Last Chance Cafe

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

For those who spend holidays alone or feel as though life has passed them by.

Last Chance Café

by Hace Williams


Snuggled against the mountainside just off the highway with signs beckoning passersby was Charlie’s Last Chance Café. It was located where the highway left the open country and meandered into the cliffs and gorges towards the mountain pass. Charlie’s, which hadn’t known a Charlie for over a decade, stood as a reminder of days gone by when the roadside café was a welcome sight to weary highway travelers. Now it was merely a haven to local ranchers with no place else to go but a neighbor’s kitchen to discuss the weather or a glorified rest stop for the few “potty stoppers” who neglected the use of the State campground’s facilities “down the road a piece”.

This particular evening, Charlie’s was especially vacant. Christmas Eve. Outside, the dry snow drifted in psychedelic swirls across the road and pushed against the sides of the building. Inside, a small staff puttered about performing mindless routine duties in reluctant anticipation of a guestless shift.

“Christmas Eve we oughta be closed. Ain’t nobody gonna be coming by this way tonight and if so, they’ll be asking the usual, ‘Coffee to go; where’s the restroom?’”

Melinda had one of those voices that sounded half whine, half sarcasm. As much a part of Charlie’s as the chipped and cracked dishware, her youth had left her waiting for a cowpoke with a promise. Now, when she wasn’t waiting tables at Charlie’s, she locked herself away in a cabin on the back lot of Ben Turner’s ranch where she immersed herself in monthly issues of gossip and fashion magazines or romance novels.

“Cook, can you tell Catcher to get the glasses a little better? Been having some lipstick remains lately and these tourist types is fussy enough without giving ‘em something else to bitch about,” Melinda instructed with unnecessary authority.

Cook nodded and grunted an indifferent acknowledgement.

“Headlights coming up the road. Whatcha wanna bet they don’t stop?” Melinda was standing in front of the large window facing the highway looking through the opening in the C where Charlie’s had once been painted and from constant washing was now mostly worn away.

“Well, imagine that – they’re stopping.” Melinda moved away from the window and stepped behind the counter where she busied herself with filling the sugar dispensers so that it didn’t look like she had been waiting for business or was bored out of her mind.

When the door opened, a burst of cold air and a small flurry of flakes whizzed through the entrance followed by a gaunt, tall figure bundled in a massive, black overcoat. He stamped his feet on the WELCOME mat and pushed the door closed behind him. As he raised his head to look around, he unwrapped a tediously long scarf from about his neck to expose his face and mouth to speak.

“Evening,” he said.

“Good evening, sir. Mighty brisk out there, ain’t it? Coffee? We’ve got clean restrooms if you’re in a hurry.”

“Fine. Coffee sounds fine. Brisk outside, but nice and warm in here,” the man said as he glanced around the interior of the café like he was taking inventory. Six tables all the same size around the edges of the room, four chairs each, eight metal stools in front of the counter, and a kitchen pass-through window offering a shoulder-high view of the kitchen beyond. Barely audible Christmas music. Something smelled good.

“Want that coffee to go?” Melinda asked as she passed a knowing wink to Cook.

“No. Think I’ll take it here in the corner if you don’t mind,” said the traveler as he took a seat at a table.

“Well, if that don’t beat all,” Melinda half muttered as she turned away to pour the coffee. Cook went over to Catcher and ribbed him and mimicked a snicker. Catcher took a look over his shoulder and made a silent snicker, shoulders bobbing and hand covering his mouth in mock jest. Melinda threw them a sharp, reprimanding look back as she passed out from behind the counter and took the coffee to the man’s table. Cook quickly busied himself with illustrating to Catcher how better to wash the glasses and remove all the lipstick.

As Melinda set the cup on the table in front of the stranger she queried, “Kinda a cold night to be out and about in this neck of the woods; going someplace special?”

“Not really, just some things have to be done. No time like the present,” he answered plaintively.

“With it being Christmas Eve and all, we really didn’t expect to have nobody coming in here tonight, that’s for sure,” Melinda bantered.

“How fortunate for me you were open,” the man offered as he wrapped his hands around the cup in front of him.

“Yeah, well, being Christmas Eve and all, we ain’t exactly thrilled to be working, no offense of course, but you know what they say, ‘Somebody’s gotta do it’,” Melinda stated.

The man nodded while he sipped the dark brown brew releasing slow, swirling drifts of steam from the cup. As Melinda received no indication that he wanted to be left alone, she continued.

“Well, going over the pass, are ya?” she asked.

“Yes,” the man replied, slowly sipping.

“Could be kinda slippery and the wind can be real fierce this time of the night, so mind you be real careful out there,” Melinda directed.

“How good of you to care,” the man replied and raised his head to look directly into Melinda’s eyes. She was caught off guard for an instant, not sure if he was in earnest or being sarcastic with such a formal tone. She blinked back her discomfort at the intensity of the glance, then pulled out her ticket book to mark down the price of the coffee with a pencil she pulled from behind her ear.

“Will you be having anything else?” she asked scratching her graying hair with the eraser on the pencil.

