When I was a little boy, my cousin Wendy worked at a place called Fox’s Diner. It was a narrow chrome caboose with rounded corners, the obligatory row of stools running along a Formica counter, and a greasy residue that had been lingering since the Eisenhower administration. Fox’s sold burgers and fries, but what they were known for – what you could smell on an overcast day as soon as you turned onto South Street – was the deep-fried donuts.
These were old school donuts, from a time before what they call the food revolution. There were no layers of peanut butter, M&Ms, and bacon, because these soft pillows of happiness were good enough on their own. This was back before indulgent, fattening nibbles had become the weekend cocaine spree of hipsters, hipsters who trudge through a week of gym visits and sushi lunches to offset the damages. At least, one imagines they pay the piper for brunches of pimento cheese-laden burgers, mac-and-cheese curly fries, and pork-belly milkshakes. (Just skimming online menus for Williamsburg hotspots.)
Wendy’s proximity to the best donuts in town seemed to have no effect on her trim waist, though in the self-deprecating mien of the women in my family, she was quick to point out how pear-shaped she was becoming. Back then, in the late 70s, everybody was talking about Thunder Thighs. If you had anything but bikini-hotdog legs, you suffered from Thunder Thighs. It sounds quite powerful, when you think about it. If she hadn’t been schooled in a certain countrified (and awkward to behold) modesty, she might have owned her curves in the modern way.
“Yeah, these are called Thunder Thighs. But who’s man enough to bring the lightening?”
Cue rock-n-roll tongue and swag.
I thought Wendy was beautiful. There was a sweetness to her blue eyes, and something like southern sunshine in her quick smile. She was a high-strung person who worried about imagined dreads. There was a kind of energy about her that, heightened by both inborn nerves and pot-induced paranoia, gave one a sense that something exciting was about to happen.
One of her pet fears was that the world was going to end, based on radio broadcasts at the time from Christian Evangelicals. She would call up my mom for reassurances. My mother was a victim of her own peculiar anxieties, but she could employ logic handily to help others out. We always knew Wendy was on the line when Mom strung the cord through the kitchen to a stool under the pantry window, leaning her head against the cool glass while she repeated the familiar mantra, “Only God knows the hour, sweetheart.”
The end of days for Fox’s Diner came over a decade later, when the building was torn down and a pharmacy erected in its place. Wendy had moved on by then, earning her living working for the bank, raising a daughter and finally – to the relief of her loved ones – leaving her husband as a red-headed devil in the rearview mirror of her life.
There were old men who used to line up along the counter at Fox’s, knowing the only topping those doughnuts needed was the quicksilver flash of Wendy’s smile. And families that piled in along the wall, heavy in their winter coats, ordering a dozen at a time. They’d eat them hot out of the bag on the drive home. And old ladies who came to sit in twos and threes of a morning, drinking Sanka-bad coffee and nibbling toward the hole in the center while they caught up on news together.
Soles squeaked on a floor that no amount of Comet or bleach water could ever quite simonize, the bell on the door chimed steadily, and when Wendy was about half-way through a shift, the sun would set over the town, the sky smoldering orange and violet, the houses and the yards painted black. The neon donut over the diner was visible in the twilight from about two blocks away, but it wasn’t necessary because all you had to do was follow your nose.