“You ever watch bees? One goes out, finds nectar, and starts buzzing. Pretty soon the air is full of them. People ain’t any different.”
Original Fiction by
The wind shifted, bringing scents from the nearby Village of Two Rivers: frying bacon, boiling potatoes, and soup simmering over a low flame; diesel fuel from lumber trucks that drove shoulder to shoulder along secondary roads, and cars that belched exhaust. Only a truly good nose trained by hunt and hunger could discern the savory from the noxious.
Lester Lamfeld sat on the back step of the Two Rivers Diner, taking one last drag on a Winston that still had quite a few puffs left. Holding the smoldering cigarette in a hand etched with kitchen burns, he considered taking one long, final draw—even smoking all the way down to the filter. Then he remembered the promise to his wife, Glenda, who had been after him to quit since his bout of pneumonia over the winter. Smoking wasn’t the problem, he knew; it was the damn malaria he’d contracted in Panama during the war. Now, twenty years later, in the spring of 1964, he still had night sweats at times.
Getting up from the stoop, Lester limped a few steps toward the garbage cans, working out the stiffness in his knees that, at forty-six, made him feel like a much older man. The ground was scratched with prints: tiny hands of raccoons, hooves of deer, the splayed feet of birds. Last autumn he’d found tracks that swallowed the span of his hands and deep grooves where rounded claws had dug into the dirt. Glenda was always after him to put better lids on the cans, the kind that clamped down on the sides. But Lester knew it was hard to stop anything, human or beast, that was truly hungry. He extracted a heel of bread from the previous night’s refuse and crumbled it on the ground for the birds.
Turning back toward the diner, he saw a shapeless bundle walking up the road. Lester squinted against the sun that neared its noontime apex and lifted his hand to shade his eyes. The gesture must have looked like a greeting because the figure waved back. Whoever it was, Lester noticed, didn’t really walk, but rolled from side to side. The stranger waved again. Lester raised his hand and then went back inside the diner.
“Just about to go out there and get you.” Glenda brushed a tiny cube of diced onion from the palm of her hand with the blade of her chopping knife. She was short and round; her hair dyed brassy red and sprayed stiffly into an up-do.
Lester adjusted the white cap he always wore in the kitchen over his dark hair, still as wavy as when Glenda met him, but a little thinner across the top. He tightened his apron over gray trousers and a white t-shirt. With order tickets in one hand and a spatula in the other, he spread a little bacon grease on the grill to cook a couple of hamburgers.
“Somebody comin’ down the road. No idea who it is,” he told his wife.
Glenda mashed the diced onion into the egg salad with a fork. “Hope they’re hungry. We could use the business. Dead today.”
The road crew usually stopped by about this time, and the state troopers could be counted on for a mid-day stop. Maybe it was the unseasonably warm weather, the temperature flirting with 80 degrees. Warm or cold, though, Lester grumbled to himself, people still had to eat.
By one-thirty, the place had emptied. Lester could tell without looking that there wasn’t a soul at the counter or any of the tables because Junie Beam, the waitress, was playing the jukebox—Patsy Cline falling to pieces, over and over.
“This a holiday I don’t know about?” Lester complained.
Glenda stirred the kettle of pea soup to keep a skin from forming over the top. “Maybe we can close up early. Wouldn’t mind getting out in the garden on a day like this.”
Lester frowned. “That’s the problem. Everybody’s got spring fever and no appetite.”
“I fall to pieces—” Junie crooned as she wiped down the tables.
“She’s gonna wear that damn record out,” Lester grumbled.
The singing stopped and Junie’s face appeared at the order window. She was in her early 20s, skinny with strawberry blond hair. “Lester, you come out here for a sec?”
“You that busy?” he smirked. “If you want to take off early, go ahead. Chet here?” Junie’s boyfriend, Chet Erstwieler, worked for the county highway department and came in just about every day to see Junie. Even he had failed to show up today.
“No, you come out. Somebody’s here.”
