Charlie woke after three hours of sleep, showered and dressed as usual for her Wednesday morning shift. “Parm and Pepp” day. Ugh.
“Parm and Pepp” day was the day designated to wash and refill all of the parmesan and crushed red pepper holders at every table. Normally the task wouldn’t be so bad, but it required her to be at work an hour earlier than usual.
The only people there that early were the manager and two prep cooks. The silence was refreshing. Charlie set up the tables, stocked the stations, and headed for the back to begin the chore of filling the bottles. The peppers always made her sneeze.
She organized the trays and the racks that held the clean bottles and began filling each one. Smiling, she thought about Jesse and his apology. She had probably forgiven him before he even asked, before the sweet kiss on her cheek.
“You still mad?” Jesse said startling Charlie.
Shattering a bottle of parmesan on the floor, she said, “I wasn’t.”
He laughed and walked over to the pantry for the broom and dustpan. “Quit making me apologize. Sounding sincere isn’t one of my strong suits,” he said as he scooped up the parmesan and winked.
Emptying out the dustpan into the garbage a few feet away, he turned and looked at her. “So, you’ve never…ya know? I mean, never?”
Charlie looked around the kitchen in embarrassment. She was happy to find no one near. She took a step closer to him and whispered, “No, never.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“You’re–” he said, cutting himself off in mid-sentence.
Charlie saw him swallow and his expression harden, just before he began walking away toward the dining room. She gave him a half smile and got back to work.
“Hey, table fourteen just asked me if I could check on their food. Are you helping them?” Jesse asked later that afternoon during the lunch rush.
“Yeah, I’ll take care of it, thanks,” Charlie said in a rushed voice.
“Hey. Calm down. What can I help you with?” Jesse tugged at her apron string.
After regaining the strength in her knees at the mere thought of his hand being that close to her, she collected her thoughts and answered, “Twelve needs two diet cokes and twenty-three needs a bread basket. Thank you so much. Rae is really in the weeds here.”
“I got it. Take it easy. Go seat the people waiting in the front.” He slapped her behind and she took the apron off to greet the guests with a bright red face.
When she got back to the front and after Rae had regained control of her tables, Charlie asked Adam if she could take a smoke break. She should have known by now that simple eye contact titillated him; actually speaking to him affected him in a lewd way. He nodded and licked his lips.
Once outside, she inhaled the cigarette like no other before it. Jesse opened the door abruptly and it hit her on the ankle.
“Oh, uh. Sorry. What are you doing after your shift today?” he asked, after taking a cigarette from her pack.
“Going home, taking a shower and relaxing. You?”
“I was going to go for a ride…” he told her.
“Yeah. Wanna come with me?”
“Depends. What are we riding?” She tried not to think about the sexual implication in her question.
He smiled. “A bicycle.”
“Oh god, no thanks. I fell off a bike as a kid. A bad fall. They’re not really my thing,” she said.
“C’mon. You gotta get back on a bike someday!”
“Why can’t I just stay off of them?”
He rolled his eyes at her.
“I’m not riding a bike again, Jesse. Period.”
“Fine. No bike ride today. But, I’m going to get you to ride again. Let’s go have lunch somewhere then?”
“Are you sure you can fit me in? I mean, between Tricia, Justine and Kendra?” she said, snidely.
He bit his bottom lip while trying to hide a smile. “Yeah, I can fit you in.”
“I’ll drive us,” he said.
They met in the bar after their shifts. Charlie had brought a T-shirt and jeans just in case she had wanted to sit in the bar afterward.
“Hey, I have to run home quick and change. I smell like a pizza. You can come in and wait. I’ll only be a minute,” Jesse said.
“Okay.” She was surprised that she was going to see where he lived. His attitude and mercurial iciness had shifted in the past twenty-four hours. He was much more consistently receptive and kind today, like a revelation had occurred for him.
They hopped in his Honda and headed south.
He was listening to a catchy tune that Charlie didn’t recognize. It was Reggae, but with a fast tempo, fused with strange guitar distortions.
“What are we listening to?” she asked.
“They’re called Rx Bandits. Third-wave SKA. Love ‘em. Do you like it?” he said, playing the drums on his dash.
“Amazingly enough, I do. It’s fun.” A smile swept her face and she glowed with anticipation for the afternoon. She was enjoying him and not worrying about what he’d say next. She was at ease with him for the first time.
“How many waves are there?” she asked sincerely.
“Ha! Just three.”
They pulled into a driveway that led to a house not far from hers. It was in a quiet neighborhood where homes looked like they were built in the sixties. The house was two stories, brown with white trim and needed a paint job. The screens were dirty, but the landscaping was simple and clean. There was a short brick wall segregating the mulch from the grass and two lilac bushes flanked either side of the front door that had three concrete steps leading to it.
“You wanna come in, or do you want to just wait out here? I’ll only be a few minutes…” he asked, taking the keys out of the ignition and cutting off the music suddenly.
I’m not passing up this chance.
