For most of the year, Diner 66 is frequented almost entirely by regulars. It’s in the early fall that the reporter first shows up, the last week of September, just as the leaves begin to turn and the early-bird tourists infiltrate the restaurant on their way north. That’s probably why no one pays him any mind. He seems to float in on the breeze with the others. The out-of-towners don’t know the regulars from the tourists, and the regulars merely assumed he’d leave with the rest of the flock, but he continues to frequent their establishment into late October.
He’s impeccably dressed in his tan trench coat and black leather gloves, the fedora atop his head and the spiral notepad in hand like a journalist from a black-and-white movie of days past. The fifties themed diner seems to swallow him up that way. His outdated dress and odd mannerisms make the locals feel more out of place than he seems to be, despite his anomalous presence.
After most of the through traffic has made its way north and back south again, Clay, like the rest of the locals who frequent Diner 66, can’t help but take notice of him. He spends long hours hopping from table to table, countertop stool to window seat. He always spends money–powdered donuts and vanilla cappuccinos, or bear claws and hot chocolate–and he tips well. Well enough, anyway, for the staff to turn a blind eye to his constantly pestering the customers, though they have a tendency to play along with his often absurd interview questions regardless.
It’s not that Clay has any particular interest in eavesdropping, but it’s hard not to pick up the man’s smooth, unfamiliar voice, like the low hum of a cello cutting through the clanking dishes and quiet laughter of the other patrons’ conversations. Even his stride sets him apart. His movements are fluid and conducted with unusual gaiety as he slides into the burgundy faux-leather booth near the door. There’s something about it that bugs Clay. The man always seems like he’s half-a-second from erupting into emasculating giggles.
“We’ll start with an easy one, shall we?” The reporter asks the woman across from him with a wide smile, pen poised over his notepad. “Would you rather take a trip to the beach, or go skiing?”
“Oh, the beach, definitely,” Cindy Hoffman replies instantly, smoothing her hair back in a way that reminds Clay of a preening bird. “I hate being stuck in the cold all winter.”
He hums sympathetically, his attention undivided as he scribbles detailed notes. When he seems satisfied with the transcription, he turns to Cindy’s husband, his eyes briefly flitting to the uneaten donut on his plate.
“I suppose a more difficult question is in order, then. If you don’t mind, sir?”
“Not at all.” Carl sounds just as pleased to be considered important enough for the article.
“Excellent! Well, then, let’s see here… would you rather save a loved one’s life from cancer, or win the lottery?”
Carl catches Cindy’s look, but he still asks, “Which loved one?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Oh, no contest, then.” Carl forcefully slaps a meaty palm down on the table, rattling the silverware. “The first one.”
“Interesting. Yes, good choice, I should think…”
Clay, watching discreetly from the breakfast bar, can’t help but roll his eyes. Everyone is completely infatuated with the man. It’s part of the dilemma of living in a small town like this one–everyone’s starved for attention. There’s never been anything or anyone in North Park worth making the papers until he showed up. Now, everyone seems to be of the utmost interest and all too happy to oblige this stranger’s odd solicitations, so much so that his interviewees have yet to ask him what it is, exactly, he’s writing about. Maybe they’re afraid the story won’t be as grand and emotionally compelling as they hoped. Clay thinks they’d probably be right.
When Carl and Cindy stand to leave after pleasantries and handshakes are exchanged, the reporter remains behind, his wrist seizing over the paper below like an inspired artist. Then he puts the pen down on the table, drawing himself up with a deep inhalation. His eyes once again return to the donut left on Carl’s plate. He seems to be considering it until he notices Cindy’s lipstick is smudged on the edge of her Coke glass. The reporter picks it up and holds it to the light as if expecting to find flakes of gold in her cheap make-up. Maybe he does. The pen is back in his grasping fingers in an instant.
“What the hell’s this guy think he is now? A scientist?” Clay mutters, turning back to his coffee. The clatter of the saucer when he sets the cup down belies his frustration.
From his right, Paige laughs under her breath. “What’s so wrong with that? He’s just doing his job.”
“What kind of reporter asks such ridiculous questions?”
She shrugs. “Maybe it’s an editorial.”
Editorial, Clay repeats the word in his head. Editorial my ass, he thinks. What could possibly be so important about whether Collin wants a dog or a cat, or if Ms. McGruder would rather win a new car than the Pulitzer Prize? What’s so important about that? He scowls at the yellow stripes of the countertop. That kind of smart-ass questioning is just how people like that reporter, people that think they’re smarter than everyone else, get their kicks.
“Are you sure you’re not just jealous?” Paige tries not to smile at the grumpy look on his face. “If you want to do an interview, you could just go ask him, you know.”
Clay gives her an impatient sidelong glance. “Why the hell would I want to do that?”
“Sounds like fun to me.”
“Yeah, I bet it does.”
“Oh, sweet love of mine,” Paige sighs theatrically, grabbing the last half of her bagel and dropping a few bills beside her plate. “I love it when you insult me. See you after work?”
Clay gives her an exasperated look, but she still wins a small smile from him, at least.
“Yeah. After work,” he agrees, giving her a chaste kiss. He watches her exit, the little silver bell atop the door announcing her departure, and then returns his attention to the reporter.
He’s eating the donut. The syrupy glaze clings to the fingers of his leather gloves, and when the pastry is gone, he looks down at his hand and blinks confusedly at it, as if he genuinely hadn’t expected the sugar to stick to him. Then he dunks his sticky fingers into Carl’s water glass and wipes it on his coat.
That’s it, Clay thinks, getting up from his seat. He snatches his keys and shoves his EpiPen into his pocket with his wallet. There must be something wrong with this guy, what with his weird mannerisms and strange questions, and if that’s the case, it’s the townspeople’s responsibility to investigate. This stranger’s been here for almost a month and not a single person can even say where he lives. For all he knows, this man might be dangerous.