***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Louise Miller
Some people dream of diner life, others are born into it. It was my dad's vision to own a little breakfast-and-lunch place. He bought the original Worcester Lunch Car Company diner #723 the year I was born and lovingly restored it to its original glory. Sparkly aqua Formica counters and tables were paired with oxblood Naugahyde stools and benches. Buffalo china cups and plates stamped with the Miss Guthrie logo were special ordered. He lovingly polished the hand-stamped chrome splashback that lined the wall separating the counter from the kitchen until it gleamed. He even managed to find replacement tiles for the black-and-white basket-weave-patterned floor. It was my mom's idea to add on the dining room out back, and then to extend our hours to include dinner so we could serve enough customers to actually make a living. Together my parents created a successful business and a place for themselves in the heart of the community of Guthrie, Vermont.
I was born into it.
As a baby, I was placed in a high chair next to the stack of Styrofoam take-out containers so my mom could work the hostess stand. When I was steady enough to sit on a stool, I spent my days at the counter drawing pictures with crayons on the back of paper place mats. During my middle-school years I ate cereal in a little two-seater booth in the back, cramming for math tests and finishing assigned reading before the regional bus honked its horn outside. When I turned twelve, my dad finally relented and allowed me to work the cash register on weekends and school vacations. I took over my mom's hostess shift when I was thirteen, the year she started treatment for breast cancer, and have been behind the counter ever since.
Every day at the diner was pretty much the same, until Peggy the cake lady died.
It was the first week of August, the Wednesday after the Coventry County Fair. July had been a brutal month of sticky heat that had the folks of Guthrie escaping to the glacial waters of Lake Willoughby every chance they could get. But when August arrived it brought with it the kind of dry, sunny days and crisp nights that made everyone's heart ache with the desire to stop time. The corn was tall and heavy. Glossy red and purple heirloom tomatoes were piled high on the farmer's market tables. The late summer days were the ones we all lived for, the reason we endured the long, snowy winters and the damp, muddy springs.
I arrived early that morning as I always do, before the bread man delivered his plastic pallets of English muffins and loaves of sliced sandwich bread. I got there even before Charlie, the breakfast cook, who sleepily pushed through the back door and into the kitchen to heat up the griddle and crack the first flats of eggs. I propped the door open behind me so the fresh air could chase away the lingering scent of last night's dinner special. That hour before anything begins is my favorite time of day in the Miss Guthrie Diner. Don't get me wrong-I love the hustle of a busy breakfast shift when every Naugahyde stool is filled and the line for one of the booths stretches out the door. But there is a magic to that hour when it's just me, wiping down the counter, placing napkin-wrapped cutlery and paper place mats at every seat. There's a stillness that reminds me of being in the woods, where everything feels right in the world.
The quiet lasts only an hour, of course, usually less. On that day it had taken just five minutes from the moment I had switched on the dining-room lights and turned the window sign to OPEN for the counter to fill with regulars. Some came in pairs-mostly guys who drove to work together. But the majority of regulars arrived alone, reading the Coventry County Record while eating their French toast, knowing if they wanted company they could find it. Mom always said it was our job to take care of the morning people of Guthrie, and to make sure the people who served the town-the school-bus driver and the folks who plowed the roads-had a good start to their day. She saw the diner as a kind of utility, as necessary as the dump and the post office, and I liked carrying on my mom's spirit of community service and passing it on to the regulars. I kept the coffee fresh, handed out free blueberry muffins, and smiled graciously at the old men who considered a crisp dollar bill a generous tip.
"In the window," Charlie called from the kitchen behind me, his voice rough.
I took a look at him. "Late night?" His beard was more scraggly than usual, his hair was a wiry mess, and the skin under his eyes was puffed like dumplings
"Filled in at the Bear Cub."
The Bear Cub, in neighboring Shelby, is the closest thing we have to a gay bar in the Northeast Kingdom. It's the sister bar to the Black Bear Tavern here in town. I think when my dad hired Charlie, he had a daydream that Charlie and I might hit it off someday, get married, take over the family business. Dad was never crazy about Sean, my first boyfriend, who eventually became my husband, but he loved Charlie like a long-lost son.
