Short Story Prompt: “Shiloh” by Bobbie Ann Mason.
Max is hungry. The diner waitress brings him a breakfast that will satisfy his appetite. He takes a whiff of the eggs and grits and bacon and toast. It smells good, good enough to eat. “Now, that’s a breakfast,” he says to himself.
He starts with the bacon. It’s crunchy and greasy but good. He dips his fork into the grits, all buttered just the way he likes his grits. A story comes to mind that a friend, Sam, once told him. Sam and his wife, Irene, were driving south, moving from Pennsylvania to Florida. They stopped in a mom-and-pop restaurant in North Carolina. Having heard of grits for years, she decided that was what she would have. “I’ll take a grit please,” she ordered. The waitress and Sam bowled over with laughter, Then the waitress showed Irene what one grit would look like. Max smiled.
Max watches one of the waitresses follow a man to a booth, asking, “What are you doing off, Charlie?” He’d like to tell her what he was doing off but she didn’t ask him. He takes another bite of the bacon. Tries the toast. It’s good too. So’s the coffee, and the orange juice.
A large Indian, long black ponytail swinging down his back, stops, sits down across from him. He wears a suit and a tie. The tie is painted with a white Crazy Horse riding a mustang toward Max against a black background. “Know what I did last night?”
Max doesn’t know, doesn’t care. He wishes the Indian would move along, let him listen to his thoughts, make up his mind about things.
“I kicked some butt,” the Indian says, sees Max is only interested in his breakfast. Gets up. Towering over him, the Indian continues, “Well, if you aren’t interested.” Then he strolls over to the counter, like he’s stalking prey. Maybe he is. Maybe one of the waitresses is his prey.
Max stares down at his empty plate, pushes it aside, then takes a sip of his coffee.
“More coffee,” his waitress asks. He nods and she pours. “Don’t mind Dave.”
“The Indian,” she says. “He does that to everybody.” She smiles. Her smile reminds him of his ex-wife when they first met, the one that took him for all he had. “Haven’t seen you in these parts before.”
“I haven’t been in these parts before,” he concedes. Then relaxes, “I’m just passing through.”
She invites herself into the booth and sits down across from him. “Where you going?”
Max notices that she is Indian too. At least part Indian. She has the darkest eyes he has ever seen. He returns her open smile with a smile. “I only wish I knew.”
She leans forward and halfway whispers, “There ain’t much here to see, that’s for sure.”
Max takes a chance and offers, “There’s you.”
The waitress starts to laugh, then realizes that Max is serious. She says, “I’d rather be on my way out of here.”
“Why don’t you? Leave, that is?”
“Got a kid. Joe’s his name. Cutest little five year old you ever wanted to see. Want to see his picture.” She pulls a photograph out of her pocket.
Max takes the photograph and looks at it for a minute or two, then hands it back to her. “That’s some kid.”
She takes the photograph, looks at it, smiles and puts it back in her pocket. “He wants to play baseball when he grows up.”
“Where’s his dad?” he asks, then thinks better of things. “Sorry, didn’t mean to pry.”
“The son of a bitch ran off to God-knows-where. I sure don’t. Left me knocked up in this God-forsaken place.” Her face says everything about disappointment. “I had a ticket out of here.” Then pride comes to this same face. “Had a scholarship and all.” She stands up. “I’ve got to get back to work. My name is Lyla. If you need anything, let me know.”
He watches her leave. He lifts the coffee cup and takes a sip. The coffee is hot, but not so hot as to burn his mouth. Just right hot, he thinks. For the first time since, he walked out of the divorce court and got in his car and drove away from that life a thousand miles ago, a life that just about destroyed him; for the first time since, he sees some hope on the horizon. Maybe there is a Lyla where he is going.
Max finishes his coffee, then pulls himself out of the booth and drops a five on the table for a tip. He goes over to the cash register. It’s not Lyla that rings him up. She’s taking food over to the Indian. Max takes his change and walks out of the restaurant and into the morning. The desert sun fills everything with its brightness, washing out the world around him with its light.
He heads over to the old green Chevy. Just about on its last legs but with still enough life in it to get him where he’s going, He backs the car out of the parking lot and onto the highway and heads west. He starts going over in his head the phone conversation he had with his son, Jake.
“C’mon out here,” Jake had said. “You can get a new start with me and Ash.”
“But I’d be a bother. The two of you have your life.”
“You’ll be no bother. You have to get away from that place. After what Mom put you through, you deserve to get away.”
Max pulls the car over to the side of the road. Stops it. Then decides. He turns the car back toward the town he just left. He parks in the half-empty parking lot of the diner and gets out of the car and makes for the restaurant door, hurrying before he loses his courage. The door jangles as he opens it. Lyla is at the cash register, ringing up a customer.
She finishes and looks over at him. “Did you forget something?”
“I did.” He hesitates, then finishes. “I forgot you.”
“What?” she whispers.
“And your son. You want to go to California.”
“To California? You want to go?”
Lyla isn’t sure what to say.
Max says, “You’ve got one minute to decide.”
Lyla still hesitates, then her body says to hell with it. She unties her apron and throws it on the counter and goes over to him and says, “Let’s go.”
He takes her hand. They laugh as they make for the car. Then they are off to pick up Joe and on to California.