Reba scanned the dining room. Maudie Owen stared into her chicken pot pie, waiting her prescribed fourteen minutes for proper cooling. Two long-distance truckers plowed through slabs of chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes. Susanne Peters nibbled on a BLT, her eyes glued to the book propped on the sugar shaker.
“Hey, Reba, how’s about another piece of that pecan pie,” Harold Laske called from the end of the counter.
“Coming up, Sweetie.” Reba wondered when Harold last glimpsed his feet or anything else below his waist. What a pity–gorgeous high school hunk turned mushroom.
After serving Harold’s pie, Reba fished her cigarettes from her purse and waved them at Arthur to signal a break. Out back she collapsed into the splayed rocking chair, eased her shoes off and wiggled her toes. How many days had she stood behind that counter, her nostrils clogged with burger grease, the clank of silverware and dishes beating time to the country music wheezing from the little plastic radio? Ask her feet. They’d give you the hours in milliseconds.
Reba returned to the café just as the bell over the front door chimed and Ed Fowler strolled to the counter and slid onto a stool. He gave Reba a broad grin.
“Gimme coffee and a big piece of that chocolate pie, Reba, darlin’.”
“What in hell you doing here, Ed?”
He shrugged. “Wasn’t nothin on the T.V. and nothin fit to eat in the refrigerator, plus no date with my honey, so I’m consoling myself.”
Reba leaned on the counter and said in a low voice. “Now, Ed, tonight’s Arlo’s night, you know that. We had our time last week.”
“Yeah, but I don’t like it like that no more,” Ed said with a pout. “Dammit, Reba, I’m more’n enough man for you. Don’t see why you spread yourself over to that old fart, Arlo Winters.”
Reba glanced around the café. No one was staring, but she knew they were listening. “Keep your voice down. This is nobody’s business but ours.” She patted his arm. “Of course you’re man enough for me, Ed, but there’s no need to be selfish with what God gave us for free. Arlo needs love, too. Now drink up your coffee and get on home. We’ll talk next week.”
The bell chimed again, and Mr. and Mrs. Farley inched their way toward the table in the far corner. Reba grabbed the coffeepot and met them.
“Sure smells good today, Reba,” Mrs. Farley said.
“That’s the ambrosia of Arthur’s Wednesday meatloaf. You folks sharing the special this evening?”
“Yes, I believe so.”
“And two bowls of Cherries Jubilee ice cream for dessert?”
A lump wedged in Reba’s throat as the familiar ritual played itself out at the Farley’s table. Mrs. Farley divided the meal between the two plates then ate while Mr. Farley sipped his coffee. Her plate polished clean, Mrs. Farley shuffled to the restroom and returned with something wrapped in paper towel that she handed to her husband. Mr. Farley removed a pair of false teeth from the towels, slipped them into his mouth and set to work on his dinner. When the last shred of dinner roll sopped up the final trace of sauce, Reba appeared with the two bowls of ice cream.
The crash of the door hitting the wall startled Reba. She spun around and saw Arlo Winters storm into the room. “What’s that asshole doing here, Reba?” he said, pointing at Ed. “He knows damn well tonight’s my night.” He balled his hands into fists. “Edward Fowler, get your sorry butt outa here, or you’ll wish you never had a mama.”
Ed whirled on the stool and stood. “Might be your night with Miss Reba, Arlo Winters, but that don’t mean you own this town or this café, and you damned sure don’t own Reba Miller.”
Arlo sprang forward and shoved Ed back against the counter, sending dishes and silverware clanging to the floor. Ed righted himself, bent forward and charged, butting Arlo in the chest and catapulting him against the door.
Hands planted on her hips, Reba shouted. “Stop this instant, do you hear me? Two grown men scrapping like junkyard dogs! You oughta’ be ashamed.”
The men continued to push and scuffle, knocking over chairs and banging into tables.
“She’s my woman.”
“No, she ain’t. She’s my woman. She just feels sorry for you.”
“You ain’t man enough for a fine woman like Reba.”
“Is that so? And you think you are?”
“Yeah, I know so, and she knows it, too.”
“Well, how’s about we ask her?”
Both men turned and looked at Reba. Face aflame with embarrassment then rage, she charged and shoved both men through the door and flung them into the parking lot. “Get gone, both of you, or I’m calling the cops. If I never see either one of you again, it’ll be too soon.” She slammed and locked the door and flipped the Open sign to Closed.
Harold Laske brandished his fork, a piece of pecan pie dangling from the tines. “Bravo, Reba.”
“Go, girl,” said Susanne Peters, one finger keeping her place in the book.
Maudie Owen glanced up from her pot pie. “That’s telling ‘em, Reba.”
Mrs. Farley raised her ice cream spoon in salute, “To Pussy Power!” she said and cackled. Mr. Farley grinned at his wife.
Reba tucked a loose strand of hair back into her beehive and grinned. “Apologize for the ruckus, folks. Pie’s on me.” She turned toward the kitchen and shrugged. “Sorry, Arthur.”
Arthur waved his spatula. “Best cat fight I’ve seen in ages, Reba. Go on out and have yourself a smoke. I’ll serve up the pie.”
Reba winked and grabbed her cigarettes. Leaning against the wall, she pulled deep drafts of smoke into her lungs. What a sight–those two silly fools locking horns like stags in rut over an old broad who’d known too many men over too many years. Maybe this was a sign to give up men for good and find companionship elsewhere. Her old dog Pearl never demanded anything of her but a bite of food and maybe a saucer of beer every now and again.
She thought about Mr. and Mrs. Farley and how nice it must be to feel so close with another person that you’d share a pair of store-bought teeth. Maybe she’d find someone like that in her next life. Reba suddenly felt a powerful hankering for something sweet and headed back inside, hoping there was at least one piece of Arthur’s lemon meringue pie left.