“I ain’t ever seen anything like this in all my life.”
Billy stands at the window with his hands on his hips. His Churchill face conveys a look of utter disbelief and indignation. A stained, white apron strains over his large belly. A hair net protects the public from his blackened, slicked pompadour.
“This is South Carolina. This just don’t happen here.” Shaking his head and pursing his lips he looks to the heavens for answers.
“Daddy, what are we gonna do with all these people?”
Billy doesn’t answer. Just looks at his son and then back out the window. Normally he sees cars parked in the front lot of his diner, then the interstate, and then the red maples that grow along the other side. Instead, today it resembles an arctic desert. Parked cars are so completely covered in snow that they look more like small hills. The red maple branches are so heavy with snow they are hovering just above the ground and there’s no evidence a road even exists. And the snow keeps falling.
“Richard, we have to pull over. We can’t see anything! Are we even on a road?”
“Yes, we are on a road! Now be quiet and calm down. I’m trying to drive here.”
“And what? Be stranded on the side of the road with half a tank of gas and no food? Don’t think so, Barb. There’s gotta be a place around here where we can stop.”
Barbara bites her tongue and looks out the window at the blinding whiteness. Just then, the car swerves just a bit and she screams.
“We are going to die!” Feet up on the dashboard, Barbara grabs the oh-shit handle of their gold Plymouth Duster.
Richard quickly gets control of the car. “Relax! We are not going to die.” Richard rolls his eyes. He has both hands firmly on the wheel and he’s hunched forward as if the few inches will help improve the visibility.
“Holy shit,” he mutters to himself shaking his head. “Aah, we’re gonna die!” he imitates and laughs. Barbara is not amused. She gives him the evil eye instead.
“Look! Over there,” Barbara shouts and points. “Thank. You. God! Pull over, Richard! Pull over!”
“I am, Barbara. I am.”
“I think it’s a diner.”
“Thank God. At least we can eat.”
“Here comes another one. The plates look yellow. Could be New York.” Pick stands beside his father at the window. His real name is Jackson, but earned his nickname because he’s a good foot taller than his father and skinny as a toothpick.
“Great. More Yankees,” Billy grumbles. “Go open the door for ‘em, Pick.”
Two dark figures make their way through the snow to the diner’s front door. They left their car in the middle of the parking lot. Billy can’t really blame them. You can’t see the spots and that Duster wouldn’t get through those drifts. Pick waits for the couple to get closer and then opens the door. Cold wind and snow burst through, sending Pick stumbling back. The couple walks in, stamping snow off their shoes. The man helps Pick close the door.
“Damn, are we happy to see you. Thank you.” The man shakes Pick’s hand.
“You’re welcome. Where are you folks coming from?”
“Florida. We’re driving back home to New York.”
Billy ambles over. “Not a great day for driving, now is it?” The man and woman laugh.
“No, it isn’t,” says the woman. “We really didn’t think it was going to be this bad.”
“None of us did. My name’s Billy. This here is my diner.” Billy spreads his arms. “And this is my son, Jackson.” He puts a hand on Pick’s shoulder. “But we call him Pick.”
“I’m Rich and this is my wife, Barbara. Thank you for letting us in.” Rich and Billy shake hands.
“No problem at all. Now you can find yourselves a seat wherever you’d like and just let us know if you’re hungry. There’s a couple over there from New Jersey. Maybe you’d like to sit with them.”
“Could we get some coffee?”
“Absolutely. Pick, go get these folks some coffee.”
“Look, Barb, there’s a booth right there. Take that one.”
Barbara and Richard sit down and both breathe sighs of relief. The air inside the diner is warm and the windows are fogged up. Snowflakes glisten in Barbara’s straight brown hair and her cheeks are rosy from the cold. Richard’s fair cheeks and Roman nose also show a blush and he rubs his hands together to warm up.
They look around at their surroundings. The diner itself looks clean and well maintained if not a little outdated. Large booths line the windows all along the front and sides of the room. A few four-top tables are scattered about the floor and there is a long counter with stools facing the kitchen beyond it. A jukebox stands against an outside kitchen wall beside the bathroom door.
