Tale One: The Day the Colonel Stopped By
PRESENT DAY, KOKOMO, INDIANA
Every apartment door appeared the same. My step counter added steps faster than if I were at the gym with my girlfriends back home. I tried one more hallway hoping to find Gramma’s new place and prayed for something familiar, but no luck. She and my twin sister would give me all sorts of grief over this.
“You seem lost, kiddo. Might you use some help?”
I whipped around so fast my ponytail smacked me in the face.
An elderly couple held hands, watching me from a little love seat in an alcove. “Yes, if you don’t mind. I’m attempting to find my way back to my grandmother’s new apartment. C-247. Do you know which direction?”
“Sure. Don’t think we’ve officially met.” The lady patted the chair to the side of them. “Come sit a moment, and we’ll explain about the crazy maze they’ve got here.”
I didn’t want to sit. I needed to return to Gramma’s room, there was too much to do. The deadline with my agent loomed and of course my sister volunteered me to help Gramma move in the middle of that. I’d only stepped out to find the guest restroom, and that was hard enough. Forget about finding my way back. But maybe if I understood the layout of this… yeah, maze was the correct word. I sat.
“Dick, doesn’t she remind you of Julianne? Not when we hired her, but later. Don’t you think?”
The man stared at me and nodded. “You’re right, Fran. She does favor Julianne.”
I had to ask. “Who is Julianne?”
The smile that passed between them added to my curiosity.
“Julianne is… Honey, how about you tell her?” This time the woman nudged his shoulder with hers and flashed him a flirtatious grin.
“Okay, I will. Julianne started out as one of our employees back when she first turned sixteen and ended up like another daughter.”
“She worked for you? What type of business did you have?”
Again, that smile pinged between them. “We owned a restaurant here in town, The Hob Nob Annex Cafe, over on Morgan Street, just west of Apperson. Julianne came to us for a job back in, oh, 1954 wasn’t it, Fran?”
She nodded, flashing her grin my way. She had a touch of an underbite that somehow made it more friendly. They were cute. It was the best word to describe them. I bet they finished each other’s sentences. I could see using them as character inspirations, might even be able to sell it with an idea to my agent, which would help at this point. And the maze? That’s going in a book, for sure.
“What do you do, hon?” The lady, Fran, brought me back from my plans.
“Oh, I’m an author. My name is Janie. Janie Wilcox.”
“That’s interesting. What do you write? Fran loves to read.”
I hated answering that question. It always led to more questions concerning where to find my work. I was getting started and hadn’t sold much. But I’d verbally put on the professional garb, purchased business cards, attended numerous conferences seeking to network. Even found an agent to believe in me. That was a start. Kind of like the Beatles “Baby You Can Drive My Car.” “I’ve written a few articles here and there. Still trying to polish my All-American Novel.”
Fran shook her head. “I can’t get past how much you look like Julianne. You could be her sister.” At least she didn’t pursue the hated questions.
I needed to head to Gramma’s room. Really. But I didn’t want to. Which sort of surprised me, but I noticed my writer sense getting all tingly. “Tell me about how you met her.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t want to hear all that.”
“Sure, I would.” I felt myself turning into a bobblehead. “You had a restaurant back in 1954? The Hob Nob?”
“Yes, we ran it for several years. Saw a lot. Got to meet so many people.” Fran’s face softened, dreamy like, as if she were back in the days she worked at the cafe.
“We even met the Colonel.” Dick waggled his eyebrows and cracked an I’ve-got-a-secret smile. He’d hooked me.
“The Colonel?” I tried to think of famous colonels and as my tummy growled, only one came to mind. “As in KFC’s Harland Sanders? That Colonel?” No wonder my writer senses got all tingly. Could they be on the level? They reeled me in.
“Yup, that’s the guy. Though you wouldn’t have known it back then. It was before all his success. He drove from place to place in his beat-up Caddie with this idea for starting a franchise. And slept in the backseat when he was on the road. He would talk with the owners of a restaurant, work out a deal and if things went well, he hoped they would sign with him.”
“That’s a long story. It happened back when Julianne started working for us, come to think about it.” He paused. “You sure you have time for this?”
Sister Joanie waiting for me over in Gramma’s room wouldn’t understand, but Gramma would. “Yup,” I repeated, just the way Dick had said it. Wishing I had something with which to take notes, I leaned forward, folded hands resting on my knees, determined not to miss a single word.
JUNE 1954, 10:30 A.M. FRIDAY
“And this is where we store the coffee filters. You’ll want to monitor the carafes, so they don’t burn when they get low. Dump the last bit out in the sink and start a new pot.” Dick glanced again at the kid who had begged for a job. It was against his better judgment, but this Julianne girl wanted the work and he had the opening. “Think you’ve got this?”
She nodded while gnawing her bottom lip, appearing scared but determined. He liked that about her. She was willing to try, so he was willing to meet her halfway.
“Have your pad and pencil?”
