“Why a bird?” Kelly asked.
Daphne’s new tattoo was about as appealing as a dead fly bobbing around in a glass of milk.
She shrugged. “Every small-town girl dreams of flying away.”
“I guess I never thought of you as a bird person.”
“No? What kind of person would you say I am?”
He had always thought of Daphne as a goldfish, not the common type but one of those fancy ones with fins like chiffon flowing behind it. It was probably because of the way she moved. She’d have you convinced the diner was a grand ballroom, the truckers ogling her all dressed up and smelling nice.
“As far as what animal you’d be? Something elegant, that’s for sure. A white Arabian.”
She laughed. “A Mustang, maybe.”
“Oh, I think not,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, mustangs are fine horses. Reliable. But there’s more to life than just getting through it.”
“What animal are you then?”
“Me? I couldn’t say. How about you tell me, and I’ll let you know whether I agree?”
“I’ll think about it.”
Daphne moved away, hips and ponytail swaying. Two women, both looking to be in their late thirties, edged past a smiling Daphne and settled in the booth next to Kelly’s. The one facing his way was a redhead – courtesy of a bottle, most likely – and wore a leopard patterned v-neck blouse. Her tits and her face were covered in freckles and a sheen of sweat.
“That bartender. . .” The redhead licked some beer off the back of her thumb.
“What about him?” said the other woman.
“I swear he’s got the fattest, hairiest fingers I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t stop staring.”
“Really? I didn’t notice.”
“Trust me, if his cock was hanging out of his pants, my eyes would still be on those hands.”
“Like hell they would!”
Kelly left a generous tip for Daphne and stepped outside where it was hot enough to melt nose-hairs. Aside from his borrowed ride – a mustard yellow, beat-up citi Golf – the only cars parked in front of the diner were Daphne’s Honda and a Chrysler Ram that might as well have been on its virgin voyage. The trucks were lined up on the gravel lot behind the diner, noses pointed south or north, depending. Pukhanu was the kind of town strangers only stopped in if they had an idea of where they were going next. Tourists and passers-by looking for more than a beer and a burger did well to keep on driving. The typical citizen was either a former employee at the Larson & Lund furniture factory, or a spouse or an offspring of one. And, while the Pukhanu Rocker was still a much sought-after item at yard sales and auctions, the town itself lost what little appeal it had when the factory closed. These days, if Pukhanu got a new citizen, you could be damn sure it was shot out of some born and bred’s birth cannon.
A truck pulled out from behind the diner and took off north along the highway, leaving behind a cloud of dust and fumes. Kelly put on his aviators, entwined his fingers and stretched with his palms towards the sky. He enjoyed the feeling of muscles sliding over bones, and the way his drawn in belly created a space between his skin and his jeans, allowing the breeze to touch his crotch. It was too hot for underwear.
Daphne set down her tray on the bar and her ass on the cool leather of a high top chair.
“Fill me up, Duke.”
The big bartender grabbed an empty jug from Daphne’s tray, rinsed it and held it under the beer tap.
“Crowd must be thirsty today.”
“The way they put away that dishwater you’ve got there? I’d say yes.”
He grunted. “We’d sell piss so long as it was cool.”
“I’ll tell you one thing.” Daphne tilted her head backwards, indicating the diner’s only female patrons. “We best keep Thelma and Louise there hydrated.”
“And why’s that?”
“Makes the food go down easier. I sure as shit don’t want to bring back any rejected burgers today. Bertha’s liable to rip my tits off.”
“What the hell is he up to now?”
Daphne followed Duke’s gaze to the parking lot. Back when her and Kelly went to school together, he was a scrawny and somewhat goofy looking kid; weird enough to be know as such, if still likable. A few years and a job in construction had done wonders for his body, and his face was always pleasant enough by Pukhanu standards.
“Stretching, by the looks of it,” she said.
“I’d keep an eye on that one, if I were you. He’s just the type to wait in your backseat. Wrap a shoestring around your neck, nice and tight.”
Daphne rolled her eyes. “Sure he would. Good tipper though.”
“I suppose that settles it. Now why don’t you make yourself useful and take out the trash. Bag’s been stinking up my day since lunch.”
“Come on, Duke. Don’t make me go back there.”
“Then take it out the front.”
Daphne sighed but got off the chair and accepted the bag.
Daphne was standing in the door, a black garbage bag at her feet.
“I don’t want to be a pain,” she said, “but could you throw this out?”
Kelly walked up to her and took the bag, straining to keep his shoulder from dropping from the weight.
“That’s real sweet of you,” she said.
