I knew as soon as I laid eyes on Billy Lee here comes trouble, that's what I said to myself. Here it comes. I was twenty-two and I had just got married, see, and everything was set to go like it should.
Billy's working at Aunt Babe's Cafe. I come in to meet Bob for lunch, but he isn't here yet. It's only me and Virgil in the whole place. I'm sitting at the counter thinking how Bob never was late before but, now that we're married, maybe he thinks he can start right out disappointing me.
So I'm sitting here and I look up but instead of Aunt Babe there's this fellow behind the counter. He doesn't look like anybody you see in Palmyra, Illinois. I tap my fingernails on the countertop, telling him I ain't got all day.
"What can I do for you?" he says, but he says it like he isn't talking about maybe he can pour me a cup of coffee or maybe he can give me a chocolate shake. He leans on the counter. He doesn't even have his little pad to write something down and he's looking me straight in the eye. "Can I help you?" he says, but he doesn't say it like Aunt Babe does. He says it like it's the nastiest thing you ever heard, but he smiles the whole time, daring you to say a word about it.
I don't answer. I tap my fingernails. I look away. Maybe I forgot he's there. I turn and look at Virgil, over by the window, and then I swing back around finally, and ask, "What's the soup du jour?" But he laughs, like I just proved something about myself that he knew all along, and he says it back, "Du Jour," copying my French accent, and I look at the clock and think where the heck is Bob Bybee. If he thinks I'm the kind of girl he can keep waiting, he's got another thing coming.
Finally I say, "Give me a burger with fries," and he goes over to the little window that looks into the kitchen and he yells, "Burger and fries!" real loud, even though Aunt Babe's is smaller than my own living room and you could about whisper and be heard anywhere.
He starts making coffee, pretending to ignore me, while I forget all about him, but sit sipping my glass of tap water and wishing I'd thought to order a cherry coke like I usually do.
He starts working his way down the counter with a rag but I'm not watching him. He can tell by looking that I'm not just someone who wandered in off the street. And when I leave, Virgil will tell him about my beauty awards. He can see for himself what I look like, but still it's good to have everyone else say it too, for proof.
I pick up the menu and start reading it. I read all through the breakfast menu. Mostly Aunt Babe sells eggs for breakfast. Eggs with toast. Eggs with biscuits. Eggs with biscuits and gravy. Eggs in the snow and eggs in a nest. You can get your eggs any way you want them. That's what Aunt Babe's menu says. Scrambled, poached, fried, over easy, over hard. Aunt Babe has listed all the possibilities right there on her menu, in case you can't think of them yourself.
There's a breakfast announcement in the menu, clipped in where you can put special things. Usually it'll say blueberry pancakes, but today it says Cowboy Eggs. Usually, like I say, it's blueberry pancakes or sometimes strawberry pancakes and two times it's been Dutch Babies. I haven't never heard of Cowboy Eggs and I sit, trying to imagine what it might mean. It has a wild sound to it and I know it has something to do with this new fellow. I lean over the counter to see does he have cowboy boots or not, but they're just regular brown shoes like anybody from Palmyra might wear.
I turn around on my stool to look out the window at the parking lot, but Virgil's sitting over there eating a bowl of soup and he thinks I'm looking at him. "How's the soup, Virgil?" I call out, to say something, and then I remember I'm not supposed to mention the soup and I take a drink of water and think that if Aunt Babe was working at least I could have a cherry coke.
And then, to prove how much he isn't a gentleman, this new guy says, "And how do you like the soup du jour?" to which Virgil says that he likes it very much. And I turn back and say, "Can't a girl get a cherry coke around here?"
I sit drinking my cherry coke until the food comes. I hear Aunt Babe's voice from the kitchen, "Billy!" so I know that's his name. It's Billy which means William, but he's not a William, he's a Billy, like what she said. Billy slides the food to me and walks away like I'm just one more thing he has to do and now he's done it.
He's doing this on purpose, I can tell. When I leave, Virgil will explain how I'm married and I can just see his face. In other words out of the running. And then he'll hear that I'm married to the richest family in the county, if you don't count the Winklejohns, and that my husband, his family anyway, they about own Aunt Babe's, which is something to do with the way banks work and I don't get it, but that's what I've heard. And he'll think on top of everything else, rich. But what does he expect?
When I'm finished, I push my plate away and he comes over to stand in front of me. He's not tall. He's only a little taller than I am. And he doesn't have a face like the face of Glenn Pinshaw or Teddy Runels or any of the other boys we call handsome. It's a different kind of face, broad and smooth and golden colored. His eyes are black and they hold very still. He doesn't move them around, but just points them where he's looking and they stay there. He has long fingers and big square hands. He moves quietly. He doesn't bang things around the way Babe does.
