Smitty’s Roadside Diner
by Michael Bracken and Sandra Murphy
Smitty’s Roadside Diner had served travelers for nearly a century, but after the new highway bypassed Smithville, business had dwindled to a trickle. That Tuesday morning only three people were in the diner—the cook, the waitress, and a lone coffee drinker sitting in the rear booth, his back to the wall. He was more than three-cups-of-black jittery, and Ellen kept her eye on him.
He wore a dirty olive-green army jacket and had longish, unwashed black hair, several days’ growth of facial hair, and dark, unfocused eyes that darted back and forth. He didn’t look like a tweaker, one of the methamphetamine addicts who sometimes visited the diner, but he did look like the kind of customer who wouldn’t leave a tip and might even skip out on paying for the coffee. If he did, Ellen would cover the dollar and a half herself. She understood what he was going through. Since leaving her boyfriend the previous year, she’d had days when buying a cup of coffee meant not having enough gas money to get to work.
In the lull between breakfast and lunch, when there were no customers but the coffee drinker and none likely to appear, Ellen leaned against the counter and stared out at the old highway, at the battered AMC Gremlin in the parking lot, and at the darkening sky. The storm, if it came, would only make her day worse, turning the driveway leading to her mother’s mobile home into a muddy Slip ’N Slide.
Gary poked his head out of the kitchen, glanced at their customer, and asked Ellen, “He going to order anything?”
She shook her head. “Not likely.”
“Okay, I’m going out back for a smoke before it rains.”
A moment later, the kitchen door squeaked open and banged shut. The coffee drinker heard it too. He unfolded himself from the booth and walked to the cash register.
Ellen smiled and asked, “Need a to-go cup?”
He shook his head.
“One coffee,” she said as she rang up the sale and the drawer popped open. “That’s a buck fifty.”
As the man reached under his jacket, Ellen worried his hand would reappear full of change they would have to count. It didn’t. His hand reappeared wrapped around a revolver that had seen better days.
“Give me the money,” he said, the only thing he had said since ordering his coffee. “Just the bills.”
Ellen looked at the money in the cash drawer, fifty of it the bank that started the day. She withdrew three twenties, three tens, a pair of fives, and seven singles hoping the man wouldn’t think to ask if that was all. As she handed him the cash, she asked, “Why are you doing this?”
“We do what we have to do to survive,” he said. “My kid ain’t eaten since Sunday.”
With his left hand, he grabbed the cash and stuffed it in his pocket. He backed toward the exit, pushed the door open with his rear end, then turned and bolted for the Gremlin.
“Gary!” Ellen screamed. “Gary! We’ve been robbed!”
The cook crashed through the back door and ran for the front.
“We’ve been robbed,” Ellen repeated as the Gremlin spat gravel at the diner on its way to the highway.
Gary ran out, past Ellen’s car and his own battered gray pickup truck, with no hope of catching the thief. Halfway across the lot, he stopped, hands on his knees, and sucked in deep breaths.
Alone in the diner, Ellen lifted the insert and eyed the five crisp one-
hundred-dollar bills beneath it—five crisp one-hundred-dollar bills that were there every Tuesday when her shift began, possession of which would be life changing for her and her diabetic mother. She removed them, folded them twice, and stuffed them into her bra before phoning the police and the diner’s owner.
Smitty—the latest in a long line of Smittys—arrived first. While Gary listened, Ellen told Smitty what had happened.
“How much did he get?”
Smitty lifted the register drawer insert and looked. He seemed to deflate when he saw nothing there, and he moaned. “Oh, sweet Jesus.”
“What’s wrong?” Ellen asked.
Smitty shook his head. “How much was in the till?”
“One hundred and seven dollars, fifty for change to start, fifty-seven in sales,” she said. “He didn’t want coins.”
“That’s what you tell Carl.”
“You don’t say anything more,” Smitty insisted. “Not a thing.”
He had just finished when a patrol car pulled into the parking lot. A moment later Carl—a sergeant with the Smithville Police Department—swaggered into the dinner, told Ellen to get him a cup of coffee and a doughnut, and asked Smitty what happened.
When Smitty finished, Carl looked at Ellen. “That what happened?”
“Yeah,” she told her ex-boyfriend. “Exactly like that.”
He turned to Gary. “Did you get a good look?”
“Not that I could pick him out of a crowd,” Gary said. “I ran after the car to get the plate number, but it was covered with dirt.”
