Manford Cavender pointed a craggy finger at the small table in the corner of the diner.
“That’s where we sit,” he pronounced, his eyes charged with an energy and excitement that did not match anything else associated with him.
Claire looked over at him with a quizzical look. “Sir, that table is available, but we don’t like to seat anyone there unless we are full. The table is slightly broken.”
Manford held up a hand and waived off the remark. “We’ve been coming here for years, and that’s the table Grant and I prefer.” He paused then clucked his tongue. “Grant has to be comfortable when we are eating, and he has never complained about the condition of the table before.”
Manford looked over at Claire with his cleft chin and graying blond spill of wispy forelock hanging down from his forehead. The strands hid the energetic glint from his rinsed blue eyes.
“Trust me, my dear, Grant always defers to me with these decisions. We’ve been coming here to Splinters for years.”
Claire flashed an impish grin and looked over her shoulder, hoping Brody would come out from the kitchen and relieve her.
Claire felt Manford Cavender represented a symbol of the better days of Union, West Virginia and of Splinters Diner.
“Miss,” Manford announced, waving a cupped hand in front of her eyes. “Can I sit down at the back table now?”
Claire felt her sun-splashed cheeks burn with embarrassment at the question. “Of course, Mr. Cavender.” She nodded to table in the back. “Sit there. It’s fine.”
Manford walked with a heavy gait and his shoulders slightly slumped forward. He took a large step forward and then turned around on the balls of his feet.
He eyed Claire with a look of distrust and confusion. “I don’t recognize you. Are you new?”
“New to Splinters, but I’m from Union, originally. My dad was a logger for Buckeye Logging.” Claire found that the words came out with a hitch and her tongue felt thick and dry in her mouth upon mentioning her dad.
“Ah,” Manford retorted, “I did a lot of accounting work for them.” He looked over his shoulder at the swinging doors that lead to the kitchen, watching them waggle forward and backwards as a boy younger than Claire burst through.
“Those were some of the best days in Union. Buckeye Lumber employed a lot of people and then, like most of them out-of-state companies once the mountains had been cleared, they moved on. The men and their families be damned.”
A cold chill ran through Claire as she grinned and looked down at her feet, hoping the conversation would end soon.
Brody stood alongside Claire. He blinked, looking at Manford for a moment before turning back to her. “It’s done. I got the food for the dinner menu ready.”
Claire flicked a look at Brody and nodded. He was short and slim with dark hair, bangs, and a sunny smile. His alto voice was always pleasant and his mood remarkably buoyant.
“Brody, please take Mr. Cavender back to his seat.”
Mandford tapped his foot with impatience, and he studied Brody with same precision that she experienced a few moments ago. Manford wagged a finger at Brody.
“Now you I know,” he remarked assuredly. “The cook.”
Before he could say anything, Manford cut him off. “Grant will be pleased. We both like consistency.”
Brody closed his eyes for a moment and pressed his lips into a thin line. When he reopened them, Manford was walking gingerly back to the table in the corner.
“Always good to see you, as well, Mr. Cavender. And Grant.” As Brody moved forward, he looked over his shoulder and called back to Claire. “By the way, I am not waiting on him.”
Manford moved with a gnarly limp back to the table. He wore dark brown button-down shirt and tan slacks and tennis shoes. He hobbled back into the corner of the diner and collapsed into a chair behind the broken table. The collision pushed the back arch of the chair into the wall, which thudded against the soft sheetrock covered with faded cream-colored wallpaper.
The wall shook slightly under the impact. Manford’s midsection threatened the buttons of his shirt as he sat up straight. A lucid, yellowless, early evening West Virginia sunlight shined through the crease between the window curtains. Manford peered across a blank expanse of laminate table, punctuated only by two sweaty glasses of water that didn’t spill despite all the movement.
Manford smacked his lips as his eyes searched the table. He lifted his look up to a trailing Brody. “We need two sets of silverware and two menus, please.”
Brody stopped near the side of the table and looked over his shoulder at Claire, who must have sensed his request.
She burst through the kitchen doors and traipsed across the room with two menus and silverware.
A strangled smile creased her face as she set a menu on each side of the table, along with silverware wrapped inside a knotted napkin placed on the right edge of the menu.
