The jukebox blared loudly, some song from some band from the seventies. "Should I stay or should I go", went the chorus, and that's all she could ever pick out because of the singer's English accent. Or was he Australian? She didn't know and it didn't matter. Not really. It just came up in the jukebox's rotation, she didn't know how it worked, if she didn't play something specific. Some nights, she felt like it. Tonight she didn't.
Three-forty-seven a.m. One hour and 13 minutes until shift change. One hour and 13 minutes until she could go home, go to bed and simply not be at the Waffle House on Interstate 75 outside of Valdosta for another 14 hours. She hated... well, no that's not quite right. She didn't "hate" her job, but she sure didn't love it. It paid well enough and her co-workers were decent enough, especially since that creepy Eric got fired, but she sure didn't love it. She had to work and she had to work night shift, so she could be a mom at some time of the day, so she could go to school, so there she was.
Five a.m., she could go home, drink coffee for an hour and then get Chrystal ready for school. Then sleep until Chrystal got off the bus, be a mom for a while, until her night classes started at six. Night shift, the nights she worked, started at midnight, and it all started over again. A slow parade of truckers, travelers, college students and random lost souls who had nothing better to do while waiting out the inky black South Georgia night than to come to Waffle House and make time with her or crack jokes with whatever cook happened to be on that night.
Three fifty. She was alone. Jennie, the other waitress, called in and the cook, Stevie, left early to take his son to the hospital for some sort of something. He didn't know and she didn't know. Maybe it was nothing, but that was okay. Middle of the week was pretty slow and it's the middle of July, hot as hell, and no one was coming in. The last customer was a trucker around one, and nothing but her and the jukebox since then. It was hot, so hot, outside, and with the air conditioner roaring full blast, the windows were fogged completely opaque. She was in her own little world, just her, the jukebox and her sociology text book, opened to the chapter she was supposed to read but left unread in her boredom.
Three-fifty-two, the jukebox kicked in a song by Brooks & Dunn, that "My Maria" song she liked so much. Jerry the stoner morning cook told her more than once, in his clumsy attempts to make time, that it was a cover of a song from the seventies, but she didn't care. The jukebox was a mix of new country and classic rock, and she liked most of it, but she loved "My Maria", the high, keening wail during the chorus, she didn't know what it was. Jerry was a nice enough guy, but she had no room. Twenty-five, going to school, raising a seven year old with just a sister's begrudging help, she didn't have time for nice enough potheads going nowhere but the marijuana dealer and the video store and the pizza place.
Four o'clock. One hour. She'd long finished her closing sidework long ago. The bell chimes, dammit, someone's here. Turning, she sees him slouching towards a counter seat. Not tall and not short, not fat and not thin, not handsome and not ugly, with dirty blond-almost-but-not-quite brown hair hanging over his eyes. Dressed in a simple gray t-shirt and blue jeans and carrying a book, he eased onto the stool. He shot her a shy, apologetic half smile, as if he knew she was breaking her peace and solitude and screwing up her sidework.
"You want some coffee?"
"Got any sweet tea?" Again the apologetic half smile. "No," she said, "but I can make some."
"No, don't, that's cool. Coke's fine."
"You sure? It's no bother."
"Yeah, no, coke's fine."
Okay. She turned to the fountain machine and got his drink, plenty of ice. "Know what you want?"
He screwed up his face in thought as he scanned the menu. After a few seconds, he said, "Pancakes. Plain, no butter or syrup. Side of sausage. That okay?"
"Sure, hun, be a minute." She turned to the grill and with a sigh got to work. The jukebox kicked into that "Ramblin' Man" song. The guy at the counter took a sip of his coke, disregarding the straw and cracked open his book. Out of curiosity, she looked at the cover as he read. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.
"That any good?"
Silence for a pause until, apparently, he realized she was talking to him. "Hmm? Sorry?"
"Your book. Is that any good?"
"I don't know," he said. "I just started it." Again, the apologetic half smile, like he was embarrassed he couldn't give her a full account of the book's merits. "It's supposed to be pretty good. So far, it's okay."
"Oh. Didn't they make a movie of that?"
"Is that any good?"
"I don't know," he said. "Never saw it."
Back to the pancakes and sausage. She cooked, he read and the jukebox played that Gretchen Wilson song, "Redneck Girl". After a few minutes, his food was done and she served it up. "Here you go," smiling a genuine smile for some reason. "Let me know if there's anything you need."
Again, the half smile "'Kay. Thanks." He ate in silence for a while as she studied the back cover of the book.
"You go to school here?" She couldn't tell his age. His boyish face was slightly marred by a small scar on his chin, making him look anywhere from a mature 18 year old to someone in his early thirties.
"Just passing through, then?"
"Yep. Heading to Florida. Gainesville."
"Oh. You live there?" Please don't be a Gator, she told herself.
"No. Visiting people. My brother, actually."
"Oh. Where did you come down from?"
"New York City."
"Really? You live there?" Now, that was something. New York City.
"No. Just visiting."
"Oh. So where do you live?"
"That's cool. I went to JazzFest once. It was a lot of fun."
"Yeah, it's a nice town and there's a lot to do there." He went after his pancakes in the resulting silence.
Oh, my god, she thought. "I'm sorry. You're trying to eat and here I am blabbing away."
The half smile. "No, it's okay. You're the first person I've talked to for more than 14 hours. Excuse me."
He got up and went to the jukebox. Slipping in a dollar, he studied the selection for a while before punching the buttons. Returning to his seat, he gave another half smile and continued to slowly work away at his pancakes.
"What'd you play?"
"This and that, just some stuff." As he said it, a Willie Nelson song, one she couldn't place, came over the loudspeaker. "What are you reading?"
The question took her by surprise. "What? Oh. My sociology textbook. Trying to anyway. I have a test Friday and I need to study and generally late nights are good for that." Babbling again.
"You in school, then?"
"What are you studying?"
"Social work. I want to be a social worker."
"Nice." The half smile. "Any particular field?"
"Oh, umm, no, not really. Haven't gotten that far yet. I just want to do something to help people out, I don't know yet."
"Oh. Well, good luck. That's admirable."
He lapsed back into silence and pancakes. Four twenty-five. He finished up his meal. "What do I owe you."
The sudden question startled her. "Ah. Um. Eleven-fifty."
"Okay. Thanks." Standing, he reached for his wallet and laid a twenty-dollar bill on the bar and then headed for the bathroom. She laid his change on the counter for him when he returned and walked over to the griddle to study if it needed re-scraping. Behind her, she heard the doorbell "bing" and saw it close. He'd left the change on the counter, a nearly ten-dollar tip. No goodbye.
The sun was coming out and the inky blackness lightened into a bland gray through the fogged windows as another day began and hers drew to a close. She saw the red lights of his car blink on, maneuver into position and head back towards the highway. Over the loudspeaker, the guitar chords to "My Maria" kicked in as the last selection played.