For fifty-three years the Hilltop Diner on College Street fed the academic community of the University of Southern Iowa (USI). Dr. Benjamin “Blue” Boru’s usual table occupied the back corner by the bathrooms underneath the giant wheezing room air conditioner. Blue arrived daily at six a.m. and ordered The Special: two eggs (fried hard), two slices of buttered toast, hash browns, pork sausage links, and black coffee.
After breakfast, Sheila Morgan, the owner’s redheaded daughter, cleared away his plate while Blue poured over Nag-Hammadi manuscripts. She left him alone, except to refill his coffee. She waitressed mornings, cooked for the lunch crowd, then called in the produce orders. Late afternoon and evenings she studied.
Sheila began a master’s degree in religion the year she turned forty-three. Her first class was Blue’s. He’d been a regular at the Hilltop since his days as an undergrad, so she understood his quirks. Now he was her thesis advisor, and she was enrolled in his Jesus Seminar for Fall Semester. Eventually, she knew her father, Orlo Morgan, would pass on the restaurant to her (as it had been passed on to him by his father), and there would be no more time for religious study.
Blue found Sheila a distracted waitress, but a competent student despite her undergraduate degree in restaurant management. She allowed him to work undisturbed until the lunch crowd filtered in at which time he packed up and left a $6.25 tip for the $3.75 tab.
That day at 11:03 a.m., Blue stretched his neck, arched his back, and massaged the base of his spine before packing up his notes. He stood, adjusted his baggy cargo shorts, and walked the six steps to the men’s room wearing a black Tommy Bahama shirt with a giant red parrot.
When he returned, he noted two middle-aged women now seated by the picture window facing College Street. The older of the two turned his way, and there was the moment of recognition. “Blue?!” she exclaimed.
“Susie?” he said quietly. At the mid-point between their two tables they met and hugged as if the last twenty-five years had been a long weekend.
“I never expected to see you here.” Susie took him by the arm and started dragging him to her table. “Apparently you never left.”
Blue eased free from her grasp. “Let me grab my things….”
He gathered his laptop, legal pads, and files and pushed his wire-rimmed glasses up on his balding forehead. He couldn’t remember if he’d shaved this morning, or if that had been Tuesday. Finally, he rejoined Susie and the vaguely familiar figure sitting across from her.
Susie crossed her legs, reminding him of her propensity for short skirts. Their sophomore year they’d been studying the Great Vowel Shift over coffee at the Hilltop when he’d gotten the nerve to ask her to an Ian and Sylvia concert. She agreed on the condition he surrenders his paisley shirt. She took it right off his back.
At the concert, Susie wore the shirt and nothing else. Back in her dorm room, she’d taken it off and returned it. That evening began an off-again, on-again romance that lasted almost until graduation. While she was student teaching in the spring, she’d reconnected with an old boyfriend from high school. They made plans to marry when he returned from Vietnam.
Though her smile remained the same, in the intervening twenty-five years, Susie had gained thirty pounds and changed her hair color. She’d aged the way he imagined her younger sister would age. The younger sister, Janie, was overweight, lacked Susie’s social skills, and hid in Susie’s shadow.
Blue caught himself. He looked at the trim woman with the dark brown hair sitting across from him. “It’s nice to see you, too, Janie.”
“What, no hug for me?”
“Oh,” he said uncomfortably, “sure.”
He started to lean towards her, but she held out her right hand to stop him. “That’s okay. We can skip the hug.”
Blue sat back down. “So,” he said, “what brings you two to Sturgis Falls?”
“I’m organizing our class reunion,” Susie told him.
“I have a book reading at Barnes and Noble this afternoon while my sister is in meetings,” Janie added. “Plus, I wanted to check out the college. My youngest daughter is a junior in high school, so I’m looking for an educational bargain.”
“What’s your book about?” Blue asked.
“Janie’s a nutrition guru with thousands of followers,” Susie gushed.
