Arlene led him to a small all-night diner. She waited in her car until he had parked next to her then they entered the diner together.
“I come here sometimes with my mother,” said Arlene. She led him to a corner booth where they sat facing each other. We usually have lunch, sometimes dinner. Saves my mother from having to cook.”
“My mother died when I was kid,” said Bill. “I’m only telling you that because I want you to know that I feel for you. I hope your mother still goes on and lives a long life.”
“She has cancer,” said Arlene. “They’re going to operate but the prognosis isn’t all that good.”
“I’m really sorry,” said Bill. “I’ll pray for both of you.”
Arlene reached her hand across the table signaling for Bill to give her his hand. They were holding hands across the table when the waitress came. They both ordered coffee and sat without speaking.
After awhile, Bill asked her if she had any other family. Arlene said she had some cousins but they all lived far away.
Bill didn’t know what to say. He held her hand until the waitress brought the coffee and then he let go. It was an awfully awkward moment. Arlene looked as if she were going to burst into tears. Bill hoped she wouldn’t, but he wouldn’t have blamed her if she did.
“Want some ice cream or something?” he asked.
Arlene said, “I just want to be held. What I’d really like is for us to be somewhere quiet, alone, where I could just cry on your shoulder.”
“You have a place to go?”
“Sure. My place.”
“Is it close by?”
They drove in separate cars, Bill following Arlene, to where she lived, a small apartment. When they were inside Arlene showed him where to put his coat and then led him into the living room.
First thing, Arlene kicked off her shoes. She motioned for Bill to sit on the couch and asked him if she should start a pot of coffee. He said no, that he’d had plenty. He told her under ordinary circumstances he’d ask her if she wanted to get high, but he didn’t figure this was a time for that. He also said he had some Quaaludes and that she was welcome to a couple if she wanted to really relax later on.
Then they were both settled on the sofa and Arlene was looking at Bill in a way that he didn’t quite understand. He couldn’t figure exactly what she wanted from him and he was very unsure as to how to proceed. He sat back and shifted away from her but did not actually move. He hoped she would read his body language but he wasn’t at all sure his body language was clear because he wasn’t sure that he was clear about what he was doing there or about what he was feeling.
He said, “I guess I should put this out on the table. I’m not sure why I’m here and I’m not clear about what you want from me. So if there is anything you would like me to be doing or you’re expecting me to be doing, just let me know.”
“I don’t have many friends,” said Arlene. “The friends I had were at the University. When I grew up I wasn’t one to have many friends. Then my parents got divorced when I was fourteen. Not many families had divorces in them so I was kind of a pariah.”
“We all have stories,” said Bill.
“I am so scared,” Arlene said.
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So there they were. Arlene went into a whole monologue describing exactly what was wrong with her mother and what it meant to her. Bottom lines were simple. Her mother was very sick, maybe not going to live for much longer and the treatments she needed were very expensive. This meant Arlene was going to have to work nights and days and be away from her mother much more than she wanted to be.
“Life sucks,” she said.
Bill didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know why Arlene was telling him this. He wondered if she had told Tommy or any of the other waitresses. He wondered if she had other family who could help out. He clearly agreed that life sucked.
He listened. He had a bottle of beer in his hands and sipped at it slowly. He looked to his feet and shuffled his butt a little as he sat on the metal milk cases.
“You closing girl?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Arlene. “But I’m not making any money tonight. No one is.”
“Check the basketball schedule,” said Bill. “When the buckeyes are playing we always have good business. Make sure you get those shifts.”
“It’s not that easy,” said Arlene. “I don’t have any seniority and I don’t have any pull. I know Tommy will help me out when he can, but there’s not much he can do. If I want the good shifts when I want them, I have to screw Drenovis.”
“Life does suck,” said Bill. “Let me see what I can do.”
“What can you do?”
“Give me a few days. I’ll do it quickly.”
“Think anything will happen?”
“With my shifts.”
“Of course it will.”
“That’s not why I came out to sit with you,” said Arlene.
Bill said, “I didn’t think so. You want a piece of pie?”
“What do you like?”
“Lexi knows you’re out here, right?”
“Yeah. She told me to take my time.”
Bill got up and walked through the kitchen over to the pantry station. He helped himself to a piece of cherry pie then stopped to see what Esserine was doing.
“You eating pie now?” she asked.
“It’s for Arlene. What you up to?”
“Hanging out. Deciding whether I should start to cleanup or not. What’s up with her?”
“I’ll tell you more later,” said Bill.
Esserine said, “You don’t need another girlfriend.”
“It’s not like that,” said Bill.
He walked through the line back into the hall, handed Arlene the plate with the pie on it and sat back down.
He said, “When you go back out, bring me another beer and ask Bebe what she wants for dinner.”
Arlene took a forkful of pie and ate it. Bill watched her, gave her the once over although he couldn’t say why. He wanted to ask her if she wanted to talk but he was hesitant. It seemed, and it felt logical, that she did. Otherwise, he thought, she wouldn’t have said anything in the first place.
Arlene was conscious of him watching her. She shifted on the lettuce cases and made sure her legs were not wide open.
“Pie is good,” she said.
“You’re not supposed to be eating it,” said Bill.
“Yeah, I know.”
“So,” Bill said, “you want to go somewhere after work and talk?”
“I think I do,” said Arlene. “Something tells me you’d be a good person to talk to.”
Bill was about to say something when he heard the automatic doors open in the kitchen. He was about to say that he didn’t know if he were a good person to talk to or not, but he would certainly try to be. But he didn’t get the words out. He heard the bell a second after the doors opened and he stood up immediately.