Manford stared at the blank seat across from him and smiled. His teeth were tanned a chestnut gradient.
“Give us just a few minutes,” he said, speaking into the empty expanse. “Grant will have his usual dinner, but I am thinking about having something different tonight.”
Brody gave a slight head nod and retreated back across the diner with Claire trailing after him.
Before he could disappear into the kitchen again, Claire grabbed his arm.
Brody spun around directly into the middle of question.
“What’s going on?”
He made a face. “What do you mean?”
Claire turned around and chinned at the corner table.
Manford flipped through a menu he’d probably reviewed hundreds of times before. He pointed twice at the menu and looked up, mouthing something to the empty chair in front of him.
“What’s the deal with the old man. Who is Grant? There is nobody here but us and him.”
Brody stood on his tip toes and could see Manford had pressed the menu close to his nose.
“Manford Cavendar is one of the most influential men in Union and in Monroe County.”
Claire shrugged. “So?”
“And one of the richest.”
Claire crossed her arms and cocked her head. “Union still has lots of rich people.”
“Had,” Brody added. “A lot of them are dead or they’ve been moved to those fancy nursing homes in Florida by their kids who can afford to put them there to forget about them.”
Claire knew, having grown up in Union, the diner became a symbol of decay and abandonment. Splinters now resembled the slow decay that mirrored the mountainsides of Union and Monroe County.
Brody looked over Claire’s shoulder.
She followed his gaze, and both saw that Manford had closed the menu. He ran a hand over his shirt, trying to smooth away the wrinkles.
Claire whipped her head around and settled a hard look on Brody. “That still doesn’t explain why he’s talking to an empty chair as if someone is sitting there.”
“That’s because they are.”
Claire furrowed her brow. “Now you sound as crazy as he does.”
Brody touched her arm and leaned forward, speaking barely above a whisper. “Grant was Manford’s boyfriend. They were together for over thirty years.” His eyes were focused, lips tight, and his whole expression momentarily solid.
“Grant died from a massive heart attack last year. It was unexpected.” Brody spoke with an aura of authority that Claire found interesting. “He hadn’t been sick. It was sudden and unexpected. Both of them came into the diner every Friday night, dressed like they were out in the big city. I don’t mean Charleston. They always grabbed the attention of everyone when they came in.”
Claire felt a jolt hit right in the pit of her stomach. She was aware of the problems being gay in Appalachia posed for both the people learning about who they truly were and the people who associated with anyone who was gay.
She remembered all the jokes that were made about homosexuality growing up in Union. A game played at recess in elementary school called “Smear the Queer” was frequently played, and the class took great joy in singling out one of the more shy, awkward students in the class as the queer. When she was in high school, she remembers many of her friends using the phrase “that’s so gay” to shame or demean someone or something. While other friends pronounced they were not homophobic, they didn’t like gay people.
When Brody stopped talking for a moment, Claire snapped her mind back into the moment. She noticed the suddenly quiet atmosphere around her in the diner. It made everyone’s mood more noticeable.
“So just play along and indulge him,” Brody pleaded. “He will eat his dinner and leave an untouched plate of food across from him. Then, with any luck, he will leave soon.” Brody let out a long breath. “He tips good, though.”
Claire wanted to suggest someone ask Manford to seek professional help, but Brody stuck a notepad and pencil into the fluffed part of her apron. “He’s probably ready to order.”
Brody held a look with Claire for a moment before disappearing through the swinging doors into the kitchen.
Claire ran her hands over her apron, smoothing out the wrinkles. The apron was a pewter grey, which stood in stark contrast to the dark brown shirt and tan slacks she was wearing.
Claire moved across the diner again. Splinters was not the diner Claire remembered while growing up, but neither was Union or Monroe County.
Manford stared at Claire brightly as she came over to the table.
In a nervous gesture, Claire licked the tip of her pencil and tapped it against the notepad. “Mr. Cavendar, can I take the order for the table?”
“Indeed,” he said, sitting back into the chair. It wobbled to the left as it absorbed his weight.
“I will have the cheeseburger with two pieces of bacon, no tomato, and mayonnaise and mustard on the side. And I’d like a side of onion rings and a vanilla milkshake. Grant will have two hot dogs with all of the toppings, but no onions. No onion rings for him, but he would like a chocolate milkshake.”