It appears that most of the occupants of the diner are weary travelers just like them. On the other side of the diner, a family of four occupies a corner booth. The kids, both boys, look to be about five and seven years old. They wear matching striped sweaters and corduroy bell- bottoms. Barbara thinks it’s cute; Richard thinks it’s weird. In a nearby booth, a group of four heavy-set men with full beards, trucker caps, denim overalls and very serious expressions sit in silence. On Barbara and Richard’s side there are two other couples sitting in two separate booths. Both women are checking Barbara and Richard out, trying not to make it obvious, and failing miserably.
“Here you go, now,” says Pick, returning with two coffees.
“Thank you, Pick. It is Pick, right?”
“Yes, sir. Pick on account I’m as skinny as a toothpick.” Barbara and Richard laugh. Pick smiles and continues. “Just let us know if you want anything else. The menus are right there.” He points towards the metal stand holding two plastic covered menus by the window and walks away.
Barbara and Richard add milk to their coffee and send a prayer that it’s good. They both take a tentative sip.
“Oh crap, it’s awful,” Barbara whispers.
“What is it that no one down here can make a decent cup of coffee?”
“Keep your voice down.”
“What?” Richard puts his hands up and shrugs. A look of innocence. Barbara just rolls her eyes and shakes her head. They continue to sip their crappy coffee and observe.
“Where do you suppose they’re from?”
Phil looks over his shoulder at the couple that just came in. “Not sure, darlin’, but my guess would be the Northeast. Maybe Boston or New York.”
“Handsome couple, aren’t they? Hm, he looks I-talian. Do you think he’s I-talian?”
“Don’t know, Marsha. Maybe.”
“Young, too. How old you suppose they are?”
“Don’t know, Marsha.”
Phil leans to the side, his elbow resting on the table and his head in his hand. He’s a clean-cut cowboy, tall and lean, who was born and raised in Texas but residing in North Carolina. Marsha looks like Farrah Fawcett if you squint your eyes. She’s a self-professed genuine southern belle. Phil professes she’s a genuine southern pain in the ass. I have to get away from her, he thinks. She’s going to drive me crazier than an outhouse rat. He squeezes his eyes shut. Maybe if I sit here real quiet-like with my eyes closed, she’ll go away.
“What’s wrong with you?”
No such luck. Phil sits up straight. He places his black Stetson on his head. “Nothing, Marsha. Nothing a’tall.” He stands up out of the booth. “I’m just going to stretch my legs for a bit, okay darlin’? I’ll be back in a few.”
“Alright but you hurry back, ‘ya hear? I don’t like sitting here all by myself.”
Phil just smiles and nods and walks away. He strolls around the counter and stops in front of the front door. He plants his feet wide and stretches his arms over his head. It feels good to move. He looks out at the blizzard. When the hell are we gonna get outta here?
Richard and Barbara quietly sip their coffee. They’ve both noticed the cowboy looking at the storm raging outside.
“I like his boots.”
“I bet you do.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. They just look like something you would like.”
“I do like them and someday I’m going to buy myself a pair.”
“Good for you.”
Richard sticks his tongue out at Barbara. Barbara laughs and sticks hers back out at him. Richard reaches across and takes Barbara’s hand in his. He kisses her knuckles.
“When do you think we’ll get out of here?” Barbara wonders.
“Hopefully the snow will at least calm down so they can plow the roads. Then we can head out again.”
“Yeah, but when will that be? Could be days.”
“Nah. Don’t worry, baby. We should be out of here by tomorrow the latest.”
They both look out the window beside their booth to see a wall of white. Flakes the size of snowballs fall sideways in droves, blown by the fierce wind. The sight drains any optimism from their faces.
“John! James! Both of you. Sit. Down. Right. Now.” Janet’s voice descends to an angry whisper by the end of her sentence. Her boys stop wrestling and look up at their mother. James, the seven-year-old, has John, the five-year-old, in a headlock. They seem to be deciphering just how serious she really is and whether they can get away with horsing around for a few more minutes. Experience tells them she’s not that serious yet. John twists and elbows James in the stomach.
