This is a repost of a story I removed last year for publishing purposes. It was written for someone I know, (you know who you are), and I feel the same now as I did two years ago when I wrote it...
* * *
I had a real bad day.
I mean real bad.
I pulled into my driveway and punched the emergency brake, threw open the door and got out of the car. I slammed the door hard, trying to burn off some of my frustration. My dog Jack came running around from the back of the house to greet me as I closed the gate behind me, stopping dead in his tracks when he sensed my mood. He just stood there looking at me, waiting for me to enter the house.
I unlocked the door, tossed my keys on the kitchen table and flopped down on the sofa. Jack jumped up next to me and laid his head on my lap. I started petting him and took several deep breaths. 'I really have to get a new job,' I thought, as I counted to ten a few times and then went to the kitchen to get Jack his dinner. "I'm so stinking glad this is Friday Jack, I need a break from that place," I said, filling his bowl with Dog Chow.
Normally I'd call for pizza on Friday night, but I just didn't feel like eating in. I changed my clothes and walked to the diner down on Main Street.
Rosie's Diner was an old style type. It opened for breakfast at 7:00 and closed after dinner at 8:00. From the outside, it still looked like a diner car from a train. Inside there were about ten booths and, of course, the counter, to eat at. It was crowded this evening. There was only one seat left at the counter. It was the one where the server has to come around the counter to get to the booths that usually meant several interrupted attempts to put food in your mouth. Everyone avoided that seat, but at that moment there was no where else to sit and I just didn't care. I sat in the vacant seat and looked at the menu board on the wall.
Rosie always had some sort of special going on. With her being a devout catholic, tonight's was fish, a slice of pie, and coffee for $5.95. I wasn't in the mood for fish.
"Hey! Gene! Where the hell have you been? I haven't seen you for ages!"
I didn't even have to look. Only two people that ever lived on this planet have a voice like that. One was Ethel Merman and the other was Rosie McCloud. Rosie was the sole proprietor of the diner. She bought it in the 50's with an insurance settlement after her husband's death, and had run it ever since. She was now a very senior citizen, but you'd never know it by looking at her and of course, listening to her thunderous voice. She didn't wait on tables anymore, but she took the orders, and kept everyone up to date on the latest gossip.
"Hi, Rosie. How yah doin'?" I said.
"Great!" she bellowed.
I noticed that the drinks rippled a little on the counter when she answered. She'd make a good Mrs. Tony the Tiger.
"How's the meatloaf tonight?" I asked.
"Why does everybody ask that question? Okay, it sucks. It was made four days ago and has been sitting in the oven ever since, just waitin' for you to walk in. Any other questions?" she asked, as she whacked me on the side of the head with a menu.
"What's new?" I asked, as I ducked from another swing of that menu from her.
She held her hand in front of her, rolled her eyes, and hooked her thumb toward the other end of the counter. I tried to look, without looking like I was tying to look.
There sat an attractive woman that appeared to be 40ish, with long black hair. She wore a black long sleeved shirt and a pair of blue jeans. She didn't seem to be with anyone, and was sipping a mug of coffee, minding her own business.
"Wow, she's pretty. Who is she?" I asked, still looking like I wasn't looking.
"I don't know. She's been in here three nights this week. Never saw her before in my life," said Rosie, much quieter than before.
"You mean she's been here three times and you haven't talked to her? You know your customer's grandkid's animal's names. Don't try to fool me."
"Why don't you find out yourself," she said. "Now, what do you want?"
"I'll have the meatloaf," I replied.
She turned and hollered back into the kitchen, "One four day old meatloaf dinner for Gene!"
A couple of customers dropped their utensils with that sudden explosion of verbiage coming from her. I watched her, (without looking like I was trying to watch her), for over an hour. I had finished eating and was drinking my fifth cup of coffee. The crowd at the counter had thinned to the point that the woman and I were the only two left.
Rosie came over to me and asked, "You're very quiet tonight Gene. You didn't even complain about the meatloaf. What's the matter?"
"I've had a real bad week and today was down right horrible," I said.
"Me too," said the woman at the other end of the counter, under her breath. She didn't look in my direction; instead she just stared off into space. Then I saw a tear fall from her face. I don't think she intended for anyone to hear her.
