TITLE: The Road to Nowhere - chapter 2
By Christine Long
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Lisa Dempsey was no fool. She knew how to get the highest tips even during the most hectic shift. The most important moment in her day was after they left the messy table and she reached for those magic pieces of currency slipped between the ketchup and the napkin holder.
Lisa smiled as she counted out the rumpled bills. An eight dollar tip on a fifteen dollar tab. Suckers. Quick mental math added it to the total she’d accumulated since April. A truly pitiful amount for nearly seven months of work. Slipping it into her apron pocket, she swiped a stack of dirty dishes off the table and nearly ran into Ernie behind her.
“I got it,” he mumbled. In seconds he cleared the table of all the debris, swabbed it with his large rag and carried the black tub to the kitchen. Lisa frowned as she followed him. Now she’d have to share the tip.
Deep fryer grease odor permeated the noisy room. Lisa’s nose wrinkled every time she pushed through the swinging door. If she never smelled fried food again it would be too soon for her. Dropping her load off at the dishwasher stand, she scurried to pick up the next order. Lunch seemed unusually busy today. She carried the three plates with ease and pasted her happy face on as she deposited them in front of the three men, each meal to the correct customer.
“Thanks, Lisa. Efficient as always.” Sheriff Olley Harwood doused the fries in salt and drowned the burger in ketchup. “You know just how to win a man’s heart. Keep the coffee coming too.”
“Anything for you, Sheriff.” Lisa winked at the rotund man as she filled his cup. “Anything else, gentlemen?”
“Might as well put in the order for a slice of that fresh apple pie. We need to get moving soon as we finish here,” the sheriff’s request muffled by a mouthful of burger. “I want to be at the station when they bring in that car wreck found off Route 28. Looks like a cut-and-dry case of accidental death, but we’ll wait to see what these experts have to say.” He used both hands full of burger to indicate his lunch companions. “Lisa, meet Detectives Curtis Ralston and Maddox Ainsworth, two of New York City’s finest.”
“Welcome to Attenbury.” Lisa nodded and smiled at each introduction. Each of them “ma’am”ed and continued their meal. Apparently a server held no further interest to them other than to bring the food. That was fine with her. Men held no interest for Lisa. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
It didn’t take long for the law men to finish their meal. The detectives paid on one check and left a reasonable tip. The sheriff left his usual two bucks. Skinflint. Two truckers took the table as soon as it was cleared. They were probably the only two men on the planet she didn’t mind talking with. Lisa was tempted to place their order before they got settled, but she went through the ritual anyway.
“Hey, Leon. Bo. How’s the road treating you?”
“Well, I’ll tell ya, missy.” Bo’s thick Southern drawl fascinated Lisa. “If’n my wife treated me the way this road has, we’d a been divorced before we was married.”
Lisa dutifully giggled at the now very old joke Bo repeated each and every visit. She patted his flannel covered shoulder.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Bo. Haven’t seen you guys in a couple of weeks.”
Leon stretched his thin arms beyond his head and yawned. “Yea, it’s been at least three since we had a shipment up this way. I’m getting too old for these long hauls. Even doing it tag team and driving twenty-four seven doesn’t seem to help anymore.”
“You aren’t too old, Leon. You can’t be a day over sixty-five.” Lisa knew what was coming. The offended man puffed out his cheeks, squinted his eyes, and wagged his finger at her.
“You know very well that I just turned sixty, two months ago. We had a candle in a slice of cake and everyone sang to me.” Lisa enjoyed hassling him about his age. With his hair still mostly dark and a strong build, he looked closer to fifty than his true age.
“So we did. Sorry about that, Leon. Maybe I’m the one getting too old. What can I get for you today?” As if she didn’t know.
“I’ll have the corned beef on rye and Leon will take the turkey burger, hold the onions. I don’t know why you ask us every time. It’s always the same.”
Lisa smiled. Yes, everything was always the same. Nothing changed. At least for now. As soon as she could get that nest egg up to a reasonable amount, she’d be on the road. But it took playing up to the customers to make that dream a reality. That, and double shifts as often as they’d let her take them.
