“Hello, May! It’s nice to see you again.” John went to the table May directed him to, and looked at the menu.
“I’ll be back in just a second… is it …John?” May remembered.
“John’s right! I’m impressed.” John complimented. “I’ll take a minute and look through the menu.”
May said she’d be right back, and John thanked her. May disappeared while John got distracted in thought. Mostly he was curious whether his profile was right, and a little afraid. Having guessed correctly in the past, this guess was something he hoped was wrong. But May looked in good spirits today and the eye looked a lot less puffy.
John had gotten up at the usual time, written a little so he could say he made some progress on the novel, but only two thousand words. When writing a full sized novel, John believed he needed at least 120,000 words or it wasn’t enough for the editor to slash, cut, shred, and make him completely revise. The last time John had a novel “ready to publish,” after he had edited it down to 150,000, he had left the editor’s office feeling well bloodied, like someone had taken a cheese grater to his soul. “The editor” was a friend of his from school, and “the editor’s office” was his friend’s basement. Alex was just good at editing, and he worked cheap. And fast. And it was only John’s soul getting the cheese grater effect. Alex always made sense with any cuts, improvements, or comments.
After pouring one’s soul into characters and plots, it did hurt a little having your heart taken apart, sliced, diced, truncated, filleted, grilled, and put back together. It did feel better when the process was complete and the final edits were accepted. When he was satisfied, Alex only said, “This is all right.” He meant, “This is good,” but he never said that, not even to a regular “paying” client. Not about writing, anyway. He remembered the last time.
“Did you bring my usual fee?” Alex smiled.
“Sure did.” John held up a bag with two bottles inside. They gave a mellow, thick, clinking-glass sound. John heard them modulate a little in pitch as the liquid inside adjusted the tone. He reached into the bag and pulled out the bottles- one Glenlivet, one Stolichnaya. “Shall I pour?”
“Yes, please. But I haven’t finished the last bottle you got me. That tells me you’re writing too fast. Slow down a little!” Alex complained.
“Aha, no, that tells me you’re drinking too slow.” John joked. “Why don’t you live a little and stop working so hard!” John reached into the refrigerator under the bar in Alex’s “office,” and grabbed out three bottles: the open bottle of Stolichnaya, a bottle of tonic water, and a bottle of lime juice. He pulled two tall glasses off the shelf, got a little crushed ice from the freezer, and mixed two. In the early afternoon, John knew, Alex liked vodka and tonic, and in the later evening, scotch, neat. It was only just after 3.
Alex took a deep gulp, and then a slower, savored sip, and sighed aloud. “Ahhh.” Another sip, swished and swallowed. “Perfect. I think you may have had a little too much practice mixing these,” he joked back. “I can never get it this good.”
“See what I mean? If you drank more, you’d have memorized the right proportions for yourself.”
“After two of yours, I can’t measure anything,” Alex surrendered, mocking a slurred speech.
John and Alex had been drinking buddies since high school. The days of cheap beer and cheap liquor progressed to more expensive tastes, but Alex never got a taste for any vodka more expensive than Stolichnaya. Not that he hadn’t tried the pricier brands, just that he didn’t care enough about the subtleties of vodka flavors. He did appreciate a good single-malt scotch, though.
May gave John a menu, and carried a pot of steaming coffee in the other hand. It smelled fresh and earthy and bright. “You care for some coffee, John?”
It was tempting. John hated most restaurant coffees, and loathed fast food coffee, because it almost always smelled burnt, old, and just gross. Even the gas stations used timers on coffee, but that didn’t always mean old coffee got dumped. But a craving is a craving and John wanted tea, like every other morning. He countered, “Do you have more hot tea?”
“Sorry, sorry.” May apologized, John felt, a little compulsively. “Yes sir. I’ll bring that right out, sorry I didn’t remember from yesterday. Were you ready to order?” Without a pause. The place was busy, but not that busy. She was on edge.
“Sorry, May,” John smiled disarmingly. “…not yet, I got lost in my morning fuzz and my thoughts. Honestly, it’s fine, just fine. Most people like coffee first thing. I’m a bit fuzzy until I have some tea. I’ll just look at the menu and try to make up my mind. Take your time, though.”
John liked a big breakfast. And the restaurant was busy enough, but he wanted to see if he could get her to open up a little bit, just to make sure she was all right. May brought him a standard-issue white diner-style mug and saucer, a stainless pot with hot water, and two square pouches with “Lipton’s” printed on the outside. There was already a bottle of honey on the table. “Wow, thanks! Well, I like breakfast a lot. I’d like a Belgian waffle, two scrambled eggs, bacon, grits, and hash-browned potatoes.”
“Impressive, John, a ‘Number One’ AND a Belgian waffle it is, then. Can I get you anything else?” She smiled, a little easier this morning.
He noticed she had the North-Carolina-specific southern accent, but it was blended, quirkily, with other east-coastal influences, and something else he couldn’t quite place. Keep her talking. “When you bring me a smile like that, I’m pretty satisfied already. But I’ll let you know. – Oh wait! Do you have a newspaper?”
“I sure do. It’s Raleigh, is that OK?” He nodded. “OK, I’ll bring that after I put in your order.”
