towered over him. If he had not known that he was walking into an alleyway between houses he may have started, but he continued.
As soon as he entered the corridor between them the wind seemed to streamline towards him, but the dirt was only a fraction of the height it was outside the house. He could actually see straight to the ground. Dead grass lay browned in the small pathway between the homes. He stopped to look at the grass as it crunched under foot, but the pain in his stomach moved him forward again, which ceased when he began to walk.
I should be very close, he said to himself, knowing that he could never be late.
As soon as he thought this to himself he could see lights directly ahead of himself. He made his way towards them nearly falling into the shifting sands as he stepped off of the sidewalk and back into the street. He had to thank his luck that this area was nowhere near as bad as some of the other surrounding areas.
They’re getting off clean, he thought as another image began to form before him.
It was long and only a story tall. It looked more like a train car as he made his way closer and he soon realized that it was not so far from the truth. Glass that had not thought to be polished from the outside rose out of the dusty gloom and he could see shadowy figures walking behind it. He thought he could see a few other forms sitting along the glass, but he could not be sure until he made his way inside.
He found the doorway, which was flanked by two electric lamps on the outside and he made his way through the open door. Dirt and wind followed him as it swept into the building. He closed the door behind himself, but the wind helped close it with him and the door slammed, rattling the glass in its frame.
A woman with a hectic look on her face came over to him.
“Table for one, sir?” she asked with a practiced smile.
The man grunted as he shook the dust from his shoulders, but he kept his handkerchief over his mouth. He looked around to see how many people were in the diner. Other than the waitress and chef in the back, which he could hear there were only two other people sitting together. The pain in his stomach was now dull as it hit him, but now was ninety degrees away from his belly button on his left side, it throbbed now and he was grateful for that.
“Sir?” she asked the smile gone from her face.
“You mind if I choose my own seat. I’m kinda particular.” He said with a slow deep voice.
“That’s fine. I’d just recommend to stay away from the door,” she smiled, “You don’t want dust in your food.”
He tipped his hat as she began to walk away, allowing him to choose his seat. He began to walk to his left, feeling the dull pain in his abdomen shift again towards the center. He passed a table that was empty, that had a fine layer of dust on it. He passed his hand and left a streak in the dirt. As he passed the second table the pain in his side, which was starting to center, suddenly jerked to the left again, this time making him almost double over in pain.
So that’s it, he said to himself as he drew a small ‘X’ in the dirt on the corner of the table.
He walked to the table past the second, there was less dust on this table, but enough that he could see his hand print on the surface. He sat facing the second table and relaxed. The waitress came over to his table with a mug and filled it with steaming hot coffee.
“Do you need a menu?” she asked as she placed one on the table emitting a puff of dirt to emit from underneath.
“Yes, please.” Said the man, “Can you also fetch me an extra cup of coffee?”
She smiled, “Expecting another?”
He shook his head, “I just like coffee, ma’am.”
Her smile flickered for a moment, but came back as she said she would be right back.
The man pushed the menu off to the side and reached into his duster’s inside pocket. Inside was a small notebook and an even smaller pencil. He opened the notebook and flipped through a few pages, all of which had dates and times crossed out on them, until he came to a page with some dates and times that were unmarked. He tried to score the first unmarked date and time, which read ‘June 8th, 1938 10:30am’, but there was too much dust on the tip. He tried to brush it off with his hands, which seemed to work very little, but then decided to lick the tip of the pencil, which seemed to help. He crossed out the date and time and placed the notebook and pencil into his inside pocket.
The waitress came back over with a second mug and she filled it with coffee as well.
“You know what you’d like?” she asked taking out her own notebook and pencil, which she licked as well.
“Yes, ma’am,” Said the man, never opening the menu, “I’d like two of your biggest steaks cooked medium rare, both of with I’d like a baked potato and three sunny side-up eggs. I’d also like a full chicken, baked with stuffing and a side of greens. Two sandwiches staked with ham and turkey, with Swiss cheese, if possible could that be grilled to make the cheese melt? I’d also like two large vanilla milkshakes...”
She had stopped writing; thinking that it was a joke. She placed a hand on her hip. She was no longer smiling and she sighed loud enough that the man was certain the chef could hear.
“Sir, we don’t do custom orders here. And don’t be pullin’ my leg about what you’ll eat by yourself.” She sounded annoyed and the other two people that were dining turned to watch the confrontation.
The chef must have heard as well, because he came out of the kitchen to see what the ruckus was about.
He was a large man, with thick hairy forearms. He was sweating profusely and covered in sweat, grease and blood. He had a scowl on his face and sweat trails on his brow, which were clearly visible thanks to the constant dust outside.
“Everything alright out here, May?” the chef asked to the waitress, but was looking at the man sitting at the table, with his hat and handkerchief still on. Most people had the decency to take those off when walking into a building, thought the chef.
