Blink and you’ll miss it, she said.
It’s more like…Spit and you’ll miss it, he thought.
The dust was still thick in the air when she stopped the Jeep in front of what looked like an abandoned train car. He spat out dirt and wiped off the dust in his eyes and hair as he looked around. Abandoned? Yup. Like most of the area around it. He could see that the bush would take over this area one day and he thought that would be a fair deal. There were no other cars in the small lot, but he could see that there had been several abandoned across the road in what looked like a farmer’s field. No livestock or crops there now, but someone’s forgotten garage. And this place…
“What you think?”
Why had he agreed to this? David had known Lisa since grade school and there was no indication that she wanted anything more from him than their continued friendship. It was just dumb luck that they had met on campus his first year and she could not stop ranting about serendipity (“Strange and small world, ain’t it?”), their old friends (her old friends), and how this was a sign. A sign of what? For him, it was desperation; for her… He still could not say.
“This is it?”
She turned on him, becoming clearer in the dust. “I told you it was a small place. Can you believe that they still have these things? All sleek and art nouveau…or art deco, I think.”
“Like what people thought the future would be like in the 1950s.”
Again, she dazzled him with that smile. “Exactly! Yes! That’s what I meant to say; a vision of the future…” She raised her hands to the sky and looked around. “At least they didn’t knock it down.”
She ran up the steps and opened the door, waiting for him to copy her motion.
He had to follow.
It was exactly as he thought it would be. He wanted to leave right away.
The counter ran parallel to a set of private tables. At the far end from the door, he could see the bathroom’s faded sign (the boy and girl on it were running in different directions). All the seating at the front were metal rotating stools affixed to the wooden floor, all topped with plastic that was on the edge of fading out of colour or already torn from years of seating. Behind the counter, he could hear some noises of people walking back and forth in what must have been a very cramped space (the voices muted sounded like echoes), an open space for the food to pass to whomever was at the counter, and a counter that had just enough space for four customers who did not want to enjoy the private booths. And there was not a single customer there, only the promise of staff who would probably be surprised by the noise of the door and the rung bell.
“Really, why are we here?”
“Just take a seat.”
He looked at the counter and the cooking area.
“Should I take chance up here or…?”
Lisa felt comfortable enough to pull him to a stool and seat him next to an empty cake display. “Relax your bones, and let’s see whose here.” She tapped on the counter.
If David had not seen it, he would have said it was like a bad scene from an old made-for-TV movie. The man who stepped out of the kitchen had everything he expected from a chef working in such a place: greasy wife beater of a shirt; cigarette pack in his pocket (just to make it clear that the one in his mouth was not alone); a white towel covering what he guessed was very little hair; a heavy step and a surly face as he looked over the two interlopers who interfered with whatever was happening back there.
“Kind sir, hello. Are we here at a bad time?”
The cook did not expect this, but Lisa was unstoppable.
“Have we come at a bad time?”
“Look around.” He gestured at the walls covered with what were once fashionable photos of singers and performers from the fifties or sixties (David recognized some of them from those old TV shows his mom and dad still watched). “Never really a good time now.”
“I’m sorry, sir. She just wants to know if you are open and if we can order something.”
He seemed to have just noticed the presence beside the chatty one.
“Always open. Long as the door isn’t locked.”
“Great! We would like your best!”
Was that a smile on his face? The teeth were raw with yellow and the cigarette was out, but he was clearly amused.
“Our best? Let me call our expert on fine dining. Maggie!”
Not so much a cliché as the man, but still…
Maggie moved much more swiftly than the chef. She was also considerably younger, thought David (father and daughter? lover and…?) She did not have on a uniform, but she did have a pen, pad, apron that was well-used but still clean, and a smile that seemed unpracticed.
“Oh, hello! We never expect too many customers…”
“Maggie, you now have some. What do you do?”
“Aye, aye, chief. I will take care of them.”
He was smiling as he walked back to the kitchen.
“Now, what would you like?”
David looked at Lisa and could not help but wonder if this was a set up. She was grinning at Maggie like an old friend, and Maggie seemed to have a glint in her eye as she asked the question. And then the both spoke in unison as they looked at him:
He was surprised enough to almost fall off the stool.
“Too much for him.” Lisa grabbed his arm. “Sorry to do that to you. But the chili here is fantastic! I always get it and Maggifier here is the lady who always ladles it out.”
He did find it a little annoying, her play with words, but he did not want to spoil the mood. He could hear the chef moving around in the back as he thought about the meal.
“Okay, let’s have it.”
“Excellent! Your gentleman friend has made a good choice. One of several, I suspect.”
Maggie laughed, wrote down the order and walked back to the kitchen (couldn’t she just leave it dangling by the window to the kitchen?).
“No, just an acquaintance. As I said, I really did not think it would still be open. But here we are. A vision of the fifties…”
“But the food must be good.”
“Better than good. When you try this food, you are going to thank me for a very long time.”
“Good.” He looked around the counter. For such an old place, they did keep it remarkable clean and presentable. David noticed that they were the only people in there, yet it felt like there could be a rush of students, truck drivers, office workers any time soon. It was ready for something.
Maggie returned. There was some music playing behind her as she stepped forward with a tray carrying two large bowls, some crackers, spoons and forks.
“Appetit…” Lisa corrected her without a smile.
“Ah, my bad. Appetit. Damn French…”
“Could we get some water?” David looked carefully at the broth of beans and meat in front of him, the spices burning his nostrils and teasing his eyes.
“You may want more than that…milk?”
“Absolutely, Maggie. Milk for the rookie!” Lisa had already picked up some of the crackers and was crushing them into her food.
Maggie walked to a spot behind the counter and opened a small fridge with a milk carton.
“Don’t let her get to you, kid. She says that all the time. Enjoy.”
She put a glass down in front of him and went back to the hum of the kitchen.
“All the time…”
“What’s that?” She was chewing through her second spoonful when he spoke.
“She said that you say that ‘all the time,’ like you have been here before.”
“With someone else.”
Her hand froze for just a moment when she heard him.
“Yeah, well…sometimes, I invite friends to come out here and enjoy the meal.”
“Right, well, I just wondered.” David stirred his food. Vapour and heat began to escape from the bowl.
“Look, I don’t want to make you think that this makes you any less important than anyone else. Sure, I have invited other people out here. Some friends…some more than friends.”
David did not add any crackers to the bowl as he ate.
“But I saw you on campus and thought, ‘Well, there’s a face I have not seen in an age. Maybe we should do this.’ Bad idea?”
“No, nothing bad in it. And this is actually quite good.”
“Right! So, win-win.”
They ate the meal in silence and he looked around the room one more time as he finished his milk. David would like to come back here one day, maybe with someone, like the girl he met in his first lecture who borrowed his pen and never returned it (she always sat next to him; a sign?).
“Thanks for that.”
“No worries. And now you have discovered another interesting spot in this dull town!” Lisa placed some money on the till without waiting for the bill.
“You sure that’s…?”
“Same amount all the time.”
They were outside, looking up at the beautiful blue and white pattern of sky around them.
“You know that this is a one-time thing, right?”
Lisa took her time with her words.
“What? I’m not sure…”
“All this time, after everything and you hit me out of the blue like it is nothing and just… You have to understand how someone feels about that. How hard it is to go back to the way things were.”
“But, David. You never said a thing.”
“No, I didn’t. You did all the talking for both of us.”
They did not speak much in the Jeep, but David kept wondering if he should have apologized. He looked at Lisa as she drove and could not make himself say a word.
There was not a single thing he thought he could say to fix this.