12064

Waffle House Blues

Michael Sandler

 

On most nights, there were a few customers to keep Darlene company. Most didnít seem to mind that the freezing air managed to get in through the seals around the window panes, cooling the steam that curled from their coffee. The yellow glow cast from the parking lot lights squirmed its way through the glass, coloring the wisps rising from the cups. It looked as though the truckers, travelers and locals who sat in the booths had smuggled the hiding sun in with them and were sipping at its rays. Tonight, however, the booths were empty.

January was the hardest month for Darlene. Two years ago she had just spent her twentieth Christmas with Lyman when he had the stroke. He fell dead three days short of the New Year. Everyone told her it would get easier, but it didn't. She could handle being alone. What she couldn't bear was the way she still turned over to the empty side of the bed to say, "Good morning," or the endless odds and ends of his she would run across. An old belt, a button from his favorite shirt, a work shoe with spider webs of grease lining the toes. She thought she'd got rid of everything except the rings and the pictures, the important things that really keep memories alive. She cried the day she found an old Conway Twitty country music tape in the back of a drawer in the kitchen.

Waiting tables at the Waffle House was easier than working the tobacco fields. She would never forget the sweat and dust baking into a film on her forehead as she bent over the plants in the dry North Carolina soil that was more like sand than dirt. This job now wasn't bad, except for Friday and Saturday nights when it got so busy she felt as though she were in a zombie move where hordes of the undead keep coming and coming and coming. Darlene dreamed of wanting to get up and go to work, not just having a job she could tolerate. I-40 brought in a lot of business travelers even on her night-owl shift. Some she talked to loved their work, others hated it. Darlene thought she would like to have a job where she got to go to different places and stay in motels where they made the bed and gave her a free continental breakfast. She didn't know what a continental breakfast was, but it sounded good. The only problem was that she would be away from Lyman so much.

There you go again.

Darlene, Sara the other night waitress, and Rob the cook each had their own way of handling the boredom of a slow night. Rob was a wiry, wrinkled man with granny glasses who had also worked the fields when he was young. Like Darlene, his hair was starting to gray and his wrinkles had been helped along by the summers of excruciating heat. The funny thing about Darlene's wrinkles was that she spent more time looking at them in the mirror and worrying about them now that Lyman was gone, as though his ghost might not like to watch her aging. She would tug at the deepening lines that ran from the corners of her mouth to her little pointy chin that was still as dainty as it had been in high school. Sometimes she imagined Lyman coming up behind her, taking her by the shoulders with his strong mechanic's hands and planting a kiss at the bottom of her neck.

"Thursdays is always slow," Rob said as he did every Thursday.

They both nodded in agreement. Sara was tired so she was relieved that they were sitting at the counter instead of hopping between the grill and the tables. Darlene wasn't sure if she might not like it better with more to do to keep her mind in the present.

"How's it coming with Scott?" Darlene asked Sara.

"The loser's trying to get increased visitation," Sara said as she blew a plume of smoke over the yellow menus standing at the edge of the counter. She was younger than Darlene and had gone to a year of community college, so Darlene saw her as the smart one.

"Hey, you can't smoke at the counter," Rob said.

They looked at him with the expression normally reserved for finding out the hard way that milk has gone sour.

"Did he give a damn about the kids when we were together? Was he ever home? Was he ever sober? He's even talking about reconciliation. I wonder who he's been talking to. I never heard him use a six-syllable word before. That's a man for you. He'll hate you till you're not there, then his ego's bruised and all of a sudden he gets sensitive. Think I'll turn into a lesbian."

Darlene covered her mouth and gasped, then laughed like a schoolgirl at her first sex-ed class. Rob choked on his Mr. Pibb.

"Business," Rob said as an old gray Nissan pickup pulled into the parking lot. A pudgy man who looked to be in his thirties, with dark hair, pale skin and a few days' worth of stubble on his chin stepped out. The man locked the door of the truck, checked to make sure it was indeed locked, pulled his gray sweatshirt down to make sure it was over his belt, and checked to make sure his fly was closed. Then he walked into the diner.

