by Diana Worden Karmin
Imagine you are traveling in a post-apocalyptic world on a nearly deserted Sayreville, New Jersey highway. You drive along, on the brink of exhaustion, desperately searching for even the tiniest morsel of food… good food. Miles pass. You finally happen upon a dreary-looking establishment on the roadside. Your car creaks over the too-high hump that was once the entrance to the parking lot and you try to discern which faded lines were once parking spots. No matter, there are scant few vehicles here anyway. You desperately hope the food is good… apocalypse or not, you still have standards.
You approach the front doors and note that they are lined with curled and faded lottery printouts proclaiming the meager winners of $75 or $100 from the scratch-off tickets sold inside. You enter, questioning whether this is actually an eatery or a convenience store… and then you are nearly overcome by the atmosphere of despair of the lost and hollowed souls inside. You soon realize… you have entered the Diner of the Damned.
Weak and weary, you obediently follow the hostess’ instructions to “walk this way” and submit to your seat assignment, awaiting a menu.
Strange… there are no smells of food. There is no noise, either… save the waitress slowly pushing an electric vacuum over and over the same spot on the worn carpet. She sees you, turns off the vacuum, and slowly delivers menus to your table. She then retreats to a post near the kitchen door, assumes a stance and stares, stone-faced. You leaf through the menu and notice a page is blank. You gather the courage to summon the waitress and question if there are pages that are missing. “Yes” is the reply.
Famished Survivor: “Do you have a breakfast menu?”
Zombie Waitress: “Yes. But we don’t give out that menu at this time of day.”
It was after 5 p.m… you know because the now dual-suns are setting.
Zombie Waitress: “But you can still order from the breakfast menu.”
Famished Survivor: “I would like to do that, but I do not have the nuclear-induced psychic powers of some of the others. Can I look at the breakfast menu instead?”
Zombie Waitress: “I’ll ask.”
In the still silent Peter Pank diner, two breakfast menus are brought to our table. “Thank you,” you manage to whisper.
You place an order for pumpkin pancakes and blueberry/banana pancakes, anticipating the enjoyment of a good meal after enduring hours of hunger. The waitress disappears behind swinging doors into the kitchen, which is also eerily soundless.
The deafening quiet is intermittently interrupted by alliteration, the whir of the electric vacuum, and the distant voices of the few slouched patrons seated on the far side of the diner. After what seems an eternity, the pancakes arrive. Your eagerness is shattered after the first forkful when you become painfully aware that the pumpkin pancakes are as bland and lifeless as the place itself, and the only taste to the blueberry/banana pancakes are the sour blueberries. At least the water is clear and cold. Cruelly, the water is the highlight of the meal.
At one point, Zombie Waitress approaches and sternly inquires: “Are you going to use that syrup?” “No,” you whimper, almost apologetically. Without another word, the syrup is immediately whisked away and spirited behind the swinging kitchen doors. Apparently, New England was wiped out in the cataclysm and maple syrup is being hoarded.
Hungry, tired, and despaired, you trudge past the half-stocked bar that reminds you of a rec-room in a 1960’s basement. You make your way to the cashier, and chillingly, you realize – you are one of the lucky ones…. the haunted looks of some of the patrons and the staff tell you not everyone escapes the Diner of the Damned.
You pay the meager bill… and then buy a lottery ticket with lofty dreams of rebuilding a devastated planet. Or, at the very least, opening your own New World diner.