Every morning he came in the front door of the diner, dour, grumpy and seeming only half awake. Every morning he would say the exact same words, "Gimme a stack and a cuppa coffee." It was always the same order every morning, five days a week. If "his" stool in the diner was occupied he took another. Otherwise there was no change, ever.
Even the time he arrived to eat his breakfast, six thirty in the morning, never varied by more than a couple minutes one way or the other. Good grief, she thought, what a miserable existence you must lead. She stared pityingly at him. Does your wife wind you up like a toy and send you waddling off to work every day? She had a mental image of the man size robot being wound up by a key inserted in his backside. He waddled down the sidewalk.
She shook her head pityingly as she looked at him. He looked up and caught her stare. "What? What's wrong?"
"Your fly's open," she answered without thinking. Instant regret. Gawd. Why did she say that? Oh hell, me and my big mouth, now he'll get ticked off at me and go someplace else to eat. And slow as business has been lately ... I am so stupid. Mentally she kicked herself in her ample butt.
He jumped up and looked down at his front and saw that his fly was closed. "No it's not." Then a slow grin brightened his face, making him look ten years younger and more rugged. He also seemed somehow more approachable. "Aw, you were just teasing me." He laughed and sat back down and attacked his stack of pancakes.
"Here," she said and placed a side order plate next to his breakfast plate. On it were two eggs and four slices of bacon. "I just made this up for another customer and he had to leave before it was ready." She mentally crossed her fingers and added, "It's on the house. You are a regular so, anyway..."
He looked up surprised, took a tentative taste and exclaimed, "Why thanks. These eggs are just the way I like 'em. Th' bacon, too, even the toast."
"You have been coming in here for the nine plus years I have owned this place and probably long before that. You never ever say anything to anybody. I once saw you nod to another customer, but that was it. You always order the same thing, a stack of hot cakes and coffee. Even your tip is the same; it is always twenty percent of the price, which never varies either, except when I raise them. How come?"
He looked at her in surprise. "Well, I never ordered anything else because I never thought to. The coffee helps me wake up and the pancakes fill me up. I have been coming in here for nearly fifteen years, just about, ever since my wife left me.
"After she went on down the road I just started coming in here. Hell, I never ever even tried to cook for myself. I just sort of hate the thought of getting all those pans and dishes and stuff dirty and then having to wash 'em." He shrugged, "I don't know, I guess I took the path of least resistance and then it got to be a habit." He shrugged self-consciously and turned his attention back to his food.
"Well, since we're getting so cozy and all, what's your name?"
"Oh, it's Sam, Sam Weaver," he answered, cleaning the last of the food off both plates. He got up, nodded to her and placed his twenty percent tip beside the plate as usual and in its usual place, paid his bill and, with a smile and a nod, started to leave.
"You don't even know my name," she told the closing door, sadness in her voice as she turned away.
"Your name is Thelma Larkin," Sam told her. She turned around quickly, grasped her throat, startled. He was standing inside the door again. "I have real good eyesight. Good hearing, too. I'm a maintenance mechanic at the computer labs down the street. I saw your name on your business license the first day you took over as owner." He smiled, "I have a good memory, as well." He winked and left for good that time.
At noon he was back. "Hi," he said shyly.
"Well. This is a first." she greeted him. "What'll you have for lunch?"
"You surprise me," he told her. Predictably, he sat at his regular stool and leaned his elbows on the counter. He watched her with no little interest. There was just a hint of a smile that softened his usually stern face and softened the chiseled almost craggy features.
"Well, what do you usually have for lunch?" She looked at him and got the distinct impression he was looking right back at her. Not just at her the waitress, but her, Thelma the woman. She felt an unfamiliar flutter-thrill go through her stomach and just a little lower down.
Angry and embarrassed, she chastised herself; Stop acting like some horny teenager. You are a woman of forty. Then she added, Well, not quite, but close. But you're fat and nobody's dream date. Who'd want a chubby never was when there's all those pretty younger ones running around?
He interrupted her thoughts, "Well, sometimes I don't even eat lunch, but if I do, it's usually just a sandwich out of a machine. We have these machines that dispense dry sandwiches and stale fruit pies. They are hard to turn down." He smiled at her apologetically, "I guess I could have come in here, but it's a block and a half away and I just never thought to."
She looked at him with mock severity. "Sam, I bet if you were water, you wouldn't even try to run downhill; you'd probably just seep into the ground and lie there. Don't you ever do anything adventurous or spontaneous?"
"Well, no. I have never thought to 'do anything adventurous.' It just never occurred to me." He shrugged and looked down at the counter.
"Well, Sam, I am going to surprise you. I shall fix you a great lunch. And I want you to know that I feel hurt that you never ever came in here for lunch before this. I better hurry so you can get back from lunch break before you get in trouble."
He smiled a half apologetic, almost sheepish smile and said, "It's okay, and I can take all the time I want. I guess you could say, one of my helpers can handle things while I'm not there."
"Helper? What are you, a foreman or something?" There was more and more to this man that she had ever thought.
Again she saw that half "I'm sorry" and half bashful little boy look. "Well no, I'm the plant engineer and I have two good helpers who work for me."
"You are some sort of strange man, Sam I Am." God. I'm starting to sound like Doctor Seuss. "Here, you sit here and drink your coffee. I'll fix you some lunch." As she turned, other customers began to arrive, also expecting fast service. She began to hurry about the small diner as she took care of the lunch crowd. Somehow she was able to rush around the small diner and bus the dirty dishes off of the booth tables, keep the dirty dishes off the counter, cook the various orders and serve them with quick, sure efficiency and make no mistakes.
