They locked Jeff's bag in the house, and even though Jeff was excited to drive the Land Rover, he was disappointed that they didn't take the sports car. Stuart told Jeff to drive, saying he might as well get used to the big car, and then dug around in the back seat until he found a Seattle Mariners cap. He put it on over his unwashed hair.
“Driveway's easier to get out of than get down,” Vic said as Jeff drove up it. “Backing down this bitch ain't much of a treat, but you'll get used to it.”
“I like your car,” Jeff said.
“Yeah, she's a pretty little thing, huh? 1976. She was the second thing I bought when I hit it big, after this house. Cracked her up twice now, not too bad the second time, so it's not all original anymore, but she still looks and drives the same, which is all I care about.” Stuart interrupted himself. “Turn left and then left again. Left and then right instead to get to the Safeway up here. It's pretty easy to spot. We'll swing by after we eat and lay in some supplies. There's a couple of banks up there too, a McDonalds, couple taverns, and a Chinese joint that delivers. They make their own noodles and do a badass chow mein.”
“Restaurant is coming up on the right down about a half mile,” Stuart said when they pulled onto a busy street.
“You really not leave the place during the summer?”
“Not much. Once I get in the zone I like to stay there. Since your friend did such a piss poor job of managing the place, I never got into the zone, so I haven't really started this summer's book. I piddled around with some short stuff and some editing. Hopefully tomorrow I can actually get started.”
“So you really do write a novel a summer?”
“I really do. Once I got on a tear and wrote two. Here's the thing though. If I don't finish the book by the end of the summer, it never gets finished. I don't stay here past the middle of September, at the latest, and once I get out of the groove with a book, I can't finish it.”
“I know it's weird, but that's the way it is. That's a big reason why you're here, to make sure I have my time to myself so I get a book finished. Cause if I don't, my publisher gets pissed, and my audience gets pissed and I don't get paid so my ex-wife gets pissed and my agent gets pissed...It's just a bad idea all around.”
“Have you ever not finished?”
“Couple of times I've started a second book during the summer even though I knew I wouldn't have time to finish it. I usually cannibalize the incomplete ones for ideas, characters, conversations...so parts of them see the light of day eventually. But only once have I not finished and that was the summer the lean, mean writing machine came off the rails. For almost 10 years I relied on my wife to keep me on track and when she left me, well, nothing went right for a while. I hired an assistant for the second summer and made that poor bitch miserable, but I managed to write a book that summer.”
The conversation came to a lull as Jeff hit a stop light. He had questions to ask, probably hundreds of them, but he didn't want to ruin what was happening. He was having a casual, real conversation with the adult who had most influenced him in the world, after his parents, maybe. It was possible Professor Higgins could give Stuart a run for his money, but he knew who he would try to save first in a fire.
The light turned green and as they pulled forward, the passenger breathed heavily through his nose and leaned his chair back. “It's called the West End,” he said.
Jeff wondered if the people at the restaurant knew Stuart. Looking over at the author, he wondered how often he was recognized on the street at all. Mostly, he just looked like a guy. If Jeff had bumped into him, he wasn't even sure he would have recognized him, certainly not with a few days of stubble and a hat. Was it a comfort or an insult to not be recognized? Was an anonymous brunch a privacy that Vic treasured?
Jeff pulled into the parking lot, which was almost empty at 10:15 on a Thursday morning. Stuart straightened his seat and seemed to visibly brighten when he sat up.
“I've got an itch only a bacon waffle can scratch, let me tell you!” He hopped out of the car like a kid on his way to a Happy Meal.
Jeff locked the car, finally getting the satisfying “beep boop” he'd wanted earlier. He tailed Stuart, who was already most of the way to the front door.
Vic held the door for him, and they both entered the foyer, which smelled of sausage and featured pictures of little league teams on the walls, as well as a tiny blond hostess at a podium.
“Dos, por favor,” Vic said, flashing two fingers.
“You bet!” the girl said brightly, grabbing two menus and leading the way to a sunlit table by a window. The restaurant was empty except for an elderly couple finishing up in the corner. “This okay?” she asked.
The author winked and threw her a thumbs up.
“Coffee for either one of y'all?”
“Sure,” Jeff said, and Stuart shook his head. “OJ, thanks.”
“Comin' right up!”
Stuart grinned at her retreating skirt. “I swear to God. They keep getting younger, my hand to Christ they do.”
