Mrs. B’s Diner
Frankie had worked at Bijou’s Diner for eight years watching people troll in and out past mounds of red clay and adobe.
She caught a customer eyeing her over the rim of his red hard plastic cup. A greenish blue booth illuminated behind him next to a tiled wall colored pink by hanging lamps. She looked away when their eyes met.
Flashes of taupe nail polish caught Frankie’s eye as Ramona fidgeted with her hairnet. She stood before a butcher block cutting board of tomatoes braced for stewing. “I can’t keep this damned thing on,” she said. Strands of her curly hair protruded through small gaps between the light pink net. “But we don’t want to die!” The tomatoes shrieked.
“They’re going to complain about my hair in the food again,” Ramona griped.
She ignored their pleas. “I hate this fucking job!”
Frankie nodded and tugged at a hanging string dangling from her sewn on nameplate. Her uniform clung to her curvaceous frame and sang of starch with each step she took. She could no longer smell the pancakes, onions, and grease that had baked their memory into the yellow cloth.
“Where’s my rice! I need my damned dirty rice!” Bijou’s most frequent customer, Mrs. Badillo, shouted as Frankie absently filled her water cup.
“Coming up in just a minute, we’re making it extra special for you today!”
Frankie feigned a smile. She’d forgotten the order long ago.
Mrs. Badillo’s shoulders settled back into themselves. In the kitchen Frankie ladled dirty rice from the crockpot into a vintage Campbell’s soup bowl. Rice kernels had dried to the crockpot’s walls. The spices filled the air with offensive heat. “Ramona…Ramona!” Frankie hissed.
“I need you to take this out to Mrs. Badillo.”
“Fine but you’ve got to take over this chili. I hate that mean old bitch. She’s in here barking orders like she owns the place everyday and she doesn’t even know my name!” Ramona ripped her hairnet from her head, and grabbed the bowl from Frankie. “Smells like shit.” she murmured and sashayed toward the door between the kitchen and the dining area.
Frankie pushed open the employee exit and took a breath into the crisp air.
Blue sky and cerebral clouds hovered above.
She twisted her black and brown ombre box braids into a makeshift bun atop her head and hurled.
Mrs. Maria Jose Badillo prided herself on being the first customer to jingle through Bijou’s glass doors every morning. Her white square table with chrome edges glistened like a throne still damp from a fresh wash.
She loved Bijou’s Diner, more than she loved most things, because as a child her family frequented the same diner on Sundays. By age five, ordering was her favorite thing to do. It was the anticipation during the lapse between asking and receiving that made little Maria Jose feel alive. Back then, the waitresses had fawned over her. They’d praised her brown Shirley Temple curls, not yet touched by bleach and topped her milkshakes with overflowing cherries. It brought them joy to cater to the little girl’s every whim. Now that she was a grown woman and could do as she pleased she lodged herself in her peach booth by the glass block windows that obscured her view of the outside. After an early dinner she’d hustle home to watch reruns of her favorite talk shows and to wind her hair around pink plastic rollers in preparation for the day ahead.
“Bijou’s Dirty Rice: a spicy blend of sausage, bacon, peppers and tomatoes served in a bowl fit for a king!” the menu description read. It was perfect, and it was her order.
Mrs. Badillo eavesdropped as teenaged newlyweds took photos of themselves holding their baby over a spread of waffles and hash browns. They tossed a coin over which photo to submit to a reality TV program. Delighted, Mrs. Badillo scribbled their happenings into her notebook.
Mrs. Badillo wrote daily about the random ensemble of characters in the green booth within plain view of her own. She sipped cheap canned beer with a straw and discretely captured disjointed stories. She planned to write a book comprised entirely of Bijou’s customer dialogue. She’d send it to Oprah and it would surely be put on her list of Favorite Things. Then, everyone would see that she had always been there, writing their script, and running things under the surface.
What if, Mrs. Badillo fantasized in horror, she was to arrive to the diner one day to find someone in her booth just sitting there, just sitting like they owned the place? She imagined, with righteous pleasure, such an altercation and the biting words she would use to reclaim her station.
At times, she ruminated over the fantasy. She found justice in it. Mrs. Badillo had once been closer to middle aged, and for a time she’d been a teen. She imagined no one considered she too had been a baby and with wide eyes seen a frying strip of bacon sizzle and speak.
Frankie woke abruptly at 6:00am on her day off. Light streamed in and reflected the lime green cast of wallpaper onto her skin. Her small brown feet landed on the ground and crumpled the papers beneath them. “Shoot!” she whispered sharply. She gently brought the college application to her lap and ran her fingers over the fresh crease.
Frankie didn’t know what she wanted to study. “Business.” She’d answer when expectant customer eyes pried for a response. She was no more interested in studying business than she was in continuing to live in her parent’s basement in the desert.
