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Ladysmith and the Black Firebird

It was around nine o’clock in the evening when Peg looked up from the table she was wiping and realized that the girl at the booth by the window was still there. She couldn’t remember when she’d first noticed her. As always there had been a rush of customers between six and eight, but now it was calm. Peg hadn’t waited on the girl earlier, but the previous waitress had left the bill on the table for Peg to collect and occasionally she had glanced over to see if she was ready to pay. The bill was still lying where it had been left.

Peg had been waiting tables at this truck stop on the 401 a few miles west of Cornwall for fifteen years. People usually just passed through. They didn’t sit alone for hours on end nursing an empty coffee mug. It was about time for Peg to go over and find out what was up. Even though her stingy boss frowned on free refills, Peg thought she would make an exception.

She walked over to the girl’s table with the carafe of coffee in one hand and a dishrag in the other. There were crumbs on the table and a puddle of brown under the coffee mug. She could barely restrain her hand from wiping it up. The girl didn’t look at her but continued staring out the window.

Peg’s eyes followed hers, but there was nothing there she hadn’t seen a million times or more—a few cars in a parking lot and some trees screening this truck stop from the highway where more cars rushed by without ceasing. Her hand twitched, still longing to wipe away the crumbs on the table top.

“Would you like some more coffee?”

The girl finally turned her head and Peg saw her eyes were rimmed with red. “No thanks.”

“It’s on the house,” Peg insisted.

“Well, maybe then.”

Peg poured the brown liquid into the thick white mug. “Do you mind,” she began to ask, searching for the words to invite herself into this girl’s sorrow, “if I sit with you a while?” Without waiting for an answer, Peg slipped into the seat across from her. She spread out the wet rag on the table top and placed the glass carafe on top of it. By the time she had finished, the girl’s gaze had already wandered back to the window.

“Are you waiting for someone?”

The girl looked at Peg but said nothing. Peg imagined a guy was involved somehow.

“You’ve been sitting here for hours. If you’re waiting for someone, I’d say he’s not coming.”

“No. You’ve got it wrong. I’m not waiting for anyone. I know he’s not coming.”

She’d been right! There was a guy. Peg’s mind made the leap to another assumption. This girl sitting here crying probably couldn’t leave because she had been dumped. “You’ve been left behind then?”

The girl picked up the mug of coffee. Her lips groped toward the hot liquid, and she sipped cautiously. Then she put the cup down in front of her. “Imagine how you would feel if you went to the restroom and when you came back out, your partner was gone?” she said.

It was just as Peg had thought. Some jerk had left her stranded! But the girl seemed remarkably calm about her situation. She must be in a state of shock. Peg would have to think for her. She noticed there was a purse on the seat beside the girl. “Do you have any money?”

The girl’s eyes narrowed. “Enough to pay the bill, if that’s what you mean.”

“No, no. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry. I was just worried if you would be able to manage.”

The girl took her purse, reached in and took out a wallet. “Yes. Let me show you how well I’ve managed.” She pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and waved it proudly like a flag.

“That’s all?” Peg asked.

“Is that all, you say! Let me just tell you about this.” She flattened the bill on the table in front of her, lovingly smoothing it with her hands. Then the girl who had said so little began to tell a story.

“We left home together in my boyfriend’s black Firebird. He was pretty proud of his car, even though he would have preferred a red one, but when you get something used you don’t have much choice. He bought the car in Ladysmith. That’s my hometown. It’s in B.C., on Vancouver Island. Don’t laugh. I know it’s a silly name. Who ever heard of a ‘lady smith’? In the old days men would never let ladies work with fire and metal— too much power and danger right? Anyway, Pamela Anderson was born there, you know, on Canada’s one hundredth birthday in a town with the 49th parallel running right through it. Isn’t that ironic? That’s the place that Billy and I left together. He’s my boyfriend. Or I guess he was my boyfriend.

“We were driving across Canada, all the way across the country. Billy wanted to show me his hometown, Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. He said it was a beautiful place. Guess I’ll never get to see it now.” She looked out the window wistfully.

