I worked in a diner three years, once. I could remember anything anybody told me–I didn’t care how complicated–and rattle it off right back to him. It’s a trick; you wipe your mind clean, open your ears, and in it comes: “Two grilled cheese to go; bacon and tomato, white toast, no mayonnaise. Three coffees; one black, no sugar; one light and sweet; one regular.” You open your mouth, turn toward the sandwich man, and out it comes: “G.A.C. on two, seaboard. B.T. down, hold the mayo.” You turn toward the coffee cups and put out your hands. Your fingers grab the cups, and you move to the spigot on the urn. You tap the milk jug handle three times over one cup, twice over the other. The third cup slides by automatically. The important part of your mind is a million miles away. You put the coffees down, and your mind wipes out that part of the order. The sandwich man hands you two waxpaper-wrapped squares and a plate with the B.T. on it. You give them to the customers, and your mind wipes out the rest of it. It’s gone, used up, and all the time the important part of your mind is a million miles away.
I listened to the rigs going up a hill in compound. Pittsburgh, Scranton, Philadelphia … Washington, Baltimore, Camden, Newark … A diesel went by–a flatbed, with I beams for a load–while I was reading back the last part of what he’d told me.
“That’s right, Lenny. That’s right!”
I suppose it was. In a diner, you eat the orders you foul up.
“Any more tonight?” I asked him.
“No. No, that’s enough. I’m going to get some rest, now. Go back to sleep now. Thanks.”
“No, don’t be so casual. You’re doing a big thing for me. It’s important to me to pass these things on to you people. I’m not going to last much longer.”
“Sure, you are.”
“No. I was burning as I fell. Remember the alternate radical in the equation I gave you the first night? The field was distorted by the Sun, and the generator restructured the … ” He went on, but I don’t remember it. I would have had to remember the original equation for it to make any sense to me, and even if I remembered it I would have had to understand it. This business of reading his equations back to him, see … that was a trick. Who wants to remember how many grilled cheese sandwiches to go did you sell during the day? I had a wise guy order in double talk, once. I read it back to him like a man running a strip of tape through a recorder, and I wasn’t even listening.
“… So you see, Lenny, I’m not going to live. A man in my condition wouldn’t survive even in my time and place.”
“You’re wrong, Buddy. They’ll pull you through. They know their business in this place.”
“Do you really think so, Lenny?” He whispered it with a sad laugh, if you know what I mean.
“Sure,” I said. I was listening to a tanker going by from the north. I could hear the clink of the static chain.
They had brought the man in the next bed in from what they figured was a real bad private plane fire. They said some farmer had seen him falling free, as if he’d jumped without a parachute. They hadn’t been able to identify him yet, or find his plane, and he wouldn’t give a name. The first two nights he hadn’t said a word, until suddenly he said: “Is anybody listening? Is there someone there?”