The summer season was over and the rest of the boardwalk was closed. Leo wondered why he opened the diner at all when even the black-headed gulls that tormented the tourists had gone. He supposed, as much as anything, it was to give him something to do.
At 5.30pm the door opened and Maria hurried in. Maria worked for one of the local hotels as a chambermaid.
‘Man, it’s dead out there,’ she said.
‘You wanna start with a beer?’ asked Leo.
‘Yeah, a cold beer.’
He took a bottle of Corona out of the glass-fronted cooler, popped the cap and set the beer on the counter in front of her. Sometimes Leo would go back to Maria’s and they would sit up and drink. There was nothing sexual between them. Once, they had woken up in bed together, but nothing had happened.
‘I’m starving,’ said Maria. ‘What do you have for me?’
‘Enchiladas sound good?’
‘Sounds perfect,’ said Maria.
Maria lit up a cigarette and sipped the beer. She liked Leo’s Mexican food. Leo looked Mexican but, in fact, his mother was Italian and his father Spanish. Maria silently watched Leo work. She was hungry but she waited patiently for him. He served up the enchiladas.
‘Man, that’s some good Mexican food. You sure you’re not Mexican?’
‘Yep,’ he said.
‘The Hot Spot use baked beans,’ said Maria. ‘Can you believe that? Baked beans!’
‘The tourists like it,’ said Leo.
‘Tourists… what tourists?’
They both laughed.
The door opened and two men walked in. During the summer they worked as maintenance men on the pier, and in the winter they were kept on as security, keeping the rides safe from drunken Saturday night youngsters. They each worked a twelve-hour shift, smoked reefer and watched ball games and porn. Every evening at six they met in the diner, looked at the menu, and ordered cheeseburgers and fries. They would take a table at the window with half an eye on the pier, smoking and drinking beer. Leo didn’t particularly like either of them. They weren’t locals. They were both from somewhere else.
Both men took their usual table at the window. The smaller of the two men raised two fingers up to Leo. Leo brought over two beers, then he served up two cheeseburgers and fries. The smaller of the two men, the one that Leo disliked most, covered his fries in ketchup.
As the men sat eating, the door opened and a young woman walked in. She was beautiful. It was difficult to guess her age. Leo thought early twenties, maybe a little older. The two men stopped eating as she approached the counter.
She took a seat beside Maria. Maria said hi to her, and looked at Leo. ‘Leo,’ she said. ‘Meet Carla.’
Leo wiped his hands on the front of his apron, reached over the counter and shook her hand. ‘What can I get you?’ he asked.
‘Why don’t you try pancakes?’ said Maria.
‘Pancakes it is then,’ said Carla. ‘And a beer.’
Leo didn’t have any pancake mix prepared. He had to make some up fresh. Maria watched him as he whisked the flour, baking soda, egg and cinnamon. He made up four pancakes, pouring the batter on to the hot plate, before expertly flipping each one with a spatula. Carla only ate one – covered it in syrup – used up nearly a full bottle, but he didn’t mind. When she had finished she lit a cigarette.
‘Filthy habit,’ said Leo, just by way of conversation. He smoked himself.
‘There are worse habits.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘There are.’ He wanted to say more, but he found himself unable to think of anything appropriate. He hadn’t felt this self-conscious since he was a child. The girl got up and put a quarter in the jukebox. She selected a song he hadn’t heard before. As the music played, she danced freely, turning in slow circles, her arms across her chest, eyes down, looking at the floor, unaware of the men looking at her. When the song had finished she ordered another beer, then went outside. Leo knew she was going outside to smoke a reefer. He looked over at the two men. They were both talking about her.
When she came back inside she was smiling. Her head hung down and her lustrous dark hair hung over her face. But, when she raised her head, Leo could see that her large brown eyes were glazed.
One of the security guards walked over. It wasn’t the ketchup guy. It was the other one. Leo didn’t like the man. He found him crude, sinister even.
‘Can I buy you a beer?’ said the guy.
She turned her head. ‘Sure.’
‘Hey, a Corona,’ said the guy.
Leo set up the beer and moved away, but he was still within earshot. The guy came off with the usual lines. She was polite, patient, but in no way interested; after a time he gave up and rejoined his friend at the window.
Maria and Carla drank on until late then left with a beer bottle in one hand, their shoes in the other. Leo closed up, drank some beer, and sat looking at the empty boardwalk. He thought this year would be his last. When he had first taken over the bar, there was a T-Shirt shop next door. Now it was a 99-cent store. Next summer, it would be something else. He’d have to take a hit on the lease, but he could move back down to San Diego and stay with his mother until something else came along. It would be good to stay with his mother. Leo always visited his mother at Christmas. She was a good woman. He had never known his father, hadn’t even seen a photograph of him. His mother would always tell him he was like his father: constantly looking for something. Each time Leo arrived home, his mother would hug him and ask if he’d found what he was looking for yet. Leo would laugh it off, not letting his mother know how true it was. How deeply it hurt.