“After I finished my undergraduate degree in biology at Cornell, I went to medical school at Johns Hopkins,” Janie explained. “While interning I gained a lot of weight, so I started to experiment with different diets. That led to an interest in nutrition and a Doctorate at Michigan. My dissertation caught the interest of several authorities in the field and who helped me turn it into a book that sold over 100,000 copies. I was applying for university positions when my editor convinced me to write a second book, this one with simple exercises, more recipes, and lots of glossy pictures of me in pastel leotards.”
“It’s embarrassing to go out with her because of her fans, but that’s the only way I get to see my nieces.”
“What does your husband do, Janie?” Blue asked innocently.
“She married her publisher.” Susie leaned over as if to confide in him. “Howard could write a check for tuition to any school in the country. My sister doesn’t have to go looking for college bargains.” Before Janie could defend herself, Susie announced, “I’m single. What about you, Blue?”
Sheila appeared with their drinks and hesitated, waiting to hear his response. “I’ve been divorced for three years. Hesitant to dive into the dating pool.” Sheila set down the two coffees followed by two glasses of water. “There’s someone….”
Sheila interrupted. “May I take your order?”
“I’ll defer to my sister, the nutrition guru,” Susie said reluctantly.
Janie ordered fresh fruit and yogurt for both of them. “Hold the granola.” She excused herself to wash her hands.
“I wanted a double-cheeseburger and Hilltop fries,” Susie said after her sister was out of hearing.
“They’re the best. Sheila makes the homemade catsup.” There was an awkward silence. “You look great, Susie.”
“What do want me to call you?”
“‘Full-figured’ is fine.” She waited. “I’ve got meetings all afternoon. But I could slip away after supper….”
“Not going to your sister’s reading?”
“No. Been to too many already. I’m her agent and publicist.” She laughed. “You could go to the reading and buy her a drink afterward.” Susie leaned back and smirked. “Readings make her horny. I think it’s the anxiety and the release.”
“What are you doing at the Hilltop?” Janie asked after she returned.
“I’m a religion professor.”
She turned to her sister. “I guess Courtney can scratch that major off her list.” Janie laughed.
When she visited USI while Susie attended, her older sister would arrange social engagements for her. These were typically with Susie’s boyfriends or ex-boyfriends. On several occasions, Janie’s date had been Blue.
Sheila arrived with the yogurt and fruit. She lingered. “Can I get you anything else?” Susie shook her head. “Would you like a coffee, Dr. Boru?”
“No thank you, Ms. Morgan.”
“Dr. Boru?” Susie asked after Sheila left. “That sounds so strange. How did that happen?”
“It’s a long and painful story….”
“I’d love to hear it later tonight.” Blue felt her hand stroking his thigh. “Maybe you and Janie could pass the time until then.” She raised her eyebrows. “The bookstore manager wants a moment with her, but you’d be so much more fun.”
“A kind offer….” Blue saw Sheila standing at the lunch counter, which was unusual. She usually worked the kitchen for lunch. “Janie’s married.”
“That’s not a deal-breaker for my sister.” Susie was amused by his naiveté. “She’s got a book deadline and needs some relief.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Her husband isn’t very good in bed.”
“How would you know that?”
“A sister knows.” She slipped a business card out of her pocket and circled her cellphone number. “Call me after nine. We’ll arrange something. Until then, take good care of Janie. She’s always had a thing for you.”
Someone tapped on the picture window. “Brent!” Susie called out when she saw the man outside. “How did he ever find me here?” Brent was tanned and athletic, with graying hair, dressed in an expensive summer suit. He motioned that he was coming in. Susie waved him off. “Got to go,” she said as Janie returned to the table. “No rest for the wicked,” she told Blue. And she was gone.
Janie picked at the fresh fruit. The yogurt was untouched. After a few awkward moments, she motioned Sheila over. “Do you know who I am?”
Sheila gave her a disgusted look. “Every overweight woman in America knows who you are.” A well-worn copy of Janie’s first book sat on her bookshelf.
“So, let’s say I wanted to order a giant cheeseburger with sautéed onions, a large chocolate malt, and a double order of Hilltop fries with homemade catsup on the side…” Sheila started to grin. “You wouldn’t tell anyone, would you?”
