Derailed

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At precisely 6:05 a.m., the methodical moaning of the old analogue clock shattered the silent serenity that blanketed the room. Glistening golden rays of sun splashed across the pealing paint of the window’s sill, gently spilling across the softly sweeping oak posts of the neatly made bed. The olive cable knit afghan rested heavily above the sagging mattress springs, each corner carefully tucked in so that not thread was left out of place. Releasing a long satisfied sigh, Lionel Franklin calmly placed his hands above his quaking knees and straightened up. He had no real need for the alarm that the tiny tin faced clock provided for he was up long before the sun crested and before the birds could begin to serenade their surroundings. Lionel simply loved to greet each morning. Twisting the sleek key atop the night side mount exactly nine and a quarter times, he quieted the disturbance and crossed the creaking floor boards towards the mirror hanging above the lonesome dresser in the dim corner.
Without yet gazing into the reflection, Lionel carefully opened the top drawer and removed a crisply ironed white button up shirt. Slipping in each arm, first the right, then the left, into the shirt, he delicately began to push the tiny sliver snaps that ran up the front, covering his frail chest. Next to where the shirt had been folded, lay a clip on cherry red bow tie, which Lionel attached to the stiff neck of his collar. He ran a large toothed comb through the softly cresting waves of wiry white hair, six times through the right, seven through the left, and once down the back. Smiling quaintly to himself, the old man reached into the right pocket of his cleanly pressed black slacks and took out a pair of glasses. Unfolding the arms one after the other, he slid the thick frames onto the sunken rifts of his sloping face, and rested the ends behind his unusually large ears. Finally, Lionel opened a small mahogany box and pulled out his plastic nametag, proudly pinning it an inch and a half above his right shirt pocket. His name was neatly printed across the Streamline Diner’s train shaped badge in all capitals. L-I-O-N-E-L. He spelled to himself. Lionel liked his name. Had he allowed himself to wander down the corridors of his consciousness, he would have thought about how every man in the Franklin family had been named Lionel, but he preferred not to let his mind wander now, he had his perfect routine whose quiet structure brought him comfort. As precise as a train on its daily schedule, Lionel prided himself that everyday was exactly as the day before, just the way he liked it.
Seven thundering dongs of the hallway grandfather clock awakened the silence that had again nestled itself within the tiny brick house. 7:00 a.m. Lionel had just finished setting out the tiny teacup and saucer upon the spotless stovetop next to the teal kettle. Everyday after work, he would arrive home at ten after two and settle down with a cup of steaming lemon tea and a good book. The smoldering citrus steam would kiss his rosy wrinkled cheeks and spread a thin layer of moist fog across his glasses. It warmed him to think of the peace that this brought him. With not a moment to spare, Lionel pulled the brass handle of his front door closed with a resounding click and headed down the cobblestone path that meandered through the wilting garden. A slight breeze made the stalks bow and dance in a rush of hushed whispers. Leaves floated lazily down, gently spinning like teacup boats amidst the wind’s current. Looking left then right, Lionel stepped off the sidewalk curb and shuffled across the vacant street. He knew exactly how many steps it would take to cross, thirteen, and playfully tried to only step on the seven white painted strips that bridged the gap.
Around the third corner of the second right, the Streamline Diner’s tall sign stood proudly above its surroundings. The small, aluminum, train car shaped diner illuminated in the sun’s rays. Only three cars were scattered in the dirt parking lot, less than usual, five less to be exact, noted Lionel. Counting again the number of steps it took to cross over from beneath the sign to the other side of the street, twelve. He pondered. One less than usual. What is different about today? Furrowing his worn brow, Lionel Franklin stood, puzzled with the fact that he could not figure what day it was. Now Lionel was not able to recall the date, let alone what day of the week it was because to him, everyday was the exact same. Nothing made any day more or less significant to him. That’s just the way things should be, he believed.
