“Hey there stranger. What’s for dinner?”
The question breaks Tommy’s reverie, bringing his attention and focus from the towering clouds that are seemingly squatting in the sky outside. The smells of French fries and apple pie come flooding back, along with the chatter of the other diners making conversation. The waitress, Jenny, he notices as he glances at her nametag, has a plastered smile and notepad and pen in hand, standing next to his booth expectantly. “I’m sorry, I haven’t…”
“Do you need a few minutes?” She asks impatiently, looking over at the other tables already seated.
“I’m sorry, I was kinda daydreamin. I’ll just have a cheeseburger an fries,” He turns the menu around in his hands, “An would ya look at that, a chocolate shake too.” Smiling, Tommy hands the menu back to her, “Thanks, darlin.”
Jenny blushes and smiles at the young, yet very cute, stranger sitting in the booth. His hair is slicked up and back into a pompadour, complete with a jean jacket, rolled up pant legs, and worn brown cowboy boots. He’s not from around here, she thinks as she turns around, “Be right up, stranger.” She likes the Southern twang inflection drawing out his words, clipping them short on others. She looks back, cheeks blush and still smiling.
Tommy watches as she turns around, noticing the fabric pull and stretch around her butt and thighs, admiring her curves. Such a pretty smile. She walks around the long white counter top with small, round barstool seats lining it, tearing out his order and pinning it to the cook’s circular ticket holder. She turns around and bends over to reach the small fridge under the metal countertop, pulling out milk and ice to make his shake.
The bells jingle as a new customer comes in. Jenny looks back and a huge smile comes over her face, “Hey there, Sherriff! Go ahead and sit anywhere, I’ll be right with you.” Tommy breaks his stare at the word ‘Sherriff’ and turns to look at the newcomer.
“Hey Jenny, thanks,” he says as he looks over at Tommy, noting the stranger is already staring at him. The Sherriff nods slightly in acknowledgement towards the younger man. Tommy nods slightly back as he walks to the booth in front of his, sitting to face him. He sets his brown hat down onto the table, next to the mustard and ketchup and the various other condiments. The Sherriff breaks the stare first, turning around to call back, “Just some coffee and pie today, Jenny.”
“Sure thing, Sherriff,” She calls back in response over the sound of the mixer. She grabs the coffee pot sitting on the burner with her left hand and a coffee cup from the shelf with her right, pouring the coffee in as she grabs the mixed shake and milkshake glass, careful to not forget a straw.
She navigates back past the counter and other customers, briefly smiling as she walks past them, to the Sherriff, setting down the coffee mug. “Be right back with your pie,” she says to the Sherriff. Then finally over to Tommy, setting down the mixed shake in its silver mixing cup, the milkshake glass and straw, “Your burger will be right up, stranger.” She clasps her hands together down by her apron, bunching herself up with a huge, toothy grin.
She blushes again as he says, “Why thank ya, darlin.” He doesn’t look at the Sherriff noticing him. Apparently he likes his coffee black. Tommy turns back to the clouds outside, taking note of the tall, robust cloud that vaguely reminds him of a squat robot. He had never been in the Midwest, and never thought he’d drive through Easton, Kansas, even if he’d ever heard of it before then.
What a sad, little town, he thought, smiling. Tommy had just driven past the two churches and general store on the main strip, settling on the backwoods greasy spoon, simply named ‘The Diner’ as his lunch spot. There ain’t nothin here.
I don’t like this fucking punk, the Sherriff thinks idly to himself as he sips on his coffee. Mainly he’s thinking that because he’s been trying to date Jenny since they were in high school together. 7 years now and she still won’t look at me that way. He squirms uneasily in his worn, red leathered booth lining the walls of the restaurant. He looks down at his hands as the sun shines down on them, embarrassed of his jealousy as he recalls all the times he asked her out to no avail.
“Here’s your check, Frank. See you again Wednesday,” Jenny says as Floyd rings the bell. “Order up!”Floyd calls out. She turns and heads back to the order window, grabbing the plate containing the cheeseburger and fries, setting it onto the counter. She opens the glass container on a pedestal on the long white counter that holds the cherry pie, and cuts out a slice, setting it onto a plate. She grabs two forks and knives and a spoon and a couple of napkins, stuffing them into the dingy white apron tied around her waist. Then she grabs both plates and walks back over to the Sherriff, “Your pie, Sherriff.”
