by Christi Craig
A flat tire forced Jenny to walk the four blocks down Kramer Street to The Continental. She’d driven by the diner a thousand times but never once thought to stop in; it didn’t look like much from her passing view at forty miles per hour. But the air was thick that morning. Balmy, really. And, Roadside Assistance said it might take up to forty-five minutes. Jenny figured she’d cool off in the diner, quick, and grab the cup of coffee she missed at home after she woke up late. She’d been in such a hurry that morning to run out the door, so she could rush through a visit with her mom and fly back home. She wanted no contact with anyone afterward. Those visits to the hospital always tore her up.
When she opened the door to the diner, the horseshoe counter didn’t surprise her as much as the rotary phone near the griddle. And, she wasn’t sure what to make of the sign that hung above the register: Take a seat, grab a coffee, but hands off the waitresses. She saw only one waitress, an older woman with jet-black hair and a badge on her shirt that said “Mona.” She chewed on a piece of gum with a vengeance, and none of the customers seemed like the frisky kind.
The phone rang. The waitress took the call then stuck the receiver under her arm, gesturing toward Jenny with her pen. “Anywhere you like, hon.” Jenny sat at the counter on a metal-rimmed stool covered with cracked blue vinyl. When she surrendered her weight to it, the edges of the broken vinyl fell together and pinched her in that tender place on her thigh. She jumped and cried out. The waitress glanced her way.
The seat,” Jenny said.
Putting her hand on her hip, the waitress hollered over her shoulder. “Jimmy, I told you to tape up that vinyl!” A young boy popped out from behind a swinging door and shrugged. “Owner’s nephew,” said the waitress. “Knows how to break a dish but can’t figure out the roll of duct tape.” She finished the phone call and walked over to Jenny. “Call me Mona. What can I get you?”
Coffee,” Jenny said. “In a to-go cup, please.”
Mona pursed her lips. “To go.”
“I’ve got a flat tire. I’m just waiting for a tow-truck,” Jenny said.
Mona reached under the counter and pulled out a white, ceramic cup. “Tastes better in the porcelain,” she said. “And, I know that tow truck. He takes twice as long as he says he will.” She nodded towards a man with thinning hair and a thick goatee sitting opposite of Jenny. “He just ordered. Might as well enjoy your coffee while he enjoys his eggs.”
“Clark’s Towing?” Jenny asked.
“Yep,” Mona said. “Hey, Donny! Meet your ‘flat tire.’” Donny saluted, then folded his newspaper and pulled a pencil from his shirt pocket. Mona filled Jenny’s cup and walked away.
No one in the diner seemed in a hurry to order, to eat, or to leave. Two stools down from Jenny, an old woman rummaged through her purse and stirred up a scent reminiscent of Jenny’s grandmother: Doublemint gum and lotion. Donny studied the crossword puzzle. He lifted the coffee pot off the burner and refilled his own cup, dribbling coffee over the saucer before he hit his target. He looked up. “What it doesn’t hurt to do,” he said to his neighbor, who had even less hair than Donny and wore a pair of eye-glasses fogged up momentarily by his own steaming plate of eggs. “Fourteen down. Three letters,” Donny said. “Should be easy, right?” The two stared at each other.
“Ask,” said the woman with the purse. “A-S-K.” She leaned Jenny’s way and shook her head. Then, she went back to rummaging, until, finally, she poured a handful of change onto the counter. “Alright, Mona, I’ll have that coffee now.” Mona reminded her that she never had to pay, but the woman waved off Mona’s words.
“Rumor is,” Donny told Jenny, pointing to the old woman, “Fern, there, is the richest woman around but keeps all her money under her mattress.”
“You should know, lover boy,” Fern said. That sent Donny’s neighbor into a fit of laughter. He pushed his plate aside and wiped his eyes. Then, she said to Jenny, “Got that Donny wrapped around my little finger. The secret is my cologne.” She took out a small bottle of perfume from her purse. “Made it myself, she said, handing the bottle to Jenny. “Go on, take a whiff.”
Jenny hesitated, expecting to inhale a sharp musk or a strong herb. But, when she opened the bottle, she smelled honeysuckle. She could taste the nectar then, as if she were eight years old again, climbing the fence in her back yard, plucking the yellow blooms from the vines growing on the other side, sucking on the flower’s sweet syrup. She could see her mother lying on a chair by the pool, growing tan and smiling, years before the bedroom blockades and the hidden bottles of tequila and the breakdown. “Wow,” she said.
“Dab a little on your wrist,” Fern said.
“Oh, no. That’s okay.”
“Just do it.” Then, Fern mentioned to Mona that another cup of coffee would sure taste good.
Mona refilled hers and Jenny’s cup and whispered to Jenny that “Fern doesn’t share her perfume with just anybody.” So, Jenny rubbed some on her wrists. She relaxed, then, and settled into her place at the diner. She hadn’t planned on staying, hadn’t planned on sitting anywhere too long. But now, she sipped her coffee, added more cream. She listened to Fern talk about bottling her own backyard and the secret of scents, and she only remembered why she had come to The Continental when Mona delivered Donny’s breakfast.
“Finally,” he said. “Sustenance.” He winked at Jenny, folded his paper and popped it with his pencil.
Christi Craig is a native Texan who lives and writes in Wisconsin. Her stories and essays have appeared online and in print, most recently in COMPOSE Literary Journal, and she was a Finalist in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Competition.