From Searching Civilization
Kelli stood at the counter waiting for Earl. “What's the deal, Earl? Are you making Andy's orders first?”
“No.” He grinned. “Yours are coming right out.”
“I’m going to tell Mr. Henkel you’re favoring Andy’s orders,” Kelli said.
Earl flipped a burger and squeezed out the grease with the spatula. “What’s the big deal? Instead of tending to your customers, you’re here bothering me. It’s not like you’re missing out on any tips.”
Kelli rolled her eyes and strolled down the counter to a group of bikers in heavy leather. “Sorry about the wait guys. Cook’s fucking the other waitress and making her orders first.”
A furry-faced biker eyed Andy saunter across the dining room and deliver a meal to a mild-mannered couple. “Well, that’s not right. You should say something to the manager.”
“Doesn’t matter. He does what he wants anyway. He’ll just make up some shit story, like her food was faster to cook because he already had burgers on the grill, or my order takes longer to prepare. Blah, blah, blah. He’s the type who always has an answer for everything.” She smiled at the bikers. “Can I get you guys another beer?”
“Might as well,” the other said. “If we’re going to be here.”
Overhearing the conversation between Kelli and the bikers brought a grin to Andy’s face. She knew Earl was favoring her and loved it. She rested the plates on a patron’s table. “Here you go folks. Enjoy.”
A smiling woman gazed up at Andy. “My, that was fast.”
“Cook’s a speed demon on the grill. He used to be a fighter pilot in Vietnam,” Andy said.
The woman’s husband lifted the bun and observed the neatly stacked hamburger—lettuce, tomato and pickles all arranged with perfection. “He must be military. You must thank him for his service, for the war and the burger.”
“I will. Can I get you anything else?’ Andy asked.
“No, all’s good,” the woman replied.
As Andy made her way back to the counter, she noticed a shaggy-haired man wearing a tattered camouflage jacket and torn jeans enter. After dating Earl for almost a year, she’d learned to recognize veterans instantly. The once clean-cut boys returned from war haggard and disheveled. If they didn’t wear it on their physical appearance, it was easily detectable in their eyes. These Vietnam veterans didn’t even have to be stoned to appear lost; they just were—all the time. All were searching for a part of themselves they had lost in the jungle.
The veteran slumped over the counter and stared at the menu, pushing it back and forth with his finger. He glanced around to see if anyone was watching, and then inconspicuously lit a joint.
Kelli spied the veteran. “Hey, man, you can’t light up in here.”
“Fuck off bitch, I can do what I want,” the veteran muttered.
“Hey pig!” the biker yelled. “You heard the lady!”
The veteran turned toward the bikers and waved them off. “Go to hell, losers.”
The group of bikers moved from their seats and approached the veteran. “What’d you lose all your manners when you were in Nam? The lady said no.”
“Grow up fuckers. Until you’ve been through what I have, you have no fucking right to talk to me,” the veteran spat.
The bikers crowded around the veteran. One grabbed his collar and lifted him nearly to his toes while the other punched him in the belly. The veteran gasped, but made no call for help. Everyone in the diner froze not knowing how to respond. Andy waited at a safe distance with her customers. Kelli rushed to the back to fetch their manager, Mr. Henkel. Any false move would make a hairy situation downright dangerous.
The punches and the insults flew into a bloody mess in the middle of the restaurant until the veteran pulled out a pistol and aimed it at the bikers. “I told you fuckers to back off!” He stepped back and waved it at everyone in the restaurant. “Anyone have anything else to say?”
“Hey man, just chill out!” the biker exclaimed.
Earl flew out of the kitchen and into the middle of the confrontation.
“Earl!” Andy yelled. “Stay out of this!”
He ignored her and interjected himself into the fray. “Come outside with me,” Earl said to the veteran.
“I’m not leaving.” The veteran waved his pistol at the bikers. “If anyone should leave it’s these useless fuckers.”
Earl looked the veteran in the eye. “Come on motherfucker, I just want to talk to you.”
From the expression in Earl’s eyes, the veteran recognized him as a fellow soldier. “Alright, brother. I’ll talk to you.”
The veteran returned his pistol to his pocket. Earl wrapped his arm around the veteran’s shoulder and escorted him outside. He turned to face the veteran and shared the same secret pains. “Where were you stationed?”
“Ho Chi Minh City,” the veteran replied.
“Ah, man, what a shit storm that must have been,” Earl said.
“City wasn’t so bad. It was the jungle, man. Charlie hid in those bushes like wild animals. Never knew when one would pop up and snipe me,” he said. “Saw one pop up right before my eyes. I looked into his eyes, sure enough they were yellow, almost the color of his skin. Once I saw the white light from his gun, I knew I was a goner until Billy Joe stood up in front of me. Poor guy took about six in the back that were supposed to be for me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it or Billy Joe.” He studied Earl in his white yet stained cook’s attire and fishnet cap. “What about you?”
“Air Force. Da Nang.” He shrugged. “I made it out. My crew wasn’t so lucky.”
The veteran folded his arms and stared at the gravel. “Always seems to be that way—those who died and the rest of us who have to remember their story.” He shifted his attention to the diner window where everyone was watching him and Earl. “A story no one wants to hear. They just want us to come home and live our lives their way, but they don’t get it.”
Earl gazed at the diner and noticed Andy waiting and watching nervously. Her expressed concern was beautiful. He smiled and said, “But there are those who try to understand. They want to understand. I understand.”
The veteran fell forward onto Earl and sobbed on his shoulder.
“It’s okay man. I get it,” Earl replied patting him on the back.
“Asshole’s just don’t understand. They just don’t understand what we’ve seen. I can’t. I can’t seem to—,” the veteran cried.
“I know,” Earl said and guided the veteran back inside the restaurant.
“I don’t want to go back in. I don’t want them to see I’m a coward,” the veteran said.
“No one inside thinks you’re a coward. I don’t think you’re a coward,” Earl replied.
Once back inside the restaurant, Earl sat him at the counter. “I’ll make you my specialty—double bacon, barbecue burger with a touch of hot sauce. It’s a killer burger.” Earl said making his way back behind the grill.
Andy didn’t even ask. She went the refrigerator, pulled out a beer for the veteran and set it before him. “It’s on me.” She gave the veteran a warm smile. “Thank you.”