Priscilla Pitts sat in a back dining room between breakfast customers, smoking and looking a little lost. Margaret Rodgers leaned her fully starched, razor-thin frame against the door.
"I'll still get up at 4 a.m.," Rodgers said. "I've done it for 23 years. It's all I know."
"I'll miss the customers," Pitts said. "I've seen 'em come and go and grow up and die. They're family. That's what I'm gonna miss the most." DRC/Barron Ludlum Waitress Circe "C.J." Joines gets some tea for longtime customers Wednesday at Ruby's Diner on the Square in downtown Denton. The beloved eatery will close its doors Thursday. View larger More photos Photo store
The two have been waitresses at Ruby's Diner on the Square for a combined 43 years. Both preceded their boss, Ken Willis, by several years at Ruby's.
Last week they learned that on Friday, June 10, Ruby's will be no more. They won't have jobs. They won't be taking cups of coffee to tables full of lawyers, or building contractors, or postal workers, or cops, or old men remembering the past with an exaggerated eye.
"Our customers are heartbroken," Pitts said. "They tell us to let them know where we go and they'll follow us."
Though she'll soon be 80 years old, Rodgers isn't sure she's ready to quit taking orders and filling them to the customers' satisfaction. She worked for the original Ruby, Ruby Eddleman, who opened the diner in 1987. She worked for Tim Shaw after he bought it in 1994. And she was there waiting when Willis walked in the door in 1996.
Pitts needs a job but admits she's not sure how to go about getting another one.
"I don't even know how to fill out an application; it's been so long since I had to do it," she said.
Willis walked out of the kitchen with a chocolate pie stacked high with meringue. For years he's been dividing his time between the diner and his other business, Beth Marie's Old-Fashioned Ice Cream and Soda Fountain, around the corner. He sold Ruby's because he needs time to devote to the ice cream franchise business that is taking off, he said. DRC/Barron Ludlum The comparatively plain yet iconic exterior of Ruby's Diner, shown Wednesday. Besides housing a vast array of eclectic decorations and menu items, the downtown mainstay served as a second home for an almost equally diverse community of patrons. View larger More photos Photo store
"I can't do it all anymore. I'm wore out," he said. "I'm feeling good about what's gonna happen with the building. I'd feel better if [the new owner] was going to keep the name."
Willis walked around the two dining rooms, with their eclectic wall hangings of old newspaper clippings, photos of patrons, silly sayings and the odd cow skull, pointing out the decor that will remain and the stuff he'll take home. His wife, Nancy, isn't happy about that part, he said. Take that metal Christmas tree. Its base is his grandfather's wagon wheel and it's decorated with Texana. The battered hat that crowns the top was his first hay hauling shade.
"I've had it since we opened. My wife kicked it out of the house," Willis said. "Now it'll have to go back upstairs. I'm keeping my [stuffed] alligators, too. My wife prefers that John keep them, but they're going home."
John Cartwright, the new owner, purchased most of the photos and Western motif along with the building.
Willis pointed out one of his historical treasures. Ruby's probably was the only restaurant to sport a photo of a public hanging on the wall, he said.
He'll be taking several of the deer heads back to his game room.
"Most of them were brought up here by men whose wives wouldn't let them hang them in the house. They'd come up here and sit beside them and drink their coffee. Most of those guys are dead now," he said. "So I guess I'll take them home." DRC/Barron Ludlum The daily specials are shown as customers chat and enjoy their meals at Ruby's Diner on Wednesday in Denton. View larger More photos Photo store
The regulars ask him where they're supposed to eat when he closes the diner.
"They ask, 'Can we come to your house for breakfast?' I say no. We don't really cook at our house. We've always eaten leftovers or mistakes. I guess the stove works. I really don't know."
A long table near the front sat empty. Not so long ago it was three tables pushed together to accommodate a crowd of old men who did their coffee drinking and lying there every morning.
One of the men, Bill White, offered to build a single table that wouldn't slosh coffee every time somebody moved. Ken gave him two bases, and he brought back the big table.
White is dead now, along with most of the other men who sat there, half the morning sometimes, drinking free refills and arguing.
The Lunch Bunch gathered there one day a month for lunch. That was a group of people who attended the Lab School at what is now the University of North Texas from 1948 to 1952. They are a rowdy bunch, said Jane Toomer, one of the organizers of the group. Willis used to try to quiet them, but it didn't really work.
"Once, he brought a garden hose in there and threatened to spray us down," she remembered.
She doesn't know where the Lunch Bunch will eat together now.
They loved the diner on the Square because it took them back to the time when they roamed the downtown streets because there was nothing much else to do. But it was the atmosphere in the homely building that they loved.
"It's a feeling like we used to have when we didn't have to lock our doors," she said.
Lawyer J. Irving Jeter has been a customer for 23 years. He showed up one day last week and heard the news. He was heartbroken, he said.
"Places like this make a community unique, and it is a shame to lose it because you lose a part of your fabric in the community. But on the other hand, you know, time goes on and changes are inevitable," Jeter said.
For 20 years, Coleman Holt has staked out his corner table for his oatmeal and toast. Circe "C.J." Joines, one of the waitresses, thinks Holt will have to be evicted. He won't give up his table on his own.
He's not sure where he'll go now.
The Briar Inn and Tom and Jo's are gone. Whit's closed years ago.
"I'm getting all choked up," he said. "What can you say; people come and people go."
Janet Turnbull and Kathy Fretwell meet at Ruby's every morning for breakfast before heading off to exercise class. The retired schoolteachers have been friends for 32 years.
"It's a comfortable environment here and the coffee's good," Turnbull said. "It's nice looking out the window at the Courthouse. It's peaceful."
One recent day they overheard Pitts telling another customer the news.
"I said, 'What was that? What did you say?'" Fretwell said. "We couldn't believe it."
They're not sure where they'll go now.
Certainly not to a chain like Denny's or IHOP, they said. Maybe the Old West Cafe.
They'll just have to experiment until they find another place that feels right.
"Change is good," Fretwell said. "But sometimes change is hard."
Staff writer Karina Ramírez contributed to this story.
DONNA FIELDER can be reached at 940-566-6885. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.