“Autograph my book and my lips are sealed.” She turned to Blue. “Staying for lunch?” He nodded. “Then I’ll make it two burgers and add an order of onion rings on the house.”
“Onion rings…?” Janie cooed. “Oh, you wicked, wicked woman.”
Later, after she and Blue had worked their way through a mountain of fried food, Janie asked, “How long were you married?”
“Never mind,” she said. “It’s none of my business.” Janie dipped the last onion ring into the catsup cup. “This question may be more germane.” She chewed. “How is your sex life?”
Blue considered his answer carefully. “I don’t feel the same urgency I had when I was twenty.”
“When you were twenty…? God. I remember you back then.” She finished the onion ring and licked her fingers clean. “I wanted you so badly.”
“Could have fooled me. You kept me at a distance.”
“Because I knew if I gave in to your advances, I’d be the consolation prize. It was my sister you really wanted.”
Blue pushed the remains of the fries aside and wiped his fingers on a clean napkin. “And I had her.”
“What?” Now Janie was confused. “When?”
“Repeatedly. Before she got engaged to what’s-his-name. I was her backup boyfriend between boyfriends.”
“She told me the two of you never…. Oh.” She thought about that for a moment. “Oh!”
“You really didn’t know?”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.” She glanced at her watch. “My reading is in two hours. Susie arranged a car…. But you could drive me. We could stop by the hotel on the way, or after drinks on the way back.” She brightened. “Oh, we could do both ways.”
Sheila suddenly appeared with the bill. She left without speaking. Janie glanced down to be sure the onion rings were comped. She reached into her purse and pulled out three twenty-dollar bills, twice the amount of the bill and set them on the table. “You game, Blue? Finally, consummate our relationship?” She pushed back her chair.
He didn’t budge. “You’re a married woman.”
Janie feigned surprise. “How could I have forgotten?” She watched his unchanged expression. “You used to find me amusing, Blue.” She shook her head. “I gave my husband, Howard, a chaste decade of marital fidelity despite his uninspired and single-minded approach to sex. Susie regaled me with stories of her erotic adventures, while I battled a crushing sameness.”
“Of course. But hear me out.” A waitress from the afternoon shift came and got their plates. Sheila had disappeared. “If I was honest, and left the marriage, it would have meant leaving my children, too. My career path didn’t allow time for much parenting, but I would have missed them.”
“So, you cheated on your husband for the sake of the children?”
“It wasn’t that simple, but that would be a true statement.”
“What am I missing?”
“In every other aspect of my life, I am an alpha animal, much like my sister. But in the bedroom, I want someone else in charge.”
“You want to be dominated?”
“No ropes. No leather. Nothing that scars, but, yes, that’s largely true.”
“Can I assume your older sister offered to help?”
“Again, it wasn’t that simple, but the base is true.” Janie motioned for the new waitress to come back. She pointed to an aging menu board and asked, “Is that sign just memorabilia, or do you still serve Green Rivers and Pink Ladies?”
“The Hilltop soda fountain is fully functional,” Blue interjected.
“Then here’s what I would like….” She handed the young woman the original check and the cash. “This is for lunch, with a little something extra for Sheila.” Janie reached into her purse and removed another twenty. “A Pink Lady for me and a Green River for my friend. That’s your drink, isn’t it, Blue?” When he nodded, she smiled broadly. “And keep the change.” She put away her purse. “Now, where were we?”
“You were explaining,” Blue suggested, “how your older sister became your pimp.”
“Again, you’re being too simplistic.” Janie looked at Blue’s baggy cargo shorts and his ridiculous red parrot shirt. He was still a handsome man. “I developed a nutrition and exercise program that worked. I lost weight, got in shape, and achieved celebrity. So, when my sister suggested to her male acquaintances that I was looking for a ‘take charge’ kind of guy….”
“…discrete, inventive, athletic….”
“Hell yes! There were volunteers.”
Blue laughed at the obvious pride she took in that statement. “And now you’re bored by them?”
