Oak – Chapter 1

zoom-out-timelapse-view-of-roads-with-the-welcome-to-nebraska-sign-near-the-state-border_nhiyljzux__S0000It isn’t much to look at, frankly. The restaurant — more of a joint by my standards — is housed in a nondescript, single-story, commercial building featuring dowdy vertical siding and faux stone exterior, a flat roof and a few non-opening windows. Upon reflection, I’m not sure it can even be accurately classified as a restaurant. One resource I found on the ‘net outlined the distinction between a restaurant and a diner. Differentiation between the two, or its necessity, had never crossed my mind. But, if it’s on the Internet, it must be true. According to this authority, if you can order anything off a single menu, anytime of the day, the institution is, by definition, a diner. Don’t get me wrong. I mean no disrespect to diner owners or their patrons. A diner is a perfectly respectable place to eat. After all, this establishment has a huge parking lot that is frequently packed with vehicles. That speaks volumes about its popularity and, one assumes, offers positive critique of the food to be enjoyed inside. You should usually judge an eating establishment by the number of cars in its parking lot. It’s a reasonable proxy for quality.

But, if a Hollywood movie production were to hire a location scout to find a cliché of a Midwest diner — or a joint — which the working script might demand serve as the site of a pivotal scene, in which an armed robbery by a desperate brother and sister team is staged; a secret rendezvous among cheating spouses is uncovered; a corrupt politician meets to accept a bribe; or a cold-blooded murder is contracted — this would be the ideal place. I’m happy to provide them with the exact address, to make it easier to find: 2105, Highway 2, Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s on the south side of the street. The place faces Hwy. 2, but you have to access it off Southwood Dr. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll figure out the way in. It’s not a handsome place. But I wouldn’t describe it as seedy either. Vehicles rumble by at all hours of the day and night. Few passing take much note of it, I’m sure. Still, there are always customers coming and going. The diner shares its expansive parking lot with Cornhusker Billiard Supply. After lunch or dinner, patrons can conveniently pick up a new cue or replacement billiard chalk. It seems to make perfect sense. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship.

A fifteen-foot tall sign gracing the entrance to the parking lot is a beacon promoting its practicality and convenience. It reads: Hi-Way Diner – Eat 24-7. It might have been thoughtful to add an additional line underneath that included 364 Days a Year, so that potential patrons would know not to seek out all-day breakfast and their trademark ‘third egg free’, on Christmas Day. The place would be closed and the hungry customer, sorely disappointed. It’s otherwise open every single hour, day and night, in between. That’s a long shift. It’s exhausting to think about. And, it makes me hungry.

The Hy-Way is so named, one presumes, because it sits on a highway — Highway 2 to be specific — and perhaps because the place began life serving the needs of famished truckers. The road sign at the closest intersection, in fact, designates the street as the Nebraska Highway. In any event, it’s not really a highway anymore — at least not as we think of or define them today. Today, the Nebraska Highway is just another two-lane surface street coursing its way through the southern edge of the city. It was once a great freeway that carried bustling vehicle traffic into and through Lincoln. I wouldn’t characterize the Hy-Way as a truck stop anymore. Today, few eighteen-wheelers roll in. The real highway — the modern highway — Highway 80, circumvents the city altogether on the north side of town. Long haul truckers usually stay on the 80.

Still, the Hi-Way has graced its corner of Lincoln for more than thirty years — a not insignificant record for a restaurant in any contemporary city. As such, the Hi-Way is an unlikely survivor. Contrasting the family farms that are disappearing this part of the country, the diner has endured. It’s managed to stave off urban sprawl, development and “improvement”, as the city bursts its historic seams on all four compass points. Local real estate developers tend to reference this growth as “taming” the wild prairies in the name of “progress” and modernity. For others, it represents the loss of a past never to be recovered.

