Every weekday morning at 7:40, Harry Kline would be straightening his tie in the mirror of his one-room New York City apartment. He would then switch off the lamp next to his sofa-bed and make his way to the door, looking carefully around the room to make sure he was not leaving anything important behind. He would pick up his briefcase with his left hand and with his right he would take his black hat from the hat rack and place it swiftly upon his head. He was balding slightly and he found that the hat added a debonair quality to his physique, which had recently been losing some of its handsome appeal of youth. The sun, provided it was a fine day, would be shining in large bars through his one window, creating interesting patterns of light on the darkened walls. “Off to the circus,” he would say aloud as he left the room. Harry waited for the elevator to come, whistling cheerfully and tapping his left foot. Sometimes, Mrs. Stevenson from down the hall would be waiting for the elevator next to him. “A fine day we’ve got ourselves, Mrs. Stevenson, am I right or am I right?” No answer but a grunt would come from the woman in the flower-print robe with curlers in her graying hair. Where Mrs. Stevenson was going, Harry never knew. The ride down in the elevator was always silent save Harry’s whistling.
When they reached the lobby, Harry would offer a friendly wave at Mrs. Stevenson and then saunter over to Frank, the doorman.
“Morning, Harry,” Frank would drawl, feigning happiness to see him. “Got your paper for you.”
Every morning Frank handed Harry his morning newspaper and every morning Harry tipped his hat at Frank as a gesture of thanks. Then Harry stepped out into the bright sun and the honking taxicabs and the vendors selling coffee out of trucks. He would whistle until he reached The Cheyenne Diner on 13th and Walnut. Then, he’d switch to humming Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” and make his grand entrance. All the waitresses loved Harry. They loved hearing about his business deals made in the backs of shadowy bars; they loved to hear about his encounters with corrupt government officials. They loved all of Harry’s stories and, in truth, this was just what they were. Stories. Harry had been laid off from his job as top salesman at Berkendale’s several months ago. He never was in any gunfight in Korea when a meeting went south. He never got arrested for consorting with high-class call girls in a Russian hotel while trying to extract classified state-secrets. Harry’s life was a nothing but a series of lies, of fictions, which he desperately needed others to believe. The story was all he had left. So, every morning he made sure to have his briefcase when he went to The Cheyenne Diner at 8AM to read the paper.
Friday, July 23. Harry settled in at his usual red stool at the end of the counter. He waited for someone to bring him his breakfast: a cup of coffee (one cream, two sugars), scrambled eggs, and wheat toast. He began to read the paper. Drops in the stock market, an article about a political fundraiser, a street mugging, an AIDS breakout in Queens, the story of a priest who had blown his brains out after he was found guilty of child molestation…the world was a sick place, it was true, but Harry couldn’t help but think what a bore the paper was this morning: what a bore it was every morning. But then…then his eyes encountered a story that intrigued him. Well, it really was not the words on the page that caught his eye but the two photographs that accompanied them: one was a portrait of a beautiful woman with dark curls framing her face; she had such sad eyes. The other was a picture of an empty bathtub. The print read: MANHATTAN WOMAN FOUND DEAD IN BATHTUB FROM APPARENT OVERDOSE: BRUTAL MURDER OR TRAGIC SUICIDE? Just as Harry’s imagination began placing him at the scene of the crime, the P.I. to be led down dark alleyways by this woman’s equally beautiful friend, Donna interrupted him and asked if he’d like more coffee. When he looked up from his paper for a moment he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a woman that he would like to get a closer look at. He swiveled his red stool and faced the woman in the booth across from him, slowly raising his eyes from his newspaper as not to appear as though he was looking. The woman had dark hair pulled back in a spiral twist; she was wearing a black dress with a white collar and, even more fascinating to Harry, she had on a pair of dark sunglasses. He could not tell whether she was looking at him or not. Just then, he saw her take the sharp knife from her napkin and begin stabbing it into the table, her palm spread out on the surface, the blade of the knife darting quickly between her fingers. He assumed she was looking down at the table to ensure that she did not actually cut the flesh, until he saw a drop of blood. The woman did this casually for about twenty more seconds, another drop of blood here and there, as if this was something she did quite often, simply to kill time. Harry thought: I must save her; she must be terribly lonely. But, just as he was about to get up from his seat, Donna came over with his breakfast. He looked away for a moment and when he looked back, the table was empty. It was as if his mystery woman had never been there.
I’d been going to the Cheyenne Diner and sitting at roughly the same booth every weekday morning since I stumbled upon the place- drunk at 2AM, wet from a light falling rain, intrigued by the pale pink of the neon lights- a couple of months back. At approximately 7:35AM each day, I would reach the corner of 13th and Walnut and pull open the door of the diner to hear loudly clanking dishes, waitresses sighing in anticipation of another exhausting day, and the man with the brown beret- nervously biting his fingernails- demanding his daily slice of pecan pie. All these sounds made up the audio of my morning: they created for me a type of song, a rhythm of life, which I hoped would keep me from noticing the searing triviality of it all, as I moved about the city on yet another day of a reel that was seemingly endless.
Friday, July 23. A unique day at the Cheyenne Diner. At 8AM as usual, Harry, whose name I know because he seems to be very friendly with the entire staff, came through the door with his black hat- a hat that makes him look like he wishes he were Walter Neff from Double Indemnity, grabbing a coffee before heading off to “save” his blonde mistress. If he were Walter, he’d soon learn that his beautiful angel was a scheming femme fatale, ready to throw him out with the bathwater. But, for now, Harry in the black hat entered the diner humming and holding a suitcase in his left hand and squeezing a newspaper under his right arm. “Greetings, Carol,” he said to the hostess. He passed my regular table, as he did every morning, on the way to the counter. We made eye contact once, briefly, a couple of weeks ago when we both looked up after a plate crashed to the floor. One other time, we bumped into each other in the narrow hallway that leads to the bathroom. Although we were in the same diner nearly every morning, this is all the contact we have had. I do not go out of my way to make small talk with strangers and Harry is always either absorbed in his paper or telling a crowd of giggling waitresses some story of adventure. However, on this particular day as he was interrupted from his reading by the waitress asking him if he’d like some more coffee, he swiveled his red stool so that it was facing my booth and he raised his eyes above his newspaper. He slowly lowered the paper and continued staring at my table as if he’d seen a ghost: of course I mean a beautiful ghost, an intriguing one, not a pale shrieking sickly thing. In that case, he wouldn’t have looked twice. But anyway, what makes this such an interesting day at the Cheyenne Diner? Well, as I said, I’d been at the same booth every weekday morning for months now; but the first time he noticed me, the first time he really saw me, was the one day I wasn’t there.