By Angel Luis Colón

“Wow, this is delicious.” He spoke through a mouthful of fresh cherry pie—was maybe an hour or two out of the oven. Still had warmth to it. The lard in the crust rolled over his tongue and coated the back of his throat as he swallowed. He smiled. Eyed the surroundings. The place suited the homemade pie. Rustic—Americana as per Norman Rockwell—Formica countertop, chrome trimming, only six tables with two seats each. The floor was aged linoleum—dented and scuffed in all the right spots. Bent under the weight of his squeaky stool. The pie more than made up for it.

She was a squat woman. Old, but not aged. Life in her eyes, broad shouldered—the type of woman you saw in Depression era pictures only she was smiling. “Gotta make a good impression,” she said, “We don’t get many visitors out here. Think you’re the first customer in, hell, Billy—when was the last time we had a customer?” She turned to her husband. He was built the same as she—the type of man John Steinbeck wrote about.

He scratched the bare spot where his cowlick had been. “Can’t really remember—maybe last year?”

“That sounds about right.” She nodded and turned back to the pie-eater. Watched him chow down with less than hidden pride.

The pie-man swallowed. Scraped his fork on the plate in a hurry to scoop up another mouthful. “I’m your first customer in a year?” Every bite he took, he leaned in. As if at some point, he’d be whispering sweet nothings to the cherry stains on the white porcelain of his plate. 

She wiped the countertop in front of him. Refilled his coffee without asking. “Yes, sir.” She took the towel in her hand and dabbed at her temples. The small space wasn’t air-conditioned, but four large fans did their best to keep things tolerable.

He placed the fork down. Used a paper napkin to wipe the sides of his mouth and took a slow sip of his coffee. Covered a burp with a big fist. A titanium wedding band scraped the tip of his nose. “So you open up, prepare food like this pie—which is really just amazing—and what?” He let the question hang in the air—expected an answer.

She shrugged. Tossed her towel over her shoulder and rested a hand on the countertop. Her nails were split—cuticles torn to shreds. The flesh where her middle-finger and index-finger would meet was stained orange. “We read. Billy keeps himself busy with repairs around town. Library’s always got light problems. Plenty to keep us busy. I mostly cook for us.”

He nodded. “And it’s just the two of you here, all on your own?” Sipped on his coffee again. Brought his napkin behind his neck and wiped slow.

She thought a moment. Shifted her weight from one foot to the next. Eyebrows lifted as something dawned on her. “We got Beggar’s Creek just ten miles north. Plenty of folks to see there.”

“Why not just leave?”

She scoffed. Looked to her husband in near astonishment at the suggestion. “That’s a silly question.”

Now he looked to the husband as well. Then back to her. Straightened up because he couldn’t lean back on his stool. Grimaced and rubbed his gut. “How so?” The thumb of his other hand curled across his palm and played with the callous under his ring.

“Well, you’re here, right?” She nodded to nobody. Content in her conclusion.

He cracked a wide, cherry-stained smile. “Only because I read about this place.”

She smiled back. “Well, there you go. We’re an attraction.”

“No disrespect Miss…I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.” He wiped his right hand on his pants leg and held it out.

She took his hand—firm grip—and pumped it twice. “You can call me Sue.” For a moment there was steel in her eyes, but they warmed back up in seconds.

He grimaced—surprised at her strength. “Well, hi, Sue. I’m Greg Easterbrook—now, I was saying, no disrespect, but if I’m your first customer in a year, maybe this isn’t so much of an attraction?” Greg gently pulled his hand away. Lifted his coffee back up to his lips. Sipped and kept his eyes on Sue.

Sue cocked her head to the side. Arched a brow. “Why do you insist we should pick up and leave?”

“I understand attachment to a place, but you and your husband can probably live a little easier up north. You’d make a killing off this pie.” Greg smiled down at his plate as if it were an old friend.

Billy chuckled. Lifted a dusty, old bag onto his shoulder. Held a rusty shovel in his other hand. “I doubt that. Sue only makes one of those a day and she wouldn’t share the recipe if you held a gun to her head.” He gave his wife a smile. There was a twinkle in his eye.

Sue returned the smile ten-fold. “You’re damn right. That goes with me to the grave.”

“That, I can understand,” Greg said.

The coffeemaker chirped. Sue turned to switch for a fresh pot. “So, Mister Easterbrook, you said you read about our little town?” She moved over to a small, single-basin sink and rinsed out the empty coffee pot. Let a few drops of dish soap foam up inside of it and left to sit.