Opening the squeaky right door to the diner, Lionel peered down the line of burgundy plastic leather booths and counter barstools. The heavy aroma of strong coffee, grease, and tobacco pleasantly tickled his nose. Removing a worn rag from beneath the counter, he began to efficiently shuffle through the booths, making sure that each surface was clean and polished. He prided himself on his work diligence. Sometimes he would even make a clever game of remembering what his customers’ usuals were as he would collect their dirty dishes. There was only one other employee that worked with Lionel up front in the Streamline Diner. Though Lionel and the woman with the strawberry blond hair streaked with silver strains did not really work WITH each other, they merely worked NEAR each other, occasionally sharing a smile, but nothing more. As he continued to gather the empty coffee mugs and swab up the mote rings in which they sat, Lionel calculated that it took him exactly one minute per booth, forty five seconds if he did not neatly refold the menus and place them back in their individual rings, but Lionel always did, so it took him the full minute.
Never did he listen in on the customers muffled conversations, Lionel simply drifted by, harmlessly floating in to remove dishes as needed. Occasionally, they would mutter a low “thanks”, and Lionel would flash a simple toothless grin, but never anything more. It was not because he was a rude old man or felt that sharing pleasantries was a waste of time; no, Lionel Franklin was just not much for talking. In fact, if he had thought about it, he hadn’t spoken to anyone in quite some time. Lionel was far more interested in what was left behind by his customers. He was extremely observant, perhaps more than most could understand. Notes, hastily written on stained napkins, small toys, a box of matches with an unfamiliar logo, and newspaper clippings would fascinate him. He would discover these items in the crawling creases of the torn seats or swept beneath the rows of spinning stools and store them in the deep left pocket of his jet black servers pouch tied just below his narrow waist. On his twenty two minute break, Lionel would contently dive into his forming collection. After a meticulous investigation of each item, he would imagine where they came from and to whom they belonged to. Treating them as if they were delicate valuables, Lionel would place these found treasures into the front display case, eagerly hoping for their owners to return and claim them. But no one ever did.
Lionel Franklin did not seem to mind the fact that the Streamline Diner customers never left him much of a tip. In fact, he never gave it a second thought. Times were tough for everyone.. The neon clock that hung above the serving window littered with old orders scraps, chimed once; altering the train car that it was 1:00 p.m. One hour until closing time. The day had been unusually slow, noted Lionel. Only eleven people had filtered in through the doors, only a fraction of the diner’s dailies. There was definitely something different about this particular day, he nervously reflected. However, he did not dwell on this encroaching suspicion for too long for it made him itch with an unsatisfying discomfort.
Sweeping in an evenly stroked swing, Lionel cleared the tile in a consistent rectangular pattern. The grout that ran between the black and white checkers seemed to hold on to dirt quite well and this was the most effective approach towards its removal. Deeply focused upon the uniform pattern of light and dark rows, an exact ratio of four white tiles for every evenly spaced black tile, the old man jumped at the sound of the bell above the diner door as an unfamiliar late afternoon customer strolled in. It was one fifty six and they always closed exactly at two. No one ever bothered to stay near closing time. From the far corner of the empty car, Lionel cautiously observed the customer as the waitress led her to the eighth barstool while his eyes darted back and forth towards the approaching hour. Five minutes and thirty five seconds.
She was an elderly woman with long slender limbs. An ivory colored linen sundress loosely clung to her flowing body as she sat upon the stool, perched like a watchful dove. Peacefully stroking the creases that rippled over her lap, the lady radiated a sense of genuine contentment. The empty diner echoed the sharp clatter of the ceramic plate as the waitress hastily slid the newcomer a piece of cherry pie, dripping with a messy bun of fluffy white whipped cream, before returning to the back room to finish up her final tasks. The clock buzzed, 2:00p.m. Unsure of what to do, Lionel continued to nervously sweep the floors, but now in a more frantic manner, moving closer and closer in the woman’s direction. He tried to focus on controlling his short breaths and racing heart but the unfamiliarity of the unfolding situation shot arrows of anxiety through his mind.
Slowly extending a willowy arm, the woman reached out and gently touched Lionel on his left forearm as he passed by. Like a skittish deer, the old man flew backward clumsily and landed in the booth. A sweet laugh escaped from the woman as she herself was shocked by the result her contact had created. Leaping to her feet she hurried to Lionel’s side and again, extended a hand, to help him up. Still feeling like he had been hit by a train, Lionel laid sprawled across the bench, staring blankly at the gesture.
