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Fiction


Jessieīs Diner

Emma Deanston

When Jessie broke her leg, there were many in Fallbrook who said, isnít this typical; nothing goes right here anymore. Weíre haunted by bad luck. But thatís baloney if youíll excuse my language. Sometimes I think that people who say stuff like that actually like it when things go wrong. See, they seem to say, I donít have to be disappointed in myself that life didnít turn out the way I wanted it to. The cards are stacked against us regular folks.

Anyway, Iím not saying that the town has had it easy in the last nine years. I never quite understood what it was that Tarvec built, some carburetor part, but a number of national car brands used it and that meant that a lot of people from Fallbrook found jobs in the factories. And we felt so proud whenever we turned the keys in our cars and the engine roared to life, knowing that it was us, too, our town, that made this possible.

All up and down Main Street we had great shops. There was Raymondís, the jewelry store, doing a dandy business selling engagement and wedding rings because people actually married and started families here instead of moving away as soon as they reach an age in which they need to look for work. There was a movie theater and two florists and that burger place with the secret ingredient in the sauce that made it extra delicious. One time, I saw the major in there, licking his fingers, because he thought nobody was looking. If you went to town on a Saturday evening, well, good luck finding parking. We had at least six restaurants and all of them were hopping on the weekends.

India. Thatís where theyíre building those carburetor things now. Itís odd to think that somebody with a turban makes my car run. But Iím glad for them, I really am, because you can tell from what they show on TV that the people over there need to make money even more than we do. All those dusty villages, so poor. But itís been hard on Fallbrook. The hardware store is still around. And the drug store. If you need anything else youíre better off driving to Elwood, to the Wal-Mart. And as far as restaurants go, ďJessieís DinerĒ is pretty much it these days. It used to be ďMarthaís DinerĒ but Jessie changed it when she took over from her mom.

The diner is where people in Fallbrook meet now. In the mornings, itís the old guys debating the latest high school football game and pretending that they didnít get kicked out of the house because their wives want some peace and quiet while cleaning. After school, the kids come for milk shakes and sundaes and in the evening itís the teenagers. Boys and girls packed into different booths, pretending not to notice each other. Itís cute. Of course, we did the exact same thing when we were that age. Back then we thought, no, we knew, that we were the coolest generation that had ever lived in Fallbrook.

Only Bear was there when Jessie broke her leg because sheíd already closed for the night. And itís a good thing that he was still cleaning the griddle as she fell off the stool while reaching for a jar of pickles on a high shelf. Although how she could even topple over in that stamp of a storage room is beyond me. It must have been a very unlucky coincidence. Bear took her to Doctor Gregg, who slapped a cast on her and told her to stay off her feet for a couple of weeks. How, we all wonder? And where does that leave us?

Iím at Jessieís almost every day, usually for breakfast. In the afternoons, I volunteer at the library and it keeps me busy but the mornings are too quiet with just me now rattling around in the house. My bowl of oatmeal looks puny on the table, now that itís always empty and wiped clean with none of the kidsí books and homework lying around or Jimmyís spare coins and cigarettes scattered about. He always dropped his things there, no matter how many times I asked him not to. I was just laughing about it in the end.

Of course, Iím happy that the kids are independent now, grown up and moved out. But I still prefer to start my days at Jessieís, where thereís people and banter and the phone rings and in the winter the air gets so humid from all the talking and from the steam rising off the coffee mugs that beads of condensation run down the window. I feel like myself there.

I used to sit in the back corner booth. You can see whoís coming, whoís going, whoís greeting whom and who isnít. But since Debra moved back to Fallbrook two months ago and started coming to Jessieís, too, I switched to a table in the front. I position myself so that my back is turned towards the counter because thatís where Debra likes to sit. I know that if I donít and if I have her in my field of view Iíll just stare and stare. Trying to read in her face and in her clothes what her life was like those last 31 years.

