Copyright 2016 by Jo Huddleston
Needles, California, June 1956
Donna Turner wiped down the counter for what seemed like the umpteenth time since she’d clocked in at six this morning. She straightened the laminated menu standing in its place beside the napkin holder. When the glass door of the diner pushed open, she turned her weary attention to the new customer that entered.
What she saw took her breath away. Or did the gust of hot, dry desert air the hunky specimen brought in with him have something to do with her difficulty to breathe? After three months in Needles, California, she’d become used to the bone-dry air that slurped the air from your lungs the second you stepped outside. It was definitely the perfect guy she feasted her eyes on that had tripped her heart into overdrive and left her winded.
Her gaze followed him as he walked toward the one empty stool at the curved end of the counter. The familiar swing of his hips snapped her back to reality. Could it be? She had watched him from the bleachers every Friday night back home years ago. Who could forget him in his football uniform? Her junior high school crush on Thomas James Crowley had caused her to measure every date she’d had since then with his perfection.
She’d even made a list of what she wanted in a man—a list she carried with her to this day—a list that described him to a T: tall, handsome, sense of humor, faith in God, and a hundred-watt smile. It was that to-die-for smile he flashed her way now that drew her in his direction.
Donna started toward him with a glass of iced water and automatically removed her order pad from her apron pocket. She stopped in front of him, set down the water, and took a pencil from over her ear. “What’ll you have?”
He downed half the water in one gulp and reached for a menu. “What do you recommend?”
What did she recommend? Oh, my! She offered him a quick smile and pointed out the specials on the menu. As he looked over the lunch specials, another customer at the counter interrupted her thoughts.
“Miss? I need a refill on my coffee.”
She blinked herself back to the here and now. After refilling mugs, she returned the coffee pot to the hot plate and made her way to where Tommy examined the menu. “Have you decided what you want?”
“Yeah, give me your #3 special with a Coke.”
“Will that be all?”
“Maybe some pie later if I have room for it. Where’s your men’s room? I’d like to wash up.”
She pointed behind him with her pencil and stood frozen in her tracks as she watched him amble away from the counter. Finally, she tore his order from her pad and strolled to the see-through to the kitchen. She clipped the order to the metal circular order wheel.
The cook looked up. “Hey, Donna, get a move on. Those customers behind you need something.”
She turned away from the kitchen and back to the counter. It’s a good thing she wasn’t waiting on the diner’s four tables today. She could barely maneuver the space behind the counter. Even Mac, the owner-cook, had noticed her sluggish movements since her dreamboat had walked in. Tommy’s appearance had put Donna in a blissful trance.
By the time Tommy had finished his burger and Coke, most of the lunch crowd had left. She rang up the last customer and took his money. Now it would be just Tommy and her in the diner. When she speared the paid order slip onto the vertical spindle, she barely missed impaling her hand on the sharp point.
She composed herself as best she could and made her way to his end of the counter. “Can I get you that piece of pie now?”
“Sure. I’ll have some of the chocolate, please.”
She removed his lunch plate and set the pie and a clean fork in front of him.
“Hmm. Good pie. Did you make it?”
“Not me. I just serve the food. The owner’s wife makes all the pastries.”
He looked at her nametag, then his gaze locked with hers. “Donna, can I please have a refill on my Coke?”
Unable to utter a word, she nodded and delivered another glass of Coke to him. He finished his pie and glanced at the ticket she’d laid near his plate. Tommy pulled his wallet from a back pocket. She’d waited for the other customers to leave before she tried to start a conversation with him. Now that she had him all to herself, he had finished eating. No, he couldn’t go!
“Yeah, I’ve got to get back on the road. I want to make another couple hundred miles before dark if I can.”
“Where you headed?”
He slipped a five dollar bill from his wallet before returning it to his back pocket. “I’m going all the way to the coast, Los Angeles.”
“Oh.” How could she delay him? “What’s the coast got that we don’t have here except the ocean?”
He’d left his stool, put her tip under the edge of his plate, and then stopped to consider her question. “I guess that’s about it. Yeah, the ocean.”
“If it’s water you want, we have the Colorado River…and I have a pool.”
“Wow. You and your husband must be loaded! Having a pool and all, I mean.”
Donna was quick with her answer. “Oh, no, I’m not married! I just have a pool. That is, where I live has a pool. Anyway, you don’t have to go to Los Angeles—we have everything you’d want right here in Needles, the gateway to California. We have recreation along the river, a more relaxed way of life, and the Nevada casinos are just a hop, skip, and jump away. But you probably don’t visit casinos…do you?” At least, she hoped he didn’t.
“Nah, I don’t go to the casinos. I work too hard for my money to give it away at those places.” He picked up his ticket and walked to the cash register.
She walked with him, the counter separating them. When he handed her his ticket and money, she wanted to grab his hand. She wanted to shake him and yell at him, “How could you not know me? I was your best friend’s little sister and your biggest fan at all your football games. You were my hero, my dream. You still are.”
“Donna, are you okay?”
She stammered. “Yes…yes, I’m okay.” She rang up his ticket and the cash register drawer sprung open with a metal clang.
She counted money into the palm of his hand. Still holding the last dollar of his change, Donna stopped and looked at his face. She straightened her shoulders and mustered up her courage. It was now or never, or he’d walk out the door. “You don’t recognize me, do you?”
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t.”
“You played high school football. You were the quarterback.”
“Yeah…I did. How do you know that?”
“I came to all your games.”
“Tommy, I’m Donna Turner. Remember your best friend Greg in high school? I’m his little sister.”
©2016 Jo Huddleston All Rights Reserved