It all started with a single sentence I wrote to demonstrate the difference between passive voice and past continuous tense. The sentence involved two men and coffee, and it gave me the idea to write a short story about the magic and romantic possibilities of coffee.
It was not happening, however, as my protagonists refused to cooperate. They came through with a couple of sledgehammers, telling me their backstories and demanding a real story. Finally I gave in and started writing Last Stop.
NT: I’ve got a job for you.
SR: I’m all ears.
NT: Not over the phone. Meet me at Mario’s tonight at six. Don’t be late.
Jay Colby hated waking up “with the chickens”, as his nana used to say, but he had no choice—some guy was shaking him, trying to get him to rise.
“Wake up, kid. This is as far as I can take you.”
For a second Jay couldn’t remember where he was and why, and who the man was. Then it all came back—his hasty departure from Denver, the ride in the eighteen-wheeler, and Doug, the driver, who was now keen on getting rid of him.
“I go a little farther, but can’t have you in the cab when I get there, and this is the last truck stop before,” Doug explained.
“Yes, of course. Thanks for the ride.” Jay rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
He unbuckled himself, collected his backpack and jacket, and cast an eye around just to make sure he left nothing behind. He was halfway out of the cab when Doug spoke up again.
“I could put a word out for you on the CB if you want.”
“No. Thanks. I’ll be fine. Have a good trip,” Jay said, slamming the heavy door shut. The truck lurched forward and was soon back on the freeway.
Jay needed to hitch a ride for the next leg of his trip, but he wasn’t just going to hop into a truck without getting a feel for its driver first. He was good at reading people—with the exception of the men he got involved with, as his latest fiasco had proven yet again. Jay adjusted the backpack on his shoulder and looked around. It wasn’t much of a truck stop, just a gas station and a big dirt parking lot. No matter, he’d find a ride. He’d been doing well enough so far. Doug had been a stereotypical trucker—middle-aged, thick around the middle, and his face framed by a scraggly beard. He’d also been shockingly heterosexual for a guy who’d pick up a young guy in a truck stop. That puzzle was solved fast. Doug was a talker, and Jay served to relieve the monotony of a long trip. At first Jay was grateful for the setup. Screwing truckers wasn’t against his principles by a long stretch, but Doug was no dreamboat. However, by the time they got to Casper, Wyoming, Jay wished that the trucker would just shut up and fuck him instead.
So, now Jay was here, in some dinky town along the freeway, somewhere in Montana. At least he thought it was Montana. He decided to stretch his legs first, so he picked a direction randomly and started walking. Maybe the crisp morning air would help to get rid of his shitty mood. The spectacular disaster his last love affair turned into still gnawed on him, and he hadn’t been decently fucked in ages. He kept telling himself that Seattle would be different, but the suspicion that the problem was him and not the cities, kept bugging him. Not for the first time in his life, he wished for a sign—anything to give him direction.
Help Wanted wasn’t what he had in mind. Hell knew why he knocked on the door of Sam’s Diner, but when Mr. Dark and Handsome opened it, Jay decided that sticking around for a little while wouldn’t be so bad.
The man was taller than Jay by many inches, broad-shouldered and muscular. He had a strong jawline, a straight, somewhat-thick nose, and brown eyes that seemed to see straight through Jay. The few silver strands peppering the dark hair over his temples made him especially alluring in Jay’s eyes. Thick hair covered his forearms too, promising more under his clothes. Jay had a finely tuned gaydar that picked up even the slightest hint of bi-curiosity. There was definitely a spark of interest in those dark eyes.
Sam was about done refilling the ketchup bottles when the insistent rapping on the door drew his attention. It was a good half an hour before opening, but it wouldn’t be the first time one of the locals or a trucker fed up with gas-station hot dogs had bothered him. Sam opened the door, in the mood to give them a piece of his mind, but stopped short. The guy standing there was definitely not a trucker, and sure as hell wasn’t local. Coldwater was a small town, and if the young man had been from around there, Sam would have noticed him by now. One of Sam’s eyebrows quirked north as he took in the slender body encased in jeans and a red hoodie, more snugly fit than local sensibilities would allow.
“Can I help you?” Sam asked.
“Hi, I’m here about the job,” the guy said, tilting his head toward the sign in the window.
