I like to read through a piece I’m working before I head off to bed and change what I can, but usually my brain is dead. More important for me is reminding my subconscious that there’s a story developing.
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, legs 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 wrinkled, face, his faded green 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. But my back’s turned so he can’t see it. 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, something’s 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. “I’d die for a good piece of pie…and a pair of long, long legs. ” He drops his eyes. And I know who he is.
I step away from the counter and my arm bumps against the hot coffee urn. The creases around his eyes, the crooked front tooth. I swallow hard and burning pain jolts through me. The man stretches over the counter, his dish and fork clattering to the linoleum, as he pulls me away from the coffee pot.
“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. Michael here, in this diner, an old man with white hair and wrinkles mapping his face.
“What–what happened to you?”
“You still look great in a pair of jeans.” The ragged thread of his voice hangs between us.
The crunch of 18 tires outside, the spit of brakes, the cold drip of melting ice on my hip, his hand dropping the dish rag into the sink. A moment.
I glance toward the door and whisper, “I have to work.” He nods and moves out from behind the counter as a heavyset guy strides in.
I serve coffee, put a hamburger on the griddle, and keep an eye on Michael, slouched in the last booth by the restrooms. I can see it now. The white hair less wavy than it used to be still holds the familiar shape, the dip of his right shoulder lower than the left, 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 frying burger right in front of me beginning to smoke. I flip it and glance back at Michael who’s watching.
Now I’ll never see ice-boats on Lake Michigan.