She comes in at the start of the graveyard shift, the door closing behind her, muting the hiss of rain and the deeper slosh of the interstate beyond. She is closing her umbrella, shaking off the water.
It’s been twenty years, but I still recognize her – the red-brown bob, the way every movement is exaggerated and bird-like, designed to draw attention. It still works; I can’t deny it.
Martin has left me alone to run the place. Of course, he couldn’t leave without reminding me of all the catastrophes I might cause by my neglect. He makes out like we’re managing a nuclear power plant. Given the amount of shit we microwave, maybe that isn’t so far from the truth.
She stands behind the African American guy with the cornrows, gazing around like she’s never been in a place like this before.
Miss Dean. Miss Dream. Smiles and laughter and a hint of steel. I picture her, framed by the chalkboard but forever bouncing between one edge and the other, always in motion. All the boys in the class had a crush on her, all of us desperate to impress. We were eight.
I guess she’s always been a presence in my life, all the way through high school, through college. Her words have echoed down the years. You can do anything you want! Be anything you want!
The lies they tell to kids.
I serve Cornrows – a clipped series of questions and answers like a multiple choice test. I’ve made it a point of honor never to actually say, ‘Would you like fries with that?’ I’m like Bogart, never quite saying, ‘Play it again, Sam.’
Usually I’d take both orders at the same time, but I make her wait until Cornrows gets his food. He takes a seat near the door and Miss Dean – does she even have a first name? – approaches the counter. She doesn’t look annoyed at the delay like some customers would.
‘What’ll it be?’
‘Umm …’ Her eyes flicker over the boards again, as if her option might have magically disappeared. ‘A quarter pounder and an orange juice, please.’
She really doesn’t recognize me. No reason she should. Like I said, it’s been twenty years.
‘No, I’m good.’
I ring it up.
I want to tell her that I should have studied Law, like my parents said. I want to tell her that a Film Studies major is like betting everything you have on red. I want to tell her that three years is too long to spend making a silent, ten-minute, black-and-white crime thriller when all you get from hauling it around Sundance and Telluride and Tribeca is damning, lukewarm applause.
No point saying any of this if she doesn’t recognize me.
She takes a long time scrabbling through her pocketbook. The umbrella must have a hole because there are droplets of water in her hair, suspended like diamonds. At the parting, the auburn gives way to gray. Eventually she pays, having scraped together three crumbled dollar bills and a handful of quarters and dimes. This fishing around for change is done without any of her usual sense of performance. This is the thing she doesn’t want people to see.
If would be okay if she was just older. I expect her to be older.
‘I’ll bring it over when it’s ready,’ I tell her.
She attempts to make herself comfortable on one of the chairs near the rain-flecked window.
I take a juice from the fridge and zap her quarter pounder. I add a fillet of fish, fries, an apple slice and a coffee. A couple packs of ketchup, just in case. I carry the tray over and set it down on the table. I feel her eyes on my back as I return to the counter, but she says nothing. By the time I’m at my station again, she is hunched over her food.
A few minutes later, Cornrows leaves with a nod in my direction. I surreptitiously watch Miss Dean nibble while checking my cell phone. I don’t know how I’d survive this job without it. Maybe I’d read a book. Like Martin would allow that.
There’s a text from Emilio – another idea for a short film. How many times do I need to tell him? It’s not ideas we’re short of, it’s funding. I guess I can’t fault him for enthusiasm. I’ll reply later, when I’ve figured out what to say, how to say it.
I look up to see Miss Dean standing at the counter, putting her tray down. The burger has gone, but most of the rest of her meal is untouched.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t … I mean, thank you, but I don’t know what to do with all this. I just can’t …’
I nod. I try to think of something else I can offer her, something that isn’t loaded with fat and salt and sugar.
‘It’s Jon, isn’t it?’
A jolt, like being jerked out of sleep. ‘Yes, ma’am.’
Now I can tell her. The restaurant is empty. It’s the ideal time. I can tell her everything.
‘Jon,’ she repeats.
I nod like a mute man, like an idiot.
Perhaps I’ve got this all wrong. Perhaps I should be thanking her. There were no guarantees I’d have made it in Law. I could have ended up here anyway. How easy it would be to make these thoughts into speech, to start a conversation. But I am wordless, freeze-framed. The only thing I can tell her about is disappointment, and she looks like she’s had her fill of that.
She nods and bites her lower lip.
‘Thank you,’ she says, and I watch her retreat.
She struggles to push the door with her hip while opening the umbrella that doesn’t quite keep her dry. For a moment I think about helping her.
Hiss of rain. Fade to black.