That sign had been there for three days since Marylou ditched her apron and blew town, and Sam was getting desperate. Hence, he should’ve had every reason to rejoice, but was uneasy instead. This was trouble, Sam knew it right away. He could smell it in that mix of sweat, stale cigarettes, diesel fuel and young male rolling off the guy. For starters, he was too damn young, a kid really. Sam surveyed the smooth face and tousled, dirty-blond hair. The kid was lean, fresh, full of smooth curves that life hadn’t yet ground down to hard edges. A runaway or a drifter, judging from the overstuffed backpack hanging off one shoulder.
“Do you have any experience?” Sam asked gruffly.
“Plenty,” the kid replied, and damn if it wasn’t innuendo sparkling in those blue eyes.
“I mean, in a restaurant,” Sam added, without expressing surprise, pleased or otherwise.
“How old are you?” Sam looked him over one more time, not missing the unspoken invitation of the kid’s forward-thrust hips.
“Twenty-two. I can show you my driver’s license,” the kid added, catching Sam’s skeptical expression.
“You have a name?”
“Jay. You’re Sam?”
“Yeah, that’s me. Well, come on in then.” Sam stood aside at last, convinced he was letting trouble into his life.
Jay walked in and made himself comfortable. Sam explained the what and where—it was no rocket science. The kid would probably be gone by lunch time, Sam told himself.
As if to prove him wrong, Jay busted ass on his first day. They spent the breakfast shift in an uncoordinated scramble around each other and the kitchen appliances, but by lunch they found a working rhythm led by a shorthand of gestures and barked-out words.
“Move it, old man, you’re making me look bad,” Jay said loud enough for nearby customers to hear.
Sam smacked the metal spatula to the griddle without turning around. The angry metal-on-metal clunk was meant to convey the message “Watch it, kid”, but secretly Sam was enjoying himself. Jay had spunk for sure, and Sam liked it.
Looking at the kid, anyone with a little experience in such things could pick up his queerness, but he wasn’t so obvious to the untrained eyes of the residents of Coldwater. Aside from a few sideways looks, mostly from truckers, the customers were happy to have friendly and efficient service. Especially since Marylou had never managed better than a bubblegum-popping disinterest.
“…and what can I get for your sister?” Sam caught the snatch of conversation and turned his head to see Jay shamelessly flirting with a customer. Leanne Harris was a harried single mother whom nobody had mistaken for her teenage daughter’s sister for…well, ever. Yeah, the kid knew what he was doing.
“Good tip?” Sam asked later when Leanne left beaming, with sulky daughter in tow.
“An extra buck probably,” Jay agreed.
“So you really have experience?”
“Always have the customers leave smiling!” Jay said and winked at Sam.
As Jay turned and sashayed away, Sam’s gaze followed him. The snug jeans flaunted a fine round ass. Sam had to drive off the carnal images invading his thoughts. He really didn’t need complications, as he kept reminding himself.
Later, when Sam took a bag of trash to the dumpster out back, he’d found Tommy waiting for him at the door.
“I haven’t seen you for days. Did you have good time?” He bent down and scratched the orange tabby behind the ears.
The cat stood to greet him, rubbing his furry face against the legs of Sam’s jeans. Sam got food and water for Tommy and watched the cat scarf it down. A minute later Tommy took off with a farewell meow. Off to chase tail, no doubt. Sam envied the frisky feline. The kind of tail Sam liked to chase was in short supply in Coldwater, Montana—not that he’d do any chasing locally, anyway. His infrequent trips to Butte’s sparse gay scene barely scratched his itch. Yet, he only had himself to blame for his predicament. Cause and effect. The sudden and unexpected arrival of his new waiter could change that, but Sam was uncertain if he wanted it.
The diner served only breakfast and lunch. Maybe it didn’t make the best business sense, but Sam didn’t give a crap. It was his place and he made the rules. They closed up at three and by four they were done with the cleanup. At 4:05 they stood at the back of the diner, reeking of frying oil and bacon. Sam frowned at the sight of the uncertain figure of Jay hovering at the threshold. Sam knew perfectly well he should keep his mouth shut.
“Where are you staying?” he asked anyway.
“Nowhere yet. I was gonna ask you if you could recommend somewhere cheap.” The way Jay looked at Sam, there was calculation in it, sure, but behind that hid something unguarded and raw that further ruffled Sam’s hard-won equilibrium.
“You can stay with me for now,” he said quickly, before he could change his mind.
The expression that lit up Jay’s face was an odd combination of shrewd and innocent. Sam had the sudden urge to put a whole new range of expressions on that face, but he quickly pushed those urges to the back of his mind.
© Lou Harper, June 2011
All Rights Reserved.