“Well, perhaps you can suggest some particular specialty of the house for dinner,” the man offered, leaning back and running his gaze across the objects and fixtures behind the kitchen pass-through window.

Melinda started to answer, but was cut off as Cook rolled through the saloon style swinging doors that separated the kitchen from the main dining room, stopping abruptly at the edge of the counter, like an invisible fence prohibited his going further. In a gruff whisper, he offered, “Baked ham and sweet potatoes.”

Melinda threw Cook the evil eye and walked away as she said, “I’ll get ya some water,” under her breath. She made a rhythmic swishing sound as she walked, her thighs rubbing together in the thick support hose she wore under her uniform. The thick soled, many times polished white nurses shoes padding softly against the worn checkerboard tiles of the floor.

The man replied, “I’ll take that water at the counter, if you don’t mind,” then to Cook, “and baked ham sounds fine. Just fine.”

“Coming right up,” Cook acknowledged as he moved away, as suddenly as he’d come, back into the kitchen.

As the man approached the counter, coffee cup in hand, Melinda asked, “What kind of dressing would you like for the salad? Thousand Island, Bleu Cheese, or French?”

“Bleu Cheese. By the way, what time do you close for the night?”

“Usually at 7 PM, but don’t worry, we won’t throw you out before you’re finished eating or anything. Why, there’s been a couple of times Cook and me’ve stayed while some wrung out trucker got a hot meal inside him and even grabbed a little nap. Ain’t no fun being on the road alone all the time. Sometimes it’s nice to have a home cooked meal. Catcher, of course, usually has to leave on time, ‘cause of school and all, but tonight being Christmas Eve, ain’t no rush for any of us. We’d all be off by ourselves if we weren’t here.”

“It’s nice of you to care enough to do something like that. Stay late, that is,” the man said as he held Melinda in another intense look, “most people wouldn’t.”

She broke the stare with a shrug, laughed a slightly nervous laugh and confessed, “Makes for good tips.” Then she blushed, embarrassed that the man might think she was implying a sizeable gratuity.

Catcher came out of the kitchen, half nodded at the man as he passed the counter, and went to wipe the table the man had left. After placing the pushed away chair back into position under the table and adjusting the salt and pepper shakers, he went back to the kitchen.

“The boy must have a long distance to travel to go to school being way out here.”

“No, actually, not at all. You see, Catcher, he’s deaf and they got a special school up here for deaf and blind kids. He’s still learning how to cope with the change in his life. The school, that’s where Cook puts up. Kinda a night chaperone to help out.”

“What about you? Do you help at the school? Where do you ‘put up’?” the man asked while looking intently at Melinda like he was taking inventory of her features. Melinda looked back at the man for an odd moment, her sharp tongue ready for a smart comeback, but something told her the question was innocent and conversational, not lewd or invasive.

“Nope. I don’t help at the school – too much to do here. Got an out of the way place to myself,” she offered, “Yeah, I’ve been here a while now. Why, I remember when Charlie still owned the place,” she said as she passed her eyes around the room remembering how it looked when both it and she were bright and pretty. “He sold out and retired in Hawaii. Just got tired of the snow and alone, I guess. Cook showed up here one day a few years ago and stayed here with me.”

“Haven’t you ever tired of the snow? You must get quite a bit for long seasons.” the man asked, again surveying Melinda’s face like he was taking inventory.

“Me? Lots a times. But got no place else to go. Besides, somebody’s gotta keep an eye on those two,” Melinda said with a half-smile as she jerked her head over her shoulder towards Cook and Catcher.

As Melinda had been talking, the man had eaten most of his salad. He pushed the dish from him and she robotically picked it up and set it in the bus tray. Cook was putting the finishing touches to the dinner plate and tapped Catcher on the shoulder twice. Catcher went noiselessly to the front and withdrew the bus tray. The man watched the two of them working together on the kitchen side of the pass-through.

“They seem to get on well together,” the man commented, nodding his head in Cook and Catcher’s direction.

“Oh yeah. Cook’s great with them kids. Catcher’s pretty sharp. A pretty good ball player until he got smacked in the head with a ball. Poor kid, his parents used to come see him or take him home; not much anymore. Too much trouble to try to talk with him, I guess. Yeah, Cook, he gets on with him fine. How’s the coffee, want some more to freshen it?”

“Yes, that’s fine.”

“What about you?” Melinda asked, “Out on Christmas eve all by yourself. Where’s your family?”

The man looked into the coffee in his cup as he swirled it in small rotations under his large, meticulously manicured hands. A small smile came to his lips fleetingly, like a shadow of a memory passing.

“No,” he said, “I’m all alone. Always thought I’d have a family, but it never quite worked out that way. But I have my work and its times like tonight that it’s good to be alone.”

Cook placed the finishing garnish on the dinner plate and pushed it across the pass-through before Melinda had a chance to ask another question. Melinda ceremoniously presented the steaming food to the man.

“Watch now, that’s hot,” she offered. “Cook don’t like it none when the food ain’t served hot. On busy days, he keeps me jumping.”

“It looks delicious,” said the man as he inhaled the inviting aroma of spicy ham, “and smells even better.”

