Blue Plate Special
(a Mill Pond short-short romance)
by Judi Lynn
Damn. Her bunions hurt. When she ran into that flirty, little twit Ralph hired, she’d give her a piece of her mind. Jules was too old to work doubles. When she got home tonight, she’d have to take a long bath and swallow three Advil, or she wouldn’t be able to sleep. Everything ached. All because Caryn didn’t show up for her shift at the diner.
Ralph put two orders on the counter. “Number three up!”
That was Jules’s table. She grabbed the Swiss steak and mashed potato specials and carried them to David and Darinda Danza. Their kids weren’t with them tonight. Must be with grandparents. “You guys have a night off and you came here?”
David laughed. “No one makes better Swiss steak than Ralph. How could we pass that up?”
She refilled their coffee cups. “Your Italian mama taught you to cook right. I thought you’d go for a candlelit dinner with pasta.”
Darinda wrinkled her nose. “We can’t eat lasagna all the time.”
Jules had had David’s lasagna. Everything the man brought to carry-ins was delicious. She glanced over the table. “Need anything else?”
“No, we’re fine.” Darinda took a scoop of potatoes and dunked it in the sauce. “This is good eating.”
It really was. Jules had wolfed down a small plate of it between her day shift and the supper crowd. “If you need anything, yell.” They were good, easy customers and tipped well. Most folks who lived in Mill Pond could be described that way.
Things slowed down after seven-thirty. The diner closed at eight. Ralph surprised her by sending Livvie home and leaving his kitchen to come out to help her clear tables. It went fast, and he said, “Take a load off, Jules. Your dogs have to be barking. There’s a slice of sugar cream pie left if you’re hungry.”
She was starving. She slumped on a stool at the counter, and Ralph slid the pie to her. She dug in. She could hear Sam slam pans together in the kitchen. He must have been eyeing the pie for himself, but Ralph would make sure he got a hot meal and the leftover chocolate cake to take home when he left. Sam was thirty-two, as sweet as could be and a hard worker, but he was mentally only about ten or eleven. He swept and mopped and cleaned the kitchen, and Ralph let him live in a trailer on his property. He drove him back and forth from work, and made sure he had a decent wage and enough food.
Ralph grinned. “I’ll have to put whipped cream on Sam’s cake tonight, or I’ll be in trouble.”
“You take good care of that boy.” Sam’s mom and dad had ten kids. Sam was the last, and they’d run out of steam by then.
Ralph shrugged. “He’s a good kid. Deserves it.” He looked at Jules. “You got your hair cut. I like it.”
She could feel a blush creep up her neck to burn her cheeks. At forty-nine, she’d begun to think of herself as invisible. Maybe that’s what made her brave enough to whack off her hair. She wasn’t pretty, but she wasn’t exactly plain, either, so she’d had to work at staying drab. She’d always worn her long, brown hair pulled back in a thick knot. This year, when spring came, for some reason she couldn’t explain, she marched into Leona’s hair salon and told her to chop it off. To her surprise, the short cut set her waves free. Her hair bounced and flipped around her face, so that when she looked in the mirror, she had to look twice to make sure she was still herself.
The new look made her feel spunkier, younger. She decided to wear a touch of mascara, blush, and lipstick after years of staying makeup free. Her father didn’t approve of makeup. He didn’t approve of women cutting their hair. But her father died last year. After feeding him and changing his diapers for months, she was free. She raised a hand to touch a curl at the base of her neck. “Don’t know what got into me. I wanted to try something new.”
Ralph raised an eyebrow. He was going gray, but he was still a good-looking man. When his wife died four years ago, she thought he’d remarry. He didn’t. He studied her. “It’s odd, but I knocked down all the walls between my living room, dining room, and kitchen at home. I wanted to have more light, more space.”
He pulled off the long apron he wore to cook in, and Jules stared at him. “Are you wearing a pink shirt?”
He grinned at her. “Yes, I am.”
She couldn’t fathom it. Her father hated pastels, anything bright. She’d met Ralph’s wife at church socials—a demanding woman. They’d never had children, and someone started a cruel rumor that Ralph couldn’t perform up to her standards, so they never had sex. Jules didn’t believe that, but the woman struck her as pretty cold.
Ralph reached across the counter and took her hand. “I’ve been thinking. We’ve both had trials in our lives, but I’m ready for changes. I think you are, too. What if we make them together?”
Jules frowned at him. “Ralph, are you making a move on me?”
He shrugged. “Neither of us is young anymore. I sure as hell like you a lot. I respect you, too. What do you say?”
“Yes.” Jules had never dreamed of a knight rescuing her. If anything, she’d avoided men all of her life. But she knew Ralph, was comfortable with him, liked him. And just maybe there could be more. All of sudden, she didn’t feel quite so old. She patted her hair. Maybe someday soon, she’d visit Leona’s salon and try for a new color, something less drab. And the next time she saw Caryn, she’d give the girl a hug. But she’d better never miss a shift again. Jules was pretty sure she’d have better things to do than wait tables in the evenings.