John thanked May again, and she called in the order and came right back with the Raleigh News and Observer. He started with headlines and didn’t quite make it to his next favorite section, the comics, before May returned with his rather large breakfast. He started, and ended, with the waffle. And in between, polished off everything in between, along with sips of hot tea. About halfway in, May brought more hot water. When she came to check on him again, he asked, “Can I get a copy of the newspaper anywhere close? I like to work the crossword puzzles and fumble the cryptoquote.”
“Oh, don’t trouble yourself, John. You can have that one if you want it. Need a pencil? Or a pen, if you’re dead-set on that fumbling?”
“I’ve got a pen. He smiled. I couldn’t help noticing your eye last night, it’s looking better this morning.”
“I thought I covered it better than I did, then. You’re the only person who noticed. I’m fine, really.”
“They all say that. Mind sharing what happened?” He said “they all say that,” and immediately thought to himself, “and they all lie.”
“It’s a long story, and I’ve got other customers to take care of right now.” She almost tried to back out of any more of the conversation, but she looked at his eyes and saw something there, and made a split-second decision, a kind of leap of faith. She decided, abruptly, to take a chance and continue. “…but when the rush is over my mom’ll be here to handle lunch. Are you in town, or headed to the beach?”
“Yes, and yes.” John was pleased at her willingness to talk, since he’d only met her twice. But he understood with the locals and a few beach-bound customers, it was a little too busy to get into a long story. It was almost 10:30, so he figured he could just wait. “Can I take a cup of hot tea outside and wait?”
“My,” stretched with deliberate exaggeration, “but aren’t you curious.” She smiled demurely. John sensed her inner “southern belle” had been touched, which was good. She was relaxing a little in spite of the morning rush and her earlier fearful manner. “Please,” now dramatic, “tell me though, you’re not a serial killer drifting through town looking for a new victim, are you?” John shook his head no. “All righty then, sure thing.” Was that a Georgia influence too? He was curious about her accent and origin now. She stopped, mid-turn on her way back to the kitchen. “I’ll see you on break and we can talk some more. Let me bring you that tea. If you like, you can just stay at this little table out of the wind to read your paper.”
“Oh, nice. Thank you!” John took a break to relieve himself in a cramped but efficient restroom, washed and dried his hands, and walked back to the table. He sat down, and flipped the paper to international headlines and scanned a few, as he had finished reading the local and national news. May brought more tea, and went back to waiting her other tables, while they both waited for her mom to arrive. John got about halfway through the comics, and a young-looking woman of maybe 45 showed up, dressed like May. It must be 11:00, John thought.
“Break time, hon.” the lady announced to May.
The lady, who John had guessed to be Mom, looked curiously at May as she poured herself a cup of black coffee and sat across from John. John observed several expressions as mom sized him up. She did have a nice smile, though. He set aside his paper and took a sip of tea. May’s eyes were blue-green like the ocean. “Is that your mom? She looks a little young to be.”
“Yes sir, that’s mom. I’ll pass along the compliment. You don’t sound like a southern gentleman, but you sure do charm like a southern gentleman.”
“She looks a little suspicious, maybe.”
“Protective,” her lips curled up at the edges and her nose wrinkled. It was endearing.
“Does she need to be?” He really wanted the story of the bruise, and of the accent.
“Depends. Are you a serial killer passing through town looking for another victim?”
“Not today. Still psyched from my last victim,” he quipped, smiling back.
She laughed. It sounded like crystal wind chimes.
All in, or go slowly? John wasn’t sure. He knew he definitely wanted to learn everything he could about May. He also didn’t want to frighten her away. Go slowly. “So tell me everything there is to know about May.”
“Not much to tell, really.” She was playing it safe. “Tell me everything there is to know about John,” she countered.
“All right, give a little, get a little, I guess that’s fair. After all, I’m the suspicious-looking stranger in town, just passing through. Ok, well, I’m a novelist, and I write fictional stories, and I watch people so I can make my characters more believeable.
“Anything I might have read?”
“Well, I’m not what I’d think of as famous, yet, but I’ve written three very different novels and they were modestly successful. They were in some bookstores, but I don’t know if they made it into the libraries. It would be hard to think of my works as ‘classics’ in any way. I should have told you my last name. I’m John Barbera.”
“You said, ‘yet.’ I like that. Can I order your books online?” May asked.
“Yes, they’re available for a relatively outrageous price; you can get them on e-readers or in actual printed form, the old-fashioned way.”
“I’ll have to look you up. I’ve always kind of thought the heart of the writer goes into each book, so maybe I’ll just give you a little checkup.” She chuckled a little half-laugh, “hah.”
“Never met a waitress with a literary stethoscope before.”
“What can I say, my talents go far and wide from just bein’ the perfect waitress,” she bragged, mocking herself.
This was going well. He decided to go for it. “You always talk to strangers this readily?”
“We get a lot of people just passing through. I think their stories are interesting and maybe there’s a novel in every character,” May said, thoughtfully.
“You got that right,” John agreed.
“So, If you catch my interest, maybe I want to read your story. Or in your case, your story, and your stories.”
“So, May, may I ask something specific?” John braced himself.
“Sure, why not, John?”
“What happened to your eye? Be honest, because I’m not going to be here long enough for real-life lies, emotions, and drama. I’m only here to write my book.”
“So, you work your charms on a girl, take what you want, and then just leave her behind, broken-hearted, abandoned, and left to pick up her own pieces?”
“Would a serial killer work any other way?”