Pretense

Short Fiction for Guests of the WordFeeder
Saturday, August 30, 2011

“Did I miss him?! Is he here yet??” Clara rushed through the side door to “The Highway Diner,” the one with the rusted metal “Employees Only” sign next to the buzzer that hadn’t worked in years. Not waiting for the screen to slam behind her or for the gym bag she was carrying to make it inside, she blurted out her question in a loud whisper.

“No,” her cousin Janis, a waitress with no particular future plans, shook her head. “It’s still early.”

Pulling franticly on the doorknob to the “Ladies” restroom, it took her a moment to get the point.

“Hey!” a woman’s voice came from behind the door. “I’ll be out in a couple of minutes!”

“Sorry,” Clara apologized, spinning back, away from the door, toward her cousin. “The locker room.”

“You go. I need to check out front.”

“I’ll be right there. ..Keep an eye out for me – and don’t dare let Alice wait on him.”

Janis was already on her way.

“Hey, promise!”

“Yeah, yeah. I promise,” Janis waved her arm dismissively without bothering to turn around. “Don’t let the slut, Alice, brush up against your man. ..Got it,” Janis mumbled to herself. “..This is way out of control.”

Rushing into the small room with half lockers, the ones Arnold, the owner, picked up cheap when they closed the old bus station, the kind that came with a key you kept in your pocket, Clara dropped her bag in one of the chairs around the table where employees sat when they took a food break. Spreading the double zippers on top of her bag, she reached in, grabbing the jeans, t-shirt, short sox and sneakers which would be her uniform for the next hour or so. And a wood hanger. No way was she going to trash the perfect business suit she’d bought specifically for her afternoon presentation.

Moving quickly, but carefully, Clara started to change.

“Bobby!” Janis had just come around the corner from the front of the diner.

“What?” the young kid who bussed tables asked from the open locker room doorway without taking his eyes off Clara.

“You’re late. Get out there.” Grabbing him from the back, she shoved Bobby out the way, pushing him in the right direction while Clara, too preoccupied to have noticed anyone was watching, finished changing.

“There. ..I’ll work the booths in the corner until I see him come in. After that, you’ll take over while…”

“Hey,” Janis smiled. “Take a breath. I know the drill.”

Out front, the noise of the old diner with surprisingly good meatloaf and great cherry pie, off the two lane road they called “the highway” 30 years ago, was relaxing, just what Clara needed. A few weeks ago, she’d taken on a Monday off to do some antique shopping in the countryside and had stopped by to see Janis, just to say “Hello,” and get a sandwich and some freshly squeezed lemonade to go. Janis was pretty much in charge when Arnold was out and let Clara help herself behind the counter. That was the day “he” stopped by, going out of his way to take the stool across from where she was making her lunch.

“Hey,” he said to her. “What are you making?” He didn’t smile, not really. He didn’t have to. There was an honesty, an openness, something about his voice, the way his face worked with his eyes, that made her instantly comfortable. It was the feeling of having nothing to prove.

Looking up, she hesitated, not used to responding to the banter of strange men. “Sliced turkey and Swiss with a little home style coleslaw on a soft poppy seed roll, a little mayonnaise and some honey.”

“Nice touch, the honey I mean. ..Can I have one? No Cole slaw, but maybe some potato salad on the side?”

“Look, I don’t..” Her first instinct was to tell him she didn’t really work there, but then she reconsidered. Taking a second, she realized how much she liked the way he looked in his dirty cargo shorts and well-worn golf shirt, the way he’d combed his hair with his fingers when he took off the sweat stained baseball cap he wore to keep the sun out of his eyes and set it on the open stool next to him. Turns out, he would tell her later, he was renovating a place a few miles away. “..I don’t really recommend the potato salad. If I were you, I’d skip it and leave room for a piece of cherry pie.”

Forty minutes and two pieces of cherry pie later, he was curious. “Don’t you have wait on people?”

“Not really. ..It’s actually my day off.”

“I’ve got to run,” he told her. “..Do you,” he stood up, put some cash on the counter, more than he had to, and grabbed his hat. “Do you always work lunch hours?”

Blushing slightly, Clara responded with, “Will you stop by if I do?”

Turning his receipt upside down, he slid it across the Formica counter toward her. “Trust me with your cell phone number? I’ll text you the next time I can stop by.”

