The Book

My mother, a devout believer in omens, had earlier that week won a sweepstakes. A publishing house rewarded her their upcoming release, a book of a mere 200 pages that lacked blurbs or reviews. Regardless, she showed it to everyone. She lugged it to the laundromat, the grocery store, the coffee shop, the convenience store. She presented it to guests at our home and had them page through it.

“This is just the beginning,” she told me. “Good luck is on our way.”

By “good luck” I knew what she meant. I was of marital age yet wooed no man in sight, and I couldn’t live under her roof forever.

“You can’t work at that diner your entire life,” she said. She preferred I find a wealthy husband, so I wouldn’t be alone my entire life, and I could remain home and caretake. My girlfriend dismissed it as the “Republican in my mother” exposing itself, but it still frustrated me.

Distinctly, in what would become the most defining moment in my life—though I had no clue then—one morning I worked at the diner. I routinely opened the store on weekdays to return home for my mother’s dinner. That night was to be rotisserie chicken and gravy.

I circled the perimeter with a pot of fresh coffee and was whistled at by a regular. Normally I hate a whistle, or a snap of the finger like I’m some dog, but this man I knew and enjoyed. He was named Harry and was a landscaper outside of town. Before work and during lunch breaks he stopped in for coffee and eggs.

“More coffee?” I said already filling his mug.

He nodded. “Y’know, I ran into your mama the other day at the market.”

“Did you now?”

“Sure did. She showed me some book I reckon she won.”

“Sounds like her,” I said. “Anything else I can get for you?”

“How bout dinner and a movie?” he smirked at me.

I chuckled. He repeated that same line each day. “Only if you’re paying,” I quipped, by then abandoning his table.

By the jukebox sat a table of three old men, presumably motorcyclists, yet probably just woman-haters. The one with a combover pretended to drop his wallet on the floor. I was used to this, overwhelmingly from men, to trick their waitress into bending over so they could gawk at her ass. Sometimes they commented; sometimes they grabbed it. And you couldn’t do a thing about it, because if you didn’t comply they wouldn’t leave a tip, and tips were my livelihood in those days.

“Can you get that sweetie?” the same man said.

I forced a grin and leaned down, and before I knew it his hand was on my ass. Usually I’d ignore it and allow them the pleasure, yet that day I felt fiery and slapped his palm away. I told him if he pulled anything again I’d kick him and his pals out of there.

Glaring at me he intertwined his grimy fingers around the handle of his mug, cracking the ceramic on the tabletop in front of me. I poured some coffee into it, faintly, because my arm was tremulous, and with the force of a truck he grabbed my wrist. He gripped it so tightly I lost circulation in my veins, and I was frozen wordless, equipped with no defenses save a shocked stare.

Then the voice: “Get off of her.” It arrived like a gust of wind, slamming the screen door behind it and reveling in its own strength. The motorcyclist dropped me and rose at the sound.

“What’s it to ya,” he growled turning his head, his chest jutted out to frame his broad shoulders, his leather vest holding onto his torso like a elastic band pulled back. I skipped behind so no one could touch me. The diner was in a silent standstill, yet none observed as intensely as Harry.

The man, my savior, the pig’s rival, stood very superhuman under the entrance, donned in a freshly ironed blue uniform, accessorized with patches and walkie talkies and a gun and taser in his pocket.

“The fuzz…” one of the motorcyclists murmured, swallowing the remains of some hominy.

“Ma’am,” he said, his voice echoing, “Is this man bothering you?”

The gang glowered at me until I ambled to the counter, the policeman following me at the register, eyeing me with a grey glint. He glanced at my name tag, and how he recited my name resembled a Harlequin paperback, the syllables rolling off his tongue like a natural.

“Can I help you?” I said.

“Forgive me,” he smirked, “But it seems you’re the one in need of help.”

I glimpsed at the men muttering among themselves, watching this stranger and I from their periphery. “Just gross old men,” I told the cop. “They’re commonplace here.”

“I sure hope I’m not gross.”

I blushed and dipped my head. Martha, my coworker, hollered from the kitchen that she couldn’t locate the maple syrup, so I had to separate from the cop for a bit. Martha and I tracked it, packed, in boxes by the loading dock. When I returned the policeman hadn’t budged. He ordered sunny-side-up eggs and Canadian bacon.

“You from around here?” I asked.

“Just driving through. It’s an awfully small town.”

“They—we pride ourselves in it.”

“Not a fan?”

“I reckon there’s worse out there,” I said. “I just haven’t seen it, y’know, past the corn fields and all.”

I got a good look at him. He was done up like a Wall Street broker, yet he had very masculine features, with a chiseled jawline and sideburns dipping into a five o’clock shadow, and his hair slicked to one side while his eyes gazed every which way. He crinkled his nose smelling Martha’s fried eggs and I peered at his left hand: empty. There was skin and more skin, but no golden band or hint of a paler tone.

“Why’re you here then?” I questioned. “You’ve a girl round these parts?”

“No, no,” he said, “No girl. Although…I may have found one.”

It didn’t register instantly that he addressed me. I feigned a smile until I noticed his smolder. “You know you can’t say these things to a girl and do nothing about it,” I said.

“Who’s doing nothing?” he said. “I was hoping for dinner tomorrow night.” He stole a napkin and scribbled digits onto it, slipping it on the counter, winking, and swaggering out of the door, without the chance for my response, albeit he and I both knew it was a yes.

That night I relayed the news to my mother, who had replaced the Bible on the mantelpiece with her sweepstakes book.

“I told you,” she said. “That book is magical!”

Like a lady I waited until the next morning to telephone the policeman, and when he answered he knew it was me. There was no “hello” or “good morning” or “I apologize—this must be a wrong number” before he responded in his deep, sonorous tone, “I was wondering when you’d call.”

