She was right; definitely the best coffee in town.
Vernon first noticed her at Sunday services two weeks ago. He’d been attending the same church his entire life so a new face generated interest. She arrived with a young girl, maybe six, and sat in the front pew. He was impressed that she sang every hymn with eyes closed, never once glancing at her hymnal. The girl fidgeted and pulled at the blue dress that she seemed unaccustomed to. Clearly bored, the child’s eyes wandered, pondering the congregants’ sparsely filling the church. At one point, she caught Vernon staring at her mother(?), their eyes met and she wrinkled her nose at him. He quickly looked down at the scripture in his lap.
After service, he stood near his truck in the parking lot, watching as the woman conversed with Pastor Quinn. The girl squatting on the ground observing ants as they transported a dead beetle back to the colony.
On Tuesday at the Piggly Wiggly, he spotted the two of them in the cereal aisle. Discreetly, he followed from a distance, desperate to introduce himself, but his legs began to weaken at the thought of approaching her. He had inquired around town and discovered that they were mother and child; Donna and her daughter Lulu. There was no father in the picture as far as anyone knew. She had moved here from California for work. Donna was elegant in a sundress, while Lulu wore a pair of dirty overalls, seemly much more comfortable than in her Sunday best.
He drifted closer, building his courage. Soon he was standing close, feigning intense interest in the same products that Donna was examining. In his peripheral vision he noticed she was watching him, quizzically. Just as his nerve had stiffened and he was about to speak, he realized they were in the feminine hygiene section. He quickly retreated, his face red.
The following Sunday, he arrived early and sat in the second pew. Pastor Quinn greeted him, commenting on Vernon’s uncommon punctuality and noting his new shirt and shoes. Donna and Lulu arrived not long after and sat in front of Vernon. His breath caught and he had difficulty following the sermon, as he grew light headed.
Donna’s voice during the singing of “Great is Thy Faithfulness” rose high and clear, reverberating through the small chapel. Vernon wasn’t the only one looking astonished at Donna as the last notes of the organ faded into the rafters.
After everyone had taken their seats post hymn, Lulu pivoted in her seat and stared directly at Vernon. For the remaining twenty minutes of the service, she never took her eyes off his. He began to grow uneasy. His new shirt grew damp and uncomfortable. He made his escape during the last amen before Mrs. Fowley began the weekly announcements.
Wednesday afternoon he was restocking the bolt bins when Donna walked into the store. She approached the front counter where Mr. Cuchine was at his usual post. From his vantage point Vernon could not hear them, but the conversation seemed very animated. Walter had a very easy and congenial way with the customers; it was one of the reasons his store was still a success even with an Ace opening outside of town.
Vernon attempted to stealthily maneuver through hand tools to get closer and eavesdrop. He was brought up short in plumbing supplies when Lulu appeared and blocked his way. She was wearing her soiled overalls and her hair was a nest of twigs and leaves. They locked eyes, she held out a battered plastic pony, smudged with grime and missing sections of its mane.
“This is Natasha.”
Surprised, Vernon, nodded.
“Natasha Rainbow Teeth.”
“Interesting name.” Vernon said, a bit alarmed.
‘Yes, I know. Natasha would like a present.” Lulu stated, a stern expression on her face.
“Of course.” Without looking, Vernon reached out and grabbed whatever was close. He handed Lulu a bright red valve handle for a hose spigot.
Lulu held the handle in front of Natasha, grunting her approval. She wandered over to her mother who was completing her purchase. Vernon only stepped out of plumbing supplies when he heard the bell over the door ring as they left.
Later that afternoon he attempted tactfully to inquire about the particulars of the Walter’s conversation with Donna.
“Rodent problem, she was looking for mouse traps. She would, she’s renting the Bradley place. Should have been torn down decades ago. Do you remember in ’65 when Horace Bradley used gasoline to clear the drain, he dropped inna lit match and blew out the kitchen windows. That was in the Fall… ”
Vernon tuned out Walters meandering anecdote. The Bradley place was only two streets over from Vernon’s apartment.
After work he sprinted home, threw the leash on Kevin and forced the reluctant collie out for a walk. At nearly fifteen, Kevin was resistant to long walks, having discovered and then lost interest in all the usual smells of the neighborhood years ago. Vernon ended up carrying the dog the last twenty feet to the corner of Spruce and Whitmore Streets. From that vantage point, he had a decent view of the Bradley Place. It was a bit sad, paint peeling, shutters hanging in odd angles. On the dilapidated front porch sat Lulu, surrounded by Natasha Rainbow Teeth and several other mangled ponies.
He set Kevin on the ground and dragged him along the sidewalk. As he approached, Lulu gave him a suspicious look.
“How is Miss Natasha Rainbow Teeth tonight?” He asked.
Lulu brightened at the question.
