Getting a Ride at the End of the World
The whirr of the industrial fan behind the diner drowned out Keller’s words, not that he noticed, or she cared. A laugh shook his thin body, and he hauled himself upright. On his way to the back door, he brushed his thigh against her shoulder as she sat on a milk crate. “You’ll see what I’m saying,” he said at close range. “Y2K gonna shut everything down.”
The new millennium didn’t scare Fiona, even if all the power plants shut down and the banks couldn’t open their vaults. She’d use candles and didn’t have any money to worry about. But the number ’99 made her restless, as if she had to get someplace before the last tick of the clock.
Retying her apron as she reentered the diner, Fiona spied two state troopers who had come in while she’d been outside for a ten-minute break. Charlie frowned at her, which meant he’d had to get off his rear and give them menus. Too bad. She’d been on her feet since six, and the place had been hopping all morning—locals, fishermen, tourist families passing through.
Fiona ran a hand over her hair, redder than blond and pulled back in a ponytail. “Late breakfast or early lunch?” she asked the troopers.
“Coffee,” the younger one said.
The older trooper glanced at the menu, and Fiona would have bet all her tips he wanted to eat something but wouldn’t with Mr. Coffee sitting there.
“Got nice apple pie. Fresh made,” Fiona coaxed, though she knew it was gluey and a day old.
The older trooper pushed the menu back with stubby fingers. “Coffee, cream and sugar.”
And a quarter for a tip, she added silently.
At two o’clock, Fiona turned the diner sign to “closed” and bussed the last of the tables, bringing the remaining dishes into the kitchen where Keller fired up the ancient dishwasher. “How about you and me goin’ down to the lake tonight. Buddy o’mine gotta camper.” He raised one eyebrow.
“Get bent,” she sneered, pushing the tub of dirty dishes at him.
“You won’t think you’re so special come October. Nobody left here, ‘cept Charlie and me. At least I ain’t old.”
The kitchen door swung shut behind her, but not fast enough to block Keller’s words. She had no plan after this place and no money to move on. The room she rented was cheap, but so were the patrons at the diner.
Never should have stopped her, she grumbled, recalling the day she’d bummed a ride this way with a delivery truck driver. She’d been heading to Lake Placid and the fancy resorts where she’d imagined earning a decent wage and making big tips. Then the driver had told how college kids took most of the summer jobs there. At twenty-six, Fiona only had a high school diploma and three weeks of beauty school. She knew she was pretty, but that didn’t mean as much in fancy places as it did in bars and truck stops.
When the driver had pulled up at the diner to make a delivery, she’d gone in the restroom where she found the waitress shucking off her uniform and swearing that she wouldn’t work there one more minute. Fiona had picked up the shapeless mustard-colored dress, smelling of the other girl’s Secret deodorant and Suave shampoo, and put it on. She cinched the apron tightly around her waist and got the job. That had been May, now it was the last weekend of August. A century coming to an end.
“What do you do in the fall?” Fiona asked Charlie as she slipped into the booth where he counted the money. He thumbed a few twenties and handed over her pay in cash.
“Stay open through Columbus Day. Then just weekends. Or maybe I’ll close it up early this year and go down to Florida for the winter. Haven’t decided.” Charlie tapped a stack of bills into a neat pile. “Come with me.”
Fiona turned her eyes toward the wall clock shaped like a percolator, with a little light that flickered at the top. Charlie had to be her father’s age, though the similarity ended there. At least Charlie had a job and wasn’t in jail.
Looking back at him, she caught the glint of the gold chain at the open neck of his shirt. “Bet you look good in a bikini,” he said.
Fiona’s retort ended in an open-mouthed gasp when she felt the pinch of Charlie’s fingers against her inner thigh. She pulled back, slamming her knees together.
“Watch yourself,” he said. “It’ll get slow soon and we won’t need a waitress.”
A passing car kicked up gravel, sending a spray of cinders against Fiona’s legs. She’d already walked a mile out of town, in the opposite direction of the old lady’s house where she rented a room. Turning around would be a good idea, she knew, but couldn’t stand the thought of passing by the diner or, worse yet, seeing Charlie’s Buick in the parking lot. The road narrowed, and the air smelled like pine. A shiver went through Fiona as the sun slipped behind a bank of incoming clouds.
