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, instead of one of those gold-colored uniforms with the scratchy white collars and starched aprons that my mom wore back when she worked the counter.
The place is empty so I can 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. His 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 an eighteen wheeler 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’s at my mom’s, the two of them probably playing Double Solitaire at 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. I used to think he was sophisticated and being with him, I was same. We’d go over to Reno—
“Excuse me, Miss?”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—”
“It’s okay. I know him.” I’m whispering, not sure 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 Dan. Barely notice as he removes the veggies from the bag and places them on the burger.
Carl is still staring at me, no smile, but no animosity either.
Again my hand smoothes 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 the trucker leaves, Carl comes over and takes the plate off the counter, walks it around, and 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 four-tops.
Carl says, “You still got your admirers, I see.”
I scrub harder, shove chairs into place, move around fast. Then I whip toward him. “Why are you here? Just tell me in case I have to go home and get my shotgun and shoot you. “
“Hold on.” He holds up soapy hands. “I’m not going to mess up your life. 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 this minute.”
“I didn’t come to make things hard for you. “
“Then why the hell are you here?”
“I don’t have any place else to go.” He turns his back, continues with the dishes, says, “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.”
I’m shaking so hard, it’s like I’m not going to be able to keep my feet. My nose is running, my eyes swimming.
Carl turns around. Says with a soft slur in his voice, “Sit down, Kelly, before you fall down.”
I back away, bump a chair, and fumble into it. Put my head down on the table top, the smell of onions and 409 greeting me like a friend.
His hand is on the back of my neck. Gentle. Brief. The chair opposite scuffs the floor and Carl lets out a little umph as he sits down.
“I’m not going to ask anything of you, Kel. You don’t owe me a thing.”
I’m facing away from him with a sideways view of the front door. The windmills up on the hill beyond the highway gleam in a strand of moon light. A pick-up passes. Then some kind of sedan slows. I haven’t flicked off the neon. I lift my head enough to turn it toward him, keeping it down on the table.
“You left me,” isn’t what I meant to say, but these are the words that come from my mouth. I leave them there.
His hand strokes the back of my head. I can barely feel it.
“Why did you leave me?”
He leans close so our eyes meet again. “I don’t know.”
“I don’t want you back.”
“I figured that.”
“I don’t want Beth hurt.”
“I won’t hurt her.”
As I lift my head, his sits up too. I say, “I make the rules.”
“You have to earn it, the right to see her. Know her.”
“Where you going to stay?”
“Up at my dad’s, I guess, if he’ll let me.”
“He’ll let you. But you can’t see Beth yet. Not until I tell you.”
“You’re going to have to earn it. I mean it.”
“It may take a long, long time.”
“Kelly, that’s all I got now, is time.”
I think this is a kind of ending. Not yet the perfect ending but I am beginning to see what’s got to happen in this particular story. Now it’s time to have someone read it. I’m asking my friend, Sarah Hilary, to comment on what works and what doesn’t work here. I’ve asked her to let me have it. Be brutal because I’m too close to it to really see anything right now. Right now I’m a little surprised at Kelly’s submission. I had no idea.