“She is very frustrated; she wants to watch the Beverly Hillbillies, but…” she held up black horse with no ears or tail, “Sir William Sparkle Castle wants to watch Gomer Pyle. Could be a fight.”
He asked the names of the other horses, hoping to avert a brawl. Lulu quickly rattled off a list of complex and colorful names that Vernon immediately forgot.
“Well, this here is Kevin.” Kevin whined at the sound of his name.
“DAMN, he’s old.”
“LULU!” came a shout from behind the screen door. Donna emerged drying her hands on a stained apron. “I’ve told you no cursing, it’s impolite.” She held her hand out to Vernon.
Vernon stammered his name and gently shook her hand.
“Sorry about Lulu. I try, but, it’s like having a wild chimpanzee in the house.”
Lulu, irritated, snorted and refocused her attention on the herd.
“That’s ok; I’ve heard worse.” Said Vernon.
“I know you from church, don’t I?”
“And the hardware store,” said Lulu without looking up.
“I don’t believe I saw you at the store.”
“He was hiding.”
Vernon turned red and sputtered, “Lulu found me while I was restocking in the back… You have a lovely voice”
Donna looked confused.
“I’m referring to your singing voice…at church.”
“Oh, I’ve always been in the choir, since I was Lulu’s age. I’ve been asked to join the choir at Blessed Virgin but don’t have the time with the chimpanzee and work.”
He politely chuckled. They continued chatting until the mosquitoes became unbearable. With some effort he screwed up the courage to ask if she like to go for a stroll in town some evening. They made plans to meet outside the hardware store the following evening after his shift.
“That’s one of my nights off, no baby sitter. You mind if Lulu joins us?
“Of course, I’ll bring a banana for her.” Bad joke, but Donna laughed while Lulu threw daggers with her eyes.
Elated, Vernon dragged Kevin into the night.
He was locking up when Donna and Lulu arrived. It was difficult to give an interesting tour of a downtown that is two blocks long. He found himself exaggerating details of the mundane, adding drama to his running commentary. The Woolworths became a brutal crime scene as he recalled the time he and Bobby Coe were caught stealing handfuls of Atomic Fireballs in the fourth grade. He pointed to the spot on the sidewalk where Mr. Connelly had lost his index finger one Fourth of July trying to light a short fuse on a large firework. Lulu seemed to appreciate the story and asked for details as she searched the ground for the detached finger.
When they reached the Rexall, Vernon bought them all ice cream. While Lulu shared her ice cream with Natasha Rainbow Teeth, Vernon told Donna his history at Cuchine Hardware. As a favor to Vernon’s dad, Walter had hired him in high school to work afternoons. Now, fifteen years later, he was manager, often working the store alone due to Walter’s poor health.
“Walter has said many times that when he retires, he’s going to hand over the store to me and I have big plans for that place.” He hoped Donna would be impressed with his future prospects and see him as a potential provider.
She nodded and said how much she admired Walter; even though they had only the one conversation, he seemed a decent man. This is why she and Lulu had moved here. Vernon didn’t understand. She explained that California, San Francisco in particular, had become an immoral place; changed from the Eden she remembered of her childhood. The hippies, music and drugs had corrupted the city, forcing her to leave her parents and take Lulu somewhere she could protect her.
“The hippies, they’re the ones that taught Lulu how to curse, they thought it was funny. People keep referring to as the summer of love, but I just saw it as the summer of misery.”
Vernon patted her hand to console her. She smiled. Lulu rolled her eyes, pointed, and said, “What’s that place?”
Across the street was Wilma’s Café, a town landmark. Wilma had painted a menagerie of dancing livestock in bright colors on the façade. Through the front windows, they could see toys attached the walls in what Wilma described as a playfully artistic way. Wilma was a kindly eccentric and had been his mother’s best friend when they were children.
“Best pancakes in town.” He decided to take a chance, “I’ll treat both of you tomorrow if you want to meet before I open the store.”
Lulu looked pleadingly at her mother, who agreed.
The nest morning Wilma was in true form. Lulu was entranced by the large woman with plastic flowers arranged in a beehive that seemed to double her height. When Wilma stopped at the table she gave Vernon an inquiring look, then pointed at Lulu.
“That girl needs pancakes, ASAP.” Lulu nodded enthusiastically. “And, who is this?” asked Wilma.
Vernon was surprised to see that it was not Natasha joining them for breakfast but a bright blue pony. “Captain Hovercraft.”
Noting the absence of hooves on the horse, Wilma said “The Captain looks like he suffered some kind of tragic debilitating accident.” She then reached above them a pulled a small stuffed bear off a shelf and handed it to Lulu. “This here is Dr. Briarpatch, perhaps he can help your friend. He is particularly well versed in maladies concerning hooves, feet and paws. I believe the Captain will find him a godsend. ” Lulu introduced the two toys to each other.
