What he did like was Martha, liked watching her liquid arms pour his coffee, clear his plate and smile at him all in one graceful, fluid motion. Maybe in some past life she was a dancer, Giselle meant for a loftier place than the Sand Dollar Cafe. He was mesmerized by a string of blond hair that refused to be placed anywhere except over her left eye, the sun-washed strand calling attention to a woman who shouldn't stand out at all. Martha rarely spoke, but when she did, her voice was quicksilver, deliberate, as if the words were chosen for economy, enough, no more--like his plate of eggs. "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" he wanted to ask, and though cliché it was, it summed up Martha perfectly; she was a fish out of water, a mermaid on dry land. How she'd ended up in this greasy-spoon-of-a-diner on the wrong end of Skidaway Island was anybody's guess. None of my business, Henry thought, and Martha isn't saying. He came here to be served by the prima donna of this biscuit-and-gravy ballet, brushing her soft hand with a ten-dollar bill in payment for a breakfast that gave him indigestion. She placed three dollars and seventy-three cents change in his calloused, middle-aged hand, three dollars and seventy-three cents which Henry never returned to his Levi's pocket.

Martha had his eggs ready when he arrived every morning at eight-thirty. "Henry's here," she said to Butch, the short-order cook, who replied with only a nod, cracking two eggs with his right hand, left hand perched on aproned hip, twitching the toothpick in his mouth. He never turned around. Martha set Henry's black coffee before him as he slid into the back booth of the little diner, a Savannah Times already folded back to the sports section. She never said, but tricked customers into thinking the table was taken by leaving the newspaper open, accompanied by a half cup of cold coffee which she removed as Henry opened the diner door. By the time he had settled in, his breakfast was served, Martha had said her "Hello, Henry" and gone on to refill someone's juice.

She wondered at his breakfast choice; a man his age ought to be looking out for his heart, but he ate the eggs without comment, cleaned his plate like a good boy, then returned with the tide of each day. She imagined him as a construction worker, though he was never coarse-spoken like the bandanna-headed men who spouted crude comments with their B.L.T.–stuffed mouths. She put those boys in their places instantly when they got out of line; she was old enough to be their mother and wasn't about to put up with nonsense from a bunch of half-grown kids.

But Henry was no boy. His silver-tipped hair coordinated with his hard-work hands; his fingernails were always clean. Henry was different, though, because around Henry, Martha was tongue-tied. I wish I could talk to him, she thought, but he makes me nervous. So she kept her distance, glancing at him through hair-veiled green eyes.

Martha bent down to pour him another cup of coffee, pouring low to the cup with the practiced hands of someone who had made a living of being careful around children, careful not to intrude, careful not to make a splash. She had no cleavage to speak of. Henry found that even more attractive; she didn't need that extra display of femininity. He thanked her, watched her graceful sashay of porcelain limbs glide away, leaving him in a wake of lilac perfume. Henry imagined freckled breasts beneath her thin, blue calico. He forced his attention to his bacon and eggs.

Martha set the coffee pot back on its burner, took the Bandanna Boys' money, wished them a nice day. She shut the cash drawer with an elbow, already reaching to clear the dirty table. Henry never left a mess. He always stacked his dishes, laying across them his knife and fork, brushing crumbs off the tabletop. He was never any trouble. She sometimes wished he'd make some, spill something, anything, give her an excuse to descend on him with a dishtowel, laugh at him, tell him no need to cry over spilled milk. Martha let out a ragged sigh, set glasses of water before a tourist couple, dealt them weary menus. Henry watched her, each movement an empty arabesque.

Although he didn't look the part, he loved ballet, giving generous donations to the Savannah Dance Company, but he hadn't attended performances since his wife's death four summers ago. He had even let their box seat go. But he liked the idea of supporting something Mary had loved and it sure didn't hurt to have a tax deduction on his shrimping business. The boys mostly ran that now, though Henry made his sons take him out on one of the boats from time to time, just to remember the feel of the hoist ropes and nets. It was grueling, satisfying work that Henry once enjoyed, but he no longer had the heart for it. He missed Mary's caress when he had come home exhausted, embraces given while he was still salty and smelling of dead fish, teasing touches of mock disgust, returned with mock remorse. He considered Martha in one of Mary's designer gowns, but the two women were simply cut out of different cloth. A fantasy of toe-shoe ribbons crisscrossing Martha's legs forced him to stare into the wishing well of his coffee cup.

