“You’ve outdone yourself with this cobbler, Ducky.”
“It’s the peaches,” Daisy explained, pulling out the used filters from a pair of worn coffeemakers. “Georgia Belle. I picked them up at the farmer’s market in Lynchburg.”
“Lynchburg? When on earth did you have time to go to Lynchburg? You’ve been working here every shift all week.”
“Tuesday.” Daisy leaned under the marred diner counter to retrieve a jumbo can of coffee grounds. “Tuesday morning. Don’t you remember? I left right after the early boys shoved off, and I came back just as the lunch rush kicked in.”
Brenda’s chewing slowed, and she gazed thoughtfully at the little bowl of cobbler in her cracked, peeling hands. “I remember you going, Ducky. But I don’t remember you saying it was Lynchburg you were going to.”
Daisy merely shrugged as she spooned a heap of grounds into two new filters.
“Did you talk to the doctors when you were there?” Brenda asked her.
The shrug repeated itself.
Brenda took a fresh bite of cobbler before pressing the matter. “What did the doctors say about your momma, Ducky?”
“The same thing they always say. The same thing they’ve been saying for the last four years. They don’t know. They can only guess.”
“So far their guesses have been about as good as Hank’s chili.”
Daisy responded with a rueful smile.
“I heard that!” was the angry roar that followed through the open door leading to the kitchen.
Brenda laughed and Daisy’s smile widened as the owner of the roar appeared a moment later, his thick face creased and red from the vigor with which he had been scouring the grill.
“I heard that!” he shouted a second time. “There’s nothing wrong with my chili, Brenda. Not a damn thing!”
“There’s nothing much good about it either,” she replied crisply.
Hank growled as he wiped his grease-covered hands on the white grease-smeared apron wrapped around his almost equally grease-stained jeans. “Everybody loves my chili!”
“They love it so much,” Brenda returned, “nobody ever orders it.”
“People order it.”
“Only strangers passing through. And they never ask for a second helping.”
“H & P’s Diner has the best chili in the whole Commonwealth of Virginia,” Hank insisted stubbornly.
“H & P’s got the best chicken stew, the best potato salad and baked beans, and without a doubt”—Brenda nodded approvingly at Daisy—“the very best peach cobbler between Charleston, West Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina, but I’m afraid its chili is near inedible. Always has been, Hank. Since the day you and Paul first opened this place.”
“Paul always liked it.”
“Paul never liked it.”
Hank turned to Daisy for support. “Your pop liked my chili, didn’t he?”
Before Daisy could answer him, Brenda said, “He liked feeding it to the pigs out back maybe.”
Daisy sighed to herself as she poured a pot of cold water into the machines and clicked the red start button. It was far too early in the morning for a full-blown battle over the quality of Hank’s cooking. He and Brenda sparred frequently—sometimes even violently if flinging hush puppies and pickle spears was included in the discussion—but it was usually much later in the day. Not at six in the morning before the sun was up and the coffee had brewed.
“What’s the special today?” Daisy asked Hank, watching a pair of headlights turn from the road into the diner’s parking lot.
He and Brenda stopped squabbling long enough to look toward the front bank of windows, curiosity over the identity of the day’s first customer winning out over the continued debate regarding the value of H & P’s chili.
“Looks like the Balsam boys,” Brenda determined, squinting at the shadowy outline of a pickup truck in the gray light of the approaching dawn.
Daisy sighed again, more audibly this time.
Brenda nodded in agreement. “They’re always trouble, aren’t they, Ducky?”
“Trouble?” Hank looked back and forth between the two. “What do you mean by that? They’re just a couple of red-blooded country boys.”
“Red-blooded country boys who like to start fires, take target practice at anything that crawls, and cook up heaven-only-knows-what in those beat-up old trailers of theirs back there in the woods,” Brenda retorted with derision.
Hank shrugged. “They’re just kids being kids.”
“They ain’t no kids! That older one must be getting on thirty now. Isn’t that right, Ducky?”
“I went to school with both of them,” Daisy said. “Bobby was my year. So he’s twenty-seven like me. Rick is two years older.”
“That makes them getting on thirty,” Brenda crowed at Hank. “Thirty ain’t kids!”
Shrugging once more, Hank started back toward the kitchen. “So long as they pay their bill when they leave and don’t drive off other customers, I don’t care what they’re doing on their own dime or their own property.”
“You should care,” Brenda snapped. “They always bother poor Ducky.”
Hank swiveled on his heel. “Have they been bothering you, Daisy?”
“No more than usual,” she answered truthfully.
