Ruth M. Kirkby
Copyright 2012 Ruth M. Kirkby
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“Marnie, hang up the phone!” Joe yelled at me from the kitchen.
I turned towards the front door of the diner and cupped my hand over the receiver of the phone. “Sorry, say that again?”
I could see Joe in the reflection of the door. He was peering over the counter at me, his eyebrows knotted together in a frown. “Fuck’s sake, Marnie! I don’t pay you to gossip!”
“Yeah, I understand. Okay, I’ll come home as soon as I can,” I paused for a moment, taking a breath and staring at the black and white checkerboard linoleum floor. “Bye.”
I ended the call and put the diner’s phone back on the counter. Joe, the night cook and owner of the diner at which I worked, was in the kitchen, throwing pots and pans around angrily. He had been grouchy for as long as I had known him, but it seemed to me that night he was in a particularly bad mood.
The night had been slow, with only a few customers still straggling after the dinner rush. I picked up the coffee pot from the machine and made my way over to the corner booth.
“Can I give you a refill?” I smiled down at the elderly man who sat alone, utterly absorbed in a book. He came to the diner on Tuesday and Thursday nights to have dinner and read while his wife was at her knitting circle. More often than not, the man would become so engaged in his novel that he would forget the time and spend most of the evening in the corner booth.
I politely cleared my throat, causing him to finally look up at me, using his finger to mark the page.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. What did you say?” He had one milky-white eye and one dark brown eye, which looked enormous due to his thick reading glasses.
“May I refill your coffee?” I asked again, gesturing with the pot.
The old man suddenly looked confused, and squinted out through the dark window behind me. “What time is it?”
I checked my wristwatch. “Ten forty-three.”
The man’s confusion turned to alarm. He quickly marked the page of his book with a napkin and got to his feet. I stepped backwards to give him room to pull a crumpled twenty-dollar note from his pocket and scurry to the door. “Thank you,” he said, as he exited onto the street outside.
With his exit, the only customers left in the diner were two young love-birds who sat across from each other, whispering things with small smiles on their faces, their hands linked across the table. They wore the kind of smiles that one gets upon hearing a juicy secret.
I tucked the twenty between my palm and the handle of the coffee pot and used my other hand to clear away the dirty dishes left by the old man. I walked behind the counter to the serving window.
“Is it alright if I leave a bit early tonight, Joe?” I busied myself with putting the twenty dollar note into the register and the change into the tip jar.
“You’re joking, right?” Joe asked, grumpily. I was never allowed to leave early, even if I was sick.
I tried to reason with him, “But Joe, my-”
“What the fuck do you take me for?!” Joe slammed a saucepan of custard down onto the stove. In the late hours of the evening, Joe would make the fillings for his famous breakfast pastries to save time in the morning. “I only gave you this job as a favour to your mother, and now you’re asking me-”
I tuned out. Joe tended to over-react when anyone asked something of him, but it was slightly ridiculous how he acted that evening. Either way, it wouldn’t make much of a difference if I got out of the diner at midnight or 4 in the morning. It wasn’t going to change anything. Instead of listening to Joe bitch, I refreshed the coffee pot and wondered if Joe’s wife had kicked him out again. She tended to do it at least once a week, and it explained why he was wearing the same shirt he did the day before.
I turned to face the register and found another regular. Oliver attended the university across the street from the diner, and had a habit of studying on campus late into the evenings.
I put on my work smile and wiped my hands on my apron. “Hi. What can I get you?”
“You can let me take you out for a drink after your shift.” Oliver took a seat at the counter.
“As usual, I’m going to say thank you, but no,” I replied, taking out a fresh cup and pouring coffee into it. “I can, however, offer you a slice of pie.”
Oliver grinned and rested his elbow on the counter. “Only if you tell me one of your fantastic stories while I eat.”
“Can do,” I said, placing the cup in front of him. “Tonight, we have strawberry and rhubarb pie and a story about the time my friend from high school set fire to our headmaster’s car, or Grasshopper pie and a story about when my Uncle Anthony punched a cop.”
Oliver laughed. “What do you recommend?”
I looked over my shoulder at the cabinet. It was set into the counter beside the serving window and was kept at a regulated temperature at all times. Inside were half a Grasshopper pie, one quarter of the strawberry and rhubarb pie, and single slice of another pie that I didn’t recognize. “We also have a mystery pie.”
“So if I choose the mystery pie, do I get a mystery story?” he grinned.
I betrayed myself with a genuine smile and shrugged. “Sure.”
I opened the cabinet and brought out the large plate. I transferred the single slice of pie to a smaller plate and put in beside Oliver’s coffee, with a knife and fork wrapped in a napkin. “Enjoy,” I said.
Oliver took the fork and cut into the pie. He lifted a piece into his mouth and smiled at me. “Apple and cinnamon. It’s very good.”
“Don’t thank her! I made it,” Joe called from the kitchen. He seemed to have calmed down and was passionately kneading a ball of pastry.
“Thanks Joe,” Oliver said through a mouthful of pie. “I think it is story time, now.”
I nodded and began absent-mindedly wiping the counter top. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
“Are you okay, Marnie? You seem out of it,” He inquired.
I checked my wristwatch: another hour and a half to go until I could go home. “Yeah, I’m alright.”
Oliver didn’t seem convinced, but was distracted by the bell above the door chiming. The young couple who had been sitting in the diner had quietly left, leaving their money tucked under an empty coffee cup.
“Tell you what,” I picked up my serving tray and walked around the counter. “I’ll tell you about Christmas dinner when I was twelve.”
Oliver continued to eat his pie, but swivelled around on his chair as I walked to the table.
