Disappointment gnawed at my gut as I walked the streets of Lucky Palms. I had waited on the hillside tonight past dusk, hoping to figure out the mystery writer or artist. Instead, I watched the parishoners come and go from evening prayer service, and the reverend locking up behind himself a half-hour past the end. I waited until the sun dipped below the outer hills of the Palms, and the sky turned from red to pink to purple. Finally convinced he wasn’t coming, I stood up, brushed the sand from my shorts, and took off for home.
Why? I’m an idiot. Why did I think he would come? This isn’t a fairy tale, Kass. What if it wasn’t for you? Yeah, but who else watches the church services from the sandy hill above? Why would he write that? What does he think of me? Wait… what if he’s a creepy stalker or something? Or he’s married? No, he wouldn’t be married. He wouldn’t write that to me if he was.
My forehead thoroughly knotted, I bit my lower lip and stopped dead still. Oh God, I hope it’s not the reverend. I crossed my arm over my stomach instinctively to protect myself, and rubbed my chin. This is getting ridiculous. You should just go back tonight and see if he retrieves your letter. But how will he know it’s there? Well, he knows where he put it, although now it’s folded in my pocket. Oh, I hope he’s not disappointed by what I wrote.
“Be careful, or your face will freeze that way, girlie.”
“Huh?” I snapped out of my inner fantasy life and noticed a teenage boy in a backwards baseball cap approaching the building.
“Your face… if you think too hard, it’ll freeze,” he repeated. “At least that’s what my mom says.”
I flushed and dropped my arms to my sides. “Uh… yeah… I guess you’re right.”
“You hungry?” he asked.
“Um… what?” I was still confused as to why we were having a conversation.
“Hungry?” he repeated. “I mean, you’re standing in front of the place looking awfully bewildered so you must be hungry… hey I used a vocab word.”
I tucked a stray hair behind my ear. “Come to think of it, I am a bit hungry.”
“So let’s eat,” he remarked, walking toward the door.
I chuckled weakly. “There’s no let’s eat… I’m not hungry.”
“Then why are you standing outside?” he rolled his eyes.
I laughed again and shoved my hands in my pockets. “Well… uh… I think I left my wallet.”
“So are you hungry?” he repeated again, holding open the door and waving me inside.
“Yeah, I guess I am a little,” I scrunched my shoulders and twisted my toe in the sand. “But I don’t have any Simos on me.”
“No biggie,” he shrugged. “My dad owns the place. My treat.”
“I couldn’t,” I shook my head.
“Yes, you can… you need nutrients so you get more brain power and you’ll know better than to have an epic staring contest with a building.”
Heat rose in my cheeks and I ducked inside the Sandy Place Bar & Grille before he could say anything more. I was pretty pathetic tonight, but I figured a free meal with a kind stranger probably wouldn’t hurt. It was better than a microwaved Famished Fellows tray with a mystery meat slobbered in brown sauce, waxy potatoes, and cooked green beans that never lost their crunch. It was better than eating alone.
“Sit at the bar. Order anything you like. You can say you’re with me. I’m gonna go check on something first,” the boy waved to me before walking toward a group of teenage boys crowding around an arcade game.
“Wha… who’s me?” I flubbed, running my hand through my hair again, and immediately needing to straighten my ponytail.
I don’t even know his name, I grinned awkwardly at an elderly woman passing by my direction. Realizing it was too late to slip out unnoticed, I slid onto a red leather barstool, and tried to blend in by sneaking a menu from the other side.
“We’re out of hamburger,” the bartender snapped in my direction as she cleaned the inside of a glass. “And we’re out of pickles, baked beans, curly fries, chicken soup, and don’t bother asking for the special – chili slathered onion rings with extra cheese because we’re out of that too. The rings… we still have onions if you want the French onion soup.”
“Oh,” I replied. “Okay…” I set the menu down. “What do you recommend instead?”
“Hot wings…” she responded, setting down her glass. “We’ve still got celery in back, though it might be a little limp, and sauces? We’ve got maple chipotle, pineapple teriyaki, lime sriracha, but we’re out of the Simiribbean jerk.”
“Mmm… maple chipotle sounds delicious,” I murmured. “I’ll take that.”
“Anything to drink?” she asked.
“Well… what are you out of first? Then I’ll have whatever you have left,” I teased, laughing as I tilted my head to the side.
She frowned. “I’ll bring you what we have on tap. Do you have an id?”
I lost some of my bravado. “Um… I’ll just have a water on the rocks.”
“Sure,” she pulled a clean glass, scooped in some cubes, and sprayed the clear liquid from what looked like a hose. “Are you new ’round here? Haven’t seen you before.”
“I… uh… know the owner’s son,” I swallowed, feeling stupid I still didn’t know his name, and pointed to the counter for effect.