“Jimmy! Do something!” Janet gestures towards the boys. Her husband reclines in the booth with his head against the wall and his eyes closed. His hands are clasped and resting on his bunny-hill belly.
Without opening his eyes, he says, “I’m resting and they’re bored. Leave us all alone.”
Tears well Janet’s eyes as she stares at her husband, willing him to open his eyes, to take an interest in her and the boys, to give two shits about their marriage and their family. The constant willing is killing her.
“Those boys are going to get hurt,” Barbara says. “Why don’t their parents stop them?”
“They’re probably bored, Barb. I don’t blame them. Ya wanna wrestle?”
“I’ll thumb wrestle you.”
“Sure.” They clasp hands. “One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war.”
“Look, now they’re thumb wrestling. We should go talk to them. They said they’re from New York. We’re neighbors.”
Debbie cracks her gum and gives Ted a smile. Her red perm is particularly fluffy today and her blue eyeshadow is on so thick it will probably outlast the snow.
“They could be from Buffalo. That’s a long way from Newark, Deb.”
“Nah, I don’t think so. They look normal. Like us.”
“Fine. Let’s go be neighborly.”
Debbie and Ted stand up out of their booth, leaving their jackets behind. They walk over to the new couple. The woman leans halfway across the table, desperately trying to reach and bury the guy’s thumb with her own. The guy laughs at her persistence and lets her win, but she knows he let her and it annoys her. She sits back in the seat with her arms crossed in a huff.
“Excuse us,” Debbie says with a smile. “I couldn’t help overhearing that you’re from New York. We’re from New Jersey. We thought we would come over and introduce ourselves.”
“Oh hey, how are ya?” The men shake hands. “Yeah, we’re from Long Island. This is my wife, Barbara, and I’m Rich.”
Barbara and Debbie nod and smile at each other.
“I’m Ted, and this is my wife, Debbie.”
“Why don’t you join us? Scoot in, Rich.”
Barbara and Rich make room and Debbie and Ted sit down.
“So what part of Jersey are you from?”
If Marsha was a cartoon character, smoke would be shooting from her ears. She’s about to storm over to Phil by the front door and demand an explanation, when she remembers herself and who she is. I am Miss Harnett County 1970. I am a homecoming queen, and most importantly, I am a lady. She takes a compact from her purse, shakes out her blonde hair, checks her lipstick and smiles. Her reflection always calms her. She stands from the booth, smooths her clothes, and casually glances over at Phil. He appears to be in deep thought. How can he just ignore me? Marsha casually walks over to the jukebox and pretends to peruse the music titles while peripherally staring holes in Phil’s back.
“Jimmy! Please! Do something! They won’t listen to me.”
Janet pleads in anguished whispers. She runs her hands through her short, black hair and over her face. Her makeup has long worn off and she looks exhausted. The boys are still horsing around. They roll around on the floor. That fat, Elvis-wannabe, diner guy keeps throwing dirty looks their way from behind the counter. Finally, Jimmy opens his eyes and sits up with a look of exasperation on his face. Even with his little beer gut he’s still so handsome, thinks Janet. Too bad he’s such an asshole.
“They don’t listen to you because you are a nag. You nag about every little thing and after a while they just tune you out. Just like I do.” With that he stands up out of the booth.
“Boys! Get off the floor!” Both boys stand up immediately upon hearing their father’s voice. “Go sit at the counter. Let’s see if they have any ice cream.”
“Yes!” both boys shout with fists in the air and run after their father who walks to the opposite side where Janet can’t see them.
Janet wants to protest. She wants to say that rewarding them with ice cream for bad behavior is wrong. Instead she puts her head in her hands and silently cries.
“What will it be, boys?” Billy asks while tossing menus in front of each of them.
“What kind of ice cream do you have?” asks James.
“That’s it?” asks John. “Do you have whipped cream at least?”
“Yes, we have whipped cream,” Billy answers with an eyeroll.
