An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
Three Owls Diner
By Gretchen Wehmhoff
James pulled the last nickel out of his pocket, wiped off the lint and laid it with the rest of his change – two crumpled bills and a handful of coins. Four dollars and seventeen cents. Spending a portion of his last four dollars on a grilled cheese sandwich seemed irresponsible, but standing outside in the downpour was the uncomfortable alternative. The walk over from the bus stop had soaked him. Here, inside the diner, he was dry. He opened the sports section of the newspaper he found by the door when he had come in. Three of the four pages covered local prep football in the southern Iowa town.
The diner was fairly quiet, a couple of men wearing John Deer hats and Carharts sat at the soda bar drinking coffee and providing occasional bursts of boos or fist pumps directed at the ball game on the large television mounted behind the bar. Two women spoke softly at a table in the corner. One ran a hand slowly through her hair while fidgeting with the straw of her soda with the other. She seemed to listen to her companion, but looked deep in her own thoughts.
The only other customer in the Three Owls Diner was a young woman occupying the booth in front of James. It was a corner booth. She sat quietly, nearly invisible, nurturing a cup of coffee. The waitress had filled her mug twice since James had sat down. She looked up long enough to say thanks, then looked back down at her hands. James thought she seemed tired, defeated. Her light brown hair hung in damp, uncombed strands. Not tangled, but certainly not brushed recently. She wore a dark, knitted stocking cap and a green raincoat over a dark hoodie. James had watched her off and on between innings.
“Do you want anything else, hon?”
The waitress held a coffee pot in one hand and James’ check in the other. A cup of coffee could extend his stay in this dry, warm haven.
“How much for a cup of coffee?”
“Today it’s free. It’s Tuesday. Free coffee on Tuesdays at the Three Owls.” she said, waving the pot. “Not sure what’s so special ‘bout Tuesdays, but the coffee is on the house today.”
James indicated he’d have a cup and took note of her nametag.
“Thanks, Connie.” he smiled.
She grabbed a cup from a nearby table and filled it for him. Her dark, graying hair stayed up in a bun behind her head, a pair of worn, but sturdy shoes kept her moving. Connie was all business. She stopped by the next table and topped off the woman’s cup.
The young woman looked up long enough to see James’ gaze then quickly focused back on her hands.
On the wall above her, a thumbtack held a promotional calendar similar to those companies hand out to clients. The theme must have been something to do with farming or seasons. The month of August displayed a brilliant blue sky outlining a field of strikingly even, green rows of corn. James had grown up around cornfields in Nebraska. He and his brothers used to run through the neighbors fields playing capture the flag until the neighbor lost his sense of humor. The boys spent the next three days hauling and husking corn for the community picnic. James knew there were machines to do the work, but this small amount of discipline had made a difference. He held a greater respect for hard work and the beauty of a healthy cornfield. The rows seem so perfect. Life should be so easily sown. He could use some work now. Husking corn actually sounded desirable.
“Excuse me,” the quiet woman motioned Connie over. “Do you have a job application?”
Connie nodded and headed to the cash register. James stopped her, “do you mind grabbing one for me while you’re there?”
The woman in the booth smiled at James. “Can’t do much else, might as well work.”
James smiled back. “I’m James.”
“Good to meet you, Kari.”
James looked down at the back of the check Connie left for him. A picture of three, horned owls resting on a tree branch in front of a wooden sign was printed on the back. Why three owls? Why not two owls? The center owl had a strange gaze. It was looking at him. He turned the ticket over and looked at the menu in the holder on the table. The front of the menu showed the same picture, only in a photograph. How did someone get three owls to sit still for a photo in the daytime? The center owl in the photo had the same, strange gaze, looking into his eyes with an, eerie, knowing focus. It knew the truth. Be wise, it’s eyes expressed. Be wise.
“Here you two go. Need some pens?” Connie dropped a pen off at each table. “Have either of you worked in a restaurant before?
Kari nodded, “Back home, I worked at a Howard Johnson’s before they closed up” She didn’t tell her she had only run the cashier and scooped ice cream.
James smiled, “Not in a place as nice as this, but I used to prep for a place back in Nebraska. Did dishes, chopped onions, stuff like that.”
Connie gave a nod with her lips drawn in a curious smile then walked back to the kitchen window and spoke with a man in a white t-shirt and ball cap.
James looked back to Kari. She quickly put something in her mouth then wrapped the rest of her snack in plastic wrap and stuffed it in the front pocket of her hoodie. She caught James’ curious look.
“It’s a doughnut,” she said quietly. “I haven’t eaten in a day or so. I grabbed this from the gas station.” She saw his face change to sympathy. “I really need a job.”
