You can write, I tell him. He talks about inspiration, and I tell him that stories ask to be written everywhere you go. Sometimes they mix with memories and experiences. The waitress pours us both another cup of coffee. She has the same colour hair as me and is about the same size as me.
The rain is heavy outside the window of our booth, and we notice an old, big car in the parking lot. He asks if that car has a story. We look at the convertible, red lines and curves. It looks like it belongs in Florida, not in New Jersey, outside our diner, getting wet. I say the driver probably has a story, but the car is just a thing in his story, just like the diner and the rain and booth are in ours. He smiles. I watch him walk to the rest room. I look around the diner, and I see my reflection in the little jukebox on our table. My face looks long and strange in the polished chrome.
The entry bell in the diner goes, and a man sits down. He looks homeless, or mad, perhaps. I watch him as he gets a little tupperware bowl out of his coat pocket and takes the lid off. It is full of bright red jello, cut up into small pieces. The waitress sees it and ignores it. She knows him, I think. A regular, perhaps.
I imagine ‘Hushabye Mountain’ from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the man singing it to a very sick child at a hospital bed, the child in and out of sleep. And all the child can eat is jello until she is better. But maybe she doesn’t get better. And afterwards, into his old age, the man does his best to remember, every Sunday, with his little bowl of jello, Hushabye Mountain on repeat in his head. His ritual. I think of the tones and notes and lyrics of ‘Hushabye Mountain’, and it is all I can do to stop crying.
I remember eating jello when I was small and in hospital, something called double pneumonia trying to get me like a monster, and fever dreams of things crawling up the walls. I remember my dog welcoming me home when I was better, and how the house was the same except my parents had redecorated my room with My Little Pony wallpaper.
I don’t notice him return and sit down, but I do notice the man leaving the diner. I watch him get into the convertible and drive off.
“Do you know the same guy who wrote James Bond wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?” I ask him. “Ian Fleming? No, but I loved that movie” he says. I keep to myself how Roald Dahl wrote the screenplay from Fleming’s book. I don’t know why I keep it to myself.
We pay the bill and I am pleased by the sound of the umbrella opening as we get outside, and even more by the sound of the rain on our little mobile roof as we walk to the hire car.
I look back at the diner, coats and umbrellas walking in and out of the door, cars hissing by on the soaked freeway next to it. I think about taking a photo, but I’m confused about what I want to remember about what I can see, so I take a long look instead.
In the car, I hum ‘Hushabye Mountain’ for a while, and fall asleep. I wake somewhere near Canada.