2020_07_27

The Out-Of-Towners

The door to the diner swung open and Harry looked up from his coffee, as he had a habit of doing any time someone walked in. If, as usual, it was one of the regulars, he’d greet them with a "Good Morning", a smile, and maybe a wave. If it was this early in the morning, 6:23 AM according to the clock near the door, then it was almost definitely a regular. But no. Not this morning, apparently. A woman walked in first, followed by a man. They were just kids really, probably mid-twenties, maybe early-thirties. When you get to be Harry’s age, anyone under thirty is a "kid". They both looked tired, and Harry didn’t really blame ’em. Only reason he was up and at the diner at this hour was because his body just didn’t let him sleep after a certain point. To be frank, he usually had to get up to use the restroom, and then it was all over after that; no chance of falling back to sleep. He continued to watch them as they came and sat in a booth on the other side of the small diner. It was at a ninety degree angle to his, directly in the direction he sat facing, so he had a good view of both of them. The waitress, Becky this morning, let them get settled, take a look at the menus, then walked over and asked if they’d like some coffee. New faces weren’t the most common around these parts, especially before 7:00 AM, so Harry watched them with interest, in a way that only someone who’s been in a small town for many years understands. They both said yes to the coffee. He tried to conjure up a story for them. They each looked a little more than tired, though maybe he was just imagining that. Maybe they’d been fighting the night before. They hadn’t fully made up yet. Yeah, they’re on a road-trip, passing through. Moving, taking a new job, trying to create a new life? That’d be stressful for anybody, no doubt about it. Good test of the relationship, really. They’d both be learning a few things. He almost chuckled to himself. And oh boy, he didn’t envy them, trying to get to sleep on one of those old lumpy mattresses they probably still had over at the Cottonwood Inn. Yep, this stop probably wouldn’t be the highlight of their trip.

Harry sipped his coffee and looked somewhere else, just in case he was staring a bit too much. Sometimes he did that. The waitresses had let him know on several occasions: "You’re gonna scare away the customers staring ’em up and down like that Harry." He would apologize and try and look somewhere else. But it was difficult. His eyes were too old to read much, maybe he’d scan the newspaper but he hardly had the patience to try and read detective novels like he used to every morning. His brain wasn’t quite up to it either, if he was being honest. And that left him pretty bored in the morning, before any of the regulars came in and he could chat with them. He watched Becky fiddling with the registrar. He watched the cook pass in and out of sight back in the kitchen. Then he judged it had been long enough, and he looked back at the couple on the other side of the room.

They were just sitting there. Not talking. The man was looking at the menu. The woman had laid hers down; she had already decided. She was rather pretty, he realized. Maybe a bit too pretty for the man who sat across from her. But that was something that in his long life Harry had learned he knew nothing about: What types of people other people were interested in. He just couldn’t fathom it. He had long ceased to think too much about it, but even so, the thought did cross his mind. The man just looked a bit shabby in Harry’s opinion. She was all done up with a nice dress, nicely combed hair and a bit of makeup, but the man was just wearing jeans and a rumpled T-shirt, hadn’t shaved, hadn’t combed his hair. But here Harry stopped himself: You’re gettin’ all old and inflexible like your pops, old man, he thought. Things are a bit different these days. People don’t iron their shirts all the time or even tuck ’em in. Heck, he’d even seen kids wearing sweatpants in church a few Sundays ago. You’d never get away with that when he was a boy. He looked at the couple again. The man had gulped down his coffee and put the mug near the edge to signal he’d like some more. Harry hadn’t seen the lady touch hers. As Harry watched, they began to talk. Or maybe they were continuing a conversation they’d started outside, a conversation that had been on hold. Harry could just imagine it: "Can we talk about this once I’ve had some coffee?" the guy would ask gruffly. The girl would just shrug and they’d remain silent till they were in the diner. Silent until he had finished a full mug. Then they’d start in. Harry hadn’t seen who’d spoken first. He’d been zoning out about peoples’ clothes. But now he watched keenly. They had their heads forward, close to each other and were whispering forcibly. He could see that the lady was angry, or at least passionate about the subject, whatever it was. They man probably was too, though he looked a bit more reserved, like he knew he could get the upper-hand in whatever argument they were having if he just kept his cool. Maybe she was pregnant, thought Harry suddenly. Maybe they couldn’t decide on whether to keep it. He had no reason to suspect this. It was just something that had popped into his head. No, he thought, it could be a whole lot of other things, don’t jump to conclusions. Maybe one of them wasn’t happy with the new job the other one was going to take when they got wherever they were going. Maybe she was upset because she’d found a job but he hadn’t made any effort to find one for himself. Or maybe he was mad because she’d invited her mother to come stay with them before they were even moved in. Surprise visit of the mother-in-law, that’s always a big one. Though Harry had rather liked his mother-in-law. Maybe the man had invited some friends to visit even though they’d still be busy moving in. Besides, she knew that none of the friends would help with the cooking or cleaning or anything. And her... boyfriend? Husband? Harry loved to do this, to sit and make up stories, explanations for peoples’ lives, play Sherlock Holmes with whatever details he could pick up. He strained his eyes but couldn’t tell whether either had a ring from this distance. In any case, she knew that he’d lay about with his friends the whole time they visited, not lifting a finger. Here Harry stopped again. The husband or boyfriend question had caught him up. He realized that he didn’t have any reason to believe they were a couple at all. What if they were siblings, or cousins, driving together to a family reunion, a wedding, or maybe a funeral. They were both a little upset that they didn’t have partners to show off for the family. Maybe they were both nervous for the gathering in general: Families can be exhausting, didn’t Harry know the half of it. Hopefully it was a wedding, not a funeral. At that point Becky came to take their orders. The two both raised their menus and Harry could see they both wore rings. A couple after all. Becky left with their menus and they continued their discussion, this time sitting up a bit, keeping their expressions more in check. They’d both remembered they weren’t quite alone. The woman was smiling now. She was trying to be amicable, to patch things up or draw the argument to a close. Harry couldn’t tell if the man was buying it. But after a few more exchanges the man’s expression seemed to soften. He felt he’d said what he’d had to say. She’d brought the dang thing up again after all, not him. They reached across the table and clasped hands. Definitely making up. After that it was all smiles. Their food came pretty quick, and they both ate with real enjoyment. They laughed several times together at something one or the other had said. Things were looking up. They’d be on the road again, on the road to their new life. Harry smiled too and drank the rest of his coffee. Becky, who’d been watching him, swooped over and filled his mug again. While she was filling it she looked at him and sighed.

