I overheard the woman say “he was her all and her everything” to the waitress when she brought over the cherry pie. I wanted to look, but she was in the booth in front of me, and I didn’t want to stare. I’d noticed someone sitting there when I walked in, but I was a little preoccupied with the fact I was dripping mud and water everywhere.
“Where did you come from?” asked the waitress. She wore blue jeans and a big, pink, crew neck sweatshirt with horses running on it that said, “Be Wild and Free.”
“My car. It stopped moving, and the roads were gone,” I said, slightly out of breath. It felt like I swam the last mile.
“Well, sit down here,” said the waitress and pointed with an empty coffee pot at a booth beside the other woman. “Everyone took off for home a while ago. Looks like you’re stuck with us. Probably should have closed,” she said this as if to herself.
“We’re the stupid and unlucky,” said the woman across from me. She had a tired expression on her face as if she’d also come a long way. At once I noticed her bright red lipstick and the sound of her voice. It sounded calm, like early morning somewhere far from Ohio.
“Speak for yourself,” said a large man, sitting at the diner’s bar. “I made a conscious choice not to go. Roads are closed now. Fuck it.” He swiveled his bar stool around to get a better look at me. “I got a towel in my cab if you want it,” but he didn’t really sound helpful.
“No, I’m okay, thank you.” I was freezing.
“I hope your car is still there in the morning. This rain ain’t’ ever gonna stop. Never seen rain like this here,” said the other man who wore bib overalls and combat boots and had somewhat of a southern drawl. He was handsome and had a kind demeanor. The way he sat, slouched over, suggested he was rather tall.
“Must be that global warming,” said the big one who wore a long chain on his pants and a Cincinnati Reds baseball cap.
The two men chuckled at what must have been a joke and the fat one swiveled back around to the waitress who poured another cup of coffee for him.
“Well if we didn’t have that Buffalo River that always floods, it’d just be rain and the ground would go to work and we’d be alright. But if that river starts coming this way, we’ll be in trouble,” said “Be Wild and Free” and then looked up at me from across the bar, “So, what can I get you?”
“You got any bourbon?” I said, half-joking while squeezing excess water from my long brown hair onto the white tiled floor.
“Oh no, this is a family joint hun. I got some coffee or milk or tea?”
“Coffee is fine.”
“You want pie?”
“Nancy does make the best pie,” said the other woman now staring at me from across the way. It was awkward sitting there across from one another with a booth between us. I looked up and noticed her knees tucked into her chest as she smashed a slice of pie with a fork. Her blond hair was tied up into a bun at the top of her head which fell out all over the place and looked greasy, but it might have just been wet from the rain. She didn’t quite fit the dynamic of a rural diner. She was a random splash of color in an otherwise black and white canvas painting, making you wonder if the artist intended it or if it was there by chance. Either way, the color changed the entire piece. I on the other hand, felt very much like the prodigal daughter returning home.
“I take it the cherry is not that good then?” I smiled and nodded at her plate.
“No, I’m just losing my mind.”
“I’m sorry, that was kind of weird to say probably. You’re a stranger. I’m not actually losing my mind. You know? Like I wasn’t being literal. Never mind,” she spoke with a whimsical honesty I hadn’t heard before.
“It’s okay. My car is a sinking ship somewhere, and I look like a wet dog,” I said.
She went back to smashing her pie.
“Here you go, honey,” said Nancy and handed me the slice of cherry pie and a mug full of warm milk, which looked filmy and congealed.
“Oh, I wanted coffee, sorry,” I said, and Nancy smiled.
“I know. I’ll get that too, but you should drink this warm milk first, it will help calm your nerves.”
“Thanks, I’m calm. Honestly, this kind of stuff happens to me all the time,” I said with no idea why those words came out of my mouth. So I sat on my hands like a child, something I do when I’m nervous.
“You find yourself stranded with strangers a lot?” said Nancy and smiled at me and then took a long pause before turning back towards the kitchen. The only sound in the whole place was the clinking of forks and the rain pattering against the large glass window that ran alongside the building.
Nancy made me slightly uncomfortable. She was one of those women you knew made a really good mom. She could see through any lie or defense mechanism and all her kids probably loved her and chose to shop in outlet malls with her on the weekends rather than their friends. All their parties were held at the house, and Nancy brought the beer. I imagined she volunteered at a soup kitchen too and made a hell of a bartender in her wilder days. Nancy looked at me like she knew me and I hated that. She was calm and collected and shrugged off the possibility of floating away.
