Bebe was the prettiest girl in her town, and everyone was always saying she had the face of a model and the voice of an angel, and if she could only get out of Western Pennsylvania, maybe she could be some kind of singing star. So she spent two years after she graduated high school working at the diner across from the library, taking orders and refilling coffee cups and saving up her money. And when she was twenty, she packed everything she owned into her 2000 Mercury Mystique, and she hit the road, Los Angeles bound.
She'd only made it as far as Mineola, Missouri, when the grey smoke started pouring out from under the hood. She walked the quarter mile back to the truck stop she’d passed earlier, and they towed her car back to the lot and told her the parts alone would cost more than the car itself was worth, never mind the labor. And she sat herself down at the counter in the adjoining restaurant, ordered a cup of coffee and a slice of pie, and cried.
And that was how she’d met Jay, who owned the restaurant and the truck stop and ran it with her family, though half of them were out of town most of the week, driving her eldest daughter out to UMKC and getting her settled in to start at college. And so it just happened that Jay had both a room and a little lonely corner of her heart available for a lost out-of-town girl who needed a good night's sleep before she could make any kind of decision about fixing her car or not.
So Bebe slept on it, and she woke up early and sat at the counter while Jay made her chocolate chip waffles, the two of them not saying anything much but both humming along to the oldies radio station that cut out every time the old air-conditioning unit turned on.
“Do you figure you’re going to head back home?” Jay asked when they were both finished eating, and Bebe imagined what that would be like, to give up after so much planning. She remembered the going away party they had thrown for her at the old diner, the balloons and the cake and the card they’d all signed for her and the gas station gift card they’d all chipped in for, only forty bucks but it melted her heart that they’d all believed in her and wanted her to go off and be a big star. She couldn’t go home. She couldn’t face those people again until she became someone, and her eyes welled up with tears just thinking about it.
“I can’t go back there,” Bebe had said.
“You’re not going to make it to LA in that old car of yours,” Jay said gently, and Bebe stared down at her plate as the tears started to trickle out of her eyes. “You’re welcome to stay here, darlin’. I’ve got the room, and we can always use another hand around here, especially now that Lottie’s left. I can’t pay you much, and I know it’s not the glamorous life you were hoping for, but it’s something to do while you figure out what’s next.”
And so Bebe traded one diner for another, one small town for an even smaller town, and she tied on that apron and learned how to operate the ancient manual credit card machine with the little handle she had to slide back and forth to make an imprint on the carbon paper. But by the third day, standing there in the kitchen, working shoulder-to-shoulder with Jay, it was like she’d always been there.
And this is her life now.
Bebe’s just sweeping up Thursday night when a man walks through the door and heads over to the counter.
“I’m sorry, but we’re about to close up,” she says. He looks at her with a puzzled expression, takes in her face and lets his gaze fall lower for just a second before he’s looking her in the eye again.
“Who the fuck are you?” he asks, not unkindly.
“Language, Louis,” Jay chides as she walks out of the kitchen, drying off her hands on a dishrag. “Bebe, this is Louis, my oldest. Louis, I told you I was letting Bebe stay in Lottie’s room for a while to help us out.”
Bebe has heard a bit about Louis. He’s a few years older than she is, and he works at the garage, fixing cars and trucks, and he also does odds and ends around the restaurant for Jay. He has a baby with a girl he isn’t married to. He’s responsible for the peeling Green Day bumper sticker stuck to the side of the industrial sink.
No one told her that he was beautiful, though. No one prepared her for that.
“Nice to meet you, Bebe,” Louis says, bowing to her a little and doffing an imaginary hat. “Sorry for my rudeness, but you can go ahead and ignore the whining about my language when my mom swears more than any of the truckers who pass through here and we all know it.”
“Nice to meet you,” she says back to him. “I guess we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”
“Hopefully,” he says with a wink, and then he walks around the counter to pour himself a cup of stale coffee that must be lukewarm by now, and Bebe forces herself to face forward, sweeping the same patch of floor she’s been sweeping for going on seven minutes now. Jesus.
Bebe doesn’t see much of Louis over the next week, mostly just some hellos over coffee, and he stops in sometimes to ask her if Jay needs help or if anything needs fixing. She can see him working through the window, though, sees the way he pushes up his shirtsleeves before he rolls under a car. She watches him use the hem of his shirt to dab at his sweaty forehead, and she fixates on the flat, tan expanse of his stomach and wonders how warm his skin would be to the touch.
But he walks right into the restaurant Friday night, whistling a tune she doesn’t recognize, and he looks so smart in his worn jeans and black t-shirt. She thinks he’d probably look good in anything.
“Release your prisoner,” he says to Jay, dramatic as anything. “It’s Friday night, and I should take our guest out to see all that our humble town has to offer.”
“And what exactly would that be?” Jay asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Fuck if I know,” Louis says with a shrug. “Thought we’d head across the river, see a movie maybe. Find somewhere to have a drink or six.” He turns to Bebe, and her heart leaps into her throat with how badly she wants to go out with him. “You’ve gotta be at least half drunk to have a good time here. You really did choose a shitty place to wreck your car.”