“Shouldn’t be hard to find,” Carl said. “Nobody drives a Gremlin.”
“You took so long to get here,” Ellen said, “he could be across the state line by now.”
Carl scowled at her and ordered coffee to-go and a second doughnut. The other men drifted away—Gary to the kitchen and Smitty to his office—as she poured the coffee, bagged a doughnut, and offered them to her ex.
He grabbed her and pulled her in for a tight hug. The sharp corners of the folded-up hundred-dollar bills in her bra jabbed her, making her wince.
Carl’s coffee-laced breath was warm against her ear when he said, “You can’t be happy living in that trailer with your fat old mama. Come back to me while the bed’s still warm.”
She couldn’t push him away, so she said between gritted teeth, “Let me go or you’re wearing this coffee.”
Carl released her, snatched his coffee and doughnut from her hands, and slammed out of the diner.
Ellen sank onto one of the counter stools, feeling as if she’d been assaulted twice in one morning.
Tuesday through Sunday, Ellen worked six until two, breakfast and lunch, the same as Gary. That day she was anxious to leave so she let Gary tell Martha and Dewayne about that morning’s excitement.
The storm had held off, but the sky broke loose as she drove the
seven miles home, down a back road, past three mobile homes and a long-abandoned barn where she had played as a child. By the time Ellen made it up the concrete steps and into her mother’s single-wide mobile home, her white running shoes were soaking wet. She left them on a yellowing linoleum square just inside the door before she noticed her mother filling the La-Z-Boy recliner and watching a game show. “Have you moved at all today?”
“Where would I go if I did?”
Ellen shook her head. Her mother’s diabetes prevented her from doing many things, but not doing anything at all only made things worse.
In her bedroom, Ellen pulled the folded hundred-dollar bills from her bra. They were soft and sweaty, but no less spendable. She hid three in her underwear drawer, where she hoped her mother wouldn’t look when she wanted to order fast-food delivery. Then she changed into jeans, sweatshirt, and hiking boots. Back in the living room, she said, “I’m going shopping, Mama.”
“Get me a bag of them Snickers bars. The little ones.”
Ellen said something noncommittal as she glanced out the window at the tail end of the storm. She drove to the Owensburg Walmart, thirty-eight miles farther down the road, where no one would recognize her. She used self-checkout, paid for a cartful of groceries, and, on the way home, stopped for gas.
As soon as she returned, her mother asked, “Did you get me them Snickers?
Ellen shook her head as she pushed aside the stack of overdue bills on the counter to make room for the grocery bags.
“Did you get anything good?”
“Of course,” she said. Since taking charge of the shopping, Ellen bought fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and other foods that were healthier than what her mother ate while living alone. The change in her mother’s diet worked, and she had dropped fifteen pounds.
As Ellen brought in the last of the groceries, her mother twisted around in her chair and asked, “Where’d you get the money for all that?”
Ellen didn’t like lying to her mother, but she said, “Tips were good today, Mama.”
Her mother snorted with disbelief. “If tips were dynamite, you’d never have enough to blow your nose.”
Ellen ignored her mother as she put away the groceries and prepared dinner. After they ate, she checked her mother’s insulin supply, phoned the Smithville Pharmacy for a refill, and then sorted and resorted the stack of overdue bills, calculating what to do with the remaining three hundred dollars.
Carl’s patrol car left the diner’s lot as Ellen arrived for work the following morning. When she unlocked the back door to let herself in, she realized she still had the key to Carl’s house on her key ring. A moment later, she found Smitty sitting in his office, nursing a black eye and a bloody lip. “What
“I—I ran into a door.”
Ellen had run into a few doors, too, and that’s why she’d left Carl to return to her mother’s home. “Bullshit,” she said. “I saw Carl leaving.”
Smitty looked away.
Ellen went for a dampened dishrag and a bag of frozen peas. She dabbed at the blood on Smitty’s face while he pressed the peas to his black eye. She asked, “Why’d he hit you?”
“How did Carl know?”
“He’s who brings it to me.”
That caught Ellen by surprise. “Why?”
“Every Monday he brings me five hundred,” Smitty said. “Later, I deposit it as part of cash receipts. Once a week I write him a check for four hundred dollars and record it as payment for security services.”
