68 - A Short Story - The Diner

October 11, 2020

It was 6:00am and Gabriel was already out on his bike cruising along the road, staring at the white lines passing by. Not particularly fast, at 25 miles per hour, but passing by nonetheless. He cruised along the main street through his little town, keeping up with or passing the other early risers, but they were driving mostly old pickups and a few tractors. The town, Canalier, sits in a valley inside a mountainous part of the state, though the mountains are not very tall as we expect they would since they are called mountains. These in fact, are rather low in stature; the highest is less than a thousand feet. But they also are not hills, these things are legit mountains - steep slopes, pointy peaks - forests, gouges from winter streams running down them.

Gabriel worked in the farm equipment store most days, and he took a couple evening classes online, and bicycled in the mornings. He loved the morning air, fresh with the dew, and always a few bugs between his teeth. That part isn't his favorite, but it goes along with riding in the misty morning.

He rode past the last of the 4 stoplights and out of town, followed the two-lane highway south to the end of the valley. The road then took him up and into the mountains. While they aren't spectacularly high, they do offer some very good, and steep, climbs. That is the part he loved the most, riding up into the mountains, heading towards the next town, which on this day, was Lorena. There he would have breakfast before he made the return ride. He had done it dozens of times, and he knew the road like the back of his hand, and so he tended to daydream, or stare at the white lines passing below, while riding.

A few of the locals passed by him as he pedaled with all his might and they waved and shouted encouraging words to help him get up the long steep climb. He waved and pushed on, and on, relentlessly, up the mountainside. The distance from Canalier to Lorena was only about 25 miles; the difference in altitude was about 700 feet. Not a huge amount of climbing, except when it was all in one stretch of narrow, winding mountain 2-lane with no shoulder. The smile on his face occasionally became a grimace but it always returned to a smile when he got a view of the valley below.

Riding into Lorena he was covered in a very cold sweat. He knew where to go for breakfast and he headed directly there, he didn't even stop at the first of the three stoplights. But he did stop at the next two, but only because Tom, the local sheriff, had pulled up alongside him.

"Good morning, Gabe!" called out Tom from his patrol car.

Breathing heavily, Gabriel managed to say, "Good morning, sir! Beautiful morning, huh?"

"Yeah, I suppose you can say that," replied Tom, then the light changed to green, "See you 'round." And he drove away and disappeared around a corner.

It really wasn't such a beautiful morning as far as the weather was concerned. Now there was thunder in the clouds, soon the rain would be pouring down.

Gabriel rode up to the front of the little diner, so little in fact it had only 3 tables, locked his bike to the garden trellis next to the door, and went inside.

He got to the diner just as the rain started.

***

Carissa wasn't a morning person, when the alarm clock came on and the radio DJ started blabbing she immediately hit it, and usually knocked it off the nightstand. Then she had to move herself almost out of bed, reach for the alarm clock, and put it back on the night, then turn off the radio. By that time she was just about wide awake.

"Shut up DJ guy! I know it's 5:30 in the morning, you don't need to tell me every friggin' day!" She crawled out of bed; eyes still closed, grabbed her water bottle, and took a couple drinks. One eye opened, halfway, and looked out the window. The other eye slowly opened, then both were at full open aperture.

"Uff, mornings! Dear Lord, why did you make mornings?"

She drank some more water, ate half a banana and put the morning news on on her laptop. She had no TV. She watched the news, drank a bit more water, dressed in shorts and sports bra and running shoes, and left her little apartment at the edge of town.

Running was something she always did for her health, not necessarily because she thought it was a fun and enjoyable thing to do. Her exercise routine was mostly running, some body-weight exercises, and some aerobic dancing. But mostly running.

She would run across town, down the steep roads, then back up other steep roads, along the short flat stretches that lasted no more than two blocks. The town was build on the side of the little mountains so there were few actually level roads. That suited her fine; she enjoyed the challenge of beating those mountain roads - woman against the world.

Carissa worked at the hardware store, the only one, in town. The hardware store was next to the diner, which was next to the post office. Across the street were the small grocery store and a couple other small businesses, and that pretty much made up the downtown of Lorena. But, it was a beautiful town, and that's what kept her from leaving.