"You want me to ask them, don’t you."

He smiled.

"If you don’t mind. I just get so danged curious."

"I knew it. Okay, be back in a bit."

"Thanks Becky."

Becky nodded, walked over to the couple’s table, and asked if they wanted more coffee. The man nodded, the lady shook her head, no, and Becky filled the man’s mug.

"So, you folks just rolling through town?" Becky asked them.

Harry couldn’t hear what the lady replied.

"Oh, Chicago’s nice, if you can stand the cold. What are you heading there for? Moving?"

Hah, Harry had been right! Again he couldn’t hear what the lady replied, but whatever it was, it wasn’t what Becky had expected.

"Oh," said Becky, simply. She had even taken a step back. "Well, have," she stammered, "have a nice time with that."

The lady said something else. The guy was grinning.

"No, ma’am, I can’t say I have. That’s not my type of thing, if you don’t mind me saying so. Oh no dear, please, no need to..."

The lady had pulled out her phone. She tapped on it a few times and then held it up for Becky to view, saying something at the same time. Being polite, Becky leaned forward a bit and glanced at the phone screen.

The lady giggled and the man smiled as well. At this point Becky simply turned around and walked back towards Harry’s booth. She looked upset. Now Harry was more curious about the couple than he had ever been about anyone in his life probably.

"Well?" he asked Becky in a whisper.

"Well," Becky practically hissed, with a hand on her hip, "she says she’s an," she stammered again, "an adult film star. I wouldn’t ever say something like this, but she said, her words mind you, that she specializes in something called a ’gang-bang’. I didn’t know what that was so she showed me a picture, and oh lord what a picture it was, I’ll tell you. I never want to see something like that again in my life. Oh, careful dear."

Harry had nearly dropped his coffee.

"They both work in that... industry. She says they’re on their way to a, what, a convention, in Chicago."

Having offered the explanation expected of her Becky simply turned and went back to the register, where she stood frowning and tinkering with it. She hadn’t even bothered topping off Harry’s coffee. As for Harry, he was filled with embarrassment for what his prying had caused for poor Becky. He could tell she was quite upset with him. He wondered what his own face looked like. He looked once more at the couple who he’d never seen in town before. The lady looked directly back at him. Then she winked, and licked her lips. The man smirked. After that Harry didn’t look at the couple at all. In about a minute he had finished his coffee. He got up, handed a twenty to Becky, and left the diner without a word. His curiosity was significantly diminished after that morning. And he never asked Becky or any of the other waitresses about another stranger in the diner either, you can be sure of that.