The next day Maria came in alone. Leo was clean-shaven and wore a fresh apron.
‘She started two days ago,’ said Maria. ‘I don’t know a lot about her. But she can drink, I know that.’
Leo didn’t say anything. He just listened.
‘Last night we sat up, smoked pot and drank. When I woke up this morning she was gone.’
‘Where’s she from?’ asked Leo.
‘Is she Mexican?’
‘I’m no expert on these things but I think maybe she’s Cuban.’
‘Or Spanish?’ suggested Leo.
Leo thought about that.
At 6.30pm, Carla came in, said hi to Maria and sat down beside her. Then she got up, played the same song on the jukebox, and danced in slow circles as she had the night before. The two security guys eyed her, exchanged remarks and laughed crudely.
‘Hey, Maria what the hell is that song?’ asked Leo.
‘It’s your jukebox,’ said Maria.
‘It was here when I bought the place.’
‘Do you ever think of maybe getting something modern on it?’
‘The song, Maria, what is it?’
‘Oh I don’t know…something about love and death.’
When everyone had eaten, Leo set up a beer for Maria and Carla. ‘I was thinking of closing up early,’ he said. ‘Would anyone like to join me for a beer?’
‘This one’s my last.’ said Maria.
‘Maybe another night,’ said Carla.
‘I’ll hold you to that,’ said Leo.
The next day the two security guards came in.
‘Hey, we saw your friend this morning,’ said ketchup guy. ‘She was asleep on the beach.’
‘Passed out, more like,’ said his friend.
‘In this weather?’ said Leo. ‘Where’d you see her?’
‘Under Morey’s Pier,’ said the ketchup guy.
Leo set the men up two beers, took off his apron and threw it under the counter.
‘Maria, keep an eye on things,’ he said.
‘Hey, what about my cheeseburger?’ said the taller one.
‘You can wait,’ said Leo.
The wind blew sand along the boardwalk. Leo made his way down the hard wooden steps to the beach. He looked for the girl under Morey’s Pier but there was no one there. He looked along the cold stretch of beach. There wasn’t a soul there either. He stood alone on the beach shivering, shielding his eyes from the blowing sand. Then he looked out past the cold breakers, pausing for a minute to stare at the horizon, before walking back up the hard steps.
In the diner, Maria waited patiently. She looked beyond the two men, ignoring them completely, watching for a sign. Once Leo mounted the steps, she knew. When he got back inside he reached under the counter for his apron and put it back on, tying it at the back.
‘Any sign?’ asked Maria.
‘No, no sign.’
‘Any sign of that cheeseburger?’ said the ketchup guy.
‘Hey buddy, fuck you!’ said Leo. ‘You want dinner, cook it yourself.’
‘Yeah,’ said the guy. ‘Then I’ll take my trade somewhere else.’
‘Yeah, you do that.’
He got up and left. His friend stubbed out his cigarette, took another slow drink of beer, and followed.
‘Assholes,’ said Maria.
Leo cracked open a Corona. ‘So what’s her story?’
‘I really don’t know. Just passing through, I suppose.’
Leo looked out at the empty boardwalk.
‘A buen sueño no hay mala cama,’ said Maria.
‘What does that mean?’ asked Leo.
‘It’s just a saying.’
‘What does it mean?’
‘It means, a tired person can sleep anywhere,’ said Maria.
The next afternoon Maria came in.
‘Any news?’ asked Leo.
‘You wanna let me get my coat off first,’ said Maria.
‘She was owed two days wages. She didn’t even collect them.’
‘Then maybe something happened to her.’
Maria didn’t answer. ‘Next summer I’m gonna move to the East Coast,’ she said.
‘You say that every year,’ said Leo.
‘This time I mean it.’
The next day Maria came in alone. She took off her coat, draped it over a stool at the counter, and sat down.
‘At least the sun is out,’ she said.
‘I’m gonna start with a coffee today.’
Maria waited patiently for Leo as he brewed up the coffee. He didn’t talk over the noise of the machine. He set down the coffee in front of Maria, then brewed one for himself. He was tired. He hadn’t slept well.
‘What about that your friend of yours?’ he asked.
‘Man, you can forget about that one.’
Leo went to the cooler and took out two Corona. He took the caps off them, placed one on the counter in front of Maria’s coffee, and put the other one to his lips. Maria reached forward for the bottle of beer on the counter, but she didn’t drink from it.
‘Leo,’ she said. ‘Forget about her, she’s gone.’
Peter Jordan asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work