Don’s BBQ

I like this one. It’s just never found a home. That could be a question of the right story for the right home, or it could just be that the story is fundamentally terrible.

I’d prefer to lean on the first choice. My ego is a tired, half-drunk animal these days.

This was written six or seven years ago, and then edited a couple of times over the years. The source material was a diner I happened to kill about five hours in. God knows why I was trying to pass that kind of time. A good deal of my life is spent in transit, and just waiting around for the traveling show to pick me up. That can be fun, and it give me ideas like this one, but it can also be a little on the exhausting side sometimes.

I wouldn’t trade it for anything, of course. I try to keep my regrets to an absolute minimum. Anything that gets material out of it almost never leaves me feeling as though I was wasting my time, or should have done something different. That kind of thing can age you horribly if you’re not careful, but I’m a lot better at taking care of myself than people give me credit for.

There’s something safer about submitting work to magazines over just throwing it on a blog. I’m already assuming the worst, but I do remain hopeful that people will find something worthwhile in whatever I’m trying out here. That’s a good mix of self-loathing and ludicrous optimism if you ask me.

Enjoy the story. Give me some thoughts on it. I’m a sucker for those.
**********
Don’s BBQ
By Gabriel Ricard

When her nails dug into the rag so much that her thin digits were touching each other through the material, Maggie decided that it was time to stop, take a deep breath and get her shit together. This whole line of thinking was ridiculous, and she wasn’t going to let it bother her. Not today. Jerry, Elizabeth and Tom, Martin and any combination of his construction worker buddies. Everyone else. All of them were counting on her. The same way they counted on her every day. There was definitely some level of comfort that could come out of that. A need to continue as if everything was all right. Washing the same spot on the counter for the seventh time, she couldn’t help but laugh a little. Really, what would they think if they walked in and found her sobbing over something as silly as one of the coffee machines breaking down?

Most of them knew it was an ancient, shitty machine anyway. In fact, it was a miracle the other one hadn’t collapsed, too. Which meant it was still there in the first place. Coffee was still an option to anyone who might be interested. Maggie knew that it just meant she’d have to put a little more effort into making sure everyone got enough. There was nothing wrong with a little extra effort. On top of that, everyone was well aware that the two machines were in desperate need of replacement. No one would really be all that surprised to find out that one of them had finally died off. Hell, they’d probably have a great joke in mind when they heard the news. She laughed again, finally moved on to another portion of the counter.

She nodded. She felt better now. A little, anyway, but she still felt better.

The door opened quickly. As though someone was actually in a hurry. Maggie smiled. Only two people opened the door like that everyday, and Rick didn’t come in until lunchtime. She looked up from the counter, ready to turn the day around as quickly as possible. “Jerry, one of these days, you’re gonna break that—”

She stopped immediately, when her mind told her a thousand times in about thirty seconds that it wasn’t Jerry. A run through of all the regulars, which usually wasn’t necessary, but sometimes came up in circumstances like these, also told her that it wasn’t someone she knew.

The stranger, who couldn’t have been much older than nineteen, remained at the door, looking around as though he was the only one there.

Maggie barely managed to keep herself from frowning. Whoever this kid was, he didn’t match up to anyone she knew. He didn’t even look one of those jerks from the college a few about ten miles away. It wasn’t tourist season either, the only time of the year when it was absolutely necessary to deal with anyone outside of her trusted group. Beyond college and tourists, the number of newcomers was almost non-existent. There was, after all, a Pancake Kingdom franchise on the other side of the parking lot. They had more food and better prices. People who were willing to take that in exchange for a cold, impersonal breakfast experience went there instead. It had been like that for almost a decade now.

Once again, she could feel her hand squeezing the rag.

The stranger finally stopped glancing around, devoting a moment of his time to the post cards, twelve countries and all fifty states, the small stuffed animal collection of famous cartoon characters, and the humorous posters. Obviously, the family pictures on the bulletin board straight ahead hadn’t caught his attention yet. He looked straight ahead to Maggie and smiled. “Are you guys open? I didn’t see a sign or anything.”

