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Eat at Joe's

By Rob Rosen

Melanie had always been a creature of habit. She woke at the same time each and every morning, ate the same healthy, bland breakfast, wore the same drab wardrobe of clothes, and watched the same boring television shows when she came home at night from the same tedious job she'd had for nearly ten, miserable years. She even used the same brands of shampoo, toothpaste, dental floss, and deodorant that she had when she was twenty. At thirty that's saying something. Sadly for Melanie that something was a big, fat rut. Her life, in a pitiful, little nutshell, was boring; safe, certainly, but boring.

"Yuck," she exclaimed one solitary morning as she chewed her first mouthful of unsweetened granola.

She dropped her spoon in the bowl and pushed herself away from the kitchen table. "Enough," she sighed as she walked through her living room and out her front door. "Enough," she echoed as she got into her tan Dodge Dart and headed for work.

She never made it there.

She was three miles from her office, driving along the interstate she'd ridden countless times before, when she approached the spot where the highway broke off. Straight ahead, east, would take her downtown to work, west to points unknown. In all the years she'd driven that stretch of road, she'd never gone west. Never. Not once.

"Screw it," she said, with her heart racing and her mind whirling. A lone bead of sweat trickled down her forehead as she turned the wheel hard to the right, veering her car across three lanes of heavy commuter traffic. In a mere instant, and with no thought to where she was heading or what exactly she was doing, she was now traveling due west. She rolled down her window and cranked up the volume on the radio to block out the voice in her head that was shouting at her to turn back around and proceed as planned.

"Now what?" she finally asked herself, after she'd traveled several miles into the unknown. Suddenly, she passed a billboard. Eat at Joe's, it read. "A sign," she said, and that it was, both literally and figuratively. A few minutes later she was pulling into the restaurant parking lot.

Joe's was a nondescript diner. A truck stop, really. She read the menu posted on the front door. No granola, no yogurt, no fruit plate. Nothing but fattening, unhealthy items to choose from. Her stomach gurgled and for the first time that morning she felt gloriously relaxed. She fairly skipped into the restaurant, and with a joyful smile sat down on a stool at the counter.

"What can I get for you, sweetie?" asked the waitress. Melanie already knew exactly what she wanted - besides a new job, a new car, some new clothes, a whole new life for that matter.

"Chocolate chip pancakes, please," she replied.

"With butter?" the waitress asked as she scribbled the order down.

"Yes, please."

"Whipped cream?"

"Oh, yes, please. And a side of bacon. And a coffee, with extra cream and sugar."

The waitress stopped writing and looked up from her pad. "No diets, huh, sweetie. Good for you." She smiled a wizened, yellow smile and brought the order back to the kitchen. She returned with a pot of coffee. "On your way to work, sweetie?" she asked as she poured.

Melanie paused before answering. Wherever it was she was headed, it wasn't to work. "No, not work. I'm, um, on.sabbatical." Melanie liked the way that sounded.

"Sabbatical, huh? What are you, some kind of doctor or something?"

"A doctor? Oh, I mean, yes, a doctor. I'm a doctor, but I'm taking some time off from work."

"Must be nice, sweetie. I ain't had a vacation in years. And I got the calluses to prove it."

"Well you really should take one. Everyone needs a break from their lives. It does wonders for the spirit." Melanie was now speaking from experience.

"Yeah, well, it may do wonders for the spirit, sweetie, but it's hell on the pocketbook, if you know what I mean. But I guess a doctor ain't gotta worry about such things."

And with that the waitress went back to work, leaving Melanie in stunned silence. After all, she wasn't a doctor, not by a long shot. What she was was a secretary.

Was? Is? she though to herself. If I go back now, would they even notice I was late? Is anyone even missing me? Her elation quickly turned to despair. And at that very moment, when it all seemed so hopeless, she spotted him coming directly at her.

. .. .

Theo was late for his meeting; fifteen minutes late to be precise, and the traffic wasn't helping any. Luckily, being the boss had its perks. The meeting would wait for him. Then again, maybe not. Luck, it would seem, was not to be his right at that moment.

"What the hell?" he shouted as the car in the left lane swerved madly to the right, crossing three lanes before it exited onto the off ramp. Theo's almost-new, cherry red Miata came to a screeching halt so as not to hit the inconsiderate idiot careening in front of him. To that degree, he was successful. The three cars that piled into him didn't see it that way, of course.

Theo's head hit the steering wheel as the first car smashed into his bumper. The second and third crashes destroyed the entire backside of his prized possession. In a matter of seconds, the car, and Theo's already awful morning, were both irrevocably totalled.

The police, the tow trucks, and the ambulances all arrived in no time flat; though, miraculously, no one was seriously injured. Theo was shaken, but chose to drive with his wrecked car to the mechanic rather than get checked out at a local hospital. "I'll be fine," he said to the policemen, "but my car isn't looking so good." It was a gross understatement if ever there was one.

