Out of the corner of her eye she could see Mack looking out the front window. He gave two hamburgers extra high flips, shook a fistful of French fries into a wire basket, and set them to sizzling in the burnt brown oil before spitting his chew into the garbage and wiping his lips on his sleeve. She turned around just in time to see the old man shuffle through the door and ease onto a stool at the counter. He didn’t grab the counter with his hands, but braced his palms against it and lowered himself gently onto the stool. Arthritis or hemorrhoids, she thought, and all that meant to her was that she was going to have to pour a lot of coffee, listen to somebody else’s misery, and be lucky to count a fifty-cent tip.
She bused two tables and rang up a trucker’s pigs ‘n a blanket with a thermos to go before she brought him water and a menu, but the old man didn’t complain. He just stared up at the tacky brown and tan cowboy prints hung over the cook’s station and read the little cute-isms on the walls like the ones that said “longhorns that-a-way” and “sidesaddles this-a-way” pointing out the way to the restrooms.
While he was looking at the menu, Rose slipped out the back door and picked up the butt of a cigarette she’d laid on the gas meter outside. The wind was blowing hard out of the north and its cold touch slipped up the run in her stockings like a soldier’s hand. It’s gonna snow tonight she thought. She fumbled around in her pocket until she found a butane lighter adorned with someone else’s family crest. She struck it; the flickering light lit up her bony hands. Snapping the lighter shut, she took a deep drag on her cigarette, and let the smoke trickle off her lips. When she came back inside Mack had the burgers and fries under the heat lights.
“I told you no cheese,” she said.
“Like hell you did,” he replied. He had his sleeves rolled up and he was picking the scabs off a new cobra tattoo coiled menacingly on the inside of his left arm. Rose figured he was hoping the snake would hide the tracks and collapsed veins of twenty-five years of heroin use. His other tattoos were mostly naked women with swords or fantastic fire-breathing dragons; his neck was emblazoned with an eagle-crowned swastika.
Rose elbowed her way past Mack and through the kitchen door into the restaurant, ambling down the counter to where the old man waited. He had folded his menu and laid it down in front of him, the universal sign “I’m ready.”
“Coffee?” she asked.
“Black” he replied.
The old man’s hands shook with tremors and Rose watched him until he looked away. He folded them on the counter but that didn’t help, so he buried them in his lap. Deep furrows like the fault lines on a California map marred his face.
She turned and picked up a pot of rendered-down coffee, strong enough to wake the dead and embalm them at the same time. Holding it in her right hand, she felt underneath the counter with her left for a clean cup. When she looked up the old man was leaning across the counter very close to her face, near enough that she could feel his breath on her eyelashes. The veins in his eyes stood out like roadmaps, bits of yesterday clung to his teeth. She could see every speck of three-day’s growth of brown and gray beard; it reminded her of the dry weeds and frost she would find in her yard at two in the morning when she got off work. His skin had a pallid tint, otherwise he was a study in yellow: jaundiced eyeballs, nicotine stains dribbling down his chin from his lips. It reminded her that she hadn’t yet cleaned the urinal in the men’s room.
She poured his coffee.
He had a black hat that wasn’t a cowboy hat, just a shapeless old bag of felt to kept the rain off his head and the shit out of his hair. It’s seen plenty of use, too she thought. If I had a truck or a dog that old I’d put it to sleep… “What’ll ya have?” she asked.
“Just the coffee.”
She wrote out a check and slipped it under his cup before he could change his mind.
Mack slapped the bell, shouted “Order up!” She pulled the plates from under the heat lamps, noticing he’d scraped about half the cheese off the burgers. The fries hung over the edge of the plate, sweating oil. I can’t serve this crap Rose thought, but she did anyway.
The Ohio man danced like a puppet, first one leg then the other, in front of the cash register. Rose punched the numbers of his credit card into the box wrong and had to do it over again while he scowled and looked at his watch. She pictured him dressed in a sailor’s suit doing a Popeye jig, but that only made her think of a sailor she knew once in San Diego who’d promised to be faithful. The tourist offered a check but the cafe didn’t take them anymore, so she kept trying the credit card while imagining him as one of those ghetto blacks who came in acting like they were dancing when there wasn’t any music. His wife walked out of the bathroom with her kids in tow and shot Rose a sideways look that said “If I ran over you on the highway I’d wash my car first and call for help later.” What did she care? Her kids had opened about fifty ketchup packages and smeared them all over the table. “Y’all drive safe now, you hear?”