I think he'll ask me to the picture show over in Beardstown, or to meet him at the swimming pool tomorrow, but instead he pulls out a little notebook and starts writing things down.
"What kind of pie does Aunt Babe have today?" I say.
"She's got rhubarb."
I say, "Make it a la mode," and then I say, "Ice cream," thinking about the problem we had with the soup du jour.
I eat the pie one little bite at a time. Aunt Babe grows her own rhubarb from right out back of her kitchen window. I like the way rhubarb looks when it's growing, long and purple and smooth. You see it growing and you want to stuff your mouth with it, it's so pretty, but before cooking and before adding a ton of sugar, it's about the most bitter tasting thing imaginable. You can't see how anybody tasting rhubarb would have stuck with it long enough to figure out how to make it into pie.
It occurs to me that I'm waiting for my husband. I've only been married for two weeks and I'm not used to thinking of Bob Bybee as my husband, but he is. I think I'll mention that to Billy when he comes to my end of the counter. I'll say, "I'm waiting for my husband."
Billy starts loading the napkin holders. He starts at one end of the counter and he works his way down towards me, humming to himself, and watching me from the corner of his eye. I expect he'll ask for my phone number. I think I should tell him I'm waiting for my husband so he doesn't have to embarrass himself, but then I remember about the soup du jour and I think Let him go ahead.
But before he has time to go ahead, Bob Bybee comes rushing through the door. He's red in the face and sweating -- he's been out in the fields all morning -- and he sits down beside me, breathing hard, like he's run all the way to Aunt Babe's, instead of took the car. His arms are red and freckled from being out in the sun. His hands don't hold still but move nervously across his face and to his neck and over his lap and across the counter. I watch them, pink nervous hands with thick fingers and small flat thumbs.
Bob's in a hurry to order his food. "Two double cheeseburgers, double fries, and a cup of coffee." Just like every day. Billy leans over the counter and says, "The soup du jour is creme of tomato," and Bob says, "Don't Aunt Babe know how to make any other kind of soup?" and Billy says, "Guess not."
Bob sets his hand on my leg and gives it a little squeeze which is the kind of thing he can do now, whenever he wants to. "How's my little wife?" he says.
When Bob eats his food he bends way down to the plate like he expects the food to escape, so he'd better get down there before that happens. And when it gets close to his mouth, he sucks at it, and before he's got it chewed up and swallowed, he shovels another bite in, like he's somebody who sat at the dinner table all his life without nobody ever once saying, "Eat with your mouth shut and don't slurp your food." And his being one of the best families in the county and almost as rich as the Winklejohns.
I call Billy over and ask him to bring me a chocolate shake, thinking at least I ought to have some reward for having to sit here.
Bob says, "But, Lucy, you've already had a piece of pie." Thinking to himself, she's going to wind up like her mother, I just know it.
And I say, "If I feel like a chocolate shake, I guess I can have me a chocolate shake."
I lean on the counter now, with my fingers pressed over my ears to block out the sound of Bob's chewing. Bob's chewing is like the sound beavers make, if you've ever heard a beaver. That's what Bob's chewing is like, only about a million times louder. How I never noticed the way Bob eats before, I can't imagine. And I wonder how many other things I'll find out now that we're man and wife.
Billy sets my chocolate shake on the counter and he refills Bob's coffee. The coffee cup says "The Chatty Corner" on it because Babe she got her cups from over in Ava when The Chatty Corner closed down. "You must be Aunt Babe's nephew," says Bob.
"That's right. My name is Billy Lee."
"You must be from over to Pearl."
Billy says that he's from lots of places. I don't know what he means by that, but I'm not speaking to anybody right now, so I just go on wondering.
Bob he stuffs half a cheeseburger in his mouth and the grease from it is running all down his chin and before he even starts chewing, he says, "Welcome to town, Billy, my name is Bob Bybee and this here's my wife, Lucy. The former Lucy Fooshee."
"That's right," I say, even though I'm not speaking. "F-o-o-s-h-e-e. Fooshee. Now some people they see the name spelled out and they call it foo-shee, like if it was Chinese. But you say it foo-shay. It's a French name and that's how they talk."
And then Bob has to go and say how we were only married two weeks ago, so Billy stands there looking at us, thinking he knows what we're doing every chance we get. I pretend I don't know what he's thinking. I pick up the menu and read it again, like I haven't already seen it a million times, at least, and then finally he turns back to Bob, "Aren't you a lucky man."
Copyright © 2001 by Alison Clement