Mike wiped off the counter and glanced at the clock. 10:24 A.M. The breakfast crowd, so to speak, had come and gone, but he knew it wouldn't be long before the lunch regulars walked in. Automatically, he took a hamburger patty and threw it on the grill. He had been working at Wimpy's Diner for many years, and he knew everyone's schedule. The narrow diner looked like a replica of a railway dining car and was a favorite of the local residents of Sleepyside, New York.
Glancing out the window, he wasn't the least bit surprised to see Mr. Stratton, the principal of the Sleepyside Junior-Senior High School, walking towards the front door. By the time Mr. Stratton sat down at the counter, Mike had turned the hamburger patty and placed a slice of American cheese on top of it. On a plate, he stacked lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, and onions. He'd also started mixing a chocolate milk shake in the mixer. He knew the principal only had a short break before he had to get back to the school.
"Mornin', Mike," Mr. Stratton called out. "The usual, please."
"Coming right up, Mr. S." Mike smiled at the man. True to his word, within a minute or two of sitting down, Mike placed the plate with the fresh cheeseburger in front of Mr. Stratton. The chocolate shake followed within seconds. "So, how's life at the school today?"
"The school's fine. It's this new 'No Child Left Behind' act that has me racking my brain. Why do they place so much emphasis on testing? Stupid idiot president just wants to look good, I guess. He doesn't realize this act is going to leave millions of kids behind." George Stratton ranted and raved a bit longer, and Mike listened quietly. Normally, he would have started up a discussion with the principal, but Mike was a Republican, to the core, and he didn't want to start an argument with one of his friends and favorite customers. Politics were something they usually agreed to disagree about. Besides, Mr. Stratton seemed more stressed than ever today.
The time seemed to pass quickly, and Mike threw another burger on the grill. Mr. Stratton was just finishing up his plate when Spider Webster walked in and sat down next to him.
"Hi, Mike. Hey, Mr. S." Spider's greeting was friendly, and it stopped Mr. Stratton's tirade.
"Hi, Spider," Mike said in return. He placed a Coke in front of the newcomer. "The usual?"
Spider nodded. Mr. Stratton looked at his watch. "Is it eleven, already? I'd better get back to the school." He got up and left enough money to cover his bill and the tip on the table. "See you tomorrow."
French fries were sizzling nicely in the oil, and another plate adorned with burger toppings sat next to the grill. Mike expertly flipped the burger onto a bun and placed the plate in front of Spider.
"Did you see they changed the billing at the Cameo?" Spider asked. "They're finally going to show Spider-Man here."
"Yeah, I've been waiting for that to come here, too. I could've driven to White Plains to see it a couple of weeks ago, but I like to keep my business local, you know?" Mike dumped the fries into a basket and sat it next to Spider's plate.
Spider reached for some catsup and proceeded to drown the poor crinkly fries.
"I know. Tad already went to see it, and it's been driving me nutty. I have to shut him up so he doesn't spoil the film for me. I'm glad I'm off tonight so I can go catch it." Spider shoved a few more of the fries into his mouth and followed them with a large gulp of the Coke. "I'd rather go to the Cameo, too. I just wish they were a little quicker about getting the new features in. The movie that's been playing there these last couple of weeks, what's it called?"
"The Sweetest Thing," Mike answered automatically.
"Yeah, that's it. Not my type of movie, you know. And they never even got the Scorpion King. I had to go to White Plains to see that one." Spider munched on his burger some more.
A young couple walked into the diner and sat down at a booth. Mike wiped his hands on a towel and walked around the counter with a couple of menus. Mike's waitress didn't start work until two in the afternoon, just before the after-school crowd of teenagers invaded the diner. This time of day was usually pretty slow, so it wasn't worth hiring anyone, and Mike didn't mind waiting on the occasional table.
It wasn't long before one of the usual customers was due to walk in, and Mike took an apple pie out of the refrigerator and cut it into six slices. He placed one of them on a metal sheet and stuck it in the already pre-heated oven. By eleven-thirty, it would be warm and ready to serve.
