After dark with the night people.
July 31, 2015
BACK WHEN I WORKED for a custom publishing company in Dallas, we did a lot of business with companies in Houston.
I-45 and I became close friends.
I would leave the house before daylight.
Often I returned in the dead of night just before daylight.
When I needed a break sometime about midnight on my drive back home, I would stop at the Mile 190 Truck Stop. It sat just off the interstate, always had the floodlights on, and was the kind of place you might expect to find in a dystopian novel.
It was old.
It was rundown.
It was open.
Inside were the night people.
Don’t know who they were.
Don’t know where they came from or why they came.
It wasn’t for friendly conversation.
I never saw anyone smile.
I never heard anyone speak.
The night people simply drank coffee, shoved their eggs from one side of the plate to the other, and waited until morning.
Some were regulars.
Some were men of the road and passing through.
The lady was always sitting in the third booth on the left. She looked young when the light hit her just right. Mostly, she lived in the shadows.
Don’t know when any of them left.
I was gone by then.
But I never forgot their faces, and I never forgot the scene.
When I wrote Conspiracy of Lies, my hero, Ambrose Lincoln, walks into an all-night café about midnight, and I stole the scene right out of the Mile 190 Truck Stop.
Ambrose Lincoln searched the machinations of his mind, determined it was twenty-two minutes past midnight, and walked to the all night diner where the lonely came to eat cheap steaks and ham sandwiches, fried eggs and day-old menudo, particularly if they had been drinking anything stronger than mescal tequila, and to keep from being lonely, even if no one spoke to them, and hardly anyone ever did.
He stood outside and stared through the big plate glass window, quietly surveying the scene of a clean, well-lighted place that smelled of burnt grease, stale cigarette smoke, and pickled jalapeno peppers. His gaze shifted from face to face.
Chances were, the lady with the painted face was looking for someone to take her home, preferably a man, preferably single, preferably on his way to someplace else. She was a little too old, a little too heavy, a little too much lipstick, and a little too eager to smile at any man in the place who needed an extra layer of warmth on a warm night. Money was not important. She probably had her own.
The soldier was sleeping with his head on the table. Sometime after dark, his night on the town had ended in ruin. Alone. Sober. Homesick. Nothing to do. And no one to do it with, except, of course, the lady looking for love, and she could well be his mother in another time and another place, and maybe she was.
A peddler had pushed his plate aside, but he still had his last piece of toast clamped between his teeth. He had opened his case and was straightening his wares, trying to forget a bad day and hoping tomorrow would be better, and tomorrow hadn’t been better since leaving Des Moines, if he had ever been to Des Moines, and driving into New Mexico. It was tough selling cufflinks in a town filled with soldiers and farmers and drifters like Ambrose Lincoln who had no cuffs, much less any links. He was the only hope Miss Lonely Hearts had, but the peddler didn’t look to be that lonely.
Twyla sat in the back corner across the table from a farmer. At least, he looked like a farmer. Short. Stubby. Straw hat. Red face. Dirt-stained khakis as wrinkled as his face. Chewing a cigar with one side of his mouth and a plate of biscuits and sorghum with the other.
He hadn’t lit the cigar.
It lasted longer that way.
The farmer was drinking coffee from a saucer. Hot and black. He kept blowing on the coffee to cool it off.
Twyla was watching the clock on the wall.
The night was late.
Her shift was young.
It was already a slow night.
Lincoln stepped through the doorway and walked straight to her table.