The Dallas Star’s clock was four minutes slow, so it only read 5:56 am when Meredith flipped over the open sign and unlocked the door. Her regulars wouldn’t be in for another hour, but there was always a small crowd in first thing for coffee and cinnamon rolls. She found a fresh rag and began wiping down the tables, even though she’d cleaned them only a few hours earlier at the end of the night shift. Some days it felt like she never left the place.
At 6:30, Gibby came into the diner through the back, finishing a cigarette and stubbing it out in the ashtray next to the grill. His shirt was untucked and he wobbled on tired legs – he’d been drinking again. He was his own worst employee.
“Good morning, Gibby,” she said quietly.
“That it is, my dear,” he said, pouring himself a cup of coffee from the burner to chase the gin off his breath, “and let me tell you what, it’s going to be a big day today, Mary Beth.”
He cycled through variations of her name throughout the day, even though he knew damn well she hated it.
“Oh?” she asked politely, “Why’s that, Gibby?”
“Dadgum, Maryann. Don’t you read the paper? It’s going to be a full house!”
Before she could speak, the door rattled open, letting in a draft of cool November air. The first customers of the day – shift workers by the looks of them – piled in, warming their hands with their breath. She wiped her damp hands on her apron and snatched a handful of menus from the counter. Gibby was always planning on big business, and unlike most drunks she knew, his nightly soaks only left him more optimistic. He was sure the Dallas Star was his golden goose, even though he was lucky to break even month-to-month. She took the newcomers their menus and a round of coffees without asking, greeting them with a tired smile.
Halfway through the morning, Gibby’s prediction was far from coming true. The morning rush – mostly newspaper-readers and old folks – hadn’t amounted to much. A couple of her tables hadn’t even left a tip. Around eleven o’clock, she poured herself a cup of coffee and lit a cigarette at the counter. She would have to find another job. She was barely making ends meet, and soon she’d have another mouth to feed. She’d only taken a few drags when a rancher in a dirty silver belly hat came in and found a booth near the window. He’d been in a few times, but Meredith didn’t remember his name. She left her cigarette burning next to the cash register.
“Good morning, hon. What can I get you?” she asked sweetly.
“Mornin’, ma’am,” he said, removing his hat, “I’ll just take a cup of coffee and keep ‘em coming.”
“Nothing to eat for you?” she asked, hoping for a bigger check.
“No, ma’am, not today. I’m just here for the show. I didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to get me a window seat.”
He smiled wildly, showing yellow teeth and a sliver of the tobacco tucked into his cheek. He didn’t seem to notice her confusion.
“I’ll be right back with your coffee, darling.”
She returned to his table with a full mug, seeing that two more booths had filled up while she was gone. In the time it took to take their orders, three more customers had trickled in. Within an hour, the place was filled. Without an empty seat to be had, people were ordering at the cash register. In the kitchen, Gibby was beside himself.
“I told you it’d be a packed today, Maryellen. We’re raking it in today, boy!” he grinned from behind the grill.
She didn’t have time to ask questions. Orders flew at her in bunches, and her arms were growing tired from carrying trays full of eggs and bacon, club sandwiches, and the occasional slice of pie. She brewed pot after pot of coffee, splashing some on her white shoes as she flew around the diner refilling mugs. Her feet began to ache and her forehead was covered in sweat. Her hair fell in front of her eyes in clumps. She wanted to cry, to go home for the day and fall into bed, but her apron bulged with tips and she forced herself to press on. Finally, while dropping off a tray of burgers and fries, the diner grew silent and the rumble of motorcycles rattled through the windows.
“There he is!” shouted a customer.
The diner emptied into the street, some people dropping their food mid bite. Meredith screamed at them, trying desperately to stop the ones who hadn’t paid. Behind her, a hand took her by the arm, and Gibby dragged her out the door with the crowd. On Main Street, four Dallas Police Department motorcycles roared along, flanking a sparkling convertible. On either side of the hood, flags flapped slowly in the breeze. Slowly they passed, as the diners waved frantically at the handsome man in the back seat. He beamed and gestured back. Beside him, his wife was dressed all in pink, waving in the opposite direction.
“Can you believe it?” Gibby shouted over the fray, “The President himself, right here in Dallas!”