by Barry Rachin

Tags: Coming of Age,

Desc: General Story: Pearl Singleton, a forest ranger at the Pemberton Wildlife Preserve, is going to show eighteen-year-old Shawn Mariano her Osborne Smoke Finder, all six varieties of New England ferns, a beaver dam, and something he never bargained for.

Saturday morning, the forest ranger in the pea-green uniform sauntered into Ryan’s Diner as she did most workdays. She took a stool at the counter away from the other customers and sat staring at her raggedy fingernails. Seventeen year old Shawn Mariano, who worked weekends during high school and an occasional evening shift when one of the regular waiters called out sick, eyeballed the woman. Flaxen hair fell down over her forehead in tight, curlicue ringlets. The nose was broad and fleshy but not offensively so; the lips, thick and shapeless, eased quite naturally into an earthy, ever-so-slightly vulgar smile. The alabaster skin, perhaps her most disarming feature, was flawless with a translucent sheen. Strikingly beautiful or physically repulsive – which was it? Maybe a little of both.

“This one’s yours,” Trudy Falcone, a forty year old brunette who normally worked the counter and booths near the front entrance, muttered under her breath and disappeared abruptly into the kitchen. The twosome, Trudy and the ranger, had exchanged words earlier in the week and the waitress, who had a reputation for being a foulmouthed, practical jokester, came away on the short end of the stick. Since the verbal altercation, she treated the ranger like she had a terminal case of leprosy.

The day of the incident, the lithe blond ate breakfast quietly enough. But then as she was paying the tab she whispered something in Trudy’s ear causing the waitress to alternately flush scarlet then blanch a ghostlike chalky white. Still trembling noticeably, Trudy got the woman’s change and laid it on the counter. The forest ranger leisurely sipped at her coffee for a good ten minutes longer before scooping the money up, every penny, leaving no tip. “Stinking bitch!” Trudy hissed once the ranger was out of earshot. “Rotten, scummy whore!”

When one of the other girls tried to comfort her, Trudy ran off and barricaded herself in the bathroom. It was never made clear what the blond-haired ranger with the squat nose and platinum, Shirley Temple curls said or why the normally staid, middle-aged waitress blew a mental gasket.

“Can I help you?” Shawn asked.

“Cup of coffee and breakfast special.”

“How do you want your eggs?”

“Over easy. Whole wheat toast.” She raised her eyes but only slightly, never quite making eye contact. Shawn scribbled the order down and went off to get the coffee.

The diner was three-quarters full with townies and local merchants. They could get raucous and rowdy even this early in the morning, but when the food came the ranger ignored the local yokels, eating hunched over her plate. Ten minutes later, she paid her bill, swept all the loose change off the counter and disappeared out the door like a mirage.

“That weirdo gone?” Trudy had emerged from hiding. Shawn shook his head up and down. “What did Mrs. Rockefeller leave for a tip?”

“What she always leaves,” Shawn replied.

“It figures.”

“Do you think she’s attractive?’”

“Her?” The heavyset waitress gawked at him as though the teenage boy had lost his mind. “That woman’s ugly as sin!”

“Don’t you think that’s a bit extreme?”

Trudy’s lips twitched derisively. “If you’re into dykes or the unisex, Peter Pan look, she’s the real deal.”

The following Saturday morning the blonde forest ranger shuffled into the diner and eased down on a stool. As if on cue, Trudy ran off to make small talk with a waitress working the main dining room. “Coffee black. Eggs over easy and whole wheat toast,” Shawn said, repeating from memory her previous order.

She tilted her head to one side and studied him with a humorless expression. “Yeah, that’ll do.”

He went off to retrieve the coffee. “You’re with the forestry department?” Shawn arranged a napkin and place setting on the counter.

“Down in Pemberton.”

“What do you do exactly?”

Her eyes grazed his face like he was an inanimate object, part of the Ryan’s Diner bucolic décor. The ranger sipped at the hot liquid tentatively then added a spoonful of sugar. “Keep tabs on Mother Nature.” The terse reply wasn’t intended as a joke. Shawn didn’t know what to make of the odd creature.

When the food arrived, the girl never looked up. She ate with a focused intensity, pushed the plate away as soon as she was finished and reached for her wallet. “The Pemberton Wild Life Preserve,” she said when Shawn returned with the change, “that’s where I work. There’s a slatted walkway that extends three hundred feet out into the wetlands sanctuary with beaver dams, turtles, fox and small game, if you ever care to visit.” She swept the change off the counter and disappeared back out into the dusky, early morning light.