“Hey, Lisa. Did you hear about that wreck they found off Route 28 yesterday?” Leon held his cup out for a refill as she passed with the coffee.
“The sheriff mentioned something about a car wreck. He was just in here with two detectives from the city.” She really had no interest in it, but she could see she wasn’t going to escape without hearing the gossip from the two men. Bo lowered his voice as if he were sharing a rare piece of information.
“It’s all over the place that they found a wrecked car with a woman’s body in it.” He stared at Lisa, waiting for her reaction.
“Oh my! That’s awful.”
“It gets even more interesting. The word is that the car was part of a heist in the city last spring.” Leon didn’t bother hiding his excitement.
“Really?” Lisa played along. Anything for a bigger tip.
“Yep. I remember readin’ about it in the papers. It was a big deal. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of diamonds. Gold too I think.”
“I think I remember reading something about that.” Lisa searched her memory, but couldn’t think of the details. Just that it was a big case that they couldn’t solve. “Do they think the woman they found was part of it?”
The truckers shrugged and looked suggestively toward the kitchen. Lisa took the hint and checked on their meals. There was no opportunity to speak with them again until just before they left.
“Well, back in the saddle we go.” Bo stood on his toes to stretch his long legs. He always reminded Lisa of the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. A little more hay in the middle area, but long, gangly arms and legs like the movie version. “See you in a couple of days, Thursday or Friday maybe. We gotta take this shipment up to Maine pick one up and head back toward home.”
The rest of her shift passed without any notable customers or conversation. Grabbing her coat from the hooks by the back door, she removed the plastic bag she wrapped it in. It helped ward off the offending grease odor. She stuffed the plastic into her large shoulder bag and started for her house. Leaves danced and skittered in her path partnered with the crisp October evening breeze. Her short hair flipped about her face.
Watching the shop owners close for the night reminded Lisa of the phrase “rolling up the sidewalks.” Awnings rolled up. Displays tucked inside doorways. Signs flipped to large letters spelling out CLOSED. It gave her a comfortable feeling for the end of her day. She nodded when several entrepreneur’s waved as she passed.
A few trees broke up the connected stream of a jewelers, a dollar store, a shoe repair shop, an age-old market, a bicycle shop, and an appliance store that looked like it still sold a few of the first refrigerators ever made. She reached the T-shape at the end of the main street where one side led north toward the highway, one led south further into the mountains. At the corner, Lisa turned south. After a few blocks, she stepped off the end of the sidewalk and onto the gravel shoulder of the country road.
The brisk October breeze shivered through her thin jacket. She tucked her hands deeper into her pockets and quickened her steps. About a quarter of a mile later, she strolled into the only gas station convenience mart in town. A blast of warmer air puffed at her as she entered. Picking up milk and eggs, she paused beside the ice cream. The pint of coffee fudge ripple teased her. She nibbled on her pointer fingernail, debating. It was three bucks. Three fewer dollars in her nest egg. Was the temporary treat worth the sacrifice?
“Which one is tempting you?”
Lisa jumped at the quiet question close beside her. The voice belonged to one of the detectives Olley had introduced that afternoon. His gray eyes seemed, well, peaceful was the only word Lisa could think of. She hadn’t noticed that earlier. Then again he hadn’t been standing less than two feet away either. She realized he was taller than she was by just an inch or two.
“Personally, I go for the coffee mocha chunk or coffee fudge ripple.” He smiled. “But that’s just me.”
Lisa’s lack of response didn’t seem to faze him. She stepped aside as he opened the case and removed a couple pints of ice cream. A hint of a clean, soapy smell floated as he brushed past. Her lips tugged down at the corners. What was up with him? He ignored her at the diner now he strikes up a conversation over ice cream? He gave her a wink and a smile as he closed the freezer door and strolled to the counter. She watched his back. Dark material framed strong square shoulders. The suit didn’t look expensive, but what did she know about men’s suits?
She shrugged and returned to her dilemma. To spend or not to spend? That was the question. The remodeled Shakespearean line rattled around unanswered. Maybe just a fudgecicle. No, it wasn’t the same. With a sigh, she carried just the milk and eggs to the counter. She plunked them down and delved into the deep recesses of her bag for her wallet.
