Just Another Slow Day at the Diner by H.L. Liptak

Funny Pearls are proud to present 2021 short story competition runner-up:



H.L. Liptak


So I’m at the diner and there’s nothing doing, even the cockroaches are bored, when Rocky hollers so loud I almost swallow my gum.

‘Alright, alright! Keep your shirt on!’

I drag my attention from the chipped nail I’m filing to the two palookas stepping in the door. Never seen those two before, I would’ve remembered Mr. Tall Dark and Handsome. The other one, not so much. Can’t look too interested right off. I ignore them until they park it, then slap a coupla menus down on the table.

‘So, you folks wanna order or what?’ I pop my gum while I look the pair over. They act like they’ve never seen a menu before in their lives. Why’d I always have to get the losers? It don’t matter how good-looking they are if they’re dumb as a box of rocks.

‘We are looking for a Dr. -’

I sigh and roll my eyes. ‘This is a diner, hon. You want a doctor, go over to General Hospital down the street.’

‘No, not that kind of doctor,’ the good-looking one speaks up. ‘This is a Dr. Einstein. We thought you might know where to find him.’ He not only looks dreamy, but he has this great voice, sort of shivery and deep.

‘Oh, Doc Einstein!’ Too eager. Can’t let the hunk know I’m a little taken with him. I clear my throat. ‘Yeah, he comes in from time to time. Nice fella but a little out to lunch, know what I mean?’

The strangers look at each other all confused. ‘You mean he comes here for lunch?’

I have to snicker. Where are these yahoos from? ‘No, hon. I mean he’s kookie.’

‘He eats cookies for lunch?’ the good-looking one asks, like I’m speaking Greek or something.

I don’t get paid enough for this! I cross my arms in a huff before I catch the boss looking our way. I’ll get a lot of flak if I let another customer walk. I oughta act more interested.

‘Hoo-boy. Listen, you squares, better get it together and order something or cut on out of here. What’ll it be?’

‘We just need to find this Einstein.’

I huff. ‘Alright, handsome. Lemme see what I can do.’ I give ‘em a wink and hook my thumb toward the kitchen. ‘Gimme a sec, hon, and I’ll ask around.’ I eyeball Rocky who’s glaring, as usual. I point at the menu. ‘Meantime, order something or the boss’ll be all over me for tying up his valuable space.’ Maybe I can at least wangle a good tip out of them if I look like I’m trying to help.

That dizzy blonde, Marsha, sashays in and makes a beeline right for their table. Trust that dame to talk to the good-looking guy.

‘I couldn’t help overhearing you ask about Dr. Einstein.’ She’s using that phony, breathy voice she always puts on around men.

The other guy gets all interested. ‘Do you know where to find him?’

I tap my foot as the dumb blonde starts her spiel.

‘I’m afraid he’s in the hospital. He hasn’t been feeling well. You’ll never get in to see him now.’

I have to snort at that.

‘How do you know, sister?’

‘I worked as Dr. Einstein’s secretary,’ Marsha starts.

Well, that’s probably true.

‘Organizing his papers and transcribing his notes. He’s a brilliant man but a little disorganized.’

The good-looking one sort of deflates and mutters, ‘We’re doomed. By the time we get back the end will have come.’

The Marsha dame acts real upset by that. ‘I’m afraid you’re right. Dr. Einstein has refused life-saving measures. He’ll probably be gone before next week. Then what will I do?’

I muster up a little sympathy. ‘Sorry about your friend, but we’re not talking about the end of the world here.’

‘I know it’s not the end of the world,’ she snaps at me. Then she remembers she’s working on a sob story and goes real teary. ‘But I’ll be out of a job and my rent is due and Mother and my cat depend on me!’ Now she turns on the waterworks, sobbing into Mr. Good-looking’s shirtfront. Oldest trick in the book.

What could the poor guy do but pat her awkwardly on the shoulder? ‘There, there.’

