(Here’s a brand new story by Joseph E. Bird. The whole thing, here and now. This one is a really good one. Ed.)
Now And Then
Frank Addington didn’t wait to be seated, even though the sign out front said Please. He found an empty booth along the wall and slid across the worn, plastic leather on the bench facing the door. He looked down at the rip in the fabric, the yellowed foam cushion starting to show through. He’d have to tell Jimbo about that. He drummed his fingers on the plastic laminate tabletop as he waited for the waitress to come by. He was hoping for Ellie.
An older couple stood at the front of the restaurant, looking solemn, as if they had just come from a funeral. Maybe their own, Frank joked to himself. Hells bells, it’s Friday night. Show a little life.
A white uniform caught his eye from the right, and he looked up, hoping to see the petite and always perky, always smiling, always flirting – even if it was for tips – Eleanor Robinson. But no, that was not Ellie. Not even close. There was nothing petite about this woman. Her white uniform was splattered with what looked like fresh tomato sauce, on top of larger, brownish stains of unknown origin, which had faded but not completely disappeared after many washings. She was a thick woman whose girth strained the seams of her uniform and her soft and meaty arms protruded from her sleeves like sausages bursting from their skins. Her hands were chubby and spotted with splotches of dark and light, which she wiped on her skirt after she set a plastic glass of water in front of Frank.
Her name tag said Dottie.
“Something to drink?” she said.
“Ellie not working tonight?”
Frank looked around the restaurant, behind the counter, and behind him toward the kitchen. It was a small place and if Ellie was there, Frank would see her. He looked back up at Dottie. Her face was pudgy and she wore no discernible makeup. No, this woman was no Ellie. She didn’t even smile. Not that she looked mad or put-out in any way. She just looked bored.
“Beer,” he said. “Draft.”
Dottie rattled off the names of beer on tap, several that were new to Frank.
“Yeah. Whatever. Surprise me.”
Dottie dropped the menu in front of him. “Burger and fries,” he told her without even looking. She picked up the menu and headed back to the kitchen.
Frank was jacked. It was going to be a good night, even if he had to suffer through his Friday night meal with the world’s most dowdy waitress. Dowdy Dottie. He had hoped for a little pre-heating from Ellie but it didn’t matter. He was going to pick up Grace after she got off work and hit the clubs. Physically, Grace was the opposite of Ellie. Long legs, slender build, shoulder length auburn hair. Where Ellie was perky and cute and sexy like a pixie, Grace was a smoldering, sensuous woman that men were drawn to beyond their control. She was the kind of woman that would ensure the preservation of the species.
But as hot as Grace was, there was something about Ellie that kept him coming back to Jimbo’s for hamburgers. She was a college girl, putting herself through business school by waiting tables. Maybe that was it. Her smarts. Not that Grace was dumb. But there was a difference.
He liked the game, the dance, the seduction. Most men did. The unspoken promise of pleasures yet to be. Frank guessed that all women knew how to play and Grace used her natural gifts to her advantage. A flash of the leg, a smoldering look through her half-open eyes, her lips parted as if in anticipation. Ellie, could have played it the same way, although Frank had to admit she’d never be able to match Grace. But Ellie was a quick wit, and could hold her own in a conversation with anyone. The fact that she was excessively cute didn’t hurt.
Dottie returned with his beer, sloshing a little over the rim of the spotty glass as she set it on the table. She didn’t bother with a coaster; didn’t bother to wipe up the spill. Frank slid a little closer to the wall to allow himself a clean spot of table.
The old guy that had come in a few minutes ago with his wife walked toward Frank, looking him in the eye, smiling.
Oh, geez, Frank thought, he knows me. I don’t have a clue. He looked up and smiled, hoping that would do it. Maybe the geezer was going to the can.
He stopped at Frank’s booth.
“Frank Addington. It’s been a long time.”
“Yeah, yeah. How’ve you been?”
The man reached out to shake his hand, so Frank reciprocated.
“Justus,” he said. “Justus Jennings.”
It still didn’t register.
Frank forced a smile and a laugh. “Of course, J.J. Sorry. Brain fart.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He slapped Frank on the shoulder. “Happens to all of us. You doing ok? Heard you were in the hospital.” he said.
“Hospital? Not me,” Frank said. He patted his chest with a closed fist. “Strong as a horse.”
“Excuse me, J.J.” Dottie reached around him and slid a chipped, white china plate with a burger and crinkle-cut fries in front of Frank.
“Well you look healthy,” J.J. said. “I’ll let you eat. It’s good to see you.”
Frank never did place him.
He ate quickly, not intentionally, but his enthusiasm for the night ahead had him wired. The beer did little to temper the feeling. In fact, he couldn’t wait to have a few more. He looked at his watch, but instead of seeing the silver chronograph, there was just the wrist band. He started to pull the watch around to the top of his wrist, but his fingers kept slipping on the band. He wiped his fingers on his shirt, then noticed the clock over the bar. Just a little past six. He had almost an hour before he picked up Grace at Charles Town Motors.
Dottie came by with the check. “Here you go, handsome. I’ll take that when you’re ready.”
Frank reached for his wallet in his back pocket. It wasn’t there. He tried his front pants and found a crumpled bill, the only one he had, and put it on the table.
“Keep the change, sweetheart,” he said to Dottie.
“Thanks,” she said as she walked away. “Eighty-seven cent tip,” she added. Frank didn’t hear her.
“Don’t forget to say hey to Ellie for me,” he yelled to her.
She waved the air with her left hand but otherwise ignored the comment.
There was still plenty of daylight left when he stepped out onto Washington Street. He looked along the row of meters for his car, a white Impala, but didn’t see it. He considered it for a moment then reckoned he must have parked up at Spyro’s lot. Spyro always looked out for the cars on his lot. And it was only a dollar.
There was no sense in driving over to the dealer’s just to wait on Grace, so he walked down the street toward The Strand. He had time for a quick game of eight-ball.
He had promised to take Grace over to a new club over in Clarksville. A live band and cheap beer. Lots more action in Clarksville than in Charles Town. Grace was going to change clothes before she left work. He was hoping she’d wear that short black dress, even if it meant he’d have to chase off the guys that would inevitably come sniffing around.
He was walking without conscious effort, his mind so preoccupied that he didn’t notice the broken sidewalk and when his toe caught the edge of the concrete, his right foot stopped but his body kept moving forward. He had absolutely no chance of regaining his balance and his reaction was so slow that he had just extended his arms when he hit the pavement. His forearms gave way with little resistance, no doubt sparing him a broken bone, but his head continued its momentum until he hit the sidewalk with a sickening thud. He lost consciousness immediately.
A young guy in a dirty t-shirt and baggy shorts was the first to reach Frank and helped him into a sitting position.
“Damn, bro, you’re cut pretty good.” He peeled off his shirt and pressed it against the open wound on Frank’s forehead. “Call 911,” he said to a girl covered in tattoos and wearing a skirt too short for any good.
“What happened?” Frank said.
“You took a tumble, bro. Can you scoot back a little? Lean against the wall?”
Frank managed to shuffle on his butt until his shoulders touched the brick wall of the old hardware store.
“What’s this, man?” the shirtless kid said as he pulled on the band around Frank’s wrist.
“That ain’t no watch. That’s a hospital band.” He rotated it on Frank’s wrist and read: “Frank K. Addington, 121-East, Pleasant Hills.”
“I was in a hospital?”
“No, man, that’s a nursing home.”
The ambulance pulled into the drop-off at Pleasant Hills Assisted Living and they rolled Frank out on a stretcher. Two orderlies helped him off the stretcher and into a wheelchair. His daughter knelt beside him.
“Are you ok, Daddy?”
Frank looked at her, not knowing who she was.
“It’s me. Lana.”
“Lana.” He still didn’t know.
They wheeled him into his room and helped him into bed. Lana pulled up a chair and sat beside him.
“Do you know where you are, Daddy?”
“That’s right.” Close enough.
“Can I go home?”
“Not until you’re better.” It had become the standard answer.
The hardest question. Lana had answered it once before, hoping that acknowledgment would be good for him. She briefly thought of lying this time, but instead took a deep breath and again opted for the truth. “She’s gone, Daddy. She died three years ago.”
Frank’s mouth fell open and his eyes widened, then glazed over as tears welled. He tried to speak but nothing came out. Then a long, mournful groan, followed by a high-pitched cry and loud sobs of grief. Lana held his hand and stroked his thin hair, trying to offer comfort as she too, began to cry. She vowed never to tell him again. A man shouldn’t have to grieve for his wife over and over.
After a few minutes, Frank’s sobbing subsided, and he lay in his bed staring at nothing, his eyes drooping. Then he was asleep. Lana continued to hold his hand and caress his forehead.
When he awoke, Missy was bringing his night-time snack of green jello. He looked at her, then the jello setting on his bed tray. “Can you get me a cola?” he asked.
“Sure, Frank.” She moved to his side and reached for his pillow. “Sit up a little for me and I’ll fluff your pillow.”
Frank leaned forward and reached for his jello.
“I heard you took a tumble,” Missy said. “How are you feeling?”
“Wrecked my motorcycle,” Frank said, then took a spoonful of his snack. “How come we never have red?”
“What were you doing riding a motorcycle?”
“Just going out. You know.” He finished his jello in two more bites.
“How do you like this room?” Missy asked.
Frank looked around, studying everything he could see. “Just another hospital room.”
“We had to move you. From now on if you want to go out and ride your motorcycle, you need to ask us first. It’s for your own good.”
“Yeah,” he said. He half tossed his empty jello cup back on the tray.
“I’ll go get you that cola.”
“Hey,” he said as Missy reached the door. His voice was strong, clear and loud. So loud that it startled Missy. She turned back to him, half expecting him to throw something at her.
“What is it, Frank?”
“Me and you. Let’s go for a ride later. Maybe stop off for a drink. I know this new club in Clarksville. Everybody goes there.”
Missy laughed. “Sure, Frank. As soon as you’re well enough to ride again.” She disappeared down the hall.
“I’m going to hold you to that,” Frank yelled at her. “Yeah,” he said, smiling and feeling good about his prospects. “I’m going to hold you to that.”