This is another one of those short stories-cum-novel-maybe on which I’ve been working for the past few weeks. Of the six stories I think I will be posting altogether, this is the one over which I struggled the most. Not because of the story line, or the characters, but because there was so much more to the story in the first draft. I mean, I even had recipes in it! and that seemed just a little much. Although, literary cookery books seem to be pretty popular… Anyway, I’m posting this because I need to step away from it for a while, to do some new writing, and to do some editing on a few other first drafts. I know the bones are good, but I also know that this one needs some work. As always, I long for your comments. Over 700 people have visited this blog this month, and while I know not every one of them comes for literature, I hope a few of you will stop & read the stories and make comments. Kind honesty is what I’m seeking – truth put in ways that will make the story better, not flay my soul, if you please. Enjoy!
You know how people just know things, even when they don’t know how they know them? That’s kind of I know Mare and Ralphie. I just know them and accept them without really knowing too much else. Except, of course, that you can find Mare at the cafe early in the morning Monday to Saturday while Ralphie works the evening shift from about three to closing, which is a variable hour depending on the weather, if there’s a tournament in town, or how Ralphie’s feeling.
I’ve known them pretty much all my life, because Ralphie started working for my mother soon after she bought the cafe. He’d been working the second shift for a couple of months, when suddenly Mrs Busy said she just couldn’t handle all the hours any more, especially starting at five in the morning, and that’s when Ralphie suggested the first part of the day be broken up, to a breakfast shift and lunch service, and that’s how Mare became our breakfast cook.
Ralphie comes from two families who have been in our county since the county was founded which means if you’ve been living here for twenty years or more, he’s probably related to you, if not by blood, than certainly by marriage. His mother’s side of the family came before his father’s by about five months, and don’t think that doesn’t get discussed at every family gathering. His mother’s people were all farmers, who loved the land and took care of their animals and raised good crops and large families, and they didn’t believe in any more schooling than was absolutely necessary to read the Bible and make good bargains when buying and selling. It was his father’s people who did the buying and selling, and the preaching for that matter, as they were merchants and lawyers and Presbyterian ministers in the first four generations, becoming school teachers and even doctors in the next two. Ralphie somehow managed to take after both sides, growing a beautiful market garden every year, first for his mother, and now for he and Mare, as well as the cafe, and he always raised chickens and ducks, but he also loves his books and music, and enjoys attending concerts at the United Church in the winter and in the park in the summer.
I know he met Mare first at a college where Ralphie had gone to take some courses on poultry sciences, and I know, from gossip at the Mane House, that everyone on both sides of the family didn’t quite know what to make of Mare when he suddenly showed up about a month after Ralphie returned home with his certificate and a dozen hens that laid blue eggs for goodness’ sake. Sometimes I think it was the blue eggs that caused more of a stir at least to start, because when Mare first came, he got a room at Mrs Busy’s sister’s house where she takes in unofficial guests, and while the two of them were together whenever Ralphie wasn’t working, people kind of thought this was a very quiet boy from the city who was just visiting Ralphie and wasn’t that nice because, as sweet as Ralphie is, he sure didn’t have many what you’d call real friends and certainly no girl friends.
And then, as a few days became a few weeks, and Christmas was getting close, Ralphie’s mother asked him at breakfast one day if Mare was planning to stay much longer, only she needed to know how many people to expect for turkey and roast beef on the 25th after church. That’s when Ralphie said that he had been planning to wait to tell her this, like for a holiday surprise, but he and Mare were buying Douglas Collyer’s second farm and as it happened they’d be moving in on Christmas Eve day, and what with unpacking and getting the horses delivered, they probably would just have a real simple meal by themselves so don’t worry about them.
Knowing small towns, you have to know that tongues were wagging for quite a while after that, although to be fair, a lot of the talk amongst the men was about Douglas Collyer selling the farm which was supposed to have been Ginny and Ray’s, only of course, may she rest in peace, she died in that accident in the city, but still and all, Andrew might have wanted it so both his boys could farm if they wanted. The women, on the other hand, seemed pretty sure what what two men moving in together, in a house they bought together, meant and that’s what they talked about. Oh, hardly anything was said to their faces, partly because Ralphie was kin to anyone who might try to talk about it, and Mare just sort of stared at you when he didn’t want to talk especially about himself and that’s very off-putting. But still, at church socials and over the fence in equal measure, they were talked about for a while and then, they weren’t. I suppose that’s the nature of small towns and gossip, always looking for a new topic to thoroughly chew on until all the flavour and angst has worn off.
Mare is one of those guys who is most comfortable with least words. He gets to the cafe about five o’clock, where he turns on the ovens and the grill and sets up the coffee maker. Then he pulls a flat of eggs out of the cooler, along with a five pound block of bacon and a tray full of sausages ready to pop into the oven when it’s hot. Then he mixes up the pancake batter, leaving it to sit for the first order, and same thing with the dip for the french toast. Last thing he does in getting ready is to take the rolls from the proofer, and shove them in the hot oven to bake. The combined smells of coffee perking and fresh rolls baking always get Daddy up and rolling into his morning routine, if he isn’t already.