Lester knew from the prickle up the back of his neck who that somebody had to be.
The stranger he’d seen on the road was a woman—large, with a round face, small dark eyes, and wiry salt-and-pepper hair. She wore a long dark skirt that covered her feet and a faded charcoal gray zip-up jacket with B.J. embroidered on the front and a Texaco emblem on the sleeve.
“What can I get you? Specials on the board.” Lester pointed to the blackboard next to the order window. Junie, he noticed, had spelled the soup of the day as “spilt pea with ham.”
“You give me one day at the stove back there, and there’ll be a line out your door,” the woman said.
“Thanks, but no. I’m the cook and the owner. My wife, Glenda, and me, we run this place. We ain’t looking to hire anybody.”
“Right out that door.” She pointed over her shoulder with a large hand—broad palm and short, thick fingers. “Backed right out to the street.”
“Don’t have enough folks in town for that to happen. How about a bowl of pea soup on the house?” He turned to Junie with a nod.
“Ain’t looking for no handout, although soup does sound good.”
Glenda brought a cup of coffee and set it on the table. “Is that your name, B.J?”
“Nah. I found this jacket. My name’s Ursula—Ursula Bayer.” The woman raised the lid on the sugar bowl and took out four packets. “You got any honey?”
Glenda shot Lester an annoyed look. “Maybe. I can look. You put it in your coffee?”
Ursula’s grin revealed a row of strong teeth. “Put it on everything. That’s my secret.”
Lester awakened the next morning to rain and smiled toward the ceiling. Nothing like a good soaker to bring in the customers: the road crew waiting out the worst of it, the state troopers with slickers over their uniforms. He peeled back the covers so as not to disturb Glenda, who wouldn’t come in until after their son and daughter were up and off to school. He hummed a little as he shaved at the bathroom sink and combed pomade through his hair.
When the headlights of his Ford Fairlane swept across the diner parking lot, Lester saw the glow through the kitchen window. It was only four forty-five, too early for Junie, who dragged her sleepy self in as close to six as possible. Looking around for something to brandish at the intruder, he found an old broom by the utility box in the back of the diner. Just then the back door swung open, exhaling vanilla and almond, cinnamon and nutmeg. Lester tried to yell, but his mouth watered to the point of drooling. Ursula Bayer handed him a warm plate with two golden slabs of French toast, drizzled with honey.
“What—?” Lester dropped the broom on the back step and reached for a fork.
The exterior of each slice had a slight crust, but the inside was soft, not soggy or spongy. He ate the first slice without stopping or even looking up from the plate.
“You’re welcome.” Chuckling, Ursula ambled back to the stove. “By the way, your door don’t lock so good.”
Two cooks in the kitchen fit about as easily as both feet in one shoe, but Lester and Ursula managed. Even Glenda went along after her protests were silenced by one bite of buttermilk biscuit.
“What she put in it?” Glenda whispered to Lester, who shrugged.
“Wild onion shoots.” Ursula held up a fistful. “Dug ‘em up this morning.”
Not a single plate went out of the kitchen without Ursula’s touch, not even the oatmeal and the scrambled eggs with hash. She used cinnamon and nutmeg like salt and pepper, and dripped almond and vanilla extract into every batter. Her secret ingredient, from what Lester could see, was honey—on everything from biscuits to coffee cake and even in the meatloaf mix for the lunch special. Theirs was store-bought, light amber in a glass jar—a poor substitute, Ursula grunted, for wild honey from the woods.
Junie Beam pushed six more orders through the window into the kitchen. “Table six wants another round of pancakes. Never seen nothing like it.” She caught Ursula’s eye. “You puttin’ something funny in the food?”
“Oh, plenty funny.” Ursula crinkled her dark beady eyes. “Funnier than you’d imagine.”
Diners left with belts loosened several notches, giving up their seats to people who waited impatiently by the door. By three o’clock the diner was out of every special and the soup kettle was dry.