The man at the table sighed as if this a nuisance and reached into his duster pocket and pulled out a thick wallet overflowing with bills. He took some of them out and the chef and waitress both breathed out heavily when they saw bills reaching high denominations.
“I have some presidents that would like your service, sir. I have Washington, Lincoln and Jackson. I’m pretty sure I have some Grant, Franklin and maybe even a McKinley or two.”
The chef almost immediately started to sweat again and he looked frantically at the waitress named, May. It looked as if she understood what her boss was thinking and she began to furiously scribble on her notepad.
“Two steaks, taters, and eggs. Medium rare. Sunny side… Full chicken stuffed… Greens…”
The chef apologized and ran into the kitchen to begin preparing his food. The waitress finished writing what he had ordered and placed a large period after writing down how many milkshakes he wanted.
“Anything else that I can get you, sir?” she asked with a painfully nervous smile.
The man pulled his handkerchief off for the first time and lifted his coffee to blow on it.
“Not right now, but I’ll keep the menu, just in case. But before you go… can I have a pitcher of water with an empty glass and a nice stack of fresh napkins?”
She nodded her head vigorously and ran into the back to whisper to the chef who whispered back to her in hurried tones. The man at the table smiled and sipped his strong black coffee. It was good and rich, which he was surprised to taste in a diner like this. He relaxed now, knowing the pain in his stomach would be gone for the duration of the day, but something else would be coming through that door any moment.
The waitress was fast with his request. She came over with his extra napkins and a full pitcher of water with an empty glass. She told him that his sandwiches would come out first, unless he wanted everything at once, then he would have to wait. He said the sandwiches first would be great and as she left he asked for a refill on his first coffee.
The man sat waiting. He knew it would not be long before it was time.
He stared out the window and watched dust attempt to collect in the corners. Every time dirt started to collect, the height of it would make it all tumble away and it would start to build up again. He watched this happen four or five times when he heard muffled sounds outside. Unable to see very well the man felt the presence of someone or maybe more than one person outside. Soon, two human-like shadows emerged from the fog of dust. He could see by their silhouettes that they were hunched over, trying their best to fend off the dust storm.
They were making their way to the diner in which he was currently sitting inside. Absent mindedly he grabbed the menu and placed it over the pitcher of water, just as two people outside made their way indoors. A flurry of dust and wind burst into the diner as soon as they entered. The only other couple in the diner, who were currently eating a meal, covered their food with their hands and bodies, trying to deter the elements to making their food gritty.
The man at the table decided to leave the menu on the pitcher for the time being.
May walked over to the two men, “Ronald! Glad to see you! Same table?”
The older of the two men shook off his hat in the doorway and began to unbutton his coat, “Thank-you, May. This is my cousin Jerry, he’s new in town.”
The man at the table watched as the waitress shook the young man’s hand, named Jerry. He was twenty years younger than the man named Ronald and ten years younger than the waitress. Jerry could not have been older than twenty. He had a dirty tangle of dirt blonde hair, which the man was unsure if it was more the color of the dust or the hair, but decided it was mostly hair. The older gentleman had grey streaks in his darker brown hair and a moustache that was even more peppered with grey. They both wore the same type and color jacket and the Jerry’s hat looked newer than Ronald’s, but other than that they looked very similar.
“Nice to meet you…” the boy said quietly.
May smiled warmly, much less rehearsed than the smile she gave the man, “No need to be shy. You visiting your cousin, Jerry?”
Jerry shrugged, “I was planning on working on his farm, but…”
No one said anything.
The room grew still for a beat before May recovered.
“Let’s get you folks seated. The other men coming today?”
Ronald nodded as he followed her to the table in front of the man. She placed the menus on the ‘X’ that he had drawn on the table, not noticing that it was there. Ronald and Jerry slid, with their backs facing the man, on the bench.
“They should be here shortly. We always try to meet around 10:30, but the blizzard out there is really something.”
May nodded as she went behind the bar to fetch four empty mugs.
“It’s really one of the worst that I’ve seen so far. Do you think they’ll ever stop?”
Ronald laughed bitterly, “If it doesn’t stop soon… My family will have to leave. The farm is nearly destroyed by these dust storms.”
“That would be a shame!” Said May, sounding actually disturbed by the thought, “I would missing seeing you around here.”
“I’d miss you too May, but let’s not dwell on sappy talk. Let’s get these mug full of the usual, if you don’t mind.”
She snapped to a quick salute, “Aye-aye, Captain!”
She hurried off to the back as Ronald and Jerry settled into their seats. The man watched them as he finished his second mug of coffee. They took off their coats and laid them across the back of their seat. The boy named Jerry locked eyes with the man for a moment. A strange look crossed the boy’s face, but in an instant it was gone as the door to the diner swung open again.
This time a single man came into the establishment. He did the same as the men before him. He shook himself off and took off his hat, before being greeted by May.
“Welcome, Arthur! Seat’s all set. I’m bringing everyone coffee now.”