I shifted in the vinyl booth as my wet dress stuck to me. I checked my phone and saw that service was back, but I had no missed calls or texts from Simon. I didn’t feel like reaching out. I just sat there and wondered if my rental was flooded already and whether or not I should call my father. Feeling uneasy, I got up and walked back to the front door, opened it to breathe in fresh air. I stood there, listening to the torrential rainfall. The parking lot had become a level four raging river, and I wondered how long we would be stranded. I was home, yet felt as though I could be anywhere. I was somewhere in Middle America or an island or on a boat, lost at sea.
I shut the door and walked back, barefoot still, to the booth and sat down at my cherry pie. When I looked at the woman again, her head was turned, and I noticed a feather tattoo on her neck, the tip of it pointing downward as if it were brushing something away. She wore a sweater that was much too big for her and I wondered if she had intended to buy it that way or if she’d borrowed it from a boyfriend. It looked like it would swallow her up.
I nibbled on pie and decided I was going to be there awhile so I should attempt to get comfortable.
“Nancy?” I asked.
“Yes?” she sounded startled.
“Could I get some fries? With cheese? And maybe bacon?”
“Now we’re talking!” said the overall-wearing man like I’d come up with a plan to stop the rain. “I like a woman who can eat,” he continued.
Nancy smiled and said “sure thing” before heading back over to the feather-tattooed girl and asked if she was okay.
“Yeah, I’m okay. I’m just going to deal with him in the morning,” she said.
“Honey, you’ve done the right thing. I just wish it wouldn’t have happened to you like this.”
“I’m really lost without him, ya know Nance?”
“I know. Believe me. I know.” Then Nancy turned to me, and I pretended that I hadn’t heard anything.
“You want more coffee before I head back dear?”
“No,” I said.
“What’s your name by the way? We’re all gonna be on a first name basis tonight.”
“Annalyn. But people usually just call me Ann.”
“Okay Ann,” said Nancy. “This is Demi, and you know my name.”
The farm boys swiveled in unison on their stools towards me and the thin one said he was Gabe, and the fat one was John. Gabe looked like he could have been John’s son but I think they were brothers, although they never said that.
“Nice to meet you,” I said to everyone.
“I’m going to call you Annalyn, cause you don’t look like an Ann,” said Demi. She squinted her eyes when she said that like she might not agree with her own conclusion.
“That’s my name, so that’s fine. My boyfriend is really the only one who calls me Ann anyway.”
“Then he doesn’t see you. Cause you’re not an Ann.”
“Hmm, I guess not,” I laughed. But something about that wasn’t funny.
“I’m just fucking with you. You actually look like a Claire or Carly.”
“Well, thanks. I guess? You don’t look like a Demi. I’ve never met anyone with that name, though, so I don’t really know.”
“It was my grandmother’s name. Her nickname. Her real name was Victoria.”
“I bet there’s a story there,” I said and pretended to be thoroughly engrossed in pie-eating.
“And what’s your story?” asked Demi, her fork never stopped incessantly smashing the pie, now it worked on the crust. “You look like you’re going to a funeral.”
“Ha. Well, I’m actually going to my mother’s funeral.”
Gabe and John turned around again at this news, and both shook their heads and said they were sorry. I thanked them. Gabe went into the story of how he lost his mother when he was only nine in a car accident. He still dreamt about her, and she was always young in them. John got up and pulled a flask from his front pocket and offered me a “pull” on it. I shook my head.
The truth was, I hadn’t thought about my mother or the funeral since my car stalled. I focused on not drowning and then on nothing at all. Simon wasn’t even a distraction. Not even the fact we hadn’t spoken since I’d arrived in Ohio and he never let me know he’d made it to Vegas. I tried to figure out if this bothered me or not when Demi suddenly asked: “Why are you wearing the dress?”
“I’m stretching it out,” I confessed.
The fat one laughed or snorted. And Gabe swiveled away from me saying, “That is girl talk. I don’t want no part of that.”
“Oh Gabe, that’s not girl talk,” I said and looked back at Demi, and she smiled at me. I think I had finally made her comfortable.
“You know I can visibly see you shaking from here,” she said, finally putting her fork down.
“Yeah, maybe Nancy can turn on the heat. And some tunes.”
“I’ve got a sweater in my car if we can make it without being swept away.”