No, Shawn didn’t think he would care to visit. Not now, not ever. The woman unnerved him. The way she talked in that flat-as-a-pancake, gravelly monotone made his skin crawl. Her pretty-ugly face never offered up a shred of emotional warmth or human sympathy. As long as that woman was caretaker of the Pemberton Nature Preserve, he wouldn’t be visiting any time soon.

“I seen you commiserating with Pearl,” Hugh Duffy, the short order chef remarked when Shawn took a break around ten o’clock after the breakfast crowd had petered away. In response to the boy’s blank expression, Hugh added, “The knuckle-dragging Forest Ranger.”

“Where do you know her from?”

“Went to high school together.” Hugh sprinkled a generous dusting of paprika on a pile of home fries simmering on the grille. “Pearl’s father ran off when she was just a kid. Family lived in a ramshackle, sardine can of a house over by the railroad tracks - just her and the old lady. The mother dropped dead a few years back, so now Pearl resides there all by her lonesome.” The cook cracked a couple of eggs onto the grille and reached for a slab of Canadian ham.

“What was she like in high school?” Shawn asked.

“Same as now ... kept to herself. Didn’t hardly talk to no one, which was no great loss.” He chuckled evilly. “I don’t think the girl ever owned a bar of soap. Her junior year, as I remember, they sent her home one day, cause she smelled like a sanitation truck in late August.”

“Trudy can’t stand her.”

Hugh flipped the eggs and checked the ham which was browning nicely. “Don’t know nothing about that,” he returned, “but I do know the woman’s got a wicked, homicidal temper.” He shifted the eggs to a plate and spread a generous dollop of butter on two slices of cinnamon raisin toast. Stacking the toast together, he cut at a diagonal. “You’ll want to steer clear of that wild woman,” the cook cautioned. “Nothing good can come of it.”

“Thanks,” Shawn mumbled weakly and went back to his position at the counter.

Before his shift ended, Shawn stopped by the kitchen. “What’s Pearl’s last name?”

Hugh looked up from the hot surface. “Singleton. Pearl Singleton.”

“Did she have a boy friend in high school?”

The cook rolled his eyes and made a dramatic flourish with the chrome spatula. “Couple guys asked her out, but she wouldn’t have anything to do with the opposite sex. Probably a lesbian, judging by the woman’s edgy disposition around guys.”

Shawn rubbed his jaw. “You think she’s good looking?”

Hugh paused to rub the sweat from his face with the front of his soiled apron. “Pearl Singleton’s no Marilyn Monroe, but, yeah, she’s wicked cute in a slutty sort of way.” The cook’s head bobbed up and down and he smirked at his clever choice of words. “Not that it does us horny heathens any good.”

The next day it snowed all morning well into the afternoon. “Your father’s working late,” Mrs. Mariano announced as Shawn came through the front door. “Maybe you could tidy things up so he doesn’t have to kill himself when he gets home tonight.” “Okay.”

“It’s quite cold. Don’t go back outside like that.” She pointed to his flimsy jacket. “Always dress in layers.”

Shawn went to his room and draped a sweatshirt over a cotton shirt. Back in the foyer, he pulled his warmest winter coat from the hall closet. “Much better!” His mother shook her head approvingly.

Out in the shed, he primed the Ariens two-stage snow blower, adjusted the choke and press down on the electric starter button. The engine coughed, sputtered, belched, burped spastically and gave up the ghost. He primed the engine a second time with more gasoline and the bright orange machine fired up. Backing the snow blower out of the shed, Shawn cut a path toward the driveway hurling the heavy snow thirty feet across the lawn in a shimmering arc.

Always dress in layers during the winter months. He was perfectly warm despite temperatures hovering in the low twenties. Mrs. Mariano had dozens of clever maxims and cautionary injunctions.

You’ll have plenty of time for you-know-what with you-know-who when you’re finished with college. That was another one of her favorite dictums. You-know-what was an unambiguous euphemism for sex, lechery, debauchery, lust, wanton depravity, lewd and lascivious behavior. Shawn was unclear if his mother was speaking from personal experience or idle speculation. Every so often, he heard the bedsprings creaking unnaturally loud two doors over. There were never any accompanying noises, only the rhythmic rasping of the queen-size mattress. Kachunk. Kachunk. Kachunk. Kachunk. Kachunk. No groans, moans, whimper, sighs or passionate terms of endearment. In the morning his parents didn’t look or act any different.

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Story tagged with:
Coming of Age /