When not engrossed in discussions about the weather, politics, football, and family affairs, Hi-Way customers can gaze upon an esoteric collection of old signs from long since defunct drug stores; a cliché assembly of vintage steel Coca Cola signs; a couple of antiquated soda machines; and, an assortment of increasingly rare antique ice boxes. They’re appropriate accoutrements for an establishment that is out of place and time. Millennials, I suspect, would be completely uncertain of their function, unless otherwise explained by their parents. Even some of them might be tentative unless over the age of fifty. No doubt, the Hy-Way diner lives in the past. It’s a foreign country in a way. Perhaps that accounts for its popularity. People frequently want to escape their place and their present for an hour to dine in a chronologically ambiguous moment. More often than not, the background music at the Hy-Way is ambiguous too. They serve up an assortment of Top-40 hits from the two-decade run of the 80’s through to 2000: likely favorites from the day manager’s angst-filled teenage years. Today, the songs all seemed to be from 1999: in my opinion, the most forgettable year in pop music history.

The assortment of tables and booths that seat patrons at the Hy-Way are well loved but never ratty: and always impeccably clean. And their menu is extensive. There’s something for everyone. Each dish is simply and succinctly described; 11 full pages of laminated goodness and temptation in all. No matter the time of day, the place smells like breakfast. That’s a good thing if you happen to enjoy breakfast. Smoke and oils cast off from frying bacon settle like dew on a cool summer morning. The most advanced kitchen ventilation systems can’t seem to contain it, entirely. Skulking out from the kitchen, it clings to and inhabits every crevice within the four walls and the dropped acoustic tile ceiling. The metaphor stops there though. Bacon dew doesn’t evaporate as the sun climbs into the sky. It’s rather enduring. And endearing. I don’t mind it, to be honest. I like the smell of eternal breakfast. It’s comforting some how.

Hy-Way regulars come from all walks of life: transient road construction workers; young couples on a first date; traveling sales professionals; high school seniors, college students and blue-collar workers wolfing down a quick lunch. I suspect at least one adulterous relationship has been hatched there, though I can’t confirm it. There’s probably been more than a few marriage proposals; unexpected but nonetheless joyous pregnancy announcements; a tearful breakup or two; a few informal job interviews; anniversary and graduation celebrations; and regretful goodbyes among girlfriends whose lives send them off to another, lesser state in the Union. On weekends, entire families — sometimes three generations — roll in, slide two tables together, and call the restaurant their dining room for an hour or so. Few hold back. Family dinners at the Hy-Way are just as passion-filled, loud, rollicking and contentious as those that take place at home. Locals mostly patronize it, though the occasional tourist stumbles hungrily upon the place too. If you’re from out of State, I’d recommend that you casually but enthusiastically say “Go Big Red”, or “the Huskers got sooooo cheated on Saturday”, or something similar, to the host or your waiter — just to fit in. But only do that during the college football season: and only if the Huskers actually lost. You’re likely to get a funny look otherwise. Also, it would be useful to know that the Huskers are the football team for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Huskers — as in cornhuskers.

The diner is a stone’s throw from the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Guards and administrators headed to or leaving their shift often stop by to grab a coffee, to go, or commandeer a booth to stay and enjoy a perennial favorite — the South Street Meatloaf. Given the frequent presence of uniformed, armed guards, it would seem an unlikely — even inappropriate — place for an actual clandestine meeting, to plan some form of skullduggery. Maybe the rogues assembling at the Hy-Way didn’t know it was directly beside the prison. Perhaps it was just a convenient place to meet. Or possibly they heard about the good food and generous portions.

It was late in the afternoon — well after lunch but before the dinner rush, when an enormous black Hummer wheeled into the lot of the Hi-Way. Hummers were a thing in 2008, among men seeking to compensate, or over so, for their shortcomings. Upon reflection, times may not have changed much since then. The paramilitary vehicle was conspicuous insomuch that, well, Hummers just aren’t very Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s more of a Ford F-150 pickup kind of town. Two men inside the diner, who had already claimed a booth, craned their necks to watch the vehicle through the window. They had been enjoying a late lunch — or early dinner. Despite being a gap time between major meals, the Hy-Way was humming (no pun intended).

“Pass the Dorothy Lynch, please.”

“For your steak?”

“Yeah. It’s not just for salads. Haven’t you ever had it on steak?”


“It’s low-cal and gluten-free too.”

“Low gluten. Do I look like I fucking care? Why are we having this conversation?” he moaned, shaking his head — clearly exasperated.

“Somebody’s grumpy today. You don’t want me to answer that question, do you?” After a pause, he answered his own question. “I didn’t think so.”

