“Evelene, these cakes are the cat’s whiskers.” Natalie plunged her fork into the short stack of pancakes. Saturated with butter, two pieces stuck on the tines dripped syrup onto Natalie’s threadbare corduroy pants. Oblivious to the spill, she shovelled the forkful of pancakes into her mouth.
“No one makes ’em like Mort, and we’re the only place in town serves breakfast all day.” Evelene’s blue uniform skirt swished as she danced behind the counter to the tune of the Andrews Sisters’ “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.” The song played from a brand-new Emerson radio that sat on the counter next to the Sunbeam coffee machine. Grabbing a carafe full of freshly brewed coffee, Evelene leaned over the counter and filled Natalie’s mug to the top, “I’ll be sure and tell him you approve.” After replacing the carafe she leaned against the counter across from Natalie.
“You’re a blowed-in-the-glass babe, Evelene. A real angel.” Natalie knew it was uncouth to speak while chewing, but she couldn’t help herself. Nothing much about Natalie screamed that she was a woman of means or manners, despite her best effort to the contrary. Her filthy wool coat was stylish, but ratty, riddled with holes. The sole of one shoe was held on with twine, a dirty white sock peeked from within the toe of the other. Her frayed pant hems trailed the ground. Her hands were clean except for the dirt under her fingernails. A faded maroon cloche hat concealed most of her unkempt brown hair.
“Oh, stop it.” Evelene blushed, eyelashes fluttering. Natalie couldn’t help but notice a simple elegance about Evelene, a naive sort of innocence.
“When’s the last time someone told you how pretty you are?” Natalie poured cream from a small carafe into her coffee and swirled it around with her fork.
Evelene’s eyes lost focus while she searched for an answer. After a second she shook it off and looked back at Natalie, “It’s been a while.”
“There’s a story tumbling around inside that answer.” Natalie stopped stuffing pancakes in her mouth long enough to test the temperature of her steaming hot coffee. After the addition of the cream, it was right on the border of scalding. Perfect. Like Evelene. Natalie turned her attention back to the waitress. Evelene’s sandy blonde hair was pulled in a loose bun behind her head, but a seemingly random assortment of stray whisps escaped, waving around as she moved. It was a hectic sort of mess, the long strands of blonde hair framing her smiling face.
“I reckon the life of an independent young woman traversing our country by rail should be more interesting than any stories I have. I’ve lived in Concrete every one of my twenty years. Farthest I’ve been is Seattle, and only twice. I’m sure you’ve seen and done so much.” Through the window to the kitchen line, Natalie saw Mort pierce a ticket on the spike. He dinged a small steel bell.
“Order up!” Mort dropped two plates of steaming food on the window ledge and hustled back to the grill. Evelene shifted her weight away from the counter. Natalie grabbed her by the wrist.
“Evelene, I want to hear every story you have to tell.”
Evelene blushed again, then smiled at Natalie, “My fiance Herbert used to tell me I was pretty. Every day.”
“Fiance? Herbert? Used to? What happened?” Natalie slammed a fist on the counter, “Did this bum stray on you?”
Evelene looked at her shoes, “Well, he joined the service, and I’m sure he’s just been awful busy with everything, and I haven’t heard from him in a while.”
“Evelene!” Red-faced and sweaty, Mort popped his head through the window and rang the bell again, “Quit cupcaking with that tramp and get this order out!”
“Tramp? Who’s he calling ‘Tramp?’” Natalie wiped her face with a napkin and threw it down on the counter.
“Sorry, Natalie. You’re nice and all, but I gotta get back to work.” Evelene tore a receipt from her book and placed it face down next to Natalie’s plate. “Sorry, Mort.” She swiped up the two dinner plates and made her way to where a couple sat in a booth against the window. At a quarter to six it was already well dark outside. Rain thrummed against the windows, the constant rhythm of life in Western Washington. Headlights of cars sometimes shone through the windows as drivers going home for the day turned from Baker Drive onto Main Street.
Finishing her pancakes, Natalie looked over her shoulder, then peeked at the bill long enough to glimpse the total. She dropped it back on the counter. Shifting in her seat, she scratched her head and stared into her coffee.
As Evelene exchanged pleasantries with her only other customers, Mort came out of the kitchen. He wiped his hands on a rag, and threw it on his shoulder. Stopping in front of Natalie, he placed his palms flat on the bar in front of her. He looked like a man in his fifties that loved to eat as much as he loved to cook.
“Pay your tab and get out of my restaurant.” He grabbed Natalie’s plate, “Get out of Concrete while you’re at it, if you got any sense.” He huffed back to the kitchen.
“Everybody’s so kind in these parts.” Natalie drained the last of her coffee and looked around. Apart from the dining couple it was only Evelene and Mort in the restaurant. She could ditch. It was dark outside, that would help. No way Mort could catch her, not at his age, not with that belly. He’d be winded after a block, but Natalie was tough and lean from years of life on the road. She could run, but she hated to do it to Evelene. Natalie hoped she could wash dishes for a couple of hours to cover the meal, or worst-case, sweet-talk Evelene into paying for it. It didn’t look like Mort was copacetic to the previous scenario, and freeloading off of Evelene wasn’t the first impression Natalie wanted to make with the pretty waitress.
