Chapter Three (Installment) 3/31/2020

He took a sip of his coffee, so strong he could almost taste the grinds, while Gail was still missing in action. She’d been in the ladies room a good ten minutes.

          Gail had excused herself to hit the ladies room in the dive of a diner, which was nothing more than a roadside café for truckers. But there were no truckers there at the time. As a matter of fact, the entire place was empty except for Allen, Gail and the waitress. Allen couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes from Denise’s but suggested to Gail that they stop for coffee. 

Gail gave him a quizzical look as they pulled into the wide driveway, the tires crunching over gravel. “Aren’t we almost to your sister’s?”

            “We have a ways to go yet,” he said, knowing he’d have to correct the fabrication later. “I only had two cups so far today. By this time back in Chicago I would’ve finished off a pot.”

            The mere mention of Chicago and the routine he’d become used to—had to become used to when other opportunities failed to come to fruition—made him long to return there, to check up on the substitute host.

            “Wouldn’t your sister make coffee for you?”

            Allen sighed. “I wouldn’t want to upset the agenda.”

Truth was, he wasn’t all too eager to place himself among the Lambs, especially his mother. Ever since he’d let her down by growing up and no longer being the star she could brag about, he felt guilty being around her. Chicago brought him the distance he needed, his talk show the lighthearted banter he welcomed. Other talk shows were more serious, covering topics that dealt with tragedy while his show hosted celebrities who cooked supposed amazing recipes or discussed upcoming movies. Occasionally, someone would reference his early success as Benny, and when there was the question about the wide gap of time of being out of the spotlight that followed, he pretended it had been his decision. He’d say, “I chose education over stardom,” which always got a hearty round of applause from the audience.

            He took a sip of his coffee, so strong he could almost taste the grinds, while Gail was still missing in action. She’d been in the ladies room a good ten minutes. At least that’s how long it felt like. He glanced over to see the waitress studying him with an insolent expression. He turned toward the window, lifting the grimy blind to look outside. He mindlessly tapped the car key on the table, unable to put out of mind what was going on back at the studio. He glanced at his watch. The show should’ve wrapped up by now. He decided to see if his buddy, Gary, had watched in order to give him a full report. Any luck, the substitute bombed. He took his cell phone out from his pocket and found Gary’s name in the address book and activated the number. It rang until Gary’s voicemail picked up. Allen instructed him to call back when he had a moment. Allen’s tone was casual, but he felt a sense of urgency to know.

            Several days earlier back at the studio, he’d heard rumors that the station was looking to replace the talk show with something “on the cutting edge.” If it were true, where would that leave him? He didn’t like to think about that.  Fortunately, he didn’t have to since Gail finally reappeared, her lipstick fresh.

            The waitress strolled over. “Let me warm that up for you,” she said, pouring more coffee in Gail’s cup.

            “Aren’t you kind!” Gail said.

            The waitress smiled, and then said, “You two ain’t from around here, are you?”

            “No,” Gail said. “We’re here for a family reunion.”

            “That right?” the waitress said.

            “I’m Gail Webster,” she said. Even though they were the only ones in the diner, she lowered her voice when she added, “and this is Allen Lamb.”

            “Nice to meet you,” the waitress said, starting to walk away.

            Gail blurted, “He used to be Benny from Benny and Crow.”

            Allen looked over at Gail, glaring at her. He’d only been seeing her for a few weeks. She was a publicist and represented one of the guests that had been on his show. The guest had been a second-rate actor in an Off-Off Broadway play, but Allen agreed to have him on the show after he’d seen who represented him. She could’ve been in front of a camera or even one of Heff’s sexy sidekicks, and Allen was more than ready to get her in his bed. It was clear that she had a mad crush on him, once she found out that he’d been the child star she used to watch religiously; she could barely contain herself. Getting into her pants didn’t take much wining and dining.

            “That right?” the waitress said, looking Allen over. “My kids used to watch that show every week. You certainly have changed.”

            “It was over thirty years ago,” he said, persistently tapping the key on the table.

            “Well, you two make a nice-looking couple,’ she said.

            “We aren’t a couple,” Allen said.

            Gail stiffened, pushing away her cup of coffee.

            “Me, going on twenty-nine years with the same man,” the waitress said. “Twenty-nine years and four of the most beautiful kids you ever seen. Got five grandchildren in the deal.”

            “Beautiful,” Allen muttered, wishing some more patrons would walk in.

            “That’s really nice,” Gail said, her bottom lip quivering.

            “Speaking of celebrities,” the waitress said, “one time Jackie Mason stopped in to use our john.”

            “Wow, did you have the toilet laminated?” Allen replied.

            “Allen,” Gail said, her tone scolding, “be nice.”

            “Well, I’ll leave you two to your coffee, if you don’t want nothing else.”

            “Just the check,” Allen said.

            The waitress slapped it down in front of him then walked away.

            “She was being nice is all, Allen,” Gail said.

            “Why’d you have to be such an asshole?”

            She flushed to a deep red. “I’m the asshole?”

            “Why’d you mention Benny? That’s history! He’s history!” He emptied his cup with one final gulp. “And, don’t get any ideas that we’re a couple.” He stood. “I’m hitting the head, so take care of the bill, will you?” As he walked past the waitress, he said, “Think I’ll check out this sacred Mason spot.”

            She didn’t laugh.

To be continued…