“Is it okay?” she asks Jay.
“Like he’d take no for an answer,” Jay says with a roll of her eyes. “He’s my son, God help me.”
"Thank you,” Bebe says. “I’ll come in early tomorrow, I swear it.”
“No, you won’t,” Jay says firmly. “You have a good time tonight, and I don’t want to see a trace of either of you until after the lunch rush.”
Louis smacks a loud kiss to the side of Jay’s face then scoops up Bebe’s hand with his. She squeezes his fingers, pulse racing, and follows him out of the restaurant to his pick-up truck. He opens the door for her and doesn’t let go of her hand until she’s safely seated and belted. Her heart is beating so loud that she can hear it. She barely even knows him, and it’s just stupid how much she likes him already. But she does. She really, really likes him.
The tape deck in the truck plays a mix of late 90s pop-rock music as they drive, and she sings along softly as the scenery whips by. It’s crazy. She never would have come here on purpose, but there’s something kind of beautiful about it out here.
“You have a pretty voice,” Louis says. “Mom said you’re a singer?”
“I was trying to be,” she says. “Guess the universe just wants me to be a waitress.”
“Maybe you could be both,” he says. “You don’t have to be just one thing.”
“What about you?” she says.
“Well, I’m an auto mechanic,” he says. “And I’m a dad. Might’ve been something else once, but I think this is plenty.”
“Did you ever think of leaving?” she asks, and he’s quiet for a long time. She wonders if she should apologize, if it was too personal and none of her business.
“Yeah, I thought of leaving,” he says eventually. “Was saving money to head to Nashville. Some buddies down there have a band, thought I could make something happen.”
“Freddie happened. He’s my boy.”
“I’m not,” he says, shaking his head. “You know how it goes. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be in a band. Maybe I was just supposed to be a dad. I’m okay with that.”
“Do you have pictures of him?”
“Tons,” he says with a smile. “I can show you later.”
She looks at his profile, and he looks so beautiful with the sun setting behind him. There’s an ease to him that she envies. She wonders what that’s like, to feel like the place you are is the place you belong. He’s got one hand resting on the gearshift between them, and she places her hand on top of his, thumbing at the bumpy bones in his wrist. He glances over at her and smiles, and she smiles back, and they ride the rest of the way there in comfortable silence.
Neither of them have heard of any of the movies on offer, so they pick one at random and hope for the best. It’s fine. Forgettable. Sitting next to him in the theater is exquisite torture. She wants him to kiss her so bad, but he doesn’t. Afterwards, they find a bar, and he has a couple beers, and she has more than a couple. By the time they leave, the jukebox has played “Sweet Home Alabama” six separate times.
Her blood feels hot and slow in her veins as they drive back. If he doesn’t kiss her by the end of the night, she’s going to burst like a volcano.
Louis parks the truck in front of the restaurant. All the lights are out, and it takes him a few tries to get the door unlocked, but he manages it eventually, and she flicks on the lights as they walk inside.
“I can make coffee?” Bebe offers, suddenly feeling awkward. This is where she works. She doesn’t want Louis to see her as just some employee in the family business, but that’s what she is.
“Make coffee,” he says, hopping over the counter. “I’m gonna find the leftover pie.”
The coffee machine is an old industrial beast, and Bebe only knows how to brew the standard eight cups at a time, so that’s what she does. She listens to the hiss of the boiling water, waits for that first perfect aroma of fresh coffee. Jay assures her she’ll get used to it, sick of it, but she hasn’t yet.
“Jackpot,” Louis says, sliding a plate along the counter. He’s got about a quarter of a lemon meringue pie crammed onto the plate, and it wobbles precariously when he pokes at it.
“That’s fine for me, but what are you going to eat?” she asks with a smile, setting down two cups of coffee on the counter.
“Real funny,” he says, swiping his finger through the meringue. She catches his wrist before he can bring his hand to his mouth, and she looks into his eyes and wonders if she can be this bold. And she decides that she can, and she lets her lips part slowly as she ducks her head slightly and sucks his finger into her mouth, dabbing delicately at him with her tongue until he’s clean.
“Yum,” she says softly.
“Fuck,” he says. “Okay. I’m going to kiss you now. Is that okay?” She barely has time to nod before he’s got her crowded against the counter, both of his hands cradling her face, one of his fingers just a little sticky against her cheek. He kisses her soft at first, kisses her like he’s asking her a question, and she kisses him back like the answer is yes. She loops her arms around his neck and rocks her body right up against his, and she kisses him hot and slow and dirty like she’s been wanting to ever since the first time she saw him.
“Are you even real?” he whispers when he pulls back for a breath. “Where did you come from?”
“I’m from here,” she says, thumbing at his slippery bottom lip. She hates every second that she’s not kissing him, but she needs him to hear this first. “I’m from here now.”