“I don’t even know your name.”

“It’s..” he paused as if he wasn’t sure about giving it to her.”

“My phone number for your name,” she smiled with her eyes, tapping the butt-end of her waitress pen on top of his receipt, her voice sounding more at home in a board room. “That’s the deal.”

“Pete. Peter Jeffries.”

Nodding her head slightly, Clara steadied the receipt with her left hand and wrote her number with her right, then slid it slowly toward him. Pete met her half way, touching his end for a few seconds before she let go.

Three weeks later, he’d stopped by an impressive eight times for lunch. Three times sitting at the counter, but the other five at one of the booths. Today would be the ninth time. Janis actually let her wait tables, provided she didn’t keep the tips or break anything. No dates yet, but they’d talked and laughed pretty much about everything.

“So how long have you been renovating houses?” she asked him one day over a turkey burger, fries and a slice of Boston cream pie at the counter. Two forks. They’d started sharing desserts the second time they met.

“Ever since I was a kid. ..My father let me help him in the shop we had at home when I was little, and would take me with him when he moonlighted. He and my mother would buy houses, small houses in the country, fix them up and re-sell them. It took every spare minute and dollar they had, but it was how they managed to send my sister and me to college.”

“You went to college?”

“Yeah,” and then he added, seeing that she wanted to know more. “Yale.”

Her expression was curious.

“..I just prefer working with my hands.”

She paused. “So, do you have tool belt?”

“What?”

“Do you have one of those leather belts with places for your hammer and stuff?” She giggled, avoiding eye contact while she cleared the dishes from where a customer had been sitting two stools down.

“Tried one, but it kept pulling my pants down.”

“Sorry I missed that.”

On this ninth day they would meet at the roadside diner, she’d been in such a hurry, so worried she might miss him, Clara had forgotten to wipe off her lipstick. It was pretty much the only makeup she wore, preferring the honesty of a more natural look. (In case you’re wondering, she could afford it, but jewelry wasn’t her style. Not even a watch.)

“Hey.” He knew immediately that she looked different, unable to pull his eyes away from her lips. “Going somewhere?”

“What?” But then she realized why he was staring, the first two fingers of left hand touching her lips. “Maybe I wore it for you.”

“Maybe you’re seeing someone after your shift?” It sort of sounded like he was kidding, but she could tell, beneath the flirting, that he really wanted to know.

“Are you kidding?” Clara reached over to straighten his silverware, flashing her eyes up to see what his face was telling her. “I thought we were going steady?”

“Wow. That’s great news. I didn’t even realize we were dating. ..I mean, shouldn’t we try dating before going steady, or maybe we should just go ahead and move in together and see how that goes.”

“Are you asking?” She knew he was just playing with her.

But then his watch beeped before he could answer. Pressing a button on his Timex, Pete stood up to leave. “I’ve got to go. How ‘bout if I ask you out Thursday?”

“On a real date? You want to go out Thursday?”

“No, I want to ask you out on Thursday,” he smiled back at her, a slow, lingering smile, and then started to walk away.

“Hey!” Clara wasn’t done talking. “Where would we go?”

“Well,” Pete stopped and made a quarter turn to look back at her. “I was thinking,” he said, without missing a beat, “maybe Nassau,” his lips curling slightly just short of a smile, looking her directly in her eyes.

Rolling up her lower lip, all she could do was nod. And he turned and headed for the door, wiggling the fingers of his right hand to wave goodbye to the waitress he knew was still watching.

“What just happened?” Janis came up beside her.

“I think he just asked me to go away with him for the weekend.”

“Not bad for a first date.”

“To Nassau.”

“On a construction worker’s take home? I don’t think so.”

“So he was kidding about the Nassau part, but I like the way he thinks.”

Janis wondered how long her cousin was going to stare at the exit. “Hey. Snap out of it.”

No reaction, but Janis wasn’t giving up.

“So how long are you going to keep up this waitress thing?”

“You think,” Clara turned to join the conversation, “he’d go out with a CEO/Investment Banker?” For Clara, it was a rhetorical question.

“I don’t care how bright he is, do you really think you have anything in common with a carpenter who lives pay check to pay check, if and when he can find work?”

No comment, and then, “Look. He’s real. I like that about him. Maybe he won’t care who or what I am.”