The tow truck driver dropped Theo off at the garage a mere ten minutes later. The prognosis, not too surprisingly, considering how his day was going, was not good.

"You got insurance, buddy?" the mechanic asked as he shook his head back and forth.

"Of course," Theo replied.

"Then I'd say next time skip the sports car and go for something a bit sturdier."

"Next time?" he barely managed to squeak out.

"Oh yeah, buddy, 'cause there ain't no this time. This baby's a goner."

Theo stifled a moan, sadly turned away from his Miata, and walked out of the garage. The day was going from bad to worse. And to top it all off, he hadn't even had his first cup of coffee yet. His nerves were completely and utterly shot. But things were looking up. Actually, it was Theo who was looking up. He spotted the Eat at Joe's sign atop the restaurant that was situated to the right of the garage. He called his office from his cell phone and cancelled his meeting.

"God I need a cup of coffee," he sighed as he made his way towards the diner. It was then that he noticed the tan Dodge Dart parked outside: the same car that ran him off the road barely a half hour earlier. He could feel his blood boiling as he entered Joe's. And at that very moment, when everything seemed so God-awful, he spotted her.

. . ..

Rusty slid off the seat and landed on the floor below. He was accustomed to slipping and sliding in the car, but this was different. There was a loud noise this time and a sudden jolt. The two-legged one was shouting, and not at him, for a change. He leapt back onto the seat and looked out of the window. He could see the mass of twisted metal in front of his own car and several clouds of rising smoke. Instinct told him to get out, to run, to escape.

The door to his left had bent and cracked on impact. There was a narrow gap that hadn't been there before. The two-legged one was still screaming and yelling and pounding her hairless fists on the hard round thing. Rusty looked back at the gap and deemed it wide enough. Quickly, and with little thought, he squeezed his head and then his body through the narrow opening. He smelled the burning metal and heard the blaring horns all around him. Cars were whizzing by on all sides. He cowered behind the rear wheel and waited for a safe moment to present itself.

He sensed that he wasn't in any immediate danger. There wasn't any fire or any cars coming directly at him. The screaming, two-legged one had gotten out of the car, but was walking forward, not back. He doubted she even knew he was missing. This one didn't really care about him anyway, much like the one before her. Why did they take him home if they didn't want to play and pet and love him? And this one always smelled funny, like overly sweet flowers. It made Rusty gag at the thought.

Pretty soon, other cars started pulling up around them. Most had flashing colored lights on them. Rusty shut his eyes from the glare. He trembled and cowered behind the tire, and he waited. It seemed Rusty was always waiting. Waiting for the two-legged one to come home, to feed him, to walk him. Maybe he'd be better off on his own, he thought. But how was he going to get across the road with all the traffic going by?

When he again opened his eyes, he saw his chance. A bigger car, one with a funny looking metal thing rising up from its rear, was attaching itself to one of the twisted cars and was starting to pull it away from the others. He noticed that there was a space wide enough for him on the back of the bigger car. He just had to run to it and hope no one saw him.

Rusty lifted his ears up high as he crept from behind the tire. Most of the two-legged ones were huddled around the cars with the flashing lights. They were either crying or yelling, or both. Rusty truly didn't understand these creatures at all. Sure they had good food, but in all honesty, they really weren't worth all the hassle.

So he ran, ran faster than he'd ever run before, and just as the bigger car started to pull away, he leapt, leapt high up in the air, and landed hard on the cold metal surface. He hurt his right front paw, but he made it. And as the car sped away, he saw the two-legged one finally spot him. Again she started to scream and wave her hairless arms and hands in the air.

"Woof," Rusty repeatedly shouted, which, loosely translated, meant, "Sayonara and good riddance, smelly two-legged one".

The wind felt great as it coursed across his face and ran down the length of his body before it whipped off his wagging tail. Rusty let his long, slobbering tongue loll out of his mouth as he watched the cars and the trees and the landscape zoom by. He was finally free.

A short while later, the two cars were pulling up to a big building that smelled like grease and smoke and sweat; not a totally unpleasant odor, to Rusty anyway, but it wasn't food. No, that smell was coming from the building next-door. Rusty was mightily hungry, what with all the excitement of the day, and he jumped off the big car and ran over to investigate the wonderful, new aroma.

His paw still hurt a bit, so he limped as he walked over to the big metal can. A whole bouquet of tangy fragrances was emanating from it. Rusty drooled and slobbered as he approached.

"Woof," he said as he knocked the can over, which meant, quite literally, "Feed me, now."

