We had nothing but laughter left, and this seemed to anger
Cheryl, our waitress, who looked as though she had never laughed a
day in her life. She slid Ritaís refill across the table top and
walked away. The glass stopped perfectly between the two plates.
Not a drop of pink lemonade slipped over the top.
"What was her problem?" I said.
"She doesnít know you," Rita said.
"She doesnít know me?" I said, trying not to grit
my teeth at her. "She doesnít know you."
"She knows me," she said and dunked an ice cube with
her fingertip. The ice popped up to the top and bobbed. I didnít
"I said she knows all about me," she said.
"I heard you the first time." The rest of the diner
had already emptied out, and with the exception of an elderly man
at the counter nursing a cup of coffee, we were the last of the
customers for the night.
"And she knows all about you," Rita offered.
"I thought she didnít know me?"
"I changed my mind," she said. "She knows all
about the crazy noise you can make when you pinch your nose, when
the air escapes through your eye sockets? She knows about
that." She curled her tongue and slid her wet finger into it.
The man at the counter had turned around and was watching Rita
now. He grinned and went back to the steamy smell of his coffee. I
knew what he was thinking. It was a little more hope for getting
"And does she know you like to go to motels and smell
pillowcases?" I said.
"She knows. Sometimes she gets one of her friends who
works at a motel to bring home bags of old pillowcases. Youíd be
surprised at how different people can smell."
"People smell," I said. An ant crawled between our
plates and stopped near Ritaís glass. It looked more like a
period at the end of a sentence. I smeared it on the table until
it was impossible to tell it had ever existed at all.
"Like berries and flowers," she said and brought her
cupped hands under her chin and blinked playfully. She was still
talking about the different ways people smell. "Like sweet
coffee. Others like cabbage. Like old, mushy cabbage. You know
what Iím talking about?"
"Like your hair sometimes," I said.
"Like your breath," she said and stuck out her
"Like between the folds of your stomach," I said.
"Like your palms," she said.
"I suppose she knows you steal the little shampoos and
tiny bars of soap from the bathrooms?"
"She knows all about it and doesnít care." Rita
finished half of the lemonade and slammed the glass down on the
table top. It swirled to the edge without spilling over.
Cheryl walked through a pair of flimsy doors that swung open.
She was carrying a thick black plastic tub used to bus tables. The
milky gray cloth looked like a small cloud in her hand as she
rubbed wet circles across the light blue table tops, occasionally
stopping every now and then to look directly at us.
"I taught her to do that," Rita whispered.
"Donít be rude," I said. "Sheís looking
right at us."
"I taught her to do that."
"What? Bus tables?" I said.
"No," she said. "How to stare."
"You did a good job at it."
"Sheís really good, isnít she?"
"Very professional," I said and patted her hand. Rita
finished the rest of the lemonade with two huge swallows. She
wiped her mouth with the cuff of her shirt and took a deep breath.
The wind was picking up, making the windows rattle.
"At first I tried to teach her your way of staring,"
she said. "Look at someone like you really care about them,
and then donít say anything to them for hours afterwards. Let
the silence say it all."
"It takes years to perfect," I said.
"I know," she said. "We didnít have years, so
I taught her my way. The quick way."
"The way you stare with this dumbfounded look on your
face," she said. "Like someone kicked your teeth
I looked over at Cheryl. "Iíd say she almost has
it," I said. The milky cloud gathered under her hand with
each brush across the table. "She needs to look a little more
pathetic, though. Teach her to grin and cry at the same time. And
maybe talk a lot when she gets nervous. You know how you get all
nervous? Teach her to do that."
Rita picked at her fingertips. She chewed on a strand of skin
hanging below one of her fingernails. She stopped and looked up at
"Iím sorry, were you just talking?" she said.
"Not really," I said. "I was thinking out
"Thinking about what I said earlier?" She rubbed her
finger across the small sheet of grease that had settled in her
plate. It was the last remnant of a barbecue sandwich. She was
sketching tiny hearts in the grease. Rita wanted us to get
married, but I was having a hard time with it.
"Did she teach to play with your food?" I said,
avoiding her question. Rita was trying to get serious, but I wasnít
going to let her.
"Iím tired," she said.
"I asked you a question."
"I know, and Iím tired."
"So did she teach you or not?"
"Letís give it up," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"I donít feel like playing anymore. Am I paying for this
one or are you?"
"Weíll both pay," I said and waved Cheryl over.
She dug into her apron pocket and pulled out folded bills. Like
a magic trick. I nodded and looked at Rita.
"Did you see that?" I said. "Thatís how the
pros do it."
"I saw it," she said and drew a big heart on her
plate. She laughed, which made me laugh. But Cheryl seemed
unaffected by us now.
