October was a fitting time to die, Bitsy thought, smoothing a gold tablecloth over a table. October leached the color out of everything. October brought the cold and stole the leaves from the trees. October preceded the time of reckoning; when the people of Medford gathered themselves in and began to take stock of their lives. Next to her, Ellie spread another table with a rust cloth. Wheezy would have liked the alternating colors that Ellie had suggested. “Feels strange,” Bitsy said, “having you in here on a Friday before dinner.”
“Feels strange being here.” Ellie glanced at the clock hanging behind the breakfast bar. “I’d be in English now.”
By nature, the girl was quiet. But today, she was quieter still. Bitsy set the table carefully, placing each piece of silverware neatly and quietly in its place; a fitting testimony to a meal eaten in the memory of lonely old Mr. Hart. “Shame about Mr. Hart.”
“You miss him, don’t you?” Bitsy buffed a spoon on a napkin and watched the child.
“He was a good teacher.”
“He loved you. You were the apple of his eye.”
“Why?” Ellie set the wineglasses on the table harder than was necessary.
“You’re going to crack my stemware.”
“Why did he like me?”
Were those tears in the child’s eyes? “Well, he…”
“Why didn’t he like Dink Sass or Ransom O’Neill?”
“Oh, he liked those boy just fine.”
“Dink and Ransom gave up on themselves a long time ago. And it’s hard, I suppose, even for a teacher who’s supposed to be impartial, to support people who’ve given up. Hey, you OK?” Bitsy reached a hand and tucked a stray hair behind the child’s ear.
She pulled away and nodded towards the window. “Howard’ and Jonathan are here.”
“Spank’ll let them in. Lord, I hope those chickens were good to us. We can’t run out of eggs tonight.” Bitsy had planned for fried chicken and Salisbury steak for the main dishes. But for sure there would be people wanting Spank’s famous scrambled eggs and sausage.
Bitsy looked around the diner with satisfaction. People needed a place to gather, a place to mourn collectively; to celebrate; to talk. Some people, she knew, could do all that in the church. But some, herself included, could not. The church confined Bitsy, what with those four walls holding her in so tight she thought she would explode from the weight of the prayers dangling in the air. No, Bitsy’s religion came from feeding the people. People needed Bitsy’s Diner. And right now, Bitsy needed people.
She finished setting the table then went to the breakfast bar to pour out coffee for Howard and Jonathan. Jonathan would take three sips of coffee, Bitsy knew, before taking his leave. Howard, though, his morning chores done at the farm, would sit awhile on his spinning stool, watching the world go by but not saying a word.
“We were sweethearts once upon a time if you can believe that.”
“Who? You and Jonathan?”
“No, not Jonathan,” Bitsy scoffed. “The man’s old enough to be my father. Howard.”
“Howard? But I thought.” Ellie’s voice faltered. “Everyone says something’s wrong with him.”
“Nothing’s wrong with Howard.”
“He never talks.”
“Maybe he can’t get a word in edgewise, what with Lilly Jean yapping all the time.”
“But he’s never spoken, even before Lilly Jean. He just sits there, watching.”
“Seems we could learn something from Howard. Maybe if we kept our mouths quiet and watched half the time Howard did, the world would be a better place.”
“Was he born that way?”
“No. Howard wasn’t born that way.”
Bitsy shook her head. She’d already said too much. “I don’t know, Ellie.” She set out two sweet rolls and a little pitcher of cream and watched as the swinging door leading from the kitchen opened towards them.
“Jonathan. Howard. I’ve got your coffee right here.”
“Thank you, Bitsy.”
“If you hand me my bill, I’ll write out your check.”
“No charge, Bitsy. You donate the diner, I donate the food.”
“Those oaks are dropping their leaves all over the sidewalk, Bitsy. Someone’s going to slip on them.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
Jonathan took a final sip of his coffee before setting the cup back on the breakfast bar. He pulled his folded John Deere hat from his back pocket and settled it back on his head.
“See you at the church, then?” Bitsy asked.
Jonathan paused, hand on the swinging door. “See you later,” he said without turning around.
Bitsy refilled Howard’s coffee cup. “Well that wasn’t much of an answer now, was it?” She picked up Jonathan’s cup and took it into the kitchen. But at least, she thought, it was a response.
“How’s it coming out there, Bitsy?”
“You think it’s too dark out there, Spank?”
Spank cupped a hand behind his ear. “Beg pardon?”
“The diner. Is it too dark? Does it need plants?”
Spank shrugged and scratched his head. “Well, I dunno, Bitsy. I guess I’ve grown accustomed to things the way is right now.”
“Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe we need to shake things up a bit around here.”
Spank put down his spatula. “What’s gotten into you, Bitsy Barnes? All these years, all you’ve talked about is how much you hate this place. Now you want to redecorate?”
Bitsy felt herself blush. “I didn’t say anything about redecorating. I just thought some plants…You know, for Wheezy.”
Spank shook his head; took up his spatula again. “Women,” he grunted.
When Bitsy pushed her way back into the dining room, she found the breakfast bar empty. Howard’s cup was empty. Both sweet rolls were gone. “Where’s Howard?”
Ellie pointed to the window. “Seems like Howard’s still a little bit sweet on you.”
Outside, Bitsy saw, Howard was sweeping the sidewalk; gathering up the fallen leaves and putting them into a plastic garbage bag. “No. Howard Heacock gave up on me a long time ago. He’s pining for someone else now.” She went to the door and opened it. “Thank you, Howard.”
“You think you could run down to the IGA, pick up some plants for me? I’d go myself but…”
He stood there holding onto the broom tightly.
“Lilly Jean was just mentioning that the diner’s a bit dark. I want to make it nice for Wheezy. I could call down to Andee and give her an idea of what I’m looking for. Please, Howard?”
He nodded and returned to his sweeping.
She smiled. “Thank you, Howard.” Lilly Jean Jacobs wasn’t going to criticize Bitsy’s Diner. She returned to the dining room and began setting water glasses on the tables, humming softly to herself. From the kitchen she heard Ellie speak.
“Can I ask you something, Spank?”
“Right before Mr. Hart died, he told me something.”
Bitsy stopped humming.
“He told me my father was here. Here in Medford.”
“I suppose he was, Ellie, at one point in time. But now, I expect only the Good Lord knows where your daddy is, Ellie. And your daddy hisself, a course.”
Bitsy felt herself stiffen.
“But Mr. Hart told me he is here. Here. Now.”
“Is that right?”
“That’s what he told me.”
You think Mr. Hart was my father, Spank?”
“Naw, Ellie. I don’t think so.”
Bitsy rushed back outside, withdrew her cell phone from her pocket and began to dial.