by Melody Feldman
There's a man at the counter and I go to help him, but Sam comes running out of the kitchen holding his broom like a weapon, his eyes red, his teeth bared. "Get." He says to the man, "Get out!" and the man turns quickly on his heels and rushes out, the tail of his coat flapping behind him. Sam relaxes, but I must look confused because his face gets all angry at me. "He was a reporter, Claire." He says, and gives me a look, like don't you know what's going on? But of course I know because this is a small town and everyone knows everything about everyone in a small town.
"Damn reporters." He mutters, and goes back in the kitchen, swinging the broom around. I start wiping down the glass case where all of the day's cookies and pastries will go. I hear Sam in the kitchen chopping tomatoes and cheese, singing along to a Led Zeppelin song on the radio. Today the sandwiches are turkey on rye, ham and cheddar on sourdough, and open-face grilled cheese and tomato on an English muffin. I write the specials in cursive on the blackboard. "Pie?" I yell to Sam. "No pie." He grunts back. "No Angie, no pie." We've been doing this dialogue for a week now, ever since Angie was arrested. Sam says we are showing solidarity for her because that's the thing to do. "Double fudge brownies." He yells back from the kitchen, and I scrawl the words on the blackboard under the title Dessert of the Day. Sam continues to sing and I start removing the chocolate chip, oatmeal and peanut butter cookies from the plastic container in the fridge. I lay all the cookies in their little white saucers on the top shelf of the glass case, removing the plastic wrap as I go. I'm methodical, after the cookies comes the croissants and muffins out of their cardboard box from the bakery onto the second shelf. Sam says no one eats them anyways, so it don't matter that we don't bake them ourselves. Finally, the sandwiches will sit on the bottom shelf next to the fresh salads and sodas and milk. After the glass case is full I wash the counters and the small tables that crowd in the front window, and lay out the magazines and today's newspaper in the wicker basket by the door. "Claire," Sam says, as he finishes laying the sandwiches out, and wipes his hands on his dirty apron, "have you thought about visiting her?" "No," I say, without bothering to ask who he's talking about. Sam nods, and leans against the glass case, his arms crossed. He doesn't look at me, and his voice gets real soft. "I thought I would send her flowers. I don't know about going to see her 'cause we ain't family and all." I nod and fold the silverware into white napkins and place them in the tin buckets on the tables. Sam says that real silverware makes this place feel more like a real restaurant and less like a lunch counter, but he still complains about how many dishes there are at the end of the day. "I don't know." He says, and he rubs his forehead with his palm. "Would you want flowers?" I would want a damn good attorney, I think to myself but I don't want to hurt his feelings. "Flowers sound real nice." Sam nods back, and he starts to whistle softly as he walks back into the kitchen. He's been a mess since the arrest and you never know what mood he'll be in. Sam's been in love with Angie since she first started working here. I think it could be true, but Alice swears so. She says that Sam followed Angie around even when her belly was full with her son and she wore a wedding ring on her left hand. It's not hard to believe, but Alice is bitter and known to lie. One night in the past winter I worked the late shift just me and Sam. He was in one of his moods, and we had barely spoken for the last few hours of the shift. It was past closing, but when the phone rang Sam answered it anyways. "Hello?" he said, "Wait…what?! Calm down. Calm down! Where are you? Yes, I'm coming out right now. Just a minute." Sam slammed the receiver down and reached for his jacket on the peg near the door. He said nothing to me as the glass door swung behind him and he walked out into the chilly night air. I peered through the glass and made out two outlines against the street lamp. It's Sam, his shoulders hunched, his back against the cold; and Angie. Angie with her blonde curls and red nails is crying hard into her hands, her body shaking. Sam puts his arms around her and it's a tender moment. The kind I shouldn't be seeing but I can't stop watching. It feels like hours before Angie pulls away and shakes her head, struggling as she gets back into her car and drives off. Sam comes back into the restaurant without a word, rubbing his hands together and breathing his hot breath on them. I say nothing. I never tell him what I saw. We used to get customers who would line up down the block for a piece of Angie's pie; workers from the nearby factory with overworked bodies and