“Saw people today I ain’t seen in months.” Lester took off his cook’s cap and scratched his scalp. His feet hurt from standing so long at the grill, but it was a good, satisfying ache from being busy.
“You ever watch bees?” Ursula asked. “One goes out, finds nectar, and starts buzzing. Pretty soon the air is full of them. People ain’t any different. They just think they are.”
Lester opened the cash drawer to pay Ursula, who refused. “I’ll work for my grub.”
“You earned more than that,” he protested.
“You ain’t seen me eat.” Ursula put a slab of bacon on the grill.
For three days, Ursula cooked and for three days the diner was the busiest it had ever been. Lester watched her technique, especially when it came to seasoning—the extra nutmeg and cinnamon, the overflowing spoons of vanilla and almond flavoring, and more honey per day than he’d use in two months—in salad dressing and rice pudding, over pork chops and roast chicken, and once, when Glenda wasn’t looking, in the cole slaw.
“Why you doing this?” Lester demanded. “You fixing to open up your own place—take all my customers?”
Ursula reared back and growled at him. “I look like somebody who can afford her own place? I’m foraging for my food like everybody else.”
Lester scraped the grill a little more vigorously. “Ain’t used to people helping, s’all.”
A big paw landed on his shoulder. “I like the smell of cooking. Yours was good, but I knew it could be better, especially knowing what I know.”
“I learned to cook in the Army, how to make grub hot and pretty tasty. Nobody ever complained and a few times I heard the special was pretty good. But I ain’t seen them like this—waiting outside before the diner opens.” He shook his head.
“Tastes like spring—like the flowers and the fields. That’s what’s in the honey. Next time, I’m bringing you some wild stuff.”
When they closed up the diner, Lester offered Ursula a ride home, wherever that was, but she declined. “Good day to walk.” She grinned back at him with those strong teeth and waved her big paw of a hand.
On Sunday, the diner was closed. After church, Glenda worked in her garden and Lester raked the yard, noticing how good the ground smelled in the spring: the dampness of the earth, the freshness of new growth, the spiciness of the pines that thickened the border of his property. It reminded him of the way Ursula cooked. He’d put in an herb garden, Lester decided: dill, basil, chives, rosemary—enough for home and the diner.
By the time his wife called him in for dinner, Lester realized he hadn’t had a cigarette all day. The desire had left him.
Carrying out the trash in the evening, he stood in the backyard, breathing in the scent of loam, freshly hatched tadpoles, and the first peepers that crawled up the branches of the willows in the low spot by the creek and sang to the night air. Tipping his head back, he watched stars pop out from a cobalt canopy. He picked out bright Venus and followed the pointer star from the inverted Big Dipper to Polaris, the North Star. Lester’s neck prickled. The Big Dipper. Ursa Major—the Bear.
Never could he tell a soul what he was thinking, but the signs were there as clear as those stars overhead. Lester went back inside, watched the news with Glenda on the tiny black-and-white TV screen in the living room, and went to bed.
The stars were still out and the moon was high when Lester got up shortly after three o’clock on Monday morning and drove along silent roads to the diner. Around the last bend, he shut off the headlights and rolled quietly into the parking lot. In the dark, Lester waited, wishing he still smoked to occupy himself, denouncing his fool’s errand, until he heard the crash of metal on metal. Lester flicked on the headlights, illuminating a large shape, lumbering and rounded, rummaging in the trash. He got out of the car and stood between the headlights. The animal rose up on its hind legs and ambled forward in a rolling motion, side to side, then dropped to all fours and ran from the light.
Ursula did not come back to the diner that morning, nor the next day or the day after that. Lester missed her company and even Glenda spoke fondly of the three days when they shared their kitchen with a stranger. Her touch, though, never left the diner: the cinnamon and nutmeg, vanilla and almond flavoring, and quart jars of honey—including a rare, wild sample still in the comb, left early one morning on the back step when there were bear tracks around the dumpster.