Greg licked his fork. “Yes. Decided if I was driving out west, may as well stop in and meet the only mayor-slash-librarian-slash-short order cook in the country.”

Sue turned to her husband and wagged a finger his way. “See Billy, I am a woman of many talents.”

Billy rolled his eyes. Spun the handle of his shovel—its edge scraped against the floor and left a dim line of rust behind. “Try living with her.” He slipped a worn, blue cap with a Florida Marlins logo onto his head.  “If you’ll excuse me, I got some errands to run. Only got a few working streetlights and more than half are out.”

“Town handyman and husband, huh? What’s the shovel for?” Greg asked.

Billy eyed the shovel. Shrugged his shoulder to pull in the strap of his duffle bag. “Ah, well, we got a few lines underground. Best be prepared to dig ’em up. Not like we have anyone I can call on to fetch it.”

Sue crouched and opened a small refrigerator. Pulled out a six pack of Molson and handed it to her husband. “Get a move on, then.  I ain’t paying you by the hour for nothing.” She leaned over the counter and gave him a gentle peck on the cheek.

Billy took the kiss with a warm smile. “Yes, ma’am.”

When the diner door had closed and the bell stopped its chime, Sue walked back over to Greg with a fresh pot of coffee. “Mister Easterbrook, more pie and coffee?”

“Mmm, yes, absolutely.”

She fetched him another larger slice of pie on a fresh plate. Ran the used one under hot water for a moment and left that in the sink as well. “Enjoy. The more pie for you, the less for us later. Billy could stand to lose a few pounds.” Sue fetched a bottle of Windex and squeezed two shots onto a paper towel. Began wiping down the countertop—paying close attention to spots that seemed stained for centuries. “So what’s leading you out west of us?”

“Business,” he answered between bites.

“I figured in this day and age, the travelling salesman was extinct.”

“Well, for things like vacuums—sure. My work is more about acquisition—buying.”

“Ah, and what is it that you acquire, Mister Easterbrook?” There was a sour look on her face, as if she’d swallowed a mouthful of bad milk.

Greg only had eyes for his pie. He worked at slicing an even piece near the back without separating too much of the crust from the filling. “Real estate—mostly urban projects. We buy up properties with any potential. Can I have a little water please—mouth’s dry.”

Sue nodded. Leaned against the sink and braced herself with both hands. She watched a soap bubble rise into the air and drift further away towards the front door of the diner. “Sure thing. Potential for what?” She grabbed a plastic tumbler and filled it with water from the soda fountain. Placed it in front of Greg and went back to her perch.

Greg shrugged. “Depends. Like, see an area like this? You folks have a few factories in the area—some warehousing. Might be a good move to try and put up some nice condos or even shopping centers.” He spoke with a full mouth. Tapped the spot above his gut and below his sternum with a fist.

“Sounds fool proof,” Sue said.

“Eh, not really. Most of these deals work out in the short term, but some can bust easy.”

Her eyes widened. Pointed a thick finger at Greg. “Oh, you mean like those buildings they put up out in Douglaston? I heard it’s not too far from third-world now. Nothing but junkies and criminals.”

Greg looked up. Cocked his head to the side. “Can’t…say I know anything about…that. Excuse me; cherries repeat on me.” He gently punched himself again. Let out a small burp. He covered his mouth. “Sorry.”

“Oh, it’s just a shame what happened to those people. All those promises and then, poof, it’s all gone right out from under their feet. Isn’t that just terrible?” She had a tight smile on her face now. The steel in her eyes returned.

“It’s a real shame.” Greg placed his fork down and laid both hands flat on the counter.

“Must be hard working for Applied Dynamics. Especially when they up and decide to come right back to the same state to pull their little con again.” She played with a knot on the drawstring of her apron. Scraped a fingernail over thin fringe on the front pocket that held three pens, a small notepad, and a bottle of water. The water sloshed back and forth in the bottle, made tiny waves.

Greg looked confused. He leaned in a bit. “I never said I worked for Applied Dynamics.”

“Really? Could have sworn you did.” She frowned.

“Look, you don’t have to play coy. I respect you enough to…”

“Now that’s funny considering you sat here and lied about your own motivations.”

Greg bit on his lower lip. His tongue flicked out and dabbed at the corner of his mouth. He rubbed his nose with a knuckle. “Point taken, yes, I lied. I’m sorry.” Another burp.