"Evening," Darlene said to the man as he came in dragging a cloud of cold air that rolled along the walls and floor before flattening out along the floorboards and fading away. Sara went to a corner booth for a nap.

He walked up to the counter and looked at one of the chairs. Seeing something on it, he took a napkin from the dispenser, folded it up into a neat square, and brushed the seat off. Satisfied, he sat down, rubbing his fingertips over the palms of his hands. The laminated menu made a springy sound as he flexed it. Darlene thought he was working too hard deciding what to order, like a condemned man might do in choosing his final meal.

"Something to drink?" Darlene asked as she set his utensils on a paper napkin in front of him.

"Iced tea," the man said. Darlene stood still for a moment. She had never heard such sadness in two such boring words.

He looked at her as she stared at him. Then she went to the tea coolers.

"Sweet or unsweet?" she called over her shoulder.

He didn't say anything for a moment. Then, "Doesn't matter. Sweet I guess."

Darlene filled a chipped plastic cup with some ice and the sweet tea and took it back to him. "What can I get you, hon?" she said, laying a wrapped straw by his drink.

"Chicken melt plate. And can I have the hash browns with cheese and ham?"

She called out, "Chicken melt plate, scattered covered chunked..."

"I know. Jesus, I was right here," Rob said, laying the pressing plate over the piece of chicken he already had sizzling on the grill.

Darlene turned back to the man at the counter. "Where you from? I haven't seen you here before."

"Flagstaff, Arizona," the man said, tapping one end of the straw on the counter to make the top rip through the paper.

"What brings you this far east?"

Sara had been awakened by Darlene's yelling of the order and was now tossing her a warning look. They had often argued over how chummy they should get with strangers at three in the morning. For Darlene, though, it made the time go faster to have someone to chat with on slow nights.

But this man looked as though he might not want to talk much. He rearranged the silverware on the napkin so that none of the metal was touching the counter top and stared at the food cooking, sipping his tea. Just as Darlene was about to get up and join Sara, he spoke.

"I'm going to the ocean."

"The ocean? This time of year? What on earth for?"

"To find Sabella."

"Who's Sabella?"

The man sipped again and was silent. Darlene took the cue and left him alone, sitting down with Sara.

"He's going to the ocean," Darlene said to her in a whisper.

"The ocean?" Sara said.

"Yeah. Can you figure that out?" Darlene paused, glanced back at the man to see if he was looking, and then said, "What if he's crazy? We're not that far from Dix, you know. What if he's escaped?"

Sara rubbed her eyes. "Darlene, please. What have I told you about buying those papers while you wait in the supermarket line? They make you think fantastic thoughts."

"Well, they got pictures to back up what they say."

"There is no two-headed Christ child in French Lick, Indiana, and that man is not crazy. I think he's lonely."

Darlene was willing to defer to Saraís judgment on the man's mental state, but she wasn't so sure about French Lick.

"Sabella, my love" the man said, seemingly to the grill hood.

Darlene and Sara turned and looked at him.

"See," Sara muttered. "I told you."

"You're in love with a gal named Sabella who lives at the shore, right?" Darlene said to him. "Where is she? Wilmington? Carolina Beach?"

"Quebec. She took a flight to Quebec to visit her sister."

"So what are you going to the ocean for, mister? You got me all mixed up," Darlene said.

"She's waiting for me there -- in the water."

Rob stopped slinging the hash browns. Only the splattering and popping of the greasy half-cooked food could be heard.

"Say what?" Darlene said.

"I'm going to meet her in the water and we'll be together for all eternity."

"I thought she was in Quebec," Darlene said. "Where's Quebec," she whispered to Sara.

"Her body is near Quebec. But my soul is drawn to the water where we'll be one again."

Darlene got up from her booth and sat next to the man. On the way she grabbed a cup and poured herself a Mr. Pibb. She remembered now. The plane crash last month in upstate New York, bound for Quebec. "What's your name, hon?" she said.

"Mark Litton. I see you're Darlene," he said, looking at her nametag. "You're very kind."

"Now Mark, what do you mean, you'll meet her in the water?"

"I should arrive at the coast in about four hours. There, I'll go to a special spot on a beach and wade in until I find her."

"Sakes, boy, you're talking suicide."