After she finished her run and showered she left to go to work.

As she arrived at the store the rain started coming down, not yet hard, but steady.

"Hey, you're early, what's up?" asked her boss, Antonio, as he looked at his watch.

"Oh, really? I'm so early that you had to mention it?" asked Carissa, not exactly ready to start her day.

"Yeah, you're about 20 minutes early today. You must have finished your run early?"

"Hmm, yeah, I guess I did. Well, I suppose I'll go over to the diner, see you in a while," she waved and walked to the diner.

***

On her way in she noticed the bike near the door.

She thought, "Who ever rode that is going to get a bit wet on their way home." She giggled a little, "Oh well, too bad for them."

She found that two of the tables were full and the third had one guy sitting at it.

Gabriel looked at the other tables, noticed they were full, and invited Carissa to sit with him, "Looks like this is the only place left, I'll share my table with you. I don't bite."

"Great, good to know," Carissa smiled and sat down across from Gabriel.

Gabriel put his hand out and said, "I'm Gabriel."

Carissa shook hands with him and said, "Hi, I'm Carissa. I'm guessing you're the one who rode in on the bike. Looks like you'll have a wet ride home."

"Yeah, hopefully the rain stops soon. Going down that mountain on wet roads is not my favorite thing to do," said Gabriel.

"Really? What is your favorite thing to do? Ride up the mountain on wet roads?" asked Carissa. The waitress, Carissa's friend, Donna, brought her a cup of coffee.

"Um, so she knows exactly what you like, you must be a regular here, too," said Gabriel, "Oh, and no, riding up the mountain on wet roads isn't my favorite thing to do." He didn't elaborate but wanted to leave her guessing.

Carissa asked, "Too? Have you been here before? I've never seen you here."

"Oh, yeah, I've been here quite a few times, but at different times of the day, just depends on when I leave my house and which route I take," he said between bites of hash browns and eggs.

"Okay, so, where do you live?"

"Down below, in Canalier. Do you live here in Lorena?"

"Yes, I love it here; it's my favorite place in the world."

"So, how many places in the world have you been?"

"Hmm, let's see, there's been so many," she paused for dramatic effect, "Lorena, Canalier, Sanata, Prado, and many more." All of those towns were within 50 miles of Lorena.

"Oh, I see, a real world travelor, you are," replied Gabriel with a smile and a wink.

"Well, what about you Mr. Worldly Traveler? How many places have you been to?"

"Well, let's see, Italy, France, Spain, England, Germany" and she cut him off.

"Seriously? You've been to all those countries? What do you do?" she asked.

"I used to ride on a team, professionally, and for two years I rode the European circuit and did 3 of the classics. I always road as a domestique, never as the leader of the team."

"What's a domestique?" she asked him, and to Donna, "Can you get me a cinnamon roll, warmed up a little? Thanks."

"My job on the team was to support and help the team leader stay in the lead and finish as close to the front as possible. So, I would sacrifice my own race to see the leader win, or at least try to win. It's all part of being on a cycling team."

"Wow! Really, You were a professional cyclist, like in the Tour de France? I'm impressed. And you live right down there in little ole Canalier," she said after taking a bite of her warm cinnamon roll.

"Well, yeah, I did do the Tour de France, twice. I never had a chance for a third tour." He finished his hash browns.

"Why? What happened?"

"I crashed out with about 5 other guys in the Tour of Spain. I injured my left leg enough to end my racing career. But I can still ride up here from down there," he said, looking towards the valley below.

"Wow, that's crazy. What a drag to end your career that way."

"Yeah, it was, but I'm fine with my life now, I like this area, the valley, the mountains, my job at the farm store, it's all good," he said with a smile.

Carissa smiled at him and finished her roll and they continued to talk for a while, then, "Oh, dear, I have to get going, I'm late for work!" Donna was walking by when Carissa said that and Donna said, "Oh, don't worry, honey, I told Antonio you were talking with a new friend here and you'd be over in a few minutes."

"Thanks, that's sweet of you, Donna," then to Gabriel, "Can we meet again? Oh, jeez, I'm sorry, that's too forward, you might be married."

