a short story by Jerry Zinn
Jonathan squinted behind the visor. In the distance the St. Louis Arch was a glistening diamond. He turned to his father and nodded before giving the Triumph’s throttle a quick pull. Both bikes roared cathartically. Wheel-to-wheel, they traversed Route-66 toward downtown.
As one unit they veered off the highway and parked in the Meal-Rite Diner’s cracked, concrete lot. The building was small with white-washed brick walls and a pink florescent sign bearing the institution’s name. They were tired, but since they began their father-son trip a few days earlier, each had learned to cope with the pull of Morpheus. Morning was still in the early innings, and the diner was busy but not crowded, serving the local who’s who of blue-collars.
Jonathan switched off his engine and dismounted. He watched his father jimmy the key of the off-kilter ignition. Once the second engine ceased gurgling, the lot was quiet. Wind whistled like white noise through the city, modern structures leaving Meal-Rite as a time capsule of the last century. St. Louis’ beating heart of cop cars, ambulances, and benign shouting sat in the air like humidity. Jonathan retracted his hands from their gloves and wiped his face and neck with a bandana. Meanwhile his father struggled to unbuckle the strap of his vintage helmet with its muted tin shell and bright red racing stripe. Jonathan remained unconvinced about its structural integrity. But his father liked the headpiece, even if it was as much an insurance policy as a fedora. His father was cleaner than when they left the motel, as if the dirt respected him.
“First stop, St. Louis!” He grabbed Jonathan’s shoulder and shook it paternally.
“Heck of a long way to go from here,” replied Jonathan, kicking his boots against the curb.
“No one ever said a cross-country road trip was fast. Anyway it’s the journey that matters. Haven’t you seen that on bumper stickers? You think they just make those sayings up?”
“Hard to argue there. I have to admit; I’m enjoying it so far. Never imagined how peaceful it would be without music on the open road. Allows your thoughts to…”
“You can’t be enjoying it more than I. Been waiting a long time to take this trip, and doing it with you…” he said, starting to choke up.
“I know, Dad. I’m sorry it took so long.”
“Life. You don’t have to tell me about how it goes. I know I’ve already said it a hundred times, and I’ll say it at least a hundred more. Jonathan it means a lot to me that we’re doing this together.”
With a smile he looked deep into his father’s heather-grey eyes, sharp from years of use but softened by the kindness in his heart. In that one glance, Jonathan couldn’t help but ask himself why he’d put off the trip for so many years. It never was about the trip. Sharing the journey was all that mattered.
“Well it goes from St. Louis, down to Missouri!” he sang in response, trying his best to sound like Nat King Cole and failing endearingly. Through the screeching push-door they walked and sat at the counter.
“Be with you in a moment,” the waitress said mid-flight to delivering a couple stacks of pancakes. She was short and agile. Jonathan watched her maneuver, filling coffee and calling out orders all while dishing out dime quips on a breath and a blink.
The countertop was warped from thousands of elbows, many covered in the course sandpaper of canvas work jackets. The stools had been kicked around and beaten up, standing the test of time and outliving more than a few patrons. Meal-Rite was Route-66 before commercialization. There was nostalgia from genuine aging. No magazine articles about the establishment were hung. Meal-Rite didn’t tell people it was an institution. They already knew.
“What are you gonna get?” his father asked as he scanned the menu in its thick plastic casing.
“I guess I have to get a ‘Swinger,’ right?”
“That is why we came here. Not even sure why I picked this thing up,” his father answered with a chuckle. When he tossed the menu down its metal corners snapped against the counter.
“I’ll see if I can get her attention. Excuse—”
“Biking 66?” the waitress asked, dropping in like a jet on a carrier.
“That obvious, huh?” Jonathan answered. “My dad’s been asking me to do this for 10 years. Better late than never, right?”
“Certainly not the first time I’ve seen it. What’ll you have?”
“I’d like one of your famous Swingers with sausage and a coffee, black,” Jonathan said, closing the foldout.
“Where’s your dad?”
Jonathan looked at the stool next to him. It was empty. He swiveled to see the parking lot where his Triumph stood alone. Inside, the fragile glass that was his carefully constructed alternate reality had shattered at the lightest touch.
Looking blankly at the coffee maker Jonathan replied, “My dad always wanted me to make this trip with him, but I never… I was always too busy, too tired, too everything. In the back of my mind I thought I’d always have the chance to go…”
“Life goes according to its own plan,” the waitress said squeezing Jonathan’s hand with a love that transcended the briefness of their encounter. “I’m sure it means a lot to him that you’re doing it now.”
“Can you bring a second cup of coffee? We have a lot of open road ahead of us.”
The waitress winked knowingly, “Sure thing, sweetie.”