Chapter 1: A New Customer. 2008.

Cara’s Café was located on 40th and Broadway, a few blocks north of Oakland Technical High School, and a few blocks south of the Safeway on 51st Street. It was a fairly typical diner, catering to a diverse clientele of a diverse city. The mayor came in for breakfast every now and then, but so too did bums and construction workers. They had long lines at rush hours during the week, and all day on the weekends. The wait staff was perhaps two thirds young, good looking women, but there were also a few grizzled old-timers, professional waitresses who had worked here for decades. Laura, given a little more time, was in danger of becoming one of these. She’d been here almost six years before the day her old friend Jim Getner came through the front doors. They hadn’t seen each other in years.

“Oh my God, Jimbo! How are you?” Laura said upon catching sight of him in the doorway.

She came towards him for a hug. Jim’s face lit up. He didn’t know that she worked here. The two of them had lost touch after the Fantastic Four had broken up.

“What do you know?” he said, smiling.

The two embraced.

“You work here?” asked Jim.

“The last six years,” Laura replied.

“So that’s, what, since you were sixteen?”

“The very same.”

The two felt that familiar requirement of unexpected meetings between old friends: if they were going to talk to each other they were going to have to catch up. Jim didn’t mind this idea as much as Laura, who’d begun to fear that she was wasting her life. Furthermore she’d always suspected Jim had a thing for her.

“Here,” she said. “I’ve got an open table in my section. We can reminisce.”

Laura took him around the corner where a lone two-person table near the window rounded out the booth room.

She pulled out a chair for him and he sat.

“Coffee?” she asked.

“Please. And a glass of water.”

“Sure thing,” she said, and left. She told herself to act happy. It was something she had to remind herself of with increasing consistency.

“It’s good to see you,” she said after she’d come back and set down his order. “It’s been years, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah, years,” said Jim. “I don’t think I saw you in high school at all.”

“Well we went to different schools. Besides, those years were a whole other thing for me.”

“Me too.”

“Look, I gotta run. Take a look at the menu. But we should have some serious catching up to do.”

“Yeah, sure thing.”

Laura left.

Jim added cream and sugar to his coffee and opened the menu. Though he had never admitted it to anyone, he’d always had a thing for Laura. She was pretty, blonde, and knew how to defend herself. He’d always blamed himself for wrecking the fortunes of the Fanastic Four, but Cather too often had been too easy a target. He couldn’t help himself. Especially around a girl. You’re supposed to be able to up your game in those situations. If Cather couldn’t it was his own fault.

He decided on his order and took a sip of coffee. To his left there was a booth with two black women sitting across from each other. There was music playing in the background, Outkast he thought it was, so he couldn’t hear what the women were saying. It was known to be a noisy, busy restaurant.

Soon Laura returned. Jim watched her come down the aisle. She was tall, blonde, and had a good body. Their eyes met. There was some kind of a challenge in hers as, perhaps, she’d noticed him checking her out.

“You ready?” she asked.

“Yep. You?”

“Born it.”

“Chicken avocado omelette with jack cheese.”

“You’re gonna walk out of here a few pounds heavier.”

“I expect no less.”

Laura smiled and took his menu.

“Look,” she said, “my ten minute break is coming up. Can I join you?”

“Absolutely. I didn’t know you worked here. I wish I could say it was my idea.”

“Gimme a few minutes. Drink your coffee. You like it strong?”

“As strong as it takes.”

“Great, I’m so glad you came in. I’ll be right back.”

With that she left. Jim coughed into his fist and took another sip of coffee. He resolved not to leave the restaurant without her phone number. Maybe he would make it a habit to visit Cara’s Cafe every so often. Or maybe he wouldn’t have to. Maybe he could meet her somewhere else, somewhere social, maybe even on a date. It wasn’t like he had a whole lot of other prospects, after all.

A few minutes later she returned. She had a glass of iced tea and a fruit bowl. Sitting down, though, she wasn’t sure she liked the look on Jim’s face.

“You like working here?” he asked.

“I guess so. It’s a job. These days that’s saying something.”

“I know, huh. I bet you can tell it in your tips.”

“You’re right, I can.”

“I’m lucky to have a degree.”

“You went to college?”

“Wow it really has been a while.”

“Crazy that we recognized each other.”

“Yeah, Berkeley. History.”

“History? What good is that?”

“It’s interesting, that’s what. And if I ever decide to I can do pre-law or something. You know, light the world on fire.”

Laura laughed, a little forced. She took a bite of fruit and then a sip of iced tea.

“Do you see any of the rest of them?” she asked.

“Who?”

“You know, Cather and Tyler.”

“I haven’t seen Cather in years. I knew someone that told me he was in New Orleans.”

“New Orleans?”

“Yeah, playing the piano. He supported himself that way, so I guess he must be pretty good.”

“Hm, interesting. What about Tyler?”

“You haven’t heard?”

“Heard what?”

“He joined the Marines. Last I heard he was finishing a tour in Iraq.”

“No way!” Laura put her hand to her mouth. “Why would he do that?”

“You’d have to ask him. I guess he was out of ideas.”

“Is he okay?”

“I think he’s still there. When he comes back I can look him up for you. Maybe we can all get together. Cather too.”

“Yeah, that sounds awesome. Wow. Time flies differently for everyone doesn’t it?”

“You can say that again.”

Jim sipped his coffee. Laura was wearing a pink tank top. Her hair was in a ponytail. He found that he liked the look of her as much as he had when last they’d hung out. He wondered if she knew how he felt. He couldn’t remember if he’d ever made it overtly clear.

“I’d love to hear Cather play some day,” she went on.

“You mean piano?”

“Yeah.”

“Well I don’t have his number, but I think he’s still in New Orleans.”

“What a weird place to end up.”

“From what I hear it’s where a lot of artistic types end up.”

“Not if you have a degree from Berkeley.”

“Yup.”

“So where are you working?”

“I’m a copywriter. I work in Dublin, which means I commute.”

“Sounds impressive.”

“If I do say so myself.”

They fell silent. Jim’s hairline had receded. It looked like he hadn’t shaved in a few days. He was a pretty handsome guy, but a bit too stocky for her. She’d always enjoyed teasing him, however.

Another waitress arrived with Jim’s omelette and more coffee. Jim thanked her. He wasn’t sure what to say. He hadn’t been laid in a while, and was afraid it showed.

He put ketchup on his plate near the homefries, then started eating his omelette. It was good. The plate was full. Laura had not lied about that.

“Well,” she said. “I should get back.”

“Can I have your number?” Jim asked, probably too quickly.

“Sure, don’t be a stranger.”

Jim took his phone out and she told it to him. He entered in her name: Laura Small.

“Laura Small,” he echoed. “I always liked your name.”

“Well it’s the only one I’ve got.”

“I’ll call you, or maybe I’ll come back.”

“You have Wednesdays off?”

“Yeah. I was just in the neighborhood. I had to see triple A about my car.”

“Come back then. I’ll get your coffee for you next time.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Laura smiled and looked at him a moment. She supposed there hadn’t been any earth-shattering revelations during their conversation. Except about Tyler. Iraq. How awful. She hoped he was okay.

She got up and walked away. Jim’s eyes followed her until she was out of reach, then he ate the rest of his meal in silence.

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