“You folks just passing through, huh?”
Paul and Leah both twitched slightly at this unexpected opener from the woman behind the lunch counter. Paul found his mental footing a little more quickly and replied, “What gave us away?”
The woman, whose name was Kandi if the embroidery on her uniform shirt was to be trusted, looked from Leah to Paul, then her gaze drifted oddly over their heads before settling on him again.
“Small town. Any new faces stand out.” There was something very close to a smile on her face, a sort of unconvinced grimace trying to be sociable. She did not glance at the dour-faced man who also stood behind the counter, gave no sense of sharing with him some obscure small-town in-joke.
“Oh,” Paul said. “I guess so.”
“Anything you’d recommend?” Leah cut in almost before he’d finished, turning the laminated page which constituted the whole of The Jay Bird’s lunch menu to face the waitress. Kandi looked at it, then her eyes drifted again to look just past Leah’s shoulder. She blinked, and when her eyes opened they were in contact with Leah.
“Hard to say,” she replied, and her grimace softened a little. “It’s all good… or all as good as the next thing, anyway. They call them ‘greasy spoons’ for a reason, right?”
Paul’s shoulders dropped a little. Leah showed an honest smile to Kandi, then glanced at the waitress’s co-worker but found he was lost in some abstraction of his own. The way the man was staring at Kandi struck Leah as a little creepy, but she put it aside as not her business.
“Well, if it’s a greasy spoon, then I’d better have a cheeseburger and fries, with gravy on the side, and a root beer.”
Kandi jotted on her order pad, nodding. Paul was still looking at the menu when Kandi called out to the opening door, “Hey, Mike. I’ll be right over with your coffee.”
As Paul ordered his own lunch, Leah glanced back at the front of the diner. A man with salty stubble on his cheeks wearing a denim jacket was waving idly without looking at Kandi, ambling toward a corner booth. The door was closing behind him, almost catching a younger man in similar working clothes who followed Mike to his booth. Leah turned away before either of them looked at her.
Kandi moved with the unhurried pace of any waitress long in service to pin their orders to the chrome carousel over the order window. Paul leaned over a little, saying quietly, “You know, there’s about a dozen burger joints less than an hour up the road.”
“Yeah, all chains,” she replied in the same low tone. “This is neat. If we’re going to wreck our bodies, let’s at least have an experience.”
“Are you saying I lack conviction?” he said, and she prodded him in the bicep. The sound of frying drifted from the order window, and they spoke of trivia without fear of being overheard until the bell mounted on the pass-through counter chimed. They looked up too late to see who had put the plates there, but glimpsed a pale, worn-looking blonde woman just turning away. Kandi, coming from the far end of the lunch counter where she had been refilling salt shakers, grabbed the plates and brought them across.
“One cheeseburger, one fish and chips….” She looked over her shoulder and called, “Bob, where’s the gravy?”
“Hang on,” came a gravelly cigar-smoker’s baritone. Seconds later, an appropriately hairy hand set a soup bowl on the shelf. Kandi retrieved it, setting it exactly between the two meals before sliding a ketchup bottle closer to Leah.
“Enjoy your lunch,” she said, then returned to her salt. The dour man had stood there the whole time, just watching. Paul nudged Leah.
“Suppose that’s the in-house banjo-boy?” She cast an amused eye at him, but stifled any reply with a bite of burger.
“Man, this has got to be more bad for you than normal,” she said after sufficient chewing. “How’s yours?”
Paul, mouth full, nodded and grunted positively. Eventually he gulped it down and after a little gasp of satisfaction said, “Yeah, that’s some good deep frying, all right.”
Leah dredged a fry in the gravy, leaving a steamy trench that only slowly collapsed. She became thoughtful, and after another mouthful of burger said, “Hey, why don’t we set up here?”
Paul gave her a look suggesting she had an extra head. “No, seriously. Check your phone; there’s great signal here. It’s less than an hour from the city, and I’ll bet we can buy a place here and rig a studio for about six months worth of rent there. If clients want to meet, it’s an easy drive to the airport, or we could even bring them here.”
