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Outer Banks by Joanne Wright

First place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2020.
This story was also be published in our 2020 Summer Newsletter.

“Outer Banks” by Joanne Wright

I’d stayed too long. A few days before, Bob told me, “My girlfriend is coming.”

It had been a month since we stood on the beach as Hurricane Dennis sent high winds and water onto the coast. That was the end of August. Business at the Steak & Egg had dropped to almost nothing and the glow of summer was gone. It was mostly regulars now—fishermen in from excursions, older couples who liked to vacation after the kids had gone back to school, salty locals who’d made their money for the year and could sit around drinking coffee all morning.

I was pouring coffee for Wayne Eerie. It wasn’t my table, but he had waved his cup when he saw me with the coffee pot. Wayne owned a local art gallery, where he sold his original ink sketches of “Scenes of the Outer Banks,” consisting for the most part of seagulls, gnarled driftwood, sand dunes, and beach grass. What annoyed me was the way he came in acting like some big celebrity who we should be honored to wait on. He drew Outer Banks scenes on his napkins while he drank his coffee, and left those as tips. In his mind, an original Wayne Eerie napkin sketch was worth quite a bit, or at least a buck or two, which is what he should have been leaving for tips.

Dorrie, who was on shift with me, thought these napkin sketches were the cat’s meow; she had a collection of them and fawned all over Wayne. She acted like she could retire off the proceeds of a “Wayne Eerie Napkin Sketch Sale.”

As I was pouring Wayne’s refill, Dorrie fluttered over, all a-titter, with a pot full of steaming coffee. “Oh, Wayne,” she cooed, her elbow poking my side, “I was just making up a fresh pot for you. I know you like the freshest coffee possible.” I thought she was going to push me down. She was afraid I was going to move in on her seagull sketch tip, but I ceded my spot, moving back to my own tables.

It was about then that I saw Bob coming in the door with a woman. It was Bonnie.

It wasn’t like I didn’t know about Bonnie and didn’t suspect she would appear at some point. Still, it was a kick in the gut to see him in here with her. I’d played it cool and espoused an “open” relationship. When we talked about things, we agreed we had a realistic and mature relationship. I came out of those conversations feeling exceedingly evolved, with my mantra: “Whatever you have with her is between you and Bonnie and what we have is between you and me.” Right now, though, I felt like shit.

The hostess sat them at one of my tables.

“Hi Bob,” I said as I approached their table, giving Bonnie a glance of acknowledgment. “Coffee?”

“Hey, Sue. Sue, this is Bonnie; Bonnie, Sue.”

“Hi, Sue.” She was perky.

“Nice to meet you,” I said with as warm a smile as I could muster. And then just stood there.

“I’ll have some coffee,” Bob finally said. When I started to pour, I felt my hand tremble. Across the room, Wayne was waving his check and a five dollar bill in my direction.

“Excuse me, I’ll be right back.” I headed over to Wayne, grateful for once that he was demanding immediate attention.

“Hey darlin’, I just need some change.” I knew it wasn’t going to be for a tip; I saw his latest napkin sketch under the salt shaker. I hoped that Dorrie was busy elsewhere because I needed this distraction.

I cashed Wayne out, then cleared his table. As I was heading back to the waitress station, Dorrie almost ran into me head-on. “Did Wayne leave?” she asked, craning her neck to see if he was still on the premises.

“Don’t worry Dorrie, I’m not taking the sketch, ok? It’s right here.” I nodded toward my right hand, which held a saucer and cup and the sketched-on napkin underneath.

She averted her gaze. “Oh, I’m not worried about that!” She was smiling a sugary smile now and her accent seemed thicker. “I just didn’t want you to have to worry about extra tables. Your side is so full. Let me take this stuff for you.” She attempted to pull the saucer, cup, and napkin out of my hand.

“Dorrie, it’ll be easier if I just set it down her, okay?” She finally moved aside so I could maneuver to the wait station and set the dirty dishes into a bus tray. One of Dorrie’s tables needed attention. She hesitated before heading over.

“I’ll leave it right here, for God’s sake.” I put the napkin by the coffee maker.

The few minutes of banter with Dorrie had taken my mind off Bob and Bonnie, but then I saw them again. They were smiling, holding hands. That was it. My eyes watered and my nose started to run. I grabbed a napkin from the counter and hid behind the wait station. I tried to blow my nose without making much noise. What the hell was I going to do? There were customers I had to deal with. I had to face Bob and I couldn’t go out there crying. I could ask Dorrie to take Bob and Bonnie. Tell her I had too many other tables going. I blew my nose again, wiped my eyes. That’s what I’d do.

Dorrie whipped around the corner. “Sue, can you…what the hell?” She stopped. Stared. “What’s that stuff on your face?” I looked at her, perplexed. “It’s all black—it’s on your hands!” As I looked down at my hands, she noticed the wadded napkin the same time I did. I realized what I’d done. “What the fuck are you doing? Are you trying to spite me?” she hissed.

I dropped the wadded napkin at Dorrie’s feet. I headed towards the bathroom, a Wayne Eerie original all over my face and Dorrie trying to figure out how to preserve it. I walked past the bathroom, out the back exit, and smiled when the screen door slammed behind me.