Still, if he couldn't watch Martha perform in a ballet, he'd settle for taking her to one. Maybe I should just ask her if she used to dance. But what if she didn't? She might think I'm calling her old. She might think it's just a come-on line. Maybe she doesn't even like ballet. Maybe she doesn't like me. It's all too complicated, and I'm out of practice.

Martha took and gave the vacationing couple's order in café shorthand: Two scrambled, no hash, grits side. Butch nodded again; he'd heard. She scooped up the water pitcher, noticed Henry rooting around for a missing pepper shaker, grabbed one from the counter, floated toward the booth.

"Thanks," he said, taking the shaker. He couldn't think of anything else to say.

"My pleasure," she ventured, face heating up. She looked away, willed her hand to open, let go.

Henry cursed himself silently, peppered the eggs, tried to choke down another bite. Martha set the pitcher down, fished her pocket for the check, attempted to tuck the wayward hair strand behind her ear. Her hands trembled as she wrote the total, taking much too long for a number she already knew, wrote every morning. Stupid, she thought, ripping the paper from its pad, intending to hand it to Henry, snuff out any further sparks, be done with this adolescent nonsense. But she caught the edge of the pitcher, splattered ice water down the front of Henry's cotton shirt.

Martha whispered her apology, snatched a dry towel from the counter. She sponged off his chest, then blushed; ice had dropped onto Henry’s lap. She hesitated, her hand resting against his wet shirt. She felt the warmth of his skin against her fingers. Henry put his hand over hers, stilling it for a brief moment before he took the towel from her.

He smiled and raked away the ice. "It's just water, Martha. Don't worry about it." He searched her face expectantly, but it had clouded over. Henry wasn't sure how to read this kind of weather. "Been trying to find a way to break the ice anyway."

"Ma'am?" someone called. "Can we get a refill over here?" Martha cocked her head at the intrusion, pressed her lips together, and turned away from Henry.

He watched her go. It took a long time for the anchor in his stomach to hit bottom.

Martha delivered an impolite cup of coffee to the couple, and delivered their food to them. But then she returned to Henry, and the storm had passed; her eyes were a clear Caribbean sea. It was a little nod she gave him, but he moved over, and she settled in beside him. Somewhere between courage and caution a tentative, impromptu dance had begun, une faille changement, pas de bourrée--the pair giving way.

"I think it's all melted," she said.

Quiet had overtaken the café. Butch looked up from the griddle, twitched his toothpick. No ice machine-fill of water glasses. No plates clattering. No new orders of hash browns or sausage had been hung on the roundabout. He studied the room.

"Can I get a check, buddy?" the man at the counter said.

"On the house," Butch said, turning off the grill. "We’re closin' up. Have a nice day." The last customers hurried out. Butch locked the door, then removed the signboard from the window, erased Today's Special.

He wrote two words on the blank page, replaced it in the dingy window, then began to clear the dishes from the empty back booth. Discarded eggs marked the end of Act One.


Penny Dyer is an author from Chattanooga, Tennessee. She recently completed a fiction manuscript, “Salt in the Wound.” Her work appears in “Original Sin: The Seven Deadlies Come Home to Roost” (The Paper Journey Press), “Rosebud,” and is forthcoming in “BackHome Magazine,” and “Cup of Comfort for Women in Love” and the 2005 “Chattanooga Writer’s Guild Anthology.” She is contributing writer for the “Pulse” and co-editor of the “Chattanooga Writer,” the CWG newsletter. Penny likes to write in a variety of fiction genres, including mysteries, historical fiction and Chick-Lit. She writes both short stories and novels, but is also at work on a poetry collection.

©Copyright 2005 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.