reading time: 9 minutes
Written By: Travis Knight
Illustration By: Brandon Hurley
As I sluggishly skated down Santa Rosa Ave, the new day’s sun began to peek over the nearby hillsides. The light crawling over the green rolling mounds was bright enough to make one squint, but not quite bright enough to blind. Denny’s was the only place open at 5:00 a.m.—The Zoo would still not open until 6—and I dearly needed to slaughter some time. As I did not necessarily have a home, early morning Denny’s stints were a frequent occurrence; one might say a daily routine. Besides the Transit Mall on 2nd and B-Street, Denny’s was the liveliest place in Santa Rosa at such an early hour.
The diner culture at this time usually consisted of sloppy roll-overs from the previous night’s party or tiresome transients from abroad; the two distinct groups either looking for a plate of pancakes, or a place to charge their phone. I’d usually attend such an event for the latter. What can I say, it was a great place to blend in, charge up, and get some writing done before I started the morning shift at The Frontier Room. Plus, it’s never a good look when the cleaning crew comes in and the bartender is sleeping behind the bar; something about bad P.R.
A server with satin black hair, in his early twenties, and surprisingly a smile stretching from cheek to cheek, greeted me as I walked through the heavy, double doors. This particular diner dwelling was a perfect ecosystem for breeding shady characters—especially at this hour—and the service was no exception. Not this guy, though; he was a real boy scout. Amid ordering a cup of coffee and a two-dollar quesadilla, I began to situate my belongings across the four-person booth like an early summer picnic. My eyes rapidly searched for an outlet, but to my dismay, the only outlet I could find was the one behind the claw machine—malicious devices that introduce young children to the art of scam, preparing them for the many they will encounter in their adulthood. One outlet was being occupied by the machine itself and the other had a phone connected to it.
“Is that the only outlet in here?” I curiously pondered.
“Yes,” replied the exuberant employee, “unfortunately that is our only outlet.” It was way too early for this guy’s bright attitude; like a sunbeam sliding through your blinds and slapping you across the face when all you ask for is one more hour of sleep. I would’ve preferred an ill-tempered meth-head over this guy any day. “The man who is using it right now is outside.” His finger directed my vision through the clouded Denny’s windows to an old man in a wheelchair. “He’s been charging his phone for like an hour. I tell ya what, I’ll give him fifteen more minutes and then tell him that it’s your turn.”
You’re a real hero, pal.
“Coffee and a quesadilla? Is that all for you?” I snobbishly shook my head in agreeance as I snapped open my crumbling computer; shooing him away as I delved into some pointless and shitty story I was writing at the time. As the server turned his head, I caught a glimpse of his phony excitement while it slowly washed from his eyes and slid down his face, cleanly leaving behind the expression of a pissed off Denny’s employee who is working way too fucking early; that face that most of us have grown so accustomed to…
…or have lived ourselves.
So, he is human!
I had seen the man who occupied the only outlet as I had initially walked in. He was sitting in his wheelchair reading the newspaper; his deep concentration only broken by colossal coughing outbursts.
What is this driveling mess? Where’s the plot going? Fuck, what is the plot?! Where am I going with this story, and WHAT am I doing with my…
My thoughts of discouragement were halted by the boy scout server. He was addressing the old man who occupied the only outlet.
“That gentlemen at the booth behind yours, sir, would like to use the outlet. Would that be ok?”
“Hell, I don’t care! I don’t even know if this damned phone works!” The old man’s voice creaked and sputtered like an old car engine, and was VERY loud to match. Every head must have turned in that restaurant.
As I indulged my tortilla-cloaked, rubber cheese, I could hear the old man’s wheelchair squeaking up towards me. “You need to use this?!” I cringed at the loudness of his voice. “We can switch booths! Shit, I don’t need to sit here! I already unplugged my phone, so you go ahead and have at it!” Like a man dying of thirst in the desert, I lunged at the outlet as if it were water; plugging my computer in as if the world was going to cease if not done.
“No, no, sir. I just need to use the outlet; I can stay over here.” My booth sat behind his, which was right behind the claw machine. The old man spoke very fast with a voice that sounded as if it had been exposed to a lifetime’s duration of an open flame. Townes Van Zandt’s, Pancho and Lefty, came to mind.
“Now you wear your skin like iron and your breath’s as hard as kerosene.”
“Hell, I don’t ev’n know if this damned phone works!” His brow creased in deep concentration, and I could detect a scheme brewing. “I got an idea! How about…” Explosive coughing erupted and shook the Denny’s by its foundation. “How about I sell ya the phone! How’s five dollars sound?!” The man was so loud that I could see people frantically shoveling food into their faces just so they could pay their bill and leave.
“Thank you,” I said, “I appreciate the offer. That’s helluva deal…”
“…but I have a phone. And I’m broke.” I held my own phone up with an awkward smile. The server walked by and rolled his eyes; he knew there’d be no good tip at this table. I couldn’t blame him; he was right—I was broke. The old man’s hopeful grin tweaked back and forth, then settled into a drooped melancholy. He went back to his paper and I went back to my quesadilla.