Again, Maggie found herself forcing her smile to stay in place.  Of course, it’s open, she thought. You fucking idiot. She kept all this to herself. She had to. Imagine how Tom and Elizabeth, just to name two, would react if they walked in and found her screaming insults and obscenities at some stupid kid unconsciously looking to fuck up what was already amounting to a very difficult day.

They’d probably want free coffee!

She laughed aloud at this idea, without meaning to. “Of course we’re open,” she said to the stranger, immediately trying to play off the mistake and doing a pretty good job of it. “Why don’t you have a seat, and I’ll take your order.” In one well-practiced motion, she grabbed the pad of paper and pen from the register and walked out from behind the counter.

The stranger, the idiot kid with thick, stuck-up glasses and a wardrobe that consisted entirely of faded black, took a seat at the booth to his right.

Maggie noticed him setting a book down on the table. He slammed it onto the table in such a way as to cause one of the creamers to fall out of the little bowl. As a reflex to that, her left hand was suddenly doing it’s damnedest to snap the pen in half.

“So, what’ll it be?” she asked, still smiling through all this uncalled for and admittedly very minor tragedy. If Don were alive, he’d know how to handle this arrogant little shit. “You’re a skinny looking guy,” she went on, bringing up some of the bullshit conversation she utilized during tourist season. “So, I think you ought to go for the deluxe pancake breakfast. That’s two pancakes, two eggs cooked however you want, three strips of bacon, three sausages. You also get your choice of a side of toast or a plate of hashbrowns.” Her pen, no longer in a death grip of any kind, tapped relentlessly against the pad of paper. “And, of course, the whole thing comes with your choice of milk, orange juice, apple juice, water, coffee, sweet tea, or soda.”

The stranger nodded through all of this, his eyes never leaving the menu. Finally, he closed it and held it up for her to take. “That sounds just fine. With toast, whole-wheat, if that’s possible, coffee and orange juice, and,” he paused for a moment, “Eggs scrambled.” He inched the menu closer towards her. “Thank-you.”

She took the menu and returned to the safety of the area behind the counter, which was also the kitchen. She went to work quickly, with everything but the toast in its beginning stages in less than two minutes. Everything was made right in front of the customer. An element Don had decided to go with twenty-five years, three months, and sixteen days ago. Something she took a tremendous amount of pleasure in presenting to all of her friends. The little jerk, he probably didn’t have the ability to appreciate such a thing. She was tempted to cook up the regular pancake breakfast, just to see if he’d been paying even the slightest attention.

But no, Don most certainly wouldn’t approve of something like that. It had always been him with the soft spot for the ones who were only planning to stop in a single time. She knew that if he were with her right now, he would scold her for even trying to hold those thoughts back. “They shouldn’t be there at all,” he’d say, probably a dozen times after the stupid kid left. “A customer is a customer is a customer,” he’d go on, before leaning in slowly to kiss the top of her head the way he always did. He always knew she had a good point in gathering more of her solace from the usual faces. But still, in the end, he was right. She still couldn’t accept the idea completely. It was rarely possible. Being alone made it worse. She flipped the bacon and pancakes, moved the sausages a bit to prevent sticking, put the bread in the toaster, and flipped some the eggs over.

Even with her back to the door, even with the food half-done, in that stretch of time where it was bad idea to turn away from them, she couldn’t keep her eyes from moving to the door when she heard it open. The way the door opened was instantly unnerving. It once again failed to remind her of anyone she knew.

The toast popped up. Maggie set the pancakes and eggs on one side, making sure that neither item touched each other, and then proceeded to set the bacon and sausage on the other. The toast went onto another plate. Grabbing a coffee mug and glass from the shelf under her, she filled the mug to the top with coffee, and then did the same with the orange juice. She was right to feel this way, too. Just who the hell was this woman in sweat pants and a tattered college t-shirt? There had to be some sort of connection to the Jazzercise building three doors over. But that place didn’t open for another three hours! There was no fucking excuse for this! “Be with you in a minute,” she managed to promise. The two plates of food were set down on the counter, followed by the orange juice and coffee. She was going to let the kid get up and take the food himself.

