Jim Dove’s knuckle was too big for the coffee cup’s handle. Arthritis had set in a while ago, swelling his joints. He kept his gaze on the coffee, watching the steam erupt from it. It was little things like being able to pick up a mug of coffee with the handle that he sometimes missed the most.
The man sitting across from Jim Dove cleared his throat and leaned back in his seat. Jim looked at him and cocked the right half of his lips in a smile.
“Sorry, William. Guess I’m not good at talking.”
William rapped his knuckles on the table and looked at the door.
“Where do you think she is?”
Dove lifted the mug to his lips. “Don’t know,” he said. The coffee was bitter and burned.
William looked out the window. Rain clouds had started to form to the east. They brushed along the mountaintops, fogging them.
“Well,” William said, “What did you think about her?”
A waitress, tall but fat, with her hair tied messily in a bun, came to their table. “What’ll it be?” she asked without really asking.
“Eggs. Over easy. And bacon,” Dove said.
“Same,” said William. He was thankful when the waitress left.
After a few moments, William asked again. “What did you think about her?”
He had leaned forward in his seat and rested his elbows on the table. When he shrugged, William’s side lifted up and then settled back down.
“Sounded like a regular college girl. Looking for a story, I guess.”
William nodded. “I guess when you think about it, it is strange someone hasn’t contacted us sooner. Got us together for a reunion. It’s been what? Ten, eleven years?”
Dove leaned back and sighed. “Not a reunion if we’ve never met before.”
“True. Yeah.” William said. He eyed the door again, though now he wasn’t looking for the girl.
Ten minutes passed. Dove slowly drained his coffee. The waitress still hadn’t brought the food.
Finally, Dove asked, looking in his cup, “So what do you do for a living?”
William’s cheeks reddened. “Nothing, really. I got fired a few months ago. I’m what they call ‘unemployed’ I guess.” William tried to smile, to show he was trying to tell a joke, but his face wouldn’t cooperate.
“What did you do before that?”
“I worked in HVAC. Installed some ventilation at the new elementary school a few counties over. Only did that for a month or so, though. I thought about going to one of those technical colleges to figure out what I want to do.”
Dove picked up his fork and turned it in his hands. “Wife? Kids?”
“No. No wife or kids.”
William adjusted his collar and looked at his hands. “Do you think we can smoke here? Do you smoke?”
“No. I don’t smoke.” Dove watched the waitress pass by. “I guess you can smoke anywhere.”
Dove watched, his eyes fixed on William’s every move, as he flipped the cigarette in his mouth and lit it.
William looked at the door again. “She’s late.”
Dove nodded, watched the contrails of smoke flow along the glass.
“So what about you?” William asked. Outside, the rain approached, a plastic wall rolling their way. Already, small specks of water smacked against the glass.
“What do you mean?”
“What did you do after you got out of the hospital?”
Dove shrugged. “Nothing much. Lost my job. I used to work in the lumber mill up the road here. But I couldn’t lift anything heavy after I got out. Doctors all said when I volunteered I’d only take some pills. Still can’t find a job.”
The waitress brought the food over and refilled Dove’s coffee mug. He nodded. Both men ate silently, looking out the window, down at their plates.
“Is it supposed to rain all day?” William asked.
Dove shrugged, wiped the egg out of the corners of his mouth. “Don’t know. Don’t keep up with the weather much.”
William nodded and looked around the diner. The rain had kept all of the customers away, save for an elderly couple three tables down.
“Funny, that girl, huh? The way she talked about us?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, she kept saying how important we were.”
“I guess we were in some way. First ones in the state, at least.”
William pushed his fork through the egg. “What did they call it? The medical term for it?”
“Stranger to stranger, I think.”
“Funny, isn’t it? What’s been given between us. And how doctors have all these fancy terms with all those syllables in them for simple things, but they call that stranger to stranger.”
“Was your scar big?”
“Yeah. Same as yours, probably. Around the side and to the back.”
