Chapter 3: Girl Is On My Mind
A week later I’m feeling better about the breakup. It still bothers me, but I’m over the hump of wanting him back. I’ve returned all of Alcide’s gifts, so at least that’s a couple hundred extra dollars in my pocket. Jess says I should put the money in savings and use it for a singles cruise or something but I’m not interested.
I need to get a new car, so that’s where the money’s going. I don’t need anything too flashy or fancy, just something so I’m not walking home at three in the morning in the middle of winter. I’d ask my brother to pick me up but he’s about as reliable as Arlene. When I work the day shifts I can just take buses on the really cold or snowy days, but the buses stop running at the time I usually get off and don’t start up again until around 4:30 or so. There are night owl services but the routes put me too far out of my way.
Jason drops me off at work just before six when my shift is set to start. It’s a Friday night so I know it’ll be busy for most of the night, but that’s a good thing. More business means more tips, and in the almost ten years that I’ve been waiting tables I’ve picked up a few tricks that help increase the amounts people leave. I walk into the diner and aside from the Berts parked at the counter, as per usual, the first thing I see is someone fighting with the jukebox.
The machine is mine. My great uncle left it to me in his will, but since there’s no good place for a jukebox in our house, Stan agreed to let me keep it here. It’s a classic machine and not one of the new digital ones. It plays mostly songs from the 1950s. Uncle Bartlett was a big fan of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, John Coltrane, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and the Drifters. The thing is, it’s an old machine so it sticks sometimes. People kick it or shake it, thinking that’s going to help, but that only makes it worse.
“Don’t hit the machine!” I call out when I see a hand raise to it. “It just needs a second to reset and the record will drop.”
Sure enough Ray Charles starts to play a moment later. I unzip my coat and head to the kitchen. There’s a little area in the back of the kitchen where all the dishwashing stuff is for us to hang up our coats and purses. When I get back there I see Eric is already there, rinsing a load of dishes bound for the industrial washer we have.
“Hi, Eric,” I say as I usually do.
The other girls tend to ignore him unless they need a table cleared or something cleaned up. He turns just a little to look at me and the corner of his mouth lifts just a little for a fraction of a second before going back to his work. I agree that it’s strange how little he talks, but I don’t think he’s a weirdo the way some of the girls do. He keeps to himself and does his job.
Maybe he just doesn’t think we’re interesting enough to carry on a conversation with.
I put up my coat and purse on my usual hook, and grab my apron from the hook underneath it. I tie the apron on and grab a fresh order pad since I’m running low on tickets on my current one. For a moment I stand there and watch Eric. He moves gracefully for someone so tall, with such long limbs. My eyes linger on him until he freezes. Before he can turn around to look at me, I hustle out of the back room and head for the counter to check the giant coffeemaker.
“Hey, Sookie,” the Berts say as I step up on the step stool we keep behind the counter to check the machine. Even Stan needs it to check the machine.
“Hey, boys. How are you?” I peek into the machine and grab a fresh bag of grounds to pour into the filter after dumping the old stuff out.
“Pretty good,” Bert 2 says. “You know Tony Donuts?”
There’s like a dozen Tonys that come in here so they all have a nickname of some kind.
“Yeah, I know him. Why?”
“His brudder died two days ago. Heart attack. Just keeled over while he was workin’ on the purple line,” Bert 2 says.
“That’s awful,” I say sympathetically, and get down from the step stool. I pour myself a cup of coffee and reset the machine to start percolating again.
“He was only forty-tree-years-old,” Bert 2 says with a shake of his head.
Holly comes over to catch me up on the tables I’m taking over, and then the Berts finish telling me about Tony’s brother. I have to cut them off to go check my tables and take orders for new customers. The dinner rush keeps me busy, running from table to table, from the kitchen to the dining area, until almost nine.
I don’t mind. I like when the nights go by quick. Chances are it means my tips are better.
When a lull finally hits I grab the salt and pepper to refill the shakers in my section. Jessica comes over to do her shakers as well, and the smile on her face tells me she’s up to something.
“What?” I ask when she doesn’t stop staring at me.
“What are you doing next Tuesday?”
“Uh, I’m not sure. I work the lunch shift that day, otherwise I don’t know. Why?”
“Because Hoyt has a friend-”
“No,” I cut her off.
“No. Jess, look, I think I need to back off of that for a little while. I think I need to be single and get my head on straight. I’m just tired of the whole dating thing right now,” I tell her.