“And the usual is pretty bad! Every time they’re in here that worthless Rick is badgering her to go out with him.” Brenda wrinkled her pug nose indignantly. “As if she’d ever stoop that low. It’d be like a beautiful butterfly dating a stinking maggot.”
“Doesn’t he know you’re married?” Hank asked Daisy.
“Of course he knows. At one time he and Matt were even friends. They played football together in school. But Rick also knows Matt left me and—”
“Matt didn’t leave you,” Brenda interjected.
“He drove off one morning and never came home again,” Daisy returned dryly. “If that’s not leaving me, I don’t know what is.”
Brenda’s voice softened. “Oh but, Ducky—”
She was interrupted by the rusty bell strung up above the front door of the diner. It clanked as Richard and Robert Balsam pushed their way inside. They were wearing old faded T-shirts, even older and more faded jeans, along with muddy construction boots. Based on their wild eyes and boisterous demeanor, Daisy promptly concluded that neither one had slept a wink the night before. She wasn’t the least bit surprised. All the brothers ever managed to do was drink home brew and plink squirrels. Doing honest work for an honest paycheck and keeping sensible hours were utterly foreign concepts to them.
“G’morning all,” Bobby proclaimed brightly as he and Rick plopped themselves down in the nearest emerald-green vinyl booth.
Daisy rolled her eyes to Brenda and Hank, then swung around toward the brothers with the obligatory chirpy waitress smile. “And good morning to you. What’ll it be today, boys?”
Rick gave her a quick once-over and grinned appreciatively. “You’re looking mighty fine, Daisy McGovern.”
“What’ll it be?” she repeated, ignoring both the compliment and the accompanying seedy gaze.
“Waffles,” Bobby declared.
“With pecans?” Daisy asked.
He nodded. “And sausage.”
“Links or patties?”
Bobby shook his head. “Chocolate milk. A big glass.”
“For you?” Daisy looked at Rick.
“I’ll have a heapin’ platter of you, darlin’.”
She turned away without speaking, having learned long ago that ignoring Rick Balsam’s irritating and usually offensive flirtations was invariably the best course of action. Yelling, whining, or slapping his smirking cheek only egged him on, like a hungry pit bull catching a savory whiff of hamburger.
“With plenty of whipped cream and syrup,” Rick called after her salaciously.
“The poor girl who marries him one day,” Brenda mused, clucking her tongue as Daisy returned to the counter and gave Bobby’s order to Hank through the wide rectangular opening above the grill.
“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” Daisy replied, pulling the gallon jug of chocolate milk from the refrigerator.
“At least he tips well.”
“I’m not sure that makes it any better. Strippers get good tips too, don’t they? And I doubt it helps much with their dignity.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Brenda said, scooping a generous second serving of peach cobbler from the baking dish into her bowl.
“Dessert’s supposed to be for the paying customer,” Hank chastised her over the sizzle of sausage patties.
Brenda went right on scooping. “If it was pudding or sherbet, I’d agree with you, Hank. But it’s not. I’m telling you, this is the best cobbler I’ve ever tasted in my whole life.”
“Well, quit tasting so damn much of it,” he growled. “Or there won’t be any left for this afternoon when the old dames come in for their tea and cake.”
“You can give them doughnuts instead.”
Daisy didn’t catch Hank’s reply as she set a tall glass of chocolate milk in front of Bobby and a mug of steaming coffee in front of his brother.
“Cream as usual?” she asked Rick, depositing a handful of little plastic half-and-half containers on the table before he could answer.
“Thank ya, suga’,” he drawled at her.
“You want anything to eat with that?”
She raised a finger of warning at him as she said it. Rick cocked his head to one side and gave a roguish chortle.
“Just toast. Toast with jam. Strawberry if you got it.”
Daisy nodded and headed back to the counter once more. As she untied the bag of sandwich bread, the rusty bell strung up above the front door of the diner clanked for a second time that day. Sensing the onslaught of the typical morning whirlwind, she hollered to Hank, “Have you decided on the special yet?”
“Let’s make it hash. Corned beef hash with a side of—”
“With a side of what?” Daisy said, not hearing him over the whistle of the waffle maker.
Hank didn’t answer.
“What’s the side?” she asked again, with a touch of annoyance. Handling the early-morning crowd was tough enough without the so-called chef dragging his feet on the cooking end of the business.
There was still no answer.
“Hank!” Daisy snapped, raising her head from the toaster to give him a sour stare.
But when she saw his face above the grill, she discovered that it was he who was staring, a spatula frozen in one hand with a sausage patty half-flipped. Brenda was staring too, the spoon from her bowl of cobbler clattering to the floor. They were both staring at the door with an expression of absolute shock, as though a horrifying ghost from their past had suddenly decided to come floating through it. Except a ghost wouldn’t have shaken the bell in the process. And a ghost didn’t have thudding footsteps like the ones presently trudging toward the counter.
