Little Mona Diaz had a cancer scare, a dark spot lurking on a fallopian tube. They cut her open, sliced the lump out and ran the tests and found out it was just a cyst. Benign, but very scary all the same. The bottom line, though, was she needed a couple of weeks off work, to heal, and that left Mo, the owner of the Loma Alta Cafe, one waitess short. So Johanna she worked the morning shift with Mona suggested her Aunt Melinda, who was currently doing a part-time cocktail waitressing thing out at the Paloma Indian Casino to augment her alimony. Mo told Johanna to call her. She did, but Aunt Mel said she had enough hours, and her legs were killing her after a shift anyway, But Johanna pleaded, "It's just for a couple of weeks, Auntie. Mo doesn't want anyone permanant; he's holdin' the job for Mona."
So Aunt Melinda agreed.
Brisk, effecient, tall and blonde and shapely and bit broad in the beam like her niece, on all counts and possessed of a friendly manner, ready smile, and superb flirtation skills that never seemed to get out of hand in a way that might have some damned fool falling for her and lurking around in the parking lot after closing time, she fit right in at the cafe. With one gripe from Johanna: "Jesus Christ, Auntie, quit kissing up to Ellis. The man's a jack ass."
Ellis was the cook; and as she flirted with the paying and more importantly, tipping ustomers, Melinda flirted with Ellis. "Hey Big El," she'd call through the service window through the steam rising off a hot plate. "Think you could put a smidge more hash browns on this here Special. You do, there might be a little somethin' in for you, hon." Then she'd wink through the hot mist at that old reprobate, and he'd take the plate and pile a pound of sizzling potatoes next to the over easy eggs, slide it back on the service shelf, hold onto to it so Melinda couldn't take off right away, and say, "You come on back here after you take this out, so you can deliver on that promise, sweet buns."
"You bet I will, you devil," she'd reply. Then she'd wink again, big and slow and obvious; and Ellis would wink back; and Johanna who was the target audience of these shenanigans would wrinkle up her face in disgust and mumble (low, so the customers at the counter couldn't hear): "Gag me with a fuckin' spoon."
Then Melinda would take the plate and sway off into the dining room. Ellis would gape after her, and Johanna would say: "Put your eyes back in your head, you perv." And he would reply: "She has a lovely little rhumba in her rhythm section, doesn't she?" And Johanna, aghast at the thought of old folks making love especialy Ellis, with her aunt would turn her back to the counter, facing the service window that framed the man, hunch her shoulders in and flip old cook the bird from the shielded spot just above cut of her dress, in the low land at the top end of her cleavage, eliciting from Ellis a mock confidence: "When you're not around, Jo-Girl, your aunt calls me her snuggle-bunny."
Things went on in this vein, and all was well at the Loma Alta Cafe as Mona healed; or all was well except for Johanna's mood. She said to anyone who would listen that she was sorry she'd offered her hussy aunt the job; while Melinda said she was glad she'd taken it the extra money was coming in handy, and that Ellis ... God, what a stud muffin he was; and Ellis would growl through the service window: "Come on back here, you sexy thing, I got a little muffin for you." And Johanna would slam into the kitchen and punch his arm hard and tell him if he ever touched her aunt, she (Johanna) would call his wife and tell her what was going on.
After three weeks of this, when Mona was almost healed, Melinda worked a late shift out at the casino. So late that, between getting off at 2 a.m., driving forty minutes home, showering, to get the sweat and cigarette smell off her, and having a little snack (left over micowaved yakisoba in a cardboard container), there really wasn't any time for bed. So she just drove on down to the cafe, rolling into the parking lot at 4:30, where she pulled her little ten-year-old Toyota Tercel up to the front doors and waited for Ellis to come in with the keys.
And of course she fell asleep, leaned back in the front seat, Celine Dion warbling on her tape deck.
A rapping on her side window awakened her a little after 5. She jerked her seat up, wide-eyed, and turned to see Ellis' square head in the window frame, saying: "You here to sleep or work, lady?"
"I'm here to kick you in the ass if you ever scare me like that again," she replied, swinging her door open, making the cook dance back to avoid getting clunked. "God, I have such a headache," she groaned, sitting sideways in the seat, rubbing her temples with her fingertips, her long legs angled into the parking lot.
"You know you left your parking lights on?" Ellis said, nodding toward the front ofher car. "And they're burnin' a little dim."
