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, moist eyes, thin flaky lips, a down-on-his-luck geezer. They’re passing through most days now, more and more.
“Don’t drink the stuff. You got whiskey?”
This makes me stiffen. 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, I feel…weird.
When I put the slice 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. Do I know who he is?
“Kelly, com’ on. Think about it.” He takes a bite of pie.
“How do you know my name?”
Cocking his head to the side, smacking his lips, he says, “You know, I’d die and go to hell for a good piece of pie…and a long, long pair of legs.”
And my head goes light. I know who he is. Double check his face. Damp faded green eyes, crooked front tooth.
I swallow hard and step back, hit my arm against the hot coffee urn. A jolt of pain goes through me.
The old man stretches over the counter, his dish and fork clattering to the linoleum, and tries to pull me away from the scalding urn. “What the hell? Are you nuts?”
I stumble down the aisle, my face wet. He comes around, quicker than I’d expect and stops me. Hand on my shoulder, he pushes me toward the ice maker near the sink. Fills the counter cloth with crushed ice and places it against the burn. Holds it there. We’re standing close to each other now and I begin to shiver.
I’m queasy with the thought. Carl here, in this diner, an old man with white hair and wrinkles mapping his suddenly familiar face. “What–what happened to you?”
The ragged thread of my voice hangs between us.
But I know. Booze, drugs. He was skidding when he left, a drinker in a drinking town.
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. 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 “Dan” embroidered on his uniform shirt strides in. I ask him to flip the open sign around to “closed.” Serve him coffee, slap a hamburger on the grill, and keep an eye on Carl, slouched in the last booth by the restrooms.
I can see the young guy in him now, the Carl I used to know. The dip in his right shoulder, the slight angle of his head, and of course, his hands laid out in front of him side by side on the table.
I should’ve seen it right away.
Beth! At my mom’s, the two of them probably playing Double Solitaire on the dining table, Beth’s swinging legs visible through its glass top, Mom’s cigarettes fogging the light fixture.
“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 Carl who’s watching it all.
At least he looks sober. Breaks my heart he looks so old, only a few years older than me. Come back here because he’s lost everything. No place left to go except Starkville.
Again it’s Dan the semi-driver pulling me out of deep thought. He’s pointing at my hand where I’ve managed to knead the slice of American into a pulpy wad.
“Oh, sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten in to me.” I drop the cheese into the sink and pull out another piece. Dan looks at Carl, says, “That guy bothering you because—”
“No, he’s fine. I know him.” I whisper this. Don’t know why.
Dan beetles his brows, shifts on the stool to give Carl a hard look. “I can take care of him.”
“No thanks. I’m fine.”
I lay the cold cheese on the burnt burger and the burger on a plate. Reach into the fridge for a zip lock of lettuce, onion, and tomato and put everything in front of Driver Dan. Barely notice as he removes the veggies from the bag and places them on the burger because Carl is still staring at me, no smile, but no animosity either.
Again my hand smooths my hair, me thinking I haven’t done my roots in a while, then I realize what I’m doing. Turn to the trucker who’s wolfing down his food. He flashes Carl another look when he sees he has my attention. Lifts an eyebrow. I shake my head, write up a ticket, and slip it under his coffee cup.
After Dan the Driver leaves, Carl comes over and takes the plate off the counter and walks it around, and puts it into the sink. Turns on the water.
I grab a dishrag and head out the other side of the counter, lock the door, and start wiping down the four-tops.
Carl says. You still got your admirers I see.”
I don’t say anything. Scrub hard, shove chairs into place, move around fast. Then I whip toward him. “Why are you here? Just tell me if I have to go home and get my rifle and shoot you. “
“Hold on.” He holds up soapy hands. “I’m not going to mess up your life again. I promise.”
“Well, if you’re here, then that just isn’t possible, is it? Not unless you get back on that road and go on back to California”
“I didn’t come here to make things hard for you. “
“Then why the hell are you here?”
“I don’t have any place to go. And you’re here. And Beth.”
“I knew it.” I throw the towel down. Look around for something else to throw. “You want Beth, don’t you? You’re going to try and take her away from me. Well, she doesn’t need you. She doesn’t need anything from you. And you’ll just mess her up.”
Saved notes: 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 relationship 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…
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?
But when he started working in the hospital–all that access to pills–things took a turn for the worse. He was a medical technician, something that seemed promising. An attempt to be a husband and a father…