Rain spattered the pavement, light at first, then in pelleting sheets. Seeing a cottage up ahead, Fiona quickened to a run, figuring she could stand on the porch. Halfway down the driveway she spied the front end of a Mercedes, angled out beyond the cottage. Summer people, she said to herself, and backed up several steps. She ran, head down, eyes fixed on the pavement.
A truck downshifted, the engine whining. Fiona jumped onto the shoulder, landing ankle-deep in a puddle. “Shit!” she yelled.
“You wanna ride?” The voice was male, unfamiliar. “I’m not a creep or nothing. It’s just you’re awfully wet.”
Fiona glimpsed the writing on the truck door. “Bob’s Septic and Excavation.” Shit indeed, added to herself.
The defroster cleared the fog from the windshield and sent an oven blast toward Fiona’s face. She pushed water-logged hair off her forehead to keep droplets out of her eyes. “I take it you’re Bob.”
“What? Oh, the door. No, that’s my father. I’m Jeff.”
She guessed him to be about thirty, probably working for his old man until he could find something better to do. “What do you excavate?”
Jeff raised his palms from the steering wheel, then gripped it again. “Foundations. Drainage ditches. Septic fields. What do you do?”
“National Weather Service,” Fiona deadpanned. “The consensus was for light showers, but I disagreed. I was right.”
Jeff narrowed his eyes and widened his grin.
“I work at the diner. I got pissed off at somebody and stormed out. Better to do that in a car, but I don’t have one anymore.”
“Where can I take you?” he asked.
“Where’re you headed?”
Jeff pointed through the windshield. “Got equipment to drop off.”
“Well, let’s go.”
The rain let up to a light drizzle by the time they reached the construction site. Jeff handed her a hooded sweatshirt splotched with paint, the cuffs rimmed with what looked like cement. She put it on and covered her dripping hair with the hood. Standing at the tailgate, she watched Jeff haul a generator out of the back. His face reddened with the strain, but he set it down carefully on a piece of plywood and fastened it to a tree with a chain.
Beyond the generator, muddy water half-filled a foundation, deep and square.
“I take it somebody is bringing a pump tomorrow,” she said.
“The owner wants to pour concrete as soon as possible.” Jeff leaned over, inspecting the sides. “Summer people—always in a rush.”
“Maybe they think the end of the world is coming,” Fiona quipped, but the joke soured her mouth. “You know, double-zero, Y2K and all that.”
Jeff’s expression faded to neutral. “World’s always ending or beginning for somebody.”
Fiona didn’t know what to say to that. Back in the truck, she gave him her address and turned on the radio. Looking around the truck cab, she saw a woman’s face peeking out from the corner of the visor. She pointed to the photo. “Girlfriend? Wife?”
“Wife,” Jeff said.
“Will she be mad that you gave me a ride?”
Jeff shook his head. “You didn’t tell me your name.”
Jeff nodded. “Haven’t ever heard that one before.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, well, I’m different. Fiona was my grandmother’s name.” She though back to other times, like the truck stop in Scranton where they’d called her Debbie because that was embroidered on the uniform. She’d been Suzie at a cocktail bar in Utica because pretending to be somebody else made the job easier.
“What’s your wife’s name?”
Jeff stared at the visor. “Ann.”
Fiona pointed to the next block and got out at the corner. She waved once as Jeff pulled away, then realized she still had on the hooded sweatshirt.
She kept conversation with Charlie to a minimum the next week and ignored Keller’s running commentary. With every tip she pocketed, she calculated how far it would get her and in which direction. The diner usually closed on Mondays but stayed open on Labor Day. Fiona welcomed the extra day of work.
The lunch crowd had cleared when Jeff walked in. “Hey!” Fiona called out from the table she was wiping. “I got your sweatshirt.”
He slid onto a stool at the counter. “I’ll get it next time.”
“Coffee? I can make a fresh pot.”
“You got iced tea?”
She checked a tall glass for spots, filled it with ice, and poured from a pitcher of tea. She brought lemon slices on a saucer and handed him the sugar dispenser.
Jeff ordered a BLT and, since Charlie was taking a cigarette break, Fiona put the bacon on the grill herself. She brought the sandwich to him, the bread warm and lightly toasted.