“He’ll care alright, not so much about what you do or how much you make, but about that ‘two years of college before you had to drop out’ crap. ..Didn’t it ever occur to just to tell him the truth?”

“You want me to tell him I was at Stanford while he was at Yale, maybe argue the fine points of which school has the better English Lit department? Just what…”

“Hey. Don’t get testy with me. You lied to him to what? To make him feel smarter than you? When did you start thinking like that? ..More to the point, cousin, when did you decide it was okay to be me?”

No response.

“That’s me, my story you’ve been telling him. What’s so wrong with being you all of a sudden?”

Clara gave her cousin a serious, almost angry look, but then caught a glimpse of the wall clock and began to panic. “I’ve got to get back. See you Thursday,” and she rushed away toward the back. Opening her locker, she grabbed her bag and took her company clothes, hanger included, off the coat rack nearby – just as Pete came back into restaurant. “I’ll put them on at the office,” Clara thought to herself out loud, not wanting to change there in the open, not with Bobby coming and going.

“Hey, Pete.” Janis and he were on a first name basis ever since his third lunch date with Clara. “Forget something?”

“No. No, I thought I’d.. I thought I’d talk to Clara some more.”

“You came back to ask her out, didn’t you?”

“Is she in the back?”

“Uh, no. She had an errand. You just missed her.”

He was clearly disappointed. “Well, uh, tell her I stopped back.”

“Sure.” And he was gone.

In fact, Clara was still out back, outside the diner where the employees parked, where her car wasn’t easy to see from the road. Fumbling through her bag, she’d dropped the keys to her BMW 6 orion silver convertible, top still up, but not for long, onto the gravel parking lot. Bending down to pick them up, she was surprised to hear Pete’s voice.

“Hey.”

Clara stood up and looked over the roof of her car at the man standing next to his new, flamenco (electric) red Volvo S60.

Pete kept talking, looking down at her car, and back at her face, the usual excitement in his voice and around his eyes whenever he saw her, gone. “Nice. ..Tips must be good.”

“It’s a company car,” Clara answered in a lower tone of voice that usual. “I’ve been meaning to…”

“Whose company?”

“Mine. ..And yours,” she asked, nodding toward his car. “Family money?” she speculated sarcastically.

Nothing at first, but then, “No. I’m a partner with a litigation firm downtown.”

“A lawyer? What firm?” but then she stopped him before he could answer. “No, let me guess… Yours.”

“The last name you gave me?” he asked her.

“It’s my mother’s maiden name, in case you tried to Google me. ..And yours? What’s your name?”

“Robin. Robin Peter Jeffries.”

“Comma, attorney-at-law. ..Oh my gosh,” it just occurred to her, “you’re ‘Robin Hood,’ the guy that beat..”

“My friends call me ‘Pete,’ he interrupted, both of them content to stay on opposite sides of her car. It was the first time they’d seen each other outside the diner. “Why the charade?”

“What, you weren’t leading me on? …I thought you were a construction worker.”

“I do remodel houses. It helps me clear my head.”

“That’s not the point.” Clara was right, and knew the next few things they said could take them in one of two directions. Of course, knowing is one thing. Pretending to be something you’re not is something different altogether. “Look,” Clara fell back all too easily into her
corporate persona, “so we both pretended to be simpler people than we are, pretended for a moment we don’t work nights and weekends, or make the salaries we do. So we did it for love.” The word had never sounded so perfunctory, so technical, so matter of fact. “Isn’t that a good thing?”

“I don’t know.” Like all natural litigators, Pete knew instinctively not to snap back an answer until he was certain he knew what he was talking about, or to ask a question without anticipating the answer.

“When were you going to tell me?” Clara asked, as if it made a difference when, in fact, she was just making a point.

“A few minutes ago. It’s why I came back.” And then he turned, slowly, reluctantly, and pressed the button on his key to unlock his driver’s side door.

“You’re leaving? ..What, are you mad at me?”

“No,” he turned his head to look back at her. “It’s just that I think I just blew it with this waitress I was falling for, and now I have to get back to work.”

“You know,” she couldn’t help herself. “I would have thought you’d be driving a Porsche.”

He opened his car’s door, but held for a moment, counting to one before getting in the last word. “I was hoping,” he said without turning around, “it didn’t make any difference.”

-wf

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