The blur of the three-and-half-hour drive had Carlo pleased to reach his destination at the Trails End Diner. He choose the parking spot in front of the entrance, so he could easily see into the small space of tables and counter seating. The diner looked empty, except for one old man wearing a ball cap, hunched over a cup of coffee at the counter. The old guy looked lost in thought with his stare in the direction of the vast emptiness of dry country that bleeds all the way into the Argus Range.
The lunch special was Firecracker Chicken, as advertised outside on A-frame board with the ingredients as bullet points: crispy chicken patty, fried onion ring, pepper jack cheese, bacon, BBQ sauce, and jalapenos. No mention of bread. Just the cost of $6.50, or “make it a meal with fries and a medium drink” for an added $3.99.
Carlo noted one vehicle within sight and that was a silver pick-up truck parked on the other side of the outdoor dining area. The truck has been backed into the spot to face pot-holed gravel street that led to a couple of box houses fenced in with chain link. The truck looked too new to be the old man’s, then again, he could still be what is called out here, a boss man. Carlo was schooled on what is meant by that by a couple of Trona locals on a shift break from the Sears Valley Minerals Soda Ash Processing Plant, the last time he dined here.
It was because of the Tesla and the clothes he was wearing. The car made him, boss, the choice of tight pants, sissy—hey sissy boss man, is how they addressed him as he got out of the car. Then, the youngest of the working men shouted before Carlo could walk into the diner, “hey aren’t you that guy who did Death Wish?”
This time, the Tesla was home in the five-car garage. This time, he drove his assistant’s 2005 Subaru, giving her a hundred bucks, keys to the Miata, and the day off. The Miata was not Carlo’s style, but his mom loved it, and now with her gone, the cherry red car stays in the garage for sentimental reasons only. With Carlo’s first six figure contract, he went straight to the dealer and paid cash. Then he drove to his mom’s house, parked it, and put the keys in her mailbox. That car made his mom happy. Spreading happiness can be addictive, but a mistake if you get caught giving without a damn good reason why.
Double down to be so foolish as Carlo was now doing, returning to what his publicist calls one of his “branding” crime scenes. However, this was different. The last time Carlo was here, he was not honest about the reason why. Last time, the giving wasn’t unconditional. Before he was about to commit the crime, he also said something stupid to Martha. He said when he first looked up and saw her in person, “oh sorry, for a second there I thought you were my mother.” Not the wisest thing to say to any woman, even if she is about the same age, or the age you most like to recall seeing your mother standing there, smiling a big smile at you.
Martha didn’t take the comment as insult. Not at all. She smiled a big smile at him, stood there, one hand picking up his lunch plate, the other holding a half-a-pot of coffee. “Ah, so sweet of you,” she said, “would you like some more coffee?”
Carlo watched the old man in the booth stand up, take a couple of wadded up bills out of his pocket and toss them on the table. Carlo feigned reading something on his phone as the bell on the front door chimed and he didn’t look up until he heard the truck engine roar to life, before got out of the Subaru.
The bell chimed again, as Carlo walked through the diner’s front door. Carlo walked to the left, to the last booth near the kitchen, and sat down in the booth against the wall.
“Be right with you,” a woman sang from the kitchen.
Carlo hoped it was Martha. He didn’t really have a plan if she wasn’t working today or had moved on. Then he heard a second woman laugh at what the first woman was saying.
“Let me take care of this customer before you start my burger” he heard the sing-song voice say. Then the swish of the swinging door to the kitchen. Carlo looked to the kitchen door and at once felt his face flush. He was nervous and suddenly not sure how he should start to say what he had come to say.
Martha, stopped. And with that big smile, said, “well, look who the wind just blew in.”
In one arcing move, Martha pulled up a menu from the box hanging off the side of the counter, and with the other hand and pull the coffee pot from off the burner on top of the back counter. “If I remember right, you like your coffee black with honey. But I’m going to have to dig up out of the kitchen,” she said.
“Good memory,” Carlo said. It was the truth that Martha did remind him of his mom. Always smiling.
“Well, I would be lousy waitress if I didn’t remember the customer who tipped me twenty thousand dollars for the last cup of coffee that I served him,” Martha said as she put down the menu and filled up the coffee mug. “I’ll let you look at the menu while I go find that honey.”
Carlo pushed the menu toward the window. “No need to go to the trouble. I was hoping we could talk privately,” he said.
“Is this about the money?” Martha asked. Her hand with the coffee pot started to tremor, “let me put this pot back down and I’ll let Sylvie know I’m taking my break.”