Again, she nodded. “Yes, sir. Hope I can remember it all.” Her southern drawl seeped through.
“Don’t worry if you forget. Ask Fran or me, or one of the others. We’ll help. What’s the lunch special today?”
She closed her eyes and twisted a rogue strand of hair around her finger, one that had escaped the required hair net. “Deep fried catfish, fries, and coleslaw.” Her eyes popped open, and she smiled a sigh of relief. “Whew!”
“You’ve got this. In between, keep the counters and tables cleared and wiped. After the rush, you can refill the sugar canisters, salt and pepper shakers, the ketchup and mustard bottles, and the napkin holders. In a week, this’ll be second nature. You wait and see.” He gave her a wink.
“I sure hope so.”
Just then the door jingled as a tall, lanky customer entered. He took a seat at the front counter. “Hey Dick, how are you doing?”
“Fine, Bob. Good to see you!” Dick whispered to the new waitress. “This guy is a regular. Name’s Bob Messick. He’ll be easy. Go ahead and jump in.” His brother-in-law was easy-going and would make a great first customer for the kid.
Her eyes got so wide he thought she’d bolt, but then she straightened her back and headed to the customer with a smile. “Hi, there! What can I get for you today?”
“I’ll have the special. I’m in the mood for some catfish. Oh, and bring me a large glass of milk with that.”
Dick, glancing up from the grill, noticed the smile fade from her face.
“How about a cup of coffee? It’s really good today.”
“Nah, milk is fine.” Bob smiled and started checking the newspaper someone had left folded on the counter.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but I can’t serve you milk. I can bring you a Coke or a root beer. Would you like an iced tea?”
Dick frowned as Bob lowered the newspaper. “What do you mean you can’t serve me milk? I order milk every time I come in at lunch.”
Should he go over? If she couldn’t handle Bob Messick, she’d never make it when things got busy.
“I’m sorry, sir, but if you want the fish, I can’t serve you milk. It will poison you.”
“Poison me? What in the world? I’ve had fish and milk a hundred times. Never had a problem.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t have that on my conscience. I’d be happy to make you a hamburger if you really want the milk.” Her face was as white as the bleached bar rag.
“Hey, Dick, get over here. Your new waitress won’t take my order.”
Dick had been waiting for that from the moment he heard Julianne trying to talk Bob out of his favorite Friday lunch. That whole idea of poison was crazy. Where did she think of this stuff? He walked to the counter as the door jingled again. “Pick a seat. We’ll be right with you.” Then he spoke low to Julianne and Bob. “What’s going on here?”
“Dick, she won’t take my order.”
“Mr. Goodell, I’m trying to, but he insists on the fish special with milk and you know that will poison him.”
“Sorry, kiddo, but I know nothing of the sort. We’ve been serving milk to customers who order fish for years with no one getting poisoned. Go ahead. Take his order.” She stared at him as if he’d turned into Simon Legree.
“Get him the catfish special? And a glass a milk?”
“It’s on your head. I tried to warn you.” She left to drop the fish and fries into the deep fryer.
Dick ran a hand over his face and remembered his other customer. Catching Marge, his other waitress’s glance, he nodded toward the back booth where the man had found a seat before returning his attention to his brother-in-law. “Bobby, we’ve got to do something.”
Bob grinned. “I have an idea.”
That grin meant that if his wife and sister-in-law Kay learned about their plan, they’d catch it for sure, but it was probably worth it. “Do I need to do anything?”
“Nah, stay close. She might lose her mind.”
“Nothing too drastic, Bob. She’s just a kid.”
Bob waved his hand. “Don’t worry about it. She’ll be fine, though I bet she’ll remember this day for the rest of her life.”
A few minutes later, Julianne prepared the plate of fried catfish, French fries, and cole slaw. She even added a pickle. After placing it before Bob, she grabbed a glass, filled it from the milk machine dispenser and came to where her customer sat. It took her a few seconds. She stood holding the glass, staring at the fish.
Dick nodded encouragement.
She set the glass on the counter near the plate and took a step back, her eyes never leaving Bob’s face.
He knew something was about to happen, but if he gave it away, Bob would never forgive him. Funny, as he watched Julianne watch Bob, Dick realized he was holding his breath.
Bob cutoff a nice piece of fish and forked it into his mouth with a satisfying sigh.
Julianne stared while he chewed and chewed and chewed and finally swallowed, all the while twisting a bar rag in her hands.
Then Bob reached for the milk. Slower than normal he brought the glass to his lips flashing a friendly smile at the girl. He took a sip and set the glass down. “See?”
Then he fell backwards off the stool.
Julianne screamed. “He’s dead!” She rushed around the counter to his side.
Dick couldn’t control it. He laughed as tears ran down his cheeks. “Beautiful, Bob! That was perfect!”
Bob sat up, his giggle growing as Julianne stared. “Fish and milk won’t poison you.”
“But I might!” She threw the bar rag at him.