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background on the excerpt

In this scene the three main characters, Daryl, Sally and Sam, are brought together for the first time.

Unlike some of the characters I've created over the years, these three were very easy for me to get inside. I found each of their voices almost immediately. Whenever I wrote about Sally, I kept in mind a combination of Betty Boop and the girl next door. Daryl I saw as someone decent, but a tad too intellectual. Sam was the easiest to write, because he gets the best lines.

When I delivered newspapers as a boy in Greenwich, Connecticut, the end of my route would land me by Greenwich Hospital. One day I wandered inside, down the hall, and was astonished to discover they served food inside, and even more astonished at how cheap the prices were (perhaps in consideration of young interns, or perhaps the food was subsidized by the extravagant prices charged patients for hair brushes and TV connections). I started stopping by each day, able to buy a good meal and a tall glass of milk for a dollar and change, watching with kid eyes the groupings at the other tables, nicely dressed, silent old people barely touching their food, obviously relatives or friends of a patient, wondering what their stories were.

coffee shop tension
excerpt from the novel Father Figure

Daryl walked down the brightly lit main corridor of the hospital, past the rest rooms, water fountains and elevators, to the double glass doors at the end.

He pushed one half of the entrance open, stepping into the hospital's combination coffee shop and gift boutique. Mildred, white hair standing out from her head, was behind the register. He smiled, making his way around the kiosks of stuffed animals and get well cards to the rows of tables at the rear.

Most of the tables were empty at this hour. Daryl sat by the windows overlooking White Birch Park, the lime green of Little Muncho Lake beyond.

Across from him, in the next row, a pretty black-haired girl sat facing him, smoking a cigarette while she read the Lodgepole Weekly, breakfast pushed to the empty opposite side of her table.

He picked up his menu.

Daryl had been eating at hospital coffee shops since his college days in Vermont. Good food, cheap prices. A grilled cheese sandwich cost eighty-five cents.

Mildred had followed him. "You're late. Breakfast is over." She pulled the order pad out of her apron's waistband.

"I was up past midnight." He thought about mentioning the autopsy, decided it would be inappropriate. "Does Gladys still have any of the meatloaf left over from yesterday?"

"I'll check. Coke or coffee?"

Past Mildred's slanted order pad, vibrating as she wrote down his choices, Daryl could see the girl. She was one of those dark-haired women whose face can look ordinary in repose, beautiful in the fade of a smile. Above the spread of her cheeks her large dark eyes shifted as she read. Black bangs ended an inch above her eyebrows, making her round face seem even bigger. Below the table, her legs were crossed at a poised up and down angle, the pressure on the back of her right calf where it pressed against her left shin making the back of the calf bulge out slightly.

Her face and legs were both large for her body, making both more noticeable.

"Just coffee, please."

Mildred finished writing but didn't put the menu back between the sugar and cream. "I heard you had some excitement last night."

"Oh, yeah." He jiggled a Winston up from the pack. "You mean the body I found, right?"

She tucked her order pad back under her waistband. "The word is she was strangled." She looked at Daryl.

"That's right, that appears to be the cause of death."

The black-haired girl looked over. He glanced in her direction. She turned politely away, profile lowering.

Mildred pushed in the empty chairs of his table to get around to the window. She pressed her nose against the glass, peering down at the sloping park. "I saw it this morning when I got here, yellow bunting strung between the birch trees. There's black printing on it, but you can't make it out from up here."

"It says: 'Crime Scene: Do Not Cross'. Sheriff Cable strung it up early this morning after I called him from the morgue."

Mildred sighed, breath silvering the glass. "This is the first murder this town's ever had."

The girl was tapping the orange end of her cigarette on her ashtray's rim, face half-turned to listen. Daryl gave her a quick, shy smile. She lowered her eyes, turning away, a smile on her own lips.

Mildred leaned over his table. "You did the autopsy on her, huh?"

Daryl nodded solemnly to hide his pride. He spoke just loud enough for the girl to also hear. "Yes, I did. It was one of the more interesting ones I've performed."

"You're just a lab tech though, right? Why didn't they get a real doctor to do it? There might have been clues on her body."

Daryl's face felt hot. "I am a doctor. I'm a medical examiner."

"So who do I have to kiss to get some service around here?"

The stranger from the sidewalk strode slowly up the aisle, snapping his heels down, stopping by Daryl's table, smoldering cigarette between his wide lips. He pushed the sides of his jacket back, putting his big hands on his hips.