"Meet anyone new?"
Charlie gave me a look that said Have I ever met anyone new at the Bear Cub? and nudged the platters of food in the window toward me. I grabbed the two plates-one Hungry Man's Breakfast and one egg-white omelet-and carried them to the end of the counter.
"Here you go, gentlemen," I said, placing the plates down in front of the two customers.
"You know what those places can do to a town, Chris," Burt Grant was saying. He was the owner of the Guthrie Hammer and Nail, the town's only hardware store. "Think about what a place like that could do to my business. To all of the businesses-not just mine."
I reached under the counter for the bottle of ketchup I knew Burt would ask for. I tried my best not to eavesdrop on conversations at the diner, but inevitably I would hear a sentence or two. I figured people wouldn't talk about something out in public if it were truly private, although you'd be surprised. I know more than I thought I ever would about skin tags after one of the regulars had to have hers surgically removed.
"Anything else I can get you?" I asked.
"That's the town bylaw, Grant. My hands are tied," said Chris Franklin, one of the town selectmen. He smiled up at me. "That will do, sweetheart."
I had grown up in the diner, so I didn't mind being called "sweetheart" by regulars like Chris who had known me since I was in pigtails-they said it with affection. Most of the folks around my parents' age saw me as a forty-two-year-old kid. But I wasn't crazy about being called "sweetie" or "honey" by the guys closer to my age. And by a stranger it was a different matter altogether.
"Everything going well, Burt?" I asked. Burt was only a little older than me, but the new creases in his forehead made him look more like his dad every day. I considered giving him Chris's Hungry Man. He looked like he needed the nourishment.
"Can't complain," he said, but he wasn't convincing.
"Nora, in the window," Charlie called.
The bell on the door tinkled, and Fern, the Miss Guthrie's most senior waitress and my oldest friend, rushed in the door. "Sorry, sorry," she called as she pushed her way into the kitchen, trying simultaneously to take off her jacket and pull back her frizzy blond hair into a bun.
"Just one last refill, Nora, if you don't mind?" Sheriff Granby asked as I walked by, nudging his ceramic cup toward the edge of the counter. After I served a couple of plates of poached eggs, I returned to the sheriff with a glass pot of coffee.
"Can I pack you up anything for later?" The sheriff and his wife had just split, and he had been taking most of his morning and evening meals at the diner ever since. I figured no one was making him lunch.
Granby looked up from the paper. "You're an angel. Have any of that shepherd's pie left over from last night?"
"Let me check."
I pushed through the swinging door that separated the counter from the kitchen. Charlie was scrubbing the grill with an iron brush. "Shepherd's?" I asked. Charlie and I had developed our own language over the years, mastering the art of saying the most with the least amount of words.
"Fridge, top right."
Next to the reach-in refrigerator, the back door was open, the still-cool morning air rushing in and cutting through the heat of the kitchen. I pushed plastic containers of cole slaw and pickles out of the way until I spotted the pie plate and pulled it out. Out of the corner of my eye I caught something moving in the backyard. The morning fog had lingered, softening the shape of the dumpster, the crab apple tree, and the picnic table that I kept for the staff smoke breaks. I heard a rustle of movement through dried leaves. I squinted and pressed my nose to the screen, touching it with my tongue. Between the table and the trees I caught the flick of a white -tipped tail. A snout emerged from behind the table, and then a torso. It was a large dog, jet black except for his white feet and a white stripe running down his snout. His head would easily come up to my hip. He looked like a Border collie whose kibble was sprinkled with Miracle-Gro.
"Hey, Charlie," I called over my shoulder. "Come here. Doesn't that look like Peggy Johnson's dog, Freckles?"
"Peggy the cake lady?" Charlie wiped his tortoiseshell glasses on his apron and peered out. "Nah. Freckles is brown. And curly. And fat."
"That was Freckles number three. I'm talking about Freckles the fourth."
Peggy delivered her cakes herself and she was usually accompanied by a dog or two. I had only seen the newest Freckles a couple of times when I walked by her car parked in the White Market parking lot.