Sue stood straight. Lifted her chin up at Greg. “You boys have been harassing me for months.”

“I can’t take responsibility for that, but I can certainly apologize. See, we believe this land…”

“Can the spiel. I ain’t selling.” Sue turned and started the faucet in the sink. Scrubbed a pan vigorously with wasted Brillo pad. She shook her head.  “I’ve told the men on the phone enough times already. No is no—ain’t nothing changing that.”

“I don’t think you see how lucrative this would be for everyone—excuse me—involved. We’re willing to offer you double the last offer. I can’t think of a downside to that.”

“I see just fine, thank you. I see that your company is only interested in—what was it you said—the short term and is perfectly willing to put anyone under their boot they see fit. No sir, I won’t let you all destroy more lives and land.”

Greg motioned outside. Chuckled. “All of this? It’s an arid mess out here. Nothing but empty sky and dead, red earth. It’s a waste to not make this work for all of us.” He cleared his throat.

“Beauty. Eye. Beholder, Mister Easterbrook. I happen to like the big sky.” Sue made a grab for the used coffee pot that’d been soaking in the sink. Her fingers slipped. It fell and shattered. “Damn it.”

“We’re only trying to make this a fair deal. Applied Dynamics is more than capable of pursuing this purchase via other channels.” Greg seemed to remember the remains of his pie. He grabbed his fork and shoveled the rest into his mouth. Washed it down with the remains of his cooling coffee. Burped again—louder.

“Is that a threat?” She busied herself with picking up shards of glass—tossed them into a waste basket at her feet.

“No, it’s a truth. We’d rather do this on the up and up. Do right by the person who owns all of this.”

“Did no right to my boy or his family.” Sue finally turned around. Her eyes were wet.

“Maybe we can discuss that—fix it for you folks.” Greg reached into his suit jacket. Pulled out a manila envelope with a business card stapled to it. His name was emblazoned on the card in a gold leaf, cursive typeface.

Sue took a deep breath. “Can’t fix that now. None of us can fix that. But I can certainly keep it from happening again.”

Greg watched her. He let his feet touch the ground, but remained half-seated on his stool. “You know what? I’ve upset you. I’ll leave my information and be on my way. If you change your mind or need to discuss anything; feel free to reach out to me. I was hoping we could square this off before the next butt in this seat belongs to a lawyer or a sheriff.”

“Ah, well, guess I’ll be doing a lot more baking.” That tight smile came back. Sue wiped her eyes and fished the bottle of water from her apron pocket. There was no label on it. When the water rose up, it clung to the plastic more like syrup than water.

Greg eyed the bottle. Coughed again. Something seized in his gut. The cherries—he’d eaten too many. “I don’t…so you knew I…was coming here?”

“Absolutely, wouldn’t have made such a special treat for anyone else.”

“I don’t understand.” He coughed louder. Grabbed at the countertop to keep himself from doubling over.

“Understanding won’t help you.” Sue approached him. Reached over with her free hand and cupped his chin in her palm. She locked eyes with him.

Greg looked back. His head felt heavy. Pins and needles ran from his shoulders to his toes. Lungs burned. “Sue…what did you give me?”

Sue cocked her head to the side. Placed the bottle next to Greg’s plate. There were only crumbs left—a streak of bright red. “Feeling tired? That’s what they say happens. You get tired, go to sleep, and never wake up.”

“They’ll…they’ll come looking for me…you can’t do this.” His eyes were hot and wet. His mouth was so dry. The bottle of water—maybe he could have a sip.

Sue let go of Greg’s chin. Watched him keel over and fall to the ground. “Maybe so, Mister Easterbrook, but I got a feeling once they try the pie; they’ll stick around about as long as you did.”

Greg rolled onto his back. Struggled to catch his breath. Opened his mouth, but only managed a whimper, then a croak. He heard the door of the diner swing open, the bell chimed—the sound of Billy’s shovel against the cold linoleum.

Angel Luis Colón is the Anthony and Derringer Award-nominated author of NO HAPPY ENDINGS, the BLACKY JAGUAR series of novellas, and the upcoming short story anthology; MEAT CITY ON FIRE (AND OTHER ASSORTED DEBACLES). His fiction has appeared in multiple web and print publications including Thuglit, Literary Orphans, and Great Jones Street. His latest, BLACKY JAGUAR AGAINST THE COOL CLUX CULT is out now.

Copyright © 2017 Angel Luis Colón. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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