No Parking Weekdays. Sign after sign after sign. No Parking Weekdays.
Michael stopped his car next to the post office, just beyond the antique No Parking Weekdays signs that lined the only street in town. There was no wind break there, and cold from the fields surrounding the town reminded him of the gap between his knit cap and the collar of his coat.
Michael stepped cautiously along the sidewalk, past the insistent row of signs. They looked like they’d been set in place long before he was born. He brushed one with the elbow of his coat, avoiding a dark blotch on the sidewalk. He knew, objectively, that it wasn’t cold enough for ice, but the wet patches looked treacherously ice-like, and his skin felt sub-zero.
The diner was still in business. He had figured out something about local diners in small towns nowhere near a highway: the food might not be healthy, but it had to be good, because the customers were all regulars and probably knew the owners personally. Social sanction and instant market retribution. He pushed into the diner, quickly closed the door behind him, and was immediately too warm.
The server was transferring glasses of orange juice from a tray to a table, with a name for each customer in the booth, and a smile. Eyeglasses bounced on an orange cord around her neck as she reached across the table with the final glass. The cord did not quite match the ribbon holding her hair, or the juice. The smile turned, and nodded at Michael. “Anywhere you like, hon.”
“Thanks.” He pulled his gloves off, stuffed them into the pockets of his coat, shouldered the coat off, folded it, and slipped it into an empty booth. He sat and pulled the knit cap from his head. A menu eased onto the table.
“Oh, you had your hat bobby tucked!”
He looked up into the smile and checked his hair casually with one hand. “What’s that?”
“When you tuck the back of it so it fits tight on your head? I didn’t realize that had gotten around.”
He pressed against his hair in a blind attempt to tame it back into order. “I didn’t know…”
“A fellow named Bobby Mezger was the first to do it around here, so we call it the bobby tuck. I guess it caught on.”
Michael stopped dead, his hand against the back of his head. People had been tucking the back of knit caps as long as he could remember. Not everyone. Maybe not even a lot of people. But, people.
“Yeah, it’s warmer that way. I’ve been outside most of the morning. And I had to park down by the post office.”
“Oh, sweetie! Why on the living earth did you park over there?”
“The street signs say there’s no parking on weekdays.”
The smile smiled more. “Nobody pays attention to that. Look, they’re parked up and down the street. You could’ve parked right there on the side, hon. There’s a space. Two.”
He hadn’t taken note of the parked cars while glaring at the antique signs. And watching for impossible sidewalk ice. “Huh.”
“You want to order or do you need a minute?”
“I’m going to need a minute. Thanks.”
“Take your time, hon.” The smile walked away. Michael glanced at the menu without picking it up and decided to get the same thing he had the last time. That was simple. He stared for a long moment at the knit cap on the table, picked it up, and tossed it onto of the folded coat in the opposite bench.
Bobby tucked? Should he have told her that people do that all over the place? They actually named it for some guy who lives, or lived, there. That’s weird. Must be some kind of local point of pride, or a social identifier. We bobby tuck our hats and people from that other town don’t.
How the hell far was the next town?
He rubbed the chill from his face. No point in ruining it for them. If she wants to think “bobby tucking” is a local thing, why not? Ignorance is bliss. Maybe he should get the bacon burger instead. Yeah, okay. That justifies asking for a minute to decide, anyway.
“You ready, baby?” The smile was back.
“Yeah…” He shook his head, sniffed, stretched his eyes open. “Yeah. I, uh … I was going to get the meatloaf but I think I’m going to try the bacon burger. Medium. With all the regular stuff here.” He ran his finger vaguely along the description on the menu.
“Um. How about the potato salad?”
“That’s got pickle in it. You like it like that?”
“Yeah, I tried it last time. And a Coke.”
“I thought you looked familiar. You were here right before Halloween?”
He flipped the menu back and forth. The back was just a design with the diner’s name. “Yeah, once I month I do a circuit through the state, checking pollen stations. I’m a grad student down at the University.”
“Ah, yeah? Pollen stations?”
“We set up these little gathering stations in fields all over the state. They look like birdhouses, but they capture pollen. We measure it and put the numbers on a map, compare it to satellite photos of vegetation.”
“Trying to find which type goes furthest?”
“Huh.” He handed her the menu. “That would be interesting, but no. We could probably do that in a wind tunnel, I guess. I think they’re just gathering the data to see if anything interesting pops up.”
“Ah, browsing.” She tucked the menu under her arm. “Sometimes you find the best stuff when you don’t know what you’re looking for.”
The smile bounced away and brought back lunch a few minutes later. A few pick-up trucks rolled by outside, beds filled with firewood. The bacon burger was comparable to the meatloaf. A fire engine sped down the street, lights on but no siren. He finished the potato salad, finished the Coke, offered his debit card to the smile. More people were on the sidewalk now. The check came back, he tucked the card into his pocket and pinned the receipts to the table with one finger while he watched a young woman, about his age, park an old compact car across the street, step into the grocery, and return a few seconds later with a small plastic bag. The large dog in the car’s backseat remained remarkably calm through the entire visit. The woman’s brown hair glinted red in the sunlight as she drove away. Michael signed off on the check and began reassembling his outerwear, coat first.
The smile picked up the check. “Thanks, hon.” He slipped the hat on his head, tucked it.
She leaned in, slipped her glasses on, the left arm of them tangling the orange cord. “Oh, you’re doing it the regular way.”
“The regular way?” He eased the gloves on.
“Down in.” She motioned downward with a flattened hand, then reversed it to point up. “Bobby tuck is up and under. It’s not as easy to do it that way, because you have to pinch the bottom against your head with your thumbs and ease the top down with your fingers, to keep from pulling the edge up off the back of your neck.”
She winked and tapped my shoulder three times with the tip of her finger. “Bobby tuck.”
He walked toward the door, caught the attention of the customers in the door-side booth, nodded. Outside, the cold creeped into the edges of the coat. Not sub-zero, he told himself.
Cars were parked here and there along the street, as if the No Parking Weekdays signs were not there. The wet patches on the sidewalk had dried in the sun, erasing the illusion of ice. Two or three locals passed him on his way back to the car, knit caps bobby tucked behind them.