“Okay, we’ll have two big dishes of vanilla with whipped cream,” says James.
“Please,” adds John with a smile.
Billy looks to Jimmy for approval, but his gaze is elsewhere. Billy sighs, nods, and walks to the kitchen.
In the background, country music starts to play. The boys follow their father’s gaze to pretty lady dancing in front of the jukebox. The sight holds little interest for them, so they decide to see how big a hill they can make with all the sugar in the little packets. They only get through about six packets when Billy starts backing out of the kitchen with a big bowl of ice cream in each hand. They quickly sweep all the sugar to the floor.
Jimmy notices his sons have been served. “Uh, boys, eat your ice cream. I’ll be right back.”
He saunters on over to the jukebox. “Now what’s a pretty lady like you doing dancing all by yourself?”
Marsha smiles. Not the man she was trying to attract but he’ll do. He has an attractive face. Beautiful blue eyes. Thick, chocolate brown hair. A strong chin. A little soft around the middle but not too bad. “I have no one to dance with,” she says with a pout.
“Well, now you do.” He holds out a hand.
Marsha smiles and takes his hand. He pulls her into a close two-step and they dance around the tables.
“My name is Jimmy. What’s yours?”
“Well, Marsha. You just made getting snowed in here a whole lot better.”
Marsha laughs so loud that whoever didn’t notice them before turns.
Janet hears a loud feminine laugh and lifts her head from her hands. She wipes the tears from her eyes and hears the laugh again. Turning, she sees Jimmy across the diner dancing closely with an attractive woman. He smiles as he whispers in her ear. They both laugh and he starts leading her a little faster around the floor. Janet just stares calmly at the dancing couple while a white-hot fire of rage simmers in her core, born of existing sadness and hopelessness and now embarrassment and jealousy.
Phil hears a familiar laugh but doesn’t care. He figured the country music that came on two minutes before was her doing but he didn’t care. He knows she is just trying to get his attention. Ten minutes without her being the center of someone’s universe was just too much for her to bear. He continues to look out at the snow when he gets bumped from behind.
“Excuse us, Phil. We’re trying to dance here. At least one man here knows how to show a lady a good time.”
Phil turns around and watches the couple two-step towards the other side of the diner. They laugh the whole way. The guy’s back is to him, but Marsha’s smug face is looking right at him. He acknowledges her with a smile and tip of his hat then turns back to the snow.
“Isn’t she with him?” Debbie whispers while gesturing towards the cowboy.
“Not sure,” Barbara whispers back. “He’s been standing at the window for as long as I’ve noticed.”
“No, I’m pretty sure he was sitting with the blonde when we got here. I also think that man she’s dancing with has a wife sitting over there.” She gestures towards Janet with her head.
Barbara steals a glance across the diner. “If looks could kill, that man would be dead.”
Jimmy and the woman make their way to Janet’s side of the diner. They dance right past her booth, ignoring the daggers shooting from her eyes. Jimmy leads them around the space a second time, passing her booth again. He leans in close to the woman and whispers something in her ear. The whore laughs and throws her head back, sending waves through her long blonde hair.
“Oh, you are a wicked man, Jimmy! Just plain wicked!”
“I think you like a wicked man, Marsha.”
“Maybe I do.”
Jimmy leads Marsha back to the other side and right past the cowboy who’s still looking out the window. A new country song is playing. Tanya Tucker’s “Blood Red and Going Down.” Janet’s heard this song before. She’s listened to the words while in her kitchen cooking a dinner that Jimmy would never come home to eat. She thought about the husband’s pain and sympathized while cutting up the peppers for Jimmy’s favorite chili. She thought about the song again when Jimmy came home late and yelled at her when she demanded an explanation. “Stop nagging me,” he said, and he went out to the garage, leaving her alone and crying in the kitchen.
“The Georgia sun was blood red and going down,” Tanya croons in the background. Janet rises up from her booth, walks directly to the counter, and slips under it. The four men in the next booth who have sat stoically the whole afternoon simultaneously turn their heads to watch her. Pick is wiping the counter while singing along and doesn’t notice Janet slip into the kitchen. Inside the kitchen, Billy is washing dishes and singing, “Where did I go wrong, girl? Why would she leave us both this way?” and doesn’t catch Janet sneaking in and out.
