September 26th, 1974.  1:00 PM

 

The Annie Slocumb whom I had asked Beth about was a waitress at Jackey-Boy’s Diner.  We had met during my first trip through Nastoria when, before she took my order, she pointed out that the detective novel I was reading was really quite boring and predictable.  I was far enough into it to realize she was right, but with nothing else to read I had decided to stick with it until I could get my hands on something else.

            When she delivered my club sandwich, Annie also brought me a paperback book.

            “Here, throw that one out, read this instead, you’ll thank me.”  And then she scribbled a few lines on her pad of paper, tore off the sheet, and handed it to me.  “Then read these, they’re really good, you’ll love them.”

            Over the next few months I went through each of Annie’s recommendations, and they remain some of the best books I’ve ever read.

            On my second trip here, I was lucky enough to catch Annie just as she was getting off of work.  And, since she remembered me, I asked her to sit down for chat while I ate my dinner.  Several hours and topics later, I left Jackey-Boy’s with too many cola’s in my belly, and the knowledge that I had made a new friend.

            A few times I had overheard some of the regulars in the diner say that Annie was too smart to be living here and working as a waitress. I, however, had always thought that if someone loves where they are and what they’re doing, then staying there and doing just that was the most intelligent decision they could make.

            I was really looking forward to seeing Annie when Shirley and I found ourselves in Downtown Nastoria – a sprawling metropolis consisting of the eatery I was looking for, and a bank which appeared to be closed.

            The lunchtime crowd was made up mostly of men who wore baseball caps they got free for buying heavy machinery or chainsaws. All but one of the 15 or so tables was occupied, so upon sitting down, I officially had made it a full house.

            I looked around to see if Annie was working, and spotted her immediately.  I threw a big wave in her direction, more to say hello than to ask for service, and after seeing me she navigated her way through the labyrinth of tables and booths to where I was sitting.

            Annie was a Rubenesque woman of 34, a year younger than me, with straight dark hair that stopped just above her shoulders.  Physically, she hadn’t changed a bit in the last two years or so, but there was something different about Annie today.  Something not good.

            She smiled when she got to my table, but the corners of her mouth seemed strained, and they quivered a bit like the arms of a weightlifter trying to keep a massive amount of steel over his head, and then crashed down just as quickly.  In fact, in my business, her smile would probably be described as faux.  Though she was looking me straight in the eye, her focus seemed to shift from several inches behind my head, to an equal distance in front of my face.

            “Sam, hi.  It’s so good to see you,” she said, trying to force as much of a pleasant tone into her words as she could – and she couldn’t force much.

            I noticed that her right hand was clutching tightly at the chain around her neck.  On that chain hung the class ring of her husband, Stuart.  They’d been a couple since junior high, and married just out of high school.  Stuart was everything to Annie, and she had told me that whenever she touched that ring, she felt just as in love with Stuart as she was when he asked her to marry her at their senior prom.

            “Club sandwich?” She said, remembering my two previous orders.

            “You know it.”  I gave her my best smile.  Nothing.  And when she let go of the chain to write the order down, I saw the reason for mood: the ring was gone.

            I said a quick prayer to myself, hoping that it was just the ring that was missing and not what it symbolized.  But I could tell from Annie’s face that this wasn’t the case.    

            “Be right back,” she said before turning and walking into the kitchen.

            As I looked around the diner, I made eye contact with an older woman with a bluish tint to her white hair sitting in a booth a few feet from me.

            “Annie’s not herself today, huh?” I asked.

            The woman leaned forward, apparently all to happy to whisper a bit of gossip to someone who didn’t yet know.

            “Her husband left her.  For another woman, I heard.”  She nodded a few times, then leaned back.  She surveyed the room, hoping no had caught her in the not-so-polite act of talking about someone behind their back.

            When Annie returned with my sandwich I smiled as big as I could without looking phony, and instantly knew I had failed at that task.

            “So,” I cleared my throat, looked at the sandwich, then back at Annie.  “I’m going to be needing something to read, soon?  Any suggestions?”

            “I got something in the back, I’ll bring it out ‘fore you leave.”  And again, she turned and left.

            Though I had been looking forward to a Jackey-Boy’s club sandwich, I don’t think I tasted one bite of the one that I ate that day.  I spent my lunch between the proverbial rock, which was wanting to help someone I considered a friend, and its constant companion, the hard place, of minding my own business.

            When she came back to hand me the check, I felt I had to say something.  Hopefully it wouldn’t turn out as badly as when my curiosity got the better of me during the whole April May’s Souvenir Shop debacle.  I thought about mentioning the fact that she forgot to bring me the book she promised, but wisely kept my mouth shut on that concept.

            “Annie,” I said, trying not to sound flippant, but also trying to make it appear that I hadn’t really noticed her change of demeanor.  “I’m going to be around later, if maybe you’d like to knock back a few more colas, catch up a bit.  What do you say?”

            Annie smiled, and though it wasn’t very big, it was at least the first genuine one I’d seen from her that day.  “Sam, I’m sorry.  I’m just not in a good place right now.  I’m happy to see you, I am, but I’ve just got some stuff on my mind.”

            “Okay, well maybe next time.”

            I wanted to leave an extra big tip for Annie, but I knew she would feel she was being patronized, so I left the usual.  As I pushed open the heavy glass door, I took a look back inside and waved to her.  She was taking another order and didn’t notice me.