“Everyone’s here?” asked Arthur, who looked to be in his late fifties.
“Looks like we’re still waiting on Wayne.”
Arthur sucked at his teeth, “Man’s gunna be late to his own funeral.”
May laughed as she started to finish making a pot of coffee on a stove. The man watched her eyes dart around the diner, quickly checking if the other patrons need assistance. She looked at the couple first and saw that they were fine. As she looked at the man he raised his empty mug and gave her a quick nod. She held up a finger, telling him to wait as she hurried about to finish the coffee.
The man named Arthur, made his way to the table currently hosting Jerry and Ronald. He slid far into the booth, groaning as he did so. He bunched his own coat into a ball and pushed it against the wall. A small plume of dirt rose from it as he did so.
“Ronald.” Arthur said reaching out to shake his hand, “How are you?”
Ronald shook his acquaintance’s hand, “Same old. I brought my cousin along. He was giving me that look, that if he didn’t get out of the house to do something he may go stark mad.”
The man witnessed the boy’s face blush. The red flush crept all the way around the boy’s neck and even though he was caked in dirt it did not hide the color.
Arthur laughed and so did Ronald, Arthur continued, “Glad to meet you, boy. What’s your name?”
Jerry held out his hand politely, “My name is Jerry, sir.”
Arthur laughed a full belly laugh. This made the man look up to observe him. He was later along in years and he had well defined lines in the corners of his mouth and eyes. At once, the man could tell that this man was a heavy smoker, his teeth were yellow and brown and as he spoke with his hands his index and middle finger seemed to be locked in an eternal smoker’s gesture. As soon as the man thought this, Arthur took out a tin of paper and tobacco and began to roll himself a cigarette.
“Call me Artie, son. No need for formalities here. Care for one?” asked Arthur as he licked the cigarete shut in a quick, well-learned motion.
Jerry placed a hand in the air saying that he did not. His cousin however, was handed a cigarete and he took it. Ronald smiled at his cousin.
“Don’t tell my wife.” He said still smiling as he took a small box of matches from his pocket to light the cigarette in his mouth and the one that was now hanging from Arthur’s own.
Jerry nodded and jumped as May came to the table.
May snorted delicately, “Didn’t mean to scare you. Just coming to deliver the coffee.”
She poured into all four mugs that were on the table, even though the fourth man was not there yet. Each of the men at the table thanked her and she left a small pitcher filled with cream or milk. The man then realized that he had not been left his own, but he liked his black anyways.
Jerry then raised his hand quietly as if to ask a question in class.
“Didn’t I tell you?” started May, “There’s no need to be shy here. What do you need?”
Jerry smiled meekly, “Could I have some sugar?”
Ronald and Arthur chuckled to themselves as Arthur dashed some ashes from his cigarette. May said she would be right back with some sugar for him. And Arthur leaned across the table to whisper something to Ronald, which the man heard.
“Is the boy gunna be participating? He seems young…”
Ronald laughed, “He’s got a good one. He told it to me the other night. Don’t you worry.”
Arthur shrugged and leaned back against the bench and took a long drag. May was on her way back with the sugar as the door swung open, she cussed quietly to herself as most of the sugar spun widely out of the dish she was holding. The floor now had white crystals intermingling with the dust that continued to come from outside.
“How are you, May?” said a loud voice, which was behind a flowery handkerchief from the new person in the diner, “I’m probably late…”
May was busy getting more sugar as she replied, “Late as always, Wayne. Coffee is already served. I’ll be over in a moment.”
The man called Wayne, untied his handkerchief and shook his hat off in the doorway, like the other man had already done. Even though the man could tell he was older than Ronald and Jerry, he still looked very young. The only thing that gave him away was that his hair was very grey and his blue eyes had an oldness to them. He made his way to the table of his comrades and sat down with his coat on.
“How is everyone?” Wayne said loudly as he shook Arthur, then Ronald and finally Jerry’s hand.
“We’re fine, Wayne. Glad you could join us. This is my cousin, Jerry.” Ronald said as he placed his cigarette on the ash tray so he could sip his coffee.
“Nice to meet you, kid.” Wayne said as he adjusted himself on the bench so he was comfortable.
“Here’s your sugar, Jerry.” Said May as she placed a small saucer in front of him.
The three older men watched amused as he added sugar to his coffee. They all had smirks on their faces as the boy blew on it and sipped his first sip. Suddenly he was choking and gagging as he tried to swallow. Ronald smiled, while Arthur and Wayne howled with laughter.
“Whiskey?!” Gagged Jerry.
“It keeps the blood flowin’.” Wayne said as he took out his own flask to add to his coffee whiskey mug.
Jerry’s face was red again, the man could tell, but he still went back for another sip. This time he was expecting the booze in his drink and was able to swallow it without complaint. The remain three men held their mugs up and gave a silent cheers as they all took a sip from their own mugs.
As they finished their first drink Arthur leaned forward, “So who would like to begin?”