Gabriel laughed, asked Donna for a pen and wrote his number down on a napkin, "Here's my number, let's get together again. Oh, and no, I'm not married, and I don't have a girlfriend."

Carissa looked at the number, put it in her purse, stood up, and said, "Okay, I'm so glad to have met you this morning, see you again, soon I hope." And she said bye to Donna and went next door to work.

Gabriel paid the bill, said bye to Donna, and walked out of the diner. He rode slowly past the hardware store and looked at it as he passed by, hoping to get another glance of Carissa. She was there, standing in the doorway waiting to catch a glimpse of Gabriel as he rode by. They waved to each other and Gabriel rode down the wet mountain road maybe just a little too fast but he didn't care, he couldn't get Carissa out of his mind. When he arrived back in Canalier, the sun broke through the clouds.

***

Gabriel's boss called him into the office Friday afternoon, "Hey Gabriel, I need you to work this weekend, Joe called in sick. I know it's kind of late notice, sorry about that."

"Yeah, okay, not a problem, sir," Gabriel wasn't happy about it but he hid that from his boss. He had been looking forward to seeing Carissa again.

Up on the mountainside in Lorena Carissa had also been hoping to see Gabriel again, and when he didn't come to the diner Saturday she was a little disappointed.

At about 10am Carissa's phone rang, "Hello," she said.

"Hi Carissa, how are you?" asked Gabriel, calling on his morning break.

Carissa smiled and said, "Oh, hi, Gabriel, I'm fine, how are you? Are you okay?"

"Yes, of course, I'm fine. I'm working this weekend. One of the guys called in sick and the boss asked me to fill in for him," his voice gave away his disappointment.

"Oh, okay," so did hers, "well, I hope we can meet next weekend. I have next weekend off."

That pepped Gabriel up, "Really? Cool! I'll be sure to tell my boss that I'll be out of town next weekend so he can't ask me to work again."

"Cool, um, I have to get back to work now, there's a customer in the store," Carissa said as she moved back behind the counter.

"Yeah, so do I. See you later," Gabriel said with a big smile that stretched across his face.

***

The next week passed quickly and Gabriel pedaled his way up the mountainside on a sunny and warm morning, working up a sweat that soaked him just about head to foot.

He went into the diner, saw Donna and managed to huff out a few words between gasps for breath, "Good morning, Donna."

Laughing, Donna said, "Wow, you must've road the race of your life coming up that mountain! Look at you, what a sight! Go back there and clean up a little. I expect Carissa will be her in a few minutes." She pointed to the location of the employee's bathroom, which was bigger than the public bathrooms.

"Thanks," and he walked through the double-swing doors, through the kitchen and found the bathroom for the employees where he had enough space to wash up.

He sat at the one available table, got settled in, and Donna brought two cups of coffee and two cinnamon rolls, then she said, "Can I tell you something about Carissa?"

"Yes, please, tell me about her," he was anxious to learn anything and everything he could about Carissa.

"Well, she has, or had, a boyfriend. They were serious, and were talking about getting married. Then she caught him with another woman and he wasn't even sorry or regretful, nothing. She was devastated for weeks. That happened just about a month ago," explained Donna.

"Oh, wow, I had no idea, of course. I suppose you are telling me this because you are afraid I might break her heart?" he asked.

"Well, I don't know you, she doesn't know you," Donna was going to be honest about this, "and I don't think she's going to be ready to trust anyone else for some time, you know? And, I don't want to see her hurt again. She's a sweetheart; she has a wonderful heart, and beautiful spirit, and deserves a man who is honest with her and everyone in her little world. And her world is this little town."

"I understand," said Gabriel, "I'm in no hurry to get involved in a relationship any more than friends. If it happens, great, if not, then I'll have some new friends." Though he really was interested in more of a long-term relationship with his new friend.

Carissa walked into the diner, saw the two at the table, and walked over to them. Gabriel stood, gave her a little kiss on the cheek, and they sat down to share breakfast. Donna smiled and walked back to her counter and the other customers.

It was going to be a nice day, the kind of day that only good things can happen on.