While they were together, Ellen hadn’t paid much attention to Carl’s side hustle, a security company that was little more than a phone number and a business card. She knew the four-bed, three-bath Colonial in the gated community west of town, the new Ford F-150 each year, the huge television, and more, weren’t affordable on a peace officer’s salary. She had just never questioned the real source of his extra income, and she had gladly given up all the perks that came with it when she returned home to escape his violent outbursts.
“You’ve been laundering money?”
“I—” Smitty started. “Things were fine until yesterday. He said this was a bad time to lose money and I have to cover the loss. Cover it? I was barely keeping this place open before, and things haven’t gotten better.”
Before Smitty could say more, Gary arrived.
“You’d better open up,” Smitty said. “We don’t want to lose the little bit of business we do have.”
In the kitchen, Gary asked. “What’s up?”
“Smitty’s not feeling well.”
“Well, I’m not doing so good myself,” Gary said. “That run yesterday nearly gave me a heart attack. I need to take it easy, so don’t go getting us robbed again.”
Ellen smiled at Gary’s lame joke, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “I’ll try not to.”
For the next several hours, she went through the motions—filled and refilled coffee cups, took and delivered breakfast orders, suffered through the mid-morning lull, and later took and delivered lunch orders. All the while she thought about the money she had taken. She couldn’t put it back, and she couldn’t pay for her mother’s insulin if she did. She didn’t notice Smitty sneak out mid morning, and she barely acknowledged Martha when she arrived for work a few minutes before two o’clock.
“You were in a hurry to get out of here yesterday,” Martha said. She had worked the dinner shift ever since she was the junior of five waitresses and had trained Ellen years earlier. “I don’t blame you. Gary told us. If somebody pointed a gun at me, the first thing I would do when I got home is suck down a bottle of Mogen David.”
Gary left Dewayne behind the grill and walked with Ellen to her car. “You haven’t been yourself today. Can I help?”
“The guy yesterday, you think he’ll come back?”
“Not likely,” Gary said. “You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“Thanks. Yeah. I’ll be okay.”
She drove to the Smithville Pharmacy and, while paying for her mother’s insulin, overheard the pharmacist tell another customer that a methamphetamine lab near Driscol had blown up during the night. “We used to just lock up the pseudoephedrine-based products,” the pharmacist said, “but after that break-in last year we put in a safe.”
Ellen interrupted. “Did they ever catch the guys who broke in?”
The pharmacist shook his head. “The Smithville police couldn’t find their asses with both hands, even if you gave them Google Maps.”
She took the insulin home, changed clothes, and drove to Owensburg to pay bills with the remaining three hundreds. At the post office, she bought stamps and money orders, paid the water bill in full, and sent enough to Mastercard, the doctor, and the electric and phone companies to satisfy them. When she finished, she left with seventeen dollars and change.
Ellen was in the kitchen with Gary when Smitty arrived during the Thursday morning lull, a newspaper tucked under his arm. Gary hadn’t seen his black eye and asked about it.
“I ran into a door.”
“Well, I hope you gave as good as you got, boss, ’cause that shiner’s a doozy.”
Ellen stared at Smitty. “You going to tell him?”
Gary asked, “Tell me what?”
“Carl gave him the shiner.” She turned to Smitty. “Tell him what you’ve been doing.”
Smitty hesitated, so Ellen said, “He’s been laundering money to keep this place afloat. Five hundred a week.”
“Five hundred? How much of that—?”
“You keep a hundred? That ain’t much.”
“It’s enough,” Smitty said, “It was supposed to go up next month, but it won’t now. Now I have to replace the missing five.”
Smitty pulled the newspaper from under his arm and tapped the front page of the weekly Smithville Gazette. “I think this is where Carl gets his money.”
According to the article, the DEA—the United States Drug Enforcement Administration—was interested in the meth lab operated by twins Barry and Larry Glimson, which had not come to the DEA’s attention prior to its explosion. Based on the size of the operation, a DEA agent quoted in the article said, the twins must have moved several thousand dollars’ worth of product each week. In the article he requested information about associates who might have handled wholesale and retail meth distribution for the twins.
An older couple arriving for lunch interrupted their examination of the newspaper, and soon the rush—such as it was—filled four booths and a trio of stools at the counter. Ellen and Gary kept busy for the next hour and didn’t notice when Smitty ducked out again. Around one p.m., Carl wheeled his patrol car into the parking lot and swaggered into the diner. . . .
Copyright © 2023. Smitty’s Roadside Diner by Michael Bracken and Sandra Murphy