“I’m willing to take the risk.”
Demi and I made our way to the door just as Nancy turned the corner with my bacon-
cheese fries. “Where do you gals think you’re going? It’s still raining.”
“Just getting her a sweater Nance, we’ll be back.”
“If you get swept away out there, I’m not coming after you.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” said Demi with a big grin.
I followed her out into the storm. I never really understood the danger of flash floods until that night. I never saw so much water in my life. It rose a few inches since I left the Ford and now was up along the running boards of Demi’s bronco. But the water moved slowly as if it was still trying to figure out where to go. We waded through it with little problem, but my feet hurt as I stepped on gravel and rock.
“Shit,” said Demi looking at the Bronco, “I hope my truck is here tomorrow.”
“Do you think we will really be here until morning?”
“Do you think all this water is going somewhere tonight? It’s still raining.”
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” she said and opened the back seat door. That’s when I saw him. The dead dog.
“Is that dog…?”
“Dead? Yes. My everything,” she said this and her voice got all shaky and quiet.
“You’re driving around with your dead dog in the back seat?”
“I came home and found him barely breathing. He’s been sick for a while. I couldn’t even get him to stand up. I had to put him down today,” she explained this to me while digging through various spots in her car for that sweater. “I was on my way to bury him in a field I know. One with a tree in the middle. But, then it just kept fucking raining, so here I am.”
“Not your fault,” she said and crawled over him looking in the far back for my sweater. I prayed it wasn’t going to be in the backseat with Death.
The dog looked big, like a large scruffy sheepdog. He took up the whole back seat. “What was his name?” I asked and hugged myself in a meager attempt to keep in what little body heat I had left.
“Yeah, I called him Pie, or Pie Baby but I adopted him from a shelter, and his name was Pilot. I think the previous owner was a kid who wanted to fly or something stupid like that,” she crawled over the back seat into the trunk.
“If you can’t find it, it’s really okay. I’m soaked again anyway. Let’s just go freeze our asses off.”
“Here!” she shouted, I could no longer see her in the giant SUV.
“You wanna smoke?”
“No, I don’t smoke, but thanks,” I said this and watched as she crawled back towards the front, over her dead dog and climbed into the driver’s seat.
“Come on, get in, Crazy.”
I ran around the front and hopped in the passenger seat. “You realize we could be swept away, and I’ll never get my fries.”
“You’re funny. Here, smoke.” She dug an unused cigarette out from amongst a pile of coins and handed it to me. I noticed a Heart CD case on the dashboard.
“No, really, I’m good. Heart fan?”
“Barracuda always makes me feel better.” Demi lit the cigarette, and I watched as she inhaled the smoke and blew it out through her nostrils. The windows were closed. I kind of hated her at that moment and thought of Simon cutting cigarette deals. I couldn’t tell what was worse, that or the smell of her light Camels.
“Are you going to put that on?” she asked and looked at the sweater on my lap. It was another giant one, knit for a large man or half a horse.
“I think I’ll dry off first when we go inside,” I replied and held up the sweater, “Are you partial to large sweaters or something?”
She laughed and took another drag. “You’re kind of collected for your mom just dying and being stuck with strangers in a storm and not knowing where your boyfriend is.”
“How’d you know I don’t know where my boyfriend is?”
“You’ve been checking your phone every five seconds.”
We sat there in silence for the rest of her cigarette, and I wanted to ask more about the dog in the back seat, but I didn’t. I just sat there and watched the smoke settle against the windshield and become trapped between the two of us. I started to poke at it and whirl it around with my index finger.
“I can turn the heat on for you,” she said suddenly.
“No, I’ll be okay, thanks.”
“I know you will. I’m just being nice.”
“Pilot was my best friend. I know that sounds ridiculous cause he’s a dog, but it’s true. He protected me. It was just him and me, you know? I have no idea how I’ll bury him. I’m half-hoping this truck floats away, so I don’t have to pour dirt on him.”
“The field you mentioned sounded lovely, peaceful. That’s better than him rotting in this truck,” I said, trying to comfort her. I started to wonder if Demi was actually crazy or just incredibly sad.
“Yeah. It’s selfish if I leave him.”
“Let’s go back inside,” I said.
“Are you going to talk about your mom?”
We got out of the car and made our way back to the diner. The water was just below my knees and moving faster than before. The road was almost gone.
…to be continued