Most Fallbrookers wonít remember but Debra and I used to be really close. ďLike church and Sunday,Ē I heard my father say to my mother once. ďOne rarely rolls around without the other.Ē It was like that ever since that day in first grade when Mrs. Steinebach plunked her behind down on Debraís desk during art class. She had quite a behind, Mrs. Steinebach, because she was heavy-set and her feet must have been killing her a lot for she liked to perch on windowsills and studentsí desks while she was teaching. Only this time she hadnít seen that Debra was holding a pair of scissors in her hand with the pointy ends up. Well, a louder shriek youíve never heard. Debra got sent to the principal even though she didnít do it purpose. And I got sent there, too, because of all the 24 students in class I was the one who hadnít been able to stop myself from giggling. Three days of detention Mr. Genson gave us. After that we were best friends. All the way through elementary school this lasted, all the way through high school, all the way through community college. All the way to Mark.

Mark Folman, that was his full name. Heíd been at our school but then he went to Boston for college and didnít come home until four years later to spend the summer in Fallbrook before starting a job in Los Angeles. I ran into him at Krugerís and very nearly dropped the box of rice I was holding. The Mark we had known in school wore coke bottle glasses and had legs like a grasshopper, they were that thin. But the Mark Folman who came back from college was toned and tanned and wearing contacts and suddenly you could see what lovely blue eyes he had.

So, clearly, there was never any dispute about who met him first. It was me and once Iíd recovered from my surprise I asked him if he wanted to come along to a party I was heading to that night. Asked him right then and there in Krugerís pasta and rice aisle. And, in any case, Debra was dating Robert back then. Robert still lives in Fallbrook, by the way. Heís a teller in our bank and has developed the kind of breath that can strip varnish off furniture. Whenever I go there I leave a little sad because everybody all day long must want to slip him a mint and nobody ever works up the courage.

We double-dated a lot, Debra, Robert, Mark, and I. One time, I remember, we were meeting at Torrisi. Itís gone now but it used to be over on Gifford. It was the kind of Italian restaurant where they stick candles in empty wine bottles and hang fake grapes from the ceiling. Anyway, I was late that evening but when I walked in I saw that Robert hadnít arrived yet either. It was only Debra and Mark, leaning towards one another across the table, holding wine glasses, talking. I was struck by how animated his face looked, by how hers glowed. Then a waiter walked by and tapped Mark on the shoulder and pointed to where I stood. Mark waved and Debra jumped up, gave me a hug, and whispered into my ear. ďRobert has the trots. Such an uncharming quality in a boyfriend isnít it? Hope you donít mind if I play third wheel tonight.Ē

A few weeks after that Mark left for California. I cried a bit but I had known that this was coming, so it was okay. A bit later Debra took off for a weekend and I recall thinking how odd it was that she hadnít mentioned this visit to her aunt before. It was odder still when I didnít hear from her after she came back. So by the time she called three days later and asked me to meet her at the lake, I knew that something was up.

She wouldnít meet my eyes. She had lied, she said. It hadnít been an aunt she had visited but Mark. And she was sorry, sorry, sorry but she really liked him and he liked her and she had decided to move to California.

Well. I guess anybody would have flown off the handle. But I still squirm when I think back to some of the things I called her. I ran home and refused to answer her calls and when she stopped by I ordered my flat mate to tell her I was out. By the time I was ready to talk, it was three weeks later and Debra had left. Sheíd found a job in L.A., some office thing in an insurance company and they had needed somebody right away, her mom said. I was so stunned that I hung up before sheíd stopped talking.

You have to remember that we didnít have Facebook back then, or email, or sms. Just letters and long-distance calls, which cost a fortune. And I didnít have her number or address and I was not about to call her mom back and ask. No way. So there we were, best friends suddenly separated by fifteen hundred miles and a gulf of silence. Later my mom heard from Mrs. Larsen, who had heard it from Mrs. Ficalora, who had heard it from Markís mom, that Debra and Mark had moved in together. And I guess they eventually got married although they must have done it quietly because nobody in Fallbrook knew about it until after. They probably didnít want to have to invite a lot of people.

Now Debra is back, alone. I wonder what happened. Did they separate? Did he die? You always think that people donít die in their 50ís anymore. But my Jimmy died, didnít he? Never a day sick, hearty as a buck and then he just keels over. Heart attack. I always order the egg white omelet at the diner now. I feel like I owe it to him.