Time slithered by, and then the old man spoke again.
“Hey, what’s that you’re eating there?!” I told him what I was eating and informed him that it was only two dollars. “Wow! Is it hot!? You put hot sauce on that thing?!” I assured him that it was not hot and if he wanted to add some fire to the taste, then he would surely need hot sauce. A pause took place, and all that could be heard was the smacking of me eating and the popping of the old man’s dentures. Between the loud nature of my voice and the sheer thunder of the old man’s, our conversation had completely cleared out the restaurant. “Hey, let me ask you something?!”
“Go right ahead, sir,” I granted.
“Have you ev’r heard of Charles Manson?! Cause if ya have, I got one helluva story for ya!”
It was 1967. A. Ross Simons and his brother were driving around drunk in Mendocino. Soon after the wild brothers had been pulled over by highway patrol, Simons’ brother knocked the cop out and broke his nose. Apparently, the lawman was trying to play grab ass with the brothers.
They shared the cell with a younger man around their age, but who had long hair and an uneasy fire in his eyes. Simons asked the man what his name was. “Charlie,” the man replied. “But ya know, that’s just a name. You can call me whatever you desire.” Simons asked the strange man what he was in there for, but the man who went by Charlie began behaving very strange. He started chanting and making om noises; his vision fixated on a spiraling gnat overhead. Simons grew tired of trying to converse with the crazy person.
As time greyed Simons’ hair, the encounter dwindled down into a forgotten memory. It would be twenty-years before Simons’ older brother would call him and say:
“Hey, you remember when we went to jail in Mendocino? You remember that crazy fuck I told you not to talk to and you did anyway? Well, that was Charles Manson.” By this time Manson had been permanently incarcerated and had long been old news—like nearly twenty-year-old news.
After his story, the man settled back into his wheelchair—eyes to the ceiling, drifting into nostalgia. At this point, I had Googled the infamous photo of Charles Manson and showed it to the old man.
“Yup! That’s ah him, alright! I tell ya, I’d recognize that face…” violent coughing blasted me in the face—even from the distance at which the old man sat; I felt the wind. “…anywhere! I will tell you!” Abruptly and unannounced, the man began backing out of his spot, and started wheeling towards the bathroom; whooping cough raging all the way.
Intrigue had gotten the best of me, and I found myself searching for articles on Charles Manson. Soon into my quest, I found an article in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, and it was about a recently published biography about Manson. Astoundingly—and according to the author of Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (2013), Jeff Guinn—there were accounts of Manson and his troglodyte Family pissing off Mendocino residents in 1967; mostly young mothers and older women.
Wow, I thought. There’s a good chance that this old man isn’t bullshitting me, after all!
It was not long before I heard the old man grunting and coughing his way back to the table. As he wheeled up, he presented me with a toothless grin.
“How’d ya like meh story?! I got plenty of stories… I says plenty!”
“Hell yeah, sir. I got time. Let’s hear some more!” I always love a good story, so I excitedly polished off my coffee. “By the way, sir, what’s your name?” His initials were A. Ross Simons—that much I knew—but the A. was unknown.
“I am a man with a very UNUSUAL name!” Now my curiosity was really stirring.
What is it, man!?
“I never tell anyone my first name, let me tell you! But ya know what,” he leaned in with that mischievous toothless grin, “I’ll tell you! It’s such an unusual name! Meh name is…” he paused, quietly and incoherently mumbled to himself, and then spiraled into some story about his grandfather. After the story, he returned to my original query, but again without actually answering it.
“My name,” he orally fumbled to get his bottom dentures back into place. “Well, I am a man with a very unusual name! Very unusual!”
The old man’s smile was contagious and as he started talking about his childhood in Oklahoma, I started thinking of how I would be when I was 69 years old. It was mesmerizing to me how much history lay within this man, within his calloused hands and dreary eyes. Would I be sitting at a diner sharing stories of my generation with a youngin’?
How much history will be ingrained into my skin by then? Will I even be alive?
The old man and I spoke for an entire hour. I sat mesmerized by his stories while I slowly drank coffee refill after refill. We talked about Jim Jones, we talked about football and the history of Oklahoma. We talked about family and changing times, police and scandals, war and peace, past and present. By the time I looked at my phone, I realized that I was already five minutes late.
It was a big day, the opening of Lucian Moon’s, Then & Now & Later series. I sadly told the old man that I had to leave.
“Whatever,” he grunted. “You sure you don’t wanna buy this phone!? I tell ya, I don’t even think the damn thing works!” I assured him that I was not interested, and hastily bid another farewell and departed.
As I skated back down Santa Rosa Ave, I began reminiscing about the recent conversation with the old man. He had told me his religious views, his political stance, his criminal history, his family story—hell, he told me everything…
…everything but one thing.
He never told me his name.