“I’ll come in.”
Overestimating the weight of the car door, she slammed it too hard. “Oops. Sorry.” she said, and was embarrassed and looked down.
“Gentle! She’s a ninety-four, she’s getting old!” He winked.
What’s with this winking business? He’s winked twice at me today!
When Charlie walked in the door, the house smelled like man. And bacon. There was a small entryway that was clean and inviting. It was a split-level and the landing had a tiny coat closet and simple wood banister leading upstairs. On their way up, she peeked at the down stairwell to see nothing but a closed door.
At the top of the steps was a living room and kitchen. The window was open behind the dining table, blowing the curtain sheers elegantly. Green faded wallpaper covered two walls and the others were painted dull yellow. The cupboards were white and the countertops were an old vinyl. Dirty dishes were everywhere.
“It’s big. I didn’t picture your place looking like this.” She turned to Jesse, who had already walked up another four steps to a hallway outside his bedroom.
“Make yourself at home! There are cups in the cupboard by the sink and pop in the fridge!” he yelled down.
Charlie walked over to the bookshelf near the couch and started studying his small library.
Classics like Tom Sawyer, Great Expectations, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Moby Dick. As she kept perusing, she discovered different kinds of books. Everything from self-help to science fiction. Has he read all of these?
She saw another book, titled How To Cope With Bipolar Disorder and another, Commonly Prescribed Medications, Interactions and Side Effects.
“Finding anything interesting?” He smiled appearing behind her silently.
“Oh! Um. Have you read all of these? It’s quite the collection. Varied,” she said.
“Most of those are Dennis and Jake’s. But, I’ve read a few of them, I guess. Are you ready?” He gestured towards the front door.
“Lead the way!” He smells so good.
“Where are we going?” Charlie asked, watching the woods as they drove.
“Just a quiet place I used to go. Good greasy food.”
Charlie watched the greens, yellows and browns pass by them in a blur as Jesse exceeded the speed limit. The windows were down and her short red hair was whipping around her forehead, hitting the lenses of her sunglasses. She couldn’t stop smiling. He seemed to be enjoying himself, too. He rolled his window up momentarily to light a cigarette and popped a different CD into the player.
“If you like this kind of music, I’ll copy one of my favorite albums for you.”
“Really? That would be great. Thanks!”
They drove about forty-five minutes west, passing corn fields and woodlands. Just as they were passing a large field of sunflowers, not yet blooming, Jesse turned his blinker on and turned down a small dirt road.
“You found a place to eat down here? What were you doing?” she asked, puzzled.
“I’ll explain later.” His attitude suddenly bellicose, “We’re here.”
Charlie turned to look at the small, log country house with an oak porch out front. Two tiny tables with two chairs sat on the porch. There was a hand-written OPEN sign hanging from the window and an old Labrador lying in the yard.
“Come ‘ere Sadie.” Jesse slapped his knee and the dog slowly jogged toward him. He knelt down and started scratching her ears. “Yeah, that feels good, doesn’t it?”
He stood again, slapping his hands together to discard the dog hair. He stretched from the long drive and placed his hands in his pockets. He started strolling toward the house as Charlie just watched in awe. I’ve never seen him this relaxed before. Calm. At home.
“Jesse Anders! It’s been too long!” A petite middle-aged woman with jeans, blue T-shirt and an apron came walking out the front door and wrapped her arms around him for a hug. She had grayish-brown hair that she wore up in a sloppy bun. “Hey there, Lil.”
Charlie turned her attention to the dog as the two old friends embraced.
“This is my friend, Charlie. We were hoping you had some patty melts and fries for a couple of strays.”
Charlie was suddenly famished. A greasy patty melt sounded delicious. She mutually reached her hand out to greet Lily. “Hi, it’s nice to meet you.”
“You too. Come on in kids. My lunch rush of four just left. The best seat in the house just opened up!” Lily said just before whistling for Sadie to follow her.
Charlie could see why Jesse’s attitude had softened. The house was decorated in antiques and checkered tablecloths. There were three tables set inside the room just as they entered. It had old, worn hardwood floors and small windows. The short hand-made curtains were red cotton and didn’t do well to keep the light out. There was a small breeze that carried a fresh, green scent of spring and soil throughout the house, masking the smell of greasy comfort food. On the other side of the room sat a counter with a cash register, and just behind it was a cooler filled with bottled sodas, waters and juice. There was a jukebox near the stairwell with a single chain closing the steps off for entry. John Denver was playing softly in the background. It was a calming place to be.
“Have a seat. I’m going to see if Lily needs some help,” Jesse said.
Charlie sat at the table next to the window and opened the curtains so that the sun could beat down on her face. She closed her eyes and breathed in and out. She peered out the window and watched the short sunflower stalks swaying gently in unison with the breeze.
“Okay, okay! I’m leaving!” Jesse laughed, exiting the kitchen with a handful of fresh grated parmesan. Popping it in his mouth, he walked towards Charlie grinning and shaking his head. “She didn’t want my help.”