sore limbs, tired mothers with sticky-fingered children, farm-hands with black fingernails and leather skin. They would come early, well before the lunch hour; some ordering sandwiches or milk while they waited. There was always peach and apple pies, and in the summer and early fall, blackberry and blueberry. Angie would stand in the kitchen, singing, and her arms a foot deep kneading the pie dough. When she was too pregnant, Sam or Lisa would do it for her, and then balance the pan on her fully belly so she could crimp the edges. Each day she would make a special pie for the day: banana crème, caramel apple, pumpkin in October. She never missed a day until last Tuesday. Its eleven o'clock now and I've washed and re-washed the counters, the tables, and shined the glass on the case. We haven't had one customer except for the reporter Sam chased away and he didn't order anything. When there was Angie, and there was pie, we would have sold half the sandwiches now, and all of the milk and cookies. But now that there is no Angie and no pie, there aren't any customers either. "Damn," Sam mutters as he returns from the kitchen in a new clean apron, "not a single person today?" I shrug, "It's only eleven. We could get a lunch rush. Sometimes the factory workers work through the early lunch." I'm lying and we both know it. Sam frowns and produces a deck of cards from his apron pocket. "Might as well do something to pass the time." He says. We play Go Fish and War because I don't know any other card games, and Sam is too impatient to teach me anything. He wins the third game of Go Fish in a row, and leans back in his chair. "I just can't imagine her doing it. She was just too sweet to do that, you know? I don't know her that well but she don't seem the type. I've known plenty of rotten women but all Angie cared about was that boy of her. What kind of momma would take away her son's daddy unless he was a sonofabitch?" Sam gets up from our game, walks to the window and stares out into the street. We both hear the cars driving past, not one of them slowing down. "God damn." Sam says and he shakes his head violently. "When did this all get so fucked up, Claire? Angie's in prison and no damn person will come in here besides those reporters just sniffing around for another story. I've been here seven years almost, since I was nineteen, and I ain't seen shit like this before. If it stays like this we'll all be out of work." He opens the door without looking back at me, but I can see there's pain in him. "I'm going for a smoke." He says, and the door swings back. I clean up the deck of cards and take a blueberry muffin out of the case. I eat the top first, just like my momma does, and throw the remaining part into the garbage. It's all ready half past eleven and I keep thinking about what Sam said. It's true that the restaurant has never been like this. Even when times were bad and the factories panicked and laid a lot of people off, we still got customers. Everyone wanted a piece of the damn pie. Sam comes back in smelling of smoke and sits down again staring across the room into space. We don't say nothing to each other until Alice shows up at noon, her dark ponytail swinging behind her. She looks restless and unhappy, and she stands in the doorway and gives us a long, hard stare. "Pathetic." She says. I shrug, but Sam doesn't even acknowledge her, instead getting up and turning back towards the kitchen. There is history between them, and history doesn't always end well. "Pathetic. Not one customer and its lunchtime. Don't people get hungry in this town; hungry for something besides goddamn pie? God, Claire, this whole mess has been bad for business." I agree, but I don't say anything because Alice likes to talk like she's the only person in the room and it don't matter what you say back. She's bossy and can be mean, but she's a hard worker and loyal. After Sam, Alice has worked here the longest, almost six years now, since she left high school at seventeen. Alice has it rough, a mom who drinks too much and a father who works long hours in the field. Neither of her parents speaks English, and Alice said they ran the border when she was only nine years old, but she doesn't talk about that or her family much. I know she's always hated Angie for being all manicured and done up with blonde curls and red lips just to make pie in the kitchen. But Angie's had it hard too, we all have. "There was a reporter that came in this morning." I say, and Alice's eyes narrow as she gets interested. "What did he say?" she asks. "Nothing, Sam chased him out of here before he could say anything." Alice rolls her eyes, and takes a chocolate chip cookie out of the case and starts eating. She puts a dollar in the tip jar, and sits down at the table with me. "There isn't anything any of us could say that the cops and the