On this bleak Minnesota winter day, all Patty Harkin had left in the world was her father’s new truck. As she walked into Maggie’s Diner, the warmth, along with the heady aroma of fresh bread, engulfed her. Her senses reeled with anticipation of a hot meal, yet she knew the money in her pocket wouldn’t go far.
“Man, it’s cold out there,” she mumbled, climbing onto one of the few empty stools at the counter. The old man next to her nodded, but kept spooning soup into his eager mouth. She took off her worn fleece-lined leather gloves, and when whipped off her wool cap, her wavy brunette hair tumbled onto her shoulders. Although the hour was early for dinner patrons, the place was humming. She checked the specials on the chalkboard next to the pass-through to the kitchen.
From the end of the long green Formica counter, Maggie called out, “Be with you in a sec. Want the usual?”
Patty fingered the five dollars and change in her parka pocket. No, she mouthed, shaking her head. The soup of the day, beef barley, wasn’t her favorite, but she couldn’t be choosey. It would keep her going until tomorrow. Then what?
Maggie moved down the inside of the counter, checking on each customer’s needs. The woman was so short that her ample breasts brushed the counter top; her weathered, sixty-year-old face beamed with a merry glint. “Something different?” she asked Patty. “That’s a first. I always set a bowl of stew aside just for you.”
“Today, a bowl of soup’ll do.”
“You need more than soup to keep you going in this weather. You’re as skinny as a pipe.” She grinned, showing a neat set of dentures. “And as long to boot.”
“Soup’s fine.” She took out a tissue and blew her nose. “I’ll wash up. Keep my place, okay?”
“Will do.” Maggie put a reserved cardboard sign on the counter, then called to the kitchen cook, “One soup special, extra beef and biscuits.”
On the way to the restrooms, Patty passed the local team pictures with their sponsor’s plaques on the beige wall and the bulletin board that was riddled with holes from tacked up business cards and postcards sent from visitors who thought Maggie Gordon and her diner were the best. In the ladies’ room, Patty bathed her face in hot water, a treat after spending the day driving to surrounding towns and farms looking for work. She could barely feel her toes inside her heavy boots. The high price of gas had eaten most of her cash, and her credit cards had been discontinued. This morning Bromont’s finest had bodily evicted her from the only home she’d known. Everything she owned was jammed into her truck. As she brushed her hair, the mirror reflected her pale complexion and brown eyes with their gold flecks. God, what am I going to do? I’m twenty-six, no family, no home, no job, no money, and mechanic skills without credentials.
She dried her hands and returned to her seat at the counter where Maggie placed a large bowl of soup and two oversized buttermilk biscuits, dripping with butter. “Maggie, I only ordered soup.” Patty disliked taking charity from anyone, including Maggie.
“The biscuits are on the house.” She winked at Patty and went off to serve other customers.
“Hey,” the old man next to Patty called out to Maggie. “How come I didn’t get extra biscuits?”
Over her shoulder, Maggie said, “That was the last of ‘em, boyo.”
Patty was glad she didn’t catch what the old man muttered. She’d probably have clobbered him if he’d said something nasty about Maggie. After taking off her parka and putting it on the back of her stool, she ate and felt her insides warm. In between mouthfuls, she watched Maggie make her rounds, put orders in to the two cooks, and all the while keeping an eye on the only waitress. The girl was a new hire, a little slow and dimwitted, but Maggie’s big heart wouldn’t let her fire anyone unless they cheated her.
When there was a lull, Maggie came back to Patty. “The service for your dad was real nice. How are things with you?”
Patty stared into her empty bowl. “You don’t want to know.”
“I do too. Aren’t I like an aunt to you?”
A man called out by the register. “Maggie, do I eat for free or are you going to take my money?”
“Okay, coming.” She tapped Patty’s hand. “Be right back.”
The old man next to Patty grunted, grabbed his check, and after leaving a skimpy tip, headed toward the cash register.
She munched on the last biscuit, licked the butter off her fingers, then used a paper napkin. She couldn’t ask Maggie for a job. Besides, she’d be a lousy waitress, and Maggie wasn’t exactly rolling in dough.
Despite skills as a mechanic, there wasn’t a job opening for her in the area. The last place she worked she’d given the boss’s son a black eye when he tried to rape her in the office after hours. The guy claimed she’d asked for it. Police Chief Dankbar wasn’t interested in her side of the story and arrested her for assault and battery, then relented and released her after a night in jail. Patti couldn’t figure out why women didn’t rally to her defense, but then she never had understood women. She’d been brought up by her father, and, except for Maggie, she’d been surrounded by men. Women were an enigma to her.
Maggie returned, swept the coins the old man had left into her pocket and began cleaning up the counter. “So tell me what’s going on. You get a job yet?”
“Dankbar did the bank’s bidding and kicked me out this morning.”
“Dirty business. Got any money left?”
“You could sell your truck. The only bet your dad ever made that paid off. Glad he bought it and gave it to you. Finally something good came from his gambling.”
Maggie lowered her voice. “You could probably get a lot for that truck.”
“Selling the truck is out of the question.”
With arms akimbo, Maggie stared at Patty. “What’re you going to do then?”
Patty leaned back and shrugged. “I might have to try another state.”
“Honey, you gotta stop clonking every guy who makes a pass at you. You’re a beauty. Face it. Guys will always go after you. You’re just like your mother. She was a looker, too, but she handled men so smooth they never knew they’d been turned down flatter than an iron, and they never held it against her either.”
