“What will it be today, Bob, the usual?” Carla already knew the answer, but tucked a strand of loose hair behind her ear while she waited for his reply. Bob was watching a group of four boys ride by the diner window on their bicycles, their laughter filling the quiet space between the clanking of dishes and background kitchen noise.
“Yes, Carla. Thank you,” Bob replied, after pretending to glance over the sticky menu that the hostess, Betty, had placed in front of him when he was seated.
Every Wednesday for the last seven years had been the same routine. Bob came in and ordered a BLT on wheat toast with an iced tea, never deviating from his order. No French fries, no pickles, no fresh baked pie. Not even a soda pop instead of the standard iced tea. Betty didn’t understand him. No one there really did, except Carla.
Carla took the menu from Bob, tucking it under her arm and scribbling on her ticket pad as she went over to place the order with the kitchen. She remembered how she also initially thought Bob was odd. Same booth, same lunch order, and same baseball glove that he placed alongside him on the table. That was the weirdest thing. She remembered the day her curiosity got the better or her and she asked him about it. For his son, he told her. She was about to follow up her question with another, but saw a faraway look in his eyes that instinct told her to leave it alone.
Then two years ago she saw the newspaper headline as she poured a patron his coffee. “Neighboring Town Mourns Five Year Anniversary of Timmy Fogelson’s Tragic Death”. She had been so distracted by the happy smiling family photo of Bob, his wife and son Timmy under the headline, that Carla over poured the coffee flooding the table. Her boss took her measly tip away for that stupid mistake.
But according to the story that she read later that day, Timmy was supposed to meet his dad at the diner on a Wednesday afternoon after early dismissal from school. They were going to the park to play ball, the reporter had stated. Apparently, unbeknownst to Timmy, his father was going to surprise him with a baseball glove for his sixth birthday. Only Timmy never showed. The article went on to report how the town had been in a panic, posting flyers everywhere. Searches ensued over a five day period until he was finally found. It was a volunteer that had found his little broken body at the bottom of a quarry only a mile from his school.
It was six months after the incident when Carla had arrived in the quiet town. She hadn’t known about the disappearance, and if the other diner employees knew about the event, they never mentioned it. After reading the news story, Carla realized she had misjudged Bob, and imaging that Bob relished what little privacy he had, she had kept his identify to herself.
Now, wiping the counter down, Carla just stared at Bob who was looking out the window fingering the lacing on the old leather baseball glove. Although Carla did understand the deep scarring loss of losing a loved one, she couldn’t even begin to envision Bob’s unrelenting pain. Carla replayed her own reel of images inside her head as she unconsciously ignored a bell that was ringing incessantly in the background of the diner.
“Carla!” the owner roared. “Wake up, will you? Your order for table three is ready.”
“Sorry boss,” she mumbled, turning to him as she quickly shuffled over to the pickup station.
Gathering up the plated BLT and iced tea, Carla inhaled the smoky scent of fried bacon as she made her delivery. She gently placed the meal in front of Bob knowing that he would only nibble at half of the sandwich. And, as her boss had trained her to do, she started to recite the list of the day’s fresh baked pie — blueberry, apple crumb, lemon meringue and pecan. She didn’t even wait to hear a reply, because Bob had never asked for a slice in the seven years that she had been reciting the list. She simply patted his shoulder and told him to enjoy his sandwich as she left him to his thoughts.
“Carla?” Bob called out moments later after half of his BLT had disappeared.
“Are you ready for the check Bob?” she asked, walking over to him and tearing off his ticket.
“Not just yet. I — I think I’d like a piece of pie.”
She suppressed her shock and stifled a “really?” that was trying to escape her closed lips, and instead quietly took his pie order.
“Pecan,” he said in a tone barely over a whisper.
“Did you say pecan Bob?”
“A la mode?” she followed.
“Sure. Why not? Vanilla ice cream sounds nice.”
Carla studied his tired face as he took a drink of his iced tea. Surprised and puzzled, she walked over to the counter, reached into the pie cabinet and cut Bob a generous slice, careful to give him an equally abundant scoop of ice cream. She quickly glanced over her shoulder as an afterthought to make sure the boss wasn’t watching. Carla couldn’t afford to have her pay deducted again for giving customers portions that were too large, but Bob was different.
When she placed the dessert in front of him, Bob offered her a smile. He tentatively poked at the tip before taking a small bite.
“Mmm, good. Did you make this yourself?” he joked.
Carla cocked her head to the side, “Now come on Bob,” she whispered, “if I could make pie that good you wouldn’t see me standing here, would you?” she winked at him.
He chuckled at her reply.
“Enjoy,” she said placing the bill on the table.
“And Carla,” Bob tapped her on her arm to get her attention before she left, “I’d like to pay that guy’s bill.” He pointed to the back of an elderly gentleman seated on a stool at the far end of the counter.
Again, he surprised her. “Oh, okay, Bob. That’s really nice. A sweet thing to do.”
He handed her a fifty.
“Bob, this is too much. He only ordered a cup of soup and coffee,” she whispered to him.
“That’s okay. Give him a piece of pecan pie too. And you keep the rest.”
“No, that’s too much. Let me get you some change.”
But before Carla could reach the register or protest any further, Bob had walked out the door, a trail of Old Spice drifting after him. Carla inhaled the familiar scent as she watched him go, but when she looked back at Bob’s table, she noticed the baseball glove was left behind. Racing over to retrieve it for him she looked down at the brown leather and saw a note had been tucked inside.
“For your son”, it read. “Please let him enjoy it. Thank you for your friendship over the last several years, but it’s time for me to move on.”“
Carla looked up through the diner window. The warm afternoon sun was catching the sign hanging on the front of the building that advertised today’s pie specials. It blinded her, but not before she caught a snippet of Bob’s silhouette as he slipped between two neighboring buildings.
Behind her, Carla’s boss bellowed her name once again. Carla understood Bob’s note. He needed to move on and be free of his unrelenting sorrow. She choked back tears of happiness for him and also a bit of sadness for herself as she realized that would be the last time she would see her reliable customer and friend. She now realized that he was the one reason that she hung on to this miserable job.
Carla ignored her boss’s persistent call and instead picked up a nearby fork and plunged it into Bob’s barely touched pecan pie. Taking a purposeful bite, she savored the delicious sweet nutty flavor for just a moment before untying her apron and gently placing it on the table. Carla scraped away the ice cream and cut off the uneaten part of the pie. Then taking the pie plate in one hand, she reached down and grasped the baseball glove to her chest with the other and silently walked out the front door. Although muted, she could hear her boss’s rant from behind the window glass.
“It’s time to move on,” she steadily reaffirmed, and with her head held high, Carla walked into the afternoon sun not looking back. As her feet directed her toward home, Carla pictured her own son’s delight when she gave him Bob’s precious gift and a piece of pecan pie.