            Out in the parking lot, I sat on the trunk of my car for a few minutes, looking at the closed bank across the street.  I felt like if I just drove off, I’d forget about Annie’s problem soon enough.  But I didn’t want to forget about her problem.  She was a nice woman, a smart woman, and I hated to see her so hurt.  But that’s a broken heart, I guess.  I’ve had a few of those in my day, and I knew that even though those around you want to help, there’s nothing they can do.  I’d drop Annie a postcard in a few weeks, and maybe make a special trip here some time – I’m sure if I called Beth up, she’d give me an official excuse to visit Nastoria again soon.

            I took the keys to Shirley out of my pocket, slid off the trunk, and turned.  I was really glad I had taken those few minutes to think, because Annie was coming out of the diner.  When she saw I hadn’t left, her pace quickened.

            “Sam, hold on.  Don’t go yet.” 

            “I didn’t stiff you, did I?”  It was a dumb joke, but I had nothing else to say.

            “Look, I’m sorry.” She said when she was standing next to me.  “Where were my manners today?”  She wrapped her arms around me, squeezing me tightly…a little too tightly, actually.  I was just about to make a loud, obvious gasp for oxygen when she finally let me go.

            “It’s just that…” her words trailed off, she wasn’t sure how to say it.

            “That’s okay, Annie. I know.”

            She threw a look back over her shoulder, towards the diner.  “You can’t keep anything secret in this town for more than a minute, can you?”

            I looked at that chain around her neck that used to hold the ring that meant so much to her, and a thought crossed my mind.  I took my sample case from the backseat, set it on the trunk, and opened it.

            “Annie,” I said.  “Maybe you can help me out with a little problem I’ve been having.  I’m not as young as I used to be, and this case is getting a little heavy.  Why don’t you pick a few things out and do us both a favor.”

            “A favor?” 

            “Yeah, a favor.  You’ll make this case a little lighter, and you can put some decoration on that chain.  If you don’t mind me saying so, it’s not the prettiest piece of jewelry in the world, it could use some brightening up.”

            “Oh, Sam,” she looked at the ground, a little embarrassed. “That’s sweet of you, but you don’t have to give me anything.”

            “Of course I don’t have to.  But I want to, seriously now.”  I made a gesture over the open case, and the dozens of beads it contained. “Take your pick.”

            She put her little finger between her teeth, her eyes darting between the case and me.

            “Anything I want?”

            “Anything you want.”

            She looked in the case, and it didn’t take long for something to catch her eye.  She pointed. 

            “That one.”

            “Which one?” I said.  I’d been watching her, and didn’t see which bead she had pointed out.

            She reached into my case and picked up the ugliest brown-gray-unnecessarily polished rock – if it even was made of rock – that I had ever seen.

            “Oh, no. You don’t want that one.”  I reached to take it from her, but then withdrew my hand. I didn’t want her to be stuck with it, but I surely didn’t want it back.

            “Why not? Is it too expensive?” she asked.  Her eyes were doleful       

“No, not at all. It’s just, well, isn’t there something you think is prettier in here? I’ve got all kinds of things. Look at how these here sparkle, and how these over here shine.  You don’t want that one now, Annie, do you?”

            She stared at that horrendous bead which she held in the palm of her hand, and the faint hint of a grin began to take seed. And that grin blossomed until it was a full-fledged, honest to goodness smile.

            “I really like this one, it’s different than the others.”  She held it up in the sunlight, which didn’t do anything for its appearance.

            “And you know what else?” she asked.

            “What?”

            “No one is ever going to want to take it away from me.”  She unclasped her chain, and slid the bead onto it and reattached the ends together around her neck.

            I had to agree with her assumption that no one would ever want to take it from her, of that there was no doubt.

            “Isn’t it beautiful?”  She moved her hand over her necklace as if she were modeling a rare diamond in front of a wealthy crowd at some special gala event.

            And you know what? It wasn’t beautiful. It was just as ugly as ever, if not even uglier. But Annie, on the other hand, was radiant.  There was giddiness about her, a part of her old self was waking up – still with tired eyes, to be sure, but at least it wasn’t dead. She was proud of herself for picking that bead.  She was excited that this day offered something a little different than the last several. And, at least for now, she was just tickled to have something besides Stuart’s ring hanging around her neck.

            It was as if all of the ugliness of that one bead reversed itself and shined brightly through Annie, my favorite waitress of Nastoria, Ohio.

 

September 26th, 1974.  2:15 PM

 

There’s no sign announcing that you’re leaving Nastoria. They don’t need one.  As soon as you stop smelling birdseed, you’ve moved on to the next town.

            I had not yet approached that spot when Shirley’s left rear tire went flat.  While figuring out how to use the jack, I started thinking of that ugly, ugly bead.  And surprisingly, I believe I started to honestly miss it.  Had I held onto it for so long on purpose?  Was there a reason I kept procrastinating on throwing it out?  Will the inside of my case look kind of dull, more usual without it?

            And then something in my brain nudged me a bit.  I’m not sure how it happened, or even actually what it was that transpired, but somehow I knew I would be seeing that bead again.  And I didn’t doubt it was a time that I shouldn’t look forward to.

When I finished changing the tire, I noticed a few trees whose leaves were turning yellow and red.  Had Mother Nature given up once again and decided it was time to take that nap?  Or had something important finally happened in Nastoria, and having witnessed it, she was now content to go to sleep?

                                                      .....to be continued.