“What, a media director from EA Games, chowing down at The Jay Bird?”
She smiled at him. “Why not? A change is as good as a rest, my grandma used to say. And this is damn tasty.”
Paul dunked some of his fries in the gravy, stuffed them in his mouth, and stared at the milkshake blender. His head wobbled, not quite committing to a shake or a nod. “You’re really serious?”
“You know it.”
“Even if we get snowed in and can’t get to the city?”
She flapped a dismissive hand. “That’s a major highway. If a storm keeps it closed for more than two days, you can figure that they’d be reduced to cannibalism in the city.” She lifted her burger, but only smiled at it. “I’m totally serious. This may be the best idea I’ve ever had.”
“Excuse me,” said a voice behind them. They turned to find the man called Mike standing behind them. He was not close, and he was smiling, but there was something other than friendliness in the smile. If deformity of facial expression were an inherited trait, he and Kandi might have been related. “You folks from out of town?”
“We hear that a lot,” Leah said, turning in her stool to face him. Paul tried to follow suit, but his knees caught against her legs and he had to turn the long way, putting his back to the counter.
“Yeah.” Mike shared another of Kandi’s tics, and his attention wandered from them for a moment. “Just passing through, I guess?”
Paul nodded hesitantly, but Leah said, “Actually, we were just talking about maybe moving out here. Nice town, close to the city but not too close, you know?”
Mike’s smile fell. His expression did not harden into anger, but softened into something more mournful. It seemed to be the look his face was built for, much less forced than the smile. “Oh. I don’t know about that.”
“Look, um, Mike,” Paul said, feeling a tremble in his throat but able to keep it from his voice, “I don’t know why you think this is something….”
“Kid, don’t use my name like we’re friends,” Mike said, and now there was anger as well, apparently just as natural to his features as sadness. “I don’t know you, and I don’t want to get to know you. I’m just doing what I think is my Christian duty to a stranger. You don’t want to live here.”
Leah leaned forward, as if about to rise. “Why is that, exactly?”
Mike stepped back, his right hand up and lowering his eyes. He shook his head once. “Look out the window. Just have a look at the people out there.”
They both looked past him. The street outside was unusually crowded for a small town, people moving in twos and fours in the golden light of a fine spring day. Paul squinted, trying to spot some kind of error in the shape or conduct of the pedestrians. Leah looked back at Mike, one eyebrow raised. He said, “See anyone out there that looks happy?”
They both regarded the scene outside more carefully. A couple came out of Peg’s Hair Care, which looked directly on The Jay Bird. Next to it, a man held the door to a shop with MEAT over the window while three women entered, one of them pushing a stroller, and then followed them inside. Others walked with various degrees of purpose along the sidewalks. Of the two dozen people or so that were in sight, not one was smiling.
Mike was also not smiling when they looked back at him, although a wry analogue of the expression was present. “This town is bad for happiness,” he said. “You two looked pretty happy when you came in. Why not keep it that way?”
He turned from them, and as he walked to the door he called out, “See you tomorrow, Kandi.” The little bell over the door jangled him out. Leah glanced at the booth he had been in, saw only a coffee cup sitting askew on a small pile of change. Mike’s companion was absent.
“Somehow,” Paul said quietly, “I think I’d have preferred ‘we don’t cotton to no city-folk.’”
“Yeah. That was weird.”
What remained of their food was cooler now, and some of the flavour seemed to have gone with the warmth. They ate all the same, without talking. When Kandi came to the register to put Mike’s money into it, Paul said, “Hey… is that guy always like that?”
“Mike?” She made a show of considering the matter. “Yeah, I guess he is. When Trudy left him, he got sort of moody.”
Paul nodded. Leah pulled at his arm, and leaning onto his shoulder before he could turn said into his ear, “That guy is starting to freak me out.”
“No, the guy at the end of the counter. He just stands there, staring at the waitress.”
