It was another normal Friday night for Stavros. While everyone else in town was cheering on the Essex Hills Cougars at the high school stadium, he waited on the text from his parents letting him know the diner was ready for its nightly deep clean.
He waited in the apartment upstairs from the restaurant, the one his parents had owned and operated since his grandfather had passed away and bequeathed it to them.
“A family tradition must be continued,” Stavros’ father, Eugene, proclaimed seriously every time Stavros begged to do something other than mopping up their mess on a Friday evening.
And a rare exception in New Jersey, the Morning Top closed for four hours every Friday. Stavros’ mother, Maria, proudly told customers they were the “only 20 hour diner in the state!”
Stavros had to admit his parents were right. They needed those four hours to deeply clean the restaurant. They didn’t want the health department—or anyone else—discovering any dirty little secrets, thus forcing them to shut down.
Stavros liked working at the diner, although occasionally, he wished he could go to the game rather than keep late-night stragglers fed and be forced to play custodian.
Stavros was lucky life wasn’t like one of those John Hughes movies from the 80s. He was relatively popular in school and was never the target of bullies. Puberty had treated him well, and two girls and three guys in his class had already confessed their crushes on him through TikTok. Whenever his classmates came to the diner, they treated him like a friend. They didn’t snicker about him or make fun of him the minute he turned his back to bring their order to the window. Most of his peers had to work part-time jobs, as Essex Hills wasn’t the most wealthy neighborhood, so Stavros working in support of the family business was not a source of derision for the majority of the townspeople. Even when he would have friends over to the apartment over the diner, there were no raised eyebrows or judgment. He soon realized that most of his friends’ parents also rented, rather than owned.
Essex Hills was attractive to transients. People could come and go as they pleased. And people often disappeared without a trace and with just a shrug from the community and law enforcement. Stavros recognized this the minute he started working in earnest at the diner. He believed a diner like his family’s was a nexus for people the world forgot. The Morning Top was a way station for its fair share of junkies, nomads and loners who enjoyed a final meal, only to never be heard from again.
A gaunt man, missing teeth, drinking coffee from a mug in a jittery hand with black fingernails. On his right hand, there was a class ring with a blue stone. This guy had graduated from Essex Hills, but clearly hadn’t been able to get out or fight whatever demons kept him tied to the town. Stavros had taken his order, and the man grunted for only a coffee.
Stavros assumed it was the only thing he could afford, if that. This guy may dine and dash for a cup of coffee. But, this wasn’t the diner’s first time with a customer like this. In fact, Maria often said that customers like this were the family’s speciality. And even if he did run, Maria and Eugene had always cautioned Stavros about involving police.
“What does that cup of coffee cost us? Nothing. Let him go. There is no need to involve the police. Let them deal with real criminals out there. No need for them to be here.”
On Friday nights, this meant that Stavros was to bring the sole patron whatever meal they wanted, on the house.
Stavros relayed this information to the man, who quickly ordered a double cheeseburger, a side of extra crispy fries, a chocolate milkshake and the famous apple pie. His father was the only one who worked the kitchen on Fridays. The diner was never busy because Essex Hills was a sports town, so only the family worked on Friday evenings.
That, and they were the only ones who could be trusted with the weekly clean up.
Although this was mostly reserved for those who appeared homeless or addicted, every now and then, a lone traveler passing through or a visiting summer intern studying stressfully preparing a work assignment was provided the same courtesy.
Who they were. Where they were from. Where they were going. If they had family at home. If anyone knew they were at the Morning Top, enjoying New Jersey’s best apple crumble pie.
“A family tradition must be continued,” Maria had said frequently, echoing her husband’s sentiments. “They are as part of this establishment’s rich history as your grandfather’s pie. We take them in. We feed them. And we deal with them accordingly.”
Stavros had always assumed his mother’s broken English explained the unique phrasing.
Stavros saw the digital clock about the counter hit 10:00 P.M. and he knew it was time to leave. His father would begin to clean up the kitchen and prep for tomorrow.
His mother went to the diner door, flipped the door sign to “CLOSED” and locked the entry door. As the man gobbled down his ketchup-saturated french fries noisily in the booth, Maria sat down at the table across from him.
As Stavros closed the door behind him and headed up the stairs, he heard the man yell, “What the hell do you want, lady?”
And his mother calmly responded, “Is that how you talk to someone who provided you your final meal?”
“Time to mop the floor. <3 Dad.”
Stavros had gotten used to the smell. A rich, rusty odor. He pushed the door open.
The once occupied booth was empty. His mother had lowered all the shades. The food had been cleared away, and the table was white where the plate, silverware and glasses had been placed. The rest was deep red.
The jukebox faintly played “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John. His parents’ wedding song.
Regardless of how many times he was asked to do this, he was always surprised at the vibrant, red color of blood and couldn’t tune out the drip, drip, drip of the stuff as it fell from the diner surfaces to the floor.
Stavros grabbed his equipment and began to mop the floor. The blood and water mixed into a pink foam and began to dribble towards the drainage grate his parents had installed in the floor.
Sitting on the edge of the grate, with light reflected off of it, sat the blue-gemmed class ring, still firmly attached to the grifter’s finger.
When Stavros had turned 15, his parents sat him down at the counter of the diner and pointed to a woman who had pulled in 20 minutes before closing, sucked down a cigarette, smashed her cell phone to smithereens by stomping in, came in, and asked for something to eat.
Stavros watched as his mother locked the door, flipped the lock, and sat down with the woman.
“My dear, you look so distraught. Is everything okay? Where are you coming from?”
The woman had mumbled a response that Stavros couldn’t hear.
“Oh, my dear. Leaving an abusive husband must be an incredibly hard thing to do. So, no one knows you’re here? Well, we want to make sure you are well-fed, and it’s on the house.”
As Stavros’ mother walked towards the kitchen, she winked at her husband and called over her shoulder, “My dear child, you don’t have to worry. We won’t tell a soul you’ve been here, especially if anyone comes looking after you.”
Eugene was standing behind Stavros, his hand on his son’s shoulders, and whispered into his ear, “A family tradition must be continued.”
Maria exited the kitchen, without any food, but a large knife in her hand.
And Stavros stood there, shocked, as his mother stood behind the distraught woman and slit her throat.
Stavros had tried to pull free from his father’s grasp, but was unsuccessful. Eugene’s voice in his ear became more urgent.
“My son. A family tradition MUST be continued. My father and his father before him. We rid the world of the loners. The junkies. The lost souls. There is nothing left of them for them in this world. We help release them.”
“And you will carry on the tradition beyond me. Tonight, you will clean up after us. You must do this to protect our family.”
Stavros felt the urgency in his father’s voice. The desperation. He had no choice.
And on that day, his father showed him how to mop up his parent’s aftermath. And he claimed his birthright and a great responsibility in passing down an honored family tradition.
And before he went to bed, smelling of copper and bleach, his mother looked lovingly on him.
“My son, and now you know the secret ingredient in our famous apple pie.”