He did without complaint. Maggie took note of his face, the possibility that he thought she wasn’t being fair. She didn’t see anything outright but still decided that in tune to his character, he wouldn’t leave a tip.

With the first undesirable out of the way, Maggie readied herself to face the next one. She imagined that this one would quietly despise her too, for the hate crime of making her wait a whole two minutes. Turning around, she found the woman seated in the booth across from the other one. If only one of her friends would show up, this would be a lot easier to get through. She didn’t think anyone should have to suffer this much so early in the morning. Unless they had a sense of humor that ran to car crashes and grim stuff like that.

Where were they anyway? It was five-thirty. At the very least, Martin and his crew were in around this time.

The rag was put away in an effort to get rid of anything that made it seem like her mood wasn’t that of a gracious host and warm old friend. This wasn’t the time to fidget with something to the point where everyone was staring. Don would hate that. He’d roll his eyes, put a hand around her waist, and remind her that she was absolutely hopeless at times.

She picked up the pad of paper and pen once more and walked around to the table. She smiled. The second time around, it was making the corners of her mouth hurt. “Morning,” she said. “What can I get for you today?”

The woman studied the menu, but only for a second. She set it down and looked up, offering a smile that struck Maggie as unrepentantly insincere. “Just a coffee please.”

“Just a coffee?” The words came out with their mild surprise before she could pull them back and change the tone a little. Maggie scribbled down the ignorant, time-wasting order, hoping it would make this cow believe that everything was just fine. That it was perfectly reasonable to just waltz in and not only get her hopes up with the promise of being someone she could rely on but to arrogantly use up her valuable time and energy on such a pointless fucking order. She wanted to point out the useful attributes of the four nearby convenience stores. Why, you could get a goddamn coffee there and drink it wherever the hell you wanted to. You could live the dream of true freedom, and you’d get it without bothering a waitress who had better things to do than take this from some dumbass bleach-blond cunt.

“Not very hungry, I’m afraid,” the woman replied. “I don’t think I have a whole lot of time to eat besides.”

Maggie was glad that she had already written down the order. She could feel a slight tremor running through her hands that was getting stronger by the minute. Enough that if she had to write down the order now, she would probably punch a hole through the paper with her pen. “One coffee coming right up.”

“Melissa,” she said, as though anyone really cared. “My name’s Melissa.”

Maggie nodded. “What a wonderful, simple name,” she said, walking back to her area to fetch the coffee. How could people like this even exist? What right did they have? She started to pour the cup.

“Can I get some more of that while you’re over there?”

She nearly dropped the pot. It was that goddamn kid again. Again! She glanced behind her shoulder to see him leaning over the counter with the mug in his hand. What kind of person drank coffee that fast? As thoughtless as he already was, even this guy could have had the decency to take a little breather between cups for her benefit. But, no. Of course not. “Just a second,” she said, setting the other cup aside and turning around quickly to take his.

The little asshole released the cup before she could take hold of it herself. She tried to scoop it up in time, but she missed it on the second try and watched the cup explode into roughly a dozen pieces on the floor.

“Jesus!” He jumped back.

As though it had all been an accident! For a second, Maggie was positive that she was going to kill him. To hell with the bitch drinking her coffee, watching the whole thing as though it was some kind of free show. But she didn’t take advantage of the thought. The second passed, and it was possible, though barely, to smile yet again and pretend that idiots came into her diner all the time and destroyed her personal property. “Oh, honey, it’s perfectly okay.” She kneeled down and began picking up the chunks one at a time. “Perfectly okay,” she repeated. “If you just give me a minute,” she went on, dumping a handful into the adjacent garbage can. “I’ll make sure you get a new cup.”

“I-I’d like to pay for it,” he said. He “I really can’t believe I’m that clumsy and stupid.” He laughed. “God, what a day.”