newspapers don't all ready know. Sam's wrong if he keeps thinking that us keeping quiet is going to somehow help Angie. Shit, none of us know anything anyway." "Do you think she's guilty?" I know Alice does, but I want to hear her say it. "Well, yeah. Don't you? The evidence is all there. She shot him. She shot him five times in the chest for god's sake." I nod in agreement, but I just can't imagine Angie with her red lips and perfect fingernails holding a gun to anyone. When I think about it, how the newspapers all say she was going to leave him and take their son with her, all I can see is Angie singing along to the radio, her hands in the pie dough. Angie started the summer shift about six months after I did. She knew the owner, Suze, in passing and with her husband working long hours at the factory; she said she needed something to keep her busy. I remember her first, she came in with those red manicured nails and her blonde hair curls lacquered with hairspray. It's sticky hot in the kitchen, and Angie wears this short dress with a floral pattern. She's so different from the rest of us in our tee-shirts and stained jeans that I couldn't help but stare. "I don't think he hit her either." Alice continues. "I mean she never was all banged up or anything." I nod. One time Angie came in with a black eye that you could still see through her make-up. She spent half the day in the bathroom crying until her shift ended and she left without a good-bye. I don't know if Alice remembers that, but thinking of the things she's seen, I wonder if a black eye don't mean boo to her. "Goddamn it. What are you two girls doing? Ain't anyone besides me going to work today?" Sam stands there with his arms crossed, and I know he's heard Alice because he doesn't look too happy. "What do you want us to do? There's no one here." Alice says with an edge to her voice. "Find something to do, or I'll make sure Suze docks your pay for the day. She wouldn't be too happy to hear her employees were sitting doing nothing on the job." "Go to hell, Sam." Sam turns on his heels and heads back to the kitchen. "Look around, sweetheart, I'm already there." He yells back. Alice stands up and goes to the counter. I hear the bells of the cash register and I know she is counting the till. I know she is thinking about how we will be short for the month if this keeps up, and that Suze will try to cut our hours down and maybe, if it gets real bad, even close the lunch counter for a few days a week. I know she is worried about paying the bills and rent. I worry too. Alice closes the register and says she is going out for a smoke. When she comes back she has the day's paper with her and she leaves it on the table for me. Angie's face is on the front cover, and her eyes stare back at me as I unfold the paper to read the story. The article talks about how she was a beauty queen as a child and how she married her husband right after high school. How she has a three-year-old son and she worked part time making pies for a local deli, and how she hoped to open a bakery some day. How she volunteered at her son's preschool and made cookies for the bake sales, and threw holiday parties. The story continues, but by now the reporter has given up on writing about how normal Angie is or was, and now has focused on the crime. The paper thinks it's about money. Money, I read and I think of Alice counting the till. "Well?" she asks impatiently, "Any new developments?" Alice narrows her eyes towards the kitchen, and I follow her gaze to see Sam standing in the doorway, his arms crossed. "Nothing," I say, and push the paper across the table towards her. "Nothing we haven't heard before." Alice picks up the paper and unfolds it, her eyes skimming the article. She frowns, and I know she is reading all about Angie's beauty pageant days, about the pie, about her son and the preschool bake sales. Sam is still standing in the doorway, his neck craned as if he could see what Alice is reading from across the room. "Get back to work." He mutters, but neither Alice nor I acknowledge him, and he turns back to the kitchen defeated. "Nothing." Alice says, and closes the newspaper. She stares at the door with the large OPEN sign on it, and the brass bell that rings whenever a customer comes in. "You could go home Claire, there's nothing to do here." I look at the clock, its two now. I shrug, "I'll stay. Sam's been here longer." It's a cop-out, Sam never leaves early, but I don't like the idea of going home and sitting on my couch, watching television. I don't have anything else to do. When Angie was here, she never talked much to me beyond the polite hellos. Sometimes she would talk about her son and his school, or about the weather or any upcoming holidays. We're only two years apart in school, but it felt like decades, her married with a child and me still getting