By Dani Renee
Brown leaves battered Mr. Cotter’s beat-up truck as he pried open its door. He shook his head. How much time had withered since he last drove it? A year. He sighed, remembering the plot he puttered it to last. The once-green paint peeled in his hands like a snake shedding its skin.
A lone raindrop teetered on the edge of the windshield as if trying to decide whether to continue trailing down the dirt-smeared pane. “You sure need a bath.”
Mr. Cotter sniffed his worn woolen jacket. “Guess that makes two of us.” With a shrug, he scuttled onto the seat, dust puffing into the air. The scent of leather replaced the odor from his clothes. He slid his hands over the scuffed steering wheel, and another sigh resonated from his lungs as he turned over the ignition.
The clug, clug, clug of the engine burst into the cab, each chug louder than the last until it purred like the old days. How often had he sat here with the Mrs. perched beside him? He glanced over his right shoulder as if she might materialize in the spot that belonged only to her.
But she’d been gone for three years now. He inhaled deeply, hoping to catch a remnant of her lavender shampoo. Why had the good Lord taken her before him? His lovely bride of fifty years. Didn’t she deserve to outlive him? Or did she have more peace because she departed first? She didn’t have to muddle through life without her beloved. Folks clapped him on the back for living so long. They didn’t realize that days without her were like moonless nights spent waiting for the sun’s rays.
He still plucked wildflowers from the field behind their house, but without her playful spirit, it wasn’t the same. When he unlatched the glove box, a small bouquet of dried lavender sprinkled onto the floor. “You always did put flowers in my durn glove box.” Tickled with the memories of her stashing all sorts of colorful blooms inside, he caught himself laughing. Something he needed to remember to do more.
He pushed the compartment closed and shifted into reverse. “Still runs. That’s a perk.”
Pointing the truck toward Amber Grove, he eased up the small hill to the center of town. He tucked the prized bouquet of fresh lavender he’d gathered in the bucket seat next to him. On the way to its rightful owner. “You always liked them flowers.”
He pulled up under the first willow that lined the long, windy path to her grave. He couldn’t imagine her confined to one space. “You sure liked to roam, didn’t you?” He smiled at the gold-tinged clouds overhead. “I hope you get to roam up there.”
Legs aching, he marched up the knoll. After a long day’s work, the last thing he wanted to do was walk. But each step brought him closer to his love. Except he couldn’t hold her hand or tangle his fingers in her hair anymore.
Kneeling, he positioned the bouquet in front of her slab. “Your favorite.” The purple stalks contrasted with the white alabaster. He’d used his life’s savings to buy that piece of stone. Only the best for the Mrs.
“It’s been a while, I know. If you want to hit me over the head like you used to, that’d be all right with me.” Dew seeped through his pants. “Lavender turned out good this year. Purty, just like you always kept it.”
Droplets trickled down under his collar, but he didn’t notice until speckles covered her stone. “The rain’s come. You loved to dance as it pattered the earth. Care for a jig?” He rose from the ground and glided into an imaginary dance.
“Do you always waltz in the cemetery?” Jane strolled toward Mr. Cotter, her red eyebrows raised. A floral umbrella shielded her from the drizzle.
Mr. Cotter dropped his hands to his sides. He supposed he looked rather foolish. “Nah, just when it rains.” A chuckle rumbled from his belly. It felt good for his soul.
“Ah, well, that’s another story.” Jane bent over to peer at the flowers. “You make a magnificent bouquet, Mr. Cotter.”
Mr. Cotter tipped his fedora. “Thanks. Means a lot coming from the local flower extraordinaire like yourself.”
A nudge on his shoulder made his skin jump. People rarely touched him, much less in a gentle manner. “You must miss her a lot.”
“Like life itself. Enjoy the time you have with Jack while you can.”
Jane hugged herself and stared into the distance. “Every moment.”
“You’re blessed, my dear. Remember when I mentioned that you two should date? You purt near bit my head off.” Jack and Jane had been an item longer than they cared to admit or acknowledge. Sometimes the mind was slower than the heart. It had to catch up with what the heart already understood.
The first time he saw the Mrs., he knew she was the one. Convincing her of that fact took a long year, though. She avoided him at all costs. At senior prom she finally accepted a dance from him. He’d believed that was all he needed. One twirl around the auditorium and she’d be his. He lifted his toes in remembrance of that night. The miscalculated steps, her gloved hand in his, the glow on her face.
“Good to see you, Mr. Cotter.” Jane wandered back to her car and again he was alone.
The rain streamed down in sheets, cascading over the brim of his hat. “Did you hear that Fourth of July got cancelled this year? Someone forgot to purchase the fireworks, so they postponed it three days. Can you imagine how the founding fathers would have tsked?”
He shivered. He’d best leave before the wetness sank into his bones. “Until next time, Sylvia. I miss you.” His tears mixed with the rain sweeping down his face.
With determined steps, he trudged back to his truck. “At least we got a bath today, huh?” He patted the steering wheel and pressed his foot onto the clutch, flinching. The weather conditions had set off his arthritic knee, but it didn’t hurt as much as the empty seat beside him.
