"The only real difference between laughin' and havin' a cherry coke is that laughter don't make your teeth rot out of your fuckin' skull. That's why you shouldn't never drink soda, or miss a chance to chuckle at a bad joke."
She always talked like that: a series of odd fortune cookie prophecies sprinkled with irony and foul language. And she laughed at her own jokes, low and throaty and sometimes through her nose, exhaling cigarette smoke between chortles. When she grew older, she'd probably finish that laughter with coughing fits, what with the three packs a day she she took in at the diner. We've all gotta die sometime, right?
Two weeks after we met I'd taken up chain smoking, cursing, and ending my conversations with "take it easy" or "y'all come back now." My ankles were swollen so fat by 4 a.m. that I looked like an elephant in Nikes. Joanie called everyone "hon" and "babe" and "sugar" and she said if I wanted the kind of tips she got, I'd do it, too. Only I wasn't ever allowed to steal hers, so I came up with "sweety," "darlin'," and "toots." I may have looked like an elephant but I felt like Sammy Davis, Jr. working a nightclub.
Joanie's is a little place off Route 9 between Here and Nowhere. The three years I worked late nights there was the happiest time of my life. I think truckers are the last American cowboys. They never forget their manners and they always tip real nice and they're just trying to do the best they can for their families back in whatever small town they call home. Say what you like about how the road must be lonely; all's I know is that truck stop was more family than I done ever had before or since.
I had two farmer blue uniforms and a bright yellow nametag that said "Dot." I don't know who the original Dot was, but Joanie said she wasn't about to waste money on getting me a new tag and besides, her name was Mabeline and wasn't nobody the wiser. She taught me how to order "moo juice" and "whistle stops" and showed me how much fun life could be if you took pride in your work.
Joanie's was the kind of greasy spoon that had meatloaf every Tuesday night whether you wanted catfish or not. Sometimes tourists would come in off the highway and take up one of the old, patchwork booths near a window. They would smile at us like we were animals on display at the zoo and giggle to each other in that condescending way city folk seem to just love. If they looked like they weren't gonna leave a tip, Joanie would spit in their eggs or have the truckers get at 'em on the road.
When I left it was only because I'd finally saved up enough for college. My last shift all the boys came in and Joanie gave me a going away present (a brand new graphing calculator and a picture of us from last Christmas Eve). I promised to write when they pushed me out an hour and a half before my shift was over. I remember I'd bundled up and still felt a chill that morning. It was sometime after Valentine's Day and driving home I'd never felt so lonely.
Joanie's seemed like a million miles away. Here I was, working on my master's degree in marketing and had all but forgotten about soaking my feet in Epsom salts or how Big Hank liked his eggs runny. When they called me to tell me Joanie was sick I caught the next train home, her picture huddled next to me in the big, empty seat.
By the time I'd gotten there it was too late. Joanie signed some stupid form saying she wanted to die when it was time. The nurse said I missed her by an hour. An hour. I cried not because she was dead but because an hour is such a small amount of time that goes by so slowly. I wanted to walk out and start over, have her wake up and get the call and replay everything to get there in time. I imagined myself screaming at the conductor to drive faster. But you can't uncook a goddamned turkey, or so Joanie would've said. I sat in her hospital room until the cleaners came. Why hadn't she told me sooner?
The next morning I visited the diner for the first time since I'd gone away. It still smelled of home cookin' and strong coffee, but there wasn't any music playing or dishes rattling or truckers telling cock-and-bull. I walked behind the counter, twenty pairs of eyes tracking me, and reached up for an apron. Tied it--double knotted bow the way Joanie did--and reached for a pot of coffee and a cigarette. I felt incredibly tired and realized why she'd kept her death a secret.
On the counter was a bright yellow name tag with my name on it.