by Linda Quinby Lambert, 1784 words
After picking up assorted flyers and letters from the mail slot, Phyllis pursed her lips. “Why did I say that?”
She glanced at Meghan, slouched on the sofa, leaning over her phone, earbuds in, as usual. Maybe she hadn’t heard.
Meghan looked up, excitement in her eyes, “Gran? I was wondering why you named the café Excelsior?”
The old lady raised her eyebrows, allowed a slight smile, and opened her mouth to speak. Meghan rushed on.
“In one of my classes, we read a poem Longfellow wrote. It was called ‘Excelsior!’ At the bookstore, I stumbled on a mystery by P.G. Wodehouse, Death at the Excelsior. Then I started seeing “excelsior” all over the place, attached to things that weren’t around when you started the restaurant—a song by Smashing Pumpkins, the name of a lumber company, a restaurant in Amsterdam, a starship in Star Trek, even a college.”
“And did you look up the meaning?”
“Well, yeah, something like ‘ever upward’ or ‘higher.’ You must admit, it’s kind of a weird name, sitting in the same neighborhood as Sushi Delight and The Velvet Fork. Does anyone ever ask you about it?”
“Harumph. They just want to know that their toast isn’t burned, and their eggs are over easy.” She shifted in her chair, directing her gaze out the window. “There was one guy, a printer, and he got all excited because some tiny print on the menu was written in a font he knew, Excelsior typeface, 3-point. I just shrugged. News to me.”
“You could have named the diner Groovy Grub or The Vintage Vinyl.”
“No way. Is that your best offering after four years of study? I wanted something with meaning, a word that stood out and made people curious. I had my reasons.”
“Well, what were they?”
“I was so exhausted from taking care of Joe that I wanted something positive. I didn’t care that Excelsior sounded too fancy for a diner. At 40, with a little girl to support, I had to have some sense of hope, so making the diner the best I could was my goal. My mother was an immigrant from Poland. She saw ‘Excelsior’ on New York’s state flag, and it was one of the first English words she learned. Excellence became a motto for her life and then for me.”
“That’s cool, Gran. Not something stupid like my boyfriend’s start-up, Ctrl-Alt-Defeat, which he thought was oh-so-clever but it didn’t mean anything, and nobody knew what he did.”
“If people like my biscuits and they never ask about the name, I’ve decided that’s fine with me. I’m just glad that nobody’s gotten tired of the checkerboard floor and the patched red vinyl booths.”
“That duct tape scratches my butt when I sit down,” Meghan said.
“Nobody,” Gran said with pride, “has ever complained but you. Besides, we’re the only place in town with a jukebox, and we still make milkshakes with the machine I bought in 1968. Customers get an extra stainless steel cup half full of a chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla shake. And I don’t add on a surcharge for the extra, even if it means less profit for us. I figure we’re plenty modern, with a couple of high falutin’ entrees…and we take credit cards.”
“Going to my room, now,” Gran said, patting Meghan’s arm. “Might watch a couple of “Midsomer Murders” episodes. Fix yourself some dinner. Make a deposit tomorrow and bring me the receipt so I can keep up the books. She pointed to a heavy black binder with Records stamped in gold on the front, an ancient precursor to QuickBooks. Three sturdy steel posts held the pages together.
Meghan and Gran’s three weeks together had been amiable, even loving at times. Meghan listened to her grandmother’s nightly advice, though she already knew how to beguile customers—by being personable, unobtrusive, and fast. She did wonder if Gran would ever relax her grip on the business and trust anyone besides family to run it. What about those words of hers, “And we take credit cards?” Did she really think credit cards were “modern?”
There was one thing she didn’t understand. I’m not a mother, Meghan thought, but it seems like a mother would be anxious. Wouldn’t Gran be worried about real possibilities like a car wreck or amnesia? Why had she scuttled the idea of calling the police? Why would she excuse her daughter for taking some time to herself? Gran acts unconcerned, but I think she knows something.
Shrugging off her own concern wasn’t easy, but in the moment, as Gran returned from getting the mail, Meghan had made a choice: she needed to do her own sleuthing. Now wasn’t the time to react—of that, she was quite certain—to the idea of a sperm donor who might not be dead.
Flora Perez climbed onto her customary stool at the Excelsior and requested her namesake omelet.
“No class today,” she said, aiming her words at Meghan, balancing three plates in her left hand, a coffee pot in the other, and looking as graceful as a cirque du soleil gymnast on a high wire. “There was a flu outbreak, so gimme, if you please, a tall O.J. and some Energen-C if you have any under the counter.”