"I prefer to think of it as a reunion."

"Who was this Sabella that was so wonderful you'd kill yourself over her? She was on that plane, wasn't she?"

Mark rubbed his hand over the black streaks of hair sprouting along his jawbone. "She was. And now we're apart. But I had a dream. She said I had to go east and she would meet me in the water."

"You believe in ghosts, Mark?" Darlene said in a whisper.

"I didn't before. But of course I do now."

They sat at the counter, Mark sipping, Darlene thinking.

"Don't worry, I got it," Rob said to Darlene and brought the plate over to Mark.

"I lost someone not too long ago," Darlene said. "Didn't make me start believing in ghosts, though."

"What did it do?" Mark said.

"Made me cry a lot, I guess. But I'm better now."

Mark looked at her, knowing she was lying. "How long ago was it?"

"Two years. Seems like he just passed away, like I just came from the wake."

"Two years and you're still suffering," Mark said, trying to spread the cheese over the hash browns.

"Rob, what are we, out of cheese or something?" Darlene said. "You think maybe you could give the guy a little less? God, man, you covered more than a square inch. We're gonna go out of business from the overhead!"

"You want to do the cooking?" Rob said, scraping the grill clean.

"I can't bear the thought of living like this," Mark said. "Not for another day, certainly not for two years, and if it doesn't even get better after that...how have you managed?"

"Well, I wanted to get falling down drunk at first, but that felt like it was disrespectful to Lyman. Not really sure why. I guess I thought if I dulled the bad feelings it'd be like what he meant to me didn't matter any more. Doesn't make too much sense, but that's the best I can put it."

"I got drunk when my Sabella went away."

"You sure that's not when you saw her calling to you from the bottom of the ocean?"

Mark smiled and picked up the chicken melt. "No, the dream came later. I think she knew I wasn't going to be able to make it without her, so she just told me to join her. Is there anything wrong with that? I would have gone to meet her eventually, right? We're just moving the schedule up."

"Yeah, I guess you got a point there. But ain't it a sin to commit suicide?"

"It's a sin for God to allow people to die violent deaths. There were children on that plane."

"The preacher at my church says God's ways are above ours."

"Don't misunderstand. I do believe in God, you know. But I don't think he's above reproach. If you can stop people from dying like that and you don't, well.... I figure he knows that and since he has a few sins of his own he'll cut the rest of us some slack."

Rob went and sat with Sara at the corner booth. Sara started snoring and Rob opened a paperback novel.

"I wonder if Lyman can see me where he is," Darlene said to Mark.

"I don't know. Has he ever contacted you?"

"Not that I'm aware. There was one night I heard a strange noise in the attic, but I thought it was a mouse."

"I didn't believe in such things, but I can't argue with my own experience. I know, you say it might have been just a dream, but I know the difference."

"So you've made up your mind, eh? Tell me about this Sabella you're going to meet."

"She was the only person I ever met I could stay up all night talking to. What's the point in going on after you've had someone like that and they're gone?"

"Lyman and me didn't talk that much. But we always felt good, like safe, you know, and quiet, when we were together. It made me feel peaceful when we sat together on the porch or drove somewhere together."

"Funny, I know exactly what you mean. One summer we rented a beach house for a week. The first night there we sat on the deck facing the water and watched the sun go down over the ocean. I don't think we said a single word."

"Is that where you're going now? That spot on the beach?"

"Yes, that's it. And you know what? I've been wondering the whole way over what I'm going to say when I get there. I thought a few words would be appropriate. But maybe not. Just being at that special place will say it all, won't it?"

Darlene didn't know what to say so they sat in silence again, Mark eating his chicken melt, Darlene drinking from her glass without a straw. The ice shifted as she lifted it to her lips, spreading hairline cracks through the silence.

"Did we just have a special moment?" Darlene finally said.

Mark smiled, the corners of his eyes moving up just a little. "We might have. That's a pretty necklace, by the way."

"Thanks. Lyman gave it to me on our tenth anniversary. I wore it ever since."

"You don't think it might be easier to let go if you got rid of it?"

"I'm not sure I want to let go yet," Darlene said, rubbing her fingers over the necklace and looking out the windows into the night to wherever she thought Lyman might be.

