Second place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2016.
"Crazy" by Barbara Gorson
Take it from me, I’m a nose to the grindstone, keep to myself kind of girl. The one everyone can count on. The one they call to sub in on the late shift when their baby’s sick or their boyfriend’s on a bender.
The regulars call me Babe, but it’s pretty clear that I’m no babe anymore. I’ve been working this waitress gig for as long as I can remember. Bad choices brought me to this town and bad luck kept me here. Now I’m a fixture, just like the wheezing air conditioner over the door and the jukebox gathering dust in the corner. Down at the heels, down in the mouth, down on my luck -- that’s me.
It was a slow Tuesday afternoon. A young couple, taking a rest from the interstate, sat at the counter whispering and paging through a beat up AAA book. Wayne and Leon sprawled at a window booth —two local good old boys just passing the time before they went home and began hassling their wives. An old guy, with tangled white hair and patched jeans, sat nursing his coffee in the back corner, head down. He’d been coming in pretty regular over the past few weeks and more often than not stiffed me on tips. He didn’t talk much, but when he did his voice sounded like it wasn’t real used to being heard.
I cleared the last of the lunch dishes off the counter and stacked them next to the sink; then brought a jumbo slice of lemon meringue pie and two forks to the young couple. I sat on a stool at the far end of the counter, taking a load off and keeping an eye on Wayne and Leon in case they decided to live it up and order chocolate shakes or a side of fries. The cook was out back on a break. I smelled his cigarette smoke and had a sudden desire to light up, even thought I’d quit a long while back. I stared at my ragged fingernails, remembering when a manicure mattered to me.
A chair scraped along the floor and I looked up. The old guy stood and shuffled over the cracked linoleum to that old jukebox. No one paid it much attention anymore – the music too ancient for the few teens who came in after school and the memories too tough for the regulars coming here their whole lives. He fished out two dimes and a nickel, and slid them into the coin slot. I shook my head. That could have been my tip.
I picked up the coffee pot. The wind kicked up outside. The Open sign rattled its chain and banged against the plate glass. The sign on the door guaranteed a “bottomless cup of coffee” and I was here to make good on that promise.
I heard the hum and click of the jukebox. The first few piano notes floated across the room followed by the swoosh of the drum brushes and the low doooowaah harmony. The fiddle and guitar took turns coming in. Then that clear voice slipped in, singing, “Crazy. I’m crazy for feeling so lonely.” Patsy took it slow, making us wait for the heartrending break in her voice. “Crazy for feeling so blue.”
The old guy began to sing along, “Worry. Why do I let myself worry?” His voice rose, full of loss and yearning, staying right in tune with Patsy. He stepped away from the jukebox, raised his arms and began to sway, shuffling his feet back and forth, eyes closed – a slow dance with a ghost partner.
Wayne and Leon stared, mouths open. The young couple put their forks down, swung around on their stools and found each other’s hands to hold. The tour book fell to the floor. The old guy’s voice filled the room. I felt worn out, blown away -- overcome with sorrow for something long gone. I set the coffee pot down and rubbed the ache in my wrist.
I will never know why I walked over to him, slid into his arms, put his hand on my back and my palm in the cup of his calloused fingers. I laid my head on his shoulder and smelled wood smoke and sweat and felt him relax into me, hold onto me. He stopped singing and started to hum. I heard the whine of the air conditioner and the creak of the floor as we rocked. Traffic rumbled by out on the interstate. I thought I heard him sob, soft and low, and then go silent. I held on to him, moving back and forth again and again.
Slowly, Patsy finished, “I’m crazy for trying and crazy for crying and I’m crazy for loving you.” Her words hung alone in the air, finally fading out. The old guy stepped back, carefully letting me go, as if I might fall to the floor or break apart. And I might have. I was full of feeling, run over by loneliness.
He raised his hand and tipped an imaginary hat to me. “Thank you ma’am” he said and bowed.
“My pleasure, sir.” My voice came out softer than I’d expected. I may have dipped into a slight curtsy or so Leon told me later.
The old guy turned and walked out the door with less limp in his step, his head held high. He didn’t look back. Didn’t leave me a tip either.
A finger snapped over by the window. I saw Wayne wave his hand in the air. “Babe! Hey, Babe! Just what does a guy gotta do to get a refill around here? Dance with you?”
“Worth a shot” I said and grabbed the coffee pot.