Centerville’s only traffic light quit working in 1963 when a stray bullet caused it to short out, and it had never been repaired. Hanging over the intersection of Main Street and Central Avenue, it confused out-of-towners who occasionally passed through. Some stopped at the intersection and looked around nervously; others passed beneath the broken traffic light, never noticing it nor the dying town where it hung as they rushed from one side of the state to the other.
Most days I sat in front of the Blue Bonnet Cafe and watched the intersection, only rising from my broken-legged chair when called inside to cook a meal for someone who didn’t know better or didn’t care. I often didn’t have all the ingredients to prepare the few items remaining on the limited menu, and over time had crossed several selections off rather than refill the larder.
Though I had long ago paid off the bank loan taken out to purchase the business, I was still paying for the Blue Bonnet Cafe in my own way. I lived in a two-bedroom apartment above the restaurant, monthly Social Security checks paid my bills, and I planned to keep the place open until the town finished dying or I did.
Most of the other businesses along Main Street had closed years before, leaving behind slowly disintegrating buildings, and the county had assumed responsibility for the town services when Centerville lost its charter. The post office, which had never been anything but a counter in the back of Dickson’s, had closed years earlier.
I had just stepped out of the restroom one hot summer day and was drying my hands on my apron when I saw an unfamiliar couple sitting in one of the booths. He wore a gray muscle shirt and colorful tattoo sleeves. She wore a fat lip and a black eye.
I walked to their table. “Can I help you?”
He ordered beef stew.
“We don’t have that,” I said.
“It says right here on the menu—”
I took the menu from his hand, pulled a black felt tip marker from my shirt pocket, and crossed off the stew. I held out the updated menu but he didn’t take it from my outstretched hand.
“Well, what do you have?”
“Burgers,” I said. “With cheese or without. Fries.”
“Burger with cheese. Side of fries.”
I turned to the woman. “And you?”
She didn’t look up. Instead, she looked at her hands.
He said, “She’ll have the same.”
“Two cheeseburgers,” I said. “Two fries. Drinks?”
“Dr Pepper,” he said. “Think you can handle that?”
I said I could and disappeared into the kitchen. As I dropped two fistfuls of frozen French fries into the fryer and flattened two balls of hamburger meat on the grill, I remembered the last woman I had seen with a black eye, a glaring symbol of my own frustration.
Lydia and I had known each other all our lives, had become lovers in high school, and had married upon graduation because we could envision no other future. I had worked at the Blue Bonnet since junior high—as a busboy, a waiter, and a short order cook—and Lydia began waitressing there when she was a high school junior. When Alzheimer’s stole the owner’s ability to manage the place on a daily basis, I became the general manager, and when his family put him in a home, they sold the place to Lydia and me. That’s when we moved out of her parents’ house and into the apartment above the Blue Bonnet.
We worked together every day, slept together every night, and rarely had time apart from one another. Even then the town showed signs of its eventual collapse, and the diner returned less money to our pockets with each subsequent month. The stress of running the business was more than I could handle and I took my frustration out on Lydia.
I dressed the burgers with mayo, pickles, and lettuce—I was out of tomatoes and had been for weeks—and delivered the plates to the waiting couple.
The Blue Bonnet had no air conditioning. A pair of ceiling fans languidly moved tepid air around the room while they ate, and I leaned against the counter, watching them until I was needed.
The couple finished their meal and he wanted dessert. “What kind of pies do you have?”
Despite the faded hand-painted sign on the window, the Blue Bonnet had not offered homemade pies since my wife disappeared. I explained that the dessert options included frozen Snickers bars and some banana pudding I’d made three days earlier.