“But Sam is so sweet and I really think you two would hit it off,” she says.
“Well if he’s still available when I snap out of this I’ll give him a chance,” I promise her.
Jessica sighs but knows that once I dig my heels in on something I don’t give up easily.
She sighs and says, “Okay, but I think he could be the one.”
I roll my eyes. Jessica has had this feeling before. She’s a great friend but she’s a shit matchmaker. The last guy she set me up with turned out to be a closet masochist that wanted me to tie him up and beat him every time he had an orgasm. I ran like hell from that guy. I don’t mind a little kink, but this guy wanted me to leave bruises or make him bleed, and I wasn’t into that at all.
I’m not into that.
“If that’s true then we’ll find our way to each other. Right now I just need a break from it all.”
Jessica shakes her head like she’s got something to say about that but new customers call her away from our side work. I finish with my salt and pepper shakers and take the big containers back to the kitchen. I stop short when I see Eric through the window leading into the back room. He’s got his shirt off, probably because something spilled or sloshed on him, and there are scars all over his chest and stomach.
My breath catches at all of the little marks and I wonder if those are from a bad childhood. My heart breaks at the idea of someone who seems as kind and gentle as Eric being abused so severely that it left scars. As seems to be the case lately, I get caught up in my thoughts and don’t realize he’s looking at me until it’s too late. I clear my throat and even though I want to turn and look the other way we both know I just saw something I’m not supposed to know anything about.
In spite of how uncomfortable I suddenly feel I have to put the salt and pepper away. I go into the back room and keep my eyes averted while I put things away. I’m not going to tell anyone what I just saw, but I don’t want to say anything to Eric to make him think I need an explanation. His past is his own.
When I turn around to leave the room, Eric looks like he wants to say something, but isn’t sure what.
“It’s okay, Eric. I won’t say anything,” I say quietly.
He nods, looking relieved. When I smile at him he smiles back for the first time. He’s got a beautiful smile and it makes my heart race. I can’t remember the last time a smile did that to me. I want to say something else, but I don’t know what. So we stand there staring at each other until Stan calls out, looking for me.
I boldly reach out and pat Eric’s arm, and to my surprise, he puts his hand on mine. I feel a spark of something when he touches me, but I doubt Eric feels it too. Our eyes meet again but there are still no words. I don’t need them, though. This is enough.
When I pull my hand away he lets me go. There’s absolutely something mysterious about Eric, and now I’m sure it has to do with the scars he’s got all over his chest and stomach. But it’s none of my business and I’m not going to ask him about them. I leave the back room to find we’ve got a fresh wave of customers, and I get over to my section to start taking drink orders. It’s too early for drunks. These are mostly folks coming from the nearby movie theater, looking for coffee and something sweet to discuss what they’ve just seen.
Johnny Cash plays on the jukebox and I hum along to ‘Big River’ while I walk around with a coffee pot to top off my customers. I go back to the back room for a new box of straws and find Eric back there again, this time clutching his hand. I hustle through the door and without thinking twice, I grab his hand to look at it.
“You burned yourself,” I say with sympathy and crinkle my nose.
His eyes focus on my face.
“Does it hurt?”
“Okay, come here.” I lead him over to the sink and turn the water on at a cool temperature.
I put his hand under the water and at first he recoils.
“I’m sorry,” I apologize. “I know it hurts, but it’ll feel better in a minute.”
Eric keeps watching me while I run water over his hand, but he remains silent.
“You don’t talk much,” I glance up at his stormy blue eyes. “That’s okay. I don’t mind. I think most people talk too much, just to fill the silences. Silence can be nice sometimes. I’d like a little more silence in my life. Sometimes I hear the things people say around here and I wonder what it would be like to be deaf. It sounds drastic, I know, but it might be nice not to have to hear all the mindless chatter, you know?”
I start to laugh when I realized I’m rambling like an idiot. I turn off the water and pat Eric’s hand dry with a clean towel. I grab the first aid kit off the wall and lead Eric over to a stainless steel table. I hop up and open the kit. Eric leaves his palm up for me and I squeeze some of the burn ointment onto his injured hand.
“Does it still hurt?” I ask.
He shakes his head and I smile again.
“It’ll probably be a little sensitive for a few days, but it’s not too serious. Just keep it covered tonight and try to keep it clean so there’s no chance of infection,” I tell him while I wrap his hand with a bandage. “There you go. All set.”