“Coffee here is terrible. Institutional coffee,” the grumpy guy muttered in between loud sips.

The Hummer driver, dressed impeccably, even if overly so, in a suit and tie, had to literally climb out and down the jacked-up, civilian version of the military troop carrier. One could almost walk under the truck, given its prodigious ground clearance. Well, he probably could have — literally. The suit-clad driver was short. For a contemporary, adult male, five foot-three inches is arguably short. Had the Hummer not sported running boards, he would have had to drop a ladder or step stool to the asphalt, to aid in his descent. The men in the booth watched intently as the suited man toddled across the parking lot to the entrance of the Hi-Way. It took him a full minute. Halfway across, he slowed to a near stop as he scanned his surroundings and wiped his brow with a handkerchief. He looked nervous — or paranoid. But he looked important just the same.

“You think that’s him?”

“Sure. Isn’t it obvious? Who else would carry a briefcase into the Hi-Way?”

“I don’t know. Who?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You asked the question.”

“Here’s a question for you. Are you retarded?”

“You’re not very nice — or politically correct. That term isn’t used anymore ya know. It’s hurtful.” The comment was met with an unsympathetic scowl from his table mate. He continued anyway. “So, do you know the guy’s name?”

“We only spoke on the phone. He said his name was Charley — with a y. Don’t know if that’s his real name or not. I wouldn’t give my real name. Do not ask him. Understand?”

“Yeah. I won’t… I like his Hummer. It’s awesome.”

“I think it’s a pointless vehicle, unless you’re in a war. On the other hand, an armored one might come in handy. Maybe I’ll get one after this job.”

“Why is he wearing a suit?”

The man frowned and furled his brow. “How would I know? He’s a businessman. Business men wears suits… idiot.”

The short, rotund stranger, sporting a Hermes tie and carrying an aluminum briefcase, entered the diner and looked around — searching the tables. After a mutual nod of heads, he walked toward the two rough-looking patrons, already at a booth drinking coffee. These were not small guys, by any measure. They were seated beside one another — rather jammed into one side of a banquette. The men had, of course, expected a third to join them. The sight of two burly guys sharing one side of a booth looked odd, just the same. Both got a better look at the diminutive businessman as he crossed the floor of the diner and tentatively moved closer.

Charley proved to be a rather overweight, unattractive man of Mediterranean or Arab descent. He appeared to be about fifty: perhaps older. Like some his age, with thinning hair, he desperately sought to compensate for the fallow plot atop his head. This field of skin was sown with a poorly executed comb-over. What hair remained had been obviously dyed — jet black — and infused with gel, to maintain its shape and coverage. The thing on his head didn’t so much look like a toupee. But, it didn’t look altogether real either. The short, fat man covered the remaining distance to the booth in a rocking gait vaguely reminiscent of a penguin. One of the two men at the booth broke into a childish, mocking smile, until the other noticed and elbowed him hard.

“Ow. Shit! Why’ja do that?”

“You know why.”

The stranger arrived at their booth. He sat down on the bench opposite and stared at the two men, for almost a minute, without saying a word. His nostrils flared as he breathed. After sizing them up, he finally cleared his throat and spoke in a hushed tenor. “You know who I am?” His voice bubbled a little. Of course, he might have just had some phlegm in his throat. He exhausted a short, quick cough.

“You know who I am?” asked Otto, in an overtly aggressive way. Otto was six feet, three inches and broad — probably 46 inches across the chest. He surely shopped at Murray’s Big & Tall in Omaha. Otto was intimidating even if he said absolutely nothing. But he did say something, and it was intimidating. His voice was scratchy too — like you might imagine from one whom had smoked too many cigarettes or consumed too many glasses of Lazy RW Frontier corn whiskey: or both. Otto was so named by his parents because of the unique mix of immigrant German and native Otoe Indian in his family tree. Otto was a popular name in Germany too. They thought it a clever name — a nod to his dual heritage — and bestowed it upon him even before he was even born. He hated the name and was bullied for it as a child growing up in central Nebraska. “Otto’s’ tires are flat.” “You smell like gas Otto.” “How many people can you carry in the rear?” That bullying might have played a role in his early development, outlook on the world, and well-earned reputation for malice. I accept the possibility that he was just born mean. No one knew for certain. It’s one of those nature versus nurture debates. If you asked me, I’d say it was probably 50/50.