James picked up his sandwich and coffee and moved to her booth. He reached a long arm over the back of his seat to grab his application and pen.
“Here, have half of this. I’m full,” he lied, pushing the plate with half a grilled cheese across the table.
Kari looked at the sandwich. “No, it’s yours. I’m fine.”
Before the sandwich shuffle could continue, Connie reappeared with the man in white from the kitchen.
“You two looking for work?”
Nods from the table indicated they were not only looking for work, but they could also use some food.
“Well,” the man in white continued, “I’m not sure what you’re made of, but you came by while I’m in a tight spot. School’s startin’ next week and I’m gonna loose my kitchen help and one food server to the football season. If you two want to give me a day to see what you’re made of, I can give you two meals and any tips you get by the end of the day. If it works out, I can put you on part time for a bit.”
Kari looked at James, then turned her face up to smile at the man in white, “I’m Kari and I’d love to give it a shot.”
“Same here,” said James, rising from his seat to shake the man’s hand. I’m James.”
“Harold, but you can call me Hal. Most folks do,” he drawled. “So, which one of you wants to work with me in the kitchen?”
James grabbed his backpack, ready to work. As he left the table the center owl kept him in its gaze.
Three hours later Kari was crying. Who knew chopping onions could be such a tearful experience. She had two more to go then she’d be working on the line with Hal. Kari was sweaty, hot, smelled of onion and felt content. She’d found a pair of clean black pants in her backpack. Her mother had told her that a woman who wanted to work should always have a clean white shirt and a pair of black slacks. She wore an oversized white apron and a baseball cap with her hair tucked away from her face and the food.
The service window looked out from the kitchen into the dining area. A series of heat lamps hung over the stainless steel counter between the cooks and the servers. A round, metal turnstile hung to the left with clips for holding paper tickets. Two orders had come in – teriyaki burger and a jalapeno burger. The jalapeno burger ticket was written in beautiful cursive, with the name “Jerry” circled on it. The teriyaki burger was written in clear, box letters like one would see in a cartoon.
The new guy, James, seemed to be having a good time talking to customers. If this was a bar and he was a bartender, he’d probably be hauling in the tips, thought Kari.
James had borrowed a shirt from Hal and changed into a pair of tennis shoes. Connie took him through the steps. Keep the coffee going, place the order, take out the drinks, then the food, then deliver the check. She’d handle the cash register. This was good – and a great deal more fun than husking corn.
The door opened and a tall man in cowboy boots entered, removing his hat.
“Hey Jerry!” called Connie. “The usual?”
Jerry nodded, smiled and sat down next to the men in Carharts. They had gone through two pots of coffee and the game was in the eighth inning.
A few minutes later a small woman in a leather coat and high heals bustled in. Connie motioned her to a front booth and nodded to James. James took his cue and filled a glass with fresh ice water.
“How are you today?” he asked the woman, setting down the water in front of her. She was older, maybe in her mid sixties. Her hair was a bold, natural looking auburn red, curled to just below her ears. She set her coat next to her and removed her driving gloves.
“I’m fine, dear,” she nodded, “I’ve been driving for quite awhile and thought I’d take a break.
“Oh, where you headed?”
“Chicago,” she looked up, “I’m headed to the national dog show. I’m one of the judges.”
“Wow.” James was impressed, “how do you get to be a judge at the nationals?”
“Oh, honey, I’ve been training dogs and other animals since before you were born. This is my ninth year as a judge.”
James smiled and gave her some time to look at the menu while he visited the other tables. Circling back he took her order – a teriyaki burger, coleslaw, no fries and a chocolate milkshake. This was a good day. He wrote the order clearly and slipped it in next to Connie’s order for that other guy, Jerry.
Back in the kitchen Hal chuckled when he saw Jerry’s order. He disappeared into the cooler and returned with a handful of small, green, narrow peppers.
“Old Jerry keeps telling me our jalapeno burgers aren’t hot enough. I’ve been waiting for him. These are habanero chili peppers. They pack a punch so hot he’ll melt a hole in the stool.” Hal diced two of them up, mixed them in with the fresh ground beef patty and dropped it on the grill.
“You take the next one.”
Kari looked at the order, dropped a patty on the grill and checked the recipe notebook for the details. She found pineapple circles in the cooler and teriyaki sauce on the line. Two buns were toasting. Minutes later the burger was done. She placed the meat on one bun, decorated the other with lettuce, onions and the pineapple, set it on the shelf and rang the bell twice, indicating James had an order. Hal was just finishing Jerry’s burger and setting it on the shelf when James came up. At the last minute Kari realized something was wrong. She pulled her plate back and ran to the cooler.