Evelene came back over and stood on the other side of the bar from Natalie, “You ready to settle up, Nat?”
“Trying to get rid of me already?”
“No,” Evelene threw a sidelong through to the kitchen, “but between you and me, Mort gets cantankerous if folks don’t pay their tab prompt like. Might as well get it out of the way.”
“About that,” Natalie made a show of searching for a billfold amongst all of her pockets, “I seem to have misplaced my toadskins.”
“Ah, yeah. Legal tender.”
“Oh.” Evelene crossed her arms.
“We can work something out, can’t we?”
“I don’t know. That’s up to Mort.”
Mort barged through the saloon-style doors from the kitchen, “What’s going on?”
“Nothing.” Evelene stared at Natalie, arms still crossed, “I was just paying for Natalie’s meal. Out of my own tips.” She turned to the till and rang up Natalie’s meal.
Mort stared on as Evelene pulled a dollar and change out of her apron, depositing it in the till. He shook his head, “You dizzy broad. Once these freeloading tramps know you’ll pay their way, we won’t be able to get rid of ‘em!”
Natalie stood up, “Listen here, palooka, I ain’t no tramp! I work hard for what I get.”
Mort scowled, “Thought I told you to get out? Go on, scram!” He pushed past Evelene and out onto the floor as Natalie raised her hands and backed away. He pulled his arm up to deliver a backhand.
“You gonna hit a girl?” Wincing, Natalie turned her head to the side in anticipation of a blow from the cook. The couple at the booth stopped eating, observing the confrontation.
“Stop it.” Evelene was between Natalie and Mort, “Mort, she’s paid. She’s leaving. Simmer down.” Headlights filled the restaurant.
“I don’t recall making you the boss of me.” Mort lowered his hand. The headlights went dark.
“And you won’t be the boss of me if you don’t go back in the kitchen and leave this poor girl alone.” A car door slammed outside.
A bell chimed. The front door swung wide. The chill air swept inside along with the blown rain. In as long as it took him to get from his car to the door, the man was soaked. The door swung shut behind him. The bell chimed again.
Natalie and Evelene both turned. He just stood there, saturated button-down shirt and khaki pants dripping onto the diner floor. He looked like he was in his thirties, clean cut, with glasses. His eyes were wide, he was breathing heavily.
“This ain’t what it looks like.” Natalie said.
“I hear it. Where is it?” He strode into the middle of the diner, looking around. “I’ve Got a Pocket Full of Dreams” by Bing Crosby filled the otherwise silent diner. “Where’s the radio?”
“It’s behind the counter,” Evelene pointed at the Emerson portable radio, “next to the coffee machine.”
The man raced behind the counter and cranked the radio’s tuner dial. Jumbled static noise punctuated by brief stabs of human voices came from the radio.
“Hey, pal, who the hell do you think you are?” Mort approached the man. The man held out a finger to Mort, signaling “stop.”
Mort stopped as a crisp, clear voice spoke from the radio, “…strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars. The battle which took place tonight at Grovers Mill has ended in one of the most startling defeats ever suffered by any army in modern times; seven thousand men armed with rifles and machine guns pitted against a single fighting machine of the invaders from Mars. One hundred and twenty known survivors. The rest strewn over the battle area from Grovers Mill to Plainsboro, crushed and trampled to death under the metal feet of the monster, or burned to cinders by its heat ray….”
“Is this some kind of prank?” Mort asked.
The man shook his head, “I don’t think so.”
Natalie inched closer to Evelene, until they were standing side by side.
“I was driving home from work. Turned on the radio and they’re talking about Martian invaders landing all over the country, destroying the army.”
“So what are we supposed to do?” Evelene realized she was holding Natalie’s hand. She gave Natalie a quick smile.
“I don’t know.”
Mort shuffled into a small office next to the kitchen. All eyes watched him return, a lever-action rifle in his hands, “I’ll tell you, what we do is fight back!” He plopped a box of ammunition on the counter and started thumbing rounds into the magazine tube.
“You heard the broadcast,” the stranger backed away from Mort, “Seven thousand men with machine guns were annihilated by one Martian tank. What are you going to do with that pea-shooter?”
Mort finished loading the weapon and cranked the lever one time, chambering a round. He strode onto the floor of the diner, holding the rifle at the ready, “Forty-five Seventy gov’ment loads. Hardly a pea-shooter.” He noticed Evelene and Natalie standing next to each other, holding hands. He closed the distance between them, staring down at Natalie, “Twice now I told you to get out.”
It wasn’t the first time Natalie had a gun in her face, but it was never a comforting sort of thing. She instinctively backed away from Mort, and Evelene again positioned herself between the two of them.
An intense burst of light washed over everyone in the diner. As the light faded, a massive boom rattled the windows. Mort looked around, “What the hell was that?”
Lights went out across the street. The lights went out in the diner. From the radio, “It’s reached Times Square. People trying to run away from it, but it’s no use. They’re falling like flies…” the radio went dead.