"It's a Byzantine cross, isn't it?" Mark said.

"Why yes, it is. How'd you know?"

"My job. I work in a jewelry store."

Darlene imagined herself, young and fair-skinned, in an elegant dress behind a glass display counter that held rings and necklaces of diamond and emerald and sapphire that cost thousands of dollars. "Must be a nice job," she said.

"I hate it. Most of my clients are rich. Rich people are either boring or obnoxious."

"Really? That a fact?" Darlene said. She couldn't remember that she had ever actually met a rich person, so she took his word for it.

"Yes," Mark said. "Do you know where he got it?"

"He never told me. I doubt he got it from one of them stores like yours, though. We never had much money. He said it's pewter."

"It's still beautiful."

"I'll bet you gave Sabella all kinds of beautiful rings and stuff."

"Actually, no. I gave her other things like flowers, or a little birdhouse that said "Love Nest," or a journal with passages from her favorite book. I was just so sick of jewelry, she would have known it wasn't from the heart if I gave her a necklace."

"Oh go on. Women love necklaces."

"I suppose she might have liked one. But I was so uninterested in that sort of thing I was afraid she would have thought it wasn't sincere."

Darlene ran her fingers down her neck along the fine lengths of chain on either side. It reminded her of the way Lyman used to caress her when they made love. She touched the cross one last time. Then she reached to the back of her neck, unsnapped the chain, and bundled the necklace up in the palm of her hand.

"Give this to her," she said, holding her balled fist out to him.

"Your necklace?"

"Give this to Sabella. You never gave her a necklace. She'll love it. It'll be something she can wear when you're together for eternity."

"But I can't take that. It was from your husband. You said you're not ready to let go yet."

"I'm not. But I still have Conway Twitty."

"What?"

"Never mind. Take it," Darlene said, opening her hand. "And tell her how much you love her when you give it to her."

Mark reached his hand over to Darlene's. He rested his palm on hers for a moment, then closed his hand over the cross and took it. He started to put it in the pocket of his sweatshirt but stopped.

"I can't just put it in my pocket," he said.

"Why not?"

"This is a sacred artifact. All of your love for Lyman is in it. It should be carried with more care."

Darlene looked around but didn't find anything she thought might be suitable for the storage of a sacred artifact. "Rob," she called over to the corner.

"What?" Rob answered without looking up from his book.

"Give me your glasses case."

"My what? What for?"

"Just give it to me. This is important."

Rob put down the book, reached into his pants pocket and pulled out the case. He tossed it to Darlene and went back to reading. It was one of the flexible types with the foam lining. She handed it to Mark.

"How about this?" she said.

Mark took the case and pressed it along the seams to open it. He nodded and dropped the necklace in.

"There. Now you're all set," Darlene said.

"Yes, I suppose I am. Thanks, Darlene. I'll remember you."

"For four hours? You know how to break a girl's heart."

Mark chuckled as Darlene slid the yellow check under his plate. They walked to the cash register, where he gave her a twenty-dollar bill. From the change, he handed her a few ones, sliding the ten back into his wallet.

"Hey, big tipper, I thought people who were going to kill themselves gave all their money away," Darlene said.

"Yes, they do," Mark said.

Darlene came back around the counter and they hugged for a second longer than was necessary.

Darlene watched the pickup back out of the parking space, make a clumsy three-point turn and roll out onto the access road. She could follow the taillights up to the I-40 on-ramps. The two twinkling red beads faded out of sight as he turned left and headed west.

"Darlene, you done with my glasses case yet?" Rob asked from his novel.

"Sure, Rob. Done," she said, still looking out into the night. She thought she saw Lyman's reflection in the windows. It winked, mouthed, "I love you," and then faded away. A gust of wind blew dead leaves across the parking lot.


© 2000 Michael Sandler

Michael Sandler was born on Canada and now resides in North Carolina. He works for a public health non-profit that does sexually transmitted disease education and advocacy. His interests include blues guitar, radical feminist theology, motor sports and Waffle House food. This is his first published fiction.

smsandler@mindspring.com

fts@SouthernCrossReview.org

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