During my creative writing class at Yankton Federal Prison Camp, I was asked to think of a diner. I didn‘t have to think for long, because I grew up in one. My dad bought it for my mom, a present that would lead to a lot of stress. That stress with the constant work eventually weighed on both of them.
I believe they bought it the same year my brother was born, 1981. I remember growing up, and other kids would tell me that I was rich because my parents owned their own business. It wasn’t completely the case, but they did pretty well for themselves since it was a popular place. I enjoyed the free meals and all the pretty high school girls that worked there.
There were a lot of good memories connected to the diner before I was old enough to know about the stresses of running a business. The milkshakes were my favorite, I would always put too much milk in the metal canister, and the excess would get flung everywhere, and now I wonder who cleaned up those messes. Probably the two waitresses that were there since the beginning, Kris and Leanne, always ready with an Ole and Lena joke.
Ole and Lena went to a lawyer to see about getting a divorce.
“How old are you, folks?” asked the lawyer.
“Vell, I’m 96, and Lena is 92,” said Ole.
“How come you are getting a divorce now?” asked the lawyer.
Said Ole: “Ve vanted to vait till all da kids vere dead.”
My dad would make my pancakes in the shapes of my favorite cartoon characters. The world just seemed so innocent in those days, like nothing could go wrong.
It was there that I found out at an early age what I didn’t want to be when I grew up, a dishwasher. It might have been Candy Schuh’s (pronounced shoe) dream job, as she would always tell me, “Noah, I love dishes.” Bless her heart 🙂
For my birthday every year, I could count on Marlys and her cookie dough, which came in aluminum foil cylinders that I would fish out of the freezer every time I got a craving. She would always make me chocolate chip and oatmeal because they were my favorites. Thank God nobody knew or cared about the dangers of giving raw eggs to kids at that time!
Although I didn’t develop a work ethic at The Guest House, I did learn what a work ethic looked like, from watching my dad. He would work all day, open to close. Every day when he would come home, I couldn’t decide which smelled worse, his feet or his farts; as if the grease from the entire kitchen soaked in through his pores and was looking for any way out.
It was also there I built one of the few regrets I still harbor, stealing from my family as I worked one day a week on their busiest day, Sunday. A holy day, a day of rest, but for me, it was a day of deceit and shame. I was able to make amends to my mom on the issue, but the one I actually lied to was my father. He confronted me after my shoplifting, I looked him dead in the face, eyes full of tears, and lied, “I would never steal from you guys.” I didn’t miss a Sunday for probably a year.
One day I slipped a key off of my dad’s key ring and made a copy for myself, reserved for late nights of drinking, where the final pit stop was to swing by the diner and turn on the fryers to make some cross-cuts and chicken tenders. smothered in ranch and ketchup. That worked until I forgot the fryers on and didn’t bother cleaning up my mess.
Speaking of messes, how about when my friend sprayed a fire extinguisher off in the hallway down by the bathrooms. My mom never told me how stupid we were; she didn’t have to. I was embarrassed for the entire hour or two it took us to wipe down every table until there were no traces of little white specks of powder.
Eventually, my parents sold the diner, and I thought things would be different. The stress would be gone, and love would return, but we never got that far. Before you knew it, the new owners were closing on Sundays, and my dad knew it was only a matter of time before he was getting back up at 5:30 am to go to work.
He was right, several months later, and enormous court fees, the diner was back, and with it came my shame and his stress, accompanied by plenty of cigarettes. The doctors told my dad several years before his death, that he would die if he didn’t stop smoking. That’s probably why he stopped going to them.
Most people blamed the cigarettes for my dad’s death because it caused the emphysema, which turned to pneumonia, but I knew it was the diner. It might have given him a way to provide for his family and his kids’ education, but it ruined everything else; his marriage, his dreams, and finally his life.
I remember leaving for college, he told me to go get my degree and never come back to Roseau; it’s a dead-end street. I know now it wasn’t Roseau’s fault, it was the diner’s.
I was told my dad was so bad the day before he died, that my mom had to tie his shoes; and he still thought it was a good idea to go to that diner. It wasn’t until several hours of working that he finally decided he needed to get help. He drove himself to the hospital. I wonder if he knew it was the last drive he would ever take.
My dad was gone a few days later, but the diner was not. It was waiting for my mom. A business she either couldn’t run by herself or didn’t want to, but thanks to the poor economy couldn’t get rid of either. She was stuck with it for what felt like an eternity, while it ate up the life insurance money my dad had left her. The diner finally sold, for a fraction of the cost they had paid for it almost three decades earlier, as if it was its final present.