It was Jimmy who made me realize what a blessing this all had been. Without Debra I might have hankered after Mark even though he was gone. And I might have said ďnoĒ to Jimmy when he asked me out that fall. Gentle, sweet Jimmy, who everybody in Fallbrook loved because he was the plumber who would come immediately if you needed him to and who gave me three wonderful kids and built me my dream house with that screened-in porch overlooking the lake. I miss him.

I googled Mark the other day. Couldnít find an obituary. Youíre probably wondering why I donít just go and ask Debra. Iíd like to. But she always seems to take pains to ignore me, and I think back to the things I said that night on the lake, and how I had her sent away from my door, and I feel that I canít blame her for not wanting to reconnect. She followed her heart, and it was the right thing to do. I see that now. Maybe if we saw each other at some other place, somewhere people have to talk. But I only see her at the diner. And who knows if thatíll stay open now. Poor Jessie. I should call her and ask if thereís anything I can do.

#

Iím glad that Jessie broke her leg. That makes me sound like a mean person. But in many ways her accident is the best thing that has happened since I moved back to Fallbrook.

It might surprise you that I came back. After all, Mark and I never even visited Fallbrook much. At first we didnít think it was right to flaunt our happiness in a place where we might bump into Rosalyn. Then my parents moved away. Mom always hated the Michigan winters, so as soon she had me, the youngest, out of the house they hightailed it to Florida. And Markís mom preferred to come to wherever we happened to be living. It was her chance to see something else for a change, she said.

But after what happened I just wanted to go home. And home, when I thought about it, was Fallbrook. This is where I grew up, where Iíve lived longer than anywhere else. The company Mark worked for was one of those big conglomerations that expects you to switch jobs every two or three years. And switching jobs meant moving. We went from the West Coast to the East Coast and north and south. It was great. I got to see a lot. But there was never time to put down roots. Just as soon as Iíd found a hairdresser I liked and figured out whom to call should the sewer line back up, it was time to pack again.

With Fallbrook, itís the other way around. Even though I havenít been here in so long and the town has changed so much, this place stirs things deep in my soul. Because the important things stayed the same. The way the wet leaves smell up at the lake. How the sunlight shimmers on the water. When I drive I find myself turning into the right streets without thinking. Itís a relief after all those years with a map on the passenger seat.

Iím renting a place on Hamilton, a one-bed room, just behind the elementary school. The bustling and yelling during recess doesnít bother me. It keeps me company.

My routine is simple these days. In the mornings, I have coffee at Jessieís and linger over the paper. In the afternoons, I run errands or visit Mark. The drive takes an hour, each way. I couldnít find anything closer and I might not have wanted to anyway. This is a small town, people will find out soon enough. For now Iím glad that I can just mumble, ďIím not ready to talk about itĒ when someone asks about my husband. Then they pat me on the arm and assume that he left me.

Please understand that Mark was a brilliant guy. Really, really smart. Charming, too. You had to know him very well to sense the darkness that lurked behind his public face. Many nights I woke up and found the pillow next to me empty and cold. And if I followed the glow spilling into the hallway, Iíd find him sitting at his desk in the halo of a solitary lamp, reading trade articles, business news, papers.

Itís ironic that his despair and the way it grew stronger as he got older was the thing that fueled his success in such a big way. He didnít trust pills and he scoffed at the idea of therapy. He preferred to distract himself. And so he worked. Thanks to those nightly readings he soon out-performed, out-analyzed and out-strategized most of his colleagues. By the time he grew too exhausted to outrun his demons, he had a job that came with a company car and driver and his own secretary. She used to take his suits to the dry cleaner and the company would pay for it. That was one thing that never failed to amaze me.