Every once in a while, someone would surprise him and not order their usual fare. This was not one of those times. The bell over the door chimed again, and Henry Lytell walked into the diner.
"The usual, Mike," he called out as he sat down on his usual stool at the far end of the counter.
Mike smiled to himself as he filled another glass of Coke from the fountain. "Good morning, Henry."
"Hey, Mr. Lytell," Spider mumbled around another mouthful of fries.
"Hi, yourself, Spider." Mr. Lytell seemed unusually cheerful today.
Mike turned back to the oven and checked the pie. Perfect. He set the warm pastry on a plate and put it in front of his friend. "What's got you in such a good mood this fine day?"
"Trixie Belden, that's what." Mr. Lytell grinned at the two stunned faces staring back at him. Henry Lytell was not known for liking the "harum-scarum" Belden girl. "She's going out of town again!"
"Nice, Henry. Real nice." Mike snapped his towel at Henry.
Spider laughed. "I know what he means, though. One less problem for our police force to worry about." Spider had been on the Sleepyside force, then transferred to White Plains, and was now back in Sleepyside again.
"Actually, she reminds me of myself in some ways. The problem is ... a young lady just shouldn't act that way!" Mr. Lytell started to reminisce. "When I was just a bit younger than she is now, I used to go trespassing on old Micah Maypenny's land. He was even more of a recluse than young Jeremiah is now."
"Jeremiah's not much of a recluse at all since he took in Dan Mangan," Mike pointed out.
Spider scraped his last French fry into the last little bit of catsup and popped it in his mouth. He got up off his barstool and grabbed his jacket and helmet. "I'd love to hear your stories, Mr. Lytell, but I've gotta get back on the beat. See ya tomorrow, Mike."
Mike dismissed Spider with a wave of his hand, and then went to take care of cleaning the table the young couple had vacated a few minutes earlier.
Henry continued his tale. "I was always curious about how Mr. Maypenny and his wife were able to manage alone in that cabin. I climbed this one old tree they had. One of the branches hung out over their vegetable garden and that little clearing where Micah usually had some stew or other simmering. Well, the branch broke, and there I fell, right straight into that big pot."
Mike let out a loud guffaw at the mental image, and even Henry had a hard time continuing the tale without laughing.
"Micah comes running out of the house and what does he find? Me with my butt stuck right in the pot, trying to push myself out, and a tree limb still entwined in my legs. Thanks be they didn't have instant cameras in those days!" Henry wiped a few tears from his eyes that had gathered there from trying not to laugh. "He was ranting and raving up a storm about privacy and trespassing. I thought he was going to get his shotgun and shoot me; I was so scared. So, off I scampered, still with the tree branch in my legs and the pot stuck to my behind. My mother made me go return the pot later. I'd never been more terrified and mortified in my whole life."
Mike was still laughing as a group of older ladies came in. Henry Lytell quietly sat and ate his pie, not willing to tell another childhood story while there were others there that could listen in. Lucky for him, the ladies were just thirsty and quickly finished their sodas, lemonades, and iced teas. After they left, Mike turned his attention to the chili he had simmering on the stove, knowing that his next couple of customers would be wanting some.
Henry was in a talkative mood and started in on another tale. "Did I ever tell you about the time that James Frayne and I went to explore the old Sligo place?"
Mike shook his head.
"James and I, this was when we were still teenagers, got this dang-fooled notion in our heads that the place was haunted."
Mike interrupted him. "Some people still think that."
Henry nodded. "Well, we made a bet to see who could stay inside the house at night the longest. We told our folks we were going camping and went up there with all our gear. We must've been thinking we could walk in the front door or climb in a window or something, but the place was closed up tighter than a drum."
The door of the diner opened again, and Mike glanced first at the man walking in the door, then at the clock. It was noon. He'd gotten wrapped up in listening to Henry's tales and forgotten to put a hot dog on the grill. He quickly did so now. Sergeant Molinson sat down at his usual stool at the opposite end of the counter and grunted under his breath. "H'lo, Mike. The usual, please."
