The door opens and this guy who can only mean trouble blows in just as I serve the only other customer, a young sailor, his pan steak and fried potatoes. Trouble saunters over to the counter and eases himself down on the orange vinyl stool to the left of the cash register. I glance at the clock. Less than half an hour till closing. Trouble picks up a menu. Like he can fool me. I know he's scanning the place. I've been robbed four times in the last six months. I'm beginning to wise up.
My husband kept a gun in the cash drawer. He wanted to teach me how to shoot. I said no thanks.
"The best defense is a good defense," he said. He made sure people knew he had a gun and that he knew how to use it. After Roy died, I wrapped the gun in newspaper with crab shells and sent it to the dump. Lately I've been thinking I made a mistake. Fear isn't fun to live with. It's like having lice. No matter what you do, you just can't get comfortable.
Sasha left early this afternoon. Her baby is sick. Luke, the fry cook, is strung out on something and can barely flip burgers. If I can keep Sailor Boy here till closing, maybe Trouble will go away empty-handed. Sailor Boy has some muscle on him.
Sailor Boy shoves a huge bite of steak in his mouth and catsup dribbles down his chin. Slow down, boy. Make it last. "Hey, son," I say. "You'd better chew that meat or you're liable to choke to death." That's how Roy died. A chunk of beef got stuck in his throat.
"You ready to order?" I ask Trouble. He's got a graying red beard. I've never liked beards. I figure if a guy wants to hide his face, there's a reason. When we were first married, Roy wanted to grow a beard. I had a fit. Said I wasn't kissing a furry face. That fixed that.
"Haven't made up my mind." He stares into the menu. I take the opportunity to scan him. Dark blue wool coat with a knitted hat hanging out of the pocket. Trouble, all right. I glance into the cooking area. Luke has his back to me. I can tell by the hunch of his shoulders he's dozing. Fat lot of help he is.
My daughter says I'm too old to be working this hard. She wants me to move to Phoenix and live with her. Free baby-sitter, I thought, and said no. I aim to keep this place three more years. Then I'll sell and have a retirement on my terms. But on these cold lonely nights when I'm about to be held up, I wish I'd said yes. The neighborhood has changed since Roy and I started our Mom and Pop business. Gone downhill. Nobody knows anybody anymore. Nobody trusts anybody.
Roy’s been dead eight months. In the beginning, I didn't think I could go on without him. But somehow I'm doing it. "How about some more fried potatoes?" I ask Sailor Boy. We need to stretch things out here.
I go into the cooking area and step on Luke's sneaker in passing. He says, "Ouch," opens his eyes slightly.
“Wake up,” I whisper. “I may need you.”
His eyelids slowly sink back down.
The skillet of potatoes is still warm. I give the boy a healthy serving. The kid smiles and the gap between his teeth makes him look so much like my dead brother, Timmy, I want to cross myself.
"I'm ready," Trouble says.
"Black coffee and a sweet roll." He's careful not to look at me.
Sailor Boy is standing up. "Hey, how about some pie," I call out. "I baked a chocolate one this morning. How about a slice of that with whipped cream on top. Or ice cream. It's on the house," I add in case he's short. Times are hard. Some folks admit when they're hurting and ask for help. Others take what doesn't belong to them.
"Mine on the house, too?" This time Trouble's gray eyes meet mine with a look that goes right through me and out the other side. A chilling look pushed forward by an attitude.
"Sure. You want some pie or the sweet roll. Or both?"
"Pie," he says. "With whipped cream. Lots of whipped cream."
Sailor Boy takes ice cream on his. "I have a nephew in the Navy," I say to make conversation. "In San Diego."
"Been there." He shovels the pie and ice cream in like he's still starving even after all that steak and potato.
Trouble is standing, fumbling in his coat. He tosses some coins on the counter. He pulls the black knitted cap out and sticks it on his head. "That pie could use less sugar."
Moments later the chimes on the door jangle and Trouble goes out into the night. I hurry as fast as my stiff knee will let me over to the door and lock it.
"I'll let you out when you're ready," I say. "Can I get you anything else?"
"Milk would be good."
I tap Luke's shoulder in passing. "You can go now." Luke stretches. Yawns. Starts to settle back into dreamland. "Come on. Wake up. Go home. I'll finish the clean-up." I'll make up a new want ad while I'm at it, I think, but I know I won't. Luke's good on the griddle and he's honest. You can't have everything. "Lock that back door after you," I remind him.
