The early bird dinner special at Brenda’s Fine Diner started at 5:00 pm, and on Saturdays Jerry Plankton made it a habit to go in for fish and chips. Sometimes he went with a date, but ever since Dorito Samuelson had passed on, Jerry found himself dining alone, since younger people, like his neighbour, Lily-Rose Roades, seemed less comfortable eating dinner at 5:00 pm, despite the value.
So he sat alone, in a booth near the window meant for four customers, sipping on a hot cup of coffee while he waited for his order to arrive. He was ok on his own. He had Wednesday’s newspaper and the Costco flyer to read if he liked, but mostly he liked looking around Brenda’s Fine Diner and seeing who was there and what they were up to.
Bernard, his next-door neighbour but one, was hosting a group of young people, so obviously some of them were not appalled and offended at the idea of an early bird special. There was a teenage boy and girl— perhaps the boy was his newly-found grandson— and a couple in their twenties, one long, lanky, and dozy, and the other slightly plump, pretty, and chatty. Bernard presided like a lord with his lieges. He was such an odd duck, driving a taxi at his age, living with his cats and birds, and his strange involvements in the protests at the zoo. Jerry wasn’t sure it was a dignified way for a man of Bernard’s years to behave. But then, he was seated at a crowded table for five, while Jerry sat alone in a booth.
He saw the church group of about six older men, which he avoided. They sat at the big booth near the entrance, allegedly discussing Bible passages or church business, but mostly gossiping and telling mildly off-colour jokes. They erupted in laughter every so often, which invariably ending with one of them coughing.
It was all so predictable. Even the older woman in a pair of jeans and a sweater, sitting alone at a small table near the kitchen doors. She was discreetly smoking a cigarette— strictly forbidden, but like most of the folks that evening at Brenda’s, she was a regular. She always brought a paperback book, ordered bacon and eggs (despite the time of day— regulars had certain privileges), and didn’t bother to look around, as Jerry did.
All the same people, every week, and Jerry could see the waitress, Brenda’s granddaughter Chillie, approaching with his plate heaped with fries and two pieces of battered haddock. As usual. As ever.
Chillie set the plate down, and Jerry breathed Don’t say it! but she did, as she always did: “Hope you’re hungry!” Jerry exhaled and forced a cheery smile.
He decided to put malt vinegar on the chips, to be radical and edgy, then set the bottle down and got to his feet.
He walked towards the kitchen and stopped at the table where the woman was starting to salt and pepper her 5:15 pm breakfast. “Hello,” said Jerry. “I’m Jerry, and I am eating fish and chips alone in a huge booth by the window, and was wondering if you would like to share the booth with me.”
The woman looked up, startled. She looked at Jerry, then at the booth, then at her plate of eggs and bacon, and she set the salt shaker down.
“We don’t have to talk, if you don’t want to,” Jerry said.
“That would be strange, not talking,” said the woman. “If you could carry my glass of water for me?” They toted her dinner over to the booth and set it down opposite Jerry’s seat.
When she was reasonably settled, and had a paper napkin in her lap, she reached her hand across the table with an almost-smile on her face and said, “My name is Melody. Melody Harp. I have a slight problem with communication, as you will find out if we speak.”
They shook hands. “Oh, I hope we will speak,” said Jerry. “Everyone has problems— you don’t know mine.”
Melody took a sip of water. “I don’t suppose I can smoke at this table.”
“Probably not,” said Jerry. “But then, you are eating.”
She looked up sharply. “Do not presume to dictate what I do and don’t do,” said Melody.
“Oh no, I would never presume,” said Jerry, deeply delighted. He had no idea what might happen next.