“No problem, Daphne.” He winked. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Kelly swung the bag into one of the containers at the back of the diner. Daphne could just as easily have done it herself, the containers being placed right by the kitchen door. In fact, it probably took her longer to go out and ask him to do it. He smiled despite the stink.
Walking back to his car, Kelly just barely caught the sound of barking – the sad noise of a broken squeaky toy being squeezed – coming from the Chrysler. He approached the car. These out-of-towners could be hysterical when it came to strangers loitering around their shiny possessions, especially if the stranger was a youngster sporting all the telltale signs of a small town delinquent. The driver side window was rolled halfway down and, with one last look over his shoulder, Kelly peered inside. His squinted gaze met that of a small, rather ridiculous-looking, dog. Its tongue was disproportionately long, hanging as it did over the side of its jaw, and the ears were so small they all but disappeared in its curly white fur.
“Hi there, little man,” Kelly said. “Look at you, left to stew in this goddam tin can.”
The dog held his gaze with melancholy black eyes. At first it made the animal seem wise, mysterious even, but that impression gave way as the seconds passed without the dog ever blinking.
“Well, that just ain’t right,” he said, reaching an arm inside the car and pulling back the lock. “Your fat mama sucking up beer and talking dirty while you sit out here, and with that reindeer-dumb look on your face.”
He leaned across the driver seat and scooped up the dog. The name Mr. Costner was engraved on a silver plaque dangling from its pink collar.
Kelly shook his head. “Ain’t right.”
He closed the door carefully and relocked the car.
“You’ve been a bad dog, Mr. Costner. Jumping out the window like that. These woods here,” he gestured beyond the parking lot and the highway and towards the dense forest, “they’re just full of mean pooch munchers that’d be more than happy to chew down on a sweet little piece of poodle such as yourself.”
Mr. Costner let out a halfhearted whine and Kelly scratched him behind the ear.
“Wouldn’t surprise me at all if that’s what happened here.”
Bertha stood by the narrow window in the kitchen, a pot in one arm and a forgotten dishrag in the other. The kid was walking, no, strolling away from the Chrysler. She stretched her thick calves until she was up on her toes, trying to see where he would go.
The sharp smell of scorched meat snapped her out of it.
She flipped the burgers to the cool end of the burner, and – having inspected the damage – was pleased to find they were still fit to serve.
Daphne leaned inside the door and slapped a new order onto the rail. “Two, medium rare, extra cheese, extra sauce. You okay in here?”
“Just fine, Daphne.”
Daphne smiled and started to back out.
“Not so fast,” Bertha said.
The girl held her smile, but she kept one foot out the door. Bertha had made it quite clear that she enjoyed having waitresses in her kitchen about as much as she enjoyed having rats. This one though, she had a real attitude about it.
“That friend of yours,” Bertha said, “the shifty looking kid with long hair.”
“Comes in every day. Drives a shit-colored Golf. Ring a bell?”
“Oh, you mean Kelly?”
“I don’t keep track of your friends’ names, but if he fits the description I’m sure that’s the one.”
“What about him?”
“I’ll tell you.” Bertha placed her hands on her hips. “The little shithead –”
“Is this about the trash?” Daphne said. “Because I asked him take it out. Things got pretty hectic out there for a while.”
“What do I care who takes out the damn trash?”
“Right, sorry. Go on.”
Bertha took a deep breath, wanting Daphne to know how patient she was being, but the girl just kept smiling, her heavily painted eyes bright but vacant.
“From now on,” Bertha said, “you wanna give him extra fries, it comes out of your salary.”
Daphne looked like she was about to protest, then thought better of it.
“Got it,” she said. “Sorry, chef.”
Daphne left and Bertha started working on the order, all the while keeping an eye out the window.
Kelly struggled to get the car keys out of his pocket. The dog was pretty much a dead weight hanging off his arm. Locking the Golf felt silly, but Kelly was always at his most responsible when trusted with other people’s possessions, and you never knew what kind of folk passed out on the highway.
“Alright, Mr. Costner,” he said, lowering the dog to the ground. “You just sit here while I –”
Mr. Costner took off as soon as he had four paws on the asphalt.
The dog raced across the parking lot, surprisingly fast, and disappeared around the corner of the diner. The dumpster stink was palpable. Kelly reckoned that temptation must have gotten the better of the mongrel, but it was still disappointing. He stood for a while – tapping his boot against the asphalt and breathing hard through his nose – before going after the dog.
Mr. Costner had scavenged what looked like a carrot, and was now laying in the shade under a parked truck, gnawing on his prize. Kelly circled the truck so it stood between him and the back of the diner, then got on his knees in the dirt.
“Come here, Mr. Costner.”
