by Lisa Spicer, 1788 words
“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you—all.” The pair of barred owls’ serenade drifts into Phyllis’ dream through the window, slightly ajar in the night. She likes fresh air for sleeping. It wakes her up and she thinks, their hoots at night, intruder alert. She knows their call has with different meaning depending on how they hoot. Not a warning because they’re calling back and forth. Looking for love.
She rolls over and intends to go back to sleep. But the clock reads 2:30 AM. Since the fire, she’s been waking steady at that time and her mind goes right to work solving problems she can’t face during the day.
She’s visited by a parade of things lost in the fire. When the jukebox appears, she sits up in the dark and cries. The owls sing again, back and forth. She blows her nose and returns to her pillow. Her thoughts wander to the meeting she arranged for tomorrow afternoon with the crew from the diner. Thank God it’s not early, I’d be late to a meeting at my own house.
She rolls over facing the window, knowing that soon she’ll be hearing the early birds singing in the new day. I’ll let them know I’ve got insurance to rebuild, but it doesn’t cover pay checks. I want to keep them, it’s hard to find such a good local crew. Especially Bilan. Dewayne’ll be fine. Might be just the bump in the butt he needs toward his dream of police detective, what an odd ambition. He says the training takes too long, well so does rebuilding a restaurant. Okay then there’s Jerome. Something about him, can’t put my finger on why, but I want to keep him employed somehow. Maybe it’s because he’s the first to do Mother’s cabbage rolls right. And his pierogi! Maybe he’d go for part time. He could cook for me. Who knows when Amy’s coming home? Gotta remember, tell Amy there’s nothing to come home to.
The next afternoon, it’s nice out so Phyllis wants to meet on the front porch. She directs Meghan how to set up lawn chairs in an oval shape, and where to set the card table for refreshments.
“Okay, Gran. I’m gonna do the iced tea, holler if you ned me.” Going back inside, she lets the screen door slam like an exclamation mark that says she needs a break.
Getting comfortable in her favorite wicker chair, Phyllis looks up and smiles when she sees Jerome walking toward the front steps. “Thanks for coming early. I wanted to talk to you separately.”
“Am I in trouble?” He stops before he climbs the stairs.
Phyllis wants to hold her idea cards close to her chest to hear what he says before she shares her plan. “Well, first, the bad news. I have to let go of my employees.”
Jerome exhales like a puffer fish, closes his eyes and tilts his face skyward. He knew this was coming, “Where else can I cook? There’s no other restaurants around here within walking distance.” He’s just getting back on his feet, he wants to keep it together, get his driver’s license back, get a car again. Not have to hitch and bum rides. Live like a normal person. “It’s not my fault the diner burned down, but now I’m out of a job.”
Thing of it is, Phyllis can’t help wondering if maybe it was his fault, unintentionally. Like a grease fire.
Carrying a tray, Meghan uses her hip to push open the screen door, then uses her foot to keep it from slamming in front of a guest. The tray holds a pitcher of iced tea, stack of plastic cups, sugar bowl, and a dish of lemon wedges.
“You must’ve really liked cooking at the diner,” Phyllis says to Jerome. “We got ‘lot a compliments to the chef.”
“Well, thanks. I like cooking, but in particular, I like to people watch, but I don’t like interacting with ‘em. Slingin’ hash back there, with that long kitchen counter window open like it was, I’d glance up and check out everything going on in the dining room.”
“Remember anything interesting?”
“There is one thing. Something I never told anyone.”
“Because I’m the only one who saw it. Besides maybe Alice, she—”
“What? What was it?” Phyllis is intrigued.
“I think that place was haunted. Not haunted, but you know, like that kids book with the magic toll booth, well I swear, that diner had a time booth like that, the one back in the corner by the bathroom. That was none other than strange.”
“Strange, like what?”
“Like the time, I swear, there was a group of loggers all crammed into that booth. Big guys, which I thought was weird because that big round table was open. Bilan was dealing with a fussy kid table, so I took the guys’s order, grilled it all up, delivered it. They cleaned us out of link sausage, wolfed down a mountain of pancakes. Funny thing is, I noticed they were wearing old time wool clothes.”
Phyllis isn’t quite sure what to make of Jerome’s story. Aside from their talks about keeping the kitchen stocked, she’s never really had a conversation with him. “And Bilan never saw them?”
“Not that I know of. At one point, I looked out from the kitchen, and they’re gone. Poof.” Jerome snaps his fingers on both hands. “I mean, what the hell?”