You might have thought that such a brilliant man would prove more adept at killing himself. He put the gun against his temple not into his mouth, which would have been much more effective, I gather. I guess if he had read mystery novels instead of trade journalsÖ The bullet tore through the parts that made him Mark and left those intact that keep his body functioning. His brain stem, the doctor kept saying, and every time I had to think of a flower. An orchid with its blossom ripped off, leaving only the dull, green part. His brain stem makes Mark breathe, makes his heart beat, makes him digest whatever is fed to him through that tube. He could live like this for years, the people at the Lamington Long-Care Nursing Home say.

Thereís another reason Iím not ready for this news to come out. I want Rosalyn to know first. I donít want the story to percolate to her through gossip. It seems that I owe her that.

Iím sure youíre thinking, ďSeriously? A bit late, isnít it?Ē And, yes, I wish I had tried to reconcile with her long ago. But you see, I felt too ashamed and guilty at first. And then the promotions started and it was all very exciting and I thought, ďHow can I tell her about this without it sounding like Iím gloating?Ē So I didnít. But whenever we picked up Markís mom from whatever airport she was flying into to see us, one of the first questions out of my mouth was ďAnything new with Rosalyn?Ē And every Christmas I secretly hoped for a card from her that would tell me sheíd forgiven me.

What is it about childhood friends that makes it seem like they know you deeper, in a more meaningful way than friends you make later in life? Maybe itís because they were there when you were at your most hopeful, at your least unbent. Before life whittled you down.

Iíd known that Iíd run into Rosalyn if I moved back to Fallbrook. I was looking forward to it. Only I hadnít thought that itíd happen so soon, on my first morning in town. I was still frazzled from the move and trying to regroup at that place Iíd spotted driving by. The diner. I had just ordered a bagel and an orange juice when Rosalyn walked in. I recognized her right away. Her hair is shorter, her waist is broader and there are lines in her face. But itís still Rosalyn.

I was so shocked that I pretended to read the book Iíd brought along. The problem was that I hadnít thought out yet what I would say to her. So I just watched her from the corners of my eyes. She greeted people, stopped at a table to chat, then ambled towards the back. I was just about to look up and wave -- because what could I do -- when she stopped dead in her tracks, turned on her heels and sat down at a table in the front, with her back to me. From the surprised glances of the people around me I gathered that this was a peculiar thing for Rosalyn to do. Thatís when I knew that she had recognized me, too. And that sheís still mad.

It makes me sad. I wish we could talk and be friends again. But I didnít know how to approach her. Until this morning.

Thatís when Jessie called. I guess that by now Iíve sat at her counter so often that she considers me a regular because she was asking for a favor. ďI need to keep the diner open, canít afford to close it,Ē she said. Could I come in for a few hours each morning for the next few weeks and help out? ďServe coffee, carry the food that Bear cooks to the tables, nothing major.Ē Sheíd be around to work the register, she assured me, and sheíd find a second person to help with the serving, so it wouldnít become too much. ďOf course,Ē I said. Then I asked her who she had in mind as my partner. Rosalyn, she said.

So, yes, Iím glad that Jessie broke her leg.

#

I wonder what itís like to break a leg. Do you hear it crack? Do you feel it, like you feel it when a twig snaps in your hands? So far I only know what itís like to wear a cast. And that part alone is uncomfortable. It itches.
Of course, itís nice when people write on it. Almost everyone who walks into the diner these days stops at the booth, where I sit like Queen Sheba, doing nothing much but supervising. And once theyíre done asking how Iím doing, I hand them the pen and say ďWill you?Ē Most draw flowers or smiley faces or write ďGet well, soon!Ē Except for Oscar, who wrote, ďIf you donít pay, weíll cut off your finger next time.Ē Heís a graphic designer and the closest thing we have to an artist in Fallbrook.

Youíve got to love the people in this town. I knew when I took over the diner that Iíd do this business for them. As a money-earner itís a bitch. People think that with a diner all you need to do is pay for eggs and milk and bacon and coffee and maybe some rent and whatever is left is yours to enjoy. But thereís Bear, who also wants to live, there are fees for the license and the insurance premiums seem to go up every year. Add to that that the winters around here are stinkers and the summers melt the freckles off your nose so that you never quite catch up with those electricity and gas bills. I laugh when people lament that their 401ks have lost value with this recession. I ask, whatís a 401k?