Rusty was overjoyed as he plunged his nose deep within the pile. Eagerly, he ate up the scraps of meats and other strange delicacies he'd never tasted before. The meals the two-legged ones fed him were tasty, but there was a definite lack of variety. Now here, before him, was a veritable buffet. Rusty gorged himself until his belly was full and he couldn't eat another bite.

"Woof," he said, which meant something like, "Thanks, catch ya later." And at that very moment, as he limped around to the front of the building, he spotted them.

. . . .

Theo lumbered into Joe's and sat on the stool next to the woman who was staring blankly at him. He immediately ordered a cup of coffee before he looked around to see if he recognized the guy that caused the demise of his beloved Miata. Unfortunately, it had all happened in such a painful blur that all he could remember was the car itself as it swerved menacingly in front of him. Theo figured he'd just have to watch for the person to leave; then he'd confront him when he got to his car. In the meanwhile, he turned and waited for his coffee.

"My goodness," the waitress said as she poured. "What happened to you, mister? You got a bump on your noggin the size of a lemon. You been in an accident or something?"

Theo reached for his forehead and winced in pain. He forgot that he had smacked it into the steering wheel. He grimaced before looking back up at the waitress.

"Yeah, some idiot cut me of on the freeway," he said, loud enough for the entire restaurant to hear. No one showed any signs of guilt.

"Well," the waitress added, "you should go see yourself a doctor."

"I suppose I should," Theo said as he took his first sip of the bitter brew. "But I think I should eat something first."

"Lucky for you, mister, you can do both. This here lady next to you is a doctor. Ain't that right, miss?"

Melanie blanched as she looked up at the waitress and then over to the man she'd already recognized. Theo stared back at her but showed no signs of recognition, which didn't surprise Melanie in the least, all things considered. Still, he gazed at her as if to say, "Fix me, I'm broke."

Melanie stared at the ugly welt on his forehead, but then nodded apologetically. "Sorry," she said. "I'm not that kind of doctor. I'm a, er, a veterinarian." Both Theo and the waitress frowned at her admission.

"That's okay," Theo said. "It's par for the course today."

"Welcome to my world," she said with a sheepish grin.

"Mine too," the waitress added, and then slapped down a free slice of cherry pie for the injured Theo before heading back to her other customers.

When they were again alone together, Theo said to Melanie, "You know, you look vaguely familiar. Have we met before? Did you spay my cat?"

Melanie thought of a lot of answers to that question. She felt like saying, "No, but I fixed your fax once, when your own secretary couldn't do it, and I watered your palm tree, and, one time, washed your coffee mug, though not all that well, truth be told." Instead she replied, "I don't work around here, so I doubt it."

"Shame," Theo said. "I hate my vet. So does my cat, for that matter. Maybe I'll come see you instead." He winked and smiled at her. To her profound delight, Theo, her boss's boss, was actually flirting.

"Well, I'm, um, thinking of giving up my practice. Too stressful."

"Okay, mind if I see you without my cat then?"

Melanie blushed. Her day was looking up after all. In ten years, Theo had never once noticed her, though he was never more than a hundred feet away on any given day. Now, out of the blue, he strolls into an out of the way diner and asks her out. Go figure.

"Sure," she said. "That would be nice." Newly emboldened, she added, as she finally emerged from her rut, "Actually, I'm free the rest of the day. Want to go for a stroll or something?"

Theo smiled again and toasted her with his coffee cup. "Well, I did have a meeting to go to, but I guess it's too late for that now, anyway. Let me just go get my.oops, I almost forgot, I don't have a car anymore. Do you mind driving?"

"Not at all," Melanie said. "I'm done with my breakfast. Finish your pie and then we can go. Oh, and, by the way, my name is Melanie."

"Theo," Theo said, and shook her hand. "A pleasure to meet you."

Little do you know, Melanie thought, but replied instead, "Likewise."

Moments later, the two stepped out into the warm, morning air. And just at that very moment, when they thought their day couldn't get any better, they both spotted him. He was the cutest, little brown mutt they'd ever seen, and he was dirty and limping and had no leash or collar or tags on him. Melanie bent down and patted her lap. The dog ran up for a sniff and a rub on the head.

"Hey, boy, you want to come for a walk with us?" Melanie asked as she scratched behind his ears and kissed him on the nose.

"Woof, woof, " Rusty said with a giant wag of his tail, which meant, in a round about way, "Fine, two-legged lady, I'll give it one more shot, but I hope you got some good food at home." Strangely, at least to Melanie, as the three of them approached the tan Dodge Dart, Theo paused and let out an audible gasp.

"What is it?" Melanie asked. "Are you okay?"

"Oh, sure. It's just your car, it's a.a."

"Yeah, it's a piece of crap. I've got to get a new one."

"Funny thing, me too."

"Woof," Rusty chimed in, which meant, truly enough, "Crazy two-legged people. What have I gotten myself into now?"

Copyright 2006 Rob Rosen

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