My home is a bar/cafe in Jackson, North Carolina I troubled into a few years back. According to the winking electric sign above it it's called The Mariner, but don't go calling it that when you're in Jackson, they'll know your from out of town. The older folks call it the diner, which has a more timeless and universal ring to it. The diner sat at the edge of the washed out hamlet by a bridge that carries the young soldiers softened from boot camp down to the shores of Georgia. Large thick bushes and coats of weary graffiti covered most of the establishment's pre-botox, sea-foam green, and neon finery. The inside conjured up visions of roller rinks and broken disco balls. It had art deco chairs, new wave counter tops, and sports a color scheme that made your eyes wail. This little girl named shelly worked the bar and zipped around the grill. Shelly had a little too much of her daddy in her, but her crooked tiny mouth spun into the prettiest little smile. She pounded her shoes into dust everyday in that place from sunrise and well under sun down to keep her little boy at home clothed and well fed.
I asked her where the father was and all she said was, "that man taught me only one lesson; leave them wanting."
She poured thick black cups of coffee and put extra whip cream on my pie without me even asking. She let me stay all night, and as I scribbled every other thought down we chatted about little things and I almost forgot about the long road I still had ahead of me. Now and then I'd let her peek inside my note book and she would nod and smile at me vacantly. Her smile was so warm and certain. I imagined her boy beaming with pride under the same smile with his crayon drawing hoisted up at her. I was riding high on Shelly's river of black coffee, the brilliant incandescence of the pool of aged workers filling up the Mariner's tiny corners. They all came in for the same thing, to huddle under Shelly's smile.
"I swear she looks like Nina Simone after a dog day afternoon," a knobby faced man whispered to me. In this place, in this haven shelly was patron saint of weary union men, tree splitters, and delivery drivers. Shelly was Joan of Arch, Cleopatra, and Patsy Cline to this grayed collection she tirelessly poured her days into.
When the little hand finally rested on three, Shelly closed the Mariner up, while I protected her from the rain with the latest addition of the Jackson Chronicle.
"Where are you staying tonight," she said meekly.
"At the Horizon on Peach Tree."
"They've got a cafe in that place," she smiled at me," why come all the way out here?"
"I heard the prettiest girl poured the best coffee in town at the Mariner."
"You're a lier, but I'll take you home anyway."
When we got into Shelly's house the three penny tour only got us to the couch. We kicked off our shoes and watched a cartoon cat sing Is you is or is you ain't my baby. We locked arms, half watching the television, and took turns stealing glances at one another.
"I imagine I could spend my whole life just like this," she said with her lips pressed against my ear.
"I imagine one could," I said.
The next morning I pulled out onto the road. From then on I was a unceasing dismal comet headed toward an apparition and away from a fantasy.