But the people, they make it worthwhile. If something good happens, like theyíve paid off the mortgage or a grandchild gets born, they come and tell me and we celebrate. And if somebody loses their job or they get divorced, they come, too. And I let them sit at the counter and make sure that their coffee mug is always topped off so that they have something warm to hold onto, and I know that theyíll feel a tiny bit better because of it.

But the leg thing, thatís a whole new level. It was Momís idea. We were sitting here, in this very booth. Bear and I had just closed up and I canít tell you how good it felt to have our legs up, Bear and I each on one bench of the booth with our backs against the wall and Mom on a chair that she had pulled over from one of the tables. I had mixed us Bloody Marys from the bottle of vodka I keep hidden behind the cleaning supplies so that the city inspector wonít give me trouble, and we were talking about how Mom would come back to work in the diner for a few weeks in the afternoons so that I could study.

I bet that surprises you. What does somebody who runs a diner study for? Tax law, is the answer. Max, whoís been doing our books ever since Mom and I can remember, is about to retire and if I donít want to drive up to Lamington, which is 50 miles each way, and see an accountant there, Iíll have to do it myself. Thereís nobody else in Fallbrook. That alone tells you what a sleepy town weíve become.

But I donít mind. Iíve always liked numbers, and Iím thinking that it might be a good way to make some extra bucks. People can come when things are quiet in the diner and I can help them with their tax returns. Iíve already taken all the classes. Online, yes. Now I just have to pass the exam. Thatíll require some cramming. So we were talking about that, when Mom pipes up with ďAnd what are we going to do about Debra and Rosalyn?Ē Sheíd already told me several times how they had been great friends as kids and how it bothered her that they werenít even talking now.

She suggested that I pretend to break my leg and act like an invalid and ask them to help me out. I thought the idea was crazy but over a second Bloody Mary I warmed up to it. The idea that I could take a complete break from servingÖ. My sisterís brother-in-law is a doctor so we knew that we had somebody to put a cast on me. And once Debra and Rosalyn were working together theyíd have to talk, wouldnít they?

Did it succeed? Well, I was plenty nervous that first morning. Debra knew about Rosalyn because sheíd asked me who her partner would be, and I had to tell her. But Rosalyn didnít have a clue. So when she showed up first, I put her straight to work. I made her put on an apron and gave her instructions on how to start the coffee machine. I thought, she canít very well bolt if sheís wearing an apron, can she? There was nobody else in the diner then as we werenít open yet. Except for Bear who was frying up bacon to get a head start on the breakfast rush.

So Iím on my crutches, leaning against the counter, and Rosalyn is spooning coffee into the filter, brows knotted in concentration, when Debra walks in the door. And Rosalyn looks up with that big smile of hers but when she sees who it is, her eyes go round as donuts. Itís obvious that she had assumed that Iíd ask one of the Fallbrook old-timers, not Debra.

For a moment weíre all suspended in time. Like, when you knock against a coke bottle and it tilts and thereís this instant when it might just right itself or it might topple over and create a big mess thatíll leave the floor sticky for weeks no matter how often you swipe it. And thereís nothing you can do one way or another because thereís no way you can grab that bottle in time. All you can do is watch how itíll play out. Thatís how it felt.

Nobody was talking, and all you heard was the bacon grease splattering on the griddle. Then Rosalyn puts down the measuring spoon and says, ďI shouldíve done this ages ago.Ē And she walks around the counter, hugs Debra and tells her ďwelcome backĒ. And Debra hugs her back, and they stand like this forever. When they finally let go their eyes are wet but theyíre laughing. And they start talking, and you know that they have two life-times to catch each other up on but I told them that this would have to wait because any minute now customers would start coming and I still had to show them how to make coffee, what plates to use for the pies, and where we keep the pads for writing down orders. I needed them to be ready so that the people would get what theyíre looking for when they come to the diner. Coffee. Food. A smile.

Most of the time they donít realize that these basic things are the ingredients to one of lifeís most powerful alchemies. Combined, they can transform almost anything.