“Order!” Lucy called through the window into the kitchen.
Joe grinned at her as he pulled the ticket from the clip. “You’re in a good mood this morning.”
“It’s the coffee,” she replied. “I’ve already had two cups. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be pretty.”
She shrugged. “Greg and I had a long night.”
He frowned. “Is there a problem? You should have called. We could have figured it out here.”
“Are you kidding me?” Lucy beamed at him. “Donna showed up, Greg relaxed, and I ran out of there. She is in charge of his day now. I don’t think there’s really a problem. If something is wrong, they’ll call.”
“It’s okay if you have to leave. You know that, right?”
Lucy nodded and pointed at the ticket. “The boys are waiting for their breakfast. You’d better get on it.” She picked up a fresh pot of coffee and headed back into the fray. The diner was her happy place.
Not that she wasn’t happy at home. She loved her husband, but sometimes trying to figure out what it was he needed when he couldn’t speak or make himself understood was difficult. After his accident, she had been on edge. Unable to sleep because she worried he would need her. She hadn’t been able to work because she couldn’t leave him alone. Her life had become focused on one tiny room in their house. His room.
Then Donna came to work with him during the day and all of that changed. She had the proper training and somehow innately understood what it was that Greg needed to be comfortable and happy. She’d given them back their marriage. Well, as much as she could. Things would never be the same, but because of Donna, Lucy no longer saw Greg as an invalid or a disabled man who needed her care and was unable to return her love. She now saw her husband, the man she had loved for years. He needed additional help, but the help Lucy gave was no longer a burden, it was a gift she could offer.
However, working at the diner had always been a joy. She loved seeing their regulars. They were her friends. She always managed to pick up on bits and pieces of news that would entertain Greg later that evening. It was easy for her to make people feel comfortable. All it took was paying attention and really listening to what they said.
Some women ordered a salad, when what they really wanted to eat was a pork tenderloin, or meatloaf or a hamburger with fries. Some men did the same thing when they came in with their wives, knowing they’d be in trouble later if they ordered something not on their diet. Half or even quarter orders of fries or onion rings calmed a lot of desperate tastebuds. Joe knew her shtick and was always ready. Lucy was willing to toss chopped up onion rings on top of a salad. It wasn’t healthy by any means, but at least there was a pile of no-calorie lettuce at the bottom of the plate.
She stopped when she felt a tug on her apron. Turning, she saw a little boy with a big grin on his face. “Good morning, Andrew Donovan. Did you get more A’s again?”
“This morning it’s Jason’s turn,” Andrew said.
Jason looked at her, blushed, and then looked down.
Sylvie brought them to the diner for breakfast to celebrate high grades. It was generally Andrew who achieved the goal. That boy was bright. Lucy wondered what he’d grow up to be.
“Do you have donuts this morning?” Andrew asked.
She glanced back at the counter. The covered donut display was empty. “I’m sorry. They’re already gone.”
He sighed and slumped. “Can I have pancakes or waffles, Mom?”
“It’s a celebration,” Sylvie said with a smile. “You can have anything you want.”
“Pancakes and waffles?”
“Only if you have sausage or bacon.”
His eyes lit up. “Really? You’d let me?”
“How about one big pancake and one waffle,” Lucy said. She knew that Sylvie’s purse strings were stretched as far as she could make them go.
“Powdered sugar on the waffles?” he asked.
“Of course.” Lucy had her pad out and took their order. She nodded at a table of women who were holding up their coffee mugs. Like she hadn’t noticed their insistent waves. Patience, ladies. Patience.
Marigold, another server, took the coffee pot from Lucy’s hand and headed for the table, a smile on her face.
“Did you hear?” Andrew asked, excitement filling his voice.
“Hear about what?”
“Somebody bought the old school building.”
“I did hear that. Sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it?” Lucy asked. She put her hand on Jason’s shoulder. When his brother ramped up about whatever was going on in his head, Jason ended up taking a back seat.
He looked up at her.
“It’s your special day, Jason,” Lucy said. “What would you like for breakfast?”
“Biscuits and gravy, please.”
“You should get a pancake,” Andrew added.
Jason glanced at his mother, who nodded and said, “I wouldn’t dare eat that many carbs, but they’re boys. Might as well enjoy it while they can.”
“I agree,” Lucy responded. She took Sylvie’s order and then retrieved the coffee pot from Marigold’s hands, wandering through the cafe, greeting her customers.
“I heard Sturtz got the job because he is practically giving that woman a free renovation,” Ben Drucker said to the others at his table. “Must be nice to have so much money you can buy a woman’s affections.”
“What are you talking about?” Lucy asked. She glared at the four men. “You are worse than what you accuse women of being. Four old shrews sitting here mouths blabbing about rumors. You don’t know anything and I’m ashamed of you.” She slapped the ticket down beside Drucker. “You know what? I don’t even want a tip from you this morning. You are nasty, nasty men. Henry Sturtz is the nicest guy I’ve ever met. If he finally met a woman who intrigues him, why is it any of your business? Tell me, Ben. Explain why it’s your business.”
