The Booth

Fletch sat restlessly in a booth near the back of Joe’s diner, a place with food that was close to inedible. He loved the owner, though, a small, wiry woman who seldom hesitated to remind everyone that she was from Alaska. She hurled insults like candy. Today, he was glad to see she wasn’t cooking. She ranked dead last in cooking ability compared to anyone.

“What will you have? Something on the light side? Your pudge is a bit pronounced, Fletch.” In case her words weren’t barbed enough, she pulled at her imaginary love handle on one side.

“I’m meeting someone, so just coffee for now, Ellie. Thanks.” He ignored her insult. He did smile and shake his head, though.

“You’re meeting someone? Didn’t the last girl show you up? I’m going to start charging you booth rental.” She walked away before he could reply. She was a terrible cook but amazingly fast and efficient. He assumed she went to bed at night fully clothed.

Fletch indeed had lousy luck with women. The last two women no-showed, and the last one didn’t call, email, or even pretend to explain. “Ghosted” was the phrase his co-worker offered. At least a ghost has the courtesy to haunt you, he thought. Over the last two years, Fletch lost most of his enthusiasm. At forty-five, love was a picture of a menu inside a window he couldn’t even reach. He endured several dates, horrified looks of surprise when he asked someone out, and empty inboxes and swipes on the two dating websites he foolishly attempted to use. He was outclassed at every turn. He joked that he lost his touch being married for twenty years. The truth was that he never had the touch. His wife asked him out, told him they were getting married, and then failed to tell him she was in love with her dentist. He found out the hard way by finding them on the picnic table in the back yard on July 4th. He hated that picnic table already. Seeing his wife on it in that position convinced him to make firewood out of it.

Ellie returned in five minutes. She put a cup of coffee on the table in front of him. Then, she put a plate of hashbrowns and a hamburger patty with grilled onions next to it. Before he could ask, she said, “Who are you kidding? She ain’t coming. And you’re like clockwork with the patty and onions. And I didn’t cook it!” She placed a finger against her lips to tell him to be quiet. As before, she pivoted, push the empty food tray next to her hip, and marched off. “Hopefully to Alaska,” Fletch whispered.

On a whim, Fletch decided he wanted to try Sriracha on his burger patty, so he got out of the booth and made his way around the “L” of the diner and went to the waitress alcove where most of the good extras were stored. As he passed the register, he heard the doorbell’s chime and the other waitress murmuring with the new customer.

Going back to his booth, he held up the Sriracha bottle to show Ellie, who rolled her eyes at him. “You better have insurance if you’re going to eat that, old man!”

As he neared his booth, he could see that a woman sat with her back toward him in the next booth. She wore an absurd purple hat. Her reddish-blond curly hair cascaded down past the collar of a bright blue jacket. She held a purple cellphone against her right ear. Scooting into his booth, he thankfully realized he could barely hear her soft voice.

He squeezed the Sriracha onto the plate in an optimistic tiny mountain. As he did, he realized he could make out the words of the woman in the booth behind him. “Remember to send a card to Raymund. And another to his Mom. Find the antique desk Joyce wanted tomorrow before you forget again.” Fletch guiltily tried not to listen. Her voice was soft and sweet, like someone who never raised her voice. She continued to murmur for another thirty seconds until Ellie approached.

“Hey, Sarah! Stole another hat, didn’t you?” Ellie was the same with all of her customers. “Do you want decaf this time? I know you get a bit nervous.” Fletch heard Sarah laugh softly. He tried to guess her appearance. He couldn’t imagine based on her voice.

He listened as Sarah and Ellie traded barbs back and forth like an elaborate tennis match. Sarah was getting the best of Ellie, something Fletch thought to be impossible. When Sarah asked her, “Can I buy you a gallon of Oil of Olay, Ellie? Those small bottles aren’t working out for you,” Fletch couldn’t help himself. He laughed loudly and involuntarily.

“Oops!” Sarah said behind him.

Ellie stepped forward a few steps and said, “Eavesdropping, huh? I would have never figured that being a peeping Tom wasn’t enough for you.” She went back to Sarah and apologized for the rude intrusion. They both laughed. Fletch felt his face get hot.

When Ellie marched off, he was surprised when Sarah asked from the other booth, “What’s your name? Is Ellie your mom or what?” Fletch laughed again.

“I wish,” he said. “I’d love to inherit this terrible diner when Ellie dies. It is my dream to serve terrible hashbrowns.” This time, Sarah laughed.

“Oh? How much does being a food critic pay? I’m interested in getting paid for doing what I already do.” She paused to give him a second to consider his reply. Fletch could tell she was accustomed to rapid-fire wit.

“What do you do? The message you left was all over the place.” Fletch instantly realized he admitted to hearing her entire phone call.

“Believe it or not, that message was for me. I’m a stern boss. I find hard-to-find items for people. And they pay me. Can you believe it?” He could hear the smile in her voice.

They continued to talk until Ellie returned with Sarah’s food.

Surprisingly, Ellie put the plate and cup of coffee down in front of Fletch. He arched an eyebrow. “Hold on, buster,” she told him.

She went to Sarah’s booth.

“Sarah, I’d like you to meet Fletch. He is a good guy but got showed up for another date. Besides being the world’s best cook, I am a renowned matchmaker. So, save all of us some trouble and sit and eat with Fletch. The food’s on me, especially since Fletch will try to duck the check anyway.” Sarah laughed loudly. Fletch already loved her laugh.

He felt her weight shift away from his back on the other side of the booth seat. In a couple of seconds, he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Oops,” Sarah said and laughed nervously when she accidentally put her hand on his shoulder instead of the edge of the booth. Sarah smoothly swung herself into the booth.

Fletch looked across at her. She was smiling. He didn’t mean to stare, but her eyes seemed to be smiling at him, too. An awkward pause stretched into several seconds. Finally, Fletch looked away. “I don’t bite,” Sarah said. “Not at first.” Surprised by her joke, Fletch looked back up at Sarah’s face and laughed.

Ellie, who still stood there, said, “See? I told you. I’ll leave you to it.” She walked away. She turned and looked at Fletch. “But I expect to be invited to the wedding.” She cackled in glee as she marched off.

“Tell me about this awesome date you had lined up, Fletch,” Sarah said, still looking at him intensely.

Thirty minutes later, Ellie returned to see that their plates were cold and untouched.

Six months later, she laughed when she opened the envelope to find an invitation to the wedding.

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{Joe’s Diner was in another story I wrote. I wrote a novella about the owner and the place but couldn’t give it the life it deserved. Now, I visit it in my mind.}

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