Early Morning Coffee
Charlene Billows sat alone in a booth in the back of the small hotel coffee shop just off of Interstate 10. She had reached the small West Texas town of Valhorne, between El Paso and Pecos, in desperate need of a ladies’ room and a cup of coffee. It had been a long stretch of highway since her last stop, with few options along the way for any bathroom break. The early morning hour, and the long line of eighteen-wheelers parked at the nearest state-run rest stop had kept her from making that detour.
As she sat, sipping her coffee, she straightened the stainless steel napkin dispenser, lined up the salt and pepper shakers on one side of it, the plastic ketchup bottle and honey on the other side, the way they should be, the way everything should be in her mind, all in a row, all neat and tidy. It was part of her OCD to straighten things. And it was why she was there, sitting in that coffee shop at five-thirty on a Friday morning in early October — to straighten something in her life. If she didn’t chicken out, and that was a big if.
She glanced around the dining room. Only three tables were occupied, but no doubt the place would get much busier soon with the morning breakfast run. Four elderly men sat at one table. Local gentlemen, most likely, who met every morning for coffee, in the habit of waking before the sun came up, and nothing better to do with their time. Most locals, she knew from experience of small Texas towns, generally met at the Dairy Queen or McDonalds. Which was exactly why she had avoided the McDonalds on the other side of the interstate, choosing the hotel coffee shop instead. Another table was occupied by a young couple, probably travelers who had stayed overnight. She wondered where they might be headed. The third table — a family of four, including two teenage boys—
Her thoughts on them were interrupted by the waitress who seemed to be working the early morning shift alone.
“Just passing through?” the waitress asked as she wiped off the table next to Charlene.
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, most people are. Not much reason to stay. So, where’d you come from?”
The lone waitress, who couldn’t be more than seventeen or eighteen, and reminded Charlene of herself at that age, looked at her with confusion. The young woman was pretty, though she could be much more attractive with help — a bit more makeup and a more stylish haircut. A good trim, at least, of the long mane would help; maybe some highlights to brighten the mousy blond color. She was somewhat tall and quite skinny, but not anorexic, Charlene didn’t think.
“You don’t look like anyone from around here. Is that your fancy sports car out there?” the waitress asked, pointing out into the parking area in front of the coffee shop.
“That’s a really cool car. You must be rich! It looks brand new.”
“Somewhat,” Charlene replied, which answered both questions.
“You don’t talk much, do you, ma’am? I talk too much. Everyone tells me I do. I just try to be friendly, that’s all. My boyfriend says I’m too friendly, especially with strangers. He works at the Chevron station just down the street.”
She had continued to wipe the table as she spoke, though Charlene hadn’t noticed it in need of cleaning before she started.
“Oh, darn.” The waitress suddenly stopped wiping, stood with her hands clasped together in front of her, her head bowed, frown taking over her face.
“What’s wrong?” Charlene asked.
The waitress raised her head, though she kept her hands clasped. “That’s what I do wrong, according to Bobby, tell strangers too much about myself. Bobby says they don’t care, and those who do, are narvarious. Or something like that, some big word. He always likes to use big words, says it impresses people.”
“Nefarious,” Charlene corrected her, smiling.
The waitress blushed. “Yeah, that’s it. Bobby likes to watch that guy on Fox News, who always has the word of the day.”
“Yes! Do you watch him, too? I like the younger guy, who goes and talks to people on the beach, asks them questions. Bobby always has the right answers, or most of the time, at least. He gets mad when they give dumb answers. I just like to watch the guy. He’s cute, I think. I like the way he says ‘I’m Watters, and this is my world’.” She mimicked the guy, using a deep voice, creating a half circle in front of her with her long, slender arm.
“I do watch, sometimes. And I enjoy Watters’ World as well. Jesse Watters is cute. So, Bobby’s interested in politics?”
“Yes! He plans to run for city Mayor some day.”
“Good luck to him, then. Um, could I get some more coffee?” Charlene held up her empty cup.
“Oh, yes, of course! I’m so sorry!”
“Sally, leave the customer alone and get back to the kitchen! You have orders up!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Sally replied to the second waitress, who had obviously just come on duty. “But I need to get this nice lady more coffee first.”
“You just go pick up your orders, I’ll tend to the coffee. Go!”
The new waitress, probably in her late forties, maybe even fifty, turned to Charlene after watching Sally disappear into the kitchen. “Sorry, ma’am, she’ll talk your ears off if you let her. I’ll get that coffee for you.”