Rosie gave me the 'go talk to her!' look. I gave her the 'what am I supposed to say?' look. She took a menu and hit me over the head. I took her advice and moved to the seat next to her. Another tear hit the counter.
"HI, I'm Gene. Are you alright?"
She stared a moment more, then wiped her face with a napkin. "I'm Natalie. I'm sorry; I didn't mean to overhear you. I'm sorry that you've had such a bad week," she said, as another tear hit the counter. She hadn't looked at me yet. She was staring at her coffee cup.
I looked back at Rosie and gave her the 'what do I do now?' look. She answered by moving her fingers like a sock puppet's mouth, indicating that I should talk to her.
"Ah, Natalie, that's a nice name. Ah, are you new in town?" I asked, looking back at Rosie for ideas. She shrugged her shoulders.
"Yes," she said, in a small voice. Another tear hit the counter. "Excuse me," she said, as she got up and went to the ladies room.
"She's done the same thing the last two nights she's been here. She sits alone, orders dinner and then sits and cries," said Rosie. "That was the first time I heard her say anything other than what she wanted off the menu."
Natalie came back out of the ladies room and sat back down on her stool. She looked at me for the first time. "Sorry. My week was bad as well."
"Tell me," I said.
"No, it's not your problem."
"Sometimes it helps if you talk to someone. Even if you don't know them," I said, in a low tone. She looked at her hands and began to speak.
"I moved here last weekend after transferring my job from Jersey. I was seeing a man that I had met at work. He lived here and worked in the Philly office. I would see him when he traveled to the Jersey office, maybe once every two weeks. We had a fling. I was flattered because he was 20 years younger than me. It was against company rules, but we did it anyway. I wanted him to transfer to the Jersey office, but he said he would have to take a pay cut to do it. So, I surprised him this week, by transferring here. When he saw me in the office, he almost fainted. It seems he forgot to tell me one small detail about himself." She closed her eyes. "He's married. Now, I have a new apartment and no job. I got fired today for fraternizing, all because I was stupid, and moved here for a married man," she said, shaking her head.
"Well, how were you supposed to know?' I asked.
"I just should have. All the signs were there, I just ignored them," she said.
"Do you have a year's lease?" I asked, trying to get her to look at me.
"No. It's month to month."
"Well, you have a month to decide what to do. There's plenty of places to work around here," I said, trying to cheer her up.
"I can't live on $6.00 an hour."
I looked at Rosie and she shrugged her shoulders. I had a lot of friends in town and maybe it was time to cash in on some of the favors I was owed. "Look, Natalie, I may be able to help you in the job department. Why don't you meet me here for breakfast and then we can check out a few prospects? What do you think?" I said, still trying to see her eyes.
"Why would you want to help me?" she asked, still looking at her hands.
"Because I've had a real bad week, and I need to do this to get my mind off of it," I answered.
She turned her head and looked at me. Her eyes were a bit blue around the edges and then all green. They had a haziness to them that can be best described as mist that you see hanging in a cool air over a warm and calm swamp. She had 'swampy' green eyes. She had smooth skin and appeared to have come from Latin ancestry. With her long black hair partially obscuring her face, and a slight hint of a smile, she reminded me of Mona Lisa. "What happened to you this week?"
"Nothing like what happened to you. Don't even worry about me. In fact, forget my week even existed. Let's concentrate on making yours better. Meet me here at nine tomorrow morning and I'll buy you breakfast," I said, patting her on her folded hands.
I got up and paid for my meal. Rosie hugged me on the way out. "That's the Gene I used to know," she said, as the door closed.
* * *
I realized while walking home, that my life didn't suck as bad as I thought. There were always people with worse problems than I. When I reached my house, I could hear Jack barking and whining as I opened and closed the gate. I opened the door and was nearly flattened by him jumping on me. He could tell before I even opened the door that my mood had improved. I grabbed my phone book and started calling in favors. I had no intention of going out to breakfast with Natalie with nothing to offer her. I made about seven calls when I was satisfied with what I could present to her in the morning. I flipped on the TV and watched some comedies before heading to bed.
* * *
I returned to Rosie's diner in the morning about an hour early. I wanted to talk to her first to see if anything was said after I left the night before.