Claire scribbled down the instructions. She wanted to make sure the order was filled correctly.
She glanced over at the empty chair. “Grant is looking very handsome tonight.”
Manford pressed his lips together into a jocular grin. “He always does.”
He reached out and placed his fingers over her arm. “Grant doesn’t take
compliments well.” He squinted, and the grin turned into an ugly smile. “Just keep that in mind for the next time.”
Instead of feeling softer and more delicate at hearing his words, Claire’s brain felt tied up in knots. She bunched her right hand into a fist, the nails biting into her palm. The whole situation was ridiculous.
“I’ll get that put in. It shouldn’t be too long.”
Claire turned to leave, but Manford stopped her. “What’s your story?” he quipped.
Claire slowly turned around again to face the table. “Excuse me?”
“I mean, a pretty girl like you who is obviously smart and capable is working in a run-down diner in a depressed old logging town. Something doesn’t seem to add up.”
His questions made Claire think about all her past and current problems that were in front of her. They all seemed overwhelming.
“Forgive me, miss…”
“Claire, Claire Lyvers.”
“Well, Miss Lyvers, forgive me if I am intruding, but I’ve been watching you move around this diner and interact with young Brody over there. I sense the reason of doing this is because you have to, but not because you want to.”
“Please, call me Claire, Mr. Cavendar.”
“And me Manford.”
He looked at Claire with his eyes focused, lips tight, and his whole expression momentarily solid. Claire felt Manford was waiting for an explanation. Looking at him, the table, the empty chair, the state of the diner, and thinking about getting the food order turned in suddenly overwhelmed Claire. She saw a jumble of things rather than discrete areas that can be easily handled one by one.
“I graduated from Marshall, and I worked for a big public relations firm in Roanoke, Virginia. It was my dream job. Then, that ended after a year.”
Manford interlocked his spindly fingers together. “Because of a boy.”
Claire looked confused. “Which boy?”
Manford nodded. “Exactly my point. It didn’t work out in Roanoke because of the boy, not the job.”
Claire felt her face flush. Her auburn hair had been curled into soft waves and pulled back into a ponytail. She tugged one of the curls loose from the band and twirled it in her finger.
“It’s a long story, and I don’t really have the time to get into it.”
“My dear, I’ve lived here in Union my whole life.” Manford leaned back and sucked in a deep breath, extending his chest as he cast a long look around the diner.
“I worked for Buckeye Lumber my entire life, keeping the books for them.” He waived a hand back and forth in the open space. “I’ve seen a lot of people come and leave Union. The number one reason people left a good-paying job is not because of the work, but the location where that work took place.”
Claire made a face.
Manford leaned over the table toward her. “When the wives of these men hated living in Union, and if the kids cried about it long enough, the men caved in and left.” He cocked his head to the side. “It’s a shame. For some of the men who had little education, it was the best job they’d ever had.”
Manford paused and looked at the empty chair again. “But family is family, and love triumphs over everything. Did he make you choose?”
Claire shook her head. “Make me choose?”
“Between him and the job?”
“I really need to get back to work,” Claire said, the pitch of her voice high and nervous.
He cleared his throat, his eyes rimmed with tears. “There might come a time when it’s too late to share any of it with him.”
A moment passed between them. The silence pooled. Then, it was broken by the door to the diner being flung open.
A young man with blond hair the color of straw came into the diner and looked around. He clasped his hands together, each one with the bony elegance of cats. As he made eye contact with Claire, he hid his fists in the pockets of his jeans. His hair was long, feathered with grease, and it hung past his ears. His bony shoulders resembled those of a child’s, and the sneakers he wore were blown open and the soles were starting to separate at the toes.
Claire walked over but took a long stride around him. “Ricky isn’t here. Haven’t seen him in over a week.” She put a hand on the surface of the kitchen door. It was cool to the touch and slick with grease.
“Got any work for me today?”
Claire regarded the boy for a moment. His eyes were red-veined and glassy.
“I don’t think so, Jack, but ask Brody.”
