June 24 | Ken Carlson

 

At first I didn’t feel the bullet pierce my thigh, stumbling through a forest at night.

I saw lights from a neon sign. Aunt May’s Rise-and-Shine Diner. A backlit sign proclaimed the early bird special—Eggs with bacon, hash browns, and coffee for $4.99. Past the register, and framed photos of the diner’s sponsored soccer teams, I grabbed a booth near the back. The waitress sashayed over, a sturdy, full-figured gal.

“I’m Peggy,” she said, coffee pot in hand. “Cup of joe, Bucky?”

I put my head down and closed my eyes, absorbing the rattle of the spatula against the grill, the dull murmur of an old country song. My head came up in alarm. Peggy was placing a plate of heaven on the table.

“Your friend took the liberty,” Peggy said.

I glanced over to Wyatt at the counter, the guy I tried to hold up, the guy who grabbed my gun in a scuffle and shot me.

Peggy snapped her fingers my way. “You OK?”

“Tough night.”

“You and me both,” she said setting down a spell opposite me in the booth. “I’ve got to give these dogs a break. It’s enough to make a poor girl cry, Bucky?”

“Don’t cry, Peggy,” I said, tearing into the buttered white toast, “Seems to me you’re a Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Cryin’ kind of gal. Where did you come up with Bucky?”

“OK, Buck? You work nearby?”

“I’m not what you’d call a 9-to-5er,” I said, sipping black coffee.

“A rolling stone? Wherever you lay your hat is your home?”

“More of a wanderer, the kind of guy who likes to roam around.”

“You saw my Temptations and raised me a Dion,” she said as she got up. “I’m gonna keep my eye on you, gotta go spread some joy.”

Wyatt took notice of my conversation with Peggy. It was time for this game to resume. He made his way out the door. My leg had stiffened up from the rest and my limp became a little more pronounced.

“That’s some dance step you’ve got there, Buck,” Peggy said as she cut across my path. “Makes it harder for you to run away. Your friend picked up the tab. You came in together and sat at opposite ends of a diner.”

“Complicated relationship.”

“Well,” she added, touching my shirt collar, “if you’re ever interested in showing a girl a good time…”

“My till has been a little short.”

“Hell,” she said, “we’ll put you to work. Tony in the back can use a hand. Maybe it’s time you stopped wanderin’.”

What an invitation, a chance to start over.

I saw Wyatt outside, waving the revolver in Peggy’s direction.

I limped out the door. Wyatt expected me to dart out front again like a mechanical rabbit at a greyhound racetrack. Instead, I charged toward him.

I slugged him with a right and he went down in a heap; the gun and his glasses flying. I picked him up and did it again. He wasn’t trying to get the gun back, he was trying to get away.

I picked it up. He slowly made his way back to the woods and stared at me; his lip and nose bloody.

“Buck!” said Peggy from the bottom of the steps. She had seen what happened in the parking lot and saw the gun in my hand, maybe confirming what I was like.

Wyatt had disappeared into the woods. I took a moment to look at her. I told her I was sorry, then went after him.