Tawny was rolling silverware when the two of them walked in. Mother and daughter. She'd watched their white Honda Civic circle the diner three times, looking for the door. She rolled her eyes.
"Smile, Tawny," Sue Ann said. "You get way better tips when you smile."
The mother tapped the point of her big, rainbow-striped umbrella on the floor as she and her daughter walked beside the row of booths. They didn't sit until they found a clean one. Tawny kept rolling.
Sue Ann bumped Tawny with her hip. "Tawny, they're in your section."
Tawny winced. "You want 'em? It's five minutes to close."
"Nah. I gotta do the bathrooms. Now get on out there."
Tawny tossed two menus on the table.
"Evening," she said.
The mother beamed. "Howdy."
The girl smiled too.
"My name's Tawny. The specials are on the inside front of the menu."
The mom tilted her head. "Tawny? That's a neat name. I like it."
Tawny resisted the urge to sneer. "What can I get you to drink?"
"Do y'all have sweet tea?" the mom said.
Dumb question. Tawny clenched her teeth and nodded.
"Oh boy! You know you're in the south when you can get sweet tea."
Tawny turned to the girl.
Tawny headed back to the kitchen. Tawny's a neat name? No, it's not. A long time ago she'd looked it up. It meant, a light brown to brownish orange. Nothing about her was tawny. Her hair and eyes were the same color as the used coffee grounds she dumped out of the Bunn coffee maker umpteen times a day.
She filled red plastic glasses with ice. Let the tea and water overflow. I should tell them how I got my name, my whole name. Tawny wished she didn't know. Wished her mom had never told her. Mom had seen "Tawny Port" on a bottle at the liquor store and that's how Tawny Port Blevins came to be.
Tawny had gone to the library a few years back and checked out a baby name book. Someday when she got the time, she planned to change her middle name to Portia. Tawny Portia Blevins. Sounds classy. Like a movie star.
Tawny took her order pad out of her apron pocket and headed back out. The mom and girl were leaning across the table. Their foreheads almost touched. Tawny cleared her throat.
The mom looked at the girl. The girl shook her head.
"Give us a minute, Tawny," the mom said.
Tawny huffed and returned to the kitchen. She grabbed a bus pan, rag, and the bleach water spray bottle. She walked back out.
"Country ham or pot roast?" the mom was saying. "I can't decide."
"Me either," the daughter said.
Tawny folded the rag in half twice. She sprayed and wiped a two top and its chairs. You rich chicks are killing me. If I'm not home at nine o'clock, Mr. Skoal Bandits, spearmint-flavored, will have my butt in a sling. She refolded the rag. Sprayed and wiped again.
--Do you know how beautiful you are?--
Tawny stopped wiping. She let go of the rag and held her hand up to her mouth. Again?
--D0 you know how I dread each day coming and going? Knowing it makes the day you'll be gone forever come faster?--
Tawny looked at the two of them from under her lashes. The girl didn't answer. Tawny knew why. The mom hadn't spoken out loud.
It was the one thing special about Tawny--her ability to sometimes hear people's thoughts. She couldn't do it until two years ago. Until Randy drove his fist into her right ear.
Everything had felt slow motion as she crumpled to the floor. The room seemed tunnel-like. The lights far away and small. The noises all echoey.
--You're nothing special. Never will be. I'd treat a good woman better. But you're not, so I won't.--
Tawny had struggled to prop herself up on her elbow. Her head wobbled.
"Shut up! I didn't say nothing. Get me a beer."
Tawny squinted over at her mom. She didn't look up from her People magazine. Tawny pulled herself up using the coffee table. Headed for the fridge.
Tawny stood in front of their table, her pencil an inch from the pad. The mom grinned and pointed to her selection on the menu.
"I'd like the pot roast, green beans, and mashed potatoes, please. I'd also like an order of coleslaw. I don't care if it's extra. I love coleslaw."
Tawny clenched her teeth, nodded, and wrote.
--I'm sorry you're so sad, Tawny.--
Tawny didn't look at the mom. Instead, she bit her lip and turned to the girl.
"Open-faced turkey sandwich. Mashed potatoes and gravy. And mac and cheese. Thank you."
The girl looked up at Tawny. Tawny pursed her lips.
--Why don't you smile? Ever?--
Tawny took their menus and walked back to the kitchen.
"Order in," she said to Hugh.
