The lighting in the diner, this particular diner, was just brutal, Nick thought as he sat down in a long black-vinyl upholstered booth. It was fluorescently harsh, bluish-cold, too bright, and gave all the people in the restaurant the pallor of the dead. Fitting, maybe, he thought, all of us here at two in the morning, silent, staring at nothing while sucking down big white mugs of burnt-smelling coffee. Truck stop zombies, gasoline ghoulies, highway to hellers, playing in his mind with all the ghastly phrases he could come up with, pleasing himself for a moment. He slid to the window side, almost touching the wall, and brought his books out from his backpack and set them on the gray-flecked Formica table, tapping his fingers on each book in a pattern.

He didn’t really know why he kept ending up here. Some nights it would be late, sometimes even later than it was now, and he would get restless at home, confined, bored, nervous. Sometimes his girlfriend would be over, already asleep for many hours, and he could not keep still next to her, thinking. So he would grab his stuff, walk out of the house in sweatpants and a Henley, maybe a knit hat and a coat if it was cold, and start driving. He would wind through the curvy roads of his pretty suburban town, past the high school and the post office, past the ball field and the A&P, until he got to the highway, busy even in the middle of the night, feeding endless cars and semis into the city. He would accelerate and enjoy the feel of his head pressing back, the growl of the car engine, keeping up with the barreling trucks, weaving and dodging around anyone slower, unlike the reasonable and moderate way he drove during any other time. He would turn up the radio, sometimes listening to sports talk, sometimes music, depending on what caught his ear, where his emotions were bubbling. His hands would beat in time on the steering wheel to the music, or to the rhythm he would find in the bumps in the road, or the cadence of a steady voice.

He would drive and keep driving, not really intending to go anywhere or do anything. Twenty miles would pass quickly, and then another ten or so, and he would see the diner, as garishly lit from the outside as it was on the inside. He would feel the pull to take the turn-off, drive past the all the trucks sitting dark and silent in the huge parking lot, pull into an empty space, and sit for a minute. It was not a nice place, this one, there was nothing to like about it even in a trashy, camp, retro, slumming way. It was ugly and dirty, the food was mediocre to bad, and the people who stopped there looked like they had stories you really didn’t want to know about. But he would get out of the car anyway, sling his pack over his shoulder, and take a big sniff of the diesel air, listen to the roar of the highway and the buzz of the huge streetlamps overhead, and go inside.

The waitress came over, a woman in her 30s who looked more in her 40s he thought, with her brown hair haphazardly pulled back into a ponytail, deep drawn lines around her mouth, dark grey eyes that seemed to pick up no light at all.

“What can I get for ya?”

He had no need for the menu. “A coffee and the Number Five Breakfast, please.” He looked up at her and smiled, trying to catch something from those eyes, but she never looked back at him.

“Comin’ up.” She turned and walked away towards the counter. He drummed his fingers on the seat of the booth, 1-2,1-2,1-2. The music from the kitchen always blared mainstream 80s music, classic rock. Fill my eyes with that double vision, no disguise for that double vision, ooh, when it gets through to me, its always new to me, my double vision always seems to get the best of me - the best of me, yeah!

He picked up a mechanical pencil, and worked a bit on some problems from one of the books that had been giving him a bit of difficulty earlier in the night. For some reason he found it easier to concentrate here, away from the familiar, away from distractions. He knew no one would be walking in the door here. No one he knew would ever stop here. If his girlfriend or her mother or his mother or his boss or his sister or his friend Mike knew, they would be appalled, as a matter of fact. They would look at him differently, he thought.

He glanced up at the sound of a rattling plate on the diner counter. A fat man with a choppy looking beard stared back at him, red-faced, looking foul-tempered and drunk. Nick knew just the right amount to look back at him before turning away to his books. One second short, you’d look weak and the guy might come over and pick on you for the fun of it. One second too long, and he’d come over and pick on you for the fun of smashing your face in. Just long enough, and the guy would know, not me, I’ve got something to me you don’t want to mess with. Nick had been in enough fights, wiry and baby-faced as he was, and had been smart enough to figure out how to win most of them over time. The best win was never getting in them to begin with. Ting ting-ting ting, his pencil lightly tapped on his water glass.

The waitress brought his plate, and a carafe of coffee. She poured the nearly-black liquid into his mug in one sweep of her wrist. “Cream?”

“No, I’m good. Thank you.” As she walked off again, he stared at his food. Two fried eggs, two sausage patties, a huge mound of cubed fried potatoes and onions, a biscuit. He was very hungry, and began to plow through the meal, even when to his dismay but not surprise he found the eggs rubbery, the sausage gritty with bone, the potatoes cold, and the biscuit rock-like. Oh, well, he thought, they are consistent here. Hit me with your best shot! Why don’t you hit me with your best shot! Hit me with your best shot! Fire away!

The sound of the door clanging open again and a group of men laughing made Nick once again look up from the table. Ah. A bunch of guidos, fresh from the bars, all dressed for the night, pomaded hair, designer jeans, leather jackets. They had a girl with them, who looked to be about 22 or so, skinny and wobbling in her heels, barely held together by her black spandexed dress. She was giggling, pushing on them, smiling too wide. They roared into a booth, slamming into the seats, one of them yelling out, “HEY! HOW ABOUT SOME FUCKEN SERVICE ALREADY?” More laughs. Two of the guys sat surrounding the girl, and looked, Nick thought, like wolves ready to tear her to pieces, smiling with blood on their teeth. He started to feel a burning in his chest, heat rising in his head. Assholes. The waitress dumped more coffee into his cup, showing no reaction to much of anything.

