Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers’ Hub
She comes in at the start of the graveyard shift. I look up as the door closes behind her, muting the hiss of rain and the deeper slosh of the interstate beyond. She is closing her umbrella, shaking off the rain.
It’s been 20 years, but I still recognise her – the reddish brown bob and the way every movement is exaggerated, rapid and bird-like, designed to draw attention. It still works, I can’t deny it.
Martin has left me alone to run the place. Of course, he couldn’t leave without reminding me how to do all the things I’ve done a thousand times already.
He loves to predict the catastrophes I might cause by my neglect. He makes out like we’re managing a nuclear power plant. Although, given the amount of stuff we microwave, maybe there really is a radiation hazard.
She stands behind the African-American guy with the cornrows, who leans on the counter and drums his fingers. She gazes around, like she’s never been in a place like this before.
Miss Dean. Miss Dream. Smiles and laughter and a hint of steel. You can do anything you want! Be anything you want! All the boys in the class had a crush on her, all of us desperate to impress. We were eight.
Funny how I’ve never thought of this before, but she’s always been a presence in my life, all the way through high school, through college.
I have only just recalled the actual words she used, but one thing I know for sure: their echo has always been with me.
The lies they tell to kids.
All of this goes through my head while I serve Cornrows – a clipped series of questions and answers following such a well-established pattern that I sometimes forget what I’ve said and what I’ve only thought.
I’ve made it a point of honour never to actually say: ‘Would you like fries with that?’ I’m like Bogart, never quite saying: ‘Play it again, Sam.’
Usually I’d take both orders at the same time, but I decide to make her wait until Cornrows gets his burger, fries and shake.
He takes a seat near the rain-flecked window and Miss Dean – does she even have a first name? – approaches the counter. She doesn’t look annoyed at the delay like some customers would.
‘What’ll it be?’
‘Umm…’ Her eyes flicker over the boards again, as if her option might have magically disappeared. ‘A quarter-pounder and an orange juice.’
She really doesn’t recognise me. There’s no reason she should. Like I said, it’s been 20 years.
‘No, I’m good.’
I ring it up.
I want to tell her that I should have studied law, like my parents said. I want to tell her that a film studies major is like betting everything you have on red. I want to tell her that three years is too long to spend making a silent, 10-minute, black-and-white crime thriller when all you get from hauling it around Sundance, Telluride and Tribeca is damning, lukewarm applause.
No point saying any of this if she doesn’t recognise me.
She takes a long time scrabbling through her pocketbook. In spite of the umbrella, there are droplets of water in her hair, suspended like diamonds. At the parting, the auburn gives way to grey.
Eventually she pays, having scraped together three crumbled dollar bills and a handful of quarters and dimes. This fishing around for change is done without any of her usual sense of performance.
I’ll bring it over when it’s ready,’ I tell her.
‘Thank you.’ She attempts to make herself comfortable on one of the red plastic chairs near the window.
I take a juice from the fridge and zap her quarter pounder. I add a fillet of fish, fries, an apple slice and a coffee. A couple of packs of ketchup, just in case.
I carry them over to her on a tray and set it on the table. I feel her eyes on my back as I return to the counter, but she says nothing. By the time I’m at my station again, she is hunched over her food.
A few minutes later, Cornrows leaves with a nod in my direction. I surreptitiously watch Miss Dean nibble while checking my cell phone. I don’t know how I’d survive this job without it. Maybe I’d read a book. Like Martin would allow that.
There’s a message from Emilio – another idea for a short film. How many times do I need to tell him? It’s not ideas we’re short of, it’s funding. I guess I can’t fault him for enthusiasm. I’ll reply later, when I’ve figured out what to say, and how to say it.
I look up to see Miss Dean standing at the counter, putting her tray down. The burger has gone, but most of the rest of her meal is untouched.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t… I mean, thank you, but I don’t know what to do with all this. I just can’t…’
I nod. At least I tried.
‘It’s Jon, isn’t it?’
A jolt, like being jerked out of sleep.
Now I can tell her. The restaurant is empty. It’s the ideal time. I can tell her everything.
‘Jon,’ she repeats.
I nod like a mute man, like an idiot.
Perhaps I’ve got this all wrong. Perhaps I should be thanking her. How easy it would be to make these thoughts into speech, to start a conversation. But I am wordless, freeze-framed.
The only thing I can tell her about is disappointment, and she looks like she’s had her fill of that.
She bites her lower lip and I watch her retreat. There is something very sad, very beautiful, about the way she nudges the door with her hip while opening the umbrella that doesn’t quite keep her dry.
Hiss of rain.
Fade to black.
Richard Salsbury is a published author of short stories and articles. He also has three novels on the go and writes a regular beer blog for the Southwick Brewhouse.
Send your short story to the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information check out the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub on Facebook.