“Right,” said Meghan, “I’ve got Echinacea, elderberry, and some hot ginger tea with honey too.”
“You’re livening up this place with happy, healthy extras; it’s about to enter the 21st century.”
“Yeah, but don’t tell Gran—she already thinks we’re way too retro.”
“Did she say that?”
“No, that word’s not in her vocabulary, but I know how to read her scowl when she wonders why gluten-free flour and asparagus and jicama are on the order list.”
Meghan crossed her arms and lowered her voice.
“Listen, Flora, you know my mom, right? Yesterday, you grabbed Ted by the lapels, well figuratively, and teased him about being pals with her. Is there something going on between them?”
“Oh, hell, no. Ted’s almost as old as Phyllis, but he was Joe’s friend first. After Joe died, he’d come into the diner after hours and help out. Sometimes, he’d play with Amy so Phyllis could tidy up faster. You were around sometimes too, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, he was nice to me, although I didn’t seem him often.”
“Anyway, Amy and Phyliss, and Ted, they’re all friends, family-like. He knows that they’re not after his money.”
“Like I said, he has a heart of gold, but he also found gold. When he wasn’t doing seasonal work here, he panhandled in Alaska. At first, just for the adventure of it. He started with a second-hand pan and an old sluice box, but now he’s got a multi-frequency metal detector that can find gold that’s under the ground. It runs on batteries and has wireless headphones. He’s not rich, but he’s got a stash.”
“How come people don’t know his story?”
“He’s a private guy. He doesn’t let many people in. He uses his gruff exterior, scroungy beard, and low-level job as a sanitation worker to keep gold-digging widows away who might get wind of his off-season exploits. He’s a hands-on expert at cleaning shit out of public restrooms. Not the most attractive occupation.”
“I get it, and my mom and grandmother are in his small circle. Do you think my mom might have said something to him about why she was leaving town?”
“Pretty likely, I’d say. Since Phyllis isn’t at the diner very often, he’d have had a chance to talk to Amy.”
“Order up!” Jerome called from the kitchen, interrupting their conversation. Jerome’s flair for plating was apparent: a sprinkling of parsley atop a patch of melted smoky cheddar, avocado slices placed in perfect sequence, a pinch of cayenne for color and subtle kick. Flora leaned over the plate, inhaling the savory blend, unable to coax further conversation from her mouth.
Yes, thought Meghan, I do want to know more about Jerome too.
That night, when the blinds were drawn, the doors were locked, and the soft sounds of an old woman snoring punctuated the night air, Meghan unlatched the door to the basement and switched on the light…along with her memory. As a child, she had fallen down those very stairs and was rushed to the hospital, a nasty gash in her head generating rivers of blood. She could still conjure the anguished face of her mother and the composed countenance of her grandmother, a team of two opposites hustling her into the car, her grandmother driving, her mother carrying and cradling her.
An emergency doctor stitched up her head—not so many stitches as the smeared blotches of red seemed to merit, but a sufficiency, and no concussion, no permanent damage. She was three, merely a curious child exploring without thought of injury. After that, Ted had attached a black metal latch out of a child’s reach.
When the house was first built, the basement floor was dirt, with clay tiles added later. Wooden support beams and unfinished columns were visible. The area was a partial space, like most houses in the neighborhood not meant for much living. Most residents spent their money on making the upstairs comfortable. To Meghan, the basement had always seemed rustic and cozy but a bit scary, a place where a ghost might live.
As she descended, she saw that little had changed. The old roll-top desk was on the faded 9 x 12 oriental carpet that Joe had loved. The green banker’s lamp with brass base had been moved from the left to the right. Of course. As a lefty, Mom often moved lights and other things around to suit her.
Meghan lowered herself into the chair. The deep file drawer was locked, but she found the Chinese puzzle box buried beneath some papers in the lower right-hand drawer. Ted had shown it to her and pointed out the ivory and jade and intricate designs. “Expensive,” he’d said, “I wonder where it came from.” Although the box contained nothing, he taught her how to open it. They pinky-swore to not tell anyone.
I wonder, thought Meghan, if anything is in it now. I wonder if I remember how to slide the panels. I wonder if it even works. Like the muscle memory allowing a rider to jump on a bike after years of inactivity, the fingers on her hands knew what to do. As she slid the last panel open, she saw and removed a small brass key. She placed it in the file drawer’s lock and turned the key to the right. The drawer popped open.
Inside, a folder: Ancestry.com Smyth Family records.