Ed had just caught his breath when the drifter came flying in. It was near quarter to ten and the breakfast rush had mostly ended. He had almost given up on Jay, dismissed the hire as an idle notion. It was no letdown. Not when he felt so good this morning.
It was often this way after a headache. Soon as it had gone, the world would seem brighter, his feet lighter, like a decade had been lifted from his shoulders. Ecstatic almost, though Ed did not feel comfortable using the word, even to himself. He had almost caught himself whistling a couple times in the morning as he’d refilled a coffee mug or two.
Jay’s failure gave him something to complain about, too, and that was the best sort of high — the ones that were mingled with irritation. It grounded him.
“So you’re here,” he grumbled when the newcomer finally arrived. “Thought you’d forgotten. Or maybe didn’t think a job was worth showing up for?”
“I didn’t forget,” Jay gasped, breathless from running. “I had to tow my car in to Mixon’s. Like you said. It’s the whole reason I’m here, remember?”
Ed gave a sour smile. “I remember. Sure there ain’t no one else you could call for money? No one who could help you outta this sort of thing?”
Jay hesitated. “No. No, there isn’t.”
Ed did not pry. He pointed to the kitchen where the line cook was piling dishes into the industrial sink. “Well,” he drawled. “Best get to it.”
Over an hour later Jay had finished the dishwashing, while Ed took his leisure smoking at the bar. He smirked as Jay emerged from the kitchen, still drying his hands on the drenched and soiled apron. He remembered well how grease and oil from dirty dishes could make you feel like you were never really dry. Maybe extra help was not a bad idea after all.
Jay nodded, glancing at the clock. “So. Ed. Mind if I ask a question?”
“I say yes, you’re still gonna ask anyway, aren’t you?”
Jay laughed, a laugh that fell off sharp as he saw the lack of humor in Ed’s eyes. He titled his head softly away. “I, uh…on my way here today I made a wrong turn. Onto Coffin Road—”
“Coffin Road!” Ed smacked the counter. “Ha! Hell of a wrong turn. Were you daydreaming, son?”
“I don’t know,” Jay’s eyes glinted. “Maybe I was caught up in the thought of how much money I owe Jim Holt.”
Ed did chuckle at that. “Maybe,” he said. “There a question somewhere in here?”
Jay sighed. “That lot down there with the rundown house. With the orangeish tree beside it. What do you know about it? Who lives there?”
A couple in a booth near the back of the diner got up and paid, giving Ed a moment to consider the question. He hadn’t expected something like this. A drifter interested in local lore. Well.
“You mean the one with the crepe myrtle,” he croaked. Eyed the dirty floor and crushed the ashes from his cigarette with his boot. “Well, that all used to be part of Indicum Plantation way back when. Don’t know if anyone lives there now.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Have you seen it? Place is about to fall apart.” Ed squinted, shook his head. “Caught up in some kind of legal mess, too, last I heard. Some rich boy from off came and bought the place in the forties, then one of his sons tried to put the land in an easement. The others fought him on it.”
Jay frowned. “And you’re sure no one lives there? Not even one of the family?”
Ed grunted. “I ain’t sure of nothin’. Ain’t my business to be sure. I hear they have parties up there, reunions or what have you, but I don’t hear about it till long after.”
“Is there another house on the place? One maybe…a bit less fragile?”
“I look like I go to soirees with rich folks?” Ed poured a finger of whiskey and splashed it down his throat. “Don’t worry,” he chuckled. “I need it for my health.”
“Right,” Jay deadpanned.
“If there’s a house,” Ed winced, feeling the whiskey burn in his chest. He shoved the glass into Jay’s hands, nodded back toward the sink. “If there’s a house it wouldn’t be near the road. More likely near the river. All the old plantation houses were on rivers. That’s where the traffic was then — on ships, not on roads.”
“Hmm.” Jay gazed out the window, unaffected by the glare that came through and threatened to bring back Ed’s headache. The drifter seemed deep in thought, though Ed could not imagine about what.
He frowned deeply, unsure what had possessed him to be so loose with words today. “I payin’ you to prop up the bar? Get back there, son.”