"Hi there, Sergeant," Henry greeted the police officer. Molinson just nodded and then took the glass of Diet Coke from Mike.
"As I was saying," Henry continued, "James and I went all around that place trying to find an open window or any way in. We had to revise our bet to sleeping on the grounds instead of inside the house. We were too chicken to break a window or do anything that might get us in serious trouble."
Mike, meanwhile, fiddled with the hot dog on the grill and got a bun ready. It wasn't too long before he had the dog in a bun and spooned chili on top of it. Silently, he handed it to the sergeant.
"So, there we were, snug in our tent and sleeping bags, and, as it got darker, we got more and more nervous. Our imaginations were going wild. It wasn't any surprise to us when we heard these soft footsteps on the ground. Next, we heard this low moaning noise. James was so scared, he unzipped the tent and ran out of there in only his underwear."
"Right." Mike snorted. "Like you weren't scared yourself."
"Well, sure, I was. But I was scared frozen, and a good thing, too. I stayed inside the tent, shivering in fright. Well, his sister, Linette, and a bunch of her friends were all around us. And when James was running out of the tent in his boxer shorts, all of them started laughing. The sound was worse than a bunch of hyenas when they're trying to scare you away from some fresh kill."
Mike laughed outright. "And when have you ever heard a bunch of hyenas?"
"I watch that nature show every once in a while." But Henry Lytell was laughing himself. "Oh, that sister of his. Now she reminds me of Trixie, too! Or, should I say, Trixie reminds me of her?"
Mike grinned, but snuck a concerned glance at the sergeant. He was almost done with his chili dog, and hadn't said a word or even cracked a smile at Henry's story.
"Well, I'd best be going. Can't keep my store closed all day now, can I?" Mr. Lytell got up and left some bills on the counter.
Mike waved at him and started to clean up. Then he looked back at the sergeant. "Hey, Sarge! What's going on today?"
Sergeant Molinson looked over at the counterman. "Not much." After a pause, he added, "Nice weather we've been having lately."
"Yeah. Nice." Mike understood that sometimes the sergeant didn't care to talk much. He probably had a lot on his mind, some big case or something. Mike busied himself washing some dishes. It was almost twelve-thirty. Grandpa Crimper would be coming in any minute, if he didn't accidentally kill himself on the way.
"See you later." The sergeant pushed his empty plate aside and walked out the door.
"Tomorrow," Mike agreed. Then, he sighed quietly to himself. Here comes Grandpa Crimper now. The sergeant and the old man nearly collided in the doorway.
"Watch where you're going, sonny!" Mr. Crimper yelled. "You'd think the police force around here could be a little more responsible!"
"Can it, Grandpa C," Mike called out to the old man. "Leave our fine man in blue alone." The sergeant had, appropriately, ignored Mr. Crimper and was on his way back to the police station.
Grandpa Crimper sat down at his usual bar stool. "Aw, shut your trap and stay out of it, young man. Now give me the usual, and be quick about it, too."
Mike grinned. He knew not to take the old man seriously. Old Mr. Crimper was always mouthing off at everyone. With no rush at all in his step, Mike dished out a bowl of chili and grabbed a couple packages of crackers. Then, he poured the man a tall glass of iced tea. "Here you go, sir."
"You know them Hawks they have at the high school?" Mr. Crimper asked.
"I've heard of them," Mike acknowledged.
"I was watching them practice earlier, and, while most of them throw like girls and couldn't catch a fly ball if they tried, I think they'll beat the pants off the Croton team." Mr. Crimper slurped some of his chili noisily.
"If they can't throw, and they can't catch, what makes you think they'll win this season, Grandpa?" Mike asked.
"Because I saw the Croton team practice, too!" Grandpa Crimper laughed. "They catch and throw and hit like a bunch of pansies. Bah! At least a couple of our guys can hit the ball once in a while."
Mike smiled. He enjoyed owning this diner. He enjoyed each and every one of his regular customers. He half-listened as Mr. Crimper went on about the talents of the individual players, glad he could lend an ear to any one who walked into his little restaurant, his home.