He’s able to keep his cool until she brings up his father. It elicits the reaction she hoped it would. His response is as reliable as a chemical reaction. They both know it happens this way. Every time. It’s why she says it, and even though he knows she’s trying to goad him, he can’t help but react.
Obscenities. Names. A shattered ashtray. And yelling. A lot of yelling.
He punctuates the argument by slamming the front door. She follows him down the walkway, all the way to his car. They share a few more tender words only lovers can spit, he backs out of driveway and puts her in his rearview mirror.
He never knows where he’s going to go.
* * * * *
The diner door rings as he walks in. A couple of old dogs sit at the bar, sipping on coffee, their dusty, tattered clothes matching the tired town. They give him a cursory look of nothing in particular, then resume staring off.
He finds a seat at a booth. The padding is rough, wrinkled, cracking and torn. Edges of the tables rounded by years, instead of tools.
He turns to the waitress, “Hi there.”
“How are you?” then, before he can answer, “What can I getcha?”
“Coffee, please.” He says.
“Cream? Sugar? Whiskey?”
“Black, thank you.”
She smiles at him, something warm. The waitress jots something else down and glides away with ease and confidence. An old dog at the bar say something to her in a not all-too-kind tone, she mirrors it and shuts him up before shouting to the kitchen for something.
He fishes his phone out and eyes the notification bar: empty. He opens a text message, thumbs poised over the keyboard, but nothing comes to him, so stuffs it back into his pocket.
“One black coffee.” The waitress says, then leans down. “You look like you might need a little pick me up.” She winks at him and places a shot of something amber colored next to him.
“That obvious, huh?”
She gives him that smile again, and motions to the group of men at the bar, “Let’s just say I know my clientele.”
“They all live here?”
“Certainly not here, but I think you’re onto something. I should be chargin’ these fellas rent.” She ponders for a moment, “They all live in town.” She gestures with a finger, pointing the men out and speaking a little louder. “Dale there, he’s sixty-five, though you’d think he’s closer to eighty-five.”
Dale turns, “I may be old, but I can hear ya, ya witch.”
She smiles at that, not the warm kind, either. “Dale’s been a carpenter here for longer than he could walk. Owns a furniture store ‘other side of town.”
“Good drinker too!” He yells, raising an empty glass. “Think ya could do your job and—“
“There’s Bradley there.” She says, ignoring Dale. “He used to be a pooper scooper, but—“
“I worked in sewage!” Bradley says, turning in his stool, a deep furrow set in his brow. “Dammit woman, if I didn’t know any better, you got nothing but cobwebs between them ears of yours.”
“And that’s Craig.”
Craig faces them and nods, then goes back to his coffee.
When she doesn’t continue, Ben asks, “And what does Craig do?”
“Hell if I know.” She says. “Nothing. Old coot never leaves the bar, sometimes I wonder if he’s gonna keel over right there in that stool and leave me a mess more than the usual coffee stains and torn up napkins.”
Craig thinks about it, then nods, seeming to agree.
“Anyway,” the waitress says, “We don’t get a new comer around here often.”
“Lovely town like this? I find that hard to believe.”
“Not everyone would take kindly to that sarcasm of yours.” She says levelly, “But yeah, I get what you’re getting’ at. Bartlett is home of a street light, and the state’s largest feral cat problem.”
“Don’t forget the stop signs.”
“Ah yes,” she says, her smile back now, “Three stops signs, how could I forget?”
He wraps his fingers around his coffee cup, “Become too accustomed to something wonderful and you forget what made it so special.”
“Tell you what, Buddha, how ‘bout you live here 15 years and then try to have the same optimism.”
“Did I also mention it’s good to know when to keep your mouth shut and accept a gift?” He raised his shot of whiskey and grinned.
“Atta boy,” The middle-aged waitress patted him on the shoulder, then turned to the bar, “Yeah, yeah, I see you Dale. Smiling might help you get service a little quicker.” Dale gave his best grin, “OK, nevermind, I’ll get you that refill, just don’t ever do that again. Makes me queasy.”
* * * * *
The newspaper was local, but from last Sunday. Everything either featured news from another town, or coupons for a strip mall two towns over. And yet he reads them anyway, pours through the ads for sales on desks, on bundles of bananas, deals on outdated computers and a computer repair shop ran by what looked like father time’s doppelganger.
It’s raining. Summer storm in the distance, easily spotted by the distinct lack of high rising land features or manmade buildings; the tallest structure was the Ray’s supermarket on the south side of town.
