Fiona slipped into her booth, the one no one ever wanted because it only seated one and the tall back cut it off from the rest of the hamburger shop.
Yet it wasn’t far from the juke box where her case study tended to congregate. The cool group.
Fiona always arrived first, probably because she didn’t need to say goodbye to a slew of friends after last class, or regroup with her cronies to receive an update. No, she was the new kid. And this time she would be very careful about what group she fell into. No, which group she chose to join.
So she had been coming now since the beginning of the year because she wanted to know what made this group click. Pun intended.
And today she ordered a double cheeseburger and a large vanilla shake because she was pretty sure she would never fit in.
She wasn’t so sure that was a bad thing. She found their conversation boring, the things they fretted about inane.
Lately she found herself more fascinated with the old gentleman who came in every day and took a seat at a table in the middle of the room, facing the door. The first thing Fiona noticed was his white fedora with a black band. She found it stately. He wore a pressed white shirt with a gentle plaid in a dark color–black, navy, forest green and maroon, so far–tucked neatly into a pair of matching pair of slacks, also pressed sharply. As soon as he sat down the hat came off and was placed to his right.
No one ever brought him a menu. No matter which waitresses were working, one appeared within two minutes to bring him his food. As far as Fiona could tell, it wasn’t the same order, so did he call it in? Or did he have a favorite dish for each day of the week? He did like pie. Dessert was always pie. Yet he stayed so slim. That wasn’t at all fair.
But then again, maybe he’d earned a daily piece of pie. She had never seen him smile. Nor had he ever engaged in a conversation. He did not bring a book or paperwork. He was never in a hurry, coming or going, nor while he was eating. He never acknowledged anyone else in the place, especially the popular kids huddled at tables close to the juke box. It was as if they didn’t exist.
That made Fiona curious. One was only popular if others allowed them to be. The thought was inspiring.
When her mind would no longer entertain the mindlessness close to her, she found herself watching him and she began inventing stories about him, a new one every day.
Today, Fiona was tired of being alone. Tired of being absorbed and defined by one group or another. She so wanted to do something bold. Unheard of.
The hamburger was finished. Before she could think about it she hoisted her backpack to her shoulder and grabbed her milkshake.
Three strides and she stood in front of the old gent. She put her drink on his table, wiped the cold water on her hands on her jeans, and reached out her hand.
“I’m Fiona Hatchett.”
He reached out and shook her hand. His grip was firm, his skin soft and papery.
“I’m happy to meet you.” Fiona hoped he didn’t see the way her fingers trembled when she grasped the back of the chair opposite him, pulled it out and sat down. Her mouth was so dry she couldn’t have spit to save her life. “I hope you will forgive me for intruding, but I have a class assignment to interview a grandparent. I don’t have one. I am new here. May I please ask you just a few questions. Let me tell you what they are before you say no.”
He raised one eyebrow and stared at her for longer than was comfortable. He wanted to say no. She could feel it. His eyes were pale blue, almost icy and almost overtaken by bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows. Well, at least the one that wasn’t lifted while he was trying to get her to volunteer to retreat.
“Actually,” she said, gathering courage and looking straight back at him, “all I need is one childhood story. It wouldn’t even have to be true. After all, how would I know?”
Fiona smiled at him. His eyebrow lowered and she caught a faint smile in return.
“You’ve got spunk. Walk right into the lion’s den you will. Okay, I will give you a story. But not today. Join me tomorrow.”
“Excellent! Thank you. Tomorrow.”
“You’ll be okay not hiding in your corner?”
“You saw me?”
“I see everything, Girl. See you tomorrow.”
He stood. She did likewise and turned to pick up her backpack she’d slid to the floor when she sat down. As she looked up, she saw the wall of eyes. The silence pressed around her like a constrictor.
She smiled at them all, waved, and felt relief wash over her.
“Tomorrow,” Fiona said to Mr. Arthur Patton.
Was there a wink with that nod of his?