|Seven years had passed since I’d seen the broken, weathered boards of the Sundry Store – The faded paint on the letters barely discernible now. An image of Jed flashed through my mind. I recalled his country demeanor and smile when he attended his customers. A rust-infested pickup meandered by on the street behind me as I peered in the windows of the dilapidated place. Dust caked on the display case just inside the doorway. That’s when I recalled Jed’s daughter, Karen. She’d drift through the front door as I passed by on the way home. Dressed in a flowery sun dress, her eyes sparkled in the sunlight, and her smile delved deep in my heart. No place on Earth had this feeling – Home.
I turned and crossed the street. Mac’s Diner still served a mean lunch crowd, even with the closure of several businesses. I heard the bells jangle when I stepped in. Mac poured coffee into an old codger’s cup. Maggie, his wife, scribbled down an order at the booth to the right. The old juke box with the whole left side’s lights out stood like a monument at the end of the long bar lined with bar stools. I moseyed to the counter and sat down. The vinyl covering stuck to my sweaty thigh. Yeah. This is Mac’s all right. Strange that I always compare every place to this one.
The smell of hamburgers and onions frying wafted throughout. I closed my eyes and sucked it in. Mac made the best hamburgers. Even after all these years and the places I’ve gone, I never forgot that smell. Mumbled voices down the bar seemed familiar. So, I glanced their way. A man in a ruffed-up denim baseball cap with his back toward me spoke with a scrawny weasel of a man with a bushy black mustache. I watched them, but couldn’t make out what they said.
“Can I help you, sir?” Mac feigned wiping the countertop with a rag I swore was the one he held when I left town.
“Yeah, Mac. I’ll have the double with all the fixings. You still got coke?”
Mac eyed me, cocked his head a bit, and squinted with one eye. “You know me?”
“Well yeah. It’s Gary. I grew up here. I’ve been in here about a thousand times.”
He reached up and scratched his stubbled cheek. “Gary? Hmmm… You used to run around with that Donohoo kid didn’t you? What was his name?”
“No. That was my brother, Charlie. My best friend was Tony Keriluke. You remember. I spilled a milkshake down your wife’s front once. Although Tony really did it.”
“Yeah. I seem to remember that. She was pissed. She told you two to not come back in here until you learned some manners.”
“Yep. That was us.” I smiled broadly and nodded.
He returned the smile. “To answer your question, we still have coke. Regular or diet?”
Mac scribbled on an order slip and shoved it in his apron. He turned and ambled down the bar as he said, “Nice seeing you again.”
“Yeah. Likewise,” I responded. He doesn’t really remember me.
I fiddled with the menu’s plastic corner for a moment.
“You hung out with that Karen Stanley girl, Jed’s daughter?”
Startled I looked up at Mac who had spun around to face me. He pointed at me with a fat greasy finger.
“That’s right.” Now he remembers me.
“A shame. Jed seemed to like you.”
“Yeah? Where is old Jed?”
“Passed away about two years ago. The Sundry closed up after that. Nobody left to run it.”
“What happened to Karen?” My heartbeat spiked as I asked. I even stuttered the words a little.
“Moved away. Don’t know where.”
“Oh” was all I could push out like someone squeezed all the air from my lungs. Something just sank inside me. Karen’s pale blue eyes whisked through my mind. Until this moment I never really understood my feelings for her. Not like any other woman I’d ever met. She knew me. She knew my family. I knew hers. I became so entranced at the thought of her that I raised my hand in front of me to touch her auburn hair.
“You Ok kid?” Mac peered at me and glanced at my arm in the air.
“Yeah.” I dropped my elbow to the counter. “Just a bug flying around.” My face must have flush red, but Mac nodded and turned away.
I went back to fiddling with the menu. I perused the specials – corned beef on rye, Mac’s famous hamburger platter, and chili. I swear this place hasn’t changed a bit. I glanced through the desserts and spied a nice Martha’s cherry pie. The picture showed a pie dripping with cherries in a golden brown crust. I flipped the menu down and sat there. Nothingness. I stared at the cat clock behind the cash register. The eyes darted from left to right in direct contrast to its cat-tail pendulum.
I snapped out of my trance to see the old codger down the bar standing before me. I squinted and recognized him – Uncle Phil. He wasn’t really my uncle. He was Karen’s. But nearly everyone around town called him that. He owned probably the largest farm in the county.
“Uncle Phil! I’ll be damned. How are you?”
“I thought that voiced sounded familiar with Mac talking to you. Where have you been?”
“Following my dream of playing my music. Hasn’t worked out well. Played in several bands. Made a few bucks. Thought I’d come home for a bit and see the old place.”
“Well you should stop out. Me and the Mrs. would love to have you. Karen is even coming to town tomorrow for a few days to stay. You remember Karen don’t you?”
“Really?” My heart started beating again. “You bet. I just…” My voice trailed off.
“I don’t know whether she’d like to see me or not. I didn’t leave on the best of terms.”
“I remember. Broke her heart. I always thought you two would end up together.”
“So did I. She just wouldn’t come with me.”
“Can’t blame her with Jed’s cancer and all.”
“Yep. She had to stay to take care of him. She couldn’t just up and leave.”
“She never told me." I paused to ponder that fact. If I'd only known that. "I’m sorry to hear about Jed.”
“No need. A long time a coming. Lots of pain. Jed was a hell of a brother. Karen didn’t tell you? How did you find out?”
“Mac told me just a few minutes ago.”