It was quiet in this place, so quiet that you could hear each
click of the buttons Cheryl pressed on the register. So quiet that
when the man returned his cup to the counter, you could tell from
the hollow sound it made against the counter top that he was
finished. He braced himself against the stools beside him and made
his way to his feet. It was a slow walk out of the diner and into
"I never want to get old," Rita said.
"I hate to rain on your parade," I said.
"Shut up and kiss me," she said, grabbing me by the
front of the shirt and pulling me to her. Just before Cheryl
reached us with the change, Rita pushed me back and laughed.
"You two must be on your honeymoon," Cheryl said. She
said the word "honeymoon" as if it was sticky and clung
to the back of her teeth. Something she worked to get out of her
"You got it," Rita said. She tapped at the window.
Outside, the motel sign across the highway flickered as the breeze
picked up. "Right over there is where itís going to all
"Well," Cheryl said and bit at her bottom lip.
"Itís a big bed too," Rita said.
"Huge," I said.
"Almost too big," Rita said and stared up at Cheryl.
They both smiled at one another.
"Almost too big for just two people," I said. The two
women laughed. I said it again.
"We get it already," Rita said. "Donít be so
"Iím pushy?" I said.
Cheryl gathered the rest of the dishes and disappeared behind
the swinging doors.
"Iím going back there," Rita said and stood up.
"Back to where?"
"Where do you think? Didnít you pick up on that?"
she said and walked over to the swinging doors. She peeked into
the translucent plastic squares that served as windows and waved
"Pick up on what?"
"On the way we were laughing," Rita said. "She
knew what I was thinking, and I definitely knew what she was
"So," I said.
"So, doesnít that mean something anymore?"
"Those days are over," I said.
"Maybe for you," she said and bit a piece of skin
from around her fingernail. "Are you with me or not?"
"Those days are over," I said again and watched the
doors swing shut.
It was late. The idea of sleeping alone was getting better with
each minute. I sat in the empty parking lot. The car speakers were
blown. All I could really make of the songs were the bass parts
flapping against the split papery shell. Nine songs later, Rita
walked out from around the back of the diner.
Her hair smelled like rain and sausage. Like cold grease. I
waited for her to sit back in the seat and catch her breath.
"Remember the old man at the counter?" I said.
She nodded and took her compact out from her purse and checked
her eyes. "Cut on the light," she said, tapping the dull
covering overhead until I switched it on.
"He saw me in the car," I said. "He came over
and started telling me how he was married once to a beautiful
redhead named Girlie."
Rita grabbed me by the chin and looked right at me. Her pupils
were wide, and for a moment, I swear I could have climbed inside
her there. Through her eyes, as if the darkness was a kind of
doorway to enter into forever.
"And did this Girlie have nice legs?" she said.
"Tell me she was someone who broke his heart."
"Thatís where I thought it was going," I said.
"He said she was the only one for him. One minute they could
fight and hate each other, and the next minute, they could fall
into a bed and forget they ever had names. I like that."
Rita laughed and closed her compact, slipping the case into the
mouth of her purse. "That would be nice," she said.
"Guess what happened to Girlie?" I said.
"I donít want to know," she said. She rested her
head against the window.
"This is the good part," I pushed on her like I was
trying to rouse her from a deep sleep.
"I really donít want to know," she said. She
covered both ears when I adjusted the stereo. It was more a thick
buzz than anything else. Sometimes I loved her. And sometimes I
wanted nothing more than to wake up and smell the empty pillow
next to me and know that there was no one else.
"He started crying," I said. "The poor bastard
could barely speak. I guess thatís how it is when you really
really lose someone."
"Girlie must have been a real bitch," she said and
tapped on the light until I cut it off. We passed by the motel and
kept going. The signís neon was a fuzz of red in the rearview.
Ahead, there was only the rain. If we stepped on it, we would make
Norfolk by the morning.
"Tell me something, Rita." I tried my hardest to keep
the car between the white dashes ticking by, but it was as if the
car had a mind of its own. It swerved to one side and then to
another. Though it was difficult, I knew it wasnít impossible to
keep it straight and steady. "If the world was this thing you
could hold in your hands," I said, checking the speedometer,
"what would you do with it?"
JON PINEDA has new work appearing in The Literary Review,
64 Magazine, and Tilting the Continent: An Anthology of
Southeast Asian American Writing (New Rivers Press,
2000). He is a recipient of a 2000 Virginia Commission for
the Arts Grant. His band, Underdog Bandwagon, recently
released six singles on mp3.com/underdogbandwagon, and some day
they hope to plan a tour starting off somewhere like Peanut City,
Virginia and ending up in Walla Walla.