She barely glanced at Charlene before following behind Sally, but Charlene recognized her harsh, raspy voice immediately. She was tempted to leave a large bill on the table to cover her coffee and tip, and go before Raylene Garrett recognized her, but she stayed seated instead.
Raylene returned minutes later with a full coffee pot in hand. She began pouring as she spoke. “Sally says that Mercedes out there belongs to you. Nice car.”
“Thanks, Raylene, glad you like it.”
Raylene stopped pouring as she focused on Charlene for the first time. Only seconds passed before her puzzled expression turned to recognition.
“Well, I’ll be damned. Charlene White. Is it really you?”
“Well, it’s Billows now, has been for years, but yes.”
“Oh, that’s right. How could I forget that? What the hell are you doing here? Does Roy know?”
“Doubtful, since I just arrived less than an hour ago, but then, news always did travel fast in this town.”
“Yeah, especially bad news. Please tell me you’re just passing through.”
“I actually hadn’t decided that for sure. Until just now.”
“What business could you possibly have here?”
“Nothing that concerns you,” she said, though she knew that was a lie. It did concern her, and Charlene hated that it did. Raylene was not her favorite person, never had been. And Raylene despised her, she had no doubt of that.
Raylene had aged over the years, and not well. The lines on her face and neck were deep, as were the crows’ feet around her eyes. Her upper lip had shriveled, overpowered by deep vertical lines above it. The dry West Texas air and sun had taken their toll on her, as well as years of a nasty cigarette habit.
“Everything about you, Charlene, concerns me. Especially when it involves my baby brother. I hope, for his sake, you’re just here to pay your respects to your folks, and that you’ll move along down the highway once you have. Or turn around, and head back where you came from.”
“Well, of course I’ll visit my parents while I’m here, but I won’t be leaving right afterward. I think I’ll hang around for a couple of days. Maybe attend the high school football game tonight. I see by the flyers that it’s a home game. And I’m suddenly ravenous. Could I please see a breakfast menu? A clean one, preferably.”
Charlene hadn’t ordered anything but coffee when she first sat in the booth, not ready for food at the time. But she was suddenly feeling a bit strange in her stomach, though not sure if the feeling was a case of nerves settling in, or hunger pains. But, aware of the possibility that he would make an appearance soon, she decided she might as well order breakfast while she waited to see.
Raylene slapped a menu down in front of her and stood with her hands on her wide hips, waiting impatiently for her to order, shifting her weight from one foot to the other as she did. Charlene already knew what she wanted, but she still took her time, pretending to study the menu. She wanted to make Raylene stand there, waiting on her to make a decision, knowing the woman was dying to get back in the kitchen to make her call, to warn him that she was in town.
Once Raylene disappeared with her order of scrambled eggs and toast, the coffee pot, and the menu, Charlene opened her large handbag, pulled out her compact, and checked herself in the mirror. She pinched her cheeks to add color to them and dabbed red lipgloss from her bag to her colorless lips, blotting them with a tissue. She ran her fingers through her hair, frowning. It was a disaster, but nothing short of a shampoo, a blow-dryer, and a styling iron, would improve it.
After returning everything to her bag, she pulled out her cell phone, checked to make sure no one in Dallas was trying to reach her. Seeing no notifications, she placed it back in it’s place in her bag and scanned the room. As expected, the coffee shop was beginning to fill. A third waitress stood at one table close to the front door, taking the order of two men who seemed to be flirting with her. Charlene guessed her to be in her early thirties. She was attractive, with curves in all the right places, her large breasts bulging over the top of the too-tight pink uniform. The waitress didn’t seem to mind their flirting, or one of the gentleman’s hand on her ass.
It brought back memories of her own days of waiting tables. The memories were far from fond. She’d hated those days, she hated the men who, just like that one, thought it okay to put their hands on her rear as long as they left a big tip. She needed the large tips back then, but she couldn’t stand anyone to have their hands on her, especially dirty old men. She’d always slap their hands away, even if it cost her a tip. She’d almost lost her job once, for dumping a man’s dinner in his lap. But her boss had let it pass, once she told her what the man had said to her. She could still recall his words as if he’d just said them.
The whole town knows you fuck the quarterback, sweetheart. How about fucking a real man? I hear the quarterback’s pecker is as small as his brain. Bet you don’t even know it’s there.
She had never repeated the man’s vulgar words to anyone other than her boss. Especially not the quarterback, who she loved with all her heart. He was the first, and only one she had ever been with, at the time, and she couldn’t imagine anyone pleasing her more than he did. The idea of having anyone else touch her, be inside her, disgusted her, turned her stomach.
When the front door of the coffee shop opened and a large man wearing a black cowboy hat and black boots entered, Charlene’s heart skipped a beat.
