by Amory Peck, 1633 words

Fighting the wind and rain, Alice Smyth pulled open the heavy door to the Excelsior and slipped into the diner. Although the bell attached above the frame gave its customary jangle, no one seemed to notice her arrival. Despite the calm it gave her to be back inside, she didn’t stop to appreciate the ambiance until she was safely tucked into the booth she claimed as her own. Since it was the booth closest to the bathrooms and furthest from the counter, it was rarely occupied. Alice skooched across the cracked vinyl bench until she reached the security of the corner of the booth which would be her refuge for the next hour or so, perhaps longer if she felt she could extend her visit without causing a fuss.

“Hey Miss, the girls are both busy right now, but they’ll be with you in a jiffy,” Jerome called out from his vantage point in the kitchen behind the counter.

With a sigh, Alice bobbed her head to show she’d heard him. She’d been coming to the Excelsior every day for almost three weeks now. From day to day, Jerome gave no indication he remembered her and her consistent early-lunch order. Under her breath she said, “I’m Alice Smyth. I’ll have a cup of today’s soup and black tea, please.”

Alice was used to going unnoticed. She knew she was ordinary: five foot four inches tall, a bit skinny. Brown hair tied back, brown eyes. If pressed, she’d name her eyes as her best feature. Deep brown, with flecks of gold. Always a touch of sadness in them, often an unshed tear or two.

Her clothing would most kindly be called serviceable. Jeans of no particular style, faded from years of use, but without fashionable rips or tears. Serviceable canvas shoes. Not runners, or trainer—just what used to be called tennis shoes or gym shoes. Serviceable T-shirts, too, the sort Hanes would sell three to a package. If you were to notice anything it would be the enormous, well-used, army-green sweater Alice wore daily, whatever the weather. She held it wrapped around her as a security blanket or, perhaps, a protective shield. Maybe, even a garment just like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.

A ward of the court, Alice had been placed in the Sisters of Charity School for Girls. Reverend Mother Hildegard had a clear picture of the proper deportment for a good Christian young woman, and she had that proclamation prominently displayed throughout the school and dormitories. “Put on then … compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” While many of the girls were able to ignore those words from Colossians 3:12, Alice found the commandment riveting, troubling, and a touch prophetic.

Those early days kept proving to Alice that she was invisible. Sitting primly at her assigned desk, the first to arrive in the morning, Alice would hear the next student arriving say, “Oh, no one’s here yet.” Always the first to tuck in at night, the next couple of girls would arrive, giggle, and say, “Good! We’re the first here, let’s take a peek at the magazine you found.”

The cruelest cut of all was that no one would bother to learn her name. Whenever asked, she’d say, with as much spunk as she could muster, “I’m Alice Smyth.” “Ah yes, Miss Smith,” would be a reoccurring response. Alice was proud of one thing. She wasn’t a Smith; she was a Smyth—and people kept missing that important piece of her identity.

That morning, as she waited for Bilan to take her order—the same soup/tea order day after day—Alice filled the time thinking about the Excelsior regulars she’d come to know, quite well in her own private way. Alice had learned early on that when people tend to overlook you, you, in turn, can watch and listen to them as intently as you wish.

Even though Alice was becoming more and more comfortable in the diner, Jerome made her a bit uneasy. Not that he had done anything to cause that. Just this morning, his “… they’ll be with you in a jiffy” was pleasant and appropriate. He was just “too much,” too much smile, too many teeth. Too good looking. Too comfortable in himself. Too much everything I’m not, thought Alice.

Ted, on the other hand, made her the most comfortable. His gruffness seemed much like her quietness, his scruffiness the same sort of costume she wore every day. He, of all the regulars, knew she was there. Every day that kindred soul would nod his head to her. Shortly after leaving the Sisters of Charity at the required age of 18, Alice branched out and took an introductory yoga class. While she didn’t find the money to continue, she remembers the beautiful farewell exchanged at the end of the class: Namaste. That beautiful word was accompanied by a nod of the head. She understood the word to mean “I see you.” And, Ted nods his head as he walks by!