“Thank you, Jenny,” he says without looking up. “And how many times do I have to tell you to call me Dave.”
“You’re welcome, SHERRIFF” she teasingly puts emphasis on the word as she puts the fork, knife and napkin onto the table. She walks over to Tommy, “Your cheeseburger and fries,” She says beaming at him and red-faced, her toothy smile stretching widely. Her hand goes onto her left hip and angles her body to the right, pushing out her hip, “If there’s anything else you need, just holler.”
“Thank ya darlin, I’ll be sure ta do just that,” Tommy says, his own face turning red.
She turns to leave, hesitates, then turns back around, “So, where are you headed, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Why ya askin? Just curious, or you’d wanna come with me?” He responds, smiling his lopsided smile and lightly chuckling. The question catches her off-guard, causing her mouth to become slack as she stumbles to respond.
The Sherriff, who had been enthusiastically enjoying his pie and coffee, not wanting to jealously interfere in the conversation, stopped eating and looked up, full cheeks and fork in hand. He stares at the heavy silence between the two of them, looking back and forth expectantly. He gulps down the pie he had been chewing on, big chunks and all.
“Well,” She breaks off into a little laugh out loud, the nervous one that goes up higher the longer it goes on, closing her eyes involuntarily. She opens them with a flutter and notices him still staring at her, waiting for…what, exactly? “You can’t be serious,” She says, laughingly.
“What if I am?” Tommy says, still smiling.
“Well I mean, you’re a stranger, stranger,” She says, shifting her body upright, putting her left arm around her belly.
“Name’s Tommy,” he says, stretching his right hand out to her, revealing brightly colored tattoos underneath as his jean jacket pulls back on his arm.
She sets the coffee pot down onto the table, and takes her right hand in his, points to her nametag with her left, “Jenny.” She smiles that huge toothy smile again.
“A pleasure, darlin.” He says and sits there, hand in hand, letting it linger. She’s gorgeous. I could look into those eyes forever. I could look into those baby browns when I wake up, when I go to sleep. I could fall into them and never want to get up. She could make me happy. She could be my home.
He opens his mouth to speak, just as she asks, “And where, exactly, would we be going to? You know, if I were to go with you.” She’s started to swing her shoulders slightly forward and back, a pseudo-twisting motion, her hand still in his, obviously flirting with the peculiar stranger, Tommy.
“Why, Tallahassee, darlin,” his smile now takes hold of his face, engulfing it completely.
The Sherriff sets his fork down on his plate, his appetite lost completely. He pulls out a 5 dollar bill and sets it down onto the table, getting up and turning around from the scene. He grabs his hat and heads to the doorway, looking back over his shoulder as he grabs the door handle. With a shake of his head, puts his hat back onto his head, mutters, “fuckin prick,” under his breath, wrenches the door angrily, and walks out towards his cruiser, his feet crunching on the graveled parking lot.
The jingling of the bells causes Jenny to turn, finally letting go of his hand. She turns back to Tommy, “I’ll come back and check on you in just a few minutes.” She turns to walk away and check on the other customers.
“Gonna think about it?” He asks her back.
She turns at the waist, “Maybe,” she says, the smile turning mischievous.
“Well, not tryin ta be pushy but after this meal I’m headin on over ta the gas station ta fill up an get back on the road. Lotta miles between here an there,” He says, pointing towards his truck parked outside, “Gotta say goodbye ta Kansas fore the sun sets.”
She nods and turns around, walking away towards the other customers. She tries to not look back over to him, she tries to push it out of her mind. That’s crazy! Why would I even think about leaving with him! I’ve never met him, he could kill me and no one would ever know! He could leave me stranded by the side of the road, he could rape me, he could do whatever he wanted and no one would ever know! Are you seriously thinking of this? What the hell is the matter with you?
She looks out at the parking lot, noticing the moving trailer hitched to the back of what should be his truck. Her thoughts seemingly stuck on the image of them driving down the highway, trailer in tow, her hair flowing in the wind. Her mind began racing of all the possibilities, making it difficult to not stare at the cute, intriguing guy with the unusual clothes and matching accent.
He pays her no mind, eating hungrily on the slightly greasy cheeseburger and salty fries, saving the shake for the end of his meal. He smiles to himself every so often, thinking of her eyes and her smiling at him. He looks out at his truck, noticing the peeling paint and almost worn out tires, at the trailer hitched to the back containing the contents of his old apartment. He lets his thoughts wander as he again looks up at the bright blue sky and finishes off the last of the fries.