It came out in a whisper. She looked up to see him setting some money on the table. A twenty. Probably twice what the cup was really worth. Fine, she thought, taking the money and stuffing it into the left pocket of her jeans. Let him pay whatever the hell he thinks is necessary. Between him and the coffee-drinker in horrible looking clothes, and all of her time they had taken away, forty dollars would just make it in the way of a decent tip. Even if it wasn’t enough to pay her back for destroying any chance she had at a good day. She wondered if the whole thing was related to karma somehow. She tried to think of some awful mistake she might’ve made at some point in the recent weeks. Nothing came to mind though, and when it became that much more obvious that none of this was deserved, she found it more important than ever that these people leave as soon as possible.

When the last of the coffee cup pieces were in the garbage, she grabbed another cup and stood up to get his refill. Until they left, she still had a job to do. She touched the pot and stared at it for a moment. It was empty. She wasn’t entirely how that could have worked out after pouring only two cups of coffee. She casually wiped away a couple of tears that were running down her face. The rag was gone, leaving her with the only option of clenching her fists. This was only a minor problem. Compared to everything else, this is not worth getting upset over. Hoping to minimize this latest crisis, she turned around. The nosy little bastard was still standing at the counter. He couldn’t just sit down and wait to be called, could he? “I’m afraid I have to make a new pot,” she announced, loudly enough in case the other one needed to know this as well. “If you’ll just have a seat and wait, I’ll bring it to you.”

He didn’t move at first. “I really am sorry about the cup.”

He sounded like he meant it, but really, you just couldn’t be sure about these things. Turning away from him again, she waved him off. “It’s not a problem.” She filled the machine with water and replaced the filter. “Heck, I’m willing to bet I’ve got a million of those things.” She was drawing on memories of Don now, what he would say during a tragedy like this. She wasn’t ready to draw on memories of him like that. Not when tourist season was a good three months away. “One just isn’t going to matter.”

When she finally moved back to facing him, she saw that he was back in his booth, staring at the rest of his food that was now, most likely, rigidly cold. Oh well. Serves him right.

Her gaze moved onto the woman, Melissa, who, apparently, took forever when it came to finishing a simple cup of coffee. She didn’t even have a newspaper, she was just laying around and taking up space. All for a buck twenty-five and, probably, no tip!

Where were they!

Honestly, what if Jerry, Tom and Elizabeth, Martin, or the others came in and found that they couldn’t have the seat they wanted. All because some jackass invaders that were acting like the place was theirs and not hers. She couldn’t imagine that any of them would want to stay when faced with something that annoying. She didn’t want to imagine that. Not when they had become more crucial than ever to salvaging the day. Twenty-five years of her life had been spent working here, living in this small restaurant, and this had never happened before. Even on the slowest of days, at least one or two could be counted on to show up, if only to just grab a quick cup of coffee.

The door opened. She didn’t need to look to know that she was going to be let down again. The sound still didn’t match anyone she knew and needed at the moment. Since karma was out, she couldn’t use that as an explanation for why this was happening over and over again. Still, this had to be a test of some kind. An examination by some kind of great power to see what she was capable of. She finally looked to the door.

Oh god. She watched as they took a seat at the booth farthest away from her, without even a hello or good morning. It was a couple! Two more people! Two goddamn more!

Melissa raised her hand. “Can I have my cheque please?”

“Hold on.” Maggie knew her reply was close to a growl, but she didn’t care. She was too busy trying to figure out why these people weren’t in bed doing whatever it is that disgusting couples like to do. She watched the man, who appeared to be a good couple of decades older than his female companion, stare straight ahead to her. He grinned. Maggie had a feeling that he was drunk. Just barely six o clock in the morning, and this guy was drunk.

“Two coffees,” he said. The girl laughed, he whispered something to her, and she stopped. “And some eggs,” he added. “Just some eggs.” The girl started giggling again, and he didn’t try to stop her this time.

Maggie bent over to grab two more cups. The pot had been ready for a while, and she remembered that the fucking kid wanted some more as well. She poured some into all three.

“Excuse me.”

She turned around to face Melissa so quickly that she nearly dropped the pot again. Her glasses slipped a little down her face from saving it. “I know, I know.” She took a deep breath, though her body rejected most of the effort. “If you’ll just give me one moment.”

The clumsy little shot approached the counter as she said this, his wallet in the palm of his hand. “I think I’ll just get going,” he said. “Can I have my cheque as well?”