“Well, since I never knew her, I never learned the art of evading rape through charm.”
“Wish you’d known her.” Maggie cocked her head. “Terrible her dying so young, and you only a toddler. Your dad did his level best to make a good life for you.”
“He taught me all about engines.”
“Yeah, but not much about social graces.”
Patty sighed deep and long. “I miss him.” She fiddled with the salt shaker.
“I do too.” Maggie stroked the top of Patty’s hand. “Now don’t get down on yourself. You’re a fine mechanic. You fixed my Oldsmobile’s transmission, and I’ve never had a problem since.”
A new customer slid onto the stool at the counter vacated by the old man. The fellow gave Patty a warm smile. “Hi. Cold day,” he said in a rich baritone voice as he unfolded the local paper.
He removed the classified section and was about to shuffle them to the bottom of his stack of reading material, when Patty asked, “Mind if I look at the classifieds?”
“Help yourself.” He handed her the section. “You live around here?”
She wondered if that was a pickup line. “Yes.” She turned away and kept her eyes on the newspaper.
“Just trying to be friendly. My name’s Camden McMillan.”
“Nice to meet you.” She didn’t give her name. “Look, mister, if I don’t seem real friendly, it’s because I have a lot on my mind.”
“Okay. You’ve eaten here before?”
“What do you recommend?”
“Meatloaf’s always great.” Her mouth watered just thinking about the dish.
Maggie came over to take his order. “Evening. What’ll it be?”
“I hear the meatloaf’s great.”
Maggie grinned and nodded in Patty’s direction. “Some of the locals say so. It comes with a side order of salad. How about homemade apple cobbler for dessert?”
“You’re easy. Anything to drink?”
“You don’t serve wine or beer, do you?”
“Okay. Hot tea.”
Maggie left to put in the order, and he went back to flipping through the newspaper.
Patty scanned the help wanted section and had almost given up when her finger rested on a strange ad. Driver with truck needed to tow trailer south. Salary negotiable. She hoped the guy didn’t live too far away.
She began to think how she should apply for the position. He’d expect a man. She had to get an interview. She’d stopped her cell phone service a month ago, and the only public phone was back by the restrooms. “Keep my seat for me, won’t you mister? I’ll be right back.” She made her way to the pay phone, but before she pushed in the numbers, she sent up a little prayer. “Please, Lord, I need this one.”
When the party on the other end answered, she used a deep voice. “I’m calling about your ad wanting a driver with a truck. My name’s Pat Harkin. I have a truck with a tow hookup and I got the time to drive south.”
“What kind of truck?” the male voice asked.
“Denali with a 5.3-liter V8 engine. Plenty of power for towing. How big is your trailer?”
“A travel trailer. About nine thousand pounds loaded. Sounds like your engine should handle it. I plan to leave before the next storm hits. Can you come out tonight to see if we can agree to terms?”
“Sure.” Her heart beat faster. Here was a chance, a hope, an answer to a prayer.
He gave directions, and she said she’d be there within the hour. After hanging up, she rubbed her hands together, then realized she hadn’t gotten the guy’s name. No matter. Exiting this town would be a godsend. What could possibly be worse than freezing her buns off in a town that had given her nothing but grief the last few years?
Back at her seat at the counter, she found a slice of chocolate cake set out for her. Maggie would be hurt if she declined to eat it, so she dug in with relish.
The man next to her sipped his tea and studied the sports section. “Oh, my God.” He banged his fist on the counter. “It can’t be.”
Startled, Patty asked, “What?”
“Mike Garrick died four days ago.”
Patty frowned. The name seemed familiar, but she couldn’t remember why. “Who’s he?”
The man half-turned to her, as he folded the paper. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you.”
“It’s okay. I was a little abrupt earlier.”
He nodded. His warm hazel eyes, behind black-rimmed glasses, held bewilderment. “I can’t believe this. It’s impossible. I’d hoped to get together with him on my way to Canada.”
“That’s tough,” she said and added, “I know what it’s like to lose someone.”
His shoulders sagged. “Yeah. Sometimes life keeps tossing you rocks.” The man was lean with a narrow scar tracing down his cheek from his right temple to the side of his mouth. It would have given him an ominous look, except that the rest of his features countered the effect. “Mike was the greatest left-handed quarterback Minnesota State College ever had. He could’ve gone pro.” As he spoke, he took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his thin nose. “Died in a car accident.” He tapped the newspaper. “His truck went over an embankment and caught fire.”
Despite feeling that she should listen to the man’s story, her thoughts were on her own troubles. “Sorry about your loss, mister, but I got an appointment. Take care.”
“Of course, thanks for listening.” He took a small address book out of his jacket pocket.
Patty gave Maggie a nod.
Maggie hurried over. “Why don’t you stay? Take an empty booth and relax until closing time. You can spend the night at my place. You don’t have to head out in this freezing weather.”
“Thanks, but no. I have a job interview.”
Maggie raised an eyebrow. “A job interview at this time of night? Seems kinda suspicious. You be careful.”
“Gotta be first in line.” After Patty paid Maggie, she slid off the stool and donned her parka. Tucking her hair under her wool hat, she said, “I just might be headed south.”
“There’s a big snowstorm headed our way,” Maggie said. “I’d like to go with you, My bones are beginning to creak with the very idea.”
Patty pulled on her gloves and waved as she went out the door. If her luck turned, she just might be headed for a warmer climate. Wherever she went it was bound to be better than Bromont.