He takes another drag from his cigarette. It’s from a new pack; he’ll make sure it’s gone by the time he gets home.
Back at his table, he sees the check, and rifles through his wallet for cash.
“You didn’t charge me for the whiskey,” he says when she shows up.
“What whiskey?” She gives him a friendly wink and takes the cash. “So, what’s a young thing like you doing in a nobody place like this?”
“Who you calling nobody?” Bradley calls from the bar.
“You.” She says, after turning to him. “Me. All of us. When we get a post office, Bradley, I’ll change my tune.”
“No post office either?” Ben asks. When she shakes her head, he continues, “Room for growth?”
“Again with that optimism.”
“Truthfully, I just kinda started driving and stopped when I got hungry. Or tired. Or both?”
“That a question, Darlin’?”
“No. I guess I don’t really know why.” He eyes his phone again.
The waitress raises an eyebrow. “Expecting a call?”
“Yes. No.” He exhales. “I guess I don’t really know.”
“Ahh…” The waitress says, then crosses her arms. “Woman troubles, am I right?”
“Nothing terrible.” He tries to say casually.
“Nothing terrible?” She shifts her weight and almost looks disappointed in him. “I doubt that very much.”
“Honest. Just fine.” Ben says, raising his hands. Then when she doesn’t break, “OK maybe it is bad.”
“I aint never seen a man suck down six cigarettes in less than half an hour and be ‘just fine.’”
“Is it that obvious?”
She gives him a piteous nod. The waitress puts the coffee down and joins Ben in the booth. Dale turns around and looks like he’s going to make a remark, but the look she gives him makes him think better of it.
“Now,” she says, leaning in, “what did you do to your woman?”
Ben smiles at the phrasing of the question, “Well she certainly isn’t my woman. But we got into it. Heavy. I don’t know if or how to go back, to be honest.”
“Raisin’ all hell?”
“And then some.”
She nods and thinks for a moment. “She call you names?”
“Several. Some in languages I didn’t know she knew.”
This coaxes a proud smile from the waitress, “Sounds like your Lovely and I would get along great.”
“Maybe next fight I’ll tell her about this little slice of heaven and you two can take turns flicking me shit.”
“That would be nice,” She’s looking off in the distance, her face imaging something wonderful. She winks at him, crow’s feet bordering the twinkle in her eye.
“I think you two will be just fine.” The waitress says finally.
He squints at her, “Just like that. You know we’ll be ‘fine.’”
The waitress turns to the bar, “Hey, Dale—no, just hush for a moment. What’d I say to you the other day?”
“You’ll have to be more specific.” Dale says, grimacing at his empty coffee mug.
“It was right after you called me a lazy hag and pounded the coffee mug on the table.”
Dale smiled at that and gave a quick hoot of a laugh, “You said something about shovin’ my coffee mug up my entitled arse.” He giggled again, “An’ then I says, I asked if you were offerin’ to help.”
“And then I said you were well overdue for a colonoscopy and I inquired about the integrity of your doctor.” The waitress finished.
Dale gave another short laugh, and a childish grin, “Then something about a hippocrampus oath.”
“Hippocratic.” She said with a genuine look of happiness. “I said they wouldn’t touch your arse with a 10 foot pole, Hippocratic Oath be damned.”
She turned back to Ben. “See?”
“What am I seeing?” Ben asked.
“Lord almighty,” she says to the ceiling. “No wonder your woman is upset. Point is, Darlin’, these stooges have been sittin’ at my bar for fifteen years.”
Bradley calls over his shoulder, “Only ‘cause there’s nowhere else to go.”
“Oh hush, Bradley.” She looks back to Ben, “We been spittin’ fire at each other for as long as this old town has been around. And we’ll be goin’ at it until they finish buildin’ that damn post office.”
“They’re build—“ Ben starts but catches himself, “Gotcha.”
She gets up from the seat, “There might be hope for you yet.”
* * * * *
The drive home feels longer than he expects it to be. Usually it’s too short, he’ll find himself circling the block or missing an exit on purpose; unable to put the car in park, let alone muster the courage to turn the car off after pulling into the driveway.
But somehow it’s different today. Every bend in the road heightens his impatience, every slow moving truck is enough to warrant an uncharacteristic blare on his car horn.
He feels like a kid on his way to his first day of school.
Then his phone vibrates in the cup holder next to him.
His mood lifts when he sees it’s from her.