She got the coleslaw container out of the walk-in cooler and scooped some into a side dish bowl. She wiped her nose with her wrist. I'll tell you why I'm sad, Mrs. Wear All Black and Lots of Rings. My mom's lived with us ever since the roof on her place sprung a leak back in October. Do you know how much that woman eats? And Randy comes over every night 'cause we have cable. Says he'll leave at 11, but he never does.
Tawny spooned macaroni and cheese into another side dish bowl and stuck it under the heat lamp. He's there beside me at midnight when my daughter comes in to tell me she wet the bed, again. And he's there in the morning when I wake up.
Tawny walked along the stainless steel work surface, pulling a washcloth beside her. And my daughter? She won't ever go to college like your girl there with her perfect curls and shy smile. I won't ever hear her say, 'Mom, I'm scared and excited all at once. I'm gonna miss you a lot, except for your annoying habit of talking way too much to people you don't know.'
Sue Ann came over and put her arm around Tawny's waist. Tawny sniffed and pulled away. She looked to see if Hugh had put their plates in the window yet. He hadn't.
She crossed her arms and stood with her back to the dining room. That'll never happen to me, 'cause my baby, she'll probably have a baby. Just like me. Just like my mom. And they'll all live with me forever, and I'll have what? Five mouths to feed then?
"Order up," Hugh said.
Tawny unloaded the tray, dish by dish.
The mom rubbed her hands together. "Thank you so much," she said. "It looks delicious."
Tawny put the empty tray on the booth bench behind them and started spraying and wiping the table.
"Good food. Good meat. Good God, let's eat."
Tawny paused her wiping, then resumed.
"Oh. And thank you so much that we didn't have to go over the New River Gorge Bridge."
Tawny stopped spraying, then resumed.
"Oh, and a little less rain tomorrow, please?"
Dang! She talks to him like she knows him.
Tawny turned around. "How's your supper?"
The mom looked up. Stopped chewing to talk.
"Oh my goodness," she said. "This is the best pot roast ever. I don't even need a knife. You are such a good cook."
--Will you smile now?--
Tawny went back to the kitchen. She glanced at her watch. Won't be long now. She emptied the coffee pot into a go cup and pressed on a lid. She walked back onto the floor and over to their table.
"You all want dessert?" Please say no.
The daughter shook her head. Tawny looked at the mom.
"Oh, my heavens, no," she said. "I'm as full as a tick on a bear's back."
One corner of Tawny's mouth went up. Ever so slightly.
--There. I almost got you.--
Tawny picked up the empty side dish bowls and carried them into the kitchen. The coleslaw bowl looked like it had been licked clean. That's when she got the idea. Maybe I can do it back. She rested her elbows on the work surface and squinted at the mom across the divide.
--Your eyes twinkle. Like the crystal thingy I have hanging on the rearview mirror in my Dodge. Randy says all the flashing is gonna make someone wreck some day, and they'll sue me. I don't care. It makes me happy and well, not a lot does these days.--
The mom's eyes searched for and found Tawny. She smiled and the room seemed brighter. Tawny put her hand over her heart because it felt like it was coming out of her chest. She acted like she was looking down, but then she peered at the mom again, from under her bangs.
--And I wish . . . never mind.--
Tawny walked out and handed the mom the check. "You can pay at the register."
The mom's gaze was intense. "Thank you."
Tawny gulped and looked at her shoes.
--Thank you? For what? Did you hear me? When I looked at you? And thought real hard?--
She lifted her head slowly and looked at the mom. "For what?"
The mom put her mouth on the straw and sucked the dregs of her sweet tea.
"For making us such an awesome supper."
Tawny looked over her shoulder, toward Hugh and the grill.
"I know," the mom said. "I'm just teasing."
Tawny watched the big, rainbow umbrella protect the mother and daughter as they walked out to their Honda. She couldn't hear their thoughts through the glass. When they got in their car, she moved to bus their table. The tip was twice the bill. Under the girl's plate was a note. "You are special, Tawny. You are." She'd underlined 'are' both times. She'd dotted the 'i' with a heart.
Tawny looked out into the night. The Honda was there. Right outside the window. They were looking in at her. She put her hand over her mouth. The mom grinned. Flashes of light came into the diner, even though it was night. Even though there was glass between them.
The mom and girl waved. Tawny waved back. Her eyes filled and spilled over. Then she smiled.