“Thank you, Lord, for another day. A day that is Yours alone. How can I be of service to You?” Whenever self-pity tried to smother him, he prayed. For his life, for the people he cherished, for the town. One benefit of being a hermit: it gave him lots of time at the foot of the throne.
“Lord, hug Sylvia for me, will ya? Tell her I can’t wait to swing her around again. Now, don’t be laughing. You said I get a new body up there. I’m counting on that.” Enjoy your rest, my love. I’ll see you when it’s my turn.
At the growl of his stomach, he cruised to the one place that would satisfy it. The diner on the corner of Main.
Mr. Cotter opened the diner door and shuffled to the stainless steel counter. Doris Day crooned over the speakers as he lowered himself onto a red barstool that squeaked under his weight.
A cheery young waitress appeared behind the pie stand. Where she came from, he hadn’t a clue. It was as if she’d transported herself there like Samantha from Bewitched. “What can I get for you, Mr. Cotter?”
Mr. Cotter grabbed a wrinkled paper menu and perused the items. “The pancakes or the biscuits and gravy?” He dug into his pocket for a quarter. “Heads pancakes. Tails biscuits.” The coin flipped and glittered in the sun now peeking through the clouds. “Biscuits it is.”
“Even if it’d been heads, you would have ordered biscuits anyway.” The waitress winked at him. What was the world coming to? A young gal like her winking at an old codger like himself.
“Good thing this coin only has tails.” He grinned and returned it to his soggy pocket. “Where is everyone?” His eyes roved the restaurant. Not a single other soul.
“Out at the gold mining festival.” She arched an eyebrow like he should have heard about it.
“Good. Means I get some peace and quiet.” He swigged the coffee she’d slid in front of him. Just a dash of sugar. The way he always drank it.
Eyes closed, he breathed in the heavenly aroma of greasy fries and coffee. The only sound came from the clank of each salt shaker as the waitress refilled it and set it on the counter.
The door banged, and a whoosh of cold air brushed his ankles, then traveled up his gnarled spine. The clack of a female assaulted his ears. He willed her to backtrack, to think of a better restaurant to eat at, but her voice only drew closer. Too close.
“Dearie, can I get a nice hot cup of coffee?”
What was dribbling into his shoe? He flung his eyes open. A woman with wimples of wrinkles that puckered across her forehead asked for a sandwich not on the menu. Her dress, fire hydrant red, jutted out in a poof, reminding him of a bell. Why did she have to squeeze in beside him when comfier booths abounded?
“Not at the festival today, Gladys?” The waitress poured coffee and wiped drips tarrying down the side of the mug.
“I went. Took my quilting to display. I just need a bit of silence. You know how those hens start clucking.”
Mr. Cotter muffled a chuckle as he pictured the scene. Women did act like hens. Throw them a few compliments and good food and they were happy. But why was she still gabbing if she sought quiet? His Mrs. knew how to be still and soak in the small moments. Of course, he could listen to her sing-song voice all day and never tire of it.
Biscuits and gravy materialized under his nose, and he drowned out the talking. He swore that the waitress must have the gift of speed. He hadn’t even seen her hurry away to fetch his meal. After bowing his head in prayer, he dove into the pile.
“So then I told them I needed some coffee. They’d run out. I know Mrs. Howl just lost her husband, but to forget coffee? That’s a crime on a dreary afternoon like this.” Pinky in the air, the woman sipped her coffee like the queen of England. No matter that the beverage only cost her a dollar. Without question, she’d never suffered the loss of her other half. Some days he’d set two plates at the table only to chide himself a moment later.
“That is a shame.” The waitress sighed and went to tackle the pepper.
Tangy sausage rolled over Mr. Cotter’s tongue as he shoved a forkful in his mouth. The umbrella Gladys had hung on the edge of the counter shed water on his loafers again. With a kick, he attempted to shake the fabric dry. Instead, he struck her shin.
“Ouch!” Gladys swiveled on her barstool and, for the first time, showed the full view of her face. It wasn’t pleasant. Or, rather, it would have been if it wasn’t a bright red that matched her dress.
“Sorry.” Mr. Cotter took another bite and focused on a scratch along the rim of his plate.
“You really shouldn’t go kicking people.”
“You shouldn’t go dripping on people.” He pointed to the umbrella and dismounted his barstool, which required more effort than he cared to admit. He plopped onto the next stool over and stretched across the cold surface to drag his food within reach.
“I’m sorry.” The woman’s tone changed, and he searched her face. Her apology did seem sincere.
“Don’t worry ’bout it.” Another wad of gravy-drenched biscuit in his mouth, and he felt a presence beside him. She’d exchanged seats and now roosted on his original stool.
“I’m Gladys. I guess we got off on the wrong foot.” Her red lips crinkled at her own joke.
“More like wet foot.” Fork in hand, he scooted his plate over to another stool and heaved onto it.
“You new here in town?” The hen clucked in his ear. Maybe she was more like a rooster with all that red. Noisy too.
