. She saw him from the window through the faded lace curtains. She had almost forgotten that when they had first put the curtains up, there had vibrant pink roses with delicate green leaves on them.
. The man pulled up in an old brown Chevy truck that sounded like it could use at least a change of oil. She watched as he unfolded his lanky body from the truck, putting his hand up to his eyes and squinting, trying to read the sign on the outside. No one could read that sign. Her mother-in-law, who said she had gone to France once, (no one believed her), had renamed the restaurant after her father-in-law dropped dead one summer morning 10 years ago. After 4 years of practically no money coming in, she and her son just took off. They said they were going to Indiana to meet up with a relative who had money and they’d be back soon. She should have known better. That was 6 years ago. She never heard from them again. People in town asked her if she was going to change the name they couldn’t pronounce, but she was afraid of what might happen if they ever did come back. Oh, there were lots of suggestions, like Maggie’s Diner or Best Breakfast in 100 miles, but she just didn’t have the energy. And besides, it wasn’t the best breakfast. The regulars would come in, more out of pity for her than for the food. It was acceptable and the coffee was decent, but her heart just wasn’t in it. Sometimes she’d look at the walls and think that she should maybe spruce up the place, but that thought faded quickly. She made just enough to live on, to stay alive. That was good enough for her.
. They never had kids. He blamed her of course, with his mother nodding in agreement. It wasn’t for lack of trying, at least for the first few years. But after that, just like everything else, it just dried up.
. Now the man was coming towards the restaurant, if you could call it that, with the paint that may have been green at one time peeling off the walls, the wood floor sticky with grease and cigarette butts from years of perfunctory cleaning by Elsa who now lived in the basement.
. Elsa, whom she didn’t dare fire. Out of what? Pity? Fear? Elsa, who’s dyed blonde hair was dryer than the broken broom leaning against the wall. Elsa, who smiled broadly with her generous lips, but who kept you there, her grey eyes peeled to yours with a mixture of hatred and supplication. She must have been pretty at some time in her life. If you tried real hard you could see the remnants of it with her high cheekbones and neck long as a swan. Too bad that voice of hers was a dead giveaway of the 40 years of rolling her own. Her right thumb and forefinger were yellowed. The bright red nail polish was chipped. And then there were the fangs. Not nice to say fangs, but that’s how they appeared. Especially when she gave you that smile. You almost expected blood to come dripping onto her chin.
. When Elsa was first thrust onto her by George down the road, she tried to object. It had only been two years since her husband and his mother had fled, but no one, not even Maggie expected them to return. And George, sweet George, how could she say no to him? He had so wanted to marry her, to treat her like a queen, but she wasn’t attracted to him, not in that way. He resigned himself to coming into the restaurant every Sunday and meeting her eyes. Inquiring gently as to her well-being, he watched as she withered with time.
. When she cleared away his plates, she knew there would be the ridiculously big tip carefully hidden under his coffee cup. Scooping it up quickly, she would sequester it into a box she kept behind the canned fruit in the cupboard. That box should have been full by now, but she had had to use most of that money every month.
. It was a few years after her husband left when George first told her his niece Elsa had fallen on hard times.
. “Couldn’t she just live in your basement? My place is way too small and anyway it’s not appropriate that she stay with me. She won’t be any trouble at all. Why, she’ll even help you clean up your restaurant. I’ll tell her to and I’ll give you money for her room and board every month.”
. The money coming in would certainly be helpful, but Elsa? By then Elsa must have been in her early thirties and still known in town as one of the ones to look out for. She had run around with a bad crowd in town as a teenager and never seemed to have grown out of it.
. Maggie had sighed and told George she would give it a go.
. Now it was Sunday evening, and the restaurant, L’Etoile’s, (that’s the name) had been closed for an hour, but Elsa hadn’t locked the front door like she was supposed to. She never did for the 4 years she’d already been living down in the basement. She just washed the few dishes with her cigarette hanging from her mouth and clamored back downstairs without so much as a “See you tomorrow” or “Have a nice night.”
. And then he just walked right in. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. He had on a black leather jacket, black boots, old jeans and a denim shirt. His face looked weather-beaten, his gray hair pulled back into a ponytail.
. “Can I ask you ma’am for a cup of coffee? Been traveling for miles and noticed the light on in your place here. Seems real cozy.”
. Words escaped her. She found herself adjusting her apron, looking down at the week-old stains in dismay as she spit into her hand and ran it over her wispy indistinct brown hair that was now greying at the temples. Primping. How ridiculous. But there was something about this man. What was it?
. She nodded to him to sit down at the counter. He moved slowly, too slowly. As he sat down, she saw his hand reach into the pocket of his jacket. He pulled out a handgun and gently placed it on top of the counter.
. She stared at the gun and back at him. He licked his lips.
. “Mighty nice of you to fix and old man a cup of coffee.”
