My name is RoseMarie LeBlanc, and if you think I’d planned to be taking orders, taking up dirty dishes, or taking complaints all of my life, you’d be wrong.
I’d wanted to be a beautician. Not a stylist. Not a salon operator. Not a barber. A beautician. I wanted to have the kind of shop like Truvy in Steel Magnolias. The ladies of the town would come in for weekly visits, cackling and jawing about what their men did, what their kids were doing, what next big function they had coming up, and who was doing what behind closed doors that really were never closed. These women, who had the kind of money I only dream about, would come in with their fancy jewelry and clothes. They’d sit in my chair and look at me as if I could move heaven and hair. I’d cut and curl and dye. I’d wax their unsightly mustaches and uni-brows. I’d polish their nails. And I’d listen to their stories . . . about parties they were going to, weddings they might be planning, or charity events they were hosting. Eventually, they would leave, daintily patting their sprayed heads with freshly-manicured hands, chitter-chattering about grabbing coffee and pie next. Little did I expect what I’d really be doing is pouring that coffee and slapping that pie on plates, instead of performing miracles with hairspray, nail polish and hot wax.
A Rose in Your Hair. That was going to be the name of my shop. It was a play on words. Sometimes folks called me Rose or Rosie. I thought it was clever. Not bad, for a girl who barely made it through high school, right?
Instead, the stories I heard weren’t from women being preened by my magical beautician ways, but from my savvy serving skills. Since I was sixteen, in fact, which means I’ve been a career server of pigs-in-blankets for twenty years. Twenty years. Where had the time gone?
“You ask me where the time goes with all them gray hairs you got on your head?” my common law husband Avery Baumann would tease me.
I met Avery at the diner when I was seventeen. He had moved to our little town of Millford from Alabama because the KKK had been harassing his family and he didn’t want none of that anymore. Avery was the largest black man I’d ever seen in my life with the kindest eyes I’d ever known. I fell for him hard and fast and the town still hadn’t quite stopped talking about the Southern white half-French girl who hooked up with a man of color. But Avery fixed their roofs when they leaked, their pipes when they rusted, and their barns when the wind started taking them down, so their words, most of the time, were more tolerant than bigoted.
“Crazy Canter’s here,” Lizzie hissed in my ear, as I straightened toast the shade of my bathroom wall at home—a burned sugar kind of hue—on a plate alongside a mushroom and cheese omelet, hold the onions, with well-done hash browns.
Lizzie had been working at the diner for a year now, and even though she’d lived in town about a hair longer than that, Mr. Canter’s story was usually one of the first told to newcomers. Mostly, I tried to not pay the gossip any mind. I figure I can’t say I haven’t sinned a time or two myself, so judging Barnaby Canter seems a bit like throwing stones, and my Momma always said that was a pointless waste of time and good window panes.
Mr. Canter, about seven years ago, became Crazy Canter, but that was after he became a killer first. You see, nearly a decade back, Barnaby Canter was one of the most prominent men in our town. He had been a lawyer for about forty years and lived in a big mansion up on the hill. Some folks say it isn’t hard to be rich and haughty in a town that is as small and unmentionable as Millford, but I sure haven’t fallen upon any kind of luck myself, and I’m not a half-bad waitress. They say Mr. Canter couldn’t stay away from the bottle. One night, he got tanked at Bender’s, the bar just across the way, and managed to slam his Mercedes Benz into a station wagon. A momma, dad and three little ones under the age of ten were coming home from a football game at the high school in that car, and they all died, except the momma, and she wound up going crazy herself and being shipped off to the loony bin one town over in Everton. No one spoke much of her after that. After a while, it seemed like just the mere mention of her name spooked people. “As if a white folk could go crazy theyselves just by saying a lady’s name,” Avery would half-joke, shaking his head at humanity.
As the din of clanking plates, the bubble of brewing coffee and the scrape of Fred’s metal spatula on the grill dull in my ears a little, I swallow the achy lump in my throat because every time I think of that poor momma in the looney bin, it makes my chest ache. Avery says that’s because I’m a visual person. If you say it, I can imagine it, deep inside of myself. My own Momma told me that was because I had “the gift,” even if most of the time I don’t much feel like it is one. Later, in high school psychology, I learned it meant I was an “empath,” but that’s really all I remember from that class, besides knowing someone might be lying if they lift their eyes to the ceiling when they tell you something. Empath or not, even having no kids of my own, I have to work hard not to imagine the pain of the woman in that loony bin. I hope they drug her up but good. If I ever lost Avery, I imagine I’d be right up there in Everton with her.