Ramona, who squealed cheerfully when Frankie dished out gossip and laughed at all of Frankie’s jokes, was the main reason Frankie hadn’t walked out on Bijou’s years prior.
Bijou’s Sausages in a Blanket! The idea popped into her head with urgency she couldn’t shake. She had vowed “Never again!” after the last time Ramona had forgotten to throw out the expired milk, which lead Frankie to vomit milkshake along the edge of the parking lot.
The image of Bijou’s laminated white menu with red letters had imprinted itself upon her memory. Toward the bottom right side of the menu, just under the biscuits and gravy, her favorite item was announced:
Bijou’s Sausages in a blanket: three link sausages wrapped in blueberry pancakes served with real maple syrup.
She fastened silver hoop earrings into place and contemplated stale cereal as she slipped her arms through a green track jacket with white stripes.
Frankie arrived to Bijou’s Diner minutes after opening.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Ramona greeted her with a warm embrace.
Frankie tested two booths before she chose the one she’d already known would be the most satisfying.
She bathed her pancakes in butter then drowned them with maple syrup. The bell above the glass door chimed as Mrs. Badillo made her entrance into Bijou’s Diner. Frankie averted her eyes. She disliked Mrs. Badillo because of the way she flailed her arms about when she gave direction as if Frankie were her personal orchestra. It unnerved her, unexplainably so, how Mrs. Badillo wore her bleached hair in a square pyramid of hard curls. Most of all, her constant presence reminded Frankie she might be fated to live out the rest of her days alongside Mrs. Badillo in Bijou’s Godforsaken Diner. Of course she’d sat in the woman’s booth on purpose!
Mrs. Badillo approached briskly, her peach sweat suit swished loudly with dramatic effect.
“I was sitting here.” Mrs. Badillo announced.
“No you weren’t. I just saw you come in.”
“This is my seat.” She couldn’t believe the girl’s nerve.
“There are lots of other empty seats. Look there’s that nice corner booth.”
Frankie pointed to a booth with foam stuffing breaking through its red cover. They paused to take a look.
Frankie wondered why Mrs. Badillo’s eyes twitched back and forth between her and the customers who seated themselves in the adjacent mint booth.
Mrs. Badillo suddenly retrieved Frankie’s Tabasco sauce and coffee mug and firmly set them atop the nearest empty table with a dignified clang.
“What are you doing?” Frankie held fast to her plate as Mrs. Badillo attempted to tug it from her grasp.
A half eaten sausage link rolled off of the rim and onto Mrs. Badillo’s white tennis shoe. The remnants of a grease stain would live on in the fabric of her laces.
Mrs. Badillo’s brown eyes boiled. “Listen, hussy—” She started.
“Excuse me!?” Frankie’s voice was filled with incredulous delight; she couldn’t wait to recall each detail to Ramona.
“Who do you think you are?” Mrs. Badillo pronounced each word with sharp incantations. “I’ll get the manager and I’m sure he won’t be so kind!”
Frankie barely stifled a snort “Mrs. Badillo, I am the manager,”
“…Oh…” Mrs. Badillo shifted. She released the plate. It clinked softly against the Formica tabletop.
“I didn’t recognize you outside of your uniform. You should have said who you were from the beginning.”
Frankie juggled the weight of her livelihood before opening her mouth to say what she had always wanted to say.
“I don’t know how you didn’t recognize me. I serve you all of the time and even if I were a customer do you still think it would be ok to treat me this way?” Frankie asked.
Head held high, Mrs. Badillo made her way toward a red stool at the bar. She had learned long ago to feign confidence in the face of embarrassment.
“Bijou’s Dirty Rice?” A pretty girl with a giant Afro asked. She stood behind the counter; readied to scribble Mrs. Badillo’s order into a notepad. Her white linen nameplate read “Ramona.”
“Ye—” Mrs. Badillo interrupted herself.
A chalkboard on the columned wall behind Ramona caught her eye. It shouted “ASK ABOUT OUR SPECIAL!” in capital peach letters.
“…What’s today’s special?”
“Fried pickle sandwich with aioli.”
“That sounds quite strange.”
“It sounds strange but it changed my life.”
Mrs. Badillo reached for her notebook. “I’ll have it.”
“I’ll have it.” Mrs. Badillo scrawled in blue ink. It had never before occurred to her to incorporate her own dialogue into the narrative.
“Mrs. Badillo, I do declare!” Exclaimed the pickles from their jar of juice.
Sherita Trent lives in Portland, Oregon. She studied creative writing and visual arts at the Evergreen State College. She enjoys singing at the top of her lungs to the same song on repeat and watching relational reality TV. You can view her mixed media portraits on Instagram @ofquirkywonder.