The diner was a little sweaty this time of year. The heat in the kitchen was unbearable, the parking lot burned hot as a frying pan, and flies clung to the outside of the windows in small swarms, delicate legs in the dozens crawling around in what little shade the sills had to offer, granting the illusion of grime. Customers complained sometimes—they always did—but there was nothing to be done about it. The smell of greasy food and sugary drinks drew them in. The pesticides didn’t keep them out.
Ella covertly wiped the sweat from her brow before stepping out of the kitchen and back onto the floor. The AC kept the main room cool most days. When the temperature vaulted up over 95 degrees it got a little tepid. At 100 degrees most started to complain. It was 104.
The floor was more or less empty. A few people sat along the wall in booths, drinking tall, cool glasses of soda and tea and water with lemon. A young man chatted up one of the waitresses and a couple Ella had seen a time or two sat silently on opposite sides of the booth, looking in different directions. Ella had seen a dozen lives change over supper. She wondered if they’d still be wearing rings next time they came in.
Hal—an older man and a regular—sat in his favorite booth in the back, tapping his fork against the side of his glass not out of rudeness to get her attention, but as a tick he couldn’t control. She’d hated him at first. Now he was one of her favorites. But today he seemed disquiet, staring out the window at the clouds gathering on the horizon.
It was supposed to rain that night. An end to the drought at last.
“Over in Arizona we used to get these real big thunderstorms,” he said when she made her way over to his table to check on him. They were pals by now. She knew exactly what he’d order because it was always the same. In turn, he asked after her kids. “Always worried it might be the big one. The ground gets too hard and dry; the water just stays on top. Floods the place out. My house got flooded three or four times that way.”
Ella remembered dancing in ankle-deep water outside her own house as a child—a little shack tucked back and down from a street without a curb. Any time it rained more than a little, all the water from the entire street would pool in her front yard. As she got older, it scared her more and more. Sometimes the steps disappeared. Sometimes the water went up to-mid calf, only stinted from flooding her home by the high foundation it sat on and the slow drain of water into hard earth.
Brown water, sprinkled with floating patches of dry grass. When she pulled her feet out to step back up onto the porch, her legs would be plastered with debris. The air was electric. The air was alive. She was so, so young.
“It doesn’t happen much here,” she said and stared out at the clouds now, too. Giant, white, fluffy. But tonight they would bring lightning and thunder. The radio had been screeching shrill flash flood warnings all afternoon. “We get a little flooding, but nothing like you see on TV.”
She patted him on the shoulder in a comforting gesture, but he kept staring out at the sky, where the street seemed to shimmer in waves of thick, exhausting heat.
(Fiction and Photography by Kayleen Burdine)