. As she poured it, she tried not to look directly at him. She felt her cheeks grow hot. Old man. He couldn’t be much older than her. Maybe 55 at the most. Just as she was about to lift up the coffee pot, she felt his hand on top of hers. He held it there, warm and alive. She lifted her gaze and saw an unmistakable twinkle in his deep brown eyes. She held her breath. With his other hand, he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a stack of $100 dollar bills. There were five. He took his hand off hers and carefully unfolded each one hundred dollar bill. He fanned them out like a bouquet and placed them next to the gun.
. “Those are for you, darlin’, once you make me scrambled eggs, bacon and whole wheat toast with butter.”
. It didn’t take Maggie long to make the breakfast. She cooked up all the bacon she had left. While she was in the kitchen, she could feel his eyes on her. She was aware of how the back of her must look. She wondered if he would notice the spring in her step. Was it the money? She wanted to think that that was it. That was a lot of money. She’d never even seen a hundred dollar bill before. Were they real? How did he get them? Did he rob a bank? She swallowed hard and shoved that thought out of her mind. It wasn’t the money. No, it wasn’t. It was him. The maleness of him. The sureness of him. The deliberateness of him.
. As she brought the plate steaming with eggs and bacon with the whole wheat toast buttered and placed so carefully on the outside ridge of the plate, she could feel his eyes on her again. She tried to keep her face neutral. Don’t hope, she told herself. He’ll leave right after he’s done eating. Will he really give me $500? She didn’t care. It was enough that he looked at her the way he did. It was enough. She saw his eyes light up when she put the breakfast down before him. She couldn’t help but smile. She was pleased. Oh yes, she was. As she was about to scurry off to get him more coffee, he stopped her with his voice, deep and reassuring.
. “That’s mighty nice of you ma’am. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this meal.”
. She wanted to say, “Oh, no trouble at all”, but she couldn’t find her voice. She just nodded, cheeks flushed and rushed back into the kitchen for the coffee.
. She didn’t want to appear too anxious, so she waited in the kitchen and made herself count to 100 before going back into the room again. She adjusted her dress and her apron, looked quickly at herself in the reflection in the window, and carefully walked back in, not able to look at him directly.
. As she poured him the third cup of coffee, she could see that he had cleaned his plate entirely. She didn’t know who was more pleased.
. “That was the best breakfast I’ve had in many a moon.”
. “I’m glad” she managed to blurt out while taking his plate.
. He stopped her again with his voice.
. “It’s getting late, ma’am. I’m wondering if you know where I might spend the night. I’m plum tired and didn’t see any hotels or inns nearby.”
. Their eyes met just as the basement door opened with a groan. Elsa! Maggie was frozen.
. Elsa stood there staring at the man and back again at Maggie. She was in her nightgown with her blue terry cloth robe open. Maggie stared at her cleavage, silently willing her to disappear quickly and quietly.
. “I heard some noise upstairs. Isn’t the place closed?” Elsa was staring at the man.
. “Well, yes, but…this….gentleman….was hungry….and…” Maggie couldn’t continue. Why did she owe Elsa an explanation?
. Elsa stared at the counter with the 100 dollar bills.
. “This what you’re charging these days for breakfast, Maggie?” Elsa’s fangs were protruding.
. Elsa looked over at the man again.
. “Got any more where those came from?”
. Then Elsa saw the gun.
. “Well, I guess I just better leave you two alone.” She grinned and sauntered over to the basement door. She turned one last time to look both at Maggie and the man before she sauntered back downstairs to the basement.
. Maggie lowered her eyes, her fingers grasping at her dress. There was an uncomfortable few minutes of silence.
. “Looks like there’s a storm brewin’. Would you mind if I just brought in my sleeping gear and curled up right here on your floor?”
. Maggie looked out the window. She couldn’t tell if there was really a storm coming in or not. It was pitch black. She looked directly at him now and took a deep breath.
. “Yes. You can sleep on the floor over there. I’ll put the closed sign on the outside. I can bring you some extra pillows. Let me know… let me know if you need anything… I’ll just be in that back room there… It’s not very elegant here, but…”
. Maggie fled into her bedroom after she brought him the extra pillows. She lay down on her sagging bed fully clothed. She kept listening to his breathing, one ear to the man on the floor of the diner, the other to the basement door. She silently willed Elsa to stay downstairs.
. In the early hours of the morning, she must have finally fallen asleep. She got up quickly, disoriented and ran to the bathroom. She scrutinized herself in the mirror, not entirely displeased, took a deep breath and walked carefully into the diner.
. The man was gone, the gun was gone. The hundred dollar bills were fashioned into a green origami rose. Picking up the rose and holding it to her chest, she ran to the window, parted the curtains, and looked out at the empty parking lot. Walking slowly back into her bedroom, she sniffed the rose to see if she could detect any scent from the man. There was none. She put the rose underneath two of the three sweaters that were in the dresser drawer. Just as she closed the drawer, Elsa startled her by appearing in her doorway.
. “Where’s Mr. Charming?”
. “He’s gone.”
. “Did he leave you the hundred dollar bills?”
. “Could’ve told you that.”
(© Helene Simkin Jara)
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED