As a young man in his 20s, Neal stayed in a small house in an alley off Pico Boulevard. At least once a week he walked a couple blocks to the hamburger stand on Pico that has been around since the ’40s. Apple Pan was just a counter with red-vinyl seats. Meals were communal affairs among strangers and friends.
Often he ordered the hickory burger with cheddar, root beer served in a paper cone, and a plate of fries — a reliable meal. He loved the banana-cream pie, thought about it daily.
The meals were often served by Gordon, a tall man who patrolled the east side of the counter. The two men talked about traffic, weather, the Dodgers.
Late at night, after the movies, the young man would stop by with his girlfriend. Ravenous, he sometimes considered having a second burger, but usually went for the pie.
Before long, he moved from the neighborhood. He got married, started a private elementary school in the Valley, began raising two children, settled in Pasadena. He stopped by the Apple Pan less often, but occasionally the couple took the kids for burgers on the way home from the beach. They would perch on four red swivel seats: dad, daughter, mom, son. Gordon remembered him, gave the kids extra cream on their pie.
Over the years, Neal returned from time to time, sometimes alone, sometimes with his wife when the kids were staying with grandparents.
Gordon was always there, handing out burgers wrapped in paper sleeves. He wore the same apron, same paper hat.
The years rolled by. Neal rarely found time to return to the Apple Pan. The kids grew up, fell in love, went to school, moved out of the house. His wife grew ill and the kids moved back. After she died, they moved out again.
On a weeknight this fall, Neal met his kids for dinner. They wanted gourmet salads and cocktails on Pico. Afterward, he casually suggested a slice of pie at the old haunt, just down the block. The kids remembered only vaguely.
The three entered and found just one open seat. They waited along the back wall.
Gordon was there, working the place alone, in the same apron, same paper hat. He wiped sweat from his brow. He looked tired.
He didn’t notice Neal, who had grown much heavier, with a thick, graying beard now covering his face. Neal didn’t expect his old friend to remember.
A few seats opened up, but not three in a row. Neal asked a couple if they could move down to make room.
Gordon heard the voice and spun around.
“What’s the big deal, Neal?” he shouted, hobbling over to the east end of the counter.
Gordon looked into Neal’s eyes for a moment. Maybe he knew she was gone. He didn’t ask. Neal was relieved.
Gordon poured three cups of the same coffee into the same custard-yellow mugs. He took their order: three slices of banana-cream pie.
“How you been?” Gordon asked, his gray eyes squinting in the bright light. “It’s been a long time.”