“Well, good morning, Sheriff.”
The waitress had turned her attention away from the two men at the table the moment he walked in. It was now all on him.
“Are you here for business, or pleasure?” Her eyes danced with delight at seeing him.
“Morning, Denise,” he said, nodding his head to her as his eyes scanned the room, finally settling on Charlene. “Excuse me.”
He dismissed her as he made his way past the tables, never taking his eyes off Charlene. The closer he got, the more her stomach fluttered, the butterflies multiplying with each step he took.
“Well, I’ll be damned. Raylene said you were here,” he said, removing his hat and tossing it in the seat across from her. He slid into the booth, pushing the hat on over out of his way. “I thought for sure she’d taken up smoking weed these days in place of those damned Marlboros she’s been smoking for years.”
“Sheriff Slater. What took you so long?” she replied, looking at her Movado wristwatch. “I expected you here five minutes ago.”
“What can I say? I was on the can when she called.”
“Sorry to interrupt your morning business.”
“I got it tended to. So, what are you doing here?” His blue eyes were intense, burning into her own.
“Good to see you, too, Roy.”
“Sorry to not give you the welcome you seem to expect. You’ve been gone a long time, Charlie.”
She felt an added flutter in her stomach. No one had called her Charlie in years, not since she’d left this town, twenty years ago.
“I have,” she replied. “Missed me?”
“Right up there with the poison ivy I had a few months ago,” he replied.
That hurt, coming from him, more than she wanted to admit, and more than she wanted him to know.
“Doing it in the bushes these days, huh?” she asked.
“Haha. Very funny. So, what brings you way out here in the middle of nowhere? Get bored with the big city? Missing everyone you left behind? Or just passing through?”
His hateful tone saddened her. But what did she expect? And why was she being so hard on him, why the personal attack? He was the injured party here, not her. He had every right to question her motives in a spiteful manner.
She didn’t give a shit about this dried up old town, or anyone in it, and she certainly hadn’t missed any of them. Except him. And he still looked so damn good. The years had been cruel to Raylene, but not to him. He was as handsome as ever, if not more so. His light brown hair was still thick, with just a touch of gray starting to show around the temples.
“Who would I possibly miss in this godforsaken town?” she asked, her defenses still up, unable to tone them down.
“No one,” he replied. “Not a single soul of us worthy of you missing.” Then he added, as if to change the subject, “What’s with the hair? Forget to pack your hairbrush?”
She offered a chuckle, though bothered that he had noticed her unkempt hair.
“What? You don’t like the new look? Darn. And I paid a fortune for it. I even gave the hairdresser a big tip.”
“Want me to arrest her, for impersonating a licensed beautician?”
“Beautician? Really?” she teased, her elbows on the table, her chin resting on her gathered hands.
She rolled her eyes. “They’re hairdressers these days, Roy, stylists, not beauticians.”
Raylene showed up at that moment with Charlene’s breakfast. She tossed the plate in front of her, then turned her attention to Roy.
“I didn’t mean for you to rush right over here, but I’m not a bit surprised you did. You’re a fool, Roy, and always have been, when it came to her.”
“Don’t you have other tables to tend to?” he snapped back at her.
“I do.” She turned to walk away, but Charlene stopped her.
“Could I have another fork, please? This one doesn’t seem that clean.”
She held a fork in the air. Raylene grabbed it out of her hand.
“Of course,” she replied.
Charlene had no doubt Raylene would stab the fork in her eyes if she thought she could get away with it. She imagined her spitting on the new fork before bringing it to her.
“Could I get some coffee?” Roy asked.
“And a piece of pie to go with it.”
“Sure, sugar. Whatever you want.” Raylene smiled at Roy, then looked back at Charlene before heading back to the kitchen, daggers shooting from her eyes.
“Pie? For breakfast? Burned out on donuts?”
He didn’t look like he had eaten too many donuts. She had noticed no gut when he arrived, just nice, broad shoulders. She imagined large biceps beneath the sleeves of his pressed, white shirt.
Ignoring her potshot toward his profession, he said, “You still haven’t said why you’re here. Or when you arrived?”
“I arrived just a little over an hour ago.”
“You arrived early this morning? From where? Dallas?”
“It’s an eight hour drive. That means you left Dallas at—”
“Less than eight hours, actually. I left Dallas sometime around ten last night.”
“Here? Why here? What could possibly cause you to drive through the night, all the way from Dallas to here? What did you come here for, Charlie? What is here?”
“My parents,” she replied. Making eye contact with him, she added, “And you.”