drunk out behind the high school with some of the drop-outs. I wonder what the moms at the preschool think, now that she's been arrested. If they are standing behind her, offering their support and cooking dinners for her son who I heard was staying with Angie's parents. Or if they have turned on her, talking about how she is guilty and deserves to go to prison. In small towns everything gets said and talked about until it's dead in the water. I know all the people know about my daddy who got in a bar brawl and beat a guy so bad that his nose was never set straight and even though my daddy, with his mean streak and love of the bottle, has been gone and dead for three years now they still look at me with the same pity. I know they still whisper about me and wonder if I'll be a rotten apple like my daddy was or a victim like my momma, who worked long hours trying to provide for a man who drank away her money. People talk in circles until the air is thick with all the stories and they sit like a heavy fog. There's a lot of pain in this town, pain no one forgets. The bell rings on the door, and even Sam comes out of the kitchen to see if it's a customer. But it's Lisa, her face red and puffy as if she's been crying. She's breathing heavy, and her body heaves up and down. Lisa's worked here for almost two years now, but today is her day off. She sits in one of the chairs at the table Alice and I are at, and I realize that before in the doorway Lisa's frame is so large that it blocked the child out. He is gripping her hand tightly and burying his face in her flesh. His cheeks are red and his shirt stained, but he has the green eyes and blonde curls like his mother. Lisa is still huffing and Alice brings her a glass of water, and offers a cookie to the boy, but he just stares at her and continues to suck his thumb. "I offered to babysit him this afternoon." Lisa says after taking a large gulp of water. "I thought Angie's parents could use a break, and they were going to head down to the…" she pauses and looks at the boy, "P-R-I-S-O-N to visit her." She spells the word out, but the boy reacts little to her at all. "Would you like a sandwich?" Alice asks him softly, but he doesn't say anything and just buries his face deeper into Lisa's side. "You would think it's the damn middle ages out there. I think they are going to get a lynching squad and hang her in the middle of the town square for everyone to see." Lisa leans forward on her elbows. "Well it's a shame. Everyone has a right to a fair chance." There's an edge to Alice's voice, but Lisa doesn't notice. "That's damn right. You would think that she's already been tried and convicted. Those women clucking around like damn chickens. I ain't ever seen anything like that. Poor Angie all locked up in the little cell, thinking that her old friends will support her in her time of need. It's a damn shame." "How are her parents holding up?" Alice asks. "They're struggling, but they are strong people. She's lucky to have them. Everyone else just can't believe that Roy was an asshole. Just because he coached little league and went to church on Sunday don't mean he wasn't an asshole." "Have you seen her?" Sam asks. "No," she shakes her head. "But her mother said she's in bad shape. She don't want to see Jamie because she don't want him to see her locked up like that. I guess she cries all the time and she's gotten real skinny." Sam bites his bottom lip, and shakes his head. "Sonofabitch." He walks back into the kitchen and we hear the sound of his fist hitting the wall. "He's been a nightmare since last week." Lisa says; her eyes on the kitchen. "When we worked together last week he practically chased down a reporter with a frying pan who said that Angie was guilty. I ain't ever seen a person crazed like that before." "Yeah he's no cake. There was a reporter here this morning too, wasn't there Claire?" Alice asks. "Yeah, Sam was real angry about that." I say, but I don't tell them about what he said about times being bad. "Well, I know he's hurting but we all are. It's just a shame, just a damn shame…" Lisa keeps talking but I am distracted by the child. He is still sucking his thumb, his green eyes wide. I wonder if he understands what is happening, if he knows that his momma is locked up and his daddy is dead. I think about Angie, in that stark prison cell without a curling iron or red lipstick. I wonder if she feels guilt or if she still fights for her innocence. I try to imagine all of this, but the only vision of Angie I get is her in the kitchen, her hands in the pie dough. But there is no Angie today, and there is no pie.
MELODY FELDMAN was born and raised in the Northwest, and has been writing her whole life. She is currently a MFA student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives in Seattle and enjoys reading, hiking and traveling.