I waitress at night at the Starkville Luncheonette out on Desert Highway, about a mile before the first real intersection in town. Donnie lets me wear jeans and t-shirts, thank goodness, not one of those scratchy gold-colored uniforms with the white collars and starched aprons that my mom wore back when she worked the counter.
The place is empty so I’ve got time to ponder what I’m going to do about my daughter, Beth. She’s twelve and already has breasts. I think it’s time we get out of town, head somewhere that has a winter to it, where blue geese dip through gray skies and old men build wooden houses on icy lakes.
I’m wiping down the counter for the millionth time when the door opens letting in the sharp smell of sage and a white-haired old guy wearing a plaid jacket and polyester pants. His legs are so thin and crooked they could be made of manzanita.
I didn’t hear a car or truck out on the gravel so he takes me by surprise. I slip my half-filled Pepsi glass off the counter.
“Hey,” he says. “You got pie?”
“Lemon meringue, no berry.” I straighten up, tossing the rag under the counter, and before I can stop myself, I’m smoothing down my hair with a damp hand.
“Lemon’ll do.” He slides onto the stool opposite me. Puts his scrawny fists on the formica.
I let my eyes flick to his red fleshy face, his moist eyes. His thin lips are cracked and flaky, like he doesn’t drink enough water. A down-on-his-luck geezer. Seeing them every day, more and more.
“Don’t drink the stuff. You got whiskey?”
This makes me smile. An alkie. Knew it by the nose. I pull the lever on the hot water. Grab a basket of tea bags and place it in front of him.
“How ‘bout some herb tea?”He digs through the assortment, holds up a packet. “Only if you got Red Zinger.”
“I didn’t hear a car. Someone drop you off?”
“Yep. Hitched all the way from California. ”
“Aren’t you going in the wrong direction? Most people are heading TO California.”
“Been there, done that. Got my pie? “
I slip the spatula under the soggy crust and think, huh, weird.
When I put the pie in front of him, he’s staring at me.
He says, “You really don’t know who I am, do you?”
I get a little dizzy as the words line up as a sentence in my head. Know who he is?
“Kelly, com’ on. Think about it .”
“How do you know my name?”
“Good pie,” he says cocking his head to the side, smacking his lips. “I’d die and go to hell for a good piece of pie…and a long, long pair of legs. ” He drops his eyes as if he can see mine hidden by the counter.
And I know who he is.
I step back and my arm bumps the hot coffee urn. His damp eyes are faded green, front tooth crooked. I swallow hard and feel like a jolt the burning pain from the hot pot on my arm.
The man stretches over the counter, his dish and fork clattering to the linoleum, as he pulls me away. “What the hell? Are you nuts?”
My face is wet as I stumble down the narrow aisle, but he comes around, quicker than I’d expect and stops me. Hand on my shoulder, he nudges me toward the ice maker near the sink. Fills the cloth I use to wipe down the counter with crushed ice and places it against the burn. Holds it there.We’re standing close to each other now and a shiver goes through me.
I can’t believe it. I’m queasy with the thought. Michael here, in this diner, an old man with white hair and wrinkles mapping his face.
“What–what happened to you?” But I know. Booze, probably drugs. He’s been skidding since he left.
The ragged thread of my voice hangs between us. Finally he says, “I ever tell you how damn good you look in a pair of jeans?”
The crunch of eighteen tires sounds outside, the spit of brakes. He drops the dish rag into the sink. The cold drip of melting ice soaks my hip. A moment.
I glance toward the door and whisper, “I…I have to work.”
He nods and moves out from behind the counter.
A heavyset guy strides in. I ask him to flip the open sign around to closed. Serve him coffee, put a hamburger on the grill, and keep an eye on Michael, slouched in the last booth by the restrooms.
I can see the young guy in him now, the Michael I used to know. His white hair almost black, the dip of his right shoulder, and of course, his hands laid out in front of him side by side on the table. I should’ve seen it right away.
“Miss?” The trucker’s voice brings me back. He’s pointing to the crackling burger in front of me. I flip it, dig for cheese in the tiny fridge, and glance back at Michael who’s watching it all.
Then I freeze. Beth. He’s gonna wanna see Beth.