“Consider it part of the payment,” I nudged, wanting him to take it. I don’t work Sunday and Monday, so my time is my own.
“I’d be pleased to accept. Thank you.”
“That’s what friends are for, man. You know that.”
He nodded, eyes focusing on his cup. Even three years out, he still wears his hair in a military cut. His clothing has changed from fatigues to khaki pants and a polo shirt, but he’s always spit and polish, his pants ironed to a sharp crease. He doesn’t have dog tags anymore, so he always wears a silver chain tucked under his shirt. He’s miserable out of the military, but he was released on a Section 8, and is considered unfit for service. At least his doctors seem to be decent sorts, and he gets good care. He put me down as his medical designee, and I’ve talked over his situation with the doctors from time to time. Jake’s a good guy, with a whole bunch of problems, not of his making.
“I’ll come get you to clean, then I’ll take you to the VA. Maybe I’ll hang out and sell some stuff while I wait.”
He laughed, slurping his coffee. “I been bragging to the staff about your food. You might ought to. Bet you’d make good money. They’ve got a cafeteria, but that food ain’t worth a nickle—and they charge a dime.”
Jake has a lot of interesting expressions. I’m not sure where he’s from, or how he ended up here, but he’s not a local. I can’t pin down his accent, but it’s somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. Wherever he’s from, he’s good people, and I’m proud to count him among my friends.
As the first high school student shuffled up, we got up and Jake helped me work the next round. He took money, counting back change like a pro, while I made the food. The kids are better tippers than the adults, so we had a nice stack to split. He insists he doesn’t need the money, but I make him take it. I also make sure he eats before he leaves. Sometimes, I think it’s the only meal he has. He lives in a group home, but I’m not sure they can always get him to eat.
“Your food, it reminds me of my mama’s,” he told me today. He’s told me that before. “My mama was the best cook….” Gulping, he stopped talking.
I know his mother died when he was a teenager. His sorry excuse for a dad beat her, killing her and her unborn baby, in a drunken stupor. In a rage, he went for his son next. Jake’s first documented kill, at the ripe old age of fifteen, was his father. A sympathetic judge gave him probation and community service, ruling it self-defense. He lived with his grandmother until he was old enough to join the Army. He’s my age, and the military was all he really knew for half his life.
“What was your favorite meal?”
“Fried chicken and hush puppies. You know how to fix hush puppies?”
“You seriously have to ask? What do you think?”
“I think you can make whatever you want. You’re smart like that, Keir. Anything you want to turn your hand to, you can do it.”
I smiled, accepting the compliment. For Jake, that’s high praise. Not untrue, but the same can be said for him. He just doesn’t take praise well.
“Thanks. Back at ya. Can you stay for the after work rush?”
“Yeah. Hey, is the super hottie gonna stop by again?”
“Said she would. I’ll introduce you.”
“I’m hands off,” he said with a nod. “She’s a temptation, but she’s set her sights, too. If she’s got a pretty friend—well, I wouldn’t say no.”
“We can ask, right?”
Jake chuckled, nodding. I have no idea what he does for female companionship. I can’t visualize him paying for it, but I also can’t see him maintaining a relationship. He’s a great guy, but highly unusual, and deeply troubled. Not the kind of man a woman goes looking for. Handsome, neatly dressed, clean and orderly, he’s a dream date in that respect. He makes a decent living with the odd jobs he picks up here and there. I’d hire him full time on the truck, but he doesn’t want the pressure of having to commit to a schedule. There are days when he can’t even get himself out of bed. Understanding this, I don’t push, but he’d be an asset.
The after work crowd appears in a heavy wave for about thirty minutes after five. Many of the office workers line up for a coffee, or a soda, to take with them on the way home. A few grab something for dinner. I post an evening special, making plenty in advance, and that goes well for the people who don’t want to cook. Damn near sold out of the potato and leek soup I’d prepared for today. Arby, my baker pal, had set me up with bags of fresh rolls, and I sold out of them completely. Even folks who didn’t get soup, bought rolls. I made a mental note to order extra for tomorrow.
I split tips with Jake again. He wouldn’t take payment for his help, so I decided to pay him extra on Monday. His help is invaluable during a rush. As the crowd thinned, I spotted Rowena coming out of the building. She was with Bernadette again, doing her best to get away.
I nudged Jake. “Call out Hey, Rowena and wave,” I said.
He did what I asked without question, giving her a big grin and a hearty wave. Surprised, she took the cue, excusing herself from Bernie’s less than congenial company. Making her way over to the food truck, she grinned up at us.
“Hey, y’all! How you doing, sugar?” she said to Jake.
“You ain’t from around here,” he replied, laying on his own luscious drawl.
©2021 Dellani Oakes