Authors: Rosemary Harris
“Call me. I don’t want you trapped in the hinterlands all winter. You’ve got new clothes. You need places to wear them!” I tried to think of that quote about avoiding activities that required new clothes, but it escaped me. Lucy hugged me, then I hit the road.
If I was no longer the downtown, all-in-black girl or the uptown I-have-so-many-names-on-my-clothes-I-look-like-a-Nascar-driver gal, I wasn’t the Junior-League-let-me-take-my-kids-to-a-playdate woman. I was a hybrid. A false something, like the false lamiums I’d be planting in Babe’s garden. A city girl in the suburbs and a suburbanite in the city. That observation gave me a lot to think about. And I did, all the way back to Connecticut.
The sun was setting over the river, and the orange glow was reflected on the limestone buildings on Riverside Drive. Farther north, I passed the Cloisters, a four-acre shrine to the Middle Ages that the Rockefellers shipped from Europe piece by piece, and that small Pantheon-like structure where I always imagined it would be fun to dance or drink or just sit and watch the river.
What did I care if some woman I used to know just got married? Good for her. And her husband seemed like a nice guy, once you got over the fact all his relatives were named Weena or Bitsy—nicknames that after a few drinks sounded vaguely like dwarves or euphemisms for genitals. For goodness sake, they’d named their dog Patrick. Couldn’t they find human-sounding names for their children?
Once I crossed the bridge I felt the big city trappings slip away. And the snarkiness. The clothing from Lucy would probably make their
way to Goodwill, except the hat—she’d ask about that and expect to see me in it. And one of the sweaters she’d most likely bought after seeing Michele Obama wear one just like it, even though I’m of the opinion that argyle is for socks or golfers or Japanese schoolgirls carrying Hello Kitty backpacks. And I was none of those. I thought about my new fall wardrobe until I hit the Merritt Parkway.
At that time of day and that time of year the odds of seeing wild turkeys or deer on the highway were pretty good. I had the gardener’s natural antipathy toward deer, but I got a huge kick out of seeing a rafter of turkeys. I had planned to stop at Babe’s for coffee and one of Pete’s desserts—what the hell, I’d passed on the wedding cake—but when I got there the diner was closed. Babe rarely kept regular hours, so I thought perhaps Neil had surprised her and come home sooner than expected. That made four people I knew who were getting lucky that night, including the newlyweds. Alas, I wasn’t one of them.
I made a wide U-turn in the empty parking lot and out of the corner of my eye noticed it wasn’t entirely empty. Something had moved behind the lattice enclosure and donut sign.
Probably the Terminator raccoons again, who feel no remorse and won’t be bargained with, or maybe wild turkeys living it up in the last few heady weeks before Thanksgiving. I’d make sure to tell Babe next time I saw her so that she could put out the Havahart traps.
It took days of fall cleanups to pay for my long weekend away. They were standing gigs from some of my regular customers and I’d enlisted three of Hugo’s compatriots who’d stayed in the States for leaf season, recruiting them at the bodega near the downtown car dealerships where men gathered every morning, rain or shine, hoping for a day’s work.
After the leaf blowers were turned off and the day laborers piled into their trucks, I’d sweep in to cut back perennials and fling annuals onto the compost pile or into the back of the used pickup that I went halfsies on with Hugo. Now that he was back in Mexico for the winter, I sometimes used it for the messy jobs to lengthen the life span of my Jeep, which was nearing 100,000 miles. The truth was, apart from the lousy gas mileage, I liked the idea of driving a pickup. I was still getting used to the stick and the strange center of gravity, but it made me feel tough, adventurous.
I didn’t pay much attention to the time, preferring to stop whenever
the truck got full or when I got hungry, whichever came first. Then I’d head to Babe’s for sustenance. In the past, I’d brought my lunch like the men did, to save money, but without the social life the diner provided I could conceivably go for days without uttering a complete sentence, and that probably wasn’t healthy.
When I got to Babe’s, I found my usual seat at the counter occupied by a lanky guy in a gray sweatshirt and grimy down vest that looked like all the feathers had been sucked out of it. Just seeing him reminded me to wash up, so I did and came back and sat catercorner to him at the diner’s long L-shaped counter, as far away as I could sit without its being obvious that he grossed me out.
