Jake pushed the piece of apple pie across the diner table. He sighed. Two interminable years had passed since Jessie died. For reasons only someone left behind could understand, he continued to visit their favorite diner. The smells of toast, hash browns, and grilled onions whispered “home” to him in a way that even his own house couldn’t. It didn’t matter what else was on the limited menu there. Everything smelled of onions and breakfast food. His own house smelled of creeping loneliness and the distant moldy smell of someone living alone.
Two or three times a week after work, Jake distractedly drove the two miles out of the way. He climbed out of his car with his favorite book tucked under his right arm and went inside Joe’s. Everyone knew him there, even as the cast of employees and characters rotated with fresh faces from the local school and tired, worn-out faces of those who needed a job anywhere they could get it. If it was available, he walked to the farthest booth. Every couple of Saturdays, Jake found himself leaving the house and driving to Joe’s, even before he had his first cup of coffee. At 5:30 a.m., he was already sitting in the far booth cradling a cup of coffee.
The joke was on him, all this time later. Neither Jessie nor Jake really liked the food at the diner. He was sure that not many people did. No matter what they ordered, they knew that the apple pie for dessert would fill them.
The first time Jake went to Joe’s, Jessie talked him into it. “It’s so bad! You have to try it, Jake.” He said no until she took his left hand into hers and pushed it against her chest, and smiled. He couldn’t say no to that trick. When they were married, that’s how Jessie recited her simple vows.
At Joe’s, they laughed about the soggy toast and buttery hashbrowns, which were both overcooked and partially uncooked. That sort of result took either talent or blatant disregard for food. The owner didn’t seem to mind being ribbed about it. She was a small woman who moved there from Alaska.
Jake disliked the food so much that they started eating at Joe’s at least once a week. It’s the sort of inside joke that only close friends or lovers would appreciate. While they seldom left with full stomachs, they left with a belly full of apple pie and an hour of conversation. Joe’s was the place where they connected. For four years, they were as happy as any couple could be.
In June, almost three years ago, Jessie started coughing one Wednesday morning and didn’t stop. Within a week, Jake sat with her in the oncologist’s office to hear the doctor tell Jessie, “It is too far advanced for treatment. Here’s the name of another doctor for a second opinion. Go as soon as possible.” They went to Joe’s after the appointment with the oncologist. It was the first time they sat silently across from one another. The fear in Jessie’s eyes was a mortal wound for Jake. He knew a single word would shatter them both.
Four months later, Jessie died at home.
Since her death, Jake ordered two pieces of apple pie during each visit to Joe’s. He left both untouched after every meal. It was wasteful, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop. He didn’t know if it was superstition, grief, or another long con he was playing against himself.
Today, a new waitress came over to take his order. Jake couldn’t guess her age. Her hair was hidden inside a ballcap, but her face was crowded with wrinkle lines. When she took his order, she looked at him directly without diverting her gaze. Her eyes were alive with interest. Jessie did the same thing when they met. It was one of the things that convinced him that she was for him. People often said they wanted to be heard. For Jake, being seen was blatantly magical.
After he pushed away his mostly untouched plate, the waitress returned and asked him if he wanted any pie. “Yes, two pieces of apple pie. Thank you.” Jake looked at her name tag. “Alicia,” it indicated.
In a moment, Alicia returned. She put a slice of lemon pie in front of him and another on the other side of the table.
“Do you mind?” she asked him, pointing at the empty side of the booth across from him. “I’m on break for twenty minutes.” Before Jake could answer, she smoothly slid into the booth to sit across from him.
As she adjusted the pie of pie in front of her, she looked at him directly again.
“I don’t eat lemon pie, Alicia. Just apple.” It sounded lame to him as he said it.
“Jake, that’s not true. You don’t eat apple pie either. That’s okay.” Alicia winked at him.
Jake blushed. Through no dishonor to Jessie, the world around him suddenly diminished to Alicia’s face as she looked at him.
“I don’t know what to say, Alicia.”
“You don’t have to say anything, Jake. Just sit and be with me and enjoy the pie. Everything else will follow.” She winked again.
He smiled at Alicia and took his first bite of pie in two years. His new favorite was lemon. She met his gaze as they began to talk. *