Six Years A Sap
Desmond Carlson recognized the new waitress at Jan's Place the first time he saw her working a shift. She had been in his Last Stop Pizza Shop across the road from the diner many times in the past several years, usually with two children. She was always well dressed with flaming red hair which made her memorable. It seemed strange to see her waiting tables now.
Desmond had been eating breakfast at Jan's Place for years, going back to when the business was the West County Diner. The young couple Jackson and Sharon Martin, not yet thirty, bought the establishment a few years earlier, remodeling it and renaming it after Jackson's late sister, Jan.
Desmond struck up a friendship with the couple because they were neighbors and fellow business owners in an area where there weren't a lot of businesses. Jackson was friendly but focused on running the diner while his upbeat and attractive blonde haired wife Sharon was more sociable. The couple had eliminated the dinner shift (closing at two) because it was too difficult to staff the place.
"No point killing ourselves working eighteen hour days," Jackson said.
"Yeah, twelve will do," Sharon said with an eye roll.
Desmond took his usual spot at the counter and ordered his meal. He was used to frequent waitress turnover (although the previous management had a couple of long timers) but the revolving door of new faces made it difficult to get to know people.
"Dez, this is Jeri Labelle," Sharon announced as she poured Desmond's coffee. "Jeri, Dez. He runs the pizza joint on the other side of the road."
"I recognized you," Jeri said with a tired smile. "You make great pizza!"
"Thanks," Desmond replied. "I remember you coming in."
That was the extent of their conversation as Jeri stayed busy with her tasks. Desmond noticed that she seemed nervous and unsure of herself as she went about her business, clearly a novice at the job.
The diner had a core of local regulars like Desmond as well as many frequent travelers, mostly truck drivers who used Route 221 as a cut through and college kids on their way to (or back from) North Adams and Williamstown.
When Desmond left the diner after eating, he noticed a twenty-year old silver Chevy Impala stuffed with boxes, clothes and other possessions. Each time he ate breakfast at the diner and Jeri was working, the car was in the lot and Desmond realized that it was her vehicle.
He wondered why her car was crammed with her belongings but it was none of his business and it would be rude of him to bring it up with her. But he did make an effort to exchange pleasantries and small talk with Jeri whenever she was working and then one afternoon, during a slow time at the Last Stop Pizza shop, Desmond was surprised yet intrigued when Jeri stepped through the door. It struck him as odd not to see her with those two kids.
"Do you sell pizza by the slice?" Jeri asked.
"Between 11:00 and 1:00," Desmond confirmed from his spot behind the counter.
She glanced at the Coca-Cola clock on the wall. "It's 1:30," she frowned.
"I still have a couple of slices I can warm up," he said with a smile.
"Thanks," Jeri said with relief, taking a seat at the nearest booth.
The Last Stop Pizza Shop looked the same as it did thirty years earlier when Desmond's Uncle Ron first opened the place. Ironically, Ron got his start at the West County Diner across the street before purchasing the former Coswell's Paint Store in his thirties, converting the closed business to a pizza shop on one side of the building and renting out business space on the other, which now sat empty.
There were four booths along each of the side walls with three tables in the middle of the space and one table in front of the window. There were some landscapes of the scenic area mountains hanging on the wall along with various old advertisements of pizza, hamburgers, and hot dogs.
"Is that you?" Jeri asked when she spotted a framed black and white photo hanging on the wall of "Our Beloved Founder, Ron Degado" with a young kid standing by his side throwing some pizza dough into the air.
"Yeah," Desmond grinned. "I literally grew up in here."
He proceed to tell Jeri the entire history of the Last Stop Pizza Shop, pointing to several old (still full) paint cans left behind when the old business closed, now placed around the shop as décor and how he worked for his Uncle from the time he could reach the counter.
Desmond's married sister who lived nearby helped out when she could and he had a small cadre of part timers for weekend and evening shifts but he generally worked long hours and lived in Ron's apartment above the shop.
"Why did you agree to run this place?" An interested Jeri asked when Desmond finished with the history lesson.
He was sitting across from her in the booth as she was the only customer in the shop.
"Uncle Ron left this to me," he shrugged. "What choice did I have?"
"Do you get a lot of competition from across the street?" Jeri wondered.
"More so before they cut out dinner over there," Desmond answered. "But it's a different cliental, really. We have some cross over regulars but I get more of the kids. It's a limited audience because we're so rural around here but we get a lot of the passing traffic too at certain times of the day."
Jeri had finished her slices and seltzer water and she stood from the booth. "Thanks for lunch," she said, heading for the door.
Desmond followed, glancing at her car parked outside. "Your car is awfully cluttered," he observed, surprised that she hadn't unpacked it after so many weeks had passed.
"Yeah," she said, sounding embarrassed.
Desmond studied her. "What happened to the kids?"
"What do you mean?"
"I used to see you with those two kids."
She let out a sigh. "I lost my job," she said quietly.
"I don't understand," Desmond frowned with confusion.
"I was a live in Nanny," Jeri revealed. "Those kids were my clients." He saw her eyes water up.
"So, that's why you ended up working across the street," he realized.
"Yeah," she sighed. "It's been different. And difficult."
"Where are you living?" Desmond dared to ask.
"Oh, here and there," she said with a forced smile.
"You're couch surfing?" He inquired.
"I'll see you Dez," Jeri said, rushing to get through the door and out of the shop before he could ask any more questions.
Desmond watched from the window as Jeri climbed into her cluttered car and sped off to parts unknown.