Breakfast during the week and even on Saturdays is a no-nonsense sort of meal, as it should be for working men and women in a small rural community. French toast is about as fancy as we get on a Monday morning, and Mare isn’t real thrilled about even that, but we did persuade him that it made a lot of the women and suits who come in for a later breakfast, say seven thirty or so, happy to have another choice. But everyone admits that Mare really does know his way around an egg and your bacon is always as crisp as you want so we all just let him get on with it. I tried one morning to use all the best diner slang I know when putting orders in, things like “Adam and Eve, and wreck ‘em, with zeppelins on the side and a baby”, but that last maybe a minute when I realized that Mare just stopped completely stopped working and was stared at me as if I had started speaking Norwegian. He’s not a loose guy, our Mare, and we’ve learned that that’s the way he likes to be.
Ralphie is completely the opposite of Mare. Not only is he warm and chatty to Mare’s quiet coolness, but he’s about a foot taller than Mare and has to weigh at least a hundred pounds more. When you see them walking together, which you don’t very often, maybe at the fall fair, maybe at the occasional funeral, the difference is really something to see. For us I mean. I don’t suppose they notice themselves.
Anyway, Ralphie comes in around two thirty every afternoon, getting ready for what we call the Three Stages. Ralphie began calling it that shortly after he started working for my mother. He noticed that for about an hour, starting at about three o’clock, we would get kids who wanted fries and gravy and something cold to drink. Then starting at about four thirty, we would find the older people coming in for that day’s Senior Supper Special.
This idea, having a simple meal available for a short period every day, was something that Ralphie proposed just about the time Daddy walked into the cafe for the first time, and they’ve been building on it ever since. See, Ralphie really likes cooking. Mare does what he does very well, but the only part of making breakfast worth getting out of bed is the fact that he gets paid to do it. For Ralphie, however, there’s a real joy in putting together a delicious, nutritious meal made from locally grown ingredients as much as possible and serving it for a good price even if, Daddy says, that price is about a buck less then he would charge and a buck more than Ralphie wants.
So the Senior Supper Special runs only for an hour, starting supposedly at four thirty but there lots of times when, if the soup’s ready when Mr and Mrs Potts come in at four fifteen, as they do just about every day, we’ll go ahead take their order. The meal always begins with soup or salad, then the main course, and then dessert with either coffee or tea, and the price is always just eight bucks plus tax and tip, although we don’t expect too much in the way of tips from this crowd.
You don’t get to choose what main course you’re going to have, except on Fridays, when there’s fish of some kind for the traditionalists even amongst the Protestants or spaghetti with meat sauce for those who don’t like fish. For the older people in town, especially in winter, coming to the cafe seems to be one of the few things they do for themselves, to get themselves out of the house. And for some of them, we’re pretty sure the Special is the only hot food, or good food, they get because cooking for one is too hard, and cooking for that old man you’ve been married to for so many years is just getting a little much to do every day.
There are better tips to be found in Third Stage group that comes in starting just as the last of the seniors are leaving. This is always a mixed bunch, some of the main street crowd, maybe a couple of family tables with a few kids, a lot of activities planned and not enough time for sitting down to a meal at home. There’s usually one or two small cliques from the high school, a lot of whom get to know and kid around with Ralphie a lot. Daddy’s hunting buddies, even if he’s not hunting with them much any more, will drop in especially in January when their wives are trying to keep New Year’s resolutions about weight loss. The former mayor is always good for one meal a week with us, too, as his wife goes to quilting on Tuesdays. He and Ralphie have been known to have some very serious discussions about road maintenance, pesticides in the vegetable garden and baseball, often at the same time.
A conversation like that would never happen in the morning, with or without Mare but I think the fact Mare doesn’t like to talk does help keep the chatter in the mornings light and easy and out of the kitchen, while in the evening, Ralphie encourages people to ask for his opinion as much he wants to hear their thoughts.
I watch people all the time. In my job, of course, I have to. You need to know when to come to the table and take an order or check on the food, and you need to know when to back off because that’s a real serious conversation going on. You see the faces of people who are lonely, or angry, or happy, or maybe a little sick and tired of being sick and tired. You see a lot of hope and a lot of despair, and of course, a lot of hunger too, which isn’t always of a kind we can take care of.
My favourite people to watch are people like Mr and Mrs Potts, who are in their 80s and have been together since before they were 20. He was a bit of a farmer but a better mechanic and when she wasn’t running around after four children, she was a nurse at the local hospital over in the next town. They worked hard all their lives, and are enjoying a little peace and comfort in what the banks like to call the golden years. When they come in to the cafe, they always take the same table, in the west corner, and sit close to each other, talking softly, reading bits and pieces from letters or the newspaper to each other. They laugh at each other’s jokes and they pat each other’s arms with such warmth and you can tell they belong with each other.
Late one afternoon not so long ago, Mare came back to the cafe to drop off some herbs for Ralphie. He came in the back door, and walked over to the counter by the hatch where Ralphie was both chopping vegetables and watching Mr and Mrs Potts. Ralphie gladly took the herbs but before Mare could leave, he pointed out what was going on in the corner. Mr Potts was reading something from the newspaper, probably one of the social notes our little weekly likes to include, about somebody’s lovely granddaughter visiting from the city for the weekend with her new fiance or things like that. Whatever it was, Mrs Potts laughed a little and leaned into her husband, her hand reaching out to cover his. He looked at her for a moment with the gentlest, sweetest smile on his face, and for a second I thought I wanted to cry there was so much love over there in the corner and then I looked in the kitchen and damned if Mare wasn’t holding on to Ralphie’s hand, leaning into him, making him laugh just a little at something he said.
It was just a moment, as far as I know a once in a lifetime display of affection in public that won’t come again from them. Watching love fill someone’s face with peace and grace is a sacred thing and that night, as alone as I might have been, as I was also blessed.