Paul peeked past Leah’s head. The long-faced man was indeed just standing there, arms crossed, watching Kandi as she swabbed the table Mike and his friend had been at. He was apparently absorbed in what she was doing, his gaze never wavering, his body quite still. There was no sense, Paul found, that he was even aware that there were other people in the restaurant, or that eyes were on him. A glance in the other direction showed Kandi about her task, with no sign of self-consciousness, although she felt his gaze enough to turn almost immediately and say, “Get you something?”
“Oh, no. Sorry.” He said to Leah, “I’m having some doubts about your plan.”
She nodded. “Two weird guys at once is kind of a lot. Let’s drive around a bit anyway, see what the rest of the town is like. We may just have got lucky and come in on the day all the creeps hit the diner.”
A few minutes later, they paid their bill and left before any sign of the start of a lunch rush. Kandi waved them a farewell. The man at the end of the counter made no move whatever.
As he stopped the car in front of the pumps at Gus’s Gas Bar, Paul said, “Well?”
It was a question that stopped Leah cold. They had been quiet in their drive through the town, keeping their observations to themselves. The town itself was well laid out, appeared to offer all necessary services, and was full of well-kept houses in styles that covered most of the past century. The yards were large and only occasionally defined by fences. Physically, it was as charming as a town between the Rockies and the Mississippi had any hope of being.
And yet, there was a sort of grey filter laid over the whole reconnaissance. Those large, open yards had few flowers. The people they saw were, as Mike had suggested, not very happy. A playground swarming with children was attended by a similar number of glum-looking adults. Leah had actually said something as they had passed, wondering aloud at what might induce that much hover-parenting; even in a depressed inner city or a nervous suburb, that sort of adult-child ratio was unusual. Even some of the children appeared to have caught the mood, not joining in the games but simply standing listlessly around the play structures.
“Well,” Leah echoed as Paul switched off the engine.
“Still want to set up out here?” he said. A teen wearing a nametag emerged from the station. Paul pulled on the handle, popping his door without swinging it open.
“I… no, I have to find the bathroom. Can’t think. We can talk about it on the way into the city.” She stepped out of the car, Paul following suit to ask the teen to fill it with regular. He noted a young woman standing inside the window of the station, watching them with big dark eyes, and thought she looked vaguely familiar.
An old pick-up drew in at the other side of the pumps. Its door spring squealed as Mike from the diner stepped out. He greeted the teen, glancing briefly at Paul. His friend was still with him, sitting as still in the cab of the truck as he had at The Jay Bird.
“On your way home?” he called over to Paul as the gas jockey got the other pump running.
“Headed for the city, anyway.”
Mike smiled his bleak smile. “Good to hear it.”
“We did have a look around town, though. Pretty place.”
The smile went. The bleakness amplified. “Not to live in. I told you—it’s not a happy town. You must have seen that.”
Paul looked into the man’s eyes. He expected to see anger, some version of the rage against urban-dwellers that movies primed him to expect in any rural person. All he saw was proof of Mike’s point, for there was nothing in his eyes but sadness. He refocused, looking past Mike at the young man in the truck, who wore a look of flat disassociation. Beyond, at the very end of the town’s commercial district, people were walking about. He saw….
“How about them?” he said, gesturing with his chin. “They look pretty chipper.”
Mike turned. Across the street, an old lady walked with a birdy briskness, smiling gently through the veil on her pill-box hat as she kept up a constant stream of commentary. It was inaudible from where they stood, but it clearly pleased the man beside her. He was somewhat younger than she, dressed in just as bygone a style, right down to a little pencil moustache, and he smiled and nodded at her as they went along.
“Oh,” said Mike. “Martha. She’s… special.”
Paul watched them as they went. There was something amiss with the picture the elderly couple presented, something that stood just beyond his mental grasp. He thought it might just be the way she kept both her white-gloved hands on her little clutch purse rather than taking the arm of her man, because he was trying to make an image from an old film of what he saw, but his mind whispered to him that this was only an indication of the matter, not the matter itself.