“Oh dear”, she said, again releasing an angelic laugh, “I’m sorry did I startle you?!” Cupping his hand under hers, the woman lifted Lionel up to a straightened position. Lionel could feel the smooth buttery ness of her warm hands. Gasping for breath, the old man stood frozen. Squinting her twinkling sapphire blue eyes to read his tilted nametag, the lady jubilantly apologized again. “I’m terribly sorry, Lionel! I was just hoping you could please bring me a fork so that I could take a taste of this delicious looking dessert!”
Lionel Franklin could not recall the last time he had heard his name aloud. The way in which this woman so clearly pronounced each syllable with care reminded him of his mother. He liked the way her smile had an uncontainable childlike innocence and the way in which her loose peppered curls bobbed slightly as she moved. A rush of both excitement and calmness filled the old man’s body. Clearing his throat, Lionel Franklin responded. Startled, almost having forgotten the sound of his own voice, he stuttered “Of of cccourse! Right away miss……….”
“Miss Dionna Rale” proudly interjected the woman with earnest confidence. “But most folks just call me De!”
Returning from the cluttered kitchen, Lionel handed De the fork and was about to retreat to the comfort of the back room choirs when the woman politely asked him to join her. With a nervous smile masking his uncertainty, Lionel swiftly scooted to the stool next to the woman. She began with a pleasant sprinkling of small talk mixed with an assortment of questions about him and the diner. With each second, Lionel could feel the confidence and genuine exhilaration grow with in his soul like a blistering building volcano. For the first time in a very long while, he was completely engaged in an intimate connection. Had he looked at the neon clock, Lionel would have seen that it was seven to three, but he didn’t, so the position of the hands no longer held any significance.
The droning thumbing of the waitress’ long fingernails across the metal register broke the conversation. She shuffled over, thrusting a rolled up bill towards De, and shooting a sly side wards glance at Lionel. Cheeks burning a roasted shade of red, he grabbed the broom that had fallen wayside and zipped into the kitchen to finish up the last of the day’s dishes. Each swipe of the ceramic plate, crusted with dry food, sent Lionel deeper and deeper in a trance of tranquility. He still could not believe what had just transpired. Hurriedly snatching up the bussing tray from the soapy sink, Lionel skipped out in rush of anticipation to rejoin De.
Stopping dead, his quivering jaw dropped. The diner was empty, she was gone. A pit of confusion and uncertainty welled up in his stomach and lump of sadness collected in his throat as he slowly shifted to the counter to pick up the pie plate. Caught in a web of ambiguity, Lionel almost didn’t see the tiny slip of paper folded neatly next to the check. With long trembling fingers, he opened the paper with curling edges. Ten digits were printed crisply in red ink, her number. Thrilled with a remembrance and possibility of actual companionship, he took this finding and placed it carefully in his top pocket with a satisfied pat. There would be no need for Lionel to display this treasure that was left behind in the front display case, for he knew to whom it now belonged.
As he stepped out into the fading sun of the afternoon, Lionel paused and took a deep breath before climbing down the steps. The light aroma of her still lingered within his nostrils, a splash of vanilla and peaches. Her gentle voice carried him across the street and down the sidewalk and if he had paused to think, Lionel Franklin would have noted that this particular walk home took exactly nine hundred and seventy three steps and four and a half minutes shorter than it usually did, but he did not. Lionel Franklin simply walked home, face beaming with pure contentment, his hand pressed closely over his top pocket, feeling the beat of his racing heart beneath the tiny slip of paper that had made this day so different from every other day, and would make each day after just as unique.





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This article has 4 comments. Post your own now!

Ren said...
Jul. 17, 2009 at 4:56 pm
At the beginning I was worried about the language. Your writing is so descriptive, that I almost thought it'd be distracting. But as I continued to read, your imagery painted a clear picture of the story in my mind, and I rather enjoyed it. Well done.
 
emj12345 said...
Jun. 18, 2009 at 7:14 pm
I loved it--his eccentricities were so genuine and gentle. Wow...I am really impressed.
 
Aunt CJ said...
Jun. 18, 2009 at 1:02 am
Wow, Claire. You are one talented writer. I want to go to the diner just to meet Lionel. Brilliant.
 
SAS said...
Jun. 16, 2009 at 10:02 pm
It sounds as if I know this character, Lionel. Your use of visual imagery was amazing !
 
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