‘And what do I do with all his papers?’ she sniffles.

That got the other one’s attention. ‘You have his papers?’

Marsha’s chin trembles. She’s good.

‘Not his published papers, just the things he jotted down. Recently.’

‘Anything interesting in them?’ Mr. Hotstuff talks like it’s just a casual question, but the way he’s leaning toward her looks more like it’s life and death.

Ha! I bet they’re just a bunch of crazy numbers and letters like the old guy scribbled on napkins every time he came in for a Rueben. Marsha’d never admit that or these two would lose interest and see her for the bubblehead she is. Instead, she goes back to the breathy routine, like she’s telling them the secrets to the universe.

‘Oh, they are interesting! At least I think they are. I don’t understand most of it, but Dr. Einstein always says, ‘Now, Marsha, don’t you worry your pretty little head about understanding these notes. You just write them down in order so I can find them and read them when I’m working on new ideas.’’

‘New ideas? Like what?’ the not-so-handsome one says. ‘How about – oh, I don’t know – atoms?’

That starts Marsha nodding so fast her head almost snaps off.

‘Yes! He was always talking about atoms. And time. And travel. Why, I have a whole bundle of his notes written on napkins, grocery lists and old envelopes he gave me to transcribe about that.’ She stops and looks down at her feet. ‘At least I have most of them.’

The dreamy one’s voice gets sort of hard and foreign sounding. ‘What do you mean, ‘most’?’

The ditz clears her throat and starts off mumbling excuses. ‘It’s possible Mother spilt coffee on some of them and they disintegrated.’

The men look at each other real mean. Marsha sort of freezes up for a moment, until the good-looking one smiles. A real lollapalooza. Marsha can’t talk fast enough now.

‘And, the cat chewed up a few of the old napkins. Just a few. Snowball will eat anything! Why, one time she gnawed her way through a whole phone book just because Mother spilled some gravy on it.’

‘And where do you keep these papers?’ Other Guy’s accent is getting sort of funny, but Marsha’s so dim, she doesn’t even notice.

‘I have most of them at home. I live in that building right across the street.’ She points at one of those old brownstones that’s seen better days. ‘It’s not much, but it’s home for Mother and Snowball and me and I would hate to lose it because people think I’m careless with important papers like Dr. Einstein’s.’ She pulls that baby doll trick of looking up under her lashes at the big handsome lug. And he falls for it!

‘I’m sure no one would think that.’

Sheesh men are stupid!

‘You don’t know how nasty these professors can be.’ She sticks a little catch in her voice like she’s trying to be brave. ‘I’ve…I’ve been wracking my brain over what to do with his notes ever since Dr. Einstein got sick. I tried taking them to the hospital to give to him, but those mean old nurses wouldn’t let me in to see him. I told them they’re very important papers, but no one even knows they exist except me. And who is going to listen to poor little Marsha Claire Jones?’

The other one seems a little too excited at that. ‘No one else knows about them? Not a single colleague or friend?’

‘Nobody. So who can I give them to? I mean, what will people say when there are papers… missing? Dr. Einstein trusted me with his new ideas but his notes are a bit scattered and people might think I’ve been careless. I mean some of them sound crazy.’ There’s this mortified pause. ‘And Mother did put out a cigarette on one or two; and the cat maybe, er, sharpened her claws on a few pages.’ Her eyes start flashing and she sticks out her chest. That gets their attention, too. ‘So what if they don’t make sense to regular people? I’m a good transcriber! I did my best.’

Now my eyes are practically rolling around in my head on account of her act. But these guys are buying it and getting worked up. And here come the waterworks again.

I’ll never get another job and we’ll be thrown out on the street and Mother doesn’t even own a winter coat. No one will take in an old lady and a failed typist and a cat!’

Well, I sure wouldn’t, but men! She has the chutzpah to grab Hotstuff by the coat and start sobbing.