She envies Bilan for her lack of skills in English. Envies her, and daydreams of living somewhere, Nepal or Tibet, perhaps where she’d be free of any expectation of conversation. Lovely!

Flora seems a bit silly, but she makes Alice yearn for something she can barely name. All of those school years Alice had been bombarded with instructions: “Get in line, lights out,” “stand up straight,” “don’t dawdle, bow your head!” Flora, instead, asks questions: “Are you eating well, exercising enough, sleeping well?” Alice can’t imagine what it would feel like to have someone show concern for her well-being.

Meghan gets lots of her attention. Just imagine being able to step right into a situation, to take charge … to be the boss! Alice can’t stretch her imagination nearly enough to picture herself in charge of anything.

What she can imagine, though, is the life of the dishwasher. Three weeks and she still hasn’t heard his name. They call him only “the lad.” He lives in her world.

At a sound, Alice turns to see Ted shuffling by to claim his seat at the counter. He nods.

* * *

It’s not often that a person finds a job that’s just exactly right. Dwayne Schwartz knows he’s one of the lucky ones. Sure, most people would laugh to hear someone say that five hours a day scrapping congealed eggs off greasy plates is ideal, But, ideal it is.

As the Excelsior’s dishwasher, he gets to work five hours a day. Phyllis isn’t especially generous money-wise, but she does pay him $12.00 an hour, plenty of money for his expenses. One day when he was still in school, his English class learned a new word: parsimonious: stingy or frugal, unwilling to spend money. Dwayne couldn’t believe all the joking that followed, all the talking about Old Scrooge. To him, being parsimonious seemed a word of pride. Of course, he counts every penny that comes to him! His question was why others didn’t do the same.

After graduation, Dwayne knew he wanted to stay around town. Mom and Dad let him know that, as a graduate, he was on his own now, money-wise. Nosing around town, he found a single room (with bath down the hall) to rent over Sven’s tavern. Sven shouldn’t have rented to him since Dwayne was not yet 21 and the only way to get to the room is through the bar and up the back stairs. But Sven knew that Dwayne would be an okay renter—and probably the only one around who would find the run-down room acceptable. He just looks the other way whenever Dwayne passes through the bar.

“Yes,” Dwayne tells people, “I wash dishes at the Excelsior, but I’m going to be a policeman! That’s what I’m meant to be.”

In such a small town, there aren’t many on the police force. And, when there’s an opening, the chief usually chooses someone with experience. Dwayne is determined to make himself so qualified the chief won’t be able to say no when he applies. The plan is to crack open some crime in town.

What better place than the diner to keep tabs on what’s going on around town? Everyone, except those who only go to Sven’s, stops in. Washing dishes doesn’t take any brains—he can keep his keen mind focused on the conversation in the restaurant; the opening where Jerome slides through the meals is plenty open enough for him to hear everything and see quite a bit as well.

Dwayne had thought the crime, the evidence of the crime would be talked about in the diner. He had never imagined the crime might be happening right in front of him. Amy left, unexpectedly. Amy’s been gone way longer than expected. “What’s up,” Dwayne ponders.

Concerned about making the very best impression on the Chief, whenever that inevitable interview occurs, he makes one of the biggest purchases of his life—a 6 x 4 ft magnetic white board. He got a used one cheap from a lawyer remodeling his office. The guy even threw in a box of magnets and some barely used marking pens. Dwayne is going to be an Incident Board expert. It’ll be a crunch all the while he’s tracking the comings and goings at the diner, for the board fits in his room only if it stands kitty-cornered in his room. But, no one’s ever reached their life goal without some sacrifice.

Since he doesn’t own a smart phone or a camera, he’s beginning by drawing portraits of the Excelsior regulars. He’s determined to be the best—just like Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman and Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, the best two British crime solvers on TV.