“Look I don’t want you to get the wrong idea,” he started. “I gotta drive up to Blue Mountain Lake. Wondered if you wanted to take a drive. Just a drive—nothing else.”
Fiona shifted her weight, jutted out her hip. “What about Ann? Can’t she go?”
Jeff shook his head.
Suddenly aware of Charlie hovering nearby, Fiona took a step back. “Thanks for asking, but I got stuff to do at home.”
After Jeff left, Fiona saw Charlie’s smirk. “You wouldn’t want to spend an hour in that truck.” He pinched his nose. “Not too late to change your mind about Florida. Nice beaches. You’d get a job there pretty quick, too.”
She had dated worse guys than Charlie and at least he was single. When they got to Florida, she’d dump him as soon as she had a job and a place to stay. But she’d keep Charlie guessing until the last minute.
Without giving him an answer, she gathered up the sugar dispensers to refill in the kitchen.
September fell like a curtain: days shortening, temperatures dropping, and business so slow, Charlie kept the diner open only on weekends. Fiona took a babysitting job to fill the gap, watching two kids after school. Bonnie, the woman who had hired her, explained that her husband had gotten injured in a logging accident. Until the company made a settlement, she needed to go to work.
When Fiona asked how long her husband had been in the hospital, Bonnie explained he’d spent six weeks there. “Now he’s at St. Francis. It’s a nursing home.”
Fiona touched the other woman’s arm. “You got any family to help?”
“My sister’s coming at the end of the month. She’ll stay for a while.”
Fiona nodded, glad that when she left for Florida, she wouldn’t be abandoning Bonnie.
Walking home one evening, Fiona heard a truck rumbling behind her. Recognizing the sound, she turned and waited.
Jeff lowered the window. “You want a ride?”
Fiona smiled but shook her head. “I’m good.”
He rolled the truck along to keep her pace.
“You gonna walk me home like this?”
“Look, this is hard to say. Ann is never coming home. She had a stroke.”
Fiona blinked in surprise, wondering how old Ann was, though maybe strokes happened to younger people.
“She’s still my wife and I ain’t doing anything to disrespect her. I just like having somebody to talk to.”
The truck stopped. Fiona walked around the front, feeling the heat of the engine through the grill. “Just talk,” she said. “And you should know. I’m leaving for Florida soon.”
On one of their long rides, Fiona heard Jeff’s life story: how he’d met Ann in high school, their certainty of marrying from the time they were sixteen, how they’d done just that at twenty-one. Then an arterial dissection, a complication of a congenital heart defect. She’d been twenty-eight, a year older than Fiona was now.
“Ann’s parents don’t want to give up even though she’s on life support,” Jeff said. “I figure as long as she’s not suffering.”
“She at St. Francis?” Fiona asked, remembering the name of the nursing home Bonnie had told her about.
Jeff nodded. “It’s not that bad. I go on Sundays.”
Fiona shared a little of her own life: growing up in Pennsylvania, leaving after high school because she just couldn’t stay at home at any longer. “I just couldn’t,” she repeated with a tone that didn’t invite questions. Since then, she’d been moving from place to place. Fiona hoped that part sounded more like adventure, less like running away.
Then Columbus Day Weekend arrived with one last flurry of customers at the diner. Charlie told Fiona he would be leaving for Florida on Friday.
The babysitting job had ended, she had no money and no plan. “I’ll go, but just for the ride.” She doubted he’d take that bargain.
After one hour on the interstate, Fiona realized she’d made a horrible mistake. If 2000 meant the end of the world, she wasn’t spending it with Charlie. Pretending she really had to use the bathroom, Fiona made him stop at a rest area outside Binghamton. She found a payphone, made a call, left a message.
Red-faced and swearing, Charlie took off. Fiona waited by the phone. Two hours later, it rang.
Now, twenty-two years later, Labor Day looms once again, presaging the slide into fall. Soon the leaves will change, after that snow will fall. One year ends, another begins—predictable and steady.
Fiona hears the rumble of the engine before she sees the truck. She says good-bye to her 17-year-old daughter, promising to be back in an hour or two. “Okay,” the young girl replies, never looking up from her phone.
Opening the truck door, Fiona asks, “Where to this time?”
Jeff swings the truck around and heads back onto the road.