The dog didn’t even glance in his direction.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t own up to that name either.”
Kelly tried making different sounds, and calling the dog every pet name he could think of, but Mr. Costner ignored him and kept chewing away at his carrot. Eventually, Kelly picked up a small stone, little more than a pebble, and threw it at the dog. That got Mr. Costner’s attention. He yelped and shot out from under the truck, but heading in the wrong direction, away from Kelly and towards the diner. If the dog had retained even a slither of wits, it could very easily have avoided the truck rolling in from the highway. Instead, Mr. Costner cut under the truck, and was crushed flat by the left rear wheel.
Kelly stayed where he was. The driver climbed out of the truck and was met by the diner’s bristly cook, Bertha, who had come out the kitchen door within seconds of the accident, a sour look on her face. They exchanged a couple of words and Bertha walked to stand over what remained of poor Mr. Costner, which wasn’t much. Keeping his head down, Kelly snuck off between the lined up trucks.
Duke was skimming through an article in the Pukhanu Weekly. It quoted an anonymous source saying Larson & Lund was currently investigating the possibility of re-establishing its business in Pukhanu. Such rumors circulated on a regular basis, probably nothing more than a stunt by some official trying to keep people from fleeing their hellhole of a town, but Duke still held out hope.
A woman approached the bar, carrying two plates. “Excuse me? I don’t know where that little waitress went, but this is not what I ordered.”
It was Louise, or Thelma. Duke could never remember which one was the redhead. Daphne was nowhere in sight.
“There’s a problem with your food,” he said.
“I ordered them medium-rare. These burgers are beyond well made, they’re charred. I understand this is not, how do I say this, the finest establishment, but this is pretty basic stuff, wouldn’t you agree?”
Bertha was standing in the hall between the kitchen and the dining hall. She looked flushed. Too flushed, Duke decided, for her current state to be the result of over-hearing the redhead just then.
“I’ll take it to the chef,” he said. “See what we can do.”
“Medium-rare,” Thelma, or Louise, said. “That’s all I ask.”
Bertha had retreated to the kitchen ahead of Duke, but stood ready to snatch the plates from his hands as soon as he stepped inside.
“Basic stuff, is it?” she snapped.
Duke shrugged. “City folks. Nothing to get riled up about, Bertha. They’re just bred that way.”
“Don’t you tell me I get riled up over nothing, Duke. Like I can’t cook a burger. I’ve cooked burgers all my life.”
“I could ask them to leave.”
“Oh no, you won’t. They’ll get their burger, and it’ll be like no burger they’ve ever had, I guarantee you that. Now get out of my kitchen.”
She elbowed her way past him and went out through the back door. Duke stroked his black and silver beard. Bertha trying to please patrons after having her food sent back was unheard of. If he’d been the nervous sort, he might even have found it worrying.
Daphne was leaning against the Golf and smoking a cigarette when Kelly got back. She looked even better out in the sun.
“Didn’t expect to find you still here,” she said. “What were you doing back there?”
Kelly stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans. Shit should’ve hit the fan by now. It wouldn’t be hard for the chef to guess who owned Mr. Costner. Folk around here didn’t get dogs that weren’t any use.
“Dropped my keys throwing out the trash,” he said.
“You found them?”
He took the keys out of his pocket and jingled them in front of her. “Sure did. Were you waiting for me?”
“Maybe I was.” She tilted her head back and let the smoke rise out of her mouth and nose like languid vapor trails. “Might just be I was looking to get away for a bit.”
“It ain’t right, you having to deal with all the shit that goes on in there. On a day to day basis, I mean.”
Daphne grinned, took a long drag on her cigarette, and flicked it away.
“What?” Kelly asked.
“I was just thinking about what kind of animal you’d be. You know, like we talked about?”
“Sure. What’s the verdict?”
“I reckon you’d be a cat.”
“King of the jungle.” Kelly puffed out his chest and pounded on it with both fists like gorilla.
Daphne raised an eyebrow. “I was thinking more like a house cat. The way you come in here every day, all sure of yourself, like you were a lion. And then you sit at your table and follow me around with those green eyes of yours, knowing I’ll come to you. Duke thinks you’re a killer.”
“What do you think?”
“That you’re a kitten.” Daphne smiled. “And one likely to get himself run over before he’s old enough to know not to play on the road. See you tomorrow, Kelly.”
“Take care, sweetheart.”
Kelly watched Daphne walk away. She made the vanilla strawberry slush that was Mr. Costner smeared across the gravel seem like little more than a fleeting digression from the beauty of life. Only when the doors closed behind her did he get in the Golf and pull out from the diner.
Linda Hallgren asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work