Philip Charter is a writer who lives and works in Pamplona, Spain. He's tall, likes to travel, and writes an imaginatively titled blog . . . Tall Travels. His work has been published in Storgy, Carillon and Flash Fiction magazines among others.
When the lights dimmed, and Jake leaned toward the microphone, I knew in my heart he was speaking to me, no matter how many other people was there. His voice was like sweet cigar smoke, reaching out to every part of the room, his eyes were the same deep brown as his old beaten up acoustic. He played so gentle, like he was afraid he’d scare the notes away if he played the guitar too hard.
He’d already played about everywhere there is to play in Nashville. It was just a matter of time before someone picked up his record and gave it the attention it deserved. He never payed no notice of the critics anyhow, just kept on going.
Jake looked so far away even though the bar was cozy. The performance was like a road trip. Each new song he started added a little fuel to the fire in his eyes and I traveled along beside him - miles between the lyrics and the chords. The press say he’s too old to hang with the alt-country crowds, but he ain’t old to me. He’s got a little experience is all; in fact he’s only 13 years older than me.
His old buddy was on accordion that night. Rich is one of the only people that didn’t turn on him after that business with The Smithsonians; his band. Hank was waiting at the side of the stage as usual. People are normally wary of pitbulls, but he’s a real sweety.
Folks could be so rude sometimes, “Excuse me, Miss, would y’all mind keeping it down? Jake’s gonna play The Waitress.” Why would you come to a Honky Tonk if you just wanna talk all night?
I know that song is about me, I work in the Streetcar, a Diner out on Highway 65. My momma don’t make nothin’ so we gotta pay the bills somehow. I had to beg to get that night off so I could see him. Melvin, the manager, said it had thrown the schedules out for at least a month.
Jake and Rich was both sat on bar stools facing each other. He didn’t give a damn about most of the audience, just saying the occasional “Thank’ya.” The band spent years on the festival scene but they never got the exposure they deserved, said Jake wasn’t enough of a frontman. I don’t like the new singer too much, whatever people say. Jake closed his eyes and sang.
After the show Jake was sitting behind his merch stand. We hadn’t seen each other for two months, but I knew he’d been busy. He always answers my messages when he can.
“Great show tonight,” I said. “Came all the way into see you.”
He looked down at whatever he was writing. “I thank you for your support, Shelby. I know I can always count on you.” He removed his trucker cap to scratch his head. “Say, you wanna buy a pin?”
“Neat,” I say, looking at the badges with ´Sell, Sell, Sell´ printed on them. “Ain’t got the money this month though.”
“Mmhmm. I’m always a few hundred bucks away from living back in the truck. Singing don’t pay what it used to.”
He sure was right. You gotta be a social media expert these days if you want a meeting with a label. Turning up together at the country music awards was a while away yet.
“You gettin’ any traction on the record?” I held my breath thinking he was going to smile and give me some good news.
“No one willin’ to take a shot,” he said smoothing his grey stubble and resting his hands under his chest. “I got a residency starting at Nacho’s grill. Hey, free tacos never hurt no one.”
I wasn’t sure if he was kidding, Jake Sell should not be playing Elvis covers to Mexican diners. “I know it is gonna happen for you this year Jake. Don’t give up on us now.”
“Well I don’t know how to do nothin’ else.” He fingered his pack of cigarettes.
We went back to his little apartment with Hanky riding in the back of the truck. The place was cosy, above a little old vintage store. The wooden furniture looked like it was built into the place. Hank took the best seat, leaving the armchair and a stool.
“Good luck gettin’ him off there,” he said.
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks right?” That one made him smile.
All he had to eat was cookies, so he turned on the stove to make some tea. He hadn’t shaved and he had lost a few pounds since our last night together. He lit a cigarette while he waited.
“What good Nashville singer don’t have no family pictures? Where are your folks even from?”
Jake looked around for escape, but the four walls stayed put.
“They ain’t with us no more.” He looked bitterly at the ceiling.
I gasped. “I’m awful sorry, Jake, I wouldn’t a asked . . .”
“They was players too. Went on the road with em when I was young,” he pointed at some postcards scattered around the lounge.
We drank tea till late and listened to Leonard Cohen on his turntable. When we went to bed he said he didn’t want to do it. It was the first time we hadn’t been intimate. I didn’t know what to think.
“I can’t tonight, just can’t.”
“Guess I wore my best panties for nothin’ then,” I replied.
I know he’s not with anyone else, no one else’s toothbrush in the bathroom, even checked his phone. He just curled up in the corner of the bed like a cat backed into the corner.
The next morning, he give me a ride to the diner. That day was real clear, I remember opening the window, feeling the cold air on my face. The old crooked trees lining the highway were starting to straighten their backs for spring. The truck had one of those ‘old time’ radios with a tuner dial. When you turned the knob to look for stations it crackled and fizzed. We got to the Diner just on time for my shift.
“That’ll be me then,” he said, starting the engine again.
I grabbed his hand and turned the keys to the ignition off. “Come inside, darlin’, you need a good meal, I ain’t takin no for an answer.” Thankfully, he obliged. Hank waited in the truck.
When he was seated in the booth, and I was dressed for work, I played a little trick on him. “Well hello there, stranger, I’ve not seen you here before.” I loved pulling his leg.
“Quit it, Shelby, I ain’t in the mood. I’ve only got about a half hour before I got to head back.”
“Why y’all running back to town so quick? It’s Sunday.”
“Just let me get a look at the menu so I can choose please.”
“Why do you want a menu when you got the best waitress in the state here with you. I’ll bring you our speciality.”
He sighed and pretended to look defeated.
“You want some coffee while you wait?”
“What teas you got, redbush?
“Sure thing, redbush tea coming up.”