Upon hearing that, Jack began to rock nervously on his feet. He looked down at the floor, a wisp of hair hanging over his nose.
“My Dad and I had another fight, and I…I don’t know if I can go home.”
Brody came through the other kitchen door, casting a quick look at Claire and ignoring Jack. Brody carried a large cheeseburger and onion rings on one plate and a hot dog on the other.
Claire seemed confused. “Is that for Mr. Cavendar?”
“Of course,” he said breathlessly. “He orders the same thing every week for him and Grant. I’ve got their order memorized.”
Aggravated, Claire stuffed the notepad and pencil into her pocket with frustration.
Brody came back and charged through the small space between Claire and Jack.
“I don’t have anything tonight, Jack.” Brody stopped and wiped the sweat from his forehead with a forearm. “It’s been pretty slow today.”
Jack looked defeated. “Please, Brody. I really need the money.”
“Have you eaten anything?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Brody and Claire both looked at Jack. The crinkles in the concern shown in his eyes and the creases in his face suggested someone older and more haggard than this age. His face was normally sardonic, but there was still kindness in it.
“I need to clean up the grill and straighten up. Tomorrow is Saturday, and it’s Bridge Day at the gorge. I know we will be busy tomorrow and I can use the help then.”
Jack folded his arms and dropped his head. The rose-petal tint to his skin dulled to an ashen grey.
Claire tossed her glance and across the room and saw Manford wasn’t at the table. She stepped forward. Manford’s plate was empty, but the plate that would’ve been for Grant was untouched.
Claire looked back at Jack and smiled tightly. “I need to check on Brody,” she mumbled, pushing open the door to the kitchen.
Inside, she found Brody leaned into the dry storage area. It was located next to the main kitchen area. It was dry, dark, and cold. Food was kept in the dry area inside its original packaging, assorted on the shelves, and housed in a mix of wooden crates or in closed closets.
“Is Jack gone?” he asked, removing some a package of flour.
“Nope. I think he’s hoping you’ll change his mind.”
Brody scoffed. He set the flour down on the food prep table and then walked over to the freezer, pushing against the handle to make sure it locked tight.
“I feel sorry for the kid,” he said. “His dad is a drunk and, the more he drinks, the harder he hits Jack.”
Claire shivered at the thought. “I know he comes in here a lot.”
Brody looked over at her and shook his head. “Every day. He’s in here every day. He lives at the end of Pyne Street, so it’s just a couple of blocks to Splinters from there. He cuts through Green Hill Cemetery to get here.”
Claire nodded somberly. “My grandparents are buried in Green Hill.”
Brody walked back to the table and turned his attention to the flour. “I made this mistake of offering Jack some work last year during Bridge Day weekend. We were slammed, and I needed someone to take out the trash, clean and stock the bathrooms, stuff like that.”
Claire smirked. “Famous last words?”
“Yeah. Now, he comes in nearly every day wanting to know if there is anything he can do. I think he just wants somewhere to go so he doesn’t have to be at home.”
A loan moan emerged from the dining room then a voice shouting. “Get up! Get up, right now!”
Brody and Claire exchanged glances and then burst through the swinging doors from the kitchen.
Across the room and in the corner, they found Jack leaned over a plate of food and Manford pointing at him like he’d just broken the law.
“That’s not yours!”
Jack leaned back, his posture stiff and held up his hands. “Sorry. I thought this was leftovers.”
Brody and Claire sprinted over.
“Does a perfectly decorated hotdog that still has steam coming off of it look like leftovers?” Manford’s voice had changed to something small, but tense, carrying a threat of excitability, as if something was coiled and ready to spring.
“Get up!” Manford turned and gave a pleading look in their direction. “Ask this boy to get up!”
Brody cupped a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Let’s go.”
Jack looked up; his eyes had the middle-distance squint of someone lost in abstraction. “Look, the place was empty except for this plate of food. It looked like nobody had touched it.”
Claire closed her eyes and took in a breath. She watched as Brody titled back his head and rolled his eyes.
“Why didn’t you ask first?” Claire asked.
Jack’s set his jaw. “Because both of you left me standing up front like an asshole.”
Claire let out her clenched breath.
Manford looked over at Claire and pointed.