The dog sniffed the ground under the table, looking for scraps. He nosed a green crab apple on the ground and licked it.
"That dog doesn't even have freckles," Charlie said.
I narrowed my eyes at him and pressed the pie plate into his chest. "Pack that up for Granby. No charge."
Over at the dish station, I grabbed some crumbled scraps of bacon and a soggy slice of toast and stuffed them into my apron. I pushed the screen door slowly, trying not to make a sound. Peggy Johnson's place was miles from town, over on Hunger Mountain Road. She had been my family's next-door neighbor for as long as I could remember, until we had to sell the place. If this was Freckles the fourth, he was far from home. Peggy loved her dogs and they were her constant companions-it was unusual to see one not by her side. Maybe he had got caught up chasing a rabbit and lost his way? It had been a banner year for rabbits. The door slipped from my fingers and snapped shut behind me, squeaking and slamming. The dog's head shot up and he took two steps back.
"Hey there, sweetie. It's okay." I dropped down into a squat and held out the toast in one hand, tossing bits of bacon with the other.
"Come here, now, Freckles. Are you Freckles? Aren't you a good boy?" The dog raised his muzzle in the air, sniffing in a circular motion. He took one step toward me, leaned down and inhaled the bacon on the ground, backed up, then quickly slipped behind the picnic table. With two fingers I eased my phone from my apron, careful not to get grease all over the lens, and snapped a few photos before he disappeared into the woods. I had only captured his tail and a bit of curly fringe that trimmed his back legs.
"Hey, Nora," Fern popped her head out the screen door. "A bus full of antiquers just pulled in."
"I'll be right there." I stood, emptying my pockets of bread scraps and bacon and tossing them toward the trees, then wiped my hands on my apron. I glanced one more time into the woods, but Freckles was nowhere to be seen.
From over Charlie's shoulder I peeked through the window into the dining room at the line of tourists gathered at the door. "It's going to be a busy one."
Fern's hand appeared in the window, fingers heavy with rings, waving a chit. Charlie took it wordlessly from her and turned up the grill. The shepherd's pie lay untouched on his prep table.
"Granby change his mind?" I asked, pulling my hair back into a fresh ponytail.
"Got a call. Didn't even finish his eggs."
Two more tickets appeared in the window. I pushed though the swinging door, grabbed a stack of plastic -coated menus, and got to work.
The Victoria Hotel hasn't been a hotel since the 1950s. In its heyday, at the turn of the last century, it was a magnet for the guests who flocked to the northern mountain towns in search of fresh air and what were thought to be the healing waters of nearby Lake Willoughby. The hotel closed after the owner was arrested for hiring someone to give very thorough massages, and sat empty and decaying until one of the developers in the White family bought it and turned it into apartments.
I moved in a couple of years ago, after my marriage crumbled. I had always assumed I'd grow old in the little farmhouse I had lived in my whole life-but there was a lien on the estate to pay off the nursing home we put my father in once his dementia progressed, and neither I nor my sister, Kit, had the money to settle the debt. In the end it came down to selling the diner or the house-and since the diner had been my one and only career, and the farmhouse we had grown up in was built for a family and not a single woman, the decision seemed clear. We sold the house and paid off the nursing home. I gave Kit everything that was left, including the proceeds of the sale of all the antique furniture our mom had loved, dad's baseball card collection, and everything in the barn, with the agreement that the diner would be mine. The decision suited us both-Kit had the money to fund her next art project and I got to keep the diner that was both my home and my livelihood. But I did everything I could to avoid driving down Hunger Mountain Road. I didn't want to see what the new owners had done to my mother's kitchen garden.
My apartment was nice enough: there was a kitchenette that I used only to boil water for tea, a bathroom with a porcelain tub, a small bedroom, and a living room with floor-to-ceiling curved windows, their original opalescent glass still in place. That time of year, in the early evening, the room took on a rosy hue that reminded me of the inner petals of pink peonies. I liked the fact that you could tell what month it was by the color and angle of the light.
