He ordered the beef and noodle soup, and some sweet tea, for dinner. The waitress, a pretty young lady, wore a nametag that said “May,” and had the name of the restaurant. She had bruised forearms, that showed old, parallel horizontal scars. May had been crying. She wore some kind of makeup cream that almost concealed a bruised left eye. The way the makeup was contoured, almost no one would know.
“What’s your name, hon?” she tried a smile he could tell hurt the edge of her eyelid. He felt like she was way too young to be calling him, or anyone else, “hon.” It was, however, North Carolina, where, he had learned on a previous vacation trip, women of any age got away with calling everyone “hon.”
“John.” He smiled back, trying to feign a lack of concern, but the novelist in his head had already told him her whole life’s story. Of course, he was only speculating, but he had a knack for character development that was sometimes just eerie.
“Well, John, I’ll get that soup out to you quick as I can.”
“Thank you, May.”
John was tired. After his flight from O’hare to Raleigh he loaded his suitcase and laptop into his rental, a blue Dodge Avenger. He arranged to keep the car for a month. He planned to travel around the little coastal towns in eastern North Carolina, but spending most of his time at a beachfront rental, working on a new novel. Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and Raleigh, had all the amenities, but John was on a mission. The Dodge handled perfectly and he quickly found his way onto Interstate 40, headed east. The drive to the beach took longer than he expected. The roads at the coast seemed to wander on forever. John made a note, he’d have to be careful if he did any navigating after dark.. Some of the twists made the back roads feel a little tight, especially with any oncoming traffic.
On the way to the beach, John stopped in at a grocery store to pick up a weeks’ worth of provisions. He noticed the floor. It had white tiles, at least they used to be white. Years of cleaning had left them white where the shelves had been, and then the store got reset, moving the whole setup and revealing the contrasting color under where the shelving had been. It would have looked better if the shelves had been left alone. The fluorescent lights had not been redone. The locals who staffed the store tried hard not to be overly friendly, and awkwardly failed.
Far from being a fast food and restaurant only type, John was a fair cook, but he kept it simple. His cabin promised a refrigerator and stove, wi-fi, satellite TV, and solitude. He hoped the kitchen had a frying pan, a few cooking utensils, and a pot to boil water. In the morning, John felt mechanical until he had a cup of tea. He wouldn’t buy more groceries until he was sure what was available at the cabin. John really disliked the elevator style music- was that Queen? Just before leaving the store, he remembered to pick up a few six-packs of his favorite beach beer. And some caffeinated Earl Grey tea. He was pleasantly surprised at the variety of products available. He paid the smiling, cashier with blue lipstick that almost matched her eye shadow, and a few too many facial piercings, for the groceries, and made the rest of the trip to the beach. He unpacked his luggage, and his groceries, made sure to put a few of the beers into the refrigerator, and felt hungry for a little dinner before bed.
John wanted to find some local flavor, right out of the starting gate, and hadn’t had a chance to explore the kitchen. It looked a little smaller than he had hoped. On the way to the cabin, he had spotted a diner on the road a few miles from his rental. The simple sign looked like it had been the same for more than forty years: Main Street Diner. But the lights were on when he made his way back along the road, so he pulled in.
The soup tasted terrible. He added salt and pepper and hot sauce. All the restaurant had on the tables was a certain “Texas” sauce, a local favorite. He preferred a “Louisiana” brand, but when in small-town eastern North Carolina, one must eat as the locals eat. The soup still tasted terrible but at least it had a little redemptive capsaicin glow. Worcestershire and thyme, and a little garlic would have saved that poor cow, those vegetables, and those noodles from their current, pitiful plight. But, John suspected the soup of the day was from a giant, restaurant sized can, and had gone from can to microwave to bowl without much alteration. Pitiful.
May came back and he ordered some apple pie and hot tea for dessert. “How about a scoop of vanilla with that?”
As a novelist, John liked to travel whenever possible, and he liked to find solitary places to write. The beach was ideal, just before the tourist season hit and the locals became outnumbered by the tourists. He preferred the mountains to the beach, but this time he wanted to go somewhere new. He would try to go places he thought might make interesting settings, to get a feeling for the geography and the people. Thank God for a nationwide wireless plan, too. Some of the places he liked to go were very rural, because they had the most interesting people. But the availability of wi-fi wasn’t always great. John finished his dessert, and a glass of ice water. He left a generous tip, checked the sign for the business hours, and decided to come back to Main Street Diner for breakfast.
John made the short trip back to the coast, about a twenty minute drive, where he had rented a beach cabin that boasted “excellent wi-fi access.” He got a cold Jamaican Red Lager from the fridge, got out his laptop, and sketched out a fictionalized May’s character and her story:
Character Profile: “June.”
June is a 26 year old waitress. She works at the restaurant owned by her parents. Her biological father abused her and her mother when she was a child. As a teenager, June was date-raped by her boyfriend when he was 17 and she was 15, and then he left her. She was too ashamed to tell anyone. There was no pregnancy from the rape. She was clinically depressed and cut herself, deciding whether that might be a method of suicide. She rejected the idea but had moments of emotional turmoil when she would resort to cutting.
June’s mother left her biological father after she had been beaten for the last time, carrying June as a small child with her to the police station. In their small town, the officer on duty and all of the other officers were friends of the abuser and let him off because there wasn’t “any proof he had done anything; it could have been done by anyone.” June’s mother moved back in with her parents, enduring two other relationships with abusive boyfriends until she met another man who wasn’t abusive. He married June’s mother and adopted June, but the damage had already been done to both ladies.
June has a live-in boyfriend who loafs at her small apartment home. He is unemployed, alcoholic, stupid, charming, frequently depressed by the lack of opportunity in small-town North Carolina, but not wanting to accept the challenge of seeking something more. And he is abusive. During the last attack, he gave her a right hook to the eye. In previous attacks, she suffered the bruising to her forearms. He has managed to sweet talk her into believing that he’s looking online for job opportunities while she waits tables, that the attacks were her fault somehow, and to not press charges. In truth he is surfing for porn and playing video games.
June lets the boyfriend stay because there are no other eligible gentlemen in the town and she doesn’t feel free to leave her parents to seek opportunities in either college or career.
John closed his laptop, got another beer, and went for a walk on the beach at sundown. It wasn’t quite warm enough to go without his shoes, but it was like a cool, spring day. He could get used to this.. The sand was dry, but it made his feet feel heavy even before it filled in between his toes. He took a long walk, heading north. The breeze smelled salty and the gulls screamed at the wind and at each other. He walked under a towering fishing pier, barely noticing the seashells crunching underfoot, and then headed back south to his cabin.
He climbed the twelve stairs, emptied his shoes from the sand, and went inside. He took off his shoes and laughed to himself about the sand sticking to not just his soles, but the tops of his feet as well. He locked the door on the side by the parking lot and went to the beach side of his temporary home. On the beach side, he left the wooden door propped open, shutting and locking the outer screen door, so he could hear the sounds of the ocean. He took a quick hot shower, toweled off, put on some socks, flannel pants and a long-sleeved tee shirt, and climbed into bed.
The waves crescendoed with the rising tide as the moon rose overhead. The breeze softened its’ pitch. He heard and imagined the gulls called each other names, one taunting the other for finding a scrap of food on the shoreline without sharing. The parts of the song blended beautifully, and lulled him to a restful sleep.