“My mother’s sister was known in our family for having an extremely toxic relationship with her husband. They fought all the time,” I started to pack the dirty plates onto my tray, stacking them like I had been taught by Joe. “bickered like children over such small things. Everyone in my family is used to the way they act towards each other, so no one really worried about them. Their fights were generally always in good spirits, and I think we all knew deep down that they genuinely loved each other.”
I hesitated before continuing, staring down at the tray of dishes.
“Marnie?” Oliver was watching me intently, holding the pie plate in his left hand while he spooned bits of pie into his mouth with his right. I never understood why he enjoyed my family stories so much. He didn’t speak about his family much, but I got the idea that they weren’t very close.
Oliver swivelled back to face the counter when I had brought the tray behind it. I began to scrape the remains of a burger into the trash, looking over my shoulder as I spoke.
“So we all show up on Christmas day. Aunt Sarah had hired a massive table and decorated the dining room. It looked absolutely amazing.” I turned to the register to enter the money, “We all sit down and start talking, waiting for Aunt Sarah to bring out the turkey.”
I closed the cash register with my hip and grabbed the coffee pot. “Can I refill you?”
Oliver had finished his slice of pie. “Yes please.” he gently nudged the cup towards me and nodded for me to continue my story.
“So we’re all sitting at the dinner table, and through the sliding door of the kitchen we can hear Aunt Sarah and Uncle Anthony having a massive fight. They’re screaming and mocking each other and being generally awful. Eventually, they stop and Sarah brings the turkey into the dining room.” I filled Oliver’s cup with coffee. “Anthony sits down at the head of the table, Sarah puts the turkey in front of him, and he starts to carve it. Everyone is dead quiet.”
Oliver leaned forward, waiting to hear what happened next.
“Uncle Anthony picks up a bit of turkey and eats it. He silently chews it, deep in thought. Everyone is watching him, waiting to see what he would do,” I said, “Suddenly he starts yelling about how dry the turkey is and how Aunt Sarah messed everything up. He turns around on his seat to yell at Sarah herself and finds her standing behind him, holding a big blue serving plate of broccoli.”
I put the coffee pot down and mimed holding a plate.
“She brings the plate down over his head.” I gestured with my hands. “It breaks and sprays the floor with broccoli and shards of plate.”
“No way!” Oliver replied, enthusiastically.
I nodded. “Yep. We’re all sitting there, still silent, broccoli everywhere, when Anthony says ‘Well, at least now no one has to eat your awful broccoli.’”
Oliver started laughing, holding his hand to his forehead. I smiled in return, happy that someone found my family life amusing, and cleared away his pie plate.
“That Aunt of yours is one crazy woman,” Joe remarked from the kitchen, gruffly. “I’d never let a woman do that to me.”
Oliver was still laughing, so I leaned into the serving window to watch Joe work.
“Well, Aunt Sarah and Uncle Anthony treated each other like that all the time. That was what we considered normal for them,” I commented, absently.
“They always did that?” Oliver had recovered from his burst of laughter.
“Yes.” I watched as Joe kneaded the dough for the pastries with skill. “My aunt had a bad habit of putting her bare feet up on the expensive oak table in their living room. It would drive my uncle nuts. He said ‘I spent too much money on that table for her to put her dirty feet all over it’. His way of training her out of the habit was by throwing something at her feet.”
I turned back to face Oliver, who had gone back to listening intently.
“It was usually whatever was on the couch with him: the remote or a pillow or his wallet. One time he threw the fork he was holding. It cut open the webbing between her big toe and second toe.”
Oliver looked at me, incredulously. “And she kept putting her feet up anyway?”
I nodded. “She didn’t seem to learn her lesson. But one day, Uncle Anthony is sitting on the sofa smoking a cigarette, and Aunt Sarah puts her feet up. He flicks the lit cigarette at her feet.”
“Did it burn her?” Oliver asked.
“It would have, if it had hit her. Instead, it missed and landed in the glass of whiskey next to her feet.” I started to grin, remembering how Sarah told me this story the day after it happened. “The whiskey ignites and, in her surprise, Aunt Sarah accidentally knocks it over as she is taking her feet off the table. The whiskey spills across the table, setting the whole surface of the wooden table on fire in the process.”
Oliver started to laugh again, even harder than before. “What... happened...?” He said, in between breaths.
“The table was ruined. My uncle had to throw it out. I don’t think he ever forgave her for it,” I said, leaning on the counter. I waited while Oliver regained composure, and looked out the dark window behind him.
“Your aunt is so cool.” Oliver grinned again, taking a gulp of his coffee. “You seem to really love her.”
I nodded in agreement. “She was my favourite person in the whole world... I’m going to miss her.”
Oliver put the cup down and the grin faded from his face.
“She is... was struggling with cancer. Lung cancer.” I watched one of the streetlights outside flicker.
“How long ago did she pass?” Oliver asked.
I checked my wristwatch once more. It read five past twelve; my shift was over. “About seven hours ago, actually.”
Oliver looked puzzled. “Your aunt died earlier today?”
I untied my apron and pulled it over my head. “Yes. My mother called me a few hours ago and told me.”
“Why didn’t you go home?” He asked.
I looked over my shoulder at the serving window. Joe was placing the uncooked pastry in the fridge and wasn’t close enough to hear.
“He wouldn’t let you go home? What a dick!” Oliver said, angrily.
I shook my head. “I didn’t tell him what had happened.” I leaned on the counter again, looking down at my chewed and jagged fingernails.
I shrugged. “I guess I wasn’t ready to deal with it yet.”
Oliver’s hand slid over the top of mine. I looked up to meet his eyes.
“Go home, Marnie.”
About the author:
Ruth M. Kirkby is a Perth-based Young Adult writer. She is currently studying at Edith Cowan University and wants to travel across America, taking photographs of every roadhouse she sees.