Well, we were absolutely swamped… And it was stinking hot… It was all I could do to keep the windows (and even doors) open, the fans pointed the right way, the blinds adjusted, and keep everyone fed with the right meals. It was a weekend later in may (Saturday I think), and people came and went. The lunch rush; it felt like the whole day was a rush. That day was just a blur… Well, and last saturday night, that vile salesmoron slapped me across the back parking lot… Really, I am just not sure why I kept going. I spent all that weekend feeling so emptied, even aside from how bad my head hurt. Well, the pain in my head had only slowly tapered off most of the way, over the course of the week. It was still very sensitive to touch. I thought that would last a while more. At least I still had what nobody could give back if one of those salesmorons took it. I was pretty sure that was good. Still, I wondered more and more how much longer I could…

Late in the afternoon, right before the dinner rush, an older man came in by himself, and sat down, booth 7, near a front window. Maybe I have been doing this too long; I can usually size up a man fairly well, just by appearance. Well, his shaggy beard had some gray anyway. But he didn’t look like a salesmoron. That was a relief. I didn’t recognize him being here before; I was pretty sure this was his first time, that I could remember anyway, which wasn’t all that long. Like I said, maybe I have been at this too long. Or maybe, I was trying to avoid adding anything else to that huge pile of pain just an arm-length away… I told myself it was just a defense mechanism. He was just another customer.

I was rushing to get two orders to other tables, but got him some ice water after that, and took time to say I would be back to take his order in a few minutes. Well, a few minutes ended up being half an hour. When I realized I had forgot about him, I was sure he would be gone. City folks do that a lot — they just get up and leave if you don’t take their order within five minutes. Their empty table is easy to spot.

But as I walked past later, arms full with plates, I noticed he was still there, sipping on his water, looking calmly out the window. And it was still ten more minutes before I could get back to actually take the time to get his order. Our menu is pretty simple and printed on cards that slide down into the napkin holders on the outside. Each table has one. Some people actually ask for a menu, and we have nicer printed ones for that. The stuff on the napkin holders is the same. His order was simple enough; cheeseburger, fries and a soda. It didn’t take long to write it on my notepad, and I was off. I dropped a soda cup off on the way to deliver another meal. Halfway through the dinner rush, I remembered him. His food had been sitting on the order up shelf, well a while anyway, and I had the cook put it under the heat lamps long enough to warm it back up again. Like I said, we were really busy. But I did manage to get him his burger and fries. Sipping calmly on some soda, he was gracious, thanked me, and appeared to not be bothered by the delay at all. Still, as I rushed off, I just shook my head. It had probably been over an hour from the time he ordered to when he actually got his meal. Shaking my head felt different briefly, but I was on my way back to get dinner for a party of six. I took two trips for all of that.

The man with the shaggy beard came up later to pay for his meal. I take care of that job too, and so I headed to the register when I saw him standing there. He came up a quarter short for his meal, but I quickly said that was ok. I tried to smile as I apologized for the wait. He smiled back, and said that we could use some more help. He explained he noticed I was doing everything, and that I deserved a medal for that. Well, I laughed pretty hard at that. He thanked me, and he headed out the door. And it was only then that I realized that laughing didn’t hurt my head that time. My head didn’t hurt when I laughed, even after last weekend. That really was something, but only briefly. I jumped back into delivering food, cleaning tables… A local told me a funny joke later, and I laughed at it too. That hurt a bunch; I didn’t laugh very long. I thought briefly about the gentleman with the scraggly beard, but realized it had to be some kind of fluke. The order up bell rang, someone’s food was ready, and I was off again.

I didn’t even have time to nibble on anyone’s food that evening, so I asked the cook to make me a burger and fries after the dinner rush slowed down. It was cooling off outside, so I closed some of the windows, opened some of the west shades, and turned most of the fans off. As I opened the front shades, I noticed that same gentleman was still there, sitting on the front steps of the Diner. Well, he was out of the way, anyway. I hoped briefly that I wasn’t going to be stalked tonight. I didn’t think so, but salesmorons had tried that before.

The dinner rush was mostly over, but a steady stream of locals kept us (me) busy until maybe 8:30. When the locals leave, it is time to start cleaning, and get ready for the next day. I took a short break before that, and did what I often do when it is busy. I took my burger outside and sat on the steps to enjoy a little peace and quiet. I noticed that same man was still there, so I sat on the other side of the steps. He said right away, without moving his gaze from the desert off in the distance, and talking quietly “Making polite conversation while you are trying to eat would not be very nice. Thank you again.” And that was that. I appreciated his consideration. I was hungry, and ate everything, then was soon back up and inside, shoving a mop over the floor around tables with the chairs up-side-down on the table-tops. The cook was cleaning the kitchen. Neither job was very fun, but both had to be done. The cook finished before I did, said good night, and locked the back door on his way out and headed home. He had turned the lights off in the back half of the Diner, mostly the kitchen and halls to the restrooms and restrooms too. I had to clean the restrooms, but that wasn’t a problem. The sun was low in the west, and gave me plenty of light with the doors propped open. That was how things went in the summer.

I turned off the rest of the lights, set the burgler alarm (which I am not even sure if it works or not), then backed out the front door, and locked the front door in the process. It was still light out, and I turned around to leave. That same man was still there, sitting in the same spot, towards the left side of one of the steps up to the Diner. He was still just staring across town, across the desert that stretched for miles beyond. I honestly didn’t know what to do. I just sat down where I sat before, on the same step, but on the other end.

