Lunch at the K-18 Café

by Jay HOLLEY
 

“I don’t know,” her husband said, “why do you ask?”

In her hands she held the local newspaper but she had coffee on her mind. She poured another cup from the carafe. “This thing’s mesmerizing.” she told him, “Nothing like some coffee and a good word jumble. Not even going to guess? ‘What do lady bees wear to the beach?’”

“Did you say something about adding a bee documentary to our Netflix queue?”

Ann folded the newspaper and set it beside the window. She extended a finger and orbited it around the handle of the brown mug, revolving the handle like the hands of a wristwatch as she poured in a cuplet of creamer that wobbled into the black. She craned her neck to look over the customers of the K-18 CafĂ©. “Who are you looking at, sweetie? You’re not here.”

Jack didn’t want to be sure he was sure but he was. “That’s my uncle Ron over there with the cellphone on his belt and his keys beside his bacon.

“The one who…? I thought you thought he lived in Russell.”

“Do you think I should go up to him?” he asked her, unsure what he wanted to hear. “Yeah, last my mother’d heard he was in Russell but she doesn’t hear much any more.”

Ann’s attention swept over the restaurant, swirling around the ketchup bottles queued on the counter, then settling on a poster advertising two dollar Buds and live karaoke on Thursdays. “Too bad we’re only sticking around for the weekend,” she nodded toward the poster, “we could give the locals a run for their money.”

Jack’s mind had de-camped, to the table across the diner. “Whatever feud he and his siblings are playing, whatever grudge he’s got against my mom, whatever went down with the family farm, that’s between him and them not me and him, right?”

Ann took a slow sip of coffee.

Jack looked at the bear of a man with the broad blue shirt telling jokes with his buddies. He was twenty years older, grayer, fatter, but unmistakably Ron. A mustache like that’s as good as a fingerprint. “Wish me luck,” he asked.

Ann squeezed his wrist as he slid from the booth. “I do.”

At the long table of farmers and sons of farmers, Jack extended his hand and said, “Ron. Uncle Ron. It’s been a long time.”

The ruddy face of the man reddened, his confusion plain.

“It’s Jack. Jane’s boy.”

The look of confusion on his broad face swerved through recognition, then fleetingly, joy. “Jack?” Then all expressiveness paled away as if sucked by a black hole.

The bear stood, assessing the younger man, then wiped a rivulet of sweat as it formed on his neck. “What are you doing in town, Jack?” He lowered himself back down while his friends continued talk of weather and Wildcat football.

Jack nodded toward Ann. A waitress was lifting the steel carafe, checking its heft. Ann had opened the newspaper and was penning the squares of the crossword. “Thought I’d show my wife where I grew up. We’re on a road trip.”

Ron cradled an empty mug. He said simply, “That’s nice, Jack, hope you two have a swell time. A real swell time,” then motioned to one of his cohorts for the carafe. The younger man stood for a moment, not quite believing he’d been so readily estranged.

Jack walked back to the booth where his wife was plucking a crinkle-cut fry from his plate. Ann squeezed his palm as he slid into the seat.

“When lady bees go to the beach, they wear bee-kinis,” she said. “Bee-kinis at the beach, get it?”

Jack’s eyes reddened with tears as he laughed and strangled back the urge to punch through the window. He dipped a fry in ketchup then took a slow chomp of the best roast beef sandwich he’d ever tasted.

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