"She couldn't figure out why you were so concerned about her." She saw my reaction. "Don't worry, I didn't tell her," she said.
I breathed a sigh of relief. With that, Natalie came in the door. I asked her to sit in a booth.
"How are you doing today? Better I hope?" I asked, smiling.
"I guess," she said. "What is it you want to tell me?"
"Let's get something to eat first," I said. I waved Rosie over and gave her my order. Natalie just wanted coffee and a Danish.
"I don't understand why you want to help me. I don't have anything to repay you with," she said, looking at me with those swampy eyes.
"I'm not asking for anything. So, tell me about yourself," I said.
"I was born and raised in Jersey. I was married before and have a few kids that now have kids of their own. I've been divorced for about five years. I had just started dating when I met the 'married man'."
"What was your job?" I asked.
"I was an insurance adjuster. I've been doing it for years after my kids were all able to go to school. I was making pretty good money too," she said.
"Here yah go," said the waitress, as she placed our order on the table. I added some sweetener to my coffee and decided it was time to talk turkey.
"Okay, Natalie. I checked with some people that I know. They all have businesses here in town and are looking for good people for key positions. Most deal in sales positions, but not all. The sales positions would make the most money, but you need to be a good salesperson, have the ability to oversee a sales work force, and keep them motivated," I said, sipping my coffee.
"I'm not a salesman. I'm a better listener," she replied.
"Okay, I have two other choices. One involves public service, and the other, an apprenticeship," I said, looking at her face for any kind of reaction.
"What's the public service job?" she asked.
"They're looking for a new county clerk. It doesn't pay much, but the benefits are great," I said, watching her.
She wrinkled her nose at that. "What's the apprenticeship?"
"Well, Rosie has been wanting to retire, but didn't want to turn her diner over to just anyone. She wants to train the person from the ground up, and then sign it over when the apprentice was ready. She would take a simple steady income as payment for the diner until her death. None of her employees impress her. She's willing to give you a shot," I finished, hoping to get a positive reaction.
"Why me?" she asked.
"Because I asked her," I replied.
"Because you asked her. Any other reason?" she asked, a bit skeptical.
"Well, maybe, but that's not what's important right now. Do you want to give it a try?" I asked.
Rosie was standing behind the counter, listening as well as she could. Natalie lowered her voice and asked, "How much would I make?"
"Not enough for that apartment, but you could stay in the small apartment in the back. So, you could live and work here, earning money with the goal to own it. Rosie had the room built for snow emergencies. It's been all fixed up, waiting for an apprentice. What do you say?"
Natalie looked at Rosie. "What have you got to lose?" bellowed Rosie, on the other side of the counter.
"Okay," she said. "When do I start?"
"How about Monday?" asked Rosie.
"Thank you," Natalie said, as she went to hug Rosie over the counter.
"Don't thank me, thank Gene," said Rosie, patting her on the back. Rosie gave me a wink.
* * *
I stopped for dinner on Monday evening. Rosie and Natalie were talking in the back by the cooks when Natalie noticed me and came over to the counter.
"Gene, I really can't thank you enough. This is so interesting and I know that I can do this. It's fun too. I'm getting to meet a lot of town people that may have taken years to get to know. Rosie's really great too," she said, almost gushing with happiness.
"That's great," I said.
"Uh, Gene, ah, do you think you may want to come back when we close? Maybe we could talk and have some pie," asked Natalie, nervously.
She wasn't looking at us, but I could tell that Rosie was waiting to hear my answer just as much as Natalie, but she knew what was coming.
"I appreciate the offer, but my dog gets upset if I'm not home in the evening." It was a bad lie, but at least I did have a dog.
Rosie's shoulders drooped and I saw her shake her head, ever so slightly, as she walked to the back of the diner. Natalie just stared at me. I guess she didn't expect that answer from me.
"Well, ah, okay. Maybe some other time," she said. She turned away and walked back to the kitchen.
I sat at the counter and waited. Eventually, Rosie came out and stood in front of me with her arms crossed.
"Are you ready to take my order?" I asked, knowing the answer.
"NO!" she bellowed. "Look, I know you've been burned enough times in your life, but God Almighty, that woman was just trying to get to know the man that may have saved her crumbling world!"