Donna ordered pancake as well; Wilma didn’t wait for Vernon’s order, it had been the same thing for twenty years.
As they waited for their food, Vernon began to think that this may have been a bad idea. All of the local retailers had breakfast at Wilma’s before they opened and all of them were staring at Vernon with keen interest. Wilma stood at the counter whispering to Don the cook. Both clearly intrigued by the group in booth four. Vernon knew his mother was going to get a call before he’d finished breakfast. That meant his sister would know before ten and the rest of the town by noon.
The food arrived; Vernon was about to shovel in the first mouthful of omelet when he noticed Donna, head bowed, quietly reciting grace. Lulu stared impatiently at her pancakes. Vernon dropped his fork and bowed his head and began to mumble. When was the last time he had said grace he wondered?
They were both startled out of their prayers when two cups of coffee rattled on the table.
Before he could warn her, Donna took a mouthful of coffee, froze and then swallowed loudly, reluctantly.
“What did I just drink?”
Vernon explained that Wilma had a long history of burning the coffee. He had only realized how horrible it was after he attended a fastener convention in Milwaukee. The Holiday Inn had coffee with their breakfast. The first cup was an enlightening moment for Vernon, who now found it painful to suffer through Wilma’s coffee.
“Come visit me at work tomorrow, best coffee in town. It is sublime,” said Donna. Vernon wasn’t sure what sublime meant but was excited when she wrote her work address on a napkin and handed it to him. “I’m working the morning shift, so say, around ten?”
It wasn’t until his lunch break when Vernon read the address. He was familiar with the street; he was familiar with all the streets. There were only two businesses this far out, one was Tom’s Roofing, and, as far as he knew, Tom didn’t serve coffee.
At ten Saturday morning, he found himself in a state of agitation and confusion, holding a cup of coffee, sitting stage left at the Buckhorse Gentleman’s Club. He had never patronized the Buckhorse. His parents had often referred to it as a house of wickedness and depravity. They forbade Vernon from ever stepping through the door. Even now as an adult, the possibility of sin transference had compelled him to drive miles out of his way to avoid the establishment.
As it was early, there were only three other customers; the Conner twins and Mr. Wilkins. The Conners had just graduated high school and seemed keen to have been given access to this unholy temple. Mr. Wilkins had been Vernon’s fifth grade teacher and it was unnerving to see his former teacher, now shrunken and bent, blearily surveying the stage. All three were nursing their own mugs of coffee.
Bathed in the red light of the neon that decorated the walls, Donna was gyrating her way across the stage, wearing white go-go boots and slowly un-encumbering herself of her scant clothing. Vernon was unsure what to think, his mind a jumble of conflicted thoughts.
He focused on her musical choice, Merle Haggard’s Momma Tried. He was impressed that she had clearly researched her audience. Not easy to dance to and a bit sad, it would speak to the broken good-ol-boys that populated the town. The twins hooted appreciatively during the chorus.
It was difficult to look directly at Donna as she writhed gymnastically. He did note the some of her discarded clothing strewn about the stage appeared to have been purchased at Mrs. McCrorie’s consignment shop. The feather boa and the denim coat had recently been featured in the front window of the store. How very civic-minded of Donna to support local businesses, he thought.
He heard the chair next to him scrape along the floor. He looked over to discover that Lulu joined him at the small table. She had Natasha in one hand and a piece of toast in the other. She barely acknowledged Vernon as she tore off a piece and smeared jam on the muzzle of the horse.
He stared at Lulu and Natasha.
What a wonderful thing, mother and daughter having quality time together. It was good for Lulu to have an example in her life of someone with a dictated work ethic…like her stripper mom.
Vernon closed his eyes and sighed. His mind was frantically searching for ways to tactfully extricate himself from the Buckhorse.
He heard his name shouted over Merle. With some effort he opened his eyes. Donna was bent forward, calling him from between her legs.
“How’s the coffee?”
He hadn’t even tasted the coffee yet. It had remained in his hand, suspended halfway to his mouth, hanging there ever since Donna stepped on stage. He took a quick sip and gave her the thumbs up. She stood up and looked over her shoulder.
“Told you, best in town.”
Vernon noticed his fellow patrons looking at him, holding their mugs up in unified coffee appreciation. Vernon took another sip. It was good.
Donna pirouetted across the stage, shedding a sequined mini skirt as she spun, leaving her in pasties and a gold G-string. Good coffee or not, Vernon was about to stand and make a quick exit, when he noticed the tattoo on Donna’s thigh. It was Jesus, his hands clasped in prayer looking skyward toward our Lord and Savior.
Vernon took a deep breath and emptied the mug into his mouth.
“Best coffee in town?” he announced, “this is the best coffee in three counties.”
He held up his mug, signaling for a refill.