That evening we dined in town at Joe’s. My mother had trained me in proper feminine etiquette beforehand, so, as she said, I ordered a salad while he chose the rack of ribs. He told me of his home life, of his mother who was gravely ill over in Halifax, of how he attended police academy in Philadelphia. He was nearly killed saving a woman from her abusive husband when the man aimed a shotgun at him.

“You’re so brave,” I told him meaning every word.

“It’s all in the job,” he said in his humble manner, like a true gentleman, the kind I believed only existed in supermarket novels.

On the next date, at Rose’s Roasters, he inquired about my life. So I detailed how my dad left when I was a girl, how he had left only a note explaining that he loved me, but he could never come back, that he was eloping with a lady from church. I told him how my mom went berserk after that, how she blamed the affair on herself and that if she had attended church every Sunday with him, like a good wife should have, there would’ve never been any affair to begin with. From thereon she never missed a sermon, and I was left to live with her because we never had the money to send me off to college like my girlfriends did.

“Who would you like to be?” he asked me.

“I’m not sure,” I told him figuring he meant what I would’ve studied. In reality, I was frightened I was becoming the woman my mom wished me to be: the caretaker, the housewife. What surprised me more, however, was how willingly I desired to become it. As if I would submit myself to such subordination solely for him, because I cared for him, because I’d love to care for him and him only.

Then, one month later, to no one’s surprise but my own, he proposed to me. He was still a stranger, I hardly knew the type of man he was, he had only met my mother twice, his own mother was sickening with the days, and between he and I we had not a dime to spare—however, I said yes. We posed atop a bridge in a vibrant botanical garden, with flowers of all colors, above a pond where two swans treaded in circles. Other visitors applauded and snapped photographs, but everything to me evaporated into the atmosphere until all that was left was him.

On my wedding day I wore my great-grandmother’s gown, inherited by me after all these decades. I would have worn my mother’s dress, but she had burned it when my father left. She sat in the front pew with the sweepstakes book in her lap, next to a vase of artificial, pastel flowers.

The groom wore his best tuxedo, and his groomsmen were fellow officers at the academy. He teared up when he saw me and choked on his words during the vows. By this time his mother had passed away, his father having died of black lung long ago, so neither he nor I had anyone to give us away (my mother would have, “but that’s not tradition!”).  

In bed that night I told him I saved myself for a man like him, and as a result of that, my belly swelled so big that none of my pants fit anymore. For our honeymoon my mother gifted us her book, hoping it’d bring the newlyweds as much good karma as it did herself.

Gradually he was promoted to police chief, while I remained home to clean and cook and watch the baby, yet I didn’t mind, for it came from a place of love and not uncompensated labor. Sure, I had to quit the diner, but I never appreciated that dive anyway, and I would’ve gave anything not to return home reeking of coffee beans and tobacco. I was overjoyed with my life. Everyday it seemed I fell more in love with my husband and with waking up not only next to him, but with a newfound sense of passion, of vigor, of knowing he’d never leave as my own father did.

Except none of that happened. It’s a lie, a sham, a fantasy I conjured in minutes. The fact is that the policeman and I never made it out of the diner that morning. He saved me, yes, like Chaucer’s knight, from that gang of motorcyclists, but we never made it past, “You’ve a girl round these parts?”

“No, no,” he said, “No girl. Although…I may have found one.”

Then a crack rang loud and clear as a church bell, shattering the window above the jukebox and blowing the glass all over the checkered tile. There were gasps and squeals and yelps and everyone ducked. I flew underneath the register into a kneel, hovering my palms above my head, anticipating another shot. I had no conception of what occurred, didn’t know where the bullet landed, just watched the scene reshape in a millisecond. The customers hid under tabletops, breaking glasses, dropping food, grabbing children. I heard the clatter of Martha’s frying pan as it smashed against the floor when she dove into the open freezer. The sound of the bullet reverberated off the walls and buzzed in my ears, for time melted in that moment into an infinite space where nothing existed, not even my own senses, not the diner or the guests or the motorcyclists or Harry the regular or the policeman, only that singular bullet soaring through the restaurant like a gnat or drain fly, as if I could catch it in my palm, squeeze it, and toss it back outside at its source.

I was one of the first to rise onto my feet and assess the situation. Frozen in terror, the establishment felt like the refuse of an apocalypse, so disorganized as to be unreal, so in the aftermath of chaos that to imagine a sense of orderliness beforehand would be unfathomable. I didn’t dare utter a sound. Beneath a table I regarded an old woman hold the hands of her grandson and pray under her breath, both the words and her fingers trembling, the boy in shock and too young to conceptualize what happened.

The policeman stood, cleared his throat, and glanced at me, as if to reassure that I was safe and, more morbidly, alive. He nodded in affirmation and I watched as he sprinted out the door, pulling his gun from his belt, speaking codes into his two-way radio, never to be seen again.

After some minutes, when everyone began to gather themselves and talk among each other, phoning family and possibly the local news, and Martha tiptoed out of the freezer, Harry approached me. He touched my shoulder and muttered an “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I said squaring my shoulders, not looking at him but out the door.

“I reckon this is bad timing,” Harry said, “But the last few minutes made me see how delicate life is. Say, I been coming here everyday for years for one reason: to catch a glimpse of you. Would you wanna go out sometime?”

“Sure Harry,” I said, not listening, searching outside for the policeman, waiting for him to come back, to save me again, to protect me, “Sure thing.”

Later, when Harry and I got married, my mother insisted it was due to the book she won. But I knew better.

painting: “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” Johannes Vermeer (1665)

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