After Barnaby Canter killed that family, there was a big old court battle about whether or not to put him away. Rumor had it, and I don’t know this as fact, but Barnaby, being a good lawyer, managed to get a sweet deal. A year in jail, five years of community service, and he wasn’t allowed to drive his car or practice law anymore. He had to go to AA meetings, too. The town, which is small, seemed satisfied with the ruling, which most folks in neighboring counties thought was almost worse than the crime itself. Avery said he isn’t sure if it’s because we’ve all become “complacent,” or if it’s because we have the need to move on, but he’s taking a philosophy class at the junior college, which makes him question almost everything these days.
I figure all of that had to take a toll on Mrs. Canter. Right after the incident, their home was regularly vandalized by a few angry renegades wanting justice. They would toss bricks through the windows, paint “murderer” in red on the doors, hack down their trees and shrubbery, puncture holes in the tires of Mrs. Canter’s car, and the like. The coroner said she died of a weak heart. I imagine it was more broke than weak.
Barnaby Canter comes to the diner every day. He sits in the same seat—the far back right corner—away from the rest of the patrons. When he took to sitting there, Jarmarr, a man who moved here from Jamaica and took over the diner, rearranged the dining room a bit so that Mr. Canter was a little more secluded. He said it wasn’t to protect folks from Mr. Canter, but to protect Mr. Canter from the other folks. I’d never seen Jarmarr have anything but respect for Mr. Canter. Folks blamed it on his being Jamaican and smoking weed. I didn’t really know what Jarmarr’s habits were, but I figured if Mr. Canter chose to spend his money at our diner every day, then he deserved the same service every other customer got.
I am pretty much the only server that will take care of Barnaby Canter. Flo was good friends with the crazy momma who survived the car wreck. The first day Barnaby dared come into the diner with his wife, two years after the incident, Flo got so upset, she spit on his food right in front of him. I thought for sure Jarmarr was going to kick her out on her butt. Instead, he gave her that same Jarmarr understanding he gave Mr. Canter, and told her to go home for the day, get herself together, and to stay away from Barnaby Canter when she came back. Since then, Flo didn’t wait on him, but the rest of the wait staff went and jumped over the fence to Flo’s side, and soon no one was left to wait on Mr. Canter. When I saw Jarmarr doing it one day, I decided to help. I mean, sure Mr. Canter did something wrong, but to watch that shriveled, old man, who could barely meet a person’s eyes anymore, just sitting there hoping someone would take him breakfast. . . Well. . . I ain’t heartless. That’s all.
Today, I take him his coffee with the dish of creams I know he’ll use right up before his next cup. I don’t balk, because Lord knows, he is practically wasting away and needs what fat that cream’s going to give him. I always add “extra butter” to his order so that Fred or Miguel slap that stuff all over the grill when they cook Mr. Canter’s food.
“Good morning,” I say to him, eyeing the picture of his wife, in an ornate silver frame, which he has set across the table to face him. Every morning, Mrs. Canter joins him for breakfast, which is how he’s earned the “Crazy” part of his nickname.
He mutters good morning, not looking at me, but I don’t judge. He isn’t doing this because he thinks he’s better than me. I learned a long time ago, Mr. Canter doesn’t look at me because he thinks I am better than him.
“Over easy eggs?” I ask, because he has never ordered anything else. “For you and the Mrs.?”
I think he likes me because I pretend she is there. I don’t question. I don’t judge. I don’t even laugh. Truth is, it kind of breaks my heart. It almost makes me forget, just for a minute, what this man did years ago. But then I remember. What I don’t remember, after all this time, is how I’m supposed to feel about it now.
“Yes. Please.” He is always polite. The way he talks reminds me of my dad. My dad never said more than he needed to.
“Bacon for you? Sausage for the Mrs.?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“She never drinks coffee,” I offer, deciding to take a break from our usual script today. “Would she like some?”
He raises an eye toward me. His right one. The brow above it is gray and fluffy, like a cloud, the eye itself, steel blue. Back in the day, he was quite the man. A real looker and smart as a whip. I hardly remember that time. He is shorter than me now. A pale prune of a man. Hairless, but for a small gray strip swinging from his left ear, around the back of his head, to his right. Like Avery painted it there with one swipe of a brush.
The fact that he is actually looking at me makes my stomach shake a little and the pale brown hairs at the back of my neck stand on end. I see a tremor in my right hand, which holds my stubby pencil, now tapping nervously against the order slip, making a bunch of tiny lead dots on the sheet.
“You’ve never asked me that before,” he notes, sounding all attorney-like for a minute.
My heart skips. Did I do something wrong? “I–uh–“
He doesn’t smile, but the left side of his mouth twitches a little. “She likes orange juice.”
“I can bring some,” I decide, too quickly, my words shooting from my mouth like a bullet. I know I look like I am trying too hard and it makes me feel kind of desperate.
He nods, his eyes staring at the menu again. My land, by now I was sure he’d have to have memorized that thing. “And hash browns.”
“Extra crispy.” I knew.
Without looking up, he adds, “Toast well done too.”