Otto sprouted abruptly when he hit puberty. By the time he turned fourteen, he had hit the six-foot mark and sported bodybuilder biceps. He looked menacing before he even started shaving. Had they dared, some kid in the neighborhood might have bestowed a new nickname on him. Baby face might have been appropriate: or inappropriate, if one were looking for trouble. They did not, in any case. The bullying promptly stopped, but Otto was intent on settling old scores. He thumped each and every kid who had tormented him — going back some ten years. More than a few had absolutely no memory of Otto at all when he caught up with them, and were accused and duly accosted by him. He assaulted a lot of kids. By 16, Otto had earned his first internment at an infamous Nebraska reform school: one of those institutions which, over time, motivated emotionally scarred adults to tearfully recount long-repressed memories of physical abuse at the hands of administrators. Otto fared better than the rest of the youthful offenders: some of whom were incarcerated for no other reason than they dared to defy their overbearing fathers. Otto beat and ultimately hospitalized two brawny, adult, male guards. It proved safer for everyone, and less embarrassing for school administration, to simply release the brute. They did so after only three months into his sentence, and with the blessing of the guard’s union: who expressed concern for the collective safety of their card-carrying members.

“Yes, you’re…” Charley uttered, before being cut short.

“Jesus Christ! No names,” warned Otto, in a firm but muted voice — appropriate for a clandestine meeting. He glanced nervously around the diner. A guy in the booth next to them earned a threatening scowl, for the indiscretion of having looked in Otto’s general direction. He was lucky the outcome was limited to that.

“Sorry. I’m new to this. You’re the guys down from Omaha for… the job. Right?” Charley asked, for confirmation.

“Maybe. A lot of people are from Omaha.” It was the best tough-guy line Otto could come up with in the moment. He paused and scanned the diner once more before turning back to Charley. “You got the money? Show me the money,” he insisted.

Charley slunk in his seat and tipped the briefcase onto its side. Extending one leg, he slid the case, with one foot, across the floor, under the booth. Albin, the third man, ducked below the booth and opened it partially. They called Albin “The Swede” around parts of Omaha — the worst parts. He liked the nickname and was convinced that all women did so too. He was thoroughly confident that women liked everything about him. Granted, he was a handsome man — in a rough and ready kind of way. His once striking blonde hair had, years ago, turned a mousy brown. Still, his eyes were bright and azure blue. Those eyes lit wide before he shut the case and sat back up. As he did, his skull struck the underside of the table, hard, making an audible thunk. “Shit!” he barely muffled. Sitting back up in the booth, and rubbing the back of his head, he clenched his teeth, looked at and nodded to Otto. He was breathing in bursts and doing his best to not cry out again. “I don’t know what twenty grand looks like,” he whispered through clenched teeth. “Damn. That hurt,” he said, much louder.

“Shut up! There are people around… idiot,” Otto admonished.

Both looked back at Charley with devious smiles. Albin’s expression, to be true, was a mix of devious and grimace — from the pain. He was known to be clumsy and accident-prone. Albin was also known, among those who knew him, to be intellectually blunted – to use a more socially acceptable, if not clinical term.

“You’ll get the rest when the job is done,” Charley assured. He appeared unsympathetic to Albin’s injury and directed his attention and the conversation back to Otto — the assumed leader of this duo.

Otto responded. “We got the particulars of the job already. We’re on it. It’ll be done before the end of the week. You won’t have to worry about ever seeing…”

Without notice, a waitress, early to mid-forties, sidled up to the table. The three men were taken off-guard. The woman sported a Hi-Way Diner tee shirt and wore her long hair, with wisps of grey, back and tucked in a clip. She was pretty, and flashed a genuine smile. The woman was also perky and had air of positivity about her — like she had beaten all of the worst challenges that life had dealt her­ and come out on top. There was nothing put on. She looked entirely comfortable with her role in the working world and its unspoken hierarchy. It was a visual cliché but she literally pulled a pencil from her hair, just above her ear. She placed the tip onto a small pad of paper and looked back at the men expectantly. All three sat back in their seats suddenly, trying not to look suspicious. Albin used his feet to pull the briefcase under the table, closer to his seat, to hide it. Their collective behavior made them look entirely suspicious, and guilty, of something, for sure.

