That day, for the first time, she went along with it. Unlike most men who came to the diner, the man who approached her that day wore a suit and tie—a rumpled suit, true, and the pale blue tie was too narrow and too loosely knotted, sagging below the collar of a grayish shirt with the top button left undone. Even so, there was something dignified about him, something formal. He’s the doctor, she thought, the one who runs the clinic across the street. He looked about fifty but could easily be forty or sixty. She always had a hard time guessing the ages of people in this town.
He walked over to her table. “Hello, Annette. Good to see you again.”
She hesitated, then shook his hand. “It’s good to see you, too.”
Smiling, he pressed a hand on her shoulder, briefly but firmly. “Welcome home, Annette,” he said, and walked on, leaving the diner, crossing the street.
It was a pleasant exchange. Except, of course, that her name wasn’t Annette, and Persistence, South Dakota, had never been her home. She hadn’t set foot in this town until last week. Yet everyone here seemed to recognize her. Obviously, she looked like some woman named Annette, someone who’d lived here once and moved away. Until today, she’d corrected people, every time: “You’ve got me confused with someone else. I’m Megan Walsh, from Minneapolis.” Whenever she’d said that, people had smiled vaguely, as if they hadn’t quite understood or thought it was some odd joke. The next time they’d seen her, they’d called her Annette again.
Today, she’d officially given up. If they wanted to believe she was this Annette person, fine. What harm could it do? After three months alone on the road, it felt almost good. Why not let herself pretend, just for another week, that she belonged here? It was a lie, but a lie with a warm, comfortable feel.
She scraped up the rest of her chili, ate the last saltine from the basket Christine had set on the table. She’d make a tuna sandwich for supper, but this was her main meal of the day. To stretch her money, she made the most of every penny she spent here, even if the chili tasted anemic, even if the beans felt so soft she suspected she was finishing a batch cooked last week and reheated more than once. She stacked three quarters and a nickel by her plate—exactly twenty percent—and picked up her receipt.
A teenager beat her to the cash register. He was tall, pale and very blond, with a petulant expression that seemed part of his personality, not just the mood of the moment. When Christine thanked him, he nodded silently and then glanced coldly at Megan, brushing against her as he walked out but not apologizing. He was the about only person around here who never said hello to her.
“Don’t mind him,” Christine said. She was short and spare, around fifty—or maybe forty—with lank brown hair that showed traces of auburn at the ends, plenty of gray at the roots. “Ray’s got a lot on his mind.”
Megan handed over her money. “Shouldn’t he be in school?”
“Ray? No. He’s twenty-five, twenty-six. Where he should be is helping his folks on the farm. But he says he’s sick of farming. He wants to move to the city.”
“Rapid City? Or does he want to move to Minneapolis, Chicago, maybe New York?”
Christine looked surprised. “He wants to move to Persistence. But he’ll have to find a job first.” She turned toward a hollow-cheeked man sitting at the counter. “You need a deputy, Cal?”
“Don’t even have enough work to keep busy myself,” the sheriff said, and went back to poking at his pie.
Christine counted out the change, pressing each coin into Megan’s hand separately, then looked down at the counter. “I should put this poster up. William brought it by yesterday, but I haven’t gotten around to it. It’s for Harvest Festival. You coming?”
Megan glanced at the date on the poster. October 21. She shook her head. “I’ll be gone by then.”
“Too bad,” Christine said. “See you tomorrow, Annette.”
She’d corrected Christine at least five times; it was a relief not to bother any more. It was a relief to leave the diner, too. Funny, how it managed to feel both cozy and depressing—tan walls with timidly pink trim, faded green linoleum, cracked upholstery on stools and chairs. The customers seemed as listless as the place, rarely chatting, picking at their food. And the air felt stale, almost smoky, though she’d never seen anyone light up there.