“Oh.” Uncle Phil seemed mull the statement like old farmers do. He shoved his fists into his overalls and rocked back on his work boots.
Mac slid a plate in front of me, plopped a ketchup bottle beside it, and a tall Styrofoam cup next to it. He sauntered back into the kitchen. His mind seemed elsewhere as he spoke not a word.
“Looks like your food is here. Stop by in the morning. Karen should arrive in the afternoon coming down from Pisga. I’ll let her know you’re here.”
“Maybe we should just surprise her. I’ll try to make it out there by eleven. I’m guessing you still live out on Williams Road?”
“Yep. That’s the place. I’ll see you out there.” He stepped closer and nudge me with an elbow. “Don’t let Mac’s burgers give you too much indigestion.” He cracked a broad smile.
I smiled back and nodded. “I’ll try not to.”
I watched Uncle Phil exit as the bells jangled behind him. His huge frame filled the driver’s side of a monstrous Chevy pickup and he drove out of sight. Good to see Phil. Karen coming to town? Looks like a little luck is coming my way for a change. Steam from my burger drifted across my eyes. I ate in blissful solitude, until the heartburn set in.
After milling about the small town and peering in shop windows I decided to head to Milly's Bed and Breakfast on the outskirts of town. Actually, It stood as the only place to stay near town. I figured El (short for Ellen, Milly's daughter) would still be running the place. I wasn't disappointed.
El smiled at me as she handed over the key to Room B. El really wasn't much of a talker. A mousy young lady who perennially looked about twelve years old, but I knew was nearing thirty, stood behind the counter. She waved her hand up the large stairwell.
"It's upstairs on the left. There's only 4 rooms and 'B' is the nicest."
"Thanks, El. You look just the same. You married now?"
"No." She looked down at the freshly waxed wood floor and glanced up at me. I didn't mean to embarrass her.
I simply nodded. "Oh," I paused a moment to catch a twinkle in her eyes that I'd not noticed before. "Guess I'll just go on up."
"OK. How you doing with your music?" She blurted, "I'd love to hear you play sometime."
"It's going pretty well. I'm between gigs and thought I'd stop into the hometown for old time's sake."
"That's great. Wish I could travel like you do," she lamented, "I'm always... here."
"You should get out of town more often. There really isn't much here. I mean the town is..."
"I know. It's kind of run down. A bunch of old men with no ideas."
At that moment I recalled similar words from me seven years ago. I must have paused too long as I drifted back to that timeframe. A long silence blanketed the conversation.
"You'd best get your stuff upstairs. See you around," she said with a shy, half-hearted wave while biting her bottom lip.
"Yeah." Oh, yeah. She's in to me.
A clean, comfortable bed awaited me in Room B. The window overlooked the small parking lot with six spaces. A monstrous oak stood just to the left and gave a plentiful amount of shade. The sun, just above the horizon, glinted between the boughs and leaves.
I tossed my traveling satchel on the bed and habitually retrieved my toiletry bag and set it on the bathroom sink for the morning. My bones ached from the day, but my mind raced with thoughts of Karen. Images of auburn hair and a kind smile filled my head. The anticipation of seeing her again, especially after the way we broke up, bore upon me. Why wouldn't she have said anything about Jed's cancer?
I lay on the bed churning through our last conversation. Her last words: "Just go." rang in my ears. I always thought she was being cold. Now, I had to think that maybe she was letting me live my dream. She knew I'd never leave her if I knew about Jed. She'd be tying me down. That has to be it. And what did I make of myself? Nothing. Just another musician. Another drifter trying to make it big.
I fell into a fitful sleep, trying to make sense of the senseless.
I awoke to the soft smell of lilac amidst comfortable sheets. I reached and slid the remote over, grabbed it, and click on the TV. After a few moments of channel surfing, I settled on the weather. Glancing at the little icons for the local weather I saw a chance of rain at 30% but partly sunny for the local weather.
I stretched a bit and pushed out of bed. A few steps off the plush area rug and I could feel on the bottom of my feet the cool wood boards, followed by the even cooler bathroom tile. I quickly churned through my morning ritual -- toilet, towel, shower, comb hair, shave, and teeth brushing.
I dug through my satchel and pulled out my best shirt (short sleeve, dark blue with black pinstripes) and khakis. I even pulled out my tweezers and plucked a few stray eyebrow hairs. When placing them back in my bag I could see my hand shake. Damn. I'm nervous. I've performed dozens of times in front of a hundred or so people, but meeting Karen again...
I threw those thoughts from my mind and tried to concentrate on breakfast. I figured I'd just eat here. I just hope El is like her mom in the kitchen. She made the best pies.
After perusing the newspaper for a few minutes, El brought out some scrambled eggs and a slab of ham. The aroma was inviting.
"I have apple pie too if you'd like," El said with a half smile.
"Sure. I'm hoping it's your mom's recipe?"
"Then bring it on." I shoveled some eggs in and glanced at my empty glass.
"Oh yeah. I've got some grape juice too."
I tinged my glass with the tip of my fork and stated, "Fill 'er up!"
El sauntered away and returned a few moments later with a big bottle of Welch's grape juice. She filled the glass and twisted the cap back on. She set it off to my left as I ate.
"If you want more..."
"I can get it, but thanks. If you could round up that pie that'd be great."
"Oh, yes. Right away, Gary. Anything you want."
I tried not to catch her eyes, but I couldn't help a peek. Her eyes just seemed to shine as she said those last words just like I knew they would. Women definitely have a way of 'letting you know'. Men on the other hand are just dolts. I smiled at my thought.