Mildred pointed to Daryl. "This man is the one who found that woman's body last night in the park."

The stranger's face twisted with incomprehension. "I don't give a hoot. Do you work here?"

"Yes, of course I--"

"So you want to take my order, or what?" He drew another puff, pulling the red embers right up to his lips, then took the cigarette out of his mouth and carelessly mashed it in Daryl's ashtray, making the ashtray rattle. A silky strand of smoke rose up from the still smoldering butt.

Mildred, flustered, pulled out her pad and flipped over a page. "Have you looked at one of our menus yet, or--"

The stranger raised his voice a notch. "I don't need to see a menu. You sell soup here?"

"Yes sir, we sell soup, we have clam chowder and--"

"Tomato soup?"

"We do, would you--"

He jabbed a finger at her pad. "Write it down. What about sandwiches?"

"If you would care to look at--"

"I'm not looking at any menu. What do I need a menu for, you're standing right in front of me, for Christ's sake. You're the menu. Get me a tuna sandwich."

"Very well, sir. We have white bread, whole wheat--"

"Bread's for birds. Give me whatever you got. I don't even care if the slices match."

"Very well, sir." Daryl could see she was writing in high, jagged letters. "Just as soon as I'm through with this other gentleman's order I'll place yours with our cook."

The stranger shrugged disinterestedly, looking around to decide where he was going to sit. "Fine. I don't know how you can call someone a cook though when all they're doing is opening a couple of cans. You ought to call them a can opener." He flopped down heavily at a table across from Daryl, facing the girl.

Mildred turned back to Daryl. Her face was moist under her makeup. "Did you want anything else, sir?"

"No. That's all. Thanks, Mildred."

He looked around. He was the only other man in the shop. Head down, he put out the stranger's smoldering butt in his ashtray, feeling, between thumb and forefinger, the paper's wetness.

"Jesus, the people you meet in small towns."

Daryl glanced sideways.

The stranger was sitting back sloppily in his chair, seat of his pants right at the edge, head lolled back, fresh cigarette between his lips, looking up moronically at the ceiling tiles.

Lean body, big-boned profile.

"Yup, you meet all kinds of people in a small town like this one," he continued, talking to himself. He swiveled his face down from the ceiling, staring straight ahead at the girl.

She concentrated on reading her paper, brows shifting slightly to indicate she was oblivious to the world. The longer he stared, the redder her cheeks got.

The stranger tilted his head all the way over to one side, ear resting against his broad shoulder, looking under the girl's table. His fierce blue eyes traveled slowly up and down her crossed calves. He dropped his tendoned right hand off his tabletop, first resting it on the top of his thigh, then curling it inwards, two long, straight fingers rubbing the inside of his leg, near the top. He shifted in his chair, spreading his black wingtip shoes farther apart on the checkerboard tiles, letting them rest on the back edges of their heels. The two long fingers trailed further up the inside of his thigh to his zippered crotch, rubbing slowly.

He glanced sideways at Daryl. Winked. Pursing his lips together, he let out an admiring wolf-whistle.

The girl put a hand on her opened paper, flattening it to her tabletop. She looked directly across at him.

He broke out in a fanged grin. "Finally, I have your attention."

"I don't usually get wolf-whistled while I'm trying to quietly read my paper."

"I'll bet you do get your share, though." He grinned at her again, delighted. "I'll bet you get more than your share, and I'll bet you don't mind it one bit."

Her right calf swung in front of her left. Nonchalantly, her black eyebrows lifted. Daryl could see the whites under her pupils as she looked above the stranger's head. "I would like to be able to finish my breakfast in quiet." She swung her gaze over to Daryl, large, black pupils inviting him to share in her nervous amusement.

The stranger snorted. "You're a real flirt, you are." He rested his jaw on a palm, deliberately looking down at her calves.

She turned away, smiling embarrassedly at Daryl. Daryl smiled back, lifting his shoulders, heart pounding.

"You got a great pair of legs."

She sighed heavily, looking around the shop.

"You ever wear shorts?"

She went back to her paper. "I suppose that's really none of your business, is it?"

"Matter of fact, from where I'm sitting I'd say you got the best legs in town."

She reached self-consciously under the table, not looking at the stranger, tugging the hem of her skirt forward, but it still remained above her black-stockinged knees.