“Good afternoon. You guys look like you’re up to no good,” the waitress said teasingly. Their eyes opened wide as coffee cups. “I’m just joshing you sweetie,” she said, looking directly at Charley and grinning. “I saw you come in just now. Hard to miss a handsome man in a suit.” She added an adorable little side cock of her head. “Can I get you anything hon? Special of the Day is our Patty Melt. That’s a meal, not a woman.” She winked. “Comes with fries. Or a salad, if you’re watching your figure.”

Charley appeared flattered. He sat up as straight and tall as the bench and his diminutive height would allow, beamed and winked flirtatiously back. “Yes, please gorgeous. I’d just like a coffee… black… and your phone number.”

“Down boy,” she deflected. “The coffee I can do. Only regulars get my number sweetie.”

“Then I’ll be back tomorrow,” retorted Charley.

“Cheeky,” she volleyed. Shutting down flirtatious customers, with diplomacy and aplomb is a skill every waitress must learn, from day one. This one had, I’m guessing, many years ago. “Coffee coming up. The phone number is sold out, I’m afraid.” The waitress spun on her sneakers, without lifting her feet, and left to fetch a third cup and a fresh carafe. Once she was out of earshot, the three continued their whispered dialogue.

Otto continued where he left off. “It’s a little unorthodox… I gotta say. Easy target, sure, but there are still risks. We demand a premium — you know, because of the dangers we’d be facing. Another ten-grand, over the remaining twenty g’s, once it’s done. You in agreement?”

“You’re frickin’ crooks!” bleated Charley, without thinking.

“Um, yes, we are,” responded Otto proudly. He shook his head for emphasis.

“I think it states that right on my social media profile.” Albin chortled, pleased with his sarcastic burn. He elbowed Otto for acknowledgment but was ignored.

Otto continued without pause. “Perhaps one among the upstanding and law-abiding, prison security detail, dining here in this fine establishment right now, would be willing to do the job for less. Wait. Let’s ask some,” he said, making a beaconing gesture with his raised hand.

“Okay. Okay. Fuck. You made your point. Fine. Thirty-grand upon completion.”

“Good. The target will be neutralized…” Otto attempted to conclude.

Charley cut him off mid-sentence and looked intensely at both the men, as he spoke. “Look, you guys are supposed to be the best in Omaha and that’s good enough for me. I don’t care to know what else you’ve done. This is dirty business and I cannot have my name associated with this. This is the one and only time we are going to meet. I don’t want to be seen together again. Do I make myself clear?”

“OK, but if this gets complicated… If there are details you left out, or if the cops get involved, the price goes up — again. Do you understand?” countered Otto.

“Yeah, a lot more!” added Albin.

Otto looked over at his partner. “Shut up,” he advised. Albin looked like a dog who’d been hit on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. He hung his head similarly.

Charley reached into the left, inside pocket of his suit coat with his right hand. Otto and Albin tensed and instinctively reached for the bulges in their own coat pockets. “Whoa,” Charley exhaled, nervously. “Whoa. It’s just the paperwork.” He pulled out and unfolded three legal sized, typed pages; stapled on the upper left corner.

“What the hell is that?” Otto questioned.

“It’s the contract,” Charley responded.

“The contract?” Otto asked rhetorically. He heard him just fine.

“Yes. The contract: for the work. I thought we should make it legal and all. You know, so we’re both protected. The deliverables and the price are all spelled out. I can hand-write in the latest revision to the fee structure, that we agreed on, and initialize it. It’ll be okay like that I’m sure.”

Otto looked at Albin with a look of incredulity. Albin just looked confused. “You’re pulling my chain, right?” stated Otto, so much as asked.

“Well…” stumbled Charley.