He nodded as Jay slipped back toward the kitchen again, vindicated and oddly pleased.
* * *
“He always drink in the mornings?” Jay asked Shem, the cook, when he’d cut off the water again.
“Ed?” The man wiped his sleek brow. “Not this early. He drink every day. He drink before lunch mores time. But not this early.” He grinned at Jay. “Must don’t like you that much.”
Jay could understand that.
The rest of the day dragged on. Business was brisk, but every order, every table he bussed, every customer he greeted was new to him. It blended together in his mind, a flurry of faces, names, smells. The smells were the worst of it. He hadn’t eaten all day and the food, though not the most appealing to the eye, smelled better than he would have guessed.
That was the hard part of food service work. He’d done it a few times of late, from town to town, though only dishwashing so far, never bussing or waitering. Dishwashing was the lowest you could get, and that was how Jay wanted things. No ties to any place, no incentive to advance higher. Able to leave any time, for any reason. That was how it had to be.
Until now. Now he couldn’t leave.
He thought of the girl on Coffin Road. As the day had passed she had flit in and out of his thoughts, till he’d thought a couple of times he recognized her in a patron’s smile — but it was never her. What was it about her that had stuck in his mind? He’d only talked to her about a minute, maybe less.
Rumor. What an odd thing to call a girl. And yet it fit her somehow, though he didn’t know why.
He doffed the apron the moment he finished the last dish, flinging off his fingers and slickening the greasy tile floor.
“Made it through a day’s work, I see.” Ed griped, appearing around the corner from the bar. It was near ten and the sun had long ago set. Jay hadn’t realized it was so late. “Go on home. Ain’t like to be much more business this time a night.”
Outside, the crickets and cicadas fought their war of sound, each caught up in their endless battle hymn. He smiled. It was a peaceful sound, a still one. He could feel the day’s stress start to slip from his limbs and dissolve into the warm blanket of night.
By week’s end he felt he had a good sense of the diner. It was erratic in pace, with entire days, nights, with not but one or two patrons, and then days when the work never slowed. He would wait tables when needed, but mostly he was stuck with Shem in the kitchen, washing dishes while the cook labored at the flat-top, holding his shrunken hand near his chest as if shielding from a blow.
Something about that pose seemed right to Jay. A blow was always coming; the question was not if, but when.
But in the slow times he began to feel the diner as a place with its own mood. Lonely, faded. Brooding, beaten. It had a song of its own, one he could not hear but felt and saw in the last rays of golden hour spilling through grimy windows. In the flickering of lights over empty tables. In the glimmer of the spill mat after Ed’s first drink of the day, or the final pour at last call.
Come Saturday night, at the diner’s first lull, Jay sunk into a booth in a dim corner with a cup of brunswick stew, the first thing he’d eaten all day. He’d only taken a first bite when Ed, from out of nowhere, threw his keyring at Jay’s head.
He caught it just in time. His steel spoon clattered to the floor.
“Here,” Ed thrust a handwritten note in his face. “Run down to Limehouse. I’d do it myself, but,” he shrugged, “don’t feel like it.”
Jay studied his boss. Don’t trust you here alone was more likely than don’t feel like it. He glanced at the keys. “I thought you said you don’t want me near your—”
“I know what I said,” the old man grumbled. “We’re eighty-six on most half the kitchen, and the market ain’t open Sundays.”
Jay found Ed’s car behind the diner, a dinged-up banana yellow LTD. It suited the man: a boxy thing, angular and awkward, with little leg room. Rust crept along the panel under the door. At least two tires needed air.
He climbed inside and slid off down Sixty-one. By the time he made it to Limehouse Market the sun had sunk, the blue hour darkened to black. Full night had set in. He watched the lanky girl at the register study his order and stride off to fill it, vanishing up the stairs and into the long, narrow warehouse. He could tell the market was closing when the girl reappeared with three large bags; the bun of her locs bobbed like a crown as she handed them over, her mind clearly moved on to other places. Jay envied her.