Daryl balled his fists on the table, turning sideways stiffly, summoning up his courage. "Why don't you leave her alone?"

The stranger glanced over at Daryl, giving him a dry look. "Why don't I leave her alone?" He considered for a moment. "I suppose because I don't want to. I suppose because I want to keep telling her over and over again what a gorgeous pair of legs she has. I suppose that's why." He blinked slowly at Daryl, waiting.

The girl tossed her long black hair, narrowing her eyes at the stranger. "Leave him alone." She glanced at Daryl again, calf swinging more noticeably now, lowering her head, shaking it back and forth at Daryl, pupils up at the tops of her sockets. Can you believe this guy?

"Too bad you're a virgin."

"What? Says who?" She turned back to the stranger.

"I can tell."

Her face went stony. "Oh?"

The stranger leaned all the way down to his tabletop. "I can smell that you're a virgin."

She reared her head back, black eyebrows knitted together. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Just like that. Any girl I come into contact with, even if they're not right on top of me--" he swung his finger to indicate the distance between them-- "I can tell. I can tell how many different men they've been with, the races, the ages, in order. I can tell whether or not they enjoyed each man. By the smell. It's all there, out in the open. Layer under layer, smell under smell. And you, Betty Boop, are a virgin." He snapped his fingers, sniffed the air, brought his pupils to the left for a moment, then nodded decisively.

She sighed, glancing again at Daryl, holding his gaze a little longer than before, then went back to her paper. "Uh-huh. Very interesting. Remind me not to wear this perfume again."

The stranger lowered his head to the table, rotated his face towards Daryl's watchful eyes, then looked at the center of the girl's lap. "I wasn't talking about your perfume."

The girl, still reading, said nothing.

The stranger put his left hand palm down on the table, watching his right index finger push the large vein across the back of his left hand side to side. "Want me to tell you what you'll be doing tonight?"

She brought her wide face up over the top of the paper, long black hair sliding back, eyes angry. "You're a little old, aren't you, to be flirting with girls?" She gave Daryl a rueful smile, folded her paper into a square, pushed her chair back, and stood up.

"Can I say one last thing before you leave?"

She waited in the middle of the aisle, face and legs slightly big for her body, cocking a hip.

The stranger spread his hands apart, emphasizing the length of his arms. He grinned, raising his eyebrows. "You are a very beautiful young woman. I saw you, I made a pass. Okay?"

She stood before him, both hands behind her, holding her purse. She shrugged down one side of her lips, indifferently.

Still lounging, he held his right hand out. "Can you forgive a foolish old man?"

She hesitated, glanced at Daryl, then walked over to the hand. Lifting her chin, she said, "If you promise to lay off, it's okay." She put her palm against his, the hollow of flesh between their thumbs and forefingers touching, the tips of her fingers barely curling around the side of his hand.

The stranger held onto her hand, putting his other hand over the back of hers so that only her wrist showed.

Daryl pushed his chair back.

The stranger's stark face jutted up at her, lips retracting. "I'm sitting her with the biggest hard-on in the world." Her eyes jerked down in shock. "Someday soon you'll beg me to run my hands up and down your beautiful bare legs while I fuck you."

Daryl's chair fell backwards as he trotted over. He came up from behind, reaching over the stranger's broad shoulders, encircling the wrists. The stranger pulled the girl even closer, her high heels sliding between his black shoes. He rolled his head all the way back, upside-down blue eyes looking up at Daryl from below Daryl's belt.


The stranger opened his hands.

The girl staggered back, arms waving, and fell.

Daryl let go of the other man's wrists, glaring down at him.

The girl propped herself up on her elbows on the floor, bringing her legs together, tugging down her skirt. She looked up at Daryl's offered hand, hesitated, then took it.

He helped her to her feet. Bending his knees, he lowered his eyes to hers, looking into her flushed face. "You okay?"

Her black eyes glistened, squares of light floating across the pupils. "I guess so."

He put a hand in his pocket and pulled out a paper tissue, bringing it up to her eyes to see, then putting in her hand.

She tilted her face sideways as she dabbed under her eyes, trying a smile. "You must think I'm a big baby."

"No, not at all."

She put a ringless left hand up in front of her face, knuckles smooth. "I look like a real mess."

He studied her broad face, the wide-set eyes, delicate cheekbones, long, black framing hair. "No."

Her eyes rolled to the bottoms of their sockets as she tried to think of what to say next.