“Born and raised here. Name’s William. Willie.” Biscuits crumbled onto his chin. A glance to the left warned him that he had nowhere to go except the floor. Maybe if he sat criss-cross applesauce, she’d cease pestering him. Yet he wasn’t sure he could haul himself up again if he scrunched himself down there. His legs weren’t as flexible as they used to be.
“Gladys, would you like a piece of pie with that coffee? Fresh apple.” The waitress arrived with two slices and placed them in front of each customer.
“Thanks, hon. Just what I need.”
“Thanks.” Mr. Cotter cut into the pie, praying that it might shut the woman up. Today was meant for silence. To honor the memory of Sylvia.
“This is delicious.” A smack of her lips and she chewed without further comment.
“You two look straight out of the fifties.” The waitress snapped a photo of them with one of those new-fangled phones.
“I sure do miss those days. The days without cell phones. Where a guy simply asked a girl out and took her to the movies. Not all this online dating and such.”
Now that was the first opinion from her mouth that Mr. Cotter could agree with. “You mean you don’t enjoy staring at a screen all day?” Kids hadn’t a clue what they were missing.
“I’d rather visit a malt shop. Oh, I miss those.” Her gaze drifted to the whiteboard containing two shakes. Oreo and banana. Not the variety of his youth.
“And the cars. Not like those plastic ones today.”
“Or the movies. The golden age of musicals.” Gladys hummed the first few notes of a tune that seemed familiar and swayed her head, jostling her poodle bob.
“And the way girls would curl their hair. Actual style.” Thankful for the fedora that concealed the white wisps clinging to his scalp, he tugged it lower as if it might fly off in the windless diner.
A winsome expression overtook her face. “I hear they have a classic car show today.”
After clearing his throat, he shoveled in one and two more chunks of pie. “That’s nice.”
“It’s a shame to go alone.” Her cherry red fingernails traced doodles over the counter, scattering crumbs to the side.
This apple pie sure hits the spot. He fought a burp threatening to tumble out.
“Is that truck out front yours?” Her eyes met his. A warm amber color like cooled caramel.
“Yup. She might be rusty ’round the fenders and dented up, but she’s mine.” He rummaged for the dollars mingling with lint and an old peppermint at the bottom of his pocket.
“Classic.” As if possible, she leaned closer. Another inch and she might collapse onto the floor, a dangerous prospect at their age. She tipped, wobbling, and he grasped her arm to steady her. “Willie, would you care to join me at the event today?”
Why would he? She was an annoying chatterbox and busybody. “I don’t do crowded festivals.”
“Come with me.” Her dimpled hand rested on his. A forkful of apple pie clattered to the counter. “I could use a friend.”
Friend. He didn’t have many of those. Not since Sylvia. She’d been his best and only friend. “I don’t do friends either.” He gulped the last flake of crust and rinsed his mouth with coffee. He’d learned early on not to get attached.
“Maybe I’ll see you around town sometime.” The clatter of her heels on the tile filled the diner. A smirk played on her lips.
“Unlikely.” He scraped his finger around his plate, collecting the remaining globs of fruit.
The inrush of air chilled as the door closed. Silence crept in again, but it only lasted about five seconds.
“Why didn’t you go with her?” The waitress plunked her elbows onto the counter. What was wrong with all of the females in this joint? They were behaving like lovesick puppies.
“Why would I.” It was a statement more than a question, but the flickering green eyes behind the blonde lashes didn’t seem to comprehend that.
“She’s lonely, you know.” She picked up a rag and wiped the counter where Gladys had sat. “Ever since she lost her husband three years ago.”
Gladys lonely? He would’ve guessed she was the life of the party. Did she sob at random moments? Did she find shreds of her past and struggle to respond?
A warm pang spread through him. Despite his daily prayers, had he missed the task the Lord planted right in front of him? Maybe Gladys did need a friend. Maybe he did too.
New resolve propelled his arthritic knee as he bounded toward the door whistling “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
He pushed on the frosty glass, but it didn’t budge and he pretty near smacked his forehead into it. He squinted at the minuscule sign above the handle. Pull. With a huff, he changed tactics. Outside, he scanned the sidewalk for Gladys. “How in the world did she trot off that fast in those durn heels?”
Now on a mission, nothing could stop Mr. Cotter. Not his fear of ridicule. Not his fear of people. Not his reclusive nature. He charged down the street to the event.
A jumble of yellow mustangs gleamed from the corner lot of the bank. Amongst the bright metal, a pop of red paced back and forth. Gladys, with a furrow to her brow.
After catching his breath for a full minute, he meandered in her direction. “May I join you?” He offered the crook of his arm and waited.
“I’d love the company.” The smile in her eyes made the moonless nights he’d been living just a little less dark.
Dani Renee is a historical fiction enthusiast, outdoor wanderer, and teller of stories. When her pen meets paper, daring heroines, quirky characters, and adventure-seeking tales unfold. She has a heart for telling stories of old in fresh and invigorating ways. If she isn’t reading or writing, she can be found on a local stage in the latest play that has caught her fancy. Her most recent publication, “Mistaken Shadows,” was featured in the winter 2021 issue of Spark Flash Fiction magazine and won the readers’ choice prize.