Nick studied the group as they continued to laugh and swear and cause enough of a scene to be obnoxious, but not enough to get kicked out of this joint. He had been that guy a few times. He had taken advantage. It was what guys did, or most of them that he hung around with did. There had been a few girls like her, maybe more than a few, but it was hard to think about. It put creases in his mind, a discomfort that he could not recall their names or faces, just the sound of their voices, body parts, the smell of beer and cigarettes. It wasn’t what he wanted now. He wondered if the girl in the booth wanted what was going to happen to her later or not. Nick noticed his leg was jittering, stopped it, annoyed. Hey, she’s a big girl, he thought, it’s not my problem. He drank down the coffee fast, cringing at its heat, gathered up his books and papers again, slapped a twenty on the table. It was too much to pay, too much to stay. Sometimes I sleep, sometimes it’s not for days, and the people I meet always go their separate ways, sometimes you tell the day by the bottle that you drink, and times when you’re all alone all you do is think. Wanted, dead or alive.

He pulled his hat down reflexively and made his way to the exit. As he passed by the table of the guidos and the girl, their plates of food sloppy and repulsive-looking, their bodies too big for the booth, one of them brayed at Nick, “Hey, take a look at this motherfucking faggot! Hey, how are you, faggot, huh? How you doin’? Everything good there?” Nick immediately stopped, and stared at the shiny white teeth on the smile of the guy, and he instantly wanted to throw a punch and knock them clean down his greasy throat. He looked at the whole disgusting group, all smiling, watching to see what he would do, ready, he could see, to make him the evening’s second feature attraction. Nick glanced at the girl, who was so wasted she was staring off into space, hair messed, face melting.

He turned his body to the group, set down his backpack at his feet, set his jaw tight, eyes to steel. The mood heightened; he saw the men shift slightly, expectantly, ready, so ready to take him down should he move an inch closer. He stared at them a second longer, then spoke.

“Got a cigarette?”

For a few moments, the whole place seemed to crackle, frozen in ice. Insanity laughs under pressure were cracking, can’t we give ourselves one more chance? Why can’t we give love one more chance? Why can’t we give love give love give love?

The guido stared at him, then started to laugh, shoulders shrugging and shaking. “Ha ha ha, how about that skinny fucker! Ha ha ha! Here you go, faggot, they’re on me!” He picked up a half-smoked pack of Camels from the table and tossed them to Nick. The rest of the group laughed.

Nick picked up his backpack, said, “Thanks, man,” with a nod, and shoved the Camels in his jacket pocket, and strode out the door, his heart beating in time with his steps, hearing their voices even after the door closed.

He walked towards his car. Two police cars were in the lot, pulled together. One of them turned his spotlight on him. Nick flinched, ready to open his car door, then decided, alright, how about this? He turned and walked further to the curb, sat down, pulled out the Camels and a lighter, fired up a smoke, and watched the cops watch him. “You think I’m a bad guy? Yeah, go ahead. Watch me smoke this fucking cigarette then,” he thought angrily. Only bad people came here, people with bad intentions, and stolen truckloads of computers, and creeps, and rapists, and whores, and monsters.

He sat there, hunched over, smoke swirling through his nose and mouth and lungs, and Nick thought of his girlfriend asleep, her long sandy brown hair spread across the pillow, how she rarely had any trouble sleeping. He had gotten quite a prize in her, snared her young, kept her now for seven years, through his 20s and hers. He wondered if she did know that he left the house and where he went and what he did away from her, and didn’t want to rock the boat. Or maybe it was that she didn’t want him to ask what she did the nights away from him. Neither of them was going to know for sure, because no one really wanted the answers.

If he left her, just kept on driving one night, she would end up here, like that girl. She knew nothing of the world, had hardly been with any other men, she would be vulnerable to guys like that. She would fall for all their stupid lines, and the drinks, they would grope her and laugh and she would giggle. He could not let that happen to her. He would go along with things, they would end up getting married, having children, living in the same town, and he would feel good about what he had done for her.

Nick’s hands shook, from the cold he thought, as he drew the last from the cigarette, stubbed it out on the curb, still staring back at the cops. He walked back to his car, opened the door, threw the backpack on the passenger seat, then saw the flashlight of the cop in the side mirror. He tapped his fingers on his legs. Alright. Alright. He rolled down the window and looked up.

“License and registration, please.” The cop was about 6’4”, short brown hair slicked to one side, cop mustache, grim. Nick pulled his license from his ratty wallet, the registration from the seat pocket and handed them to the cop, who walked back with them to his car, while the other cop, a young guy with a buzzcut, stood on the other side of the car. Nick sat, quiet, watching the people inside the diner.

After a few moments the first cop returned and handed back the items. “What are you doing out here tonight? Lookin’ for some weed?” he questioned with a sneer.

“No. I come here to study some nights when I can’t sleep.”

The cop looked at him with a weary, skeptical eye. “Oh, is that right. You are pretty far from home, aren’t you? This ain’t no study hall, junior. Get out of here before you get in trouble.”

Nick said nothing, rolled up the window, started the car, left and got back on the highway, in a reasonable and moderate fashion, opened it up again when five miles has passed. He’d head back to his pretty town, to his pretty girl, all the pretty things waiting right there for him. The good people lived there.

He blinked his eyes like windshield wipers, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, until his eyes were clear again, and the oncoming headlights of the other cars no longer looked like spreading, beautiful white stars.