Phyllis is upset, “You mean they ate all our sausage and dashed?”
“Well, I grabbed their ticket and went over to the table. They left a gold piece.”
“Yeah. Gold. Date-stamped 1898.”
“To pay for their food?”
“Yeah. But don’t worry. I paid their ticket with my own cash. And I hid the gold.”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Because I can’t remember.”
“You never told anyone?”
“Hell no, never said a thing, ‘til now. I’m in recovery. I’m not gonna say I’m seeing things. And who the hell pays for breakfast with gold from 1898?”
“I recall that booth being open a lot. The vinyl seats were cracked, and I patched ‘em with duct tape.” She sits back and takes a deep breath. “Anyone else sit there?”
“On occasion an odd character would have coffee or tea, they rarely ordered food. Once a tramp was sitting there. His clothes were old time, like Charlie Chaplin. I gave him up a bowl of soup and pierogi, hope you don’t mind. When I glanced up again he was gone. Funny thing, Alice always sat at that booth. But she always came and went like a normal customer. Otherwise, that booth was usually empty. But I have a theory.”
“What’s theory got to do with it?”
“It’s a way to explain. It was some kind of time booth into another world. Like a—“
“Like a portal?
“That’s it. I’m not crazy. Please, I don’t want anyone to think I’m crazy.”
“Well, you can’t remember where you stashed the gold.”
“I was stoned, not crazy.”
Ted walks up to the porch, interrupting the conversation. “What’s this I hear ‘bout being crazy?”
“Why, Ted, We didn’t expect you, but come on up.” Phyllis leans over and calls through the screen door. “Meghan, can you bring out another folding chair?”
Ted takes a seat. “I came to lend an ear, lend a hand, whatever I can do. We gotta get another diner up and running. It was the only place between here and anywhere for decent food, good coffee. Pie.” He speaks as if he’s being deprived of his basic human rights.
The spring twangs on the screen door when Meghan swings through, without the extra chair. “Don’t need it. Dewayne called, said he can’t make it on account of being a conflict of interest. He just applied for a job at the police station.” She sits between Jerome and Ted.
“As what, janitor?” Ted never did care much for the guy, who made so much racket washing dishes, slamming the trays. He was surprised Dewayne didn’t break all the Excelsior’s Buffalo China.
Belin walks up the steps to the porch.
“Belin!” Phyllis pushes back the chair beside her. “Thank you for coming. Sit anywhere.” She redirects the conversation. “We’re sharing what we liked about the diner. How about you?”
Belin sits in the chair between Phyllis and Jeremy. She wiggles to get comfortable and uses her smile to cover her anxiety about losing her job. “I can say, I like being waitress. All the customers, they have stories. They leave nice tip. Everyone patient with my English, I learn more, serving their food. The regulars, I hear of their families. I like the customers who stop on their drive. I heard so many things.”
Phyllis taps her hands on her lap. “So everyone is here, except Amy of course. But help yourself to iced tea and let’s get started.” She looks over at Ted, “You were saying what you liked about the diner.”
“Yeah, it was an important spot in our town. Now that it’s gone, where do I hear the local grapevine?”
Meghan sits forward in her chair. “Being right at the crossroads, all that customer traffic goes right on by, we’re losing business like a leaky faucet.”
Phyllis rubs her forehead, massaging memories. “After the mill closed, I was so worried we’d be next. But we were one of the few businesses in town that actually thrived. I think it’s because of our location, where we’re at. Our lifeblood is that highway.” She looks at Jerome, “And of course, they come for the great food. You’re one of the first cooks we’ve had who can do my mother’s recipes proud. Did you know she carried those with her from Poland, sewn insider her coat?”
“Gran,” Meghan interjects. “Let’s not go into World War Two right now. We’ve got our own battle.”
Phyllis relates her plan to rebuild with insurance money, but it won’t cover everything. “The challenge I have now is, how to keep you all employed. There’s lots to be done. So today, I want to find out who can do what. Knowing what works good, let’s include those things. What I need to do is figure out how to keep y’all on the books. Jerome, I could use help cooking here at home, and that’ll give Meghan more time.”
“Thank you!” Meghan sighs.
“I have idea,” Bilan says. “Where I come from, when family has emergency, we have big dance party, everybody bring food, and people give money.”
“A benefit dance, great idea!” Meghan says.
“I also have an idea,” Jerome says. “Ted, you know about gold, right?”