During the wait I he check his phone which was odd. He normally didn’t care for messaging too much. He was just nervous, you know about finally feeling cared for. He wasn’t used to folks wanting to share in his life.
As he waited, Jake looked even more distracted than the night before, sliding the salt shaker from one hand to another. I brought the biscuits and gravy, and waited to get the single curt nod of the head, that’s Jake’s seal of approval. The dish was mighty big, but I never did see anyone who didn’t finish every last scrap.
He didn’t spend much time eating, and called me back soon enough.
“I gotta get going now. I got a meeting.”
“Well it ain’t. Just someone important OK. I can’t be late.”
“Well alright. This one's on me, and no arguments.”
“Gee, thanks. That’s real kind of you.”
“You are welcome to come by anytime. I mean that,” I said. “When’s your next show then? Maybe I’ll come into town next week, I always liked Mexican food.”
“Starts on the fifth. Six nights a week for the whole month.” He checked the clock on his phone again.
“Well golly, I’ll let you go if you really have to?”
Melvin was peering through the serving hatch anyway, looking for his star waitress. I’d been yacking too long and I sure couldn’t afford to lose this job.
“You come by anytime Jake. I mean it.” If he ever came to his senses and asked me to move in, I could make sure he had more than cookies in the cupboards.
“Awful grateful, Shelby.” He scratched his head and pulled on his trucker cap. “I’ll be seeing you.” Those five words was like poetry - Jake could say so little and mean so much.
He slunk off back to the truck, back to patient old Hank. I got back to clearing tables. I noticed half a biscuit was left under the thick gravy on his plate. He never did have much of an appetite.
The quesadillas at Nacho’s grill was dry as hell. I don’t know how they charge the prices they do. It was a big place though, with red and green paper decorations hung across the ceiling.
After Jake’s last show, we hadn’t spoken. He just wouldn’t open up to me, so I decided to give him time to think about what he was missing. I got busy working doubles at the diner and even went on a date with one of the cook’s brothers. It was the longest we’d ever been apart. Jake never did say much without a guitar in his hand, but I knew he must be missing me.
What he needed was an assistant, someone to make sure he got paid what he was owed. Someone to hawk his albums, to contact promoters and labels. I would be able to give up waitressing and we could be together full time. I had it all planned out.
“I’d like to dedicate this song to someone special.”
I never did hear him dedicate a song before.
“It’s called The Waitress, and today is a very special day for her. For us.”
It was March when we first met, but he had gotten the date wrong. We first spoke after a concert in Maddison’s on the first day of spring, last year. Today was a few days later. Well, at least he had noticed me, maybe he was seeing sense after all.
He played the first chords, moving up the neck of his old Martin acoustic. He coaxed out the notes and sang that fine melody. The song built up toward the soaring chorus.
She was just a waitress in a small town,
But I’d wait a thousand days just to see her again.
I knew the moment she took my order
I wouldn’t have no more reason to ever complain.
Why had he never recorded the song? It was wonderful.
“Thank you. Come see me at my stand if you like what you heard tonight. Enjoy your evenings . . . and Viva Nachos!”
There was a moment of still, complete silence in the room, before the applause and the sound of knives and plates started up again.
Jake joined a table at the front, with an older looking woman and a young boy. They was all smiling and laughing, the boy was more interested in his chips than in what they was saying.
“Jake. Hey there, Jake.” I waved as I approached.
He stood up, then sat down, then stood up again to hug me.
“I just had to come and check out your new show. The food ain’t much, but the ambiance is nice.”
The boy looked up from his chips. “I like the food. The food’s nice.”
“Hi there,” said Jake, looking down, all bashful.
“Shelby is a big supporter of mine, comes to my shows.” he said to the woman, who was raising her eyebrows up. “She’s a waitress too, you know?”
I wasn’t worried by the competition - dark hair, and a sort of hollow eyes with the onset of crows feet. She didn’t have any food to pick at, so she drummed her fingers on the table. She looked down on me, with her smart dress, even though I was standing.
“That’s great honey, where do you work?”
“Err, a diner, out of town. Best biscuits in Nashville, that’s what we claim.” I reached out to say hello to Hank who was lying down between her and the boy.
She reached for Jake’s hand and smoothed it, “You better learn how to cook mister, stop gettin’ into trouble with all these waitresses, and writing corny songs.”
Corny? She wouldn’t know a good country song if it hit her right between the eyes.
“Shelby, this is my wife Gloria, and my son Chuck.”
How did I not know? He never talked about a son before.
“They just moved back to Tennessee after a few years.”
“Well golly, Jake! Why didn’t you say nothing about your boy?”
“You know, we was apart for a long time. You know it’s funny, today is kind of like our wedding anniversary. Gonna give it another shot huh Gloria.” Her smiled that golden smile at her.
My heart sank. I knew it wasn’t no good hollering in a restaurant, but I wasn’t going to give up so easy.
“But I thought . . . I want to work together, to help you out.”
“Well, that sounds great, but I don’t think I’m going to be needing no help. Turned down a tour opportunity with the New Forest Band and everyone’s pretty hot about it. Got my hands full here you see.” He ruffled Chuck’s blond hair.
“But that’s what you’ve been waitin’ for, Jake.”
He shrugged in defeat.
It sure would have been different if the boy wasn’t there.
I decided to head to Woody’s to see if the acts was still going, it wasn’t that late, and I didn’t feel like listening to momma, with her bottle of ‘I told you so’.
It’s been a few weeks since that night, and Jake hasn’t called or been into the diner since. I know in my heart that things won’t last with Gloria. You only get one chance, and she blew it years ago. Jake has his distractions, but he always comes back to the music. I’ll be there waiting, when he needs a good meal, or someone to listen to Leonard Cohen records with. He’s my one, he just ain’t realized yet which waitress that song is really about.