Before the coffee pot could continue to be a risk, she put it back on the burner. She was just going to have to throw one of the three cups away. “Yes, yes, of course.” She picked up each of the two remaining cups. “Just hold on.” She walked past them. They were glaring at her now. Maggie was sure of it, even with her back to them. Let them. It wasn’t as though either of them were ever going to come back. She set the two cups down at the far end of the counter, as close to the ugly drunks’ table as possible. “I’ll be back in a couple minutes with your food,” she added.

His arm around the ridiculous girl, the man frowned slightly. “I have to get up?”

No, she thought. Please, sit there. Don’t move. Make it as easy as possible for me to throw these at you, you fucking asshole. Surprise, surprise, she didn’t say any of this. She couldn’t. There was absolutely no possibility that she could force herself to say something polite and forgiving. Her legs more or less did all the work, carrying her back to the register to get rid of the other two. Behind her, she could hear him getting out of the booth.

“Don’t know who the fuck you think you are,” he said.

Maggie remained at the register. She wanted to take care of those who wanted to leave before asking him and his giggling twit of a lady friend to get the hell out of her restaurant. “Okay,” she whispered, picking up her pad of paper to consult the order itself, even though she knew all of the prices by heart. She flipped it open to Melissa’s idiotic order and pointed at her. “You had the coffee.”

She nodded. “Yes.”

“1.45.”

Melissa nodded and reached into her purse.

While she waited for the moron to find a whole dollar and forty-five cents, she turned to the clumsy kid who tried to buy her off with a lousy twenty dollar bill. She flipped a page in the note pad. “Yours comes to 8.79.”

The clumsy kid, the first of the strangers to attack her day, pulled a ten from his wallet and set it down on the counter. “Hold on,” he added, smiling. “I think I have some pennies.”

“Hurry the fuck up and take my order, bitch.”

The girl laughed.

Maggie ignored him once more and moved onto Melissa while she waited for the clumsy kid to find four stupid pennies. She was still searching her purse for the money.

“Jesus Christ on a crutch,” the drunk cried. “What kind of Days Inn bullshit is this?”

The girl scolded him mockingly.

No one at the register said a word. Maggie heard him say something else, but she couldn’t make it out.

“Don’t, honey, stay here.”

That time it was the girl, and she sounded serious. Maggie did her best to pretend that she couldn’t hear him getting out of the booth. She kept her gaze locked on the customers who were eventually, god willing, going to leave. She also kept her breathing steady, enough that she could focus on the people in front of her. It was starting to become difficult.

“Oh, here we are.” The clumsy kid produced four pennies and set them down on the counter. “Sorry it took so long.”

And he offered another one of those goofy looking smiles. Maggie was starting to find the expression repulsive looking. ”It’s–”

She never got a chance to finish. The drunk was with them now.

“What the fuck’s your problem, lady?” He asked, his voice rising with each word. He pointed at his lady friend sitting in the booth. “Me and my girl here are hungry as a motherfucker and you’re standing up here with these goddamn idiots.” He gestured towards Melissa and the clumsy kid. “These stupid bitches that can’t even count money.”

He had a point there, Maggie thought. But she didn’t want to tell him that. Really, she wasn’t sure what she should say. It had always been Don’s job to deal with the crazies, the heavy drinkers trying to make everyone else’s life as difficult as theirs, the disgruntled losers constantly on the verge of violence.

“Hey, man,” the clumsy kid said. “Just chill out, okay? I’m leaving now, and I’m sure she’ll be happy to—”

The drunk took this in for about two seconds, before pushing the clumsy kid into the table of the nearest booth. “Fuck off, punkass. No one asked you to say a goddamn thing, so just keep your fucking mouth shut.”

Maggie jumped back and fell against the wall, knocking over the framed picture of some Irish castle Don had loved on their second to last vacation. She couldn’t do much about her crying now. It moved as seamlessly as breathing.

The girl he had come in with was on her feet now, walking quickly towards them. “Mark, honey. It’s not worth it now, come on.”

He turned on her. Puffing himself up like a parrot, in such a way as to suggest that she was next. “Sit the fuck down, Jane.”