He then noticed that about half of the other people he could see, including Mike’s passenger, were also watching the couple go by. So many glum faces, all turning to a single point, chilled him. He wanted to call out a warning to her, but simply stood and watched as they rounded a corner. No one gave chase, and when they were gone, all who had been watching their progress turned away. Mike’s passenger swivelled his head toward his driver, a very pale reproach colouring his blank disconnected stare. Paul stared back at him on Mike’s behalf for a few seconds, but finding the man would not meet his gaze, turned back to Mike.
“Special, huh?” His throat had gone a little dry, and the words creaked a bit as they came out.
“Yep. Some folks say it’s a gift. I guess for her it is.” Mike stood quiet for a moment, as if taking some message from the rattle of the gas pumps. One of them clunked off, and he said in a distracted tone, “Doesn’t help anyone else.”
The gas jockey disconnected Paul’s car, mumbling, “Twenty bucks.” Paul handed him the bill, and noticed for the first time that he looked a great deal like Mike’s passenger.
“No, sir,” Mike said, quietly. “I don’t think you’d like it here.”
“Look, man, the lady at the diner told us you’d had some hard times, but that’s no reason to….”
Paul stopped as Mike took a step in his direction, hands bunched, the flame of anger alight in his eyes. He began to bring his own hands up, open, the instinct to slap away any incoming blows driving him, when he saw that light die almost as fast as it had kindled. Mike’s hands opened, and as he waved one in a tired dismissal at Paul, his gaze slipped once again past Paul to a point past his shoulder.
“She told you, huh?” He shook his head. “That’s fine. You see if you and your girl stick together when she knows you love someone more than her. Because if you stay here, she will know, she’ll know better than you, because Martha’s the only one in town who sees her own follower, and maybe no one will even tell you who it is.” He whirled, stomping away to the oil rack where he began digging through the plastic bottles like someone trying to find an unbruised apple.
Paul stood, mouth agape. Anything he might have been about to say was lost when he heard Leah call from the station, “Hey, you want a drink or something?”
“No.” He moved for his car.
When Leah joined him in the car, she said, “There’s a girl in there that looks just like that chick who sings ‘Last Night We…’ hey, are you OK?”
“Fine.” He turned the key. “Just… let’s just get going.”
By his truck, Mike stood, two bottles of oil in hand. He idly tossed them in through the window, but he kept his face turned to Paul, offering him the wintry, unfriendly smile he’d first greeted them with. One of those things, Paul thought, must have landed right in that guy’s lap. The passenger showed no sign of distress. He just sat there, looking like a pale version of the kid running the pumps, right down to the cap he wore.
“You sure you’re OK?” Leah asked.
“I just… that guy….” He put the car in gear as a substitute for finishing the sentence. Pulling out of the station, he watched the rear-view mirror, unsure if it was to serve or quell the irrational fantasy that Mike would be hurrying in pursuit. Mike stood by his truck, receiving change from the station attendant, who for some reason would not meet Mike’s eyes.
The momentary relief Paul felt was replaced by the sudden feeling of all the hair on his arms migrating. For a moment, in the mirror, he saw among the luggage of the back seat Leah’s father, whose death three years ago had been the slow catalyst of this move, and who stared at the back of her head, resigned disapproval stamped on his features.
Paul whirled after an instant of paralysis. Bags and boxes only, no room for any person to fit. He stared at the absence of anyone in the back seat, forgetting all else until Leah cried out. He managed to not drive into the back of a parked car.
“What is wrong with you?” she said, her voice edging toward a screech.
“Sorry, sorry.” His own words were flattened as they came past the constriction in his chest. He looked firmly ahead now, trying not to notice that only half the pedestrians had turned to look when the car’s tires had squealed during the correction. “Thought I saw… um. A wasp. It’s nothing.”
He looked away from her to check for oncoming traffic as they reached the highway access. The way was clear, and he pressed the accelerator perhaps a little too firmly. When they were up to the limit, he glanced back at Leah. She was looking at him, a dozen unasked questions dancing in her eyes. She was not looking anywhere else. He reached over to put a hand on her leg.
“I love you,” he said. “You know that, right?”
“All the Old Familiar Faces” © 2016 Dirck de Lint