“So, did you used to live around here? I wouldn’t blame you if you did. I love it here.”
“Kind of. I was pretty young, and when I saw the sunflower field… Do you want something to drink?” he asked, walking toward the soda cooler.
“Um, sure. Anything is fine. Water or soda? So, you were saying…”
Removing two bottles and making his way back to the table, he said, “Yeah. I used to live near here.” He sighed, sat down and looked out the window. “I… I ran away from my first foster home when I was fourteen. This place is where I ended up. Lily took me in for a couple of months and I helped her out with this place.” He gave a tight smile and his leg started bouncing under the table.
“Do you want to talk about this?” She sensed his hesitancy and felt guilty for prying.
“Not really.” He looked relieved.
“Well then. Tell me more about third-wave SKA.”
An appreciative smile arose as he chatted for the next fifteen minutes about Less Than Jake, Rx Bandits, Mighty Mighty Bosstones and how first, second and third-wave SKA came about and the bands that influenced each wave. He seemed somewhat of an expert on the subject, and although Charlie’s appreciation for music was superficial, she adored the passion he had for it. He was animated and used his hands often to speak; he made her fixated on the conversation.
“Here we go!” Lily came out of the kitchen with two plates in her hands. “Do we need anything more to drink? Or ketchup?”
“A side of Ranch if you have it. Otherwise it looks delicious!” Charlie could already feel her stomach overloaded with the appetizing plate in front of her.
Here goes any weight I’ve lost in the past week.
She took her first bite and closed her eyes in satisfaction as she savored the buttery crisp goodness that lingered on the back of her tongue. She licked her lips and swallowed. “Oh my. Mmmm.”
She opened her eyes.
“I take it you approve then?” Jesse was taking pride in his little restaurant. He seemed happy to share it with her.
Charlie nodded and neither of them said a word during the whole meal.
“Well, I managed to eat the entire sandwich and half my fries. I blame you for the sixteen pounds I gained today.” She slouched in her chair. “Sorry, this has to be done,” she said, gesturing to her top button on her jeans that she had just unsnapped.
“No apology necessary. I’m about to do the same myself.”
“You two kiddos want some dessert? I just made lemon meringue…” Lily asked with a smile while wiping her hands on her apron.
“Lily, you’ve been great, and the sandwich was to die for. But. I. Am. Stuffed.” Charlie chuckled, patting her belly.
“I’m good too. We’ve gotta get going. I have to work tonight,” Jesse said.
“Tonight? Aren’t we going to be late?” Charlie looked at the clock on the wall. Four-thirty.
“No, it’s a bussing shift. I don’t have to be there until six.”
Lily smiled. “You liking your job then? How’s your mom?”
“Everything is good Lil. I’ll stop back next week when I have more time to chat.” He threw a one-hundred dollar bill on the table.
“I’ve heard that before. Just take care of yourself Jess. Charlie’s gonna promise me she’ll keep an eye on you.” Lily winked at Charlie and she nodded.
“Say ‘hi’ to your mom for me, Molly and Donny too.” She hugged Jesse as Charlie walked out the door to give them a private moment if they needed.
Outside, Charlie wandered around the front yard and lit a cigarette. Sadie ran over and sat in front of her, smiling. She smiled back and patted her on the head. “Good girl.”
“You ready?” he asked as the screen door clattered shut behind him. Lily was waving.
“Sure.” She smiled and waved at Lily. “Thanks again!”
On the drive back to The Crimson Cellar, Charlie fell asleep. When she woke, they were only five minutes from the restaurant.
“I’m sorry I fell asleep.” Did I snore?
He lit a cigarette and chuckled. “Don’t be.”
“Are you going to the Patio Party this weekend?” Charlie asked, yawning.
“The what?” He looked at her confused.
“The Patio Party at the Crimson? You know, the grand opening of the patio?”
“Grand, eh? I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it. Will you be there?”
“Yes, I think so.”
They pulled into the parking lot and he parked next to her car.
He got out and stretched. “See ya Red!” He pulled his wadded up Crimson T-shirt out from the backseat and went toward the employee entrance. As he approached the door, he chatted with two other drivers and put out his cigarette as he walked in.
“See ya,” she said to the pavement. So much for sentimental good-byes.
Charlie smiled as she climbed in the front seat of the Taurus. The car was a gift from her parents when she graduated from Business College. It was teal and in fairly good condition. There were smelly trees hanging from the rearview mirror and the ashtray was always full. The Taurus was her baby.
She turned the key and pulled out of her spot. She heard a knock on the glass.
“You scared the crap out of me! What’s up?” she said, rolling down her window.
“I almost forgot, Lily told me to give this to you. You know, for ‘watching out for’ me.” He grinned as he handed her a large silk sunflower.
“Oh, that was sweet of her. Tell her I prefer daisies…” She winked.
“Good to know. Have a good night.” He tapped the roof of her car and ducked back into the restaurant.