I scanned the blackboard for the day’s specials, but nothing appealed to me. Either I was feeling virtuous for having worked off the weekend’s calories or my grubby dining companion had put me off my feed.
“Just coffee, for now.”
“You sick?” Babe asked, mildly interested.
“No, I just need a few minutes.”
She brought my coffee and topped up my neighbor’s. He moved his keys and phone to one side with a veiny, calloused hand. We dutifully nodded like two people without the slightest interest in each other who were required to be cordial.
In a gravelly voice the guy said his name was Chase and he was in town for a couple of weeks to help a buddy of his who was in the countertop business. During the last week or so he’d become something of a regular at the Paradise while I’d been away and then working my tail off at my fall cleanup jobs.
“Is that right?” I said, hoping I sounded polite. Countertops held about as much interest for me as backsplashes, but every ten or fifteen years homeowners were forced to think about them and my number was coming up soon—the tiles on my kitchen island were popping up like cardboard shutters on an Advent calendar. So far my method of dealing
with them was to put a heavy pot or vase on the ones that had erupted, but I was losing valuable counter space and would soon have to adopt another strategy.
“What kind of countertops?” I asked.
“Oh, the usual. The black stuff, the speckled stuff. Stuff like this.” He tapped a fork on Babe’s counter.
“Let me guess,” Babe said. “You’re not in the sales side of the business, am I right?”
He smiled, revealing a set of alarmingly bad teeth. “Yeah. I do the heavy lifting.”
You didn’t need to be a detective to see that underneath the down vest, the sweatshirt, the flannel shirt, the thermal, and who knew what other layers of insulation, this guy had all the brawn of an anemic coyote. Heavy lifting would not seem to be his forte. He saw what we were thinking.
“My pal is helping me out. We met in the service.”
Having had a brief flirtation with countertops the previous spring when the tiles in my kitchen started popping up, I happened to know that most of the stone and granite companies in Springfield were owned by Eastern Europeans. Babe knew it, too, since most of them were her customers. Was this guy trying to convince us that he’d been in the Bosnian army? Another dubious look must have crossed our faces.
“Okay, it wasn’t the service. We got in a little trouble when we were kids. Nothing serious—kids’ stuff.”
Something about the Paradise Diner acted like truth serum on certain people. Maybe there was something in the water. They came in and spilled their guts as if Babe were a therapist, a priest, and a parole officer all rolled into one. They shared things they’d never told their husbands, wives, or analysts. And then they left a tip commensurate with how much they’d unburdened themselves.
“Hey, pal, stop right there,” Babe said. “We really don’t need to
know where you met The New Granite King of Springfield or what you did to get there. Today is the first day of the rest of your life and all that jazz. Besides, whatever
did, we can probably top it.”
“You don’t say.” Chase leaned in to hear more.
“I once served coffee to a double murderer right where you’re sitting—not that I knew it at the time. Right, Paula?” I nodded, not eager to talk about it. I had worked for the murderer and it had not been my favorite job.
The man gave us a strange, almost admiring look, and there was an awkward silence when that particular line of conversation evaporated.
“Look, I didn’t mean to cut you off,” Babe said, refilling his cup and giving him a donut on the house. “It isn’t that we don’t care about you, but we’re a
don’t ask, don’t tell
kind of diner. At least until we know you better. One of Babe’s rules.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “Babe. That’s not what your mama called you, is it?”
“As a matter of fact she did, but it’s not what’s on my birth certificate, if that’s what you’re driving at.”
I knew Babe’s given name was Wanda and so did anyone else who cared enough to take a magnifying glass to the health department inspection certificate hanging on the wall near the cash register, but this guy was either stupid or flirting. Quite possibly both. He startled both of us by taking a picture of her with his phone and staring at the image although the original was standing right there.
“Let me guess. Your name’s Darlene.”
“Please, do I look like a Brittany? Listen, pal, there are about a million women’s names, not including the New Agey ones and the ridiculous meant-to-be-creative spellings of old names, and the odds of your guessing mine in the next two minutes, which is all the time I have
before the party at booth five wants their checks, are about a trillion to one. So, give it your best shot because now you’re down to thirty seconds.”