“He’s right,” Manford pronounced with a hard edge. “Claire oversaw this table and she left. Now, look what happened!”
Claire frowned, focusing on the webbing of red veins around Manford’s nose. “Don’t blame me. I looked over here a few minutes ago and there was nobody sitting at this table.”
“Grant was sitting here.”
Claire felt something well up inside of her that was pressing and hard. “The chair is empty. Grant isn’t sitting there. Nobody is sitting there. Grant is dead.”
The last words echoed throughout the dinner.
Jack pushed back the chair and stood up. “Who’s Grant?”
Brody shot Jack a stern look. “Don’t worry about it.”
Manford’s face became blank, and he sat down his chair, leaning over the edge. He sat there tying and untying his fingers. Claire had stated an uncomfortable truth, and she could tell he wasn’t any more comfortable with it being said than any of the rest of them were.
Jack shoved Brody in chest. “Don’t get pissed at me about this food,” he said, anger flickering in his eyes. “You asked me if I was hungry. I wasn’t at first, but then I was. I figured it was okay to eat.”
“The food wasn’t yours to eat,” Manford said, his voice icy and full of conviction.
“Shut up, old man.” He looked down at Manford, still working his hands. “Where’s your plate of food? You got to out to eat just to watch other people do it?”
Manford slowly lifted one of his craggy fingers. “It’s over there. At the table closest to the kitchen. I didn’t want Claire to have to run back and forth too much making a fuss over us.”
Claire felt the swell of resentment subside at his remark. Manford Cavendar puzzled her.
Brody put his hands on Jack’s shoulders. “I think we’re done here.” He pulled back until Jack was spun around, facing the door.
“Manford, I will be sure and make another hot dog, and the meal is on me.”
As Brody shoved Jack away, Manford slowly stood up.
Everyone stopped and turned to face him.
“I want Jack to sit down and for us to be alone,” Manford said.
Claire and Brody exchanged looks with each other again.
She spoke first. “I don’t understand. I thought that you were mad at us.”
Manford flashed her a fiercely intelligent gaze, his posture tense.
“I want Jack to join me for dinner and the two of you to go away.” His face crinkled gently at the edges; it felt like he was extending an invitation and making a dare at the same time.
Jack’s face froze.
Manford smiled tightly and looked over at Brody and Claire.
“And before anyone refuses, I’d like to remind everyone that Monroe County Sherriff Dale Bailey is a friend of mine. What this young man here did at the least was theft because he had no intention of paying for his food…”
Jack piped in. “Huh? That ain’t true.”
“…and at the worst,” Manford continued without missing a beat. “He has been trespassing on private property. He was told earlier that whatever he wanted was not available and he should have left and not been a pest.”
The scene unfolding in front of Claire was dissolving, but everything seemed slow and warbled. She couldn’t speak; words had left her.
“Fine!” Jack said, kicking back the chair and standing up. “I’m leaving. This place blows, anyway, and the food sucks.”
Brody took offense.
Claire’s eyes surveyed the group again.
Manford rubbed his head in his hands and gave a sharp groan. He looked up over heavily lidded eyes. The blue hues of his eyes sharpened, and his mouth twisted. To Claire, it resembled an animal getting ready to attack its prey.
“I said sit down, young man!”
His voice was filled with scorn. Brody looked over at Manford, avoiding eye contact with Jack. Brody seemed gut-punched while Claire fought back the irritation to scream at all of them for showing the petulance of spoiled children.
Jack, his mouth agape, stood at the table and thought about Manford’s demand for a moment. “Fuck it. I’ll eat with you, old man.”
Manford ran his hand down his face and stretched his eyes, trying to will his wits about him.
“Show some respect, son, or I’ll make sure this is the last restaurant meal you’ll ever eat.”
The veiled threat and Manford’s voice, which had changed from annoyed back to his southern Appalachian accent, made the tone of the threat comedic. Claire held back a laugh.
“What do you want to eat?”
Jack hadn’t been listening. “Huh. What?”
“Food, young man. Order something. It’s my treat.”
Jack scratched his head and made a face. “Fine. A cheeseburger with everything and fries.”
“Coming right up,” Brody replied. He pulled Claire by the arm and led her away from the table.
