By John Thomas Tuft

The lighting in the diner is a harsh pale white, while the full moon beyond the windows glows with mystery, a silvery segula. Through the speakers in the ceiling come the tinny sounds of Isreal Kamakawiwo’ole singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Two truckers in winter vests and wallets chained to their jeans sit in the corner booth sipping black joe around mouthfuls of blueberry pancakes. Molly the waitress, pencil behind one ear, stokes their imaginations with a flip of her hair as she turns and saunters back across to the counter and the man perched on a stool. He’s in his mid-60s, thinning gray hair neatly combed, his Pittsburgh Steelers jacket falling open, revealing his red San Diego Zoo sweatshirt with two giant pandas fixed in predetermined adorableness. “What can I get you, Hon?” He stares pensively into the glimmers reflecting in his coffee, and asks, “Do you have malted waffles?” She smiles. “Anything else ain’t a real waffle.” He nods. She taps him on the shoulder with the pencil. “Eggs?” “Over easy.” She leaves him to his musings

Simon and Garfunkle’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” comes on as a teenaged girl slips onto the stool two over. Her short hair is a hazy shade of Lime Kool Aid,  garnet colored lipstick writ large below sad eyes outlined in black. The effect is jarring and enhanced by the dissonance that in one hand is an oversized cell phone while the other holds a Cabbage Patch Kids doll with yellow yarn hair, blue eyes and a pink polka dot dress, smelling of baby powder. She tucks the doll under one arm, thumbs in a text message and throws the phone on the counter.  It spins slowly toward the man. He barely moves, but he can’t help but see the words on the screen. He takes a slow sip of hot liquid, sets it down, lets his breath out slowly and looks again. It’s still there: “I want to be ded.”

“No, you don’t,” he says quietly. “You talking to me, Gramps?” Her disdain is clear. “Yes. I am.” She looks him up and down, sneers. “What are you, some kind of perv?” He is undeterred. “You don’t want to be dead.” She snatches the phone up and tucks it into her shoulder bag, trading it for a pack of cigarettes. “What the hell do you know? Leave me alone, Creep.” Molly appears and sets the syrup in front of him, refills his cup, and says over her shoulder, “Can’t smoke in here, kid.” The girl mimics her in a sing song childish tone, “Can’t-smoke-in-here! Kid!” Then, biting, “What are you? My mother?” “If I was your mother you’d be eatin’ those damn things!” Molly responds, flips her the finger and walks away. The smokes disappear and the girl fusses with the doll for a moment. “There’s stuff that’s worse than bein’ dead, old man,” she says without looking. “I know,” he responds.

“What are you doing here on Christmas Eve? Don’t you got family waiting for you?” she challenges. He turns on the stool. “Are you hungry?” he asks. “No… Maybe… A little,” she is defiant. He slides a menu toward her. “Get something.” She makes a show of studying the offerings. He continues, in a soft voice, “I just got out. Had a bad habit that I kept choosing over them. Finally did three years for stealing to support my habit. I’m not sure I still have family. They’ve moved on. New kids. New home. New Christmas traditions.” She stops fussing, looks at him. “Don’t they want to see you?” He smiles. “Coming back from the dead isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” She looks puzzled. “But it’s Christmas…”

He looks her in the eye. “Yet, here you are.” She looks away as “Calling All Angels” by Train filters in mixing with the chatter of the truckers. She brushes at her eyes before turning back. She looks so young. “I don’t have a home.” She is defiant as both their hearts break at her next words: “My mom’s boyfriend…he…forces himself…when my mom’s at work.” She chews at the dark lipstick, some of it sticks to her teeth. “Does she know?” he asks, his chest pounding. “She’s a child,” the girl sounds mournful. “How do I tell her that?”

“Waffles, malted. Two eggs, over easy.” Molly sets his plate in front of him, unaware that she’s entered a holy space, as she hears the man say, “You need a home.”  The girl looks at him, one finger entwined in the yellow yarn hair. “Everybody does,” she whispers. He slides the steaming plate across the counter. “Take this. Eat. All of it.” One of the truckers hands Molly his bill. “This place is halfway to somewhere and halfway to nowhere!” he exclaims. While the trucker pays his bill, the man in the Steeler jacket and Giant Panda sweatshirt calls to him, “Where you headed?” “South. Headin’ south,” comes the answer. The man watches for a moment as the girl digs into the food. He reaches in his pockets and takes out a small card and a ticket.

He sets them beside the Cabbage Patch Kids doll. She looks up. “What’s that?” He rubs his tired eyes. “That’s a train ticket to Pittsburgh.” He points to the small card. “That’s my daughter’s address. She’s a good person, thanks to her mother. Go there today. Please. Start a new life.” The girl’s mouth drops open. “What do I tell her? What about you?” He starts out the door after the trucker. “Tell her anyone can be born again.” She jumps off the stool and runs to him. Pushes the doll into his hands. “It’s a new Christmas tradition.” And he’s gone, into the moonlight, trailing the scent of baby powder.

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.