Thursday: Donut Store memories
When I was in my first year of university, I worked in a donut store to pay for the next year’s tuition. It wasn’t the worst job in the world but the hours were long, and people tended to treat you as if you were inconsequential, or a target for their own frustrations, you know, like “I had a sh*tty day, so I’m going to yell at this poor donut girl for not giving me enough honeyglazed donut holes”. Still, the other girls were fun to work with, the donut maker was this sweet old German guy named Wolfy who would pretend to break a donut and then give it to you as a treat (well, he thought they were treats—we were all thoroughly sick to death of donuts), and the owner treated us really well. It was over thirty years ago but to this day, I still remember two specific customers for two very different reasons. The first was Norm, a guy in his 40s, with bright red hair and a red mustache. He drove a giant-ass Cadillac, and when we saw it pulling into the parking lot, we were all like, “Oh God, Norm’s here.” Then it was bargaining to see who would have to serve him. He would sit at the counter for hours, with his “tea”, a beverage which had to be made to very strict specifications—a quarter cup of hot water, three quarters milk, then drop the teabag in and take it out right away. It was never perfect, and he would instruct us over and over again, until finally the owner told us to just give him the milk and the pot of hot water and let him do it himself, and if he complained, (which he frequently did) she would deal with him. Norm was on disability and took a lot of narcotic pain meds for a back injury, and in retrospect, I think we were the only friends he had, since he spent the majority of each night with us.
(Addendum: Ken started reading this post and said, “Wait a minute! You only had TWO memorable customers?! Excuse me?” So I have to point out that Ken and his roommate used to come to the donut store once a week around closing time to buy the day-old donuts that we sold for $1 per dozen. This was long before we actually started dating, but yes, honey, you were very memorable.)
The second customer was Eric McCormack, the Canadian writer (not the “Will and Grace” actor of the same name), although I didn’t realize who he was until he’d been coming around for a while. He was quite well-known at the time—well, still is, having been nominated for the Governor-General’s Award, and is still publishing in his late 70s. At any rate, when I worked at the donut store, I didn’t know who he was, except that he was a really nice, silver-haired Scottish guy, who always ordered a large coffee “dooble dooble”, which is to say double cream and double sugar but with a Scottish accent. He did this regularly, and seemed like the kind of guy you’d want to know better. When I DID find out that he was the author of one of my favourite short story collections, “Inspecting The Vaults”, I was overcome in the way that only English Literature students can be. He was teaching at the local university so I got to know him a little bit from conversations at the donut store, and once, a few years later, I bumped into him at the grocery store and asked for his autograph, which he gave me with a bemused smile. Then a few years later, I was helping run a writing competition for students in my school board, and we needed a new fiction judge. I contacted him at the university, and reminded him that I was the donut store waitress slash grocery store stalker, and despite that, he graciously agreed to be a judge for the contest, a role he continued even when he moved to Kingston. Why am I telling you this? Because a couple of weeks ago, I had this bizarre dream where Eric and I were writing a story together. I don’t know why—I literally hadn’t thought of him in years, but there he was in my dream. We were brainstorming the plot of the story and came up with what we thought was a terrific first line. Then, randomly, we had to go into another room to finish the story, at which point in the dream I exclaimed, “I know how it ends!” I won’t tell you that right now, because I just wrote the story that I dreamed about, using the first line and the end, and filling in the gaps. So I guess Eric McCormack is my muse? Well, here’s to you, Eric—thanks for being in my subconscious with me:
She’d always liked a man in a cowboy hat, she thought, trying not to stare at the older fellow who had just now come into the diner. She couldn’t have helped but look up initially; the place was almost deserted, and the bell over the door had chimed in a jarring way when it opened, as if signalling something ominous. The restaurant itself was one of those side-of-the-highway service centre places, places for people on their way somewhere—or nowhere.
Cowboy hats reminded her of her father, and she could never see someone wearing one without immediately thinking of him, his blue eyes crinkled with laughter, beer in hand, making a clever joke and not yet slurring his words. He always wore one when he went out, incongruous as it was with his upbringing, background, and career. He wasn’t a cowboy, wasn’t even a farmer; he was a bricklayer, among other things, things which he took on when brick work was scarce. Or when he’d lost yet another job. Still, he always managed to pick something up—his nickname was Cowboy Jack, and people always gave him a break because he was good with his hands when his hands were being good.
The man wearing the cowboy hat sat down at the counter, nursing a large coffee handed to him by a waitress in her late teens or early twenties. The girl looked a bit sour as she’d filled his cup with double cream and sugar—no wonder, working in a place like this at this time of night. Her hair and makeup seemed out of place with the brown and beige polyester uniform she was wearing, and there was a novel and an open binder at the end of the counter where it looked like she was trying to get some work done. University student earning tuition, no doubt. The waitress was on her way back to her homework when the man said something to her. She looked around and her face broke into a big smile. She said something as a rejoinder, quick and witty, with a nod of her chin, and they both laughed, his shoulders shaking with mirth.
Her father. She sighed. It had been a while, through the never-ending cycle of “I love you” to “I hate you” back to “I love you” and then finally to “I love you, but…” He’d been a great dad in so many ways, except for the staying sober part, and as the years went on, that part got smaller and smaller until it was a thin slice sandwiched between bouts of drinking and fury that never seemed to end. The letters came once in a while—“I’ve been going to meetings. Can I see you?” but there was work, and Luke and the kids, the grandkids he’d only seen a couple of times. The guilt had eaten away at her, but she’d lost the ability to trust his good intentions years ago. Then the last letter came, a few days ago. It was funny, it struck her, how time seems to linger, circles around you, whispers in your ear that there’s no rush, until suddenly there’s no time left.
The man at the counter swivelled on his stool, then got up and walked towards her table. He was thin, thinner than she remembered, but his eyes were the same under the cowboy hat, blue and crinkled at the corners. He stood in front of her, hesitant, holding tight to his coffee. She looked up at him and smiled.
“Hey, Dad. Merry Christmas.”