“What are you doing?” she asked in protest, the toe of her shoe getting caught in a small hole created by a missing piece of tile in the floor.
Brody released his grip and marched into the kitchen.
When he came back, he held a square plastic tray full of water and soap. The foamy bubbles arched over the surface of the water like a protective arch.
“Clean up the tables around them and pay attention to what’s going on.” Brody looked at the back corner of the restaurant, his eyes filled with concern. “Manford has never eaten here with anyone since Grant died. I want to make sure Jack is okay.”
As he did earlier, Brody shoved the square bucket of water at Claire and then disappeared.
Claire slowly walked back to where Manford and Jack were sitting.
Manford cut her a sharp look as she approached but didn’t say anything.
Jack had leaned back into his chair with his arms folded. A look of scorn crossed his face as he pursed his lips.
Manford took a sip of his nearly filled water glass. A drop of water fell onto his chin. “I beg your pardon?”
Jack ran his hand down his face and stretched his eyes, trying to will his wits about him.
Claire swirled the soapy rag onto the empty table next to them, awaiting the next move.
“Come on, don’t play with me. You told Claire earlier that Grant was sitting here.” Jack looked over his shoulder and around the restaurant. “It’s just the four of us here.”
Manford cleared his throat. “Grant was someone very special.”
Jack squinted, twisting his mouth. “Was?”
Manford arched an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“You said was, like, in the past. That means that Grant isn’t here.”
Claire leaned closer.
“No, I guess he’s not,” Manford said, his voice almost catching as his strongly lined mouth became fixed in an expression of moodiness and reserve.
“And it makes you sad,” Jack concluded. “He meant a lot to you.”
“Yes. Yes, he was very special.” Manford paused.
Claire stood up and walked over to the other side of the table. She sat in the chair facing Manford, studying him carefully.
“Isn’t there someone special in your life? There must be since you know how I feel.”
Jack shrugged. “Just my dad and I. I don’t have any brothers and sisters. My mom left when I was four. Dad says she lives out in Arizona someplace, but I don’t talk to her.”
Manford winced. “That’s terrible. I’m sorry to hear that.”
Some of the air left Jack. “It’s okay.”
“My mother was a wonderful person. She was a nurse in North Carolina.”
Jack perked up a bit. “Really? North Carolina?”
“Yes. We grew up in Greenville, on the other side of the county here. My granddaddy was a farmer. My father wanted to leave so, when I was of age, he moved us to Charlotte. He was a pilot for Piedmont Airlines. He flew people on planes into Charleston all of the time.”
Claire looked over to Jack, who was enraptured.
“That’s so fucking awesome,” he said, eyes wide with amazement. “I’ve never been out of West Virginia, much less in an airplane.”
The doors to kitchen swung open again, and Brody scissored his way across the diner. He sat down a stacked cheeseburger and hot, crispy fries in front of Jack.
Jack looked down, his tongue lolling in between his lips.
When Manford looked up, Brody reached down with a cup of hot, black coffee for Manford and a can of Mountain Dew for Jack.
Claire looked over at them and smiled. Perhaps all Manford and Jack needed was a new friend. She hoped they would find that with each other as they bonded over their meal.
Manford’s gaze lowered until he stared at the table in front of him. His face paled for a moment.
“This is the first time in many years that someone other than Grant has sat at this table.” For a moment, his face paled before he gave a curt nod. Manford looked up expectantly and grinned.
Brody pulled up a chair and sat down beside him. The four of them were now alone in the diner. Claire knew that for at least tonight, each of them would be with someone else.
Eliot Parker is the author of the short story collection SNAPSHOTS, which won the 2020 PenCraft Literary Award and the 2021 Feathered Quill Book Award for Short Story Anthology. His thriller novel, A Knife’s Edge, was an Amazon #1 bestseller. Eliot has received the West Virginia Literary Merit Award for his works and has also been a finalist for the Southern Book Prize in Thriller Writing in 2017 for his novel Fragile Brilliance. He hosts the podcast program, Now Appalachia, which profiles authors, editors, and publishers in the Appalachian region. Eliot teaches writing that the University of Mississippi. Visit his website at http://www.eliotparker.com on Instagram at eliot.parker and on Twitter at @E4419.