He blinked and sat back. “We were just talking.”
“No, you were talking smack about things you don’t understand. Every Saturday, the four of you sit in here, making up stories and hope that people will think you’re the smartest thing on the earth because you repeat filth. Next time you come in, sit at Mari’s table. I want nothing to do with you.”
She stomped off and then caught herself. Where had that come from?
Oh, she knew exactly where that had come from. For the last six months, she’d listened to people speculate about the new owner of the old school building. How did she have the money to buy the place? What was she going to do with it? Why would she buy an old building in Bellingwood? How did Henry Sturtz manage to get the contract?
Lucy had answers to those questions, but it wasn’t her place to talk. Polly Giller had stopped in a couple of times to carry food out for the guys who worked for Henry. She was as nice as they came. She also had an affinity for pork tenderloins and told Lucy that she never did find one that met her standards while she lived in Boston. She’d told Lucy about her father and how his inheritance had given her a chance to come back to the roots that she’d loved. She wanted to open a type of community building where people could congregate. The girl didn’t have all the answers yet, but she was full of energy and ready to make a go of this venture.
She’d chosen Henry Sturtz to do her renovation for one simple reason. He had listened to her as she explained her dreams. Rather than try to correct her or tell her she should do something different, something easier or maybe less expensive, he’d given her proposals across the board and allowed her to make choices. He treated her with the respect due an intelligent woman, something other contractors hadn’t done.
Yes, Lucy felt a little protective of Ms. Giller and of Henry Sturtz. She’d known Henry throughout his entire life. He was a good man. He’d been as ornery as any other boy, but his parents were good role models.
Henry’s father, Bill Sturtz, had come from a good family, too. His sister, Betty was married to a great man. His brother, Loren, was a bit of a different story. No one saw much of him. He’d stayed in the old family house after their parents died. Betty and Bill decided it was easier to let him live there than force him to live in an unfamiliar place. Something had gotten twisted in that man’s head. Betty said that he refused anyone’s help, even though she and Dick had offered to work on the land around his home. Lucy had driven past there once. It was a mess. Something that old Mrs. Sturtz would never have tolerated. He couldn’t throw anything away. Over the years the fences had broken down, the metal in furniture rusted and wood rotted.
Henry had tried to help, but Loren had kicked him off the land, too. At least the family understood that he needed a safe home. She’d overheard Betty tell Henry once that they had paid off his electric bills. Loren was her brother and she couldn’t let his life be for nothing.
Lucy handed the Donovan’s order to Joe and picked up plates that needed to go out. After her little explosion, she heard more tittering about Henry and Polly. She’d said what she needed to say. If someone wanted to challenge her, they could, but she was finished with it.
“Simon Gardner, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” Lucy said to the older man as he came in the front door. Paul Bradford walked in with him and pointed to a booth. “Coffee for you?”
Simon gave her a look.
She giggled, something she rarely did. “Tea, right?”
“Just hot water. I brought my own tea this morning,” he replied. “I feel the need for something soothing. I might be coming down with a cold.”
“I’ll be right there.”
Simon stopped by Sylvie Donovan’s table and said something to the family. Andrew lit up. The boy waved his hands while he talked. Simon patted Jason on the back, then followed Paul to the booth and took a seat.
She returned to them with hot water for Simon and coffee for Paul. “What are you two doing this morning? Making trouble?”
“Mr. Bradford here thinks that I’m not taking care of myself,” Simon said. “He insisted on buying breakfast this morning.”
Paul looked at his friend and laughed. “I did no such thing. I thought you were buying breakfast.”
“Should I tell your dear wife that you reneged on your promise?” Simon asked.
It was like this every Saturday morning with these two. Lucy looked around the diner and realized that she knew the history of nearly every person seated here. Simon’s past had been tragic, but he’d moved on, making his life a wonderful journey.
Sylvie Donovan had been through a lot with that horrible ex-husband of hers, but she had two happy boys who were proud of themselves for their accomplishments.
Stories of overcoming and growth, joy and sadness filled the room. The best part was that it was because people filled the room. That’s why this was her happy place. The people she encountered every day. Their stories molded their lives, but they came in to share a moment of that with her.
“You two boys stop it,” Lucy said. “I’ll pay for your breakfast.”
“Now that’s a heck of a deal,” Paul said.
“You charlatan,” Simon said. “For that, you pay the entire ticket, plus, Mrs. Parker, add twenty dollars for your tip.”
Paul laughed. “Sounds fair.”
Lucy took their order and then walked past the table where Ben Drucker and his buddies had been seated. They’d left their money in the center of the table. When she picked it up, she saw a note of apology from one of the men, along with an additional fifty dollars. That was one way to deal with it.
“Hey, Joe,” she said. He came to the window and took the ticket from her.
She took out the fifty dollars and handed it over. “I yelled at some gentlemen for being gossips and they gave this to me. Split it among everyone in the back, okay?”
“I have enough.”
He smiled and slid it under a telephone book.
She turned back to the diner and thought to herself. “I really do have enough. This is my happy place.”