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Bea got more and more bitchy. Mary got more and more needy. Bill started getting bored. He wasn’t bored with Mary. He was in love with her. He was in love with her and he was in love with his fiancé. This was a conundrum, to be sure.
Bea’s bitchiness stemmed from the fact that she was losing control. The loss of control was not in any one given area but just a general malaise that rose in her and spread throughout.
As she became more bitchy she became more demanding in all regards. She demanded that Bill go downstairs with her at all different times, usually for no reason. She demanded he carry up the silliest little things for her, even at times when he was occupied doing other work. The more Bill and Mary cared for each other, the more mean Bea became.
Tommy saw what was happening. He didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see what was happening. Tommy saw it. The waitresses saw it. Mary saw it and told Bill that she would talk to Bea about it. Bea didn’t want to hear anything and told Mary nothing was wrong.
Sooner or later, it had to come to a head. Sooner or later there had to be some sort of catharsis, as it were, or a catastrophe. Mary told Bill that in their discussions she asked Bea if she was having the change of life. Bea almost smacked her.
Arlene and Bill did get together, but not the way either of them thought it would happen. Per their original conversation about it, Bill had thought they would have arranged a time and a place to actually meet. Given that he was busy with Mary and of course his fiancé, he thought that was going to take some planning and not be as easy as it might be for someone who was unattached. But that’s not the way it happened at all.
It happened one night when the business was unbearably slow, several weeks after they had that moment in the kitchen. Arlene had only worked nights two more times. This night was the third.
Bill was sitting out on the milk cases where he always sat. Jimmy and Grandma had left about fifteen minutes earlier than usual. Arlene and Lexi were the two girls working and Lexi was early girl. Bill had already fed the waitresses and given that there were no orders but it was still early, he had nothing to do but hang out. It was too early to start any cleanup.
Bill had called home and told his fiancé he would be on time, a good thing, he’d decided, since with her studies and her busy schedule centered around UDC they had not been spending much time together. Unlike Bill, his fiancé was a clearly-focused, no bull shit lady. She knew what she wanted and was unafraid to go after it. She knew how to get what she wanted, knew what she had to do and did it.
Bill was quite the opposite in some respects. He was conflicted, overly cerebral, clearly ADD. He had been taught not to ask for what he wanted, that other people were always more important than him. These teachings would not serve him well, but he would not discover this until later in his life. More immediately, they would serve certain needs of his but not the key ones. And the drugs didn’t help anything, but you couldn’t tell him this.
After Arlene had eaten, while Lexi was still out on the floor, she came into the kitchen and found Bill out in the hall. She sat herself on the lettuce cases, the same ones on which Bea always sat. The stack was lower now since most of the cases of lettuce had been used.
“What’s up?” Bill asked.
Arlene looked down to her feet. “My mother’s really sick,” she said.
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Turns out they were done. When Esserine asked her question about being finished, Bill stood close to Arlene a moment and looked at her. If they’d been alone in the kitchen, or if it had been Marie over on the pantry station, he might have reached for Arlene. He might not have. So he looked at her, studied her, then asked her to go out and ask Tommy if he could close up.
Arlene studied Bill a moment too. She was feeling him out just as he was feeling her out, and turns out they were both deciding whether or not they were going to do anything. At least for the moment it was a standoff, so Arlene turned from Bill and headed out through the front doors into the front dining room.
She came back two minutes later. She carried a beer and walked around the counter onto the line to put the beer down by where Bill stood.
“Tommy says we’re done,” she said.
“Okay,” said Bill. Then, to Esserine, he said, “We’re done, you can go down and change. I’ll come down as soon as you come up.”
When Esserine had left the kitchen, there they were again, Bill and Arlene standing together almost touching. Bill looked at Arlene, wondering if he should kiss her. After all, he thought, they were alone in the kitchen and had a moment, but only a moment because if Arlene stayed in the kitchen too long Tommy would come to see what she was doing.
“What?” she asked.
“I was wondering if I should kiss you,” said Bill. “That’s why I was looking at you. I was thinking.”
“You could,” said Arlene.
Bill leaned in toward her and kissed her once, a gentle kiss on the mouth. Then he put his arms around her and reached one hand down her back to her buttocks.
The second kiss was decidedly more intimate, a feeling-out of tongues. It lasted as a kiss would, and while it lasted Bill slid his hand up under her skirt.
“That okay?” he asked.
“Is it obligatory?” Arlene asked.
“Not at all,” said Bill. “All you have to do is say no. If you don’t want to be touched, I won’t touch you. If you want to be touched, tell me so.”
“I want to be touched,” said Arlene. She stepped in even closer to Bill and kissed him harder than they had been kissing. “But not right now, not right here. Let’s set a time and date.”
Bill fondled her a moment until they stepped away from each other, not hastily but agreeably. He took a sip of his beer and offered it to Arlene.
“You do drugs?” he asked.
“Sometimes,” said Arlene.
“Pot. Downers. Acid sometimes. Why you asking?”
“Just want to know what I should bring when we get together.”
“We going to get together?” Arlene asked.
“Maybe.” said Bill. “You’re going to have to be the one to make it happen.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I don’t pressure anyone into anything. I’m not like Drenovis.”
“You find me attractive?”
“You think we’d be having this conversation if I didn’t?”
“Okay,” said Arlene. “Understood.” She leaned in and kissed Bill on his cheek then turned and left the kitchen.
Alone, Bill finished his beer. Then he went around back to make sure everything was properly covered. Seeing it was, he put it away into the ice box.
Even before he was done doing this, Esserine came back into the kitchen in her civvies. She had her coat on and her purse draped over her arm. “I’m out of here,” she said. “Come let me out and lock the back door behind me.”