“Ethan? Aren’t you a little old for him?” a dark-haired girl suddenly appeared at my side.
“Yeah, Ethan, I know him,” I asserted, and seeing her glower, I added, “We’re not together or anything.”
“Oh yeah, then how do you know him?” she pushed.
Ugh! I pressed my luck.
“Lay off Claudia, why do you wanna know so bad?” the waitress came to my defense.
The woman named Claudia slid onto a barstool next to me and grimaced. “I used to babysit for the Tanners, Audrey, you know that. I knew Ethan when he was still in diapers, and that was ten years ago. I just don’t think he should be dating an older woman.”
The waitress rolled her eyes. “Older woman? She can’t be more than sixteen. How old are you, honey?”
“Eighteen,” I corrected, my eyes narrowing.
“Even worse,” Claudia threw her hands up in the air. “She’s too old for him.”
“There’s a two year difference,” Audrey shrugged, straightening a tower of napkins. “You’re ten years older than him.”
“He’s barely fifteen,” Claudia grunted, and turned to me, laying her hand on my arm as if we were friends. “Haven’t I seen your profile on the local dating site? Is your screenname KitKat187?”
“I’m… not… dating him…” I interjected, pulling my arm back defensively, wondering who these women were to be grilling me.
“Shove off, Claudia, you’re barking up the wrong tree,” Audrey came to my defense again.
“Yeah, whatever, just know I’m the president of the neighborhood watch and we’re always looking for predators,” Claudia slipped off the stool, and made an “I’m-watching-you” movement with her fingers before wandering off into the restaurant.
“Sorry about that,” Audrey said after the other woman was out of earshot. “She is forever reminding everyone she’s the president of the neighborhood watch,” the woman rolled her eyes. “I’m Audrey, by the way.”
“Kass,” I reached out and shook her hand. “Thanks. I thought she’d take a bite out of my arm.”
“Claudia’s harmless,” Audrey replied. “She just takes everything a little too seriously. Last week she accused Oscar Arellano of putting a device on his roof to broadcast signals to aliens. It was a satellite dish. And just yesterday she thought Palmer Hayes broke into the Brittlebrush Academy and stole all the third-graders rulers. He’s eighty-two years old,” she threw her hands in the air and made a “crazy” motion by her head. “She’s a bit fruity.”
I laughed, feeling more at ease. “I got it. Steer clear of Claudia.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll go check on those wings of yours,” Audrey smiled, throwing a towel over her shoulder as she stepped away.
She returned shortly with my plate of food. Ethan was right. I was hungry. I began cutting my pieces of chicken into bite-sized portions with my fork and knife and biting into the perfectly seasoned meat. The sauce was a delicious combination of sweet with a kick of spicy. I snapped on a celery stalk and took a sip of water.
A man in a striped shirt took a seat at the bar, nodding and saying good evening to me. I nodded back, and tried to play it cool. I’m sitting at the bar, I smiled to myself. Previously, I wouldn’t have done so as I thought only women desperate to get “picked up” ate and drank at the counter, but tonight, I was feeling exhilarated, grown-up, and independent. This was way better than sitting at home. I continued to eat, and listened to snippets of conversations swirling around me.
The bar and grille seemed like the place to be. The bell over the door dinged consistently about once every minute bringing in new customers from the streets. Students from the local community college enjoying moments of down time played a lively game of ping-pong on the terrace beneath a starry sky. Over-enthusiastic tourists perused their monstrous stack of brochures from the town visitor center and chatted about all the sites they planned to see the following day while sipping on sangrias and slurping their onion soup. Happy-go-lucky families gathered around the center tables, singing and laughing, bouncing babies on their knees, and swapping stories about life and love, seeming to forget about their platters of crab legs. Paramours whispering sweet nothings cuddled in a back booth, feeding each other nachos, the cheese dribbling down their chins. Solitary diners with a case of the late night munchies nibbled on nuts and grapes, nursing their beers as they scrolled through their phones. The twenty-four hour bar& grille on Central Avenue didn’t seem to lack customers or a comfortable atmosphere, catering to visitors and locals alike. Even at a quarter to ten, the place was still crowded.
“Mr. Tanner, did you know your son, Ethan, is dating that woman?”
I coughed dramatically, startled by Claudia’s sudden and unwelcome reappearance. I immediately began to protest her outlandish claim.
“Absolutely not. Listen, I met the kid outside and he told me to come in and he’d buy me a meal since I left my wallet at home. I’ve never met him before and I’m certainly not in a relationship with him.”
“What are you saying, woman?” Audrey reappeared at the bar, filling up two tall glasses with a beer on tap. “You’re just stirring up trouble, Miss Parsons.”
“Is that true?” the man who I assumed was Ethan’s father looked up from the game he was playing on his phone and stared up at Claudia.