“Florida or Tennessee?” Jenny asks him. He turns to her and sees her standing there, left thumb being picked at by her right down by her apron. She looks very innocent and chaste, vulnerable.
“Tennessee, course,” He says with another lop-sided grin.
“What would we be doing way over in Tennessee?” She asks, picking up his plate, “Assuming I went with you, that is.”
“What does anyone do? Eat, drink, dance, sing. Picnics under tha trees during tha day, watch tha shootin stars at night. And everythin in between, darlin.”
“I don’t know, I just met you…it would be completely crazy! How could I ever say yes to that? Looks like you’ve got all your stuff with you, why not just stay here for a bit?”
“What could we do here differently than we could there? At least there we could go ta some honky tonk’s an I could play my guitar.”
“I don’t know…I mean, you are very handsome and all, but it’s a pretty crazy thing, to just up and leave. You don’t think so? Obviously not, since you asked,” she says, looking down at her hands.
“Well, just thought maybe you’d want an adventure, maybe some place new ta go. Not bein disrespectful, I’m sure this little town has some really nice people in it, just like DAVE,” he says chidingly, adding emphasis and giving a little laugh. She looks up and laughs along with him, he notices. She unwittingly touches her face with her right hand, her left hugging her stomach.
“Lookit, a fella could have a nice life here, from the looks of it. Safe an secure an no one comin round ta bother anyone. It could be the same thing everyday, the same people everyday, an every Wednesday come ta eat at The Diner. I gotta imagine that’s pretty darn attractive ta some people, that some people’d probably be real secure in that routine. That’s just not me, darlin. I want the picnics an the star gazing, I want the sweet gal that only has eyes for me, I want that honky tonk an my guitar. Tallahassee is where I’m headin. If you can’t or won’t, I can understand that.” He sees the sparkling in her eyes and decides to press a bit more, “Just gonna finish my shake here, an then I’m off,” he says while shaking the glass back and forth in his hand.
She looks down at the empty plate of food, wraps her right arm around her stomach, then slowly looks up into his eyes and, slightly smiling, says, “I’ve got to get the rest of the customer’s orders.” Frank dings the bell, “Order up!” She looks down at the plate, absentmindedly reaches up and grabs the brown strands of hair that had fallen into her face, tucking them back behind her ear, and turns on her heel towards the order window, forgetting the plate on the table.
“It sure was a nice thought, darlin,” Tommy whispers. He finishes off the dregs of the milkshake and reaches into his back pocket, fishing out the small faded brown compact leather wallet. He grabs a 20 and sets it on the table, then gets up and walks towards the door. He grabs the door handle and opens it, calling back over his shoulder, “Take care now, Jenny.” He walks out the door onto the gravel lot without looking back, squinting his eyes against the East Kansas sun.
He walks over to his old truck, fishing the keys out of his pocket as he walks. He opens the door and hops into the old, beaten ’99 single cab Ranger he’d had for years, putting the key into the ignition. He rolls down the windows and turns on the radio, flipping through the channels, letting the old truck warm up. He finally settles on the local country music station.
“Tell me we’re not going to be listening to country music the whole way there.”
Tommy looks up in surprise at Jenny standing outside the passenger side door, looking back at him through the rolled down window, her hands resting on the bottom of the opening. Her brown hair is out of its ponytail and floating in the wind. She let her hair down, he noticed. She’s grinning ear to ear, blushing expectantly.
“How bout you drive an I’ll play somethin on my guitar?” He leans over and picks up his guitar from the passenger seat, raising his legs over the gearshift and scooting over, making room for her in the driver’s. She half runs to the driver side door, giggling ecstatically.
“Well, what are you going to play?” She asks him as she opens the door and gets in.
“Anything you want, darlin,” He strums his guitar, “Anything you waaaaant,” He sings to her.
She leans over and kisses him, full and heartily, breaking off after a few seconds. She rests her forehead on his, her breaths coming quick. “I’ve been wanting to do that since I first saw you,” She gives a quick little laugh. “Just please don’t kill me or anything, okay?”
He returns the laugh, sits back in his seat and begins strumming his guitar, playing out an old familiar song, singing, “Into the great wide open, under the skies of blue.” She puts the truck into gear and pulls slowly out of the diner, making the left hand turn that heads to the gas station.