I nod this time. “Pancakes for the Mrs. On the side?”
“Yes. No butter–“
“Lots of syrup.”
He nods again.
“I’ll get this right in.” I turn on my heels, the soft rubber soles of the world’s ugliest black waitressing shoes padding softly on the tile floor. I put the order in, ignoring Fred’s eye-rolling at the fact that it belongs to Mr. Canter.
Lizzie and Wendy are at the drink station, pretending to be busy, while gossiping and laughing about Barnaby Canter. I hear them make comments that it serves him right for losing his wife, and that why wasn’t he with crazy momma at the nut farm, because Lord only knew, it was “hella crazy” to be serving a man who dines with his dead wife every morning.
I ignore them at first. Truth is, they piss me off sometimes. Ultimately, I go over to them and softly growl, “You know. . . he’s a customer, same as the rest.”
“Except he’s a killer,” Lizzie retorts, eyeing Wendy for approval. Wendy nods.
I look at each of them solidly for a split second, shake my head, and walk away. I know he’s a killer. Lord, I know this. I had read the papers. I had watched the news. I had heard the conversing. I’ve worked with Flo for many years and had held her when she sobbed on account of losing her best friend and the extended family that came with that friendship.
Still. Their meanness makes me want to be kinder. I am not sure why. I think, sometimes, I have waitress’s dementia. For some servers, over time, folks just start looking like your next tip walking through the door. For me, it’s different. I watch the kids of this town grow up. I watch the teenagers of this town screw up, move out, or end up like me—Wendy being one of them. I watch young mothers with their kid struggles grow into wrinkling women with health struggles. I watch men of strength in this town, men like Barnaby Canter, get taken down by one thing or another. Then I hear it whispered over white picket fences.
I go to our pastry display, a large, clear domed glass case that sits atop the counter. Every morning, Jarmarr’s wife Patricia bakes for us. She chooses three types of things, from her wide array of sinful sugary delights, and fills the display case to the hilt with mouth-watering pastries no one can turn down. Patricia is not a fan of the gluten-free movement.
Today we have cheese Danishes, blueberry scones and banana nut muffins. The combined smell makes me want to crawl smack dab into the middle of the heap of goodness, then pull the glass-domed lid down so I could savor every bite for myself. Lord that Patricia could bake.
I snatch a cheese Danish, because something tells me Barnaby Canter fancies them. I’m not sure why. Just a hunch. A good waitress doesn’t wait on someone every day of their shift for so many years without getting to know that person just a little. Even if that person happens to be a killer who doesn’t talk much.
I put the Danish on the plate and bring it to him. Quietly, I set it in front of him. “This’ll go well with coffee,” I say.
He looks at the Danish, and that one eye tracks me again. I notice it looks a little moist. I’ve watched the elderly shuffle in and out of this diner for years with their moist eyes. I attribute Mr. Canter’s to the fact that he, too, is elderly.
“I-I didn’t order this.” He looks not put out, but nervous. Then I remember. Mr. Canter is living on a very limited budget now. I know what that’s like. In fact, I know he probably budgets a lot just to be able to continue his daily tradition of breakfast at the diner with his wife.
I smile. I want to tell him it’s on me, but I know he won’t accept, so instead, I have to say, “We were about to toss it. But it still looks really good to me. I thought you might like it to tie you over until breakfast is up.”
The eye moves away from me again and focuses on the Danish. “I do enjoy a cheese Danish.”
I want to smile so huge because, again, I am right in knowing my customers, but I don’t because I know, with Mr. Canter, what isn’t done on the sly, has to be done in a small way. “I was hoping,” is all I say.
“You are welcome, Mr. Canter.”
Now both eyes snap up to look at me. His face is almost like stone. For a moment, I am nervous again, and almost take a step back. But I don’t want to put him off either, so instead, I stand there, like that deer in the headlights, just staring at him.
“What did you call me?”
I hesitate. For a second, I wonder. . . did I call him Crazy Canter by accident? Then I know I wouldn’t. “I called you Mr. Canter, sir. I am sorry. Is that not okay?” I am telling myself to shut up. I never say this much to him. I know, in silent fear, that I might scare him out of the diner for good. The truth is, I have come to like seeing him there in the mornings.
Now I know his eyes are not just moist. “No one has called me that in a long time. They’ve called me other things. But not that.”
“I don’t know what to say to that,” I blurt my inner most thought. I grumble inwardly at myself. Even in my thirties, I straddle a definite line of either being too quiet, or saying whatever godforsaken thing comes to mind, with no in between. Momma had warned me, and Avery just laughs about it.
“I understand.” He nods. The moist doesn’t leave his eyes to roll down his cheeks and I suddenly know that he must have the world’s biggest lump in his throat. Still, he confesses, “For the same reason, I don’t know how to reply to the manner in which you have addressed me.”
