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Better Than Starbucks Fiction

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by Linda C. Wisniewski


Judd peers through the dusty auto repair shop window at the bar across the road. A sharp autumn wind pulls at the sign stretched between two white porch pillars. The Coors logo wrinkles above the words: Cold Beer and Great Good. He can see the place does a good business at lunchtime, though he’s been inside only once.


This Wednesday noon, he crosses the road, opens the front door, and walks in. Everyone stops talking as he pulls out a chair and sits at a table. Judd ducks his head. It’s been over a year since he left home the night before his sentencing, but you never know.


The room smells of stale beer and cigarettes. In here, there is no season. A small group of hunters comes in, and through the front window, Judd can see a deer carcass tied to the roof of their truck outside. They look tired but pleased with themselves, all wearing the same orange jackets and muddy boots. An old woman at the bar takes their orders for cheese steaks and beers then pushes open the kitchen door and totters through.


When she comes back from the kitchen, Judd orders a Coke and a club sandwich.


A hunter turns on his stool toward Judd and bellows, “How about a cold beer and some great good?” Judd smiles politely.


The man yells again, “Didn’t ya see the sign? It says cold beer and great good!” He turns to the bar woman. “You should get yer money back from Coors.” He laughs and shakes his head. “Looks bad, havin’ a sign with a misprint like that.”


The woman crumples to the floor.


The men jump from their stools and run behind the bar, pushing at each other to see, her head bleeding from a small cut. She is unconscious. Judd sees a phone on the wall next to the cash register. He punches in 911.


An ambulance arrives, siren winding down to a hum, just as the woman awakens and murmurs an agitated speech no one understands. The EMTs carry her out on a stretcher. After they leave, silence falls for a moment until a hunter speaks.


“Hey, we could get a free lunch,” he says with a nervous laugh that ends in a cough. Judd’s Coke and sandwich arrive from the kitchen in the hands of the cook, who limps over wearing a white apron then goes to stand behind the bar with hands on hips. The hunters put their money on the bar and leave with awkward waves.


“You really do have great food,” Judd gestures at his sandwich.


The man nods, runs a hand over his gray hair, and wipes the bar with a yellowed rag. “How’s business over there? I seen you across the street, workin’ on cars.” He lights a cigarette and brings a clean ashtray out from under the bar. “Been there ‘bout a year now, that right? Take over from Herman when he retired?”


Judd nods, his mouth full. The old man keeps talking. “Things are changin’ around here, that’s for sure. Good for business, construction workers comin’ in ‘cause of them new developments. Some a them Mexicans. Can’t even speak English, for Christ’s sake. Ya gotta serve ‘em, though, business is business. Live and let live, I say, but they oughta learn English if they wanna work here.”


“Right,” says Judd. “Here’s my card.” He pulls one from his shirt pocket and places it on the table. “Call me if you need anything, any help with the lady, I mean, if she needs a ride back here from the hospital or something.”


“Yeah, sure.” The old man stubs out his cigarette. “She owns this hole, lives upstairs.”


Judd leaves a bill on the counter. “That should cover it.”

The old cook limps into the kitchen and Judd goes back to the garage, but all that day and the morning of the next, while he works on cars, he looks now and then out the window. As noon approaches, cars begin to fill the parking lot. These are new people. They don’t know him.


He won’t go back home. The penalty for drug possession is a mandatory two-year sentence. He wipes grease from his hands, goes to the washroom, washes up, and locks the garage.


The customers are different from yesterday, still all male hunters or truckers. Behind the bar, a young woman wipