“It’s not that bad,” the man drawled with his thick, southern accent.
“Not that bad?” The twenty-something male sitting by him pointed at the windows facing the street. It was dark gray outside with slanted rain pelting the glass so hard it rattled inside the little diner.
“You young’uns don’t know nothing about no hurricanes,” the man muttered into his coffee. “Darlene! Tell ‘em you all would’ve shut down by now if it was going to be worse than this.”
The waitress smirked as she poured the young man’s coffee. She set the pot down on the counter. “Don’t listen to Earl. He’s just upset he can’t work during this storm.”
The young man sipped his hot drink. “So, what do you do for a living, Earl?”
Earl chuckled under his breath. “Construction. What about you, son?”
“Computer programming. And my name’s Richard, by the way, since I suppose we’re stuck here for a bit until the storm lets up.” Richard nodded his head at the tiny box T.V. in the corner of the room where some workers had gathered. The cook turned up the volume so the patrons could hear what was being said.
“…if you stayed to weather out the storm, please remain inside your homes. We’re getting news of power outages, downed trees in the road, and flooding. It looks like we’re going to be in for a long night….”
“Eh, my truck can handle it.” Earl stood from his seat as Darlene rushed around the counter. She caught him just as he shrugged his jacket over his shoulders.
“You sit down right here! I’m not having you go out and get yourself killed, ya hear?” Earl shook his head as Darlene shot Richard a pleading look. “Tell ‘em, Dick.”
Richard threw up his hands. “Woah, I’m just down here to work a contract before heading back home. I’m not trying to get in the middle of whatever you two have going.”
Earl laughed. “Did you really just call the boy, Dick, Darlene?”
He ambled out of his coat and placed it back on the stool beside him as Darlene shook her head. She went back around the counter and put two menus in front of the men. “Neither of you are leaving here.”
Richard leaned over to whisper to Earl. “Did we just get an ultimatum?”
“Appears that way.” Earl flipped over the menu to peruse the lunch specials.
The other diners took up residence in the booths around the windows, chatting or watching the storm pass over. Richard was new to the area, while those there seemed to know everything about everyone. He'd been working on a large contract for the past few weeks off the panhandle of Florida. Unfortunately, he was nowhere near finished with the project. In fact, he was sweating bullets simply thinking about the work he wasn’t getting done with right now.
“So, computers,” Earl piped up. “You must be real smart.”
Richard sighed. “I guess. I don’t really feel like it at this point.”
“What makes you say that?” Earl shifted on his stool to face him, holding his coffee mug in one hand. Darlene glanced over at them before heading around to attend to another booth.
Richard hesitated, not sure why he’d said that. He didn’t know this person, but maybe that’s why it was easier to talk to him—so he didn’t have to suffer through any unwanted judgment.
“This project I’m working on…it’s taking longer than I would’ve liked.”
“That doesn’t mean you’re not smart—just means it’s a project that takes longer to do.” Earl took a long swig of his coffee before flagging Darlene down. She skipped over with a pad of paper in her hand. “I’ll take your steak tips with a side of mash.”
“You got it. And for you, hun?”
“Uh…” Richard looked down at the menu he had barely touched. “I—”
“He’ll have the same.” Earl took his menu and gave them both to Darlene. With a smile, she flitted away.
“How do you know I don’t have any allergies?”
“Pfft! Who’s allergic to steak and potatoes?”
Richard shrugged. “Fair point. So, how long have you been doing construction?”
“Since I was about your age. Hard work, but good money.” Earl smiled wide. “I’ve been coming to this diner for many years since the construction sites were always nearby—building new condos and such.”
“Are you and Darlene a thing?” Richard was curious to know.
“Nah.” Earl crossed his arms over his shoulders. “She’d never have nothing to do with me.”
“I don’t know, Earl. She seems kind of sweet on you to me,” Richard teased.
Earl blushed under his graying beard as he took a peek at Darlene. “What about you? You have a lady friend where you’re from?”
“I do, but….”
Earl leaned in towards the counter, resting his elbows. “But?”
“She’s been waiting on me for a while,” Richard managed to say.
“Oh.” Earl leaned back. “Women don’t wait on men forever. I may be old, but some things never change with a woman. How come you’re making her wait on you? Sounds like you’re doing a lil’ waiting yourself.”
Richard sat his mug down. “As soon as I get this last project done, we’ll be in a good spot—financially, to get married.”
“Are the courthouses really that expensive now?”
“Oh, you hush, Earl. You know girls want to have a wedding,” Darlene interrupted as she made her rounds back to them, filling up their cups. “Not everyone wants to just sign a piece of paper in front of a justice of the peace.”
Earl chuckled into his drink as Darlene scampered away. Richard leaned back in his chair to stretch, enjoying the lively banter between the two. He didn’t see much of it back home, where people were always in a hurry to get away from each other. He glanced around the small diner as a few of the patrons scooted up chairs to one another and leaned over the backs of booths, chatting as though they had known each other for ages. One table had gotten their hands on some playing cards for a round of poker as the wind and rain raged outside.
The lights flickered overhead until they gave out. A loud bang sounded from the back of the kitchen behind the diner as the head chef came out through the back door. The lights came back on as everyone heard the slow rumble of a machine.
“Don’t worry, folks! We’ve got it all covered here as long as the generator holds out,” the greasy man smiled, wiping his hands on his apron.
“This is probably the best place to be through a storm like this,” Earl mused as Darlene sat their steak tips and mash in front of them on the counter.
“I take it you come here often.” Richard lifted a piece of steak to his mouth, savoring the tenderness of it.
“Every day before I go to work. Kind of a tradition for me.”
Earl took a few bites before wiping his mouth with his napkin. “My son used to come here with me. He was about your age last time I saw him.”
Earl’s eyes twinkled as he continued to eat. Richard didn’t want to pry. “You’re right, you know. About keeping a woman waiting. Marcy and I have been together for about five years now.”
“Sounds to me like you’re practically married anyway. Why not go ahead and pull that trigger?”
“I wanted us to be in a good spot…financially.”
Earl scoffed. “Let me tell you something. Women don’t care about the money. They only care to see that you care about them. When you two got together, were you better off back then or now?”
Richard thought back to the first time he laid eyes on Marcy. He was out surfing with some friends when he was dragged under by the undertow. She was the first lifeguard on the scene, and after he came to, he asked her if she wanted to get coffee the next morning. Since then, she had traveled around with him while he built his career from being an irresponsible college student to someone she could be proud of.
“I just want to give her what she deserves,” Richard concluded.
“She’s already chosen you.” Earl shrugged. “She’s been waiting five years for you to choose her too.”
Earl clapped Richard on the shoulder as he finished his meal and stood up from his stool. A few rays of sun peeked through the gray clouds. “You think about what I said, and it was nice to meet you, Richard. Like this storm, we can’t all stick around here forever.”
“It looks like it’s lightened up a tad,” Darlene said as she took their plates to a nearby sink. “You think you can make it home without hitting a pocket of water?”
“I think I can make it around the corner, Darlene,” Earl smiled. Darlene came around the counter and placed her hands on Earl’s shoulders before giving him a quick kiss.
Earl pointed a finger at Richard as he opened his mouth to speak. “Not a word.”
With that, Earl disappeared through the door and hopped into his old work truck. Richard turned back to the counter to face Darlene. “Was that…? You and Earl?”
“We’ve been married since high school,” Darlene confirmed. “About as long as I’ve been working here. I knew he was the only man for me the moment I met him.”
Richard shook his head. “Is it really like that?”
“Sometimes. Some people know sooner than others.” Darlene paused. “Thank you for sitting with Earl. He’d never tell you, but chatting with you was probably the best gift you could’ve given him.”
Richard raised an eyebrow. “What makes you say that?”
“I saw him mention our son—his name was John. That’s the first time I’ve heard him speak of him since…since he was deployed,” Darlene said.
“Oh. Thank you for his service,” Richard stated, unsure of what more to say.
Darlene sighed. “Earl took him to breakfast here that morning, and that was the last time we saw him.”
Darlene’s smile was sad, but she didn’t need to say anymore. Richard reached across the counter and touched her hand. She wiped a stray tear from her cheek and took a deep breath. “You call that lady friend of yours. Trust me—don’t wait. There’s never a right time. Sometimes you have to jump in feet first and worry about what happens when it does.”
“Thank you, Darlene.” Richard stood up and paid his bill, leaving her a generous tip. Nodding, he stepped out of the diner as the little bell jingled overhead.
The storm wasn’t over, but for the time being, it was enough sunlight to let him get to where he needed to go. Richard pulled out his cellphone and dialed Marcy’s number. She answered on the second ring.
“I’m coming home.”