“What?” Janie was taken up short. “What do you mean?”
“Hold that thought. Our drinks are here.” Blue asked the server, “Is Sheila still around?”
“She’s making the bank deposit.”
“Of course.” Blue drank his Green River pensively.
“You think I’m bored with sex?”
“No, that’s not what I meant. I think you’re bored with the submissive game, just like you got bored with your degree programs, your books, and your wealthy husband. Susie provides you with a movable feast of dominant males, but you’re bored with them, too.” He motioned to his rumpled shirt and baggy shorts. “Rather than being the object of your sexual desires that I once was, I’d only be a break from the monotony of your life.”
“So, you’re not interested?”
“I didn’t say that either. You’re an attractive and desirable woman.”
“One time only. No strings attached.”
“There, Janie, that’s the problem. I want attachment.”
“Not going to happen,” she said firmly. “But I am the best offer you’ll get today.”
Blue reached into the pocket of his shorts to retrieve Susie’s business card. He pushed it across the table. “She said to call after 9:00.”
“That bitch!” She tried to read Blue’s expression. “Wait a minute. You’re not interested in her either.”
“I’m very interested in her, but not on the terms I was offered,” Blue noted that Janie had barely touched the Pink Lady. She was already thinking ahead to the book reading. “Like you, I don’t want to be a consolation prize.”
A shadow appeared on their table. Sheila stared down at them. “There’s an Uber here for you.”
Blue noted that Sheila had changed into a fresh uniform, brushed her hair, and retouched her lipstick. He popped up from his chair. “It was great seeing you again, Janie.” He reached down and gave her an awkward hug. “If your daughter has questions about the campus, she can contact me through the Religion Department website.”
Janie reluctantly stood. She grabbed her purse, checked her phone, and when she couldn’t stall anymore, she said, “I’ll tell her that.”
“When you see Susie, send my regrets. Maybe we can catch up the next time she’s in town.”
Janie looked at Blue. He wasn’t the guy she’d remembered. “Tell her yourself.” She steamed over to the Uber driver and dragged her out the door.
“What was that about?” Sheila asked.
“A youthful erotic fantasy gone hopelessly awry.”
The two of them stood awkwardly in silence. Sheila spoke first. “So, your plans for a three-way with your two sex-starved ex-college bimbos have been shelved?”
“Yup! It’s freed up my evening.” Sheila was still clutching the bank deposit bag. “Ms. Morgan, I can be your thesis advisor. You can continue to take classes from me. And under that guise, we can indulge in contentious beer-fueled debates on obscure religious doctrine well into the night as we’ve done all summer long. Or….”
“You could drop my fall class and take the Women of the Old Testament from Dr. Pomeroy instead. She could be your new thesis advisor.”
“And why would I do that?”
“So we could take our religious debates to the next level.”
“Which would mean what?”
“Debate with benefits.”
Sheila considered that. “I’ve never been a benefits kind of gal.” She struggled to keep her facial expression neutral.
“I was thinking of monogamous long-term benefits.”
Sheila blinked. “We’ve never so much as kissed.”
“As my student, that wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“Of course, but it wouldn’t stop most males.”
“Most males would have saved Susie’s number or gone back to the hotel with Janie.”
“They both propositioned you?”
“Neither suggested anything that at another time in my life I wouldn’t have wanted. But things have changed….”
Sheila suppressed a smile. “You know, you suck at this romantic stuff.” She set down the bank bag and took his hands in hers. “But maybe with practice….”
“We could go to a movie….”
“Try kissing perhaps….”
“Yes. That might be a good place to start.”
* * *
Paul Lewellan lives in Davenport, Iowa, overlooking the Mississippi River. He shares the space with his wife Pamela, an annoying little Shi Tzu named Mannie, and Sunny, a ginger tabby and the queen of the cottage. Paul’s short stories have recently been anthologized in the Writers Co-op’s The Rabbit Hole; 7 Deadly Sins, Volume 1. Lust; and Fragile from Medusa’s Laugh Press. This is Paul’s first story on the Fictional Café.