Just because it’s a habit from childhood I dip my head and kiss his boo boo. When I look up Eric seems surprised by my actions and I wonder when the last time is that someone did something nice for him or took care of him.
I really shouldn’t be so curious about Eric all of a sudden. He still hasn’t spoken to me. I’ve never heard him say my name, even though I’m sure he knows it. In fact, someone who sits back and observes as much as Eric does, I’m sure he knows a lot more about me than I realize.
“I should get back out there,” I say quietly, and then groan in frustration when someone hits my jukebox so I yell for them to knock it off. “Take care of that hand, Eric.”
I don’t expect him to respond and it’s a good thing I don’t because he doesn’t.
I leave the back room through the side door and yell, “I’m not going to tell you again not to hit my jukebox!”
There are two men standing in front of it. One is just under six feet tall with dark hair and the other is about my height, but with platinum hair. The two of them turn to look at me as I walk up to them.
“This piece of junk ate my money,” the dark haired one says, and there’s something familiar about him but I can’t place how we know each other.
“It didn’t, it just gets stuck for a second sometimes,” I explain. “Just be patient and it’ll start.”
The blond one is staring at me like I’m a last meal or something, and it’s freaking me out. Thankfully, Buddy Holly starts to play and that solves the trouble. The two men go to a booth that isn’t in my section, but I feel them staring at me while I check on my tables. There’s something about the dark haired one that keeps nagging at me, but I don’t know what it is my brain is trying to remind me of.
“Hey Sook,” Jessica says from behind me while I’m picking up plates from a table that’s just turned over. I don’t normally bus tables but since I know Eric hurt his hand I might as well give him a break.
“The guys over at table seven are asking for you.”
Oh good, the jukebox terrorists aren’t done with me yet.
“I’ll be right there,” I say and then deposit the dirty dishes into the bins toward the back of the room.
After taking a series of deep breaths, I go out to the front and stop at table seven.
“Can I help you with something?” I ask.
“We just wanted to apologize for hitting the machine,” Dark Hair says.
“Oh, it’s okay. Happens all the time. No hard feelings,” I smile and when I start to walk away Dark Hair grabs my wrist.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” he asks.
I pull my hand back since I don’t feel comfortable with him touching me, and really he has no business grabbing me like this.
“No, I don’t. Should I?”
Dark Hair looks annoyed with me for a split second and then slaps on what he probably thinks is a charming smile. He says, “Peter Threadgill’s fourth of July party… with the slip ‘n slide wet T-shirt contest and keg stands…”
It takes a minute but it all comes back to me. The party was Jessica’s idea, and we both got hammered that night on cheap beer and these rocket pop shots that didn’t taste like they had alcohol in them. Dark Hair had hit on me at the party and I’d danced with him once before the toxic level of alcohol in my system took over and I puked on him.
Jessica came cutting in to take care of me, much to Dark Hair’s dismay. He didn’t like that Jessica pulled me away and I remembered him calling her a nosy cunt. If Jessica hadn’t been drunk and concerned with taking care of me she would have kicked Dark Hair’s ass. I remember him following us, trying to get me away from Jessica. Obviously she doesn’t remember any of this or there’s no way in hell she would have summoned me.
“Come on, Sookie,” he purrs, but when he says my name he pronounces it all wrong. It makes my stomach turn.
“I remember,” I slap on an emergency smile. I really wish I didn’t remember.
“So how’ve you been? Are you seeing anyone?”
“I’m good,” I say and try not to look around to make sure we’re not alone. If nothing else the Berts are at the counter and they turn into protective uncles when guys like Dark Hair get out of line with us girls.
“We should hang out sometime. I think you, me and Andre could have some fun together,” he says.
“I’m sorry, what’s your name?”
Again he looks annoyed with me, like I’m ridiculous for not knowing his name. There’s a little bit of disgust on his face.
“Bill,” he says as the creepy attempt at charming comes back.
“Right,” I nod like I knew it all along.
“So what do you say, Sookeh?”
“I say I’m not allowed to date customers,” I say with a sympathetic smile.
Bill doesn’t like my answer, but thankfully another table needs my attention so I excuse myself. As I cross over to my section I take note of Eric standing in the shadows, holding onto a mop like he’s ready to use it as a weapon. There’s a fierceness in his eyes and I can’t help but think he was ready to jump in and kick some ass if I needed the help.
I’m okay, I mouth to him and then wink before going on to check my tables.