Vicky delivered the plates of gravy smothered roast beef and barbeque chicken.
“Enjoy,” she said, beaming at Ned and Martin, both with cutlery already in hand.
“Thanks, Mrs. Werner,” said Martin.
“Smells great,” said Ned.
Vicky’s smile stretched. “I have to make sure you out-of-state boys get at least one home cooked meal a week.”
While Martin cut into his chicken, Ned halted his fork above his beef.
“Mrs. Werner,” he said, hushing his basso voice, “is Paul okay?” He gestured across the diner, where Paul aligned bottles of condiments on a scrubbed table.
“I think he’s fine,” said Vicky. “Why?”
“He said he wasn’t going to come out with us later,” said Ned.
Martin spoke around a mouthful of potatoes. “He said he wasn’t feeling well.”
“He hasn’t said anything to me,” said Vicky. She chased away her descending frown. “He’s probably just tired. Been working and studying too hard. Not that you two would know anything about that.”
After patting Ned’s shoulder, softening the maternal jibe, she plodded to the counter. Plopping onto a vacant stool, her sneakered feet sang with the reprieve. She absently smoothed out her half-apron’s wrinkles, while watching Wilson through the service window as he scoured the griddle.
“No,” said Vicky. “I shut off the sign.”
“You shut it off before those two dropped by.”
“I’m a softy for the regulars, sue me.”
Wilson snorted, and kept scraping charred grease, the bow in his head nearly obscuring his grin.
Dragging over a water pitcher, Vicky filled three glasses. Behind her, she heard Paul wiping the table of the diner’s last booth. The swishing of the cloth joined Ned and Martin’s munching, but the lack of Paul’s usual humming gaped. Once through, he joined her at the counter, sagging on a neighboring stool, the wash towel abandoned to the counter.
Sipping her drink, Vicky tilted her head. “What’s wrong hon?”
“Nothing,” said Paul. His features darkened as he stared into his water, hands gripped around the beaded glass.
“Are you feeling okay?” Vicky reached for his forehead, hidden behind a flop of bangs, but Paul flinched away. She lowered her hand, and feigned an inspection of a waiting breakfast menu. “Is Wendy coming by tonight?”
“Leave him alone,” said Wilson.
Vicky glanced between the similar features, one old and grizzled, the other young and taut. Each man diverted his gaze with identical head turns, intent on avoiding her eyes.
“I’ve missed something,” said Vicky, “haven’t I?”
“It’s nothing, Mom,” said Paul.
“It’s got to be something to have you here closing with us on a Saturday night instead of out with your friends or meeting with your girl.”
“She’s not my girlfriend anymore,” said Paul.
Vicky stiffened as her son’s wounded gaze traversed the knickknacks hung above the kitchen’s window.
“Leave him alone, Vicky,” said Wilson.
“Why should I?” Vicky scowled at her husband. “You apparently know what happened.”
Paul dove back into his glass. “Dad took the message.”
Vicky blinked at him as the notion wormed through her salted-hair. “Wendy broke up by leaving a message with your father?”
“Sort of,” said Paul.
Wilson grimaced as Vicky held him in her sights.
“What does sort of mean?”
Lumbering through the kitchen’s swinging door, Wilson drank down half his glass before dragging a sausage-thick arm across his mouth. “Do you want me to tell her?”
After a long sigh, Wilson lowered his voice. “Her sister was the one who called. She said they caught this fool,” he thumbed at Paul, “and Gail Jenkins together on campus. Said Wendy didn’t want to see him ever again. I could barely make out the story through the sobbing in the background.”
Vicky gaped at Paul. “You didn’t?”
Paul, however, locked his wide-eyes on Wilson. “She was crying?”
“Well yeah,” said Wilson. “The girl has a right doesn’t she? You….” He waved his glass to encompass the act. “With her best friend.”
“It wasn’t like that,” said Paul, cupping his head in his hands.
“What was it then?”
“Don’t give him any sympathy, Vicky.”
She waved Wilson to hush, and laid a hand on her son’s rounded shoulder.
“I was just asking Gail some questions,” said Paul to the countertop. “I figured they’d talked about it before and I could get some ideas.”
Paul tilted his head. The pain in his eyes nearly wrenched Vicky’s heart from her chest.
“I was going to ask her to marry me,” said Paul. “I figured Gail might know if Wendy had any, you know, dreams about being proposed to or whatever. I wanted to make it special.”
Vicky exchanged a glance with Wilson, his face pale beneath his day-old stubble and sweat-stained bandana.
“You have to tell her,” said Vicky. “Call her. You’ve got your phone on you don’t you?”
“She doesn’t want to see me,” said Paul, resuming his staring contest with the counter.
“It’s a misunderstanding, hon. You have to set it straight.”
“She’s not going to listen. She’s made up her mind.”
“But she’s not happy with it, is she Wilson?”
Wilson cupped his glass in both hands. “She did seem pretty upset.”
“You should go over there, talk with her.” Vicky sprung from her stool. “Or I’ll call her mother and—”
“Mom, please don’t.”
“I will if you don’t go.” She pointed at the door.
“Fine, fine.” Paul stood, finished his water, and raked a hand through his hair. Stuffing his hands into his jean pockets, he shuffled toward the door.
“Good luck, Paul,” said Ned.
Paul waved a limp hand, and then grasped the door knob. After a thud of the bolts unlocking, he exited into the night.
Wilson leaned onto the counter. “Do you think he’ll actually go?”
Vicky stared at the door as she resettled on the stool. “Do you think she’ll understand?”
“You did,” said Wilson.
“Yeah, well, I’m a catch like that,” said Vicky. She pecked his cheek, before heading toward Ned and Martin’s empty plates. “Anything else I can get for you, boys?”
“No,” said Ned, stifling a chuckle.
He met Martin eyes, and they both started laughing.
Vicky frowned. “You think my son getting his heart broken is funny?”
“No, no,” said Martin. He waved at Ned. “Show her.”
Grinning, Ned retrieved his phone from beneath the table, the panel glowing. Vicky noted the number, Wendy’s number, on the screen’s bottom edge as Ned offered the device.
Balancing the plates and silverware, Vicky brought the phone to her ear. “Wendy can you hear me?”
“Yes,” Wendy sniffed. “Yes I can, Mrs. Werner. I heard the whole thing”
Vicky almost dropped the dishes.
“I better get cleaned up,” said Wendy. “I probably look like a mess.”
“Do that,” said Vicky, regaining her voice. “I’m sure he’ll be by anytime.”
“I hope so. Goodnight, Mrs. Werner.”
Once Wendy hung up, Vicky returned the phone, and then stood rock still.
“Mrs. Werner? Are you okay?”
She drifted her stunned gaze to Ned, whose boyish face crinkled with worry.
“Yes, I’m fine.” Speaking the sentiment restarted her gears whirling. “Would you boys like some pie?”
“But you’re closed,” said Ned. Martin glanced at the pie stands on the counter and grimaced before nodding in agreement.
“Hell,” said Wilson, bringing over the remains of apple and blueberry confections. “After what you did, it’s on the house.”