“Cook’s the best there is,” Melinda beamed.

“It sounds like you truly admire him,” the man remarked as he took a paper napkin from a dented dispenser and smoothed in his lap then attacked the food with his fork.

“Well, like I said, I been here a while and we’ve had some real sorry hash slingers too. Cook, well, he’s got a certain sense about the slop and he can make it real tempting,” she said with pride, not malice.

“Good, really good,” and the man raised his hand in a “thumbs up” to Cook, who smiled and nodded, then returned to helping Catcher tidy the kitchen and prepare for the next day’s activities.

The man made no indication that he wanted to be left alone, so Melinda rambled on about local gossip as the man finished eating, nodding understanding or sympathy and sometimes asking a brief question for clarification. Every now and then, a crackle of static periodically interrupted the background of Christmas music on the radio, while outside, the wind continued to puff in gusts that sometimes rattled the windows. The snow continued its silent, drifting dance before settling into drifts. When the man withdrew the paper napkin from his lap, pressed it to his lips, then tossed it in the plate, Melinda asked, “Care for any dessert? Some mincemeat pie, maybe?”

“No, I really don’t think there’s any room,” the man said as he patted his stomach. He washed down the rest of his coffee, then took a swallow of water.

“Let me ring you up,” Melinda said. She went to an ancient cash register and laboriously pushed the keys. The machine made chinking sounds and then a bell rang as the cash drawer flew open so hard it caused the change inside to jingle. Melinda instinctively pushed it forward with her stomach to a half-closed position.

“Twelve seventy two,” she announced.

The man presented her a twenty dollar bill.

“Let me get you your change,” Melinda responded automatically.

“No,” the man said, “it’s yours,” then drawing from their earlier conversation, “You made for a ‘good tip’,” and smiled.

The smile was warm and penetrating. Melinda smiled back, “I didn’t mean…..Thank you. Thank you much.” And she blushed, lowering her eyes with a brief moment of youthful femininity, then she made the change in the extended cash drawer, stuffing the tip into her apron pocket.

“No, thank you. You see, even though it is Christmas Eve and you aren’t ‘particularly thrilled’, to use your own words, to be working tonight, you have good companions to share the holiday with, where I didn’t. Or didn’t until I stopped here.”

The man slid into his massive black overcoat and then began to wrap the long scarf back around his neck. As he passed to the door and held his hand on the knob, he said, “Be grateful for unknown blessings,” then turned and caught Melinda again in his deeply intense gaze, “Be grateful for having friends to share with, no matter the season or circumstance.”

He swung open the door and a burst of cold air and a small flurry of flakes whizzed through the opening.

“The world is a cold and dismal place when you’re alone.”

The man broke his gaze with Melinda and stepped across the threshold. As he pulled the door closed behind him, he turned, “Thank you for the company,” and passed out into the night, the bell at the top of the door jingling when the door shut.

Melinda moved towards the closed door and locked it. Looking out the glass, she caught a glimpse of the man’s vehicle – a hearse. Slowly it crunched from the snowdrifts gathering around the tires and moved towards the road, the tail lights a retreating dim red glow in the falling snow.

“No wonder he wanted company,” Melinda said to herself with a shiver as she turned to the task of closing. The carols on the radio offered orchestration to the café staff as they wordlessly busied themselves with the often repeated tasks for ending one shift and preparing for the start of another. The air carried the smell of pine scented cleaner and the sounds of the mop slap-slapping across the floor, water splashing in the sink, the rhythmic scraping and tapping at the grill, dishes clattering into their resting places, and the cooler door opening with a vacuum release, then slamming closed with a suction seal like air being stolen from the room.

Melinda counted up the till, then looked around the café making her own visual inventory like she had done so many times before, but this time with a special inward smile as she considered her co-workers and how well they worked together and all knew each other. She got her hat and coat. Cook and Catcher came from the kitchen with their coats and together they all went to the door. Melinda switched off the glowing red hum of the neon OPEN sign and as Cook flipped the switches for the lights, Catcher opened the door. The wind had died down and only drifting flakes disturbed the cold, crisp air. They shuffled out into the night air and Melinda watched as Cook locked the door, yanking on the handle a couple of times to make sure it was secure.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” Melinda asked Cook quietly.

“Thought I’d roast a chicken. Wanna come over?” Cook asked.

“Well, the Queen of England said she might stop by, but I think I can squeeze it in,” Melinda answered with her usual sarcasm softened with a tickle of a laugh in her voice. There was a hollow thud as something sunk into the snow beside her and Melinda turned abruptly to see Catcher scooping up another handful of snow. He started to pack it together and Melinda yelled, “Why, you little rat!”

Catcher let fly the snowball and it caught Melinda in the head taking off her hat. She lit out after him as Cook stood back and chortled to himself, his hands stuffed deep into his pockets. He watched as Catcher slipped, took a tumble, and Melinda flew into him. The two rolled into a snow drift. Cook started to roll with laughter at the sight of the two of them as they came up from the drift looking like a couple of snowmen. And they were laughing too.


Submitted: December 24, 2015

© Copyright 2022 Hace Williams. All rights reserved.

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