“You’re not kidding are you?” Otto leaned into and half way across the table, looking Charley directly in the eyes. “My friend,” he stated firmly and a bit condescendingly, “a contract does not involve a contract. You don’t create a paper trail. You don’t hire a fucking lawyer. You don’t leave files on your desk, in your filing cabinet or on your computer. You don’t incriminate yourself, and most assuredly, not us. You are, as this moment, an accessory to a felony. Let that sink in for a moment before we continue, shall we. If you don’t have the stomach for this, let’s part now and never communicate again. If not, leave the briefcase and walk. We will fulfill the contract and collect the remainder of our fee when the contract has been executed. It that clear?” Otto demonstrated amazing restraint, considering the seriousness of the gaff. He sat back, having finished his lecture, and waited for Charley’s response.

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.” Charley said dismissively. “Just get the job done, quickly and thoroughly. There’s a lot of money involved,” Charley concluded. He put his coffee cup down and looked as though he was preparing to leave.

“An insurance job, huh?” said Albin.

“Who is this guy?” Charley directed the rhetorical at Otto. Otto glared at Albin, and turned back to the man they knew as Charley. “One last thing. Do you have any preference in how you want this done?” he asked.

Charley appeared a little perplexed. “How I want it done?”

“Yeah. We’re client-focused. Customer satisfaction is our priority,” Otto said sardonically. “Do you want it done slowly? You, know, lingering and tortuous… or swift and painless? Any thoughts on, uh… you know… the instrument? We have options. It’s your choice though.”

“The instrument? Oh… Yes. Of course.” Charley bobbed enthusiastically and added, “With a chainsaw, please.”

The hired killers looked taken aback at first. Gradually, their faces broke out in broad, devious smirks. In unison, they nodded their heads in acknowledgement and apparent approval.

“You’re a sick man. I like it,” quipped Albin.

Otto added his two cents. “Now you’re talking. That’s awesome. It’ll be messy but leave nothing to chance. There’s no recovering from a work-over with a chainsaw. Trust me. Consider it done.” He made a slashing motion with his flat hand, across his own neck, for emphasis. Charley picked up his fork, held it like a dagger and jammed it into the top of the table. The dramatic tension he was likely going for was neutralized when the tines of the fork bent to an almost 90 degree angle. Formica is pretty tough. Frustrated, Charley released the utensil. It clanked on the table. He leaned in toward the men — trying his best to appear menacing. “It had better be, or I’ll be contracting some folks in Chicago to work you two over with a chainsaw.”

“That’s kind of harsh,” commented Albin.

“Shut up,” Otto and Charley said in unity and far too loudly. Patrons noticed.

Before finishing his coffee, Charley stood. Without another word, he extracted himself from the booth and walked away — leaving the case full of small bills, bound tightly by rubber bands, under the table. Otto and Albin watched as he waddled across the checkered floor toward the washrooms and inadvertently, they presumed, directly through the door clearly marked ‘Women’. Albin snickered. Presumably, he thought Charley would exit immediately and, embarrassed, enter the bathroom designated ‘Men’. He did not. Both men stared at the door intently — waiting. Five minutes later, he popped back into view. Without making eye contact and without apparent shame, Charley walked out the front door of Hi-Way, drying his still wet hands on his pant legs.

Otto and Albin continued watching the odd man as he made his way across the parking lot to clamber back up, awkwardly, into his Hummer. He slammed the door. The driver’s window opened. Charley was seen to draw in breath and spit. The wind was blowing directly toward him. Predictably, his expectorate flew back and dribbled down the car door. He cursed. Otto and Albin were certain they could read his lips. Charley raised the window and buttoned up the Hummer. As the truck accelerated out of the parking lot, east onto Highway 2, the sound of its V8 engine at full throttle shook the windows of the Hi-Way. More than a few diners looked up from their all-day breakfast and watched it roar away.

The hired killers also observed for a moment before turning back to their now tepid coffee. Otto took a sip, scowled and dropped the cup back down. “It’s even worse when it’s cold. Let’s get outta here,” he said.

Albin turned to Otto. “Hey!”

“What now?”

“He stuck us with the bill,” Albin complained.

“Shut up and grab the briefcase”, ordered Otto. He counted out $30, in fivers, onto the banquette tabletop and looked back at his partner as he walked away. “You’re an embarrassment. A corn-fed idiot. Get your ass in gear. We got planning to do.”