“What do you think she’s doing?” asks Debbie. “Ted, are you watching this? Do you see what’s going on here? This is like Days of Our Lives for real. Barbara, do you watch Days?”
“I think we should mind our own business,” says Ted.
I work so I don’t get to watch it, but my mother loves it,” says Barbara.
“Yeah, let’s mind our own business,” says Rich. “Let’s order some food. I’m starving. Hopefully the food is better than the…”
Rich’s voice trails off when he sees Debbie and Barbara’s mouths drop open. He turns and sees the mother of the two boys marching around the counter and right towards her husband, who is still wrapped up in the blonde.
“Hi Mom!” shouts the younger of the boys, his face covered in ice cream. But his mother doesn’t answer. Instead she takes three more steps towards her husband and raises her left arm.
“Oh, shit!” Rich shouts. Barbara and Debbie scream. There is no time to react beyond that. The knife is already lodged in the husband’s throat. The blonde screams as blood spurts all over her face and clothes. The husband’s body shakes as he falls to the ground. His face appears to scream but he only gurgles and gasps.
“Daddy! Daddy! Mommy, why did you do that!” The boys have jumped from their stools and are on the floor with their father. One is trying to stop the bleeding with his hands while the other is trying to hug him to stop the convulsions. “Daddy! Daddy!”
All at once, the cowboy restrains the mother, while Debbie and Barbara run to the blonde woman. Ted stands in shock. Richard kneels beside the husband on the floor but there is nothing to be done. The body is still. A crimson puddle grows rapidly around him. The knees of Richard’s jeans are soaked before he realizes and stands.
“Look what you made me do!” Janet screams. “Look what you made me do, you son of a bitch! I hate you! I hate you!” Phil grips her elbows from behind as she thrusts her body towards her husband on the floor. Her knees buckle, and the cowboy wraps his arms around her to drag her away.
James jumps up.
“I hate you! Why did you do that, Mommy?! You always made him mad! I hate you!” He pummels her with his small bloody fists, but she doesn’t seem to notice him. Her eyes are tightly closed and she wails. Richard quickly walks to the boy and wraps him in his arms to calm him. John remains slumped over and hugging his father.
Phil just stands there with the crying murderer in his arms, not knowing what else to do, where else to put her.
Debbie and Barbara shakily guide a shocked Marsha to a chair and wipe the blood from her face with paper napkins from the dispenser on the counter. Her body shakes and her breaths are fast and short. She stares at the body of her dance partner on the floor. Billy and Pick don’t move from their places behind the counter. They watch, motionless.
The music stops. The only sounds remaining are the wails of the living victims. Nobody moves. The shock is raw. The group’s aura is thick with denial, with disbelief.
Everyone but Janet and her sons turn towards the sound of the voice. The four heavyset men stand in a line. They are all the same height and wearing the same navy blue coat. They remove their hats and place them above their hearts to reveal identical bald pates. They bow their heads and the last man on the left speaks.
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. God of hope, we come to you in shock and grief and confusion of heart. Help us to find peace in the knowledge of your loving mercy to all your children, and give us light to guide us out of our darkness into the assurance of your love, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Silence follows until Barbara echoes with a thick, sorrowful, “Amen.”
“Amen,” repeats Richard and Phil, Billy and Pick, Ted and Debbie.
The four men cover their heads. “The snow has stopped,” says the man who recited the prayer. Heads turn toward the windows while a gust of cold air enters the room and blows bloody napkins across the floor. Outside, the four men move in a line towards a truck and start cleaning it off. When the door closes, Billy picks up the phone.
# # #
Stacey Longenberger is a south shore Long Island girl, born and bred. She left a career in fashion to stay home with her three kids and doesn’t regret it one bit. Stacey loves to read and when she’s not reading, she’s creating a story in her head. Every now and then, she writes one down.