It takes me a second to sort through his words, not because I am stupid, but because he talks so darn refined. Then I realize what he’s saying. “Well, I’m not gonna call you Crazy Canter, if that’s what you’re expecting.”
He nods. His mouth is shut so tight, it could’ve been sewn that way, but it curves into the smallest half-moon smile I’ve ever set my eyes on. “Thank you, RoseMarie.”
I feel my face grow hot and my heart race. He has never called me by my name.
He looks at his wife and reaches out a semi-gnarled index finger to stroke the silver frame. “I killed five people that day. It just took her a little longer to leave.”
He looks so sad. So lost. So broken. A part of me wants to fall to my knees and cry. I could have taken his hand just then and held it. I didn’t. But I could have.
“I’m not sure what to say, Mr. Canter.” My voice is hushed. I am not even sure he hears it over the clamor of diner noise. My heart feels thick and heavy. Carefully, I inch my way out on a limb and add, “But I would watch you and your wife in here, even after the accident, and sure as the sun is shining today, that woman loved you.” I pause and clear my throat. I feel a little braver that my words aren’t upsetting him. “My guess is it took her longer to leave because, deep down, she really didn’t want to.”
He stared at his wife’s portrait but said nothing.
“Nine!” Fred called from the kitchen. It was Mr. Canter’s order.
“That’s your breakfast. I’ll be back.”
I turned on my heels again. Sweat had formed above my brow, behind my neck and under my arms. The kind of sweat folks get when they are anxious. My heart was racing and my head felt a little spinny. Yet, at the same time, I was excited. He’d never really spoken to me before and now, I realized, we were actually having a conversation.
I trekked Mr. and Mrs. Canter’s breakfasts out to them. Like always, I set his down in front of him first. While he rearranged items on his plate to his liking, putting ketchup on the eggs, jam on the toast, and so forth, I fixed Mrs. Canter’s plate for her. I cut the pancakes, then the eggs, salting and peppering them because she didn’t like ketchup the way he did. I opened her napkin, laid out the silverware, and took my time, heedless of the fact that I was ten minutes past taking my break.
It was odd just then. Almost like the diner was melting away a little. I had to struggle to smell the fried eggs, burned toast, brewing coffee, and the sweetness of maple syrup. The usual clamor of conversations, laughter, clanking of forks and knives against china, the scurry of feet, Fred’s voice calling out order numbers—all of that muffled like my ears were full of water.
Once I finished, I stepped back, setting my hands on my blue-and-white-checkerboard-skirted hips, and smoothed my white apron. “You two are all set.” I smile.
Mr. Canter set his fork down a moment, clearing his throat, then met my gaze square. His eyes were not moist now. Instead, there seemed to be a pale light in them akin to hopefulness. “I was wondering, RoseMarie, if you would care to join us? Surely, you have a break at some point?”
I won’t lie. Part of me wanted to jump up and down like some crazy cheerleader because I knew, right then, I’d gotten to him. Somehow, I’d managed to show Barnaby Canter that not all folks were judging him still. That one of us folks could see the burden he was bearing had grown heavier as the years wore on, instead of lighter. I’m not saying I condone what he did. Not in the least. But sure as I stood there this morning, accepting Mr. Canter’s invitation for the whole diner to see, sitting right there with him and laughing while I ate the cheese Danish that was supposed to be his, I realized that we are all capable of a little kindness, even when it seems to pain us. Maybe that was what Jarmarr had learned in Jamaica. I don’t know for certain.
My name is RoseMarie LeBlanc. I always wanted to be a beautician, you know, like Truvy in “Steel Magnolias,” but instead, I serve pigs-in-blankets, eggs over easy, and kindness. I go home with sore, swollen feet, an aching back, and smelling like breakfast meats and onions. When my Avery comes home, sweaty, dirty, and most of the time with paint on his clothes that just don’t come off, he smiles at me and asks me, “How was your day?”
Today, I smile back at him and say, “Same as always.”
He takes up the kettle, pours more steamy water into my foot soak, and sits alongside me. Then, takes my hand like always, gives the back of it a tender kiss, and says, “Well, Rosie, why not tell your Avery all about it?”
Suzanne Marie Calvin-Yim is a late-in-life student, majoring in English with a minor in Secondary Education. A seasoned wearer of many hats, she has worked as a waitress, bank teller, paralegal, and a Certified Nurse Aide, in addition to having homeschooled her son and daughter. She has three published romance novels with Amber Quill Press, and has freelanced for The Colorado Springs Independent and Out Front Colorado. Suzanne lives in Colorado Springs with her wife, Juli, her adult son and daughter, and Lily the human Schnauzer. Her hobbies include swimming, hiking, biking, reading, watching British films, and thinking reflectively. Currently, she is working on two novels and a collection of short stories.