Sunday, August 29, 2021

Smiley's Bluff


Witness three workmen at a roadside diner. They're miles from the shop, so the boss isn't likely to know they're having breakfast on his time. There's Benny, just out of high school on his first job as an electrician helper. Then there's Donny, a longhair metal head, and George, a crusty New Yorker. Along with a wisecracking, fortyish waitress, they love to kid him about his lack of worldly experience. But in the Twilight Zone, such things have consequences. 

Benny tackled the French toast with gusto, trying to keep up with the fellas, wolfing down their bacon and eggs. 

"This ain't your mom's place," Donny quipped. "You don't get pancakes and oatmeal with a cartoon face." 

"Yeah," George piled on. "Now a BLT--that's easy to fix."

Wiseguys. Not a good influence either. They'd turned him on to coffee, but he drew the line at beer. 

"Hiya, Smiley!" Bess the waitress sauntered over, coffee pot in hand. The wiseguys sniggled in anticipation, because they knew Benny hated the moniker. If there was a waitress mold, she had sprung from it: glasses on a string, graying hair more suitable for a younger style, pencil in ear, apron.

"I made the French toast myself, Smiley, because the cook is busy." A dig at how he never left a tip, not getting it was over the Smiley thing. In fact, the only reason he didn't wait in the truck was the food. It was too good to miss out on. 

"Y'all should drop by for lunch," she went on. "We got a killer steak sub."

Donny appreciated how Benny's face lit up. "Can't do it. The plastics factory is five miles down the road." 

"Aww," rued Bess. "You poor fellas have to brown bag it. A growin' boy  needs better." Just then, a grumpy farmer repeated his demand for coffee, calling her away.

Benny once again left no tip. Next time, he would wait in the truck.

Hours later, when the noisy cracking room at the plant had fallen quiet for the lunch hour, Benny took out his ear plugs and settled against an I beam some distance from the fellas and their incessant sports talk. He had just started on his PBJ and apple when Bess entered the loading dock, carrying a white bag.

Benny needed no clues to as to what it was. Ignoring the taunts about his "girlfriend", he jumped up to confront her. "How did you get in here?" 

"Easy. I told the guard you called for takeout, and here I am." The bag held one of the fragrant, still  hot subs. 

"Where's ours," George whined in mock protest, grinning at Benny's plight. 

She waved him off. "You boys should be on a diet. Let's call this free advertisin'!" On the way back, she turned to wave. "Enjoy, Smiley!"

That he did in spite of himself. Nor did the surprises end that night at home. To added ridicule from the fellas, he still lived with his folks.

His mom stuck a head in his room. "There's some woman on the phone for you. Something about a retirement dinner tomorrow night."

Who else. He went to the kitchen extension. That no good Donny must have given Bess the number. "Why are you calling me here?"

"Take it easy, Smiley! Tomorrow's Saturday, when you're off work. My place is half a mile down that dirt road behind the diner--only one out there. I'll leave a light on. Ruth and Louise will be here. We're making the best dinner you ever saw." The other two waitresses had to be in their seventies. "Whatya think? About eight." 

This time he'd call her bluff. So Donny didn't think he'd dare. "I'll go anywhere there's free eats."

"Fine! See ya there!"

It took some fancy explaining to assuage his mom's worries about a drunken party. He jumped into his old Mustang and drove eleven miles across the river. He turned right at the diner in the failing light, took the bumpy road half a mile until he saw a lone porch light.

He knocked on the screen door. Bess admitted him, wearing a gray robe but  no shoes. Must have just come from the shower. 

She  noted his curiosity. "Oh, we all went for a swim down at the creek."

Then why wasn't her hair wet? "I don't smell any food."

"We're gonna have it outdoors, a regular picnic!" 

He followed her uneasily down to a clearing, where digital lights were strung across the trees in a glade. Others were there, wearing the same robes, gathered around a large flat stone.

A coven. A freakin' coven. And he was bait for whatever they planned to summon on that stone. "Wait a minute--I know her!" He gaped at a famous local news anchor.

"Lot's of bigshots here," Bess said. "See that man? The district school superintendent. And her?--head of the state health department."

It figured. But he wasn't going to see their invited guest, and even worse, he wasn't going to see the robes come off. He ran.

"Aw, Smiley!" Bess called. "Oh well--see ya at the diner on Monday!"

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