Daryl tensed. "I was-- would you like to join me for lunch?"

She dipped a hip like she was wounded. "I already ate." She reached out quickly, fingers trailing off his forearm. "You were like superman."

"Well, you know." He looked back at the stranger, who was staring up at the ceiling again, bored. Daryl bent his elbows back, putting his hands in his pockets. "This is-- I've never seen you in here before."

"Oh, I eat here every day just about, yeah." She nodded to herself. "I never saw you in here though."

Daryl started nodding himself, looking around. "I usually eat around one or so."

She grimaced. "Another girl goes then." She tilted her head. "I don't like to eat at noon. It's so crowded. When you eat at eleven or one, it makes you feel different, outside things. Makes me feel different", she corrected, lowering her head. She shrugged, not looking at him. "This is Thursday, I'll probably be here tomorrow at eleven, I guess." She gave him an up from under look.

"I could probably switch lunches. I could probably eat at eleven tomorrow."

She swung her upper body back and forth shyly, face not stopping the creep of a happy smile. "It's a date then, sir." One black eyebrow arched.

At the end of the aisle she twisted her shoulders around to wave the tips of her fingers at him before disappearing behind the kiosks.

He settled back in his seat, smiling at the salt and pepper, the chrome napkin holder, his curled hands.

Mildred came over with plates balanced up the insides of her arms. "I had Gladys put extra tomato sauce across the top." She transferred the plates off her arms onto his table. Biscuits with butter sliding across their puffed tops, meat loaf under bright tomato sauce, green beans. "A big gentleman like you needs fuel." She glanced pointedly at the stranger.

"When you finish cooing, would it be too much trouble to bring me the food I ordered twenty minutes ago? Is there no can opener in the kitchen?"

"I have your order right here for you, sir. So sorry to keep a busy man like you waiting."

Daryl's tines sunk at an angle into the moist meat loaf.

The stranger unscrewed the thin metal top of his pepper shaker, dumping the black and white contents into his tomato soup.

Both men ate without looking at each other, the stranger's exaggerated slurping the only sound in the empty-chaired coffee shop.

The stranger finished first. He went up the empty aisle slapping his bill against the back of each chair.

Daryl lifted a haunch to pull out his wallet, then followed.

The stranger was at the front of the shop, a few feet from the unattended register, right bicep stretched over the glass display case, elbow bending down past the far edge.

As Daryl rounded the stuffed animals, the other man straightened.

Mildred bustled over. She took the stranger's three singles, rang up the sale, gave him two quarters. Her hands went to the sides of the register. "That's a nice girl that comes in here. Don't ever talk to her like that again." Her eyes pointed directly at him, creases, makeup, veins.

The man held the two quarters upright in his hands, touching their curves together, creating a hard, shiny cleavage between embossed eagles' wings. He rubbed the notched edges together, like knuckles bumping over each other. His blue eyes looked down at Mildred. "It was her legs. Women have legs for one purpose, and that's to transport the cunt between them to different locations to see what they can get in trade."

"I'm going to have to ask you to vacate the premises, sir." Mildred glanced at Daryl.

The stranger dropped the two quarters in the side pocket of his jacket. "I'm leaving." He banged the double glass doors apart.

Daryl put his bill on the counter. "Is he new in town?"

"He's been coming in every once in a while lately. Very demanding. Lives on the far side of Little Muncho, among the rich." Her fingertips touched the register's square keys, transferring Daryl's total.

"How about..."

"The girl?" Mildred gave a wobbly smile, scooping coins out of the register's tray. "Quiet, sweet. Comes in here almost every day. Always alone. Reads a paperback, usually." She held his change out for him, giving him a wise look. "Pretty."

Daryl looked nervously down at his palmful of coins. "You wouldn't happen to know her name, would you?"

Mildred drew her white-haired head back. "Sally Dolumbo. She pays by check. I don't remember the phone number."

Daryl felt his comparative lack of sophistication. He didn't have a checking account.

After Mildred went back to the kitchen, Daryl leaned over the counter to see what the stranger had been doing. Below a shelf of candy bars sat several different-sized cakes. Lodgepole, small as it was, lacked a bakery. Whenever there was a birthday, wedding or anniversary in Lodgepole, Gladys baked the cake. It gave her so much pleasure to do she charged less than the cost of the ingredients.

Each cake's aquamarine handwriting had been smeared, thumb holes punched through the rich frosting.