James grabbed the plate on the counter and took it to the red-haired animal trainer.
Connie came to the window. “Hal, what’s keeping Jerry’s burger?”
“It’s right in front of….hell, where’d it go?”
Kari came out of the cooler, dropped a scoop of coleslaw on the plate and set her plate back on the counter. James was coming back for the coffee pot and heard Kari call his name.
“Here it is, James. I forgot the coleslaw.”
Connie’s jaw dropped. She looked at Hal, then turned to James sputtering, “you took my jalapeno burger!”
James froze. He saw the burger on the counter and Kari smiling, albeit a little confused with everyone’s reaction to her finishing her first burger. “Oh shit!” He turned to the red-haired woman across the diner.
“Don’t eat that!”
James flew over the counter. Condiments shot everywhere, coffee spilled and there was a sound of breaking glass. He reached the table, grabbing the hamburger out of the woman’s hands. A confused look crossed her face. She had already taken a bite.
“Oh man! I am so dead,” moaned James, under his breath. This was not a good first day. The burger in his hand drooped with the weight of the meat. Five or six habanero peppers fell to the floor.
The red-haired woman’s face raged a deep red, her nose winced in pain and her eyes held back tears. She wasn’t sure what was in her mouth, but it wasn’t teriyaki. She grabbed her only napkin and spit out a semi-mashed mouthful of meat, bread and habanero peppers.
“I am so sorry, Ma’am. This wasn’t your burger. “ He grabbed the napkin concealing the regurgitated mistake and the woman’s plate. “Let me bring you your dinner.” The woman could hardly speak. “Hot!” She whispered. “Hot!”
“Here’s some milk, dear. That should help.” Connie set a tall glass of whole milk in front of her. The entire room had turned their attention to the new waiter and his redheaded customer. One of the men seated at the bar wiped a dark stain off his pants. Hal emerged from the kitchen and took to wiping down the bar and handing out free coffee. Kari brought out the woman’s teriyaki burger, and set it down gently.
It took a few minutes before the woman could speak. She downed the milk and ate a piece of bread Connie had set down. Water only made it worse. She took a few bites of the coleslaw and that seemed to make a difference.
“I am so sorry, Ma’am,” It’s my first day, but I should have known that wasn’t the burger you ordered. I don’t know what I was thinking.” James sat in the booth across from her. “Hal said dinner is on us, tonight. I hope that helps.”
The red-haired woman took another sip of milk, focusing her eyes on James. “What’s your name, son?”
“Well, James. I have to tell you. I stopped in to wake myself up a bit before I drove on to Chicago. You certainly did the job. What kind of peppers where those?”
“Habeneros. The hottest damn pepper you can find,” said a deep voice from the bar. “Hal was trying to make me sweat, and I think you ended up in the hot seat.” Jerry grinned.
“Well, James, I’m Lena,” she smiled. “Thanks for the excitement.
No more customers came in. The television displayed red bulletins across the bottom of the screen warning people to stay off the roads, there were flood warnings and the highways were ripe for hydroplaning. Lena had stopped driving at the right time, if you take away the burning hamburger mistake.
The diner was empty. Lena found a room in the motel next door and the two women in the corner headed out into the rain, as did the men in Carharts. The game was over and their team had lost. Jerry grabbed his hat, waved good-bye and went out to his sixteen-wheeler and the bed in his cab.
Kari came out of the kitchen, taking off her apron. Hal was locking up the coolers. She had just finished mopping the red tile floor. James sat in the booth counting out four different colors into sugar holders; white, pink, blue and yellow. He lined them up neatly, like rows of corn.
“Where you staying,” Kari asked. She didn’t recall James from around here.
“I guess where I stay depends on if I still have a job,” He answered.
“Oh, honey, I think you did fine,” Connie said from the next booth. “I’ve never seen anyone jump across the counter. I don’t think I ever have. That was entertainment.”
James smiled. Looking back it was pretty funny. “Thanks, Connie. You know Kari, I may just treat myself to a room at the motel if they’ll take …. thirty-two dollars and seventeen cents,” he says, counting his tips.
“No need, young man,” called Hal from the kitchen. “If you don’t mind a hard bed, I have a bunkhouse out back. You can use my shower. You earned it. I think that animal trainer was sweet on you.”
Kari laughed. Things seemed to be lining up. She tossed the remainder of her day old doughnut in the trash. James wiped down the menus and stacked them near the cash register. He could have sworn the middle owl winked at him.
© 2013 Gretchen Wehmhoff