The night of the storm, the first snow of the winter, a distressed couple entered the Jackson Diner at three o’clock in the morning during my graveyard shift. It was unseasonably warm for January, but a cold front was moving in, and I had hoped it would arrive quickly so that the rain would turn to snow instead of a slippery winter mix. The first snow is always the most beautiful.
The woman entered first, her hair tied up messily and her makeup smeared as if she had applied it the night before. The man stood outside for a bit, but then the woman waved him into the restaurant before walking to an empty booth. The man entered looking worn and defeated—dark circles under his eyes and pale skin, almost a sickly green. He held his stomach and hunched over as he walked. Patches of hair grew unevenly over his face, up his cheeks and down his neck. The couple was soaked; it must have started raining pretty hard already.
At this time in the morning, I was used to the same four regulars ordering their same four usuals: There was Mr. Bradley, the lazy old man who had a ham and cheddar omelet; Mr. Smith who smelt like he didn’t bathe regularly and always ordered an open-faced reuben; Mr. Brighton who was enthralled with his phone and ordered a club sandwich; and Mrs. Paulson who wore fancy jewelry and a knock-off fur coat and had pancakes with a side of turkey bacon. They were the only ones I ever saw at this hour, so when the couple entered the diner—and so visibly distraught!—I was fascinated as to why they were there.
“Well,” she said across the table. “What do you want, Robert?”
Robert didn’t respond, and she ordered two cups of coffee.
I brought the cups of coffee to the table, spilling some into the saucers as I set them down.
“How long?” said Robert to her.
“Robert, I am so sorry,” she said.
“How long, Meredith?”
Meredith didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, quietly, she muttered, “The whole time,” looking away from him and down at her coffee. She looked back up to him, biting her lip and beginning to cry. A little slower, louder, she started, “The whole—”
“The whole fucking time! Jesus Meredith,” he said, his voice rising. Then, with a harsh whisper, “How could you keep this—”
“I think we need more time,” Meredith said.
“Time doesn’t change—”
“No,” she said. Then, pointing to the me, “I was talking to him. I think we need a minute to order.”
I left to grab the pot of coffee and offer refills to the other tables.
“Was I not enough?” I heard Robert say as I walked toward Mr. Bradley’s table. He sat by the front window, and the weather was starting to look nasty. The cold front must have been moving in quickly; the rain had turned to sleet now, and the roads looked slick, dangerous. I hoped I’d be able to get home all right. Even though I expected it, the storm, and had known it was coming, I felt unprepared. I guess something like this can sneak up on us sometimes—even when we see it coming. Mr. Bradley raised his eyebrows at me as I warmed up his cup of coffee, and then he looked at the couple, rolling his eyes.
He reached across the table to grab a creamer and knocked several of the others onto the floor. I looked at him for a moment, and he went about pouring his cream into the coffee, paying no attention to the mess he made on the floor. I waited and then bent over and picked up the creamers, placing them back in the saucer on the table. Typical.
When I returned to the kitchen, I took care to walk close to the couple.
“He doesn’t exactly know, yet,” said Meredith.
“What?” said Robert as I walked away from them. “You have to choose,” he said, and I returned to my station to print Mrs. Paulson’s check. She’d be leaving before too long.
“Ready to order?” I said, returning to the couple.
“Sure. Fine,” said Robert.
“What can I get for you?”
“I’ll just have the cheese omelet.”
“What more can I say,” said Meredith; her eyes pleaded with him, desperate.
“Just order,” said Robert.
I smiled and looked from one to the other. It was really coming down outside now—windy, too. Things didn’t look good.
“Jesus, I don’t know,” Meredith said, glancing down at the menu. “I’ll just have a slice of apple pie,”—she set down the menu and looked over to Robert, wringing her hands and breathing heavily, choking a little on her words—”I just want to put this past us…”
“OK,” I said. “That’s a cheese omelet and a slice of apple pie for the lady. Would you like ice cream or whipped cream with that?”
“No,” she said. “No, I just want the pie. I only want one piece of pie.”
I left and walked to the kitchen window to relay the order to the cooks. Then, I went to the coffee station and cleaned the machine, which happened to be within earshot of the couple.
“Then…why?” said Robert.
“We never made any rules,” said Meredith.
“So this is my fault?”
“It just happened all at once. So fast. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to hurt anyone,” said Meredith.
“Well guess what?” he said, louder. “You fucking hurt me. I just wish you could know—you could even begin to understand—how much pain I’m in right now.”
Meredith sat in silence for a while, and sleet beat down on the roof and windows loudly. The regulars were looking toward the couple. Then Meredith stood up and looked down at Robert, who coolly eyed his cup of coffee avoiding her gaze. She nodded and walked toward the exit.
A bell rang from the kitchen; their food was ready. I placed the omelet in front of Robert and held the pie for a moment before setting it down in front of the empty seat.
Robert picked up his fork and stabbed at his omelet while I stood beside him. I looked up and watched Meredith hold onto the handrail as she walked down the steps. Her hair blew around, and she paced carefully.
“It just hurts so bad,” he said, still looking at his omelet. I didn’t say anything to him, but he continued talking. “I wish she knew what it felt like, to be in this much pain.”
I looked down and saw an anger growing in him. His tired eyes narrowed, and some color returned to his face. His hand trembled, the fork clinking against the plate. Then he threw the fork down, smacked his hand on the table, and pulled out his phone.
I stood over his shoulder and a tingling ran from my chest to my fingers and toes; I had to shift my weight from one foot to the other. I couldn’t keep still.
Meredith had started across the street, and the orange hand flashed on the other side. Robert held his phone to his ear and watched Meredith stop, look down at her hip, and then pull her phone out and answer it.
“Just to let you know,” he said. “I’ve been doing it too. All this time. So I guess we’re even,” and he hung up the phone.
Meredith stopped in the middle of the road. I stared out the window, waiting for what she would do.
Meredith turned around and faced the restaurant. I couldn’t tell if she was livid or devastated: Her mouth hung open and her eyes widened; she raised her hands to the side of her head. She took a step forward.
As Meredith navigated back toward the diner, she was almost invisible—invisible because it finally began to snow! It was a beautiful white powder that fell heavily and whipped around in circles outside, blowing across Meredith’s face and sticking to her clothing.
She was a step from the sidewalk when the right side of her body lit up. She turned to face the light and fear was illuminated on her face through the sheets of snow that came down on top of her. There was a screech, a skidding and a honking horn. Then a thud.
“Oh God,” Robert cried out, and panic replaced the anger on his face. He ran outside, falling on the icy sidewalk. He got to his knees and crawled toward Meredith, lifting her head and holding her close to him. The truck sat on the other side of the street, half on the sidewalk.
At the sound of Meredith getting clipped by the white truck that was practically invisible in the snow, every one of the regulars got up to the window and peered out to get a better look at what happened—even Mr. Bradley got off his lazy ass. And when the EMTs arrived and worked to stabilize Meredith on a stretcher, the regulars fogged up the front window of the diner while they looked on with excitement and fascination.
I walked outside and stood in the doorway, watching the couple. Robert held Meredith’s hand. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “It’s all right. Everything is all right. We will be all right,” he said between heavy gasps and choked sobs, stroking her hair. “We’ll get through this. God, I am so sorry. Just keep your eyes open,” he said. She looked up at him, reached up, and stroked his arms.
From outside the front door, I looked at the regulars in the window. Then I looked out over the scene and couldn’t help but be completely enveloped in the realization that there really is nothing quite like the beauty of the first snow of the year. The snow really was wonderful as it continued to fall—heavily, despite the dying wind.
Profile: Covey Mason