I had just changed from my work uniform-knee-length black skirt, light blue Miss Guthrie T-shirt, short white socks under an ugly pair of black sneakers-and into my favorite pair of denim overalls when I heard a knock at the door.
"It's open," I called, assuming it was one of the neighbors. Someone always needed something: a smoke detector battery replaced or help changing their cat's litter box. As the youngest tenant of the Victoria Hotel, it fell on me to take care of these little tasks when my neighbors' sons or daughters weren't around to help.
"Hey." Sean LaPlante, cabinetmaker, know-it-all, Guthrie's newest town council member, and my ex-husband, walked into the living room like he was surveying his estate and immediately began to pace the parameter, opening windows. "How can you breathe in here?"
The first thing I did when Sean and I split was drive the two hours to the Macy's in Burlington to buy a bottle of perfume. It smelled heavy, like church-vetiver and myrrh. The second thing I did was plant petunias in my flower boxes. Lavender-scented laundry detergent came next, followed by tangerine dish soap. Sean was scent sensitive-anything with fragrance gave him a migraine-and I had been living a hypoallergenic, unscented existence up until the divorce. Afterward, whenever I found myself ruminating over some dumb thing he said or did, I spritzed myself. It always made me feel a little better.
"You should have called first," I said, snuffing out the stick of nag champa I had burning on the mantle. "What's up?"
It wasn't that unusual for Sean to drop by. We had had a cordial split, and it had been coming on for years. Sean and I had been together since we first kissed while slow dancing to "Lady in Red" at our freshman semiformal, and had gotten married at twenty. We were already growing apart when we were hit by ten years of endless stress- his mom's depression, my father's Alzheimer's, his dad losing the furniture business, which also meant Sean losing his job, me putting my dad in the nursing home, his brother's son dying in a motorcycle accident. And then there were my infertility problems. I asked him for a separation the morning after my dad's funeral. I think he was relieved- he packed his things and moved out the next day.
Sean banged on one of the windows with his palm, then lifted and lowered it until it moved smoothly. Satisfied that I had proper ventilation, he flopped down on the couch. "Did you hear about Mrs. Johnson?"
"Peggy?" My stomach dropped a couple inches. The image of Freckles, alone in the trees behind the diner filled my mind.
"What about her?"
"There was an accident, Nora. She died."
"Oh, that's awful," I said. Peggy Johnson, Peggy the cake lady, was a fixture in Guthrie. She was like everyone's third grandmother. Peggy was an excellent baker, and if there was an occasion to celebrate, it would include one of Peggy's creations. Baby showers, birthday parties, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, wedding anniversaries-it was unusual for more than a week to go by between slices of one of Peggy's cakes. "What happened?"
"Her car hit that big white oak over on Pudding Hill. Word is she had a heart attack while driving. Didn't feel a thing."
"Poor lady." I tucked my arms into the bib of my overalls and hugged my waist. "She'll be missed."
"I'm going to miss her lemon chiffon. God, she was good. Remember our wedding cake?"
Our wedding cake had been a simple one-just two tiers, a tender vanilla sponge so soft you could slice it with a spoon, filled with whipped cream and fresh strawberries from the farmer's market. It was the best cake I had ever tasted.
Sean stretched his arm across the back of the couch, making it impossible for me to sit without touching him. He always took up too much room. I grabbed one of the wooden stools from the kitchen and sat down. "I'm so sorry to hear about Mrs. Johnson, Sean, I really am, but why stop by? You could have just called." I cared about Peggy as much as the next Guthrie resident, but it's not like we were so close that I needed to be consoled in person. I was quickly growing annoyed that Sean was in my apartment.
Sean leaned forward, his brown curls falling into his face. He was my age, but he still looked boyish and he knew it. "Here's the thing. I was having a beer over at the Black Bear, and I overheard Granby talking with-what's the name of that guy who works in town records?"
"She lets you go out drinking?" The she I was referring to was the new girlfriend, the one he had hooked up with two weeks after we split.
"You know the guy-one of the Burke cousins?"
