I watched as Jimmy pulled up in his beat-up blue sedan at noon. The street was quiet, and the slam of his driver-side door echoed up to my apartment. Jimmy entered the building and ascended the steps two at a time. Reaching my floor, he knocked three times. I pulled back the bolt and turned the knob. Leaving the door ajar, I went back to my chair.
“What’s the plan today, man?” Jimmy asked as he lit an unfiltered Pall Mall. I sat gazing out the window, thinking. I turned and looked at him as he exhaled smoke.
“I dunno, Jim. I don’t have much cash on me. Do you want to go to Charley’s?”
“Man, I just got here, and you want to leave?”
“Yeah. I hate staying in here all the time. I need to get out for a while.”
“You should be used to the noises by now, Mark.” Jim paused, looking out the window. “All right, all right. But we’ll have to walk. The Chevy sounded rough climbing that last hill. I think the transmission’s about to blow.”
Jim was always saying things like that. I was sure there was something in his backseat that he didn’t want me to see. I just looked at him. “Okay. Let’s go.”
Charley’s was a small, secluded diner off of Main Street. The diner didn’t have a commanding presence–a stranger only knew that it was an eating establishment from the words COFFEE SHOP printed on the building’s yellowing front.
Hank was the diner’s manager. Supposedly, he had been working there since the late sixties. Always visible, but barely noticed, Hank blended into the place like the faded brown paint adorning the walls. He sat at his booth at all hours, watching customers come and go, eyeing the college girls when they came in to eat. The head waitress, Nanette, was Hank’s wife. She let him dream while she actually ran the diner.
By the time the entrance bell finished ringing, Jimmy and I were seated at the Formica counter. We both knew what we wanted, and we waited for Nanette to finish taking the order of another customer. It was dead for a Saturday. Charley, Nanette, and Tom, the cook/dishwasher, were the only ones working today. I watched as Nanette took a chewed pencil from her ear and grab her order pad from her stained apron pocket. She licked the graphite tip and asked the balding stranger what he wanted. I kept thinking that Nanette was of a dying breed of waitresses as my wandering fingers found the carved indentations on the counter top.
After walking over with her smooth stride to clip the balding man’s order to Tom’s TO COOK line, Nanette turned on her heel toward the counter. She faced us, grinning. “Hi, boys,” she said as she reached for her pencil and order pad. “What’ll you have today?”
Jimmy looked at me to order first. “I’ll have a cup of coffee and a turkey club,” I said, still running my fingers over the counter top. Nanette wrote down my order in her flowing, abbreviated cursive. Still writing, she looked up at Jimmy. “And what will you have, sweetheart?”
“I’ll have a raspberry tea and a cheeseburger.”
“Good choice. I’ll put in your orders, and I’ll be right back with your coffee.”
“Thanks, Nanette,” I said.
As she headed toward the back room, I turned to look at Jimmy. He kept fumbling with his pack of cigarettes, trying to fish one out with his thumb and forefinger. Finally grabbing one, he lit it by striking a match on the seam of his tattered Levi’s. He was just about to say something when Nanette came back over with the coffee pot, filling the mug already placed in front of me. “It’s a fresh pot.” She winked and walked away.
“What were you going to say?” I asked, turning again to Jimmy. I took a sip of my scalding black coffee.
“It wasn’t important,” he said. “Anyway, have you given any more thought to what we talked about last week?”
“Not really, Jim. I just don’t think it’s very realistic. I mean, you can go ahead with it if you want to, but I’m out. Plus, Renee would never go for it.”
“C’mon, man. It’s not that big of a risk. And Renee doesn’t need to get involved. She shouldn’t have a say in something you want to do. She’s your girl, not your mother.”
“It isn’t like that,” I said, reaching for my coffee again, blowing the steam away. I took a long drink, thinking. “I just want to work at my own pace for a while. I’ll eventually get to where I want to be. Renee agrees with me.”
“Of course she does,” rolling his eyes. “But, tell me, is this your plan or hers?”
“I don’t need to take this. You’ve been on her case since we’ve started dating. I’m sick of it.”
“I just think she’s holding you back.”
“She’s bringing me forward, Jim. I’m getting more work done than I have in years.”
“You’re still unpublished,” he said under his breath, turning away.
“That may be true. But investing five grand to start a blog and print a magazine, just to explore the random, unexplained shit in this town, isn’t worth the risk. And, really, this just seems like a better project for you. I’ll stick with fiction–it’d be more believable.”
“That’s exactly my point–no one will believe what I publish if I do it myself. You know as well as I do that we’re the only two people in this town who see and remember what is happening. Everyone else is just living day-to-day, rationalizing and forgetting.”
“Yeah, but if someone starts exposing these things–the disappearances, the ghosts—he’ll either be ignored or thought crazy. Do you want either scenario?”
“At least I want to take a shot. Do you want to work in a convenience store for the rest of your life?”
“You don’t get it. I’m happy where I’m at.” I pause for a few seconds, looking away from Jimmy’s stern, disbelieving eyes. I again reach for my coffee and take a long drink. “Renee’s pregnant.”
His silence is deafening, and it is only broken with Nanette’s approach from the back. She sets our orders in front of us, noticing our tension. “Lighten up, boys. You should be used to rain by now.”
Jimmy and I both swivel our chairs to the front door. The windows were starting to streak with drizzle, obscuring the view outside. “You’re right. Thanks, Nanette,” I said.
We eat in pained silence. The turkey and bacon stinging my throat. I watch Jimmy out of the corner of my eye. He eats his burger fast. He then plays with his French fries, picking each up and dunking them in copious amounts of ketchup. The seconds drag. I didn’t want to lose Jimmy as a friend, but I knew that that decision was now up to him. Either way, I had to move on. Finally, he broke the silence. “I’ll get the check,” he said.