“B … Burger…” stuttered an unfamiliar voice.
Daisy’s mind instinctively clicked into waitress-mode. “With cheese and onions?” she replied, turning toward the new arrival. “Or bacon and egg?”
The usual follow-up question regarding mustard versus mayonnaise vanished from Daisy’s lips the instant that she saw the man. He was stumbling across the tile floor toward her, swaying back and forth with his arms stretched out in front of him like a drunken zombie. He had on camel-colored farm coveralls, a black-and-white checkered flannel shirt underneath, and tall rubber farm boots. Based on his sparse white hair and long white beard, it was a safe bet that he was closer to seventy than fifty. Water ran in rivers from his eyes, and his mouth foamed profusely.
“Isn’t that old man Dickerson?” Rick said, rising from his booth.
Neither Hank nor Brenda responded. They were still staring and frozen in place like a pair of ice sculptures. Daisy could only shake her head. She hadn’t seen old man Dickerson in nearly a decade. But it could be him. The age was right. So was his general shape and size. And he was a farmer. Or at least he had been a farmer before becoming a recluse.
The man tried to wipe the foam from his mouth with his sleeve, but more foam appeared. There was so much of it that his lips were completely covered, and it began oozing over his chin and down his neck almost like runny shaving cream. As he staggered closer to Daisy, she saw that both the foam and the tears streaming from his eyes had a strange yellowish tint to them. She was pretty sure he was ill.
“I think we should call an ambulance,” she said.
“You’re right,” Brenda agreed, waking from her trance and reaching for the phone next to the cash register.
As she dialed, the man tried to speak. His jaw moved rapidly, and a string of incomprehensible syllables followed.
“What’s he saying?” Rick asked, coming over and standing next to Daisy.
She shook her head again. “I don’t know. I can’t understand him.” She looked at the man apologetically. “I’m sorry, but we don’t understand you.”
His watery, befuddled gaze switched from her to Rick, and his expression immediately changed. His face tightened, and his shoulders started to twitch. It was clear that he recognized Rick, but it wasn’t at all clear whether that recognition was good or bad. The man was definitely trying to get some point across though. The incomprehensible syllables rolling off his tongue increased both in speed and number. They were joined by two clenched, trembling fists.
“Maybe you should sit down?” Daisy suggested to him.
“That’s a good idea.” Rick pulled a stool from under the counter.
“Or how about lying down?” She gestured toward the booths. “And a glass of water? That might help.”
Before the man could take more than a step toward the proffered stool, his whole body began to shake. His eyes rolled back in their sockets, and the foam gushed from his mouth with an almost startling ferocity.
“Holy hell,” Rick muttered.
A moment later the shaking turned into violent convulsions. The man tumbled backward. He hit the floor with a loud, hard thwack. His mouth stopped foaming, and his limbs grew still. A tiny red trickle of blood crept down from his ear onto the tile.
“Is he—” Daisy stammered, horrified. “He’s not—”
“I think he might be,” Rick said.
Bobby came over and nudged the man’s leg with the toe of his boot. There was no response.
“That ain’t good,” he drawled.
“Should I check for a pulse?” Daisy started to reach down toward the man’s neck, but Rick hastily seized her wrist and pulled her back.
“Don’t!” he barked.
“Don’t tell me what to do!” she snapped in return.
“You don’t know what’s wrong with him,” Rick said. “And you don’t know what that stuff is coming out of his mouth and eyes. You shouldn’t touch it. Not when he’s already down and there’s nothing you can do to help.”
Twisting her arm free, Daisy turned to Brenda questioningly.
“I think he’s right,” she replied with a mournful sigh. “Better to wait for the professionals, Ducky. They’ll be here in a minute.”
The scream of a siren could be heard off in the distance. Closer by, car tires crunched over the gravel in the parking lot.
“One of us should get outside,” Brenda went on. “Make sure no one comes in. We don’t want anybody to see this, especially not any little kids.”
Daisy nodded. “I’ll do it. What do you want me to tell them, Hank? Just that we’re temporarily closed? The gossips will start their wagging no matter what I say the second that ambulance arrives.”
When he didn’t answer, she looked over at him and was astounded to find Hank leaning casually against the counter, calmly feeding himself from the baking dish as though nothing remotely out of the ordinary had happened only a minute earlier and there was no man lying motionless on his diner floor. He raised his placid gaze to Brenda, the barest hint of a smile tugging at his lips.
“You know, you’re right about this cobbler. Daisy’s really outdone herself this time.”
Copyright © 2013 by Carol Miller