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.
This is the introduction. “Who” is the waitress, “when” is night and “where” is Starkville which now has relocated to the desert in an unnamed state so as not to get any details wrong by having people assume it’s Starkville Mississippi about which I know nothing. “What” seems to be a woman worried about her daughter. Two generations of this family so far living in Starkville have been waitresses and this woman wants more for her daughter. Thinking about a different kind of world for both of them. Still need to remember all that could stand in their way. “How” is will she get what she wants? We don’t know but the appearance of the old guy coming through the door probably means something. And so far that’s happening. “Why?” Don’t know yet, haven’t come up with a sentence yet to represent the theme because I don’t know what it is yet.
I know the theme possibilities have to do with the past coming to haunt the present, escape, changing one’s life, things like that. So far though, for now, this intro does what it needs to do to get me at least to the end of the story.
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. Me seeing them every day now, more and more.
“Don’t drink the stuff. You got whiskey?”
This makes me smile. An alkie. Know 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.”
“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. Something’s going on…
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?”
Okay to this point these two have checked each other out and now they are about to reveal secrets. This works. Maybe there should be more but I don’t know what it is yet I need to add.
I get a little dizzy as the words line up as a sentence in my head. Do I know who he is?
“Kelly, com’ on. Think about it.” Takes a bite of pie.
“How do you know my name?”
“I’d die and go to hell for a good piece of pie,” he says cocking his head to the side, smacking his lips. “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. Damp faded green eyes, crooked front tooth .
I step back and my arm bumps the hot coffee urn. I swallow hard and feel like a jolt the burning pain from the hot pot on my arm.
The old man stretches over the counter, his dish and fork clattering to the linoleum, as he pulls me away from the scalding urn. “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.
Can’t believe it. Queasy with the thought. Michael here, in this diner, an old man with white hair and wrinkles mapping his suddenly familiar 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?”
So now the two of them have had their initial encounter, she’s in a state of confusion and fear?? Not sure yet myself if he’s a threat or not . Probably has to be. But it should be obvious. Hmmm. Don’t know what kind of threat that would be, but there is forward progress here. We know there’s a past relationhip that probably wasn’t healthy and he’s lived a ruined life. His life now casts her life in a good light. I just realized that. Hmmmm…
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. The moment stretches like slo-mo in the movies.
I glance toward the door and whisper, “I…I have to work.”
He nods and moves out from behind the counter.
A heavyset trucker with “Clancy” embroidered on his uniform shirt 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 that used to be 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 sizzling 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. Think of Beth. He’s gonna wanna see Beth.
This can’t be good for Kelly. But what’s going to happen? Is he going to threaten her? So I guess now the question is what does HE want? What is the worst thing he could want? How could he–this pathetically ill man (that’s how I see him damaged and aged by booze and dope) threaten Kelly and Beth. Is that what he wants? What’s the card he has to play?