The way his hand trembled when he passed me his card spoke enough of the shame it meant to still be alive. It was how his eyes averted from mine, his shoulders hunched, his feet shuffling forward so their sound wouldn't be so loud on the checkered tiles. "Veterans get a free meal today, don't they?"
"Yes, they do, Sir." I slid a menu toward him, his hand jumping when my pinkie brushed his. There was something so empty and sad about a beautiful man stuffing himself into the shell of a timid boy. His shoulders were strong beneath the frayed flannel shirt, unironed by the hands of a mother or wife. "You can choose any value meal that we have."
He slumped his weight onto one of the barstools, head bent so far over the laminated paper that I could see the crown of his head. "I'm Ellen," I offered to fill the vacant air between us. "You just tell me when you know what you want."
"Ellen?" My name never sounded that heavy rolling off of a tongue. "Ellen. When is your next break, Ellen?"
I couldn't hide my smile at that. Anyone who worked the graveyard shift in a diner knew of the lonesome men that wanted companionship from any warm body with breasts. "I'm working through the night today. You have to get through college somehow, right?"
"You're at the university?" He looked up at me for the first time, and my rigorous scrubbing slowed against a stained coffee mug. I didn't know this man at all - he was the same as any other wayward soul who found their way in for the Veteran's Day offer. We never broke even, but it was the least we could do for those men trickling home, haunted by ghosts cut into paper dolls for our living room televisions.
He cleared his throat at my state, and I finally offered, "Yes. I'm an elementary education major, I hope to teach children someday."
"Kids?" He ran his fingers over the salt shaker near the table before quickly sanitizing them with a wipe from his pocket. "You must be awfully patient if you're wanting to work with kids."
I watched my hands turn red under the scalding water. It was easier than trying to meet his eyes. "They can't be much worse than a fry cook, can they?"
My manager Ed passed behind us, wiping at a grease spot on his apron. He didn't mention our small talk - he always put me out front because I was pretty and the men liked to talk to me. They ordered stay-a-while coffee mugs and left good tips, which kept me working there instead of the restaurant down the street. In those days it was hard to find women without box-dyed hair and cigarette-stained fingertips. As long as I wore lipstick and left my blouse unbuttoned at the top, it was enough. Anything for a few dollars. It was the American Dream, after all, applying what I was born with to make a living as meager as it was.
"You probably shouldn't waste your time chatting with me," he murmured, rubbing a hand over the rough stubble on his jaw. "I'll take four eggs over-easy, hash browns, sourdough toast. Coffee black."
"Coming right up," I promised him, jotting the order down with a cheap ballpoint pen. "Where you over in Vietnam?" He was too young, he had to be.
The expression he gave me in return was all I needed to stay clear of the topic. "Yes," he finally offered, an edge in his voice that wasn't quite there before. "I'm a Marine. I worked for the Embassy."
"That must've been interesting." It was a safe chose of words. Even the most gruesome points of history were interesting.
He actually chuckled at that, and coughed before responding. "That sums it up. You're better off right here, I'll tell you that right now."
"Thank you for your service," I offered as I filled a mug with the strong black coffee. "I appreciate your efforts for making this a safe place to live."
"Safe, my ass," he muttered into the mouth of the mug before he nursed at it for a while. "You got a boyfriend, Ellen? Some war hero you're waiting on?"
Even if I did have a boyfriend, we knew better than to say so. Those tips were meals lost, fewer days with a roof above your head. "No, Sir. I'm trying to focus on my studies?"
"What's the fun of wartime if you don't have a boy to root for?" His words had a cynical edge to them, something rotting deep within his spirit.
"I never thought that wartime was fun, Sir," was my careful response. "Did you ever go to college?" I was desperate to keep him happy, to keep him distracted from the trauma that earned him a free plate of eggs that morning.
He shook his head no, folding the menu up with a clap. "That was part of the reason for joining the Marines, darling. It's funny how little schooling matters when you come back from that horseshit, right?"
"You watch your mouth, young man," a grizzled customer muttered from down the line, bent over his own platter of eggs. "You're in the presence of a lady."
He just shook his head, sneering as he pointed out my cleavage with his fork. "You're better than this, lady. You don't need to do that. For what, a couple crumpled dollar bills? You don't have to do that, somebody'll come take care of you before you can bat your eyelashes at me one more time."
"You don't know me, Sir." I moved to refill the other man's cup, the pattering of my white tennis shoes the only sound in the nearly-empty room for a few moments. "That's quite presumptuous of you."
"Just give me my eggs and you'll have my tip," he spit through clenched teeth, fist wrapping around the fork to hide how his fingers shook. "I'll even pay you for the meal, I don't need your charity."
So that's what it was about? "It's not charity, it's a thank you for all that you've done for us over the last few years. It only comes around once, don't waste your chance. Your food's on us for today."
"Ah. Everything makes sense now." The twitch in his jaw said otherwise. "What do you do for fun, Ellen?"
I didn't know what sort of answer he wanted from me, so I tread lightly. "I spend quite a bit of my time studying and working, but I enjoy going out with my girlfriends, dancing or watching a baseball game, if one of their guys are playing. It's not so hard to find cheap fun."
"No one ever spends money on you, Ellen?" His piercing eyes hit mine again, and didn't leave them when I slid his plate in front of him. "Let me take you out. I promise I'll spend the whole night devoted to you."