“Thank you for choosing Buddy’s Diner, goodbye!”
A glossy film fell over her eyes as she watched the couple skip out the door, the male stuffing his robust billfold into his back pocket. Fighting the sigh that swelled in her chest, Natalie turned her attention to those still under her wing: a table of four, bed-headed college students and an ever-watching old man. The students were lost in debate, happily ignorant to the fact that their fries would soon freeze over but the old man summoned her with a wink.
“More water please.”
She grabbed the cup, smiling, as she asked, “Are you ready to order yet, sir?”
He shook his head. Her smile spread to his lips as he offered another wink and whispered. “Don’t worry, I’ll leave a tip.”
“Thank you, sir,” her grin didn’t budge as she bounced over to the drink machine, claiming over her shoulder. “First I had to come in an hour early. Then there were two buses, adding up to three dozen kindergartners, stopped on their way home from the Birmingham Zoo. Also, all my cook wants to do is smoke out back all day and so I cooked that couple’s food and still…” She returned with the water and observed her customer with a sigh, “It’s been a bad day.”
Returning with water, she observed her customer. He drank slowly as if trying to sip just enough to wet the throat. His face hung loose over his skull. Long silver strands of hair tried to hide the great brown splotches of moles that dotted his scalp. His eyes twinkled every time they connected with hers. Before either could utter another word, the bickering boys in the corner demanded warmer fries.
Natalie delivered the potatoes, snatched a trashcan, and took to cleaning tables. The back of her neck burned as she scraped abandoned shards of bacon and blobs of sausage stuck in a paste of syrup into the trash. Rushing through the rest, she stacked the dishes and pivoted, dragging her eyes over the bar where, sure enough, the old man watched. She had to admire his cleverness, the dish pit rested across the bar from where he sat.
“Are you ready to order?”
She did her best to hold eye contact, contesting his stare and succeeding. Murky eyes wide, the man convulsed, nearly slamming his head on the bar, coughing into his hands. When his hands fell from his face they were shaking, flakes of dry red, nearly brown, covered his palms. Clutching the water he brought it to his lips, sipping with eyes closed. Natalie put the dishes in the pit, washed the syrup off her fingers in the sink, then wandered off into the back.
Brandon, the cook, look up like a deer in headlights, asking, “You got an order?” “Would it matter?” Natalie snapped.
“Ha ha!” Ramming the back door with his shoulder blades, with cigarette in one hand and cell phone in the other, Brandon partook of his tenth smoke break.
A yellow bag of Ricola lay ajar. Natalie snagged a handful then shuffled back onto the floor. The old man was in mid-sip when she returned. When he sat the glass down, she offered him a tiny lemon of caramelized sugar. He accepted, clasping it like a beggar might a coin, before twisting the candy-pill free of its wrapper and tossing it into his mouth.
“Are you sick?” she asked turning to her dishes before realizing the stupidity of her question.
“Fatally,” he nodded, “that’s why I’m here.” Smacking on the candy in his mouth, he smiled at Natalie, one of his eyebrows jumped. “Don’t have much time but I had to escape the grandchildren.”
Natalie stared at the old man in silence. He broke her from the spell with a nod to his water. Though it was only half empty, she gladly accepted the escape. Biting her lip, she conjured a response by the time she returned with the gentleman’s drink.
“Shouldn’t you be with the grandchildren, sir?” Natalie asked.
“You don’t know my grandchildren!” He barked. Stabbing a finger into his chest and shaking his head, he drank from his glass then continued, “They love me, now that I’m on my way out.”
“They’ve never worked for a thing in their life.” He shrugged. “Suppose it might be partly my fault, letting their parents spoil em and such, but I just can’t believe it. They’ve got no goals, no dreams, and they don’t even work! I’ve worked my whole life!” He shook his head and switched gears, “Do you have a passion?”
Blushing, Natalie couldn’t help but answer, “I want to dance.”
The old man smiled and squinted at her nametag, saying, “Natalie-”
A horrific throat scraping cough interrupted his speech. He cowered over the counter, coughing into his wrists. The outburst was so vulgar it caught the attention of the students in the corner who took it as their cue to leave. She shuffled towards the register to take their money as his coughs died and the store fell into silence.
The store was emptying. Pinching the last receipt to the student’s card, she watched as he left his signature above and nothing more. This time the sigh came in full force. There was no lukewarm goodbye. The boys pushed out the exit as the old man approached the register.
“Do I need to pay for water?”
“No, take care, have a…” Natalie forced a smile though the liquid of her eyes threatened to spill over. Eyelids clamped shut but to no avail, tears rolled down her cheeks. A hand clamped on her shoulder.
“Listen, you need to get out of this dump. If you want to dance, dance. Life’s too short.”
The hand left and so did the old man. Drying her eyes on her shirt collar, she blinked the tears away and glanced over at the empty glass of water. Not a cent? His words echoed in her mind, “I’ll leave a tip.” It was only a water, she told herself but still warm blood rushed her face and her heart sank into her stomach. Natalie staggered back then stiffened. No, no that was the last straw. I’m done. Shooting her hand into her apron pouch she snatched her phone and called the manager.
By the time she’d convinced the manager to accept her resignation; she was sitting in her car watching Brandon light another cigarette in her rear view mirror.
She sat for a while. She couldn’t afford to quit. Deep down she knew she’d be crawling through the door, begging to be rehired within the month. The setting sun glared through her windshield and she turned away so that her eyes swept over an old, tan tank of a GMC. There the old man sat, his head rocked back as if in deep sleep.
Something was wrong. He isn’t moving. Oh my God! Natalie got out of the car, ran over to the side of the truck, and flung the door open before she realized what she was doing. The man did not budge. Once more her hand shot towards the phone in her pocket, but she stopped. In the old man’s lap was a baseball cap with two round edged bubble letters: BD. What? It was the very same hat she wore. She couldn’t help herself. Her fingers pinched the hat brim as she lifted it for closer inspection only to reveal what hid beneath. A fat envelope titled “TIP FOR NATALIE – Don’t look back”. Reaching out with a trembling hand, she lifted the letter, looked inside then at the sedimentary man before her.
Then she got in her car and left the parking lot.