Shanna tucked a lock of dishwater blonde hair behind her ear as she wiped the diner counter. The door opened, and bells hung from the frame chimed to announce a customer.
“Hey Al, fancy seeing you here!” She said as he sat at a spinning stool at the counter. He opened the pie dome to eyeball one piece of cherry and one apple left. He always came in about 40 minutes before close and Shanna wondered why he liked to come so late.
“Well, my night surely isn’t complete until I have one of your brisket sandwiches. Makes me have good dreams when I go to sleep.”
“Huh! Well, I’ll put your order in.” She began scribbling on her order pad. Al always got the brisket sandwich and a Coke and she wondered how he slept at all after that!
“Didja bowl tonight?”
“Nope! The team split up; some dispute about a girl. That’s why I don’t go chasing girls around, waste of time I tell you. Breaks up some good friendships too. ”
“Oh come on, we’re not all bad are we?” Before he could answer, a group of teenagers came in.
“Hi guys! We close in about a half hour, but if you want to put an order in right away we can still serve you.” They nodded in agreement and quickly looked at the menus. They were loud, laughing every time someone spoke. Shanna remembered being that age, when everything was fun and everyone was funny, no cares in the world other than what new clothes she was wishing for to impress some boy who seemed to never seemed to know she exsisted. How she ever found a man to love and marry felt like dumb luck.
“No,” Al finished, “You’re not all bad at all, but if you ask me, if something is right, it doesn’t need to be chased.” She pondered that as she filled his Coke. The teenagers were laughing again, it was clear two of them were on their first date or were about fall for each other, the way they made eye contact then quickly looked away, smiling as if they’d gotten away with something. Ah, those are the moments! If only they knew how short this little carefree span of their lives will be! Shanna thought about being young and it made her 49-year old self feel ancient. It had been nearly four years since her husband died, and she couldn’t remember the last time anything made her laugh out loud; made her feel free and a little wild. She looked at Al eating his sandwich, tan skin with a few tatoos on his forearms, warm intelligent eyes and maybe just a few years younger than her. She had never noticed how hansome he was, a slight greying mixing with dark brown hair and well groomed face. He had good manners, a good job and something in the summer air was making her feel a longing for her young and wild youth.
“Al, why don’t you give me a ride on your bike tonight?”
He moved back to take a look at her in disbelief. “Really?” A genuine smile spread across his face.
“Yeah. Let’s go take a ride and feel young for a while.”
“We are young. Riding will make us feel free.” They exchanged smiles and she raised her eyebrows because the whole thing made her feel like she was getting away with something.
She cleared the plates from the teens table and brought them back to the dishwasher, Jose who had headphones on and was singing in Spanish. She lifted up one receiver and said, ” That’s the last of it. Can you lock up tonight?”
He gave her the thumbs up and went back to singing. In the office where she kept her coat she paused before leaving. Reaching into the bottom drawer she pulled out a bottle of Merlot. She stared at it remembering when she bought it. It was cold that day, and a snow storm was on the way just in time for her wedding anniversary. Her husband was relieved when they agreed to stop exchanging gifts and instead have a nice bottle of wine by the fire and celebrate the happy years together and all the memories that made them laugh. This particular bottle was supposed to be for their 22nd anniversary but Joe never made it. She recalled the day she put that bottle in the drawer, intending to bring it home just two days later, and then the call that there had been a drunk driver, and Joe was rushed to hospital. He didn’t make it. A tear rolled down her cheek as she recalled those moments that still felt raw four years later. Just then Jose came in the room to get his coat.
“Al’s still here.” He said, questioning why she didn’t let him out.
“Yeah, it’s ok, he’s going to give me a ride.” As the words came out she smiled.
“Ahhhhh Shanna! Finally! He said grinning, and kissed her on the cheek. “Don’t behave. Behaving doesn’t make good memories or good stories for your grandchildren.”
“Oh Jose, I’m already a grandma!” She said as she walked back out to guide Al out the back door. She felt a shiver of excitement run up her spine as he followed close behind her, making their way through the narrow alley. When they got out front to Al’s motorcycle he unhooked his helmet and handed it to her.
“I only have one along, I’m a safe driver and all but I insist you wear this if you are riding with me.” He slid it on over her hair before she had time to protest, and brushed the unruly locks back with a gentle stroke. She closed her eyes for a moment, letting the summer humidity and his closeness wash over her. She felt something opening in her; lifting some of the seriousness she was drowning in. She felt like those teenagers were a sign of what she was willingly giving up, and she was tired of being that person. Suddenly she was moved to say exactly what was on her mind.
“You are so sweet. How have I not noticed you until tonight?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe the stars weren’t ready to sparkle for you before tonight.”
He helped her get on the bike and then for himself on. She wrapped her arms around him and basked in the sensation of being close to a man again. His faded cologne filled her nose and she began to feel a warm euphoric sense that everything was right. She answered him in her head, I haven’t been alive for years and just tonight I finally woke up.
They drove through the city, colors whirling past like moving paintings, and drove up on schoepp’s Hill where both stars and city lights lay before them twinkling. They stopped there and Shanna opened the bottle of wine for them to share. She took a swig straight from the bottle and felt it settle in her stomach, increasing the warmth of the night.
“So how is it a handsome guy like you is not married?” She pried, offering him the bottle.
Motioning against the offered wine he answered, “No thanks, I’m recovering. Which is part of the reason I’m single. I needed to hit bottom before I got help. My wife got the worst of me when I was drinking. Some nights I didn’t even make it to bed, I’d pass out on the couch, unaware she would cry herself to sleep most nights. She was good for me, I was bad for her. We got divorced 4 years ago, I’ve been sober 3 and a half.”
He was visibly upset and she was sympathetic. She took his hand in hers.
“Al, you should be really proud of being sober. My dad was an alcoholic who never recovered. My mom silently cursed him even after his death. It’s an ugly thing and it tears relationships apart. This bottle of wine is four years old, I don’t really drink either but this was meant for a special occasion that never came and tonight felt special for me.”
“Tonight is special. I haven’t been close to anyone in years. When you asked me for a ride tonight it made me feel young again. I confess that the brisket’s not the only reason I come to your dinner every night. That little chit chat between you and me ends my night on a high note. After Nancy left me I hardly felt like I had a reason to get out of bed in the morning, then as I met you and started doing to the diner, I realized that, even early in the morning and all through the day I would be thinking about going to the diner. And those thoughts made me happy enough to float me through my day.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t awake to feel that. It’s as if, when my husband died, I went to sleep emotionally to avoid feeling anymore. I fill me time with practical tasks so I don’t have to think about it or feel it. But tonight when I saw those kids it made me realize my life isn’t getting any longer, there’s life out there to be living and I’ve been opting out for too long. I mean, I’m not going to be asking for motorcycle rides when I’m sixty am I?”
They smiled as they looked deep into each other’s eyes and he pulled her into him and he held her gently as they swayed back and forth to music they could only hear between them. The moon draped them in champagne colored glow as they held each other, dancing, and creating memories to tell the grandchildren.