Not-so-handsome says, ‘Maybe we can help you,’ and gives her a napkin to blow her nose. ‘We have colleagues who are familiar with such important theories. They could help. They could read over those notes.’

She ignores Other Guy, but then that dreamy voice says, ‘Fill in some of the blanks.’

I’d like Mr. Handsome to fill in some blanks for me. Whoo-wee!

‘No one would have to know Snowball ate a thing.’

That cat comment got her all squishy toward Other Guy. ‘Would you do that for me?’ If she batted her eyelashes any harder, she’d start a hurricane. ’I took one look at you and I could tell you were a gentleman and a scholar. Thank you so much. You’ll have my undying gratitude.’

It’s all I can do not to upchuck right there.

‘Our pleasure. We will accompany you to retrieve them.’

‘And I’ll introduce you to Mother and Snowball.’ She stops like she’s embarrassed. ‘M-maybe you’d better wait here. I’m not sure Mother’s receiving visitors right now.’

‘But we must meet her. And Snowball.’ Other Guy sounds downright desperate.

‘Just across the street, right?’ Mr. Handsome asks.

‘Right there.’ She scootches up practically in his lap to point out exactly which apartment is hers.

I know for a fact you can’t see her dump from here.

She goes on like this is top secret information: ‘The corner apartment. I’ll go see if she’s presentable first, then I’ll be back in a jiffy. You wait right here for me.’ At the door she looks back over her shoulder like Betty Grable in one of those pin up poses.

Her starting toward the door gets them a little antsy. So Miss Marsha starts lathering up the soft soap. ‘I can’t tell you how wonderful you are. You’re saving my life. And Dr. Einstein’s reputation. I don’t want the world to remember him as a crackpot or a kook, just because a few pages are missing.’ She wags her finger, warning them to stay put.

Meanwhile, I’ve had about enough of this. ‘You two gonna order, or what?’

They give me the evil eye and when they look back, she’s gone. I’m beginning to have my doubts about whether even Clark Gable would be worth the effort these two are costing me. The plain one mumbles something I swear was some foreign language and gives me a hard stare, like he slipped up.

‘Listen, buster! My boss will dock my measly little paycheck if you two tie up a perfectly good table and don’t even order a cup of joe.’

That just gets me another one of those confused looks. I’m starting to think these two aren’t from around here. Marsha’s been gone about five minutes and they keep lookin’ around, real nervous, like they’re gonna scram. I need to keep ‘em from leaving, I mean what about my tip? I grab two cups and a pot of java and start pouring.

Marsha finally comes in like her coat’s on fire and Mr. Handsome jumps up.

‘Not so fast, buster! I gotta get your bill.’ I grab his shoulder and sit him back down.

‘Help, Shirl!’ Marsha yells. ‘They’ve got Snowball!’

‘Well, you know that’s the code word and I see Other Guy reaching for his gun—ha! like I didn’t know he had one! So’s I poured the hot coffee in his lap and that makes him think! He starts cursing in some other language. I sorta brain Mr. Good-looking with the coffee pot. I hated doing that. Anyway, right behind Marsha comes the G-men. Finally! And they slap the cuffs on those two in nothing flat. And that’s the way it happened.’

The chief smiles. ‘Good work, Shirl. You two make a great team.’

I get up to leave his office, but not before I let him have a piece of my mind. ‘You know, Chief, your guys are a little slow on the uptake. If you want me and Marsha to keep working with that crew, you’re gonna have to sit them down and explain that we ladies can’t be waiting on them to finish their milk and cookies when we got a couple of live spies for them to lock up.’ I pop my gum, shut the door behind me and meet Marsha in the hall.

‘Let’s go get some real food for dinner.’

‘Sure,’ I says. ‘If you think ‘Mother’ and ‘Snowball’ are alright without us.’ I slap my knee. ‘Where do you come up with that stuff?’

‘You crack me up, Shirl!’

‘Just another slow day at the diner.’