“Don’t bother, Lisa,” the clerk told her. “That guy that just left gave me five bucks for your stuff and said to give you this.”
He handed her the pint of coffee fudge ripple with a sticky note. “With my compliments. Sometimes you just have to take the plunge. Enjoy.”
Lisa’s stomach churned. Bile rode the tide of panic up to her throat. What did he want? Why would he do that? The solid icy container mirrored the freezing of her heart. Specks of light flickered before her eyes. No. Not here. Not now. How embarrassing would that be?
Swallowing hard, she pulled her waitress smile from deep within and slapped it on her lips.
“Thanks, Chet. Do you remember his name?”
The nineteen year old just shrugged. “He didn’t say. I thought he was somebody you knew.”
“No, just a customer from earlier today. He’s here to work on that accident case from up on the ridge. Have you heard about it?” The longer she babbled, the more control she found.
He rolled his eyes. “It’s about the only thing anybody talks about. I don’t get what the big deal is. So somebody had a car accident. It happens all the time.”
Lisa discovered her knees still functioned. She picked up the plastic bag and added it to the one over her shoulder. Without another word, she continued her walk home.
Dusk sneaked in while she was in the store. The breeze died down and the smell of earth and dead leaves permeated the air. Another five minutes walking brought her to the small cottage she called home. Tree branches enveloped the driveway making the dirt and gravel difficult to see in the waning light. The falling apart picket fence must have been white at one time, but even in daylight it resembled peeling gray. Overgrown grass, weeds, and a smattering of wildflowers flanked both the interior of the wooden slats and the driveway side. Lisa shoved the crooked gate open. At least it didn’t squeak any more since she doused it with vegetable oil.
Broken stones in the short walkway led to the sagging steps. The porch paint peeled in nearly every square inch. Lisa didn’t care. It was quiet and isolated. The screen door squealed a greeting. Next time she stopped at the store she’d pick up more vegetable oil. A folded piece of paper fluttered to the space between the screen door and the wooden door. Lisa hesitated before she bent to retrieve it. Crumpling it into a wad, she dropped it into her purse before unlocking the door. The inside of the cottage wasn’t any better than the outside. The front room doubled as both living room and dining room though it hardly seemed large enough to serve one of those purposes.
Lisa kicked off her shoes just inside the door and crossed the worn carpet to the kitchen. The milk and eggs joined a left over half a sandwich, a bottle of ketchup, and a package of cheese in the refrigerator. Lisa opened the Styrofoam container and frowned at the sandwich. It went back to its spot on the shelf. Removing the ice cream from the bag, she chose a spoon from a few pieces of silverware in the drainboard and returned to the living room. Plopping on the aged sofa forced the springs to squeal in protest. Shifting, she curled her legs to tuck bare toes under her for warmth. The first creamy spoonful of smoothness swirled the coffee and chocolate layers in her mouth. Who needed dinner when there was dessert?
His smile floated through her mind and the treat lost its appeal. Why would he do what he did? She snapped the lid onto the barely touched ice cream. She swallowed, staring at the label. No one did something for nothing. He wanted something. I don’t know when or how, but this is going to cost me.
Taking the carton to the sink, she flicked on the hot water. Tearing off the lid, she hesitated dumping it down the drain. She worried her bottom lip between her teeth. It was like throwing money down the drain. Someone else’s money. Her indignation fizzled like a lit match dunked in water. What if he was just trying to do something nice? But why do it for a stranger? Despite herself, she replaced the lid and shut off the water. Taking the two steps to the freezer, she placed the container inside.
Her arms fell limp to her sides as she dragged her feet up the stairs. Showering took more effort than she wanted to expend, but the need to get rid of the odor from the diner drove her through the process. The thick comforter and silky sheets enveloped her in a cocoon of comfort. Closing her eyes on the day, she tried to stop the thoughts and emotions in their dizzying spin. Burying her face in the pillow, silent tears soaked into the softness. Exhausted from the onslaught of emotions, she slipped into sleep. Her last thought was that maybe it didn’t matter. She probably wouldn’t meet up with him again anyway.
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