William puffed nervously at his cigarette and then lit another. A thin gray cloud hung over their booth.
“So you’re married?” he asked.
Dove paused, looked out the window. “No. Not anymore. Wife and kids moved out a while after I got fired. I see them on Christmas sometimes. Last year I did.”
“That’s rough.” William suddenly realized he didn’t know what he meant by that.
Dove cleaned the egg off of his plate with the edge of his fork and then set the plate aside. “So what do you do? I mean, what do you do?”
“What do you mean?”
Dove’s voice tilted in a strange way. “I mean, what are you doing with your life?”
William shrugged. “I don’t understand. I guess I’m just living it. Why?”
Dove didn’t answer immediately. His mind wandered from point to point like a dancer. When he finally spoke again, he said: “Sorry, I guess I’m not much of a conversationalist.”
“Guess that’s why you agreed to the interview, huh?” William said, a slight smile abbreviating his lips.
“Guess so,” Dove said, and asked the waitress for more bacon.
“I guess if you need a job, I know of one.” Dove said.
“Down at the lumber mill. I still talk to the foreman now and then. If you need a job, they probably have one for you.”
“The lumber mill? What would I do there?”
“Whatever they need you to do, really. Carry stuff, split wood, use the machines.”
William shook his head. “I don’t think that’s the sort of job that’s for me. If I wash out of that I’ll probably lose my unemployment. Don’t want to lose that. Can’t beat filling out three applications a week for a few hundred bucks.”
“I think I’ll keep looking for an HVAC job somewhere.”
“Danny Washington’s a good boss. Best one a man could ask for.”
“Dan Washington?” William said, lifting the cigarette to his lips. “Sounds like a black name to me.”
Dove chewed his food slowly. “He’s black, yeah.”
William shook his head. “I don’t think I could work for a black guy anyway, you know? It’d be … weird.”
Dove’s lips crowded with the words he wanted to say. The one that escaped was “Alright.”
William wanted to move desperately. His joints ached.
“What do you do? Are you on disability?”
“No. I work a few miles down the road. Cashier at that farming supply store.”
William could sense Dove’s embarrassment. He didn’t know much about the man, but he could tell that wearing a little red vest and listening to customers complain about the bill was not what Dove wanted in life.
“Oh,” was all he could manage. “That fun?”
Dove looked down at his watch. “She’s not going to come,” he said, scooting to the edge of the booth. He grabbed his hat off the peg and put it on.
“Wait,” William said.
Dove stayed where he was. His eyes watched the door.
“Don’t you want to talk more? Find out anything else about me? I want to know more about you. You saved my life.”
Dove turned his head slowly and looked William in the eye. “I know all I need to know.”
“What will I tell her?”
Dove frowned. “Tell her I just don’t give a damn.”
The rain had gotten heavier. The wind had picked up, splattering the rain against the glass.
“I don’t think I can tell her that.”
“Tell her whatever you want, then.”
William reached out and rested his hand on Dove’s elbow. “Wait. Please? Five more minutes.”
“Why did you do it? Tell me that and you can go. Tell me why and you can leave.”
Dove pulled his hat further down on his head as if shielding his eyes from the sun. “Thought it was the right thing to do. Help someone out.”
It was the answer William expected. The pat answer that’s reserved by people who don’t want to discuss what actually goes on in their heads.
“Do you regret doing it?”
Dove’s face was made of stone. He tipped his hat to William, stood, and walked out the door. William watched through the window. Dove put the palm of his hand on his hat against the wind and got into a truck. He flipped on the headlights and the windshield wipers and then disappeared down the road.
The waitress brought the check and William left the money on the table and tipped the waitress a dollar.
Alone, outside, William looked down the road. “Sorry,” he said, or maybe he thought it. The wind and rain covered his words.
A graduate of James Madison University in Virginia, Jason Barr has been writing ever since he won a writing contest in fifth grade. He hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in English in the next few years. He would not have gotten this far without his wife, Tracey, and his son, Vincent.