New Thing, 9
At home—I mean, back in the city—I’m one of these people who comes up from the subway and invariably turns in the wrong direction, even if I’d done the exact same thing last week and the week before. And the year before. What I learn from my mistakes is that I keep making the same ones. It’s six blocks from the subway stop to my editor’s office at Dirigible Books. I usually made it in twelve. On a good day, ten.
I took a deep breath as I paused on the sidewalk at the edge of the Friendly Campfire parking lot. The Eatsmobile was straight down this street. I didn’t have to turn or anything. How hard can it be? I’d got this far, hadn’t I? Yes, but that was in daylight with the GPS murmuring reassuringly. And my lucky rose-bush in the back of the van. Gods, I was tired. Maybe I should just eat the van’s troubleshooting manual and go to bed.
As I was dithering—I was less concerned about the nutritional quality of the manual than I was about the rusty tea bags in the Friendly Campfire’s welcome basket. Could I possibly find my tea in the back of the van?—I heard a sound behind me and turned around. The perfectly normal person was just letting herself out of the office cabin. The friendly campfire was still burning in the window, a little beacon in the darkness, guiding tired wanderers to their neon haven.
To my surprise, she waved. I didn’t mind waiting another minute. I was sure the snakepits between me and the Eatsmobile weren’t going anywhere. She heaved a seriously large, and apparently seriously heavy, knapsack over one shoulder. Woman after my own heart. “I hope you’re comfortable in your cabin?” she greeted me.
“Yes, thanks,” I said, and added experimentally, “after I turned the friendly campfire off.”
She laughed. “Yes, they’re gruesome, aren’t they? Jan’s a decent boss though so I don’t tell him what I think of his logo.”
“Are you from around here?” I said. She somehow didn’t sound like someone from New Iceland ought to sound.
“No. Boston. But it’s cheaper here.”
Yes. I might even be able to live on Flowerhair and Aldetruda. “I was pretty startled by the house rental prices.”
She looked at me again. “Then you are going to be here a while.”
“A while,” I agreed noncommittally. She was obviously curious, but she was equally obviously hitching up her knapsack straps and rolling forward onto the balls of her feet in preparation for staggering off somewhere (habitual overloading of a large knapsack produces a characteristic posture). Home, probably. Without much hope I said, “You in a hurry? Can I buy you a coffee—or a beer—and cross-examine you about local mores?”
She hesitated, looking at her watch. “Sure. I can text the offspring that I’m going to be late. You going to the Eatsmobile?”
“Well, it was recommended by a local,” I said, smiling.
She laughed again. “I’ve only been here ten years. I’m still the single mom who moved into old Mrs Jennings’ house, who is probably rolling in her grave, poor old thing, she never held with those newfangled inventions like divorce.”
“So what’s so great about old Mrs Jennings’ house that you’ll stay despite the disapproving moans from the cupboard under the stairs?”
“The way the light comes in the big windows in her living room,” she said promptly. “Fortunately she’s not a big moaner. And the cold patch in the front hall is really nice in August.”
We had crossed the street and were moving purposefully in what I was willing to believe was the direction of the Eatsmobile. No visible snakepits.
“I like to imagine I’m an artist,” she went on ruefully. “But the offspring and I have to eat, so I moonlight as a receptionist and bookkeeper at the local motel.”
The Eatsmobile was a big shiny diner: the front of it had been done up to look like the biggest Airstream that ever lived. I loved it on sight. My heart lifted for maybe the first time since Gelasio had interrupted Flowerhair’s adventure with the attack mushrooms, as we walked up the little stair and opened the door. I took a deep, appreciative breath of strong fresh coffee and deep fat frying as we crossed the diner’s threshold. “I can recommend the meatloaf,” said my new acquaintance the bookkeeper-artist-ghostbuster. “If you’re into meatloaf.”
We slid into a booth. “I think I’m probably into anything this place serves,” I said.
“Good answer,” she replied. She added, “Hey, Billie,” when one of the waitresses waved. “I’m Serena,” she said to me. “One of the great misnamings of the modern era. My mother had four kids and fostered two more, and I was more trouble than the other five combined. So she often told me. What does the ‘K’ stand for?”
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