He sighed.  “Miss, you worked so hard today, you don’t need to worry about me. Go home and have a nice evening.” He said this calmly, quietly, but right away. Again, he didn’t even bother to turn to look at me. I realized then that he probably wasn’t ‘after’ me, or anything like that. And I already knew he was too nice to be a salesmoron. I didn’t know what to say, really. For a few minutes, we both sat there in awkward silence. Well, he was looking calmly off across the desert. I was just not sure what to do.

But, it was only then that I realized… My head was not hurting… at… all… I tried to replay the afternoon, the evening, what I remembered, and quickly realized… When I was around this stranger, my head didn’t hurt. Trying to act like I was scratching an itch, I pressed on the top of my head where it usually hurts the worst. This would normally bring tears immediately, and after getting slapped across the back parking lot last weekend… Now? Nothing… My head felt… normal… I could not explain it. For over a year, I had done everything possible to appease my aching head, and could usually only calm that pain to a dull throb. But that aching pain in my head that had stalked me for… a long time… It was absolutely gone, right now, right here. I just couldn’t let this go…

“Sir, you should go home too.” I sort of blurted this out. It was a dumb approach at trying to find out more about what he was doing here. It was the best I could do.

He just sighed. “I have no home. I am almost out of gas, and gave you all the money I had so I could eat a little before…”

Ok, Edna told me tons of sob stories like this, about people driving this far, then running out of money. Well, duh, you shouldn’t start off on an adventure unless you know you can afford it. I didn’t think that was what was going on here. “Sir, it is miles of stinking hot desert beyond this town… You might…” I said this quietly, hesitantly maybe. And I didn’t, couldn’t finish that scary suggestion.

He answered right away, again quietly, and without thought. “I know.”

Well, it sounded to me like he was planning on driving out into the desert and ending it all… This was so easy to do. The stories we heard… Well, I was concerned. Sort of shaking my head side to side (which didn’t hurt) “Sir, why would you…” I got this far, and again couldn’t say any more.

He didn’t even turn to look at me. He was still staring off across the desert. He just said quietly “Ma’am, I am a cast-off. I can’t remember anything beyond maybe a year ago, people treat–” He stopped himself abruptly, right there. And it was only then that he turned to look at me. “I’m apologize miss, my problems aren’t your responsibility. I think you should do yourself a favor, and go home and forget about this.” Then he looked back towards the trackless desert beyond, now tinted with orange from the setting sun.

It was quiet for a few minutes. It wasn’t awkward, not for me anyway. I was thinking. Then I spoke. “Sir, behind my house are a few small one-room apartments, and I am sure you would be able to stay there until you get your feet back on the ground.”

He began to protest, and as he did, he only then slowly turned his head to face me, to look at me. “Miss, I really don’t think that is wise. I can’t help how I am, and I just don’t think…” He got this far, and by then we were looking at each other.

I looked into his eyes, and said quietly, but resolutely “Please…”

He looked away from me, briefly, then looked back at me. “Ma’am, you are very kind. I really don’t deserve your help, but–”

I interrupted him. “My name is Maude, and I live about a mile from here. Will your car make it that far?”

He sighed, then answered “Bill, and I guess I could really use someone’s help… It will probably make it just half way across the desert, so yes, it will get you home.”

He was such a gentleman… He even opened the door on my side for me, helped me in, then helped me with the belt. The door didn’t close the first time, so he apologized, and slammed it pretty hard. His car was an old, small station wagon with plenty of rust. But it started right up, and we were soon driving slowly down the dirt road to my house. But… I hated cars. I never ever wanted to be in a car with a man; the salesmorons had seen to that. But this was different. It felt different… And my head didn’t hurt… at all… This was very different… In my mind, the trip was over far to soon. I wanted to go a lot further. Still, we were pulling up in front of Ed and Edna’s farmhouse, now my farmhouse… Of course, he opened my door for me again, and helped me out of the car. I led him around back, and showed him the three apartments. The light actually worked in one of them, but it was full of wood pieces, with nails scattered around on the floor. He said it would do nicely. He mentioned something about having to spend this last winter in the worst shack imaginable, and that this was absolutely amazing to him.

As I got ready to walk off, he said “Hey… Maude… Thank you for doing this. I think I need a little help. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help you.”

Well, I knew the minute I walked away, my head would probably start hurting. That was just scary. For the last 20 or so minutes, I had the first relief from that dull throbbing since… Still, I wanted to sound a little up-beat. “Bill, I think we might be able to find some things for you to do.” I don’t know why, but I added this. “Please don’t drive off into the mid–” Well, I couldn’t finish that, so I turned and walked quickly off.

I walked back around to the front of the farm-house, and let myself in. Of course my head started hurting. Maybe it hurt worse, as if to pay me back for the 20 minutes of pain-free existing I had just enjoyed. I fought back tears, as I plopped down on the couch. My clothes were still a little wet with sweat, but I didn’t care. I buried my head in my pillow and just cried. It hurt, so I did what I usually do. I bit the pillow, and tried to cry ever so quietly. I guess I cried myself to sleep that night. I seem to do that a lot…

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1. Maude: Meanderings is copyright 2017 by Shysage.

 

 

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