“I’m just telling you what I heard,” Ned replied, glancing up at her. Vera was always full of piss and vinegar but she was also the best waitress he’d ever known. In the 30 years he’d been eating his breakfast at the Donut Hole, he’d never seen her spill even a drop of coffee.
“Well, I heard that when it rains over in Onondaga that money drops from the sky but you don’t see me racing over there on stormy days,” she retorted and arched one eyebrow at him. She moved the coffee pot around the table, filling the other cups with pure, black coffee. No decaf for this table and heaven forbid the thought of serving these men tea.
Ned puffed up his chest as the other regulars around the table looked to him. It wasn’t unusual that he found himself the center of attention. He had lived in Bakersville his entire life – the same as the other 65-year olds around the table – but unlike them, he had a made a permanent mark on the town that still counted to this day. As a sophomore in high school, Ned had brought their football team a state championship, leading the way as the star quarterback. He did the same his junior and senior years. That football field – just down the road a bit – held all of his glory moments. He was so popular back then that when he was a senior, the school administrators had designated a section in the stands to him: The Ned ‘The Arm’ Armour Bleachers. It was where his parents and sisters and girlfriend proudly sat each and every game.
In Bakersville he had never lost that status and it was made even more permanent when, after graduation, he was one of the few locals to leave for college down-state. When he returned to Bakersville four years later, he ended up teaching at that very same high school. He was promoted to principal when Art Opie retired back in 1991. At the school he had been known as Principal (The) Arm until he, himself, had retired three years ago at the age of 62.
For some reason he had never married although had been close one time way back in his thirties. But he was fine with his life-long bachelorhood. He got to do whatever he wanted.
Finally he shot back at Vera, “Brady Willright saw the monster himself!”
“Oh, peshaw,” Vera remarked and Ned frowned. She had the most annoying knack of using ancient slang phrases or words; ones you hadn’t heard in years unless you regularly watched old Rock Hudson movies.
“I think I saw it, too,” Jes Sampson piped up from the lunch bar and all the heads turned towards him. He was younger than the men at Ned’s table and was not retired which meant, according to the unspoken diner rule, no sitting at the regulars’ table. Every morning, though, Jes made sure to secure t the stool nearest to their table.
He swiveled on his stool and faced the men.
“You’re all crazy,” Vera declared before Jes could say any more and Ned watched as she walked back to the lunch counter, her apron tightly wrapped around her middle, the bow tied directly above her rear.
Jes Sampson ignored her and continued.
“I was down at the docks off Big Bear fishing the other night. I had a real hankering for some fresh walleye. Anyhoo, I had been sitting there at the dock for, say, 15 minutes when I heard a loud splash. ‘Hooray!’ I think ‘cause I figured I just caught a good size one but when I tugged on my reel there was nothin’ there. Then I heard the splash again and I looked up and saw it!”
Jes paused for a moment either for dramatic effect or because he had forgotten his train of thought. It was a toss-up either way. Jes Sampson wasn’t the smartest tool in the Bakersville shed.
Ned cleared his throat which started Jes’s engine again.
“The thing was sitting on top of the water for a few seconds and it was big! Way bigger than any fish I seen. I think the bastard even had wings but by then it was gettin’ dark and I couldn’t see all that good. It ducked under the water and disappeared before I could get a good look at the face but it spooked me pretty bad. After that I packed up and got outta there.”
Everyone was quiet for a moment.
“I ended up having hash that night,” Jes added as though that made sense.
Ned nodded his head. He wasn’t all that happy to get the confirmation on the beast in the lake. He thought the stories were fun to talk about but hadn’t wanted it to be real, whatever it was.
The men at the table began chattering but Ned was distracted. He glanced over at the large deer head strapped to the wall behind the cash register. In the diner, the dead buck was known as Zeke and he had been hanging there as long as Ned could remember. Ned always thought that Zeke’s eyes looked so sad; it was the poor animal’s lot in life to be stuffed and displayed for eternity in a diner 200 miles north of the next biggest city. It didn’t seem fair. He thought Zeke probably had deserved better. Even now Ned could tell he had been a regal and beautiful animal, but Ned knew no one else thought of Zeke this way. They were all hunters in Bakersville; it was a way of life in the north. The opening day of deer hunting season was even declared a school holiday each year. The hardy folk of Bakersville hunted and trapped and fished and, in general, were the usual outdoorsmen and women you’d expect to inhabit the small, northern towns. But even though Ned had been born and raised in Bakersville, he had never felt as comfortable as the others with the creatures of the woods or water.
He could hear Vera’s cackling laugh back in the kitchen, hurrying up the cook so she could get the food out to her customers. How could it be that a 60-year-old, 5-foot-nothing waitress could be afraid of nothing at all, not even some Loch Ness-like monster in a lake just a mile away, he wondered? That damn woman was fearless. Once a feral fox bolted crazily into to the diner and he had seen Vera shoo it out with just a ratty broom. He had also witnessed Vera stand up to a roving motorcycle gang who had stopped into the diner one lunch and almost refused to pay. Vera had even pick chunks of glass out of Ned’s own face last summer when a local trouble-maker had thrown a rock through the diner’s front window. That day he feared that she was even going to grab the sewing kit behind the counter and stitch up his wounds on the spot but instead she had grabbed a baseball bat and ran out the diner and down the street, chasing the kid, cursing the entire way.
Of course she wouldn’t be afraid of some beast in a lake, he thought. She knew it wasn’t real and even if it was, so what? Ned was sure that the creature would be more afraid of Vera than she of it. She was a force to be reckoned with.
The good old boys had moved on in their conversation. They were making bets on the Friday night football game wondering if the quick-footed running back would make 100 yards again this week. Jes Sampson was turned back to the counter, scooping up the eggs on his plate. A section of his egg white sat quivering on the edge on the fork and after a few seconds it fell helplessly to the plate, a lone snowflake from the cloud.
And then, out of the blue: “Mister?”
Ned looked down to see a small girl with pigtails standing next to him. Was it the Jensen girl who lived down the street, he wondered? He looked around and saw her mother, Patsy Jensen paying the check and nodded to himself.
“Don’t you know there’s no such thing as monsters?” the child said. “Everyone knows that. You’re crazy!”
Ned rocked back for a moment, surprised. The little girl turned and ran back to her mother but not before waving to Vera who quickly handed her a dollar. The waitress smiled a sneaky grin and her eyes flashed at Ned before she headed back into the kitchen laughing to herself.
Damn, he thought; that woman is fearless. He wasn’t sure why it was today that he was so focused on Vera; after all she had waited on him for 25 years. Perhaps it was all the crazy talk about a ghost-monster inhabiting an inland lake in the northern woods of Michigan. Or maybe it was his surprise when, earlier, he had noticed Vera standing near Zeke the deer, staring at her order pad, aimlessly stroking the animal’s chin. Or it could be his shock at her sheer moxie at paying a child a dollar to chide him in public. Whatever it was he suddenly felt the proverbial light bulb go off above his head and he knew: it was about time he asked that annoying, salty, fearless woman out on a date.
And with that Ned rose from his chair and headed to the lunch counter, a silly grin spreading across and creasing The Arm’s face.