“Never say never.”

The girl smiled. “I never will.” Then she continued her story. “But Billy and me didn’t always get along so well. I mean, we argued a lot. Mostly about money. We each had our own money ‘cause we’d been working and saving up for this trip for a long time. I thought we’d like take turns paying for things or each pay our own way, but Billy had his own idea. He thought we should spend my money first till it was all gone and then we would spend his.”

Peg started to say something, but the girl wouldn’t let her.

“No, no. I know what you’re gonna say, but Billy had a good reason for this. You see, I’m kind of absent-minded about things, always leaving my purse behind on the backs of chairs and things like that. Billy knows me pretty well. He thought it would be safer if we spent all of mine first and then used his. It made sense to me, so I agreed at first. But then, after a while, I changed my mind. After we drove further and further east, and I began to run out of money, I thought, ‘What if something happens to Billy? What if we have an accident and he dies or something? What will happen to me this far away from home and not knowing anyone?’ So I told Billy I wasn’t going to spend my last twenty-dollar bill, and he couldn’t have it.

“We really had a fight about that. He screamed and yelled and called me all kinds of names. But no power on heaven or earth was going to separate me from it.” The girl patted the bill triumphantly.

Oh my God! Peg thought. That was a close call. Why was it still happening? Peg wondered. Why did women still fall for men like that? She had always imagined that her daughter’s generation would have more gumption. “You were right, you know, to set a limit. That was smart of you. Just a little piece of advice, though. Next time set the limit higher than twenty dollars. You might need more money than that just to pay the bill he stiffed you with. But don’t worry about that, dear. I’m going to pay it for you. You’ve had a bad enough day without that.” Peg picked up the cash register slip.

The girl started to protest.

“No, I promise you. It’s no bother for me. I want you to keep that twenty dollars, but don’t spend it. Keep it in a frame and put it on your wall to remind you about this experience.” Peg wished she could make it clear to this girl how lucky she was to have escaped before she’d married the cad. She wouldn’t want this girl to make the same mistakes she had. She could still taste the blood on her lip from the last time her ex-husband had hit her. A long time ago, but still close to the surface. The coppery taste of blood, the wobbly front tooth, the dull throb of pain in the swollen lip. The feeling of betrayal.

The girl looked at her. “You are right about the money. It isn’t enough.”

“Maybe you’ll demand more next time.”

“Don’t worry about that.”

“But I do worry. I don’t want to see any more girls abused by men. I had hoped that was all over now, that girls today, women I mean, knew better than to let some guy boss them around.”

“I get that. I see that I was stupid…” the girl started to say.

Peg interrupted her. “Don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. Listen. I know where the woman’s shelter is in Cornwall. I spent some time there in my day. They can help you get back on your feet, turn things around. They have counseling services. And then maybe you could find a job. We always need waitresses here.”

“No. Stop. I don’t need to go to a shelter. Shelters are for victims, and I’m not a victim. I refuse to be treated like a victim.”

“That’s a good attitude…a good start.”

“Thank you. You’re very kind,” the girl said as she reached for her purse again and placed the money back in her wallet. “Maybe too kind.” She put the purse on her shoulder. “If you’re always so kind, people will take advantage of you. That’s been my experience.”

The girl slipped out of the booth and stood up. “And now, I really have to go. I’ve been sitting here for too long feeling guilty, but not anymore. You’ve convinced me I did the right thing dumping Billy at our last stop. I just might keep that twenty-dollar bill as a souvenir.”

“But what will you do for money then?”

The girl reached in her purse and pulled out a single key on a leather key chain. “Sell the car,” she said, smiling.

Peg watched as the girl walked out the door and across the parking lot, stopping beside a black Firebird. Then the girl turned toward the window, smiled and waved before getting in. Peg continued watching as the car made its way back to the 401 and headed west. When it was finally out of sight, she looked at the bill for one single cup of coffee.

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