Before Carlo could respond, Martha had the pot back on the burner and swung herself back into the kitchen. This time Carlo could not hear anything said. He took the mug to his lips and wished he hadn’t taken a sip. The coffee was acrid and lukewarm as he willed himself to swallow. Maybe he should have asked for some honey.
Martha came back through the swinging door. Her hair was different, loose, not like it looked like minutes before. She tossed her apron on the back counter by the coffee station and came and sat down across him.
“Is it okay if we talk here? I can’t leave Sylvie alone on a shift. If she hears the bell she’ll come out and wait on them, but if it’s a regular, I better do it,” Martha said. “Regulars get to talking too much and if it’s about the money, I don’t want Sam hearing anything of it. He wasn’t too happy you know with what the credit card people charge him on that big tip you left me. He paid me the whole amount alright but complained so much about what he had to pay out of his profit for that one cup of coffee, that I did pay him half back, and gave him money too, just like everyone else who works here, because fair is fair and all that, but I need to tell you right now, I don’t have any of that money left. It’s spent.”
Carlo reached across the table and took both of Martha’s hands. “No, no, it’s not about the money, well it is…but I don’t want it back, it’s…”
Martha pulled her hands away and tuck them under the table. She leaned toward Carlo and in a hushed tone said, “hey, by the way, Sylvie asked for your autograph. She swears she won’t breathe a word ever of you coming back here and I believe her.”
Carlo took a moment to look Martha directly in the eye, then without answering said, “this is really hard for me to admit.” He undid the buckle of the satchel, reached in, and brought out a small black book and placed it between them on the table.
“I’ve had this for some time,” he said.
Martha brought the book closer to her. Removed the elastic band from keeping it closed and opened it to the cover page. There, after the prewritten words, “In case of loss, please return to:” was in her cursive handwriting, her name and address.
“Well, I’ll be,” she said, “I never thought I would ever see this again.”
“I’m so sorry. I should have told you before,” Carlo said. “When I came in here those months ago, I had every intention of telling you. But there were so many people here. I wanted to talk to you about it, about the writing, but then, I don’t know…I guess thought if I gave you some money, we could talk later about my wanting to keep the book. Well, now it’s later and I need to tell you what I have done.”
Martha paged through the book as she spoke, “It’s not mine. Well, I wanted it to be mine. That’s why I wrote my name in it like you do with any other book, but as you can see the handwriting isn’t the same. I found this back home in the library hiding between a couple of books on a self-help shelf.”
“You didn’t write this diary?”
“No. But’s it a good one isn’t it? Gave me the courage to pack up my car and leave the life I was living and start again,” Martha said.
“I know! At first it weird for me because it is written in first person and obviously a man, but you’re a woman, and it’s a journal about memories of being a bear,” Carlo said. “By the end it takes hold of you and had me questioning what matter most in my own life.”
“A story about remembering who you really are,” Martha answered.
Carol swallowed. Cleared his throat and softly said, “well, I wrote a screenplay based on it and it is going to go into production next year, so I needed to talk to you about optioning rights and what sum of money sounds right.” Carlo lowered his eyes to the book.
“Sounds like you are doing what the book wants you to do,” Martha said, “tell the story. Tell what the story is really about, the interconnectedness of it all. Don’t matter who tells it.”
Carlo sat back in the booth.
“Did you find this at that Hermitage at Big Sur?” Martha asked
“I did,” Carlo answered.
“Where?ine” Martha asked.
“In the bookshop, tucked behind some jars of honey for sale,” he answered.
“Honey! There you go Mr. Bear, and there wasn’t any price tag on that book now was there,” she said taking a swipe at him across the table like her hand was a paw with claws.
The front door’s bell chimed. Martha scooted to the edge of the booth and looked toward the door. She turned to Carlo, “got to go,” she said. “He’s a regular.”
“But we should…” Carlo started.
“You should put your John Henry on that menu there for Sylvie,” she said swinging her legs out of the booth to get up to greet the regular. “Maybe we’ll start a rumor that you wrote it.”
Carlo reach out and grabbed Martha’s arm. “Wait,” he said, “why out here?”
“Why out here what,” Martha asked.
“Why start over here? Nothing is out there,” Carlo said, with nod toward the window.
Martha glanced out the window, then smiled. “Just look at you, sitting in the center of my universe asking me that silly question. Did you forget the ending?” She stood. Opened her arms wide and said, “Measure me by the track I’ve laid, to know, here, is where I’m from.”