After the pastor who ran the church died, a local couple bought it and renovated it into a 24-hour diner. They took the crucified Christ down and hung a large reprint of Munch’s Madonna. Under the painting is where the counter was built. The two small rooms to either side were converted into kitchens. The pews were all taken out and replaced with picnic tables. The couple added booths to the walls on either side of the church’s main room.
I started coming here over the summer. While driving home from a party one night, I got a craving for a burger. I pulled into the old church’s parking lot to turn around and go back to town when I noticed a sign above the doors advertising tuna melts for $3.99 on Tuesdays. I decided to check it out, and I’ve been coming almost every night since then.
During the day, you can see wooden boxes all around the church. Underneath the boxes is where the stained glass windows are. Inside the boxes are floodlights. After the sun goes down, the owners turn the lights on. Aside from a few lamps scattered around inside, there is no other light except for a dim spotlight pointed towards the painting.
The first night I was there, I went down the aisle to the counter and waited for someone to come out from the kitchen. The menu was written on a blackboard behind the counter. They never have any dishes all that special, your standard affair. While waiting, I looked up at the painting and started to stare. It’s an odd choice of artwork for a diner. The image doesn’t exactly inspire hunger. It didn’t take long for a woman to come out of the kitchen. She was in her sixties and wearing an apron and a hairnet.
“What can I get for you, Sugar?”
“Burger?” I said it that way you do when you’re somewhere new and not sure what they have.
“How you want it?” She had a weak smile on her. Genuine happy-like.
“Medium-well. No tomato.”
“Be ready in ‘bout fifteen minutes, Honey. Want anything to drink?” She wrote it up on a ticket without taking her eyes off me.
“Pepsi?” Again, more a question than a request.
“Go ahead and grab a bottle from the ‘fridge,” she said, pointing to a small refrigerator leaning against the wall. “That’ll be five fifty. No credit cards or checks.” I handed her a five and two quarters and she told me to have a seat wherever I found one.
Nicole was a punk rock chick in the mid-`90s. In the summer of 1999, when she was nineteen, she decided to give up her punk rock ideals. “Raging against the machine sounds good,” she tells new friends, “but doesn’t mean a whole lot when you’re just waiting in line at McDonald’s.” She’d just finished her teaching degree the summer I met her. She decided to help her parents with their green house before finding a teaching job. She stops by the diner every night for a steak salad and glass of red wine and still dyes strips of her hair bright blue.
In the front of the diner, on each side of the doors, are confession booths. It seemed like an odd thing to leave in, so I went to check them out. The door where the priest would sit was locked, but the other doors were open. Inside were slips of paper and a few pens. It was set up so you could write a confession on a slip of paper and slip it into the booth behind the locked door. There was a laminated sign taped to the wall inside saying you could leave your name off. On the first of each month, the owners take all the confessions and stick them to a wall in the diner. If there was a name on the confession, they’d cut it off. There are more than a hundred stuck to the walls of the church.
Dan was one of the diner’s first patrons. He walked in one Sunday morning, not knowing the church was now a diner. He was only in town visiting friends and meant to go to church. The owners told him he was more than welcome to kneel at a table and pray to the sketched Madonna. He did. He comes in every Sunday to pray, then stays for the day. He wears an old Army jacket every time he comes in. If you ask if he was in the service he’ll ignore you. But he still keeps his hair short and never slouches.
When my burger was ready, the woman brought the burger right over to me. She sat it down in front of me and waited. I thought she maybe wanted a tip, so I started to reach for my pocket.
“No, no. I want to know how it is,” she said, still smiling.
“Oh.” I took a bite, chewed, and stopped. “Wow.” There was no emotion in my voice. The burger was so good, it stunned me of all emotion. I finished the bite and looked up at the woman, “This is excellent.”
“Thank you, Sweetie. My name’s Fran.” She turned and walked back to one of the kitchens.
Tom won’t come to the diner at night. He claims the bright light coming in from the stained glass gives him vertigo, even though he’s never seen the diner at night. Nobody knows too much about Tom. Each time someone new asks him the same question, he gives a different answer. The only constant is that his name is “Tom.” One night, he claimed to know a guy who did too much acid in the `70s and is stuck in a mental hospital now, because he believes he’s a full glass of water, and if you touch him he’ll spill his water on the floor. Once, he told us he knew Robert Redford back when he was still cool.
I went into the bathroom before I left that first time. In the men’s room, someone had been drawing a comic on the tiled walls. A detailed comic about a man attending Duke University’s branch in Hell. He had friends in the form of devils and demons, and Satan taught English Lit. The man in the comic lived in a dorm but is originally from Ohio. There was enough art work on the wall to fill three full issues and the fourth was started. Either the original artist or someone else had started to go back and color the comic in. I think with small tipped Sharpies. I heard recently that the comic is being published by an independent company.
Ryan used to steal cars and move them to the next block. His crowning achievement was the night he moved all the cars from one block a block north in just under an hour. He never stole a car or anything from inside anyone else’s car, except for a false nail that had fallen off someone’s finger. It was black and had a skull and cross bones painted on it. He poked a small hole in it and put a string through the hole. He wears it around his neck to this day. His girlfriend once told me he doesn’t even take it off in the shower. Ryan works as a teacher’s assistant at the state college. He teaches students, and some teachers, how to cross wires and build remotes to open other people’s garages.
Just before I left that night, I went into the confession booth and wrote down, “I didn’t wash my hands.” I didn’t think it made that big of an impression on me. But at lunch the next day, I needed a burger. Two days later, I was back again. When it was time to go back to college, I decided to find a job instead. I’ve been working for a landscaping company mowing lawns. Most of my money comes from tips. At least half of my money is spent on food at the diner. I can say in all honesty that this is the happiest I have ever been. Some days, I just sit at a table sipping a drink and watching the people hanging out. Some of them just watching me. Most of us regulars could tell you who wrote each confession on the walls, even if we’ve never spoken to everyone else.
A few of us are planning a party for some time in the coming months. Three days without leaving the church, without sleeping, and without any connection to the outside world. Meaning, no TV, radio, or cell phones. That’s as far as we’ve gotten. We don’t know what we’ll do once we all get here. We probably won’t plan anything, either.
If you’re ever driving down the street and see an old church with wooden boxes stuck to the walls, advertising cheap tuna melts on Tuesdays, come on in.
M.R. LANG exists. He exists no more or less than any other. Except that one guy. He existed a lot. Man. His collection of fiction and poetry exists in two different forms on Amazon.com, under the title Illiterate Sophism.