“Well… she shouldn’t let a kid pay for her… it’s practically stealing,” Claudia whipped around and sailed out the front door.
“I’m sorry about that,” the man sitting across from me apologized. “She’s like an older sister or an aunt to my kiddos. My wife isn’t well and is on bedrest right now so Claudia’s been hanging out with my sons”
“Oh no worries,” I replied, wiping my hands on a napkin.
“You said Ethan offered to cover you?” he said, raising his eyebrows as he reached behind the counter to put his plate in the dish bin. “That sounds like him. Always looking out for others. He takes after his mother. She’d be proud… Oh I’m sorry…” he walked around the edge of the counte. “…my manners slipped me… I’m Romon Tanner.”
“Kass Fullbright,” I walked over to him and reached for his hand, my eyes growing wide. “Wait… the Romon Tanner?”
“Chef with his own cable show in the Palms, that’s me,” the man grinned proudly.
“Oh wow! My dad is going to be so jealous I got to meet you,” I remarked. “I didn’t realize you owned the Sandy Place.”
“I do,” he nodded. “I recently acquired this restaurant and another one across town – the Blooming Cactus Bistro. That makes three of mine here in town including Drinks at Diamondbacks. You said your dad would be jealous? Does he cook?”
“Yeah,” I bobbed my head. “He works in catering. He’s at the Sahara Corporation right now.”
“Oh yes, I know the president over there. Great gal. Fantastic chef. She makes delectable Eggplant Parmesan with white truffles…” Romon kissed his fingers. “Perfecto.”
“Cool,” I said, trying to be polite, even though I’d never had a truffle.
“And a white chocolate cheesecake with a mangosteen drizzle that’s to die for,” he added.
“Now that sounds amazing,” I smiled.
“Actually, I went to a luncheon over at the Lucky Simoleon recently that Sahara catered and she served these amazing brownie bites, I think, quadruple chocolate. I thought it’d be too much, but it was melt-in-your-mouth incredible.”
“The super chocolate-y brownies? Those are my dad’s,” I announced, beaming with pride that I could promote my father.
“Really? What’s his name? I’ll have to meet him.”
“I so should have guessed. You look like him,” Romon leaned in, eyeing me closely. “I used to work with him.”
“Wow… that’s cool.”
“Yeah, he was a kitchen scullion for me back when he was in college. I didn’t know he was back in town.”
“I could bring him by sometime.”
“Come on over to Diamondbacks and we’ll have drinks on Wednesday evening. How does that sound?”
“Wow, that sounds great. He will be thrilled.”
“Actually, can I get you anything else now? A drink? A dessert?” he offered.
“Oh, no…I’m fine…” I shook my head.
“No seriously, Audrey…” he called after the waitress. “Bring her a box of my famous peanut brittle brownies,” he turned back to face me. “You can bring some home to your dad too.”
“Oh okay,” I smiled graciously. “Thank you. I really… you didn’t have to…”
“Nonsense… you’re Howard’s daughter. So tell me, what do you do? Do you cook too?”
“Oh…well… I… uh… write…” I stammered. Well, that sounded stupid. “I’m taking some time off post-graduation to travel with my dad for a year.”
“Awesome,” Romon remarked. “I took a year off between sophmore and junior year of college and traveled around Simasia on a motorcycle. I traveled to all the outdoor markets and tried to learn as many recipes as I could from the locals… what they would teach me.”
“That’s cool,” I replied, wishing I had that kind of direction and focus in my life.
“Actually, we have an opening here if you’re looking for work. As you can see we’re always swamped, and Audrey could definitely use some help in the evenings. Have you ever bartended?”
“Uh… no…” I was flabbergasted. He was offering me culinary lessons and a job? “I… could do something with my time…” Lame! “I mean… sure… I do need a job.”
“Great… come by tomorrow around 9am? My morning shift is usually more than covered and we could go over the specifics in the office and get you signing paperwork and all.”
“Are you sure you want to hire me? I mean, you don’t even really know you.”
“Yeah, but if you’re anything like Howard, you’ll do fine.”
“I don’t know. I can chop vegetables for salads and stuff, but I’ve never really cooked in an industrial kitchen and I’ve never even mixed a drink.”
“Audrey can teach you the ropes, and you can wait tables if you feel more comfortable. What do you say, Kass? Come work for me?”
I paused, thinking about everything that had just happened. I went into the grille on a whim, because a teenager said I needed to eat, met a guy who used to work with my dad, and not just any guy, celebrity chef, Romon Tanner, struck up a conversation, and now he was offering me a job as a waitress. After the disappointing outcome at the church, the evening had taken a surprising upturn. Working at one of Romon’s establishments would sure look good on a resume, and I needed to do something beside bumming around the Palms. I stuck out my hand.
“You’re looking at your newest waitress,” I said with a grin.