Pauline Burchfield

diner The pot rack annoyed her. It hung free, moving with each shudder of the ceiling as another eighteen wheeler pushed the hot Tracy air past the diner. The diner stood unusually empty for a Saturday night, fronting fields of cool, tall, golden-topped green. Linda turned her back on the vinyl booths she'd owned and served for twenty years. She stood behind the counter and stared into the kitchen. A pot rack -- why couldn't Fred have given her chocolates instead?

Hearing eighteen tires crunching on the crushed rock of her driveway, she checked her reflection in the mirror by the fake palm. Eight years hadn't damaged her looks much. She was still a sexy grandma. Linda pushed her breasts up, pulled her blouse down, smoothed her red hair and shook her wide hips.

A hollow clunk from the cowbell on the door announced Fred's entrance.

"Where is everybody?" he said.

"Rodeo, I guess. They won't be pulling in until nine," Linda said.

Fred ran a hand through his hair, stepped towards her, ran his fingers along the cool counter, and pulled them back quickly as if they'd been burned. He held them to his lips, winked at her, then smiled and licked his lips.

"Don't you be getting any ideas. I ain't doing nothing on these counters again. I just washed them. Besides I'm getting to the age where I like a nice, comfortable, regular bed." She smacked the counter with a fleshy open palm.

"God. I hope I never get that old," Fred said, throwing a jumble of keys on the counter.

Picking them up, Linda fingered each key, one by one, slowly, then dropped them in a basket by the cash register. "You already are, honey. Don't you kid yourself."

"Hey. That's no way to get a man excited."

"You know what they say, the only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth," she said.

"Yeah. And it feels pretty deep in here right now. Come on, this ain't what I come 900 miles for ... I can get this kind of treatment at home, baby." Fred walked past the specials chalkboard, past the lettering that boasted, "BEST CHICKEN IN THE WEST--FOR ONLY $5.95," pulled off his ball cap with "VEGAS" in cursive above a stitched picture of the strip. He threw the cap on the counter and hitched up his pants.

"Don't put that ol' dirty cap on the counter. I told you, I just washed that."

"Ain't nobody here to see but you and me."

"That don't make no difference," Linda said, stepping back towards the kitchen door. "I told you, I just washed that counter. Put it on the stool."

Fred picked up the cap and tossed it without a glance onto the stool in the corner by the old jukebox. Black record disks were stacked up inside the jukebox like so many discarded tires, but he wasn't looking. His eyes remained fixed to the freckles on Linda's breasts.

"When you gonna fix that thing? The old-timers liked it. You shouldn't 've broke it," Linda said.

"You shouldn't've made me so goddamn angry. I promised you I'd fix it, and I will, when I'm ready. Right now, I got other things on my mind."

Fred leaned over the counter, licked two fingers, pasted stray gray hairs down and then grabbed his crotch. She turned her back on him, walking with an extra swing through the kitchen opening towards the room in the back.

The old, fake brick linoleum of the kitchen floor was stained with grease spots; deep gouges lay like open sores. Linda touched the cold stainless steel counters of the kitchen she had just cleaned, the new shiny aluminum hood over the stove, and the silver colored chains of the free-hanging rack for pots. Her hand paused on the rack. She let go. It swung a slow, circular rhythm.

She could hear Fred, making the sounds of closing-up shop, the sound of the sign being flipped from "Open for Business" to "Gone Fishin'," the sound of the metal blinds being sucked up strong and released at the top until they banged down hard against the bar at the bottom, the squeak of him turning the screw handle on the blinds.

She looked past the dishes that she didn't do. Utensils lay scattered in the sink with yesterday's food still stuck to the tines of forks, to the blades of knives, the rims of spoons. Two white plastic and metal fluorescent lights flickered and sputtered overhead.