By Linda S. Gunther
Black ice surrounded Ophelia’s Volvo SUV. Six inches of fresh snow had fallen within 24 hours on top of the 10 inches laid down two days before that; not unusual for the middle of February. She faltered as she stepped from the driver’s seat out into the darkness. The crunch of her boots on the frozen snow sounded loud in the quiet night. The wind was up and she had to reach down to the slippery ice to snatch up her wool scarf. Her courthouse badge had also fallen to the ground. She reached inside the vehicle to grab a flashlight from the seat pocket, slammed the door shut, and pointed the beam of light on the parking lot. She spotted the laminated badge which featured the worst photo she had ever taken, captioned below with: JUDGE Ophelia Ferguson Winkle.
Doesn’t matter how much damn money they pay me to do night court, she told herself. I’m fed up with it! Yet part of her preferred the night shift where she could be her own boss, rule the roost without HR or annoying courthouse administrators interrupting her work and making requests for nonsensical documentation.
She cautiously navigated the five steps up to the diner’s entrance, holding onto to the cold black metal handrail, almost slipping down twice before she pushed open the door to the Shady Oak Diner, the red sign lit up in the side window. Ophelia had just turned 46 but that night she felt older, more like she imagined 60 would be like. Her neck ached and the joint at her right shoulder blade bothered her.
No customers inside. The clock on the wall above the coffee machine said 11:32 p.m. She could hear the faint sound of country music. Johnny Cash sang Walk the Line. His raspy baritone voice reminded Ophelia of her dad.
A tall husky young man with dark shoulder length hair and a thick beard stood behind the counter, his white apron stained with grease or whatever the hell that was. Under his apron, he wore a black and red checked flannel shirt. More like a lumberjack than a waiter, she mused to herself. The head of a dead moose hung centered on the wall high above the access to the kitchen.
“You still open?” she asked.
He raised his eyebrows. “Lights on, right? You can figure it out.”
He had a dish rag in his hand and wiped the gray Formica counter top.
She nodded and sat down on the red faux leather stool, fumbling for the cellphone in her oversized black leather handbag. She tapped the keys, then raised the phone in the air first out to the right and then to the left. “Can’t I get any reception in here?” She looked at the phone again. Damn it!” She knocked the counter top with her fist. “Battery’s dead.” She stuffed the phone in the pocket of her camel hair coat. “Dead battery in my car too. I think that’s the problem.” She rolled her eyes. “In any case, I need to call Triple A.”
“You gonna order?” he barked. “Or what?”
She rummaged around again in her handbag. “Crap. Figures. I left my other cell phone at home.” She looked up to see his slate gray eyes narrowed, his bulky hands folded across his chest, the dish rag hanging from his stained apron pocket.
“If I eat one of your greasy burgers, will you lend me a phone?” she said, peering up at him. He was that type of guy, she thought. Sarcastic. Abrupt. She’d dish the same back to him. Otherwise, he’d get worse, just like a lot of the ass holes that came before her in night court. It was close to midnight and she was sitting in a shabby diner in the boonies, 25 miles outside of Cheyenne Wyoming, halfway between the county courthouse and her home in Horse Creek, the home she grew up in, a fly-fishing haven, the sport her father loved, a man who held the trout he caught far above any ribeye steak he ever grilled or ate in all of Wyoming.
“I’m the cook tonight so maybe I’ll ease up on the grease factor.”
“Thanks,” she said.
“Don’t you have a sensor on your fancy car telling you when your battery’s low?” the smartass waiter asked her. “Or you just don’t pay attention to gauges?”
“Hey, you got a manager around here? And any hot coffee?”
“I own the place. You’re looking at the manager and owner,” he grinned, and plunked down a white coffee mug in front of her, tiny threads of gray lines running through the worn ceramic.
“Decaf or regular?”
“Regular. Looks like I’m headed for a long night. Can I use your phone at some point?
He nodded and reached behind to pick up the coffee pot.
“Mind if I smoke? I’m dying for one,” she said, placing her hand to her temple. She felt a headache coming on.
He shrugged. “Maybe, but only if I can bum one off ya.”
Ophelia took out the pack of Menthol 100’s from her handbag and a shiny silver lighter with a fish etched on its face. She lit her cigarette and held out the pack for him to take one before she placed the lighter down on the counter.
He pulled one out of the pack and poured her coffee. “Cream? Sugar?” he asked as he reached below the counter for a chipped gray ceramic ashtray which he put down next to her mug.
“Black. Nothing in it. I’m not a frills person,” she said.
He picked up the lighter, examined it and lit his cigarette. “You fish?”
“It’s my dad’s lighter.” Ophelia dropped it back into her handbag, plucked off the brown wool beanie from her head, yanked the beige scarf from her neck and placed them both on the stool next to her. She shook out her shoulder length red hair, ran her fingers through it, and pushed it back away from her face.
“Is it hot in here or what?” She stepped down from the stool, taking off her coat. She folded it and put it on top of her hat and scarf. It was late at night when her night sweats turned ugly, no matter where she was. She sat down and drank the coffee anyway, knowing it would only heighten the heat that spread through her body, moisture forming under her arms and in the crease between her breasts, the reason she wore a thin cotton nightdress to bed even in the middle of Winter. Damn menopause. Her mother had it early too.
“You’re sort of young to own a diner, aren’t you?” she said.
“Inherited. Mother and father killed in a plane crash last year.” He turned away and poured himself a cup of coffee.
She took a drag from her cigarette, blew out the smoke and looked down into her almost empty mug.
He poured more coffee. He had a steady hand. She watched the mahogany-colored liquid drizzle down into the mug, the steam rising.
“The second cup is free,” he said softly.
For the first time since she walked in, she felt a tinge of tenderness in his demeanor.
She glanced up at him, noticing the depth of his steel gray eyes. “I lost my dad a couple of years ago, my mom gone when I was a teenager,” she said, and bit her lip.
“I’m really 40,” he said. “I look younger, don’t I?”
“Like a college student,” she smirked and took a sip.
“But more street smart, right?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Believe me, I see street smart every night. But yeah, you got some street smarts and an attitude. Makes me comfortable.”
“By the way, Happy Valentine’s Day. Your first cup’s free, too.”
“You know, you’re the only one who mentioned the holiday all night where I work.”
It was the start to their love affair, something she’d keep from her fiancée. Even after she married, she’d stop at the diner after night court a couple of nights a week, not make it home. She’d tell her husband that she was staying in town as the roads were too dangerous, or there was an accident or that night court went so late, and she was too tired to drive.
Copyright Gunther 2022