"You really should know this, now that you are a council member. Jason Burke, he graduated with our class." Our graduation class was only seventy-five students, but Sean has a selective memory. Like how he didn't remember we were only separated and not yet divorced when he hooked up with Margot-his intern-a petite woman from New York City. She had left a lucrative career in PR to learn how to make furniture the old way, before power tools. She always smelled like Obsession by Calvin Klein, but apparently that didn't trigger Sean's migraines.
"He did? Wait, did he play baseball?"
"You overheard Granby and Jason Burke . . ."
Sean looked smug. Like most residents of Guthrie, he loved to know the dirt. "Do you have anything to drink?"
"Don't you need to get home?"
"I have time. Beer? Wine? Whiskey?"
"Isn't she waiting for a lesson on mortise joints from the master craftsman?"
"Nora," Sean said in a deflated tone.
My ability to take the wind out of Sean's sails was as much a part of why our marriage failed as anything Sean ever did. I felt bad, but I couldn't help myself. Yes, it was my idea to separate, and yes, I had given up my right to have an opinion about what he was doing with his time and with whom, but two weeks. As soon as they were seen picking out eggplants together in the White Market I started getting pitying looks from the customers at the diner.
I let my voice soften. "What did you overhear?"
"Mrs. Johnson had a will."
"I would hope so. She has a lot of land. I'm glad she-I don't know." I stood and went into the kitchen to open a bottle of cold beer and split it into two glasses. I had been about to say that I was glad she had made her wishes known since she didn't have a spouse to rely on to take care of things. Peggy had never married. I think it's why she liked to bake so much-it gave her a chance to get out and be a part of other people's families and celebrations. "Did it mention who would inherit Freckles? He was in the car with her when she crashed, and he's out wandering around alone."
"Not that I know of."
"What about the funeral? I hope she made arrangements. Remember last year when Gert Brown passed, and that cousin from California insisted on having her cremated and shipped to him?"
"First time Gert left Vermont."
A shiver ran through me. "I wonder who she left it to? I don't think I ever saw her with family. Maybe she donated her estate to the dog warden? I hope it's not summer people. It's too pretty a house to let sit nine months out of the year. Who did she spend Christmas with anyway?"
Sean drank the beer in one swallow. "You."
"Now, you of all people know I work Christmas morning." Sean hated that I served breakfast Christmas morning and pushed me to close the diner every year, but then where would the plow drivers and the loggers without family go? I couldn't leave them out in the cold. Besides, we did pretty good business that day. The waitresses never complained about the tips.
"No, you, Nora. Granby and Burke were saying they thought Peggy had mentioned she was leaving her estate to you."
"What? That doesn't make any sense." I rocked back and forth from heel to toe, staring down at my worn-out pair of red Keds. My right toe was poking through a hole in the canvas. "She was our neighbor, but we barely spent any time with her. Why would she leave us anything?" Peggy and my family had had a friendly, wave across the yard, drop off a box of fudge at Christmas, trade stalks of rhubarb for some apples kind of relationship, but not a close one. She always kept to herself.
Sean shrugged. "Don't know. Guess she didn't have anyone else to give it to?"
I felt a wave of sadness wash over me. If I had known that we meant that much to her, or that she had so few people in her life, I would have had her over to play crazy eights or something. Peggy was kind. I hated the thought that she didn't have people.
Sean stood up and wrapped his arm around my shoulder. "I see what you are doing there. She wasn't your responsibility."
"I should have been more neighborly." I let myself lean into Sean for just a second. I've always liked his soft, wood-shavings scent. Sean had been my only sweetheart. The boy I lost my virginity to. His body was as familiar to me as the oxblood Naugahyde that covered the stools along the diner counter. I may not have been married to him anymore, but that didn't make me know him any less, or feel any less comfortable around him. When I felt him toy with the strap of my overalls, I twisted out of his embrace. "Well, thanks for telling me. I would rather know before the peanut gallery arrives tomorrow."
"Anytime. You should probably give Kit a call."
"It's half hers. At least that's what I heard. Peggy left her estate to you and Kit. If it's true, you'll have some decisions to make."