The road was almost empty. Like the day of his crash. He was nowhere near as tired as then, though. Nor as hungry as earlier. The hunger had died down, fallen asleep in some deep place in his body, certain to rise again soon. Curiosity filled him instead. He thought of the girl on Coffin Road, how she had said that day that he would see her again.
He hadn’t, nor had he returned to that ruined house. Hadn’t had the time, and had felt it would be a bit stalkerish anyway, as he had no other reason to be there.
He turned onto Sixty-one again, feeling as if the choice was being made for him now, rather than by him. The green traffic light at River Road loomed like a distant beacon, calling him.
Jay made the turn then banked left onto Coffin. What was he doing? If it was true, as Ed had said, that no one lived here, he was unlikely to see her again, wandering the street out by the ruined house.
And yet it was possible. It had happened before.
He almost passed the place. Braked hard, prayed that Ed couldn’t tell he’d broken his promise to drive gently. The night seemed silent, the sky above a hard and thoughtful blue. Jay held his breath. Scoured the road for any sign of her. Rumor. Was that really her name?
The crepe myrtle bent slightly in the wind, Spanish moss trailing off of it, the smudged tracks of tears. Seaweed touched by a soft current. Jay could feel no breeze, though. The only sound, his own disappointed breath.
The night wafted through the LTD’s rolled-down windows. It was a lonely place, but Jay could not make himself feel lonely. He thought he could feel a bit of her here, strange as it seemed.
He turned the car around and made his turn onto River again, heading back to the diner. A high yelp burst in his ears and made him jump in the stiff vinyl seat. Lights flared behind him. Blue and red, spinning with that familiar righteous rage.
Jay pulled over, waited. He felt like prey as the Crown Vic eased to a stop just behind and a short, stocky man climbed out and kicked gravel with his slow and careless walk.
“License and registration,” the cop stated.
Jay gazed up at the hard, narrow face and wondered what this would cost him. He glanced at the name plate on the officer’s chest. Ira Glass.
“Like the radio guy,” he joked as he handed over his ID.
The cop gave a blank stare. He looked about Jay’s own age, a little older maybe, but cool and pristine, his uniform perfectly fitted. Glass was a fitting name for him. There was something brittle in those eyes that might shatter if pressed too hard. His fiery hair bristled like a boar’s, close-cropped in a buzz cut, and when his brow furrowed it moved like the first licks kindling in a sere brush.
“Know why I pulled you over?”
“You failed to fully stop while turning onto River. What were you doing this way, time of night? I doubt you’ve got business on Coffin Road.”
Jay said nothing. There was nothing he really could say, after all. No good answer to the question. The cop’s stare bore into him.
“Sorry, officer. Won’t happen again. I’m new in town. I work for Ed at the diner.”
Damn. Why had he told him that? It was just what he needed, a cop who knew where to find him.
Glass tilted his head one way and then the other, studying Jay. His eyes softened by a measure, as if seeing in him something he could sympathize with. Jay let himself breathe a little freer.
“I could let you off with a warning,” Glass said in little more than a murmur. “It’s a minor infraction, after all. And no one around to be in danger.” He peered away east, angular chin pointing at something Jay couldn’t see.
“But.” His eyes hinged and locked on Jay’s own. “But. Small town like this, we can’t have strangers coming through and doing whatever they like. If I don’t bear down on you now…no telling what trouble you’ll get into later.”
Jay sighed, rubbed his temples. The hours of work pressed heavy on his skin. “Look,” he muttered. “I’ve had a rough day. Looks like you have, too. I think we could both use a cup of coffee, maybe go back to Ed’s and—”
The cop raised his chin slowly and squinted. “Is that a bribe?”
Jay clenched the wheel. Stupid, trying to reason with a cop, but he’d meant it kindly. Or had thought he had. Now that was gone, something nearer to dislike taking its place. Almost…enmity. He felt it rise and crystallize in the air between them. He could tell that Glass felt it, too.
The cop jotted a ticket, tore it out, and handed it to Jay. Jay took it and threw it on the seat beside him. Neither had broken their stare during the exchange.
“Be careful out there, officer,” Jay said in a surly voice.
“I’ll keep my eyes open,” the cop answered. His feet fell like stones as he walked away.