On one wall hung a clock that had a cowboy in the middle waving pistols with both hands; an Indian crouched behind every hour. A Blackfoot speed freak on a Harley Davidson whacked it with a baseball bat one night and smashed the glass, but old Mel, the owner, ran out of the office with a sawed-off shotgun swearing he’d blow him straight to hell if he ever set foot in here again. It wasn’t even ten o’clock yet. At midnight Sheriff Bunson would come in for coffee and pie, with his blown-up face and his grimy olive uniform stinking of sweat. He’d drape his fat ass over his favorite stool, the same one where the old man sat slurping his coffee. Everybody knew he took bribes from over limit truckers and speeding salesmen and once asked Rose if she’d spread her legs for him when she complained because he impounded her car for breaking down on the highway. She’d hesitated a minute, but hey, a girl’s gotta work.
She pinched a butt out of an ashtray and headed for the kitchen again. The college kids who ordered the burgers with no cheese cut her off. “I can’t eat this,” one of them complained, prodding the soggy fries like they might be sleeping and not dead. “My burger’s cold,” griped the other. He had an annoying squeaky voice and thick black glasses like a history professor.
They had a girl with them who wouldn’t eat anything because she was a vegetarian and knew how to choose good restaurants. “Let’s go,” she said. She had long auburn hair, no bra, and a tight white muscle shirt with PHISH in black letters on the front. Her pointy brown nipples looked as if they might chew their way through, like weasels.
I had tits like that once, Rose thought, and she slowly stroked the hair back from her temple. The kids laid a buck down for their coffee and walked out.
Rose went out back and smoked the cigarette while the storm clouds ate the mountains west of town along with the stars overhead and all her dreams. Little flecks of ice stung her face even though the clouds were not full over yet. The cigarette was menthol, too. Just my luck she thought.
Mack was nowhere to be found and Rose was sure he was drinking again. They had tried being lovers for a while but she couldn’t stand the smell of work all the time. Besides, he kept having dreams he was in prison and Rose was afraid he would kill her in her sleep. She would die and never know the reason.
She thought the old man had skipped out on his tab, but he had slid down the counter to eat the reject burgers the kids dropped in the bus tray. She bucked through the kitchen doors and turned on him like a rodeo bull, but he didn’t look up. He hung over the tray like a stray dog and she though he might bite her if she came too close. He’d left his hat on the counter and his gray hair hung down in slimy coils behind him. He had a black satin trucker’s jacket on with a bug-eyed man on the back with wrenches in his hands and the words Pervis Service stitched in red letters arching across his shoulders. It occurred to her that the jacket must be stolen.
Coyotes came down from the hills after the dumpsters; bums and truckers, desert rats and crack whores descended on the café on their way to Las Vegas. Old Mel put out poison for the varmints sometimes, but mostly he didn’t care. He kept a tarantula in a jar on his desk and when he was drunk enough he would bring it out and let it crawl on his face. He liked scaring kids and city girls. The rest of the time he holed up in his office like Jesse James, drinking and counting his money, watching the goings-on through a peeling one-way mirror.
The old man finished his burger and turned around. His pants were dirty like he’d lived in them for a year and his boots had soles once too. “I ain’t got no money,” he said.
What did she care? In a couple of hours Sheriff Bunson would come in with a leer like a rat trap, and when the snow thickened jumpy truckers would crowd the booths and drink endless pots of coffee and count the hours to Dallas. Mack might sneak up behind her, his breath like diesel exhaust, reeking of whiskey and cough syrup, and slip his hand up her skirt for the umpteenth time until she told him no and he would go off and sulk. Every day her face pulled a little further apart until no amount of make-up could hide the cracks and she was sure it was just a matter of time ‘til the whole thing damn split right down the middle.
“Just get out” she said.
The old man shuffled out the door with hat in his hands and his tail between his legs. Outside the snow began to fly for real but Rose was sure some softhearted trucker would stop and be glad for the company, at least as far as Phoenix. Mack dropped a dish in the kitchen and it shattered like a windshield, like a wreck on the highway, like childhood. Rose wondered what hotels and bars and truckers’ cafes might buzz to neon back east, if the air was really sticky, what frogs sounded like when they fucked under a full moon, and how it might feel to bleed young blood again.
By morning snow would drift high as the hubcaps on a Peterbilt. It fell fast now, big flakes tumbling down, and she had a sudden vision of a young girl dancing in the backyard of a queer little pink stucco cottage in Sacramento, laughing with her grandmother, catching snowflakes on her tongue. The old woman was bent like a vineyard under a crown of white, her brown hands bare to the cold, wrinkled like raisins. Rose wore wooly gloves, black and roomy, and the world was her enchantress. She caught snowflakes like fairy’s wings and watched them melt on her fingertips, marveling at their perfect symmetry. “Look!” she cried, over and over again, “Oh look!” Somewhere Rose had read that no two flakes were ever alike, and she wondered how it could be that they were different, every one that ever fell.
Potentially, might be ...