Though Jane didn’t move, she didn’t say anything else either. She folded her arms and stared at the floor.

“I’m calling the police,” Melissa announced, reaching into her purse. She had the cell phone out for about a minute when Mark knocked it out of her hand. Her reaction was to jump back a step like she had been electrocuted, the same way Maggie had a second ago.

“You’re not gonna do a goddamn thing,” he shot back. “Except pay for your fucking food and get the hell out of here.”

The clumsy kid had finally pulled himself together by this point. He simply stood there, back against the table, and watched the scene in awkward youth silence.

Mark had his attention back on Maggie. Pitiful, dull-eyed hate flowed from him like a broken fire hydrant that had better things to do than give up the only thing it knew. “Lazy bitch,” he muttered, one hand on the table.

He said this as the door opened. Maggie looked to see who it was only because they might do something to help her. Regular or otherwise, she didn’t care at the moment.

It was Martin. Behind him were two other men. They worked with Martin in some way, of course, but it took Maggie a second to remember their names, as they only appeared with Martin for an occasional lunch.

Everyone, including Mark, paused and looked at the three new entrants. Mark was the first to speak up. “Take a seat and the lazy bitch over here,” he waved a hand at her. “She’ll be with you when I’m done talking to her.”

Martin grabbed him by the neck of his shirt, whirled the two of them around, and shoved Mark into the door. He kept his hold on the shirt. His companions moved aside to make this possible. “I think it’s time that you hit the road, buddy.”

“Fuck you.”

Without releasing the shirt, Mark glanced at his two employees. “Guys, will you do me a favor and take this guy out to his car.”

They did this without saying a word and without giving Mark a chance to pay for the two coffees.

Jane waited until they had both left before following. Her footsteps were slow, fearful. She stopped at the door. “I’m really sorry about this,” she said, her voice a whisper. “Mark’s going through a rough time right now.”

Maggie didn’t reply. She just nodded slightly and tried to wipe some of the tears away.

When Jane left, the clumsy kid reached for the money he had placed on the counter before and pushed it closer to her. “Keep the change,” he muttered, before turning to the door and walking out.

Her hand making the bare minimum effort to cooperate, she picked up the money, opened the register, and placed the money in the appropriate slots.

At long, long, long last, Melissa produced two singles. “I was trying to find exact change too,” she explained. “The last thing I need is more nickels, dimes, and pennies.” She laughed nervously and put the money on the counter. “So, don’t worry about the change or anything.” Another nervous laugh, and she started for the door. She stopped with her hand against the glass and glanced at the post cards. “I noticed those coming in,” she said. “They’re really cool. It’s a good touch.” She pushed the door open and disappeared into the dull, steady beam of light that was streaming through the glass to cover almost everything in the room.

Maggie thought that Melissa had only said that in the mild hope of getting to take one home. That or just stealing them outright. She tried to stand up straight, without leaning against anything, but it wasn’t feasible.

The two friends’ of Martin stepped back in. They were sharing the same smirk, the same feeling of a job extremely well done. The taller of the two nodded in Martin’s general direction. “All done, Marty, man.”

Martin sighed. “Bill, not the Marty shit right now.” Effortlessly, with the skill of someone who knew the area flawlessly, he moved to stand next to her behind the counter.

She jumped, though just a little bit, when Martin put an arm around her shoulder. She needed the gesture, without question, but she didn’t know if she was up for anyone touching her. She settled into the arm, while accepting the fact that the more she did this, the more she was going to cry.

He was here now. He was here. And he was going to make everything okay again.

“You alright, darling?” He squeezed her shoulder and moved the arm around her for a full embrace.

Closing her eyes, resting her head against his broad, comfortable shoulders, Maggie let out a single loud sob.  One thousand, eight hundred, and twenty five days of hell on earth, and she had earned a good cry, as far as she was concerned.

He continued holding onto her, gently running a hand over her head. “Shh,” he said. “Shh. It’s okay, now. Everything’s going to be just fine.”

“Oh, god, Don,” she replied. She was shaking so much that she couldn’t keep the hands on his back perfectly still. “Oh god.”

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