I give Sailor Boy milk and take the dirty plates off the counter. Stick them in the sink. When I come out, he’s standing in front of the register. I tell him to forget it--that the whole shebang is on the house. I tell him he reminds me of my kid brother. I don't add I'm thinking back thirty-three years.
I say I'll unlock the door for him. He says he'd rather I unlock the register.
"You don't want to be doing that—"
"Open the damn register or I'll kill you." He shows a knife, one of those hunting knives with spiky edges. I hit the key and the drawer slides open. He grabs the bills. "Where's the rest?" he asks.
"That's all there is."
"Why bother running this dump?"
Right by his greedy hand, taped to the register, is a torn photo of Roy and me when this place was brand new. We were young, smiling, full of hope. We had so many plans. It went by so quickly. I tell my daughter to enjoy those kids, that husband of hers. Because one morning she won't remember how she bypassed the future she was always dreaming about and lost so much of the past.
The kid orders me to let him out. I do. Hang the CLOSED sign on the window. Maybe I will go to Phoenix. Sit in the sun. Watch my grandkids.
I go back to the cooking area and scrub everything until I can stop shaking. I should call the cops. Report this. Sergeant Davies will be sore if he finds out I haven't. He'll tell me I'm getting too soft. But then he has more faith in the system than I do. Filing a report hasn’t done any good in the past. It just meant a lot of standing around and filling out forms.
It's not that I don't respect Sergeant Davies. I do. He comes by every afternoon for a cup of coffee and a slice of my chocolate pie. "He's courting you, Anita," Sasha likes to tease. I haven't figured out whether I'd like that or not. Men are a lot of work. Funny, Sergeant Davies has never said a word about the pie being too sweet.
Before I turn out the lights, I pick up the paper sack of leftovers I've got sitting on the floor of the broom closet. Inside the sack there are two cans of soup, some stale bread and a grapefruit. All day and all evening I keep sneaking the extra cash out of the register and hiding it in the bread wrapper. I don't tell anybody. Not Sasha, not Luke. Nobody. After the first robbery—which was the only one that made me cry—I've never kept more than sixty-four dollars in the register. Roy's age. I'll have to add another dollar Thursday. Thursday's his birthday.
Outside it's blowing cold little snowflakes that blind like tears. I juggle the sack, yank my scarf up to cover my mouth and nose.
"Gimme that!" It's Trouble, hat pulled down so low all I can see is the triangle of his nose. He grabs the sack out of my arms and is off down the sidewalk, his footprints making crazy marks in the snow.
I stand absolutely still until I'm sure my heart isn't going to explode through the center of my chest. The few lit-up windows in the office building across the street look like melting pats of butter. Behind me, I know the diner is dark. I think of all the times Roy and I closed up after a slow day—how he'd put his arm around me and say, "It's you and me against the world, honey."
Now it's just me.
I step off the curb and cross the street. Head for home. "I'm not licked yet," I whisper as if Roy were walking beside me, keeping me company. With each step, I can feel the two hundred and eighty-two dollars folded inside my right shoe. "Not by a long shot."
Marion de Booy Wentzien has twice been a recipient of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. She has won The New Letters Literary Award and recently one of her stories was presented by the Chicago Humanities for the Arts in their Stories on Stage. Her stories have been published by Scholastic Books,The San Francisco Chronicle, Seventeen Magazine, Story Magazine, Blue Penny Quarterly, The Sonora Review and other literary journals.
She lives in Saratoga, CA with her husband and some rescued animals.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I’m always interested in how women who’ve been in a long term relationship carry on after their partner dies. This story was created after ruminating about a working partnership in an area that has seen better times and not selling or giving up.
Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?
A: A flute.
Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences?
A: I love stories/books about people who do daring things: climb mountains, go down slot canyons, race in the Vendée Globe and other adventures. Kon Tiki probably got me started in this direction. Essentially I read everything! Even telephone books in hotel rooms.
Q: Where is the perfect place for writing?
A: My bedroom at a desk that overlooks a green yard with many trees—fruit and shade trees—where obese squirrels and a huge swarm of crows come twice daily to be fed nuts.