Mary dishes up pie like she’s serving the President; sweet-faced and hopeful to everyone she meets. For twenty years she’s been working at the Cadillac, and for twenty years it’s been the same – they leave her standing there in her pink and lime uniform, with words spoken in kindness but never the ones that match the ones scribbled, almost hastily, upon her wrist. “Adam and Eve on a raft, wreck ‘em.” It is mumblety glop to the outsider, word salad, nothing that made any sense to anyone who reads them at Mary’s behest or by accidentally noting it.
So no, no one knows what those words are supposed to mean and where she’ll be when she finally hears them slip, golden-sweet, from the lips of her beloved. She studies the meaning of them and understands they’re diner slang, and so she starts waitressing at the age of sixteen. Her ears bend to every single request, but none of them use the place’s lingo; they just ask for eggs on toast, scrambled, with hot sauce. Again and again, she serves and pleases, always hoping and wishing for the words, the look, the truth to free her. But every day she goes home alone. Now she’s close to forty and still hoping that the world will smile kindly upon her, somehow, in some grand stroke of beautiful luck. She still has faith that somehow, sometime he’ll find her there and whisk her away.
She’s lonely in that throat-tightening way that makes the younger kids she works with swoon. They said she was a beauty queen as a teenager; they say she’s been a smart, smart thing all this time, saving her money, working weekends. Why she can retire any time, fly away to the Bahamas without anyone or anything standing in the way. How someone like her ends up in a dead-end diner, pretending it is nineteen fifty six for all eternity is something the kids just don’t understand.
It’s a Wednesday. The most ordinary day in the world, she thinks. She just finished bussing table six when the door swings open and admits a tall, rangy fellow with yellowed grey hair and a John Deere trucker hat to the place. His smile is broad as she almost bumps clumsily into him. “Let me help you, Miss,” he insists, placing the bin on the counter and tilting his hat at her. She rushes on over to take his order – pancakes and home fries – and he throws her a compliment. “Gardenias suit you,” he says.
“They’re my favorite,” she says, patting the half-wilted sprig stuck in the buttonhole of her slightly-browned peter pan collar.
“Partial to them myself. Always did like a little splash of color.”
She smiles. The coffee comes in white mugs tumbled smooth from years of use, with dents and flecks of missing ceramic at the handle. But it pours just the same and he’s finished two cups when she comes back with his pancakes.
On and off she watches him eat, occasionally nibbling corners of browned toast. She clears his plate fifteen minutes later, and as she tosses them away he suddenly clears his throat.
“I imagine you get this a lot,” he says, “but I don’t suppose you have time to catch a movie tonight? I’m new in town and completely free and well – you seemed awfully lonely.”
She flushes red. “I…” She glances over her shoulder at the clock pasted to the wall. Quitting time is ten, when the diner closes – she works from morning til dusk most nights, then switches in the winter. She doesn’t suppose she could get away with slipping out early – and she doesn’t want to, what if she missed those all-important words? “I’m leaving at seven. I’ll meet you at the Rialto?”
He smiles gently. “I’d like that.”
The rest of her shift she bustles to make the seven o’clock start time, planning for the evening, nervous and yet ashamed of herself. Hadn’t she promised she’d wait for the right guy? Hadn’t she sworn to herself she’d only marry her soulmate? Well, look at her – bustling and burbling, excited because some strange man had noticed her!
She frowns at the reflection of the bakery counter as she tries to fix her make-up, put a sweater over her uniform, and seem like a normal, presentable person. Abruptly the clock chimes six-forty. Maybe, maybe, her heart bleats in rhythm as she rushes toward the front door and heads uptown, to the Rialto.
She spends fifteen minutes pacing under a portrait of Julia Roberts. When he approaches she isn’t expecting him at all and nearly throws herself into the gutter in shock when he taps her shoulder.
“Why’d you sneak up on me like that?”
“Sorry. I didn’t think I was sneaking.” He proudly thrust forward his right hand. “For you.”
The carnation she held out was faded at the edges, but still bright pink at the center. Her eyes tracked from his hand to his proud smile, to the sailor’s cap he wore. She smiled and carefully took the flower, scattering a dusting of petals down her blue cardigan.
She can’t remember what the movie’s about the next day, but she does remember taking him home. They have leftover meatloaf, split with her cat Pinky, and then they slow-dance to the Big Bopper as the sun comes up.
Somehow, Mary finds herself lying in his arms on her doily-covered couch, right next to a pile of mending and a stack of old newspapers. She sleeps far beyond the sunrise, halfway toward noon, and wakes to fear, to panic, and the warm arms of the trucker behind her.
“Where are you going?” he asks, but she’s running toward the door, still in yesterday’s outfit, skewing everything back into place with a wild note of hysteria. She runs to the diner in her pumps, wide-eyed and frightened.
Her boss says she should take a day off. “Was there a man here?” she asked. “Did he ask for Adam and Eve?”
“You need to sit down,” he demanded, but she shakes off his grip. She gets to work setting places, bringing drinks. Everything becomes a desperate blur.
Then, as she takes orders at the booths down back, she hears a soft voice say, “Adam and Eve on a raft, wreck ‘em.”
She drops her menu and meets her sailor/trucker's eyes. “Who told you?” she asks, scraping the menus from the floor, self-consciously trying to hide her wrist.
“Your boss. He’s worried about you,” he says. “Mary, I know I’m no prize. I know I’m on my fourth job switch and I’m probably going to be on my fifth next week. But I can’t imagine a world without you and I’ve only known you for a single day…”
“But you’re not my…”
“I know. I might not be your soulmate. But why should we let tattoos determine the way we feel?” he asks, taking her hand, making the menus fall and dribble where they lay. “I may not be the guy in your tattoo. I may not be the guy in anybody’s tattoo. But I’ll love you more than he could. More than he ever will. I promise you that.”
“Oh,” she says. Her eyelids prickle and his fingers cup her wrist, sweet and easy, sweet and gentle. The world melts away.
And so does her tattoo. Though she never notices it again.