"Rosie! She can hear you back there," I said.
"No she can't. I sent her for a few supplies. I wanted to give you a piece of my mind without her in earshot," she said, as the glasses rattled on the counter.
"You know what will happen. It always does," I said.
"Maybe not this time. Gene, she's a good person. Look what she did for this married creep. It's not the ladies that burn you; it's you that burns you. This time, try to keep your mouth shut and things might work out."
"Rosie..." I said.
"If you're not back here when the diner closes, don't come back until I'm dead. If you want something to eat, order it then. Now get out of here until either 8:00 or I croak!" she shouted, as she pointed at the door.
I got up and headed to the door. I looked back over my shoulder and Rosie was still pointing.
I walked home.
* * *
I sat on the sofa watching TV with Jack's head on my lap. "Jack, what should I do? I don't want to start something again with a woman and have it end like it always does." Jack opened his eyes and stared at me, and then he sneezed. "Of all people, Rosie should know. Natalie seems like a nice lady and she is attractive. If she has a sense of humor, I'm going to have a rough time ignoring her. What do I do, Jack?"
Jack chose that moment to jump off the sofa and start barking at me. That was usually his sign for me to let him out to do his business. I went to the door and opened it, but he wouldn't go out. I went outside myself and he followed, barking the whole time.
"Is this your way of telling me to go?"
He stood there wagging his tail. He was either telling me to go, or he wanted to play. I got a ball and threw it across the yard. He didn't move.
"Alright, I'll go."
* * *
I entered Rosie's at five of eight. Rosie saw me come in and she smiled.
"Natty, we have a late dinner guest!" she shouted.
Natalie came out of the back and stopped in her tracks when she saw me.
"You two go sit in a booth. I'll take care of Gene's order," said Rosie, with much pleasure in her voice.
Natalie took off her apron and walked over to the corner booth. Her long black hair was braided and it was so long, she had to hold it aside or she would have sat on it. I sat across from her and tried not to look directly at those beautiful green eyes.
"I'm glad you were able to come. Did you get a doggie sitter?" she asked, with a small giggle.
She's got a sense of humor. Now I knew she had all three things that I look for in a woman; looks, personality, and a sense of humor. If I were going to stop this before it began, it would have to be tonight. Otherwise, Rosie knew full well what was going to happen.
Rosie appeared out of the back with two glasses of red wine and set them on the table.
"What's this? You don't serve alcohol," I asked.
"The diner is closed. I can dance naked if I want. This is from my private stock. Try it," she said. We both took a sip. It was good. "I'll be out with the food in a minute," she said.
"So, what kind of dog do you have?" asked Natalie. "Just an old mutt. Jack's a good dog. In fact, he convinced me to come tonight."
"Oh, he did, did he? I would have loved to have heard that conversation," she said, giggling again.
"Here we go!" said Rosie, as she set down a huge salad for Natalie and a meatloaf plate for me.
I looked at the meatloaf and put a fork in it to test it.
"Don't worry, it's perfectly aged for you. It's the same one from last week," she said, as she turned and headed to the front door. "Don't worry about doing the dishes. I'll get them in the morning. Have fun," she said, as she left and locked the door.
"She's not serious about the meatloaf, is she?" I asked Natalie.
"She made that after you left today. She knew you were coming back. She tells me that she's known you for a long time. She says that you have the ability to help people in distress. Other than what you did for me, what does she mean?" she asked, looking at me with those green eyes.
I rolled my eyes. Just how much did Rosie tell her?
"I seem to have the ability to help people. I don't know where it comes from. Whether it's finding a job, raising money, or matchmaking, I seem to be able to get things done for people. I stopped doing it a few years ago, though."
"Why?" she asked, sipping her wine.
"Let's just say that this ability of mine has a tendency to blow up in my face. The last time was the worst of all. So I stopped, until I heard your story."
"Well, I won't blow up in your face," she said, smiling.
"That would be kind of messy," I said.
We ate a bit without talking, and then Natalie said, "I'm glad you came." She reached across the table and placed her hand on top of mine and gave it a squeeze.
Clearly, there was now a fork in the road. One way was the way out. The other was the road to a relationship. All I had to do, was either pull my hand back or…
I closed my hand around hers. She smiled at me.