"Oh shit!" Melinda said. Her battery was worn out; she'd had to get Ernesto, one of the blackjack dealers out at the casino, to jump her a couple of days ago. She noticed her tape deck wasn't spinning. Pulling her legs back inside the car, she tried to crank the engine. It wheezed, sounding about as tired as a machine can sound, a death gasp that wound quickly down to silence.
"Come on inside," Ellis told her. "I got an Auto Club card. We'll call 'em before you get off, get you a jump so you go get a new battery if you need it."
Ellis unlocked the door, Melinda pushed by him, saying, "Where's Johanna? She's supposed to open with me, right?"
"When's the last time that niece of yours showed up on time?" Ellis called after her.
"She hasn't," Melinda replied, rumaging in Mo's desk in the alcove in the back of the kitchen, trying to find a bottle of aspirin for her head.
"My guess is," Ellis said as he lit the stove's pilot lights, "that she'll stumble in around a quarter till, lookin' blurry, smellin' like sour tequila."
Ellis wet a towel in the faucet at the deep sink and went over to wipe down the grill. Melinda shuffled back to the kitchen from Mo's alcove/office and said, "I have got to get something for my head or I'll never make it through the day. Loan me your car so I can drive down to the 7-11."
"Loan you my car my ass!" Ellis said. "Nobody drives that classic machine but me." Ellis's current ride, that "classic machine", was a fourteen-year-old Dodge Neon, a smoke-belching, oil leaking, last-legs vehicle with a broken motor mount and a transmission about a thousand miles away from a trip to the junk yard.
"You're just afraid," Melinda said, rubbing her eyes, "that the piece of crap will break down on me."
"It's a delicate and tempermental machine," Ellis said, dribbling some Canola oil on the grill top. "It's driver has to have a certain finesse ..."
"Oh Christ!" Melinda snapped. "Then why don't you finesse your fat ass out to the car and drive me down to the 7-11 so I can buy some aspirin. Otherwise you'll be working this place by yourself until Johanna gets here."
Ellis took the easy way out and gave in, drove Melinda down the Coast Route three blocks to the convenience store, waited in the parking lot in the pre-dawn gloom while she bought a bottle of pills and a large plastic bottle of Diet Coke, then retraced his path though the lingering haze of the black exhaust fumes his classic car had spewed on its outward journey. When he parked in front of the cafe, his passenger door wouldn't open, so he climbed out and told Melinda: "Sometimes you gotta push hard. It gets stuck."
"Really, Einstein," Melinda called through the glass as Ellis walked around the front of the car, and she pulled the handle and bounced her shoulder against the door. "It gets stuck, does it."
"A little headache puts you in a real shitty mood, don't it?" Ellis observed. He lifted the door handle from his side, and Melinda bounced hard against the inside, forcing the door open with a pop, sending her tumbling out, with Ellis trying to catch her. They ended up entangled, laid out on the blacktop, cursing at first, then, as the ridiculouness of the situation quickly dawned on them, laughing like two fools, as Johanna bounced her Hyundai into the parking lot, her headlights illuminating the scene.
Johanna braked to a skidding stop, her jaw falling open. They must be, she thought, drunk; and furthermore, since Aunt Melinda's car was parked right where it was when she (Johanna) had left early yesterday ... and here they were showing up to work in Ellis' car ... oh God! They spent the night together!
Melinda, still down on the blacktop with Ellis, placed her hand on the cook's chest and arched up for a better view on the incoming car, her eyes casting a refective flash into the headlights. Johanna, a heartbeat away from flooring the acclerator and running the couple over, reigned her rage in and blasted the horn instead, scaring the devil out of the two, making Aunt Melinda jump up with a gargoyle scowl and flip her niece two birds, as Ellis grunted up one one knee and flipped her another.
Afterward, as the day wore on, it was obvious that no amount of explanation would convince Johanna of their innocence, so Ellis and Melinda played it up instead, Ellis telling Johanna as she picked up a short stack, "Man, what a piece," nodding to Aunt Melinda, out in the dining room doing the coffee refills.
Johanna clamped her jaws tight and stalked off with her order, and when Melinda made it back to the counter, Ellis said to her in a low tone: "When your niece comes back, make it a point to call me a snuggle-bunny."
Melinda gazed out at her Johanna, who, tight-lipped, was clunking the pancakes down in front of Paul Langford, the real estate guy, splattering melted butter onto his tie and making him jump. Melinda tucked a stray strand of hair back behind her ear, clipped a new order onto the wheel, and said to the cook: "Snuggle-bunny it is."
Published April 2006