Alex, a bartender with an attitude, strode into the local restaurant. No one noticed. The old geezers at the counter recognized the sound of those big old city boots and grunted. They read the paper. Drank black coffee with two sugars. Ate eggs on toast. The usual. Not that Alex would know. Or care. Alex did not like living in Hot Springs, Wyoming. Not one bit. And no one noticed.
Life sucked when you were an itenerant bartender, driving across the States, following the seasons, the snow in this case, soon to become the sun. Alex was tired of cold feet, sleeping in the van with the cat, and constantly moving across country. And why? For work? A pay check? There was free camping by the river or on the reservoir. Amazing birds, silence, and a decent dose of loneliness. Thinking about it though, there was BLM land all across the West so why not head south? To New Mexico? Or Marfa, Texas? There’d be good work and sunshine. Not a bad idea. Tempting.
Alex sat at the counter near the Grumpies. – Coffee please, with cream, no sugar. Thanks. And cake. Chocolate cake.
They looked up at that. – Is it your birthday?
– Yes. And I’m celebrating.
The men with the red ball cap put down his paper. – Is that right?
The silence lingered. The cake was brought out. And the waitress stood there. The Red Cap looked at Blue Cap and nodded. – We’d like some cake too, Rita. Don’t tell our wives though.
She laughed, a short harsh sound. – I wouldn’t dare. They’d blame me, tell me off in front of my other customers. Oh, no, what goes in your mouth, stays in your mouth. I’m not telling.
– Ice cream too, please, said Blue Cap with a toothy grin. He was a skinny little retired farmer, muscles still showed beneath the white tee shirt and leather vest. His jeans were clean but soft with age, as were his blue eyes.
Red Cap nodded. – Vanilla if you have it. And you, Alex? Want to share?
– You know my name?
Rita and the Caps nodded. – Of course. It’s a small town. You work at the new Brewery over the river, don’t you? You work with my son, James, the ex-football player with the broken nose? His half-sister is in the kitchen too. Carla? My kids, mostly. Good ones, stuck around, didn’t move to Laramie like the neighbors’.
Alex was surprised and sipped the coffee, adding more cream to the black tar.
Blue Cap continued. – Yes, we took bets on how long you’d last. My son thought only a couple of weeks. Carla now, she has a crush on you, she bet it’d be all winter.
– She did?
Rita laughed and slapped him gently on the shoulder. – You hadn’t noticed her? Always bringing you extra lunch outside? Or soaking at the springs when you were there? We did!
Blue Cap reminded Alex. – It’s a small community. We worry…
– About our young ‘uns leaving. The influence of outsiders like yourself.
Rita plopped down a big bowl of ice cream and three spoons. – To share, she said.
Alex waited, not sure of the etiquette but the men dolloped big chunks of solid ice cream on their cake. Alex did the same with a wide grin.
– This is great. Who made it?
– Rita made the ice cream with milk from my own dairy, said Red Cap. – And the cake was Carla’s. She wants to run her own kitchen some day. She’s learning. She’ll make it happen. She usually gets what she wants.
The men chuckled and ate in silence. Alex looked around, licking the spoon clean and sighing. It wasn’t so bad. Friendly folk in town after all.
– Oh, and happy birthday. How old are you?
– Twenty-five, said Alex.
– A good age to settle down.
The men chuckled again. – Nice cake, eh? Special ingredients. Carla’s own recipe.
Alex wiped a finger across the plate. – Yes, I’ll have to thank her. Excuse me. I’ve got to go to work…can’t be late for my shift.
Alex pulled out a twenty but Blue Cap shook his head, – on us. Happy birthday, Al. Say hello to my girl for me.
Alex nodded, thankful for the simple conversation that morning. – I will. And thank you.
– Our pleasure. Think of it as an investment…
Alex didn’t know what he meant but ambled off to the other side of the river with a full belly of hope.