“Doesn't look to old to me,” Jeff said, then immediately regretted it. His face fell, but Stuart broke into that wild grin of his and then laughed.
“Well, she wouldn't, would she? I'm gonna have to keep an eye on you, kid. What do you think? She's either an import or a hick, because no one in Seattle says y'all.” He emphasized the last word with a drawl of his own.
“I can't remember the last time I saw a girl wearing a hair band, either.”
The girl returned with their drinks, and Jeff noted that her name was Mindy.
“We're between shifts right now, so I'll be taking your order. One of the other gals'll probably be bringing it out to you. You just let me know when you're ready.”
“I'll have the bacon waffle with hash browns. Thanks.” Stuart hadn't bothered to pick up the menu.
“Sure thing. Do you know what you would like?” she asked Jeff.
“Uh, what's good?”
“The stuffed French toast features fresh strawberries today.” Mindy sounded like she'd never been more excited about anything in all her life.
“Eggs over easy.”
“Okey-doke.” She closed her order book and went off.
“And to cover the other side of the spectrum, our orders will be delivered by an 80-year-old woman named Flo who smells like an ashtray, calls us 'Hon,' and sounds like Ronald Reagan,” Stuart said.
# # #
Her name was Marge, not Flo, but otherwise Vic had not been far off. Jeff was starting his third cup of surprisingly good coffee as Marge cleared their dishes. Both men were full to the point of groaning and Stuart's eyes were starting to glaze over.
The time before their meal arrived had been taken up by them inventing stories about Mindy, who never returned. The time after the meal had arrived had been taken up with them making noises like hogs at a trough.
Jeff's story had Mindy running away from her trailer park in North Carolina to follow her favorite band on tour. When they had arrived in Seattle, the band broke up and she stayed here. She was in school to be a dental assistant. He had thought for several minutes on his story, trying on ideas and discarding them until he came up with one that he felt actually fit the girl's image.
Vic's story came quicker and uglier. Abusive father, alcoholic mother, grew up in a small town in New Mexico. She was a church girl and had bided her time until a touring preacher had come to town. She had helped take the offering and when her offering plate was full she had walked out the back door and never looked back. She had moved to Arizona, fallen in love with an ASU Sun Devil who got a job with Microsoft. She followed him to Seattle, where he fell in love with a gothed-out barista who was everything Mindy was not, and she had been forced to move out.
“Why West Seattle?” Jeff had asked Stuart.
“Why yourself?” he had replied.
Jeff decided that she loved being close to the water, that its movement reassured her.
Stuart said that she lived in White Center, one of the poorest and most notorious neighborhoods in the greater Seattle area, just to the south of West Seattle. She lived there because of the cheap rent and this was the best job she could manage. She worked under the table because she didn't have a social security card.
The truth was that Mindy was from the south end of Boise, Idaho. She went to high school with a bunch of hicks and it had affected her language. When she got married and moved to the big city with her husband, she realized that two things positively affected her tips: Her folksy way of talkin' and her lack of a wedding ring. So when she went to work the ring came off and the accent went on. When she went home to Horace and two-year-old Nathaniel, the accent mostly went away and the ring came back out.
“This was a good idea I had,” Stuart said, leaning back in his chair and contemplating his gut. “I don't get out of the house much when I'm here for the summer.”
Jeff looked around the dining room. The elderly couple was gone and Marge was undoubtedly off on a smoke break.
“Do they really not know who you are?” he asked.
“Most of 'em do. Some of 'em don't give a shit, some of them just pretend. I'd tip the same if they made a big deal about it or not, but I come here because it's quiet and they treat me like everyone else. Then I go back to the house and have you serve me hand and foot. But mostly its that they know I'm around every summer. It's only exciting the first time or two you see me, because after that, what happens? I'm not gonna put you in a movie, I'm not particularly good lookin', and if you see me around town, the most exciting thing you're gonna see me do is buy ice. Of course, you get superfans out here every once in a while, people stake the place out every summer, hoping to see me or talk to me. Some of them even manage it. Mostly the cops keep an eye out and you can usually tell the difference between city slickers here to visit the beach and the kid dressed all in black with a pierced lip who wants to tell me how much he gets my books. Hey, you got your expense card?”
Jeff was momentarily startled by the segue. “Yeah.”
“Great. Then you got this. I forgot my wallet.”