“You’re Monica.” The triumphant look on his face suggested that he thought he’d hit the jackpot. He waited for a reaction.
“Game over.” Babe patted her apron pockets for her receipt pad, found booth five’s tab, and excused herself to bring them their checks.
He looked shell-shocked, as if he didn’t believe her, and looked to me for confirmation.
I’d never realized it before, but Babe really was trapped at the diner. As much as she held court and had a steady stream of admirers and friendly faces every day, she also had to deal with loonies like this. What was next? Guessing her weight? It made me appreciate my business, where I rarely saw my clients from March through October, unless they had an infestation of slugs or leaf miners.
“So what is her name?” the guy said, sliding over one seat closer to me. He slurped down the dregs of his coffee and wiped his mouth and his nose on his cuff. If I’d regained my appetite, I’d lost it again.
“Like she said. Her mother called her Babe.” I got up to leave.
“Where you going?” Babe yelled. “Pete’s got a new Nigella cookbook. He’s making converts with it. Two women already left him their phone numbers and asked if he did private parties. Can you beat that? Let’s just hope they were looking for baked goods.”
“I’m going to the nursery. Gotta pick up some orders, including yours. And I may drop in on Caroline. I’ve been trying to reach her. I may catch you on the way back. Otherwise I’ll see you tomorrow when I work on your planters.” I nodded briefly to the man at the counter, who was now staring at me in a way that made me glad I was leaving.
For some reason, I dragged my feet in the parking lot. I didn’t want to simply hop in my car and take off alone, so I sat there, fidgeting with my mirror, my seat belt, and anything else I could think of, waiting to
see if Mr.-I-can-guess-your-name would come out soon. He didn’t disappoint. Two minutes after I left he emerged, holding his phone at arm’s length and shuffling towards a dirty white pickup that had streaks of rust on the side I could see and probably more on the side I couldn’t. He was trying to look casual but failing miserably. Neither of us was fooling anybody. I pantomimed searching for something on the passenger seat, in case he was looking in my direction, wondering why I hadn’t driven away. Then I turned off the engine and went back inside the diner, ostensibly to retrieve whatever it was I’d forgotten. I could feel his eyes on my back as the screen door slammed behind me.
Babe was surprised to see me back so soon. “It was the Nigella reference, right?” she said. “You’re having second thoughts? Dang, Pete could turn out to be a domestic god. I may send him to culinary school. It could be a very good business investment.” I shushed her and dragged her to the farthest booth in the back of the diner.
“Is he still there?” I asked.
“Who?” she asked, looking over her shoulder.
“Countertop Man, who wouldn’t know black honed granite from Black Oak Arkansas. Is he still out there in the white pickup?”
She looked again. “If I had my periscope, I’d be able to answer more intelligently, but from where I’m sitting, no Countertop Man.” She gave me a look that bordered on maternal. “Have you eaten anything today or just guzzled coffee and diet Red Bull? You’re acting kinda jumpy. Five dollars says you’re overcaffeinated.”
“Something is not right with that guy.”
“Tell me what you think over food, okay?” She ordered for me, a Paradise Special—eggs, pancakes, French toast, bacon—well done. And a large decaf.
“Make double sure it’s from the orange pot. No more high test for this girl.”
I did feel better once I’d eaten. After the lunchtime crowd had thinned out, Babe came back to sit with me and brought over a plate of warm chocolate chip scones. She gave me one. Periodically I checked the door, waiting for Countertop Man to reappear.
“You know, everyone didn’t go to prep school,” Babe said, “and maybe he doesn’t have a meaningful relationship with his dentist.”
I’d had a crush on my dentist when I was little—until he hired that big blond dental hygienist. Barbara, I think her name was. I was only eight, but I was no fool. I knew what was going on and I hated her.
“And so what if he’s a con?” she said, breaking off a hunk of scone. “If he’s out, he’s paid his debt. What are those guys supposed to do—put themselves on ice floes? You gotta be open-minded.”
Between the deliriously rich scones and my memories of my first crush, I’d lost the thread of the conversation. Prep schools? Ice floes?