Sam watched her in amazement. Never had he seen a person able to plan her every move in advance in such a way that as one job was done, she was naturally where she needed to be to begin the next one with no lost motion. "You are beautiful to watch. It's almost like I'm watching a ballet without music."
The unexpected compliment he gave her as she hurried past him almost threw her off stride. She shook her head and smiled her appreciation and kept the banter up with the lunch regulars. For almost a solid hour and a half he sat and watched her serve, cook and clear dishes. Suddenly she slapped her forehead, "Ohmigod. I forgot your lunch."
She hurried back and slapped a strip sirloin steak on the grill. At the same time, she tossed the two halves of a sourdough bun near the edge of the griddle to toast and warm. With quick efficiency, she sliced a tomato and a sweet onion. The steak was turned and the bun coated with a light brushing of the highly spiced au jus from the small steam table.
Next came a light spread of ranch dressing, followed by a sprinkling of course ground pepper. A leaf of Romaine lettuce, the meat, tomato and onion followed each other onto the bottom half of the bun. Three slices of salty Polish pickle were laid to one side of the sandwich. The top half of the bun was placed on the assembled goodies and everything was cut diagonally in half for easier handling.
"Here, try this. Sorry for the wait." She placed the plate in front of him.
Sam was prepared to heap lavish praise on mediocre food. He lifted the sandwich half to his mouth and took a bite. Taste buds, long unused to well prepared food exploded in his mouth. "This is good. This is damned good. In fact, it's great." He swallowed the first bite and took a second. "Lady, if you can cook this good, why haven't I ever tasted it before?"
"Perhaps it's because all the years you've been coming in here, all you ever ordered were the pancakes and coffee. There's not too many ways to make a plain old stack of hot cakes shine in the dark, outside of not burning them that is. And you always have a second cup of coffee."
"Well, that's because your coffee is good. If it was lousy, I'd only have a single cup." He shoved his cup toward her for a refill.
His cell phone chirruped. "Yes." Suddenly he was all business. The friendly, affable man was gone. The busy supervisor took his place. "Tomorrow. I'll handle it tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow."
He sighed. "You tell him that if he wants my notice, I can give it to him, tomorrow as well. Look, right now I am eating lunch and having a great conversation with the most charming and interesting lady I have known in years, perhaps ever. Now unless the plant is burning down around your ears, please leave me alone." He paused and listened. In a loud and angry voice he said, "Tell him I said to go do impolite things to himself."
He turned the phone completely off and looked up into the expression of almost awe in Thelma's eyes. "Who was that you were giving such a hard time to?" she asked.
He looked at her in surprise, "Oh, you heard?"
"Well, when you raised your voice, whoever you were talking about probably heard, unless he's out of state."
"Oh, the owner of our company has a great opinion of himself and my main helper is overly impressed by greatness, either real or imagined." Suddenly he grinned, "Could you use an apprentice dish washer? I may be out of a job when I go in tomorrow morning. In fact, let me help you right now."
He slipped off the stool he was sitting on and began to carry the dirty dishes into the back and load the dishwasher. He shoved the racked dishes into the machine and turned it on. While the first batch was washing, he went back out for a second load. She did her side bar and back bar while he did dishes. He worked with steady efficiency and with a minimum of motion and effort, himself.
"Where did you learn to bus dishes and run a dishwashing machine like that?"
"Well, I got my first degree from Stanford and worked in fast food places to make it all the way through to graduation. Then I was a fry cook in San Diego where I got my diploma in design electronics. So I do know my way around the kitchen. But I can't make a steak sandwich like you just fed me. That was pure pleasure."
Hearing him heap such lavish praise on her sent shivers coursing through her body. Her smile dimpled and she answered him with a curtsy, "Why thank you, kind sir." Easy there, old broad. You aren't a teenager by many years. So stop trying to act like one. All at once the unfairness of it all struck her. She imagined how it would be so wonderful to have somebody look at her in that special way lovers look at each other. Not just friendly like Sam was being right now, but to be up close and personal just once. She shook off her self-pity and got busy again.
Suddenly a big, burly man came crashing through the front door of the diner. He brushed Thelma to one side as if she wasn't there. She staggered and almost fell. "What did you tell that idiot helper to tell me?" He shoved his chin aggressively forward.
"You are right about that 'idiot helper' since he is the only one in the whole plant that has any respect for you. All your other employees hold you in fear and loathing. Me? I just hold you in contempt. In fact, you can go screw yourself twice." Sam had such a look of hard, cold contempt on his face that she was afraid the other man would actually hit him.
"You're fired." The man was livid. He trembled with great, black rage.
"Good, I'll clear out my desk and be gone in ten minutes. I told you the last time you tried to push me around that I'd quit if you ever started in again. You pay me to perform a service, not kiss your ugly and wrinkled tail end. You couldn't pay me enough to do that." He walked past the big man and went outside where he turned left and walked back toward the plant. The big man followed behind.
Without warning he grabbed Sam's shoulder. Sam turned, started to hit him and stopped as the big man held up his hands to protect his face in the defensive posture of a coward. Sam walked on toward the plant.
An hour later, a jeep pulled up out in front and Sam stepped out. He entered and asked, "Need a kitchen helper?"
She looked at him in amazement. "I thought you never did anything adventurous. You almost knocked your boss right on his butt and then you come back an hour later, I assume you're jobless?"
"You assume right," he answered with that grin that made him seem almost boyish. "That didn't come under the heading of adventure. It's been a long time coming. He's a bully and I refuse to be cowed by a blowhard."
"What will you do for work? I'd guess you're forty or forty-five or so and jobs don't grow on trees for anybody out of his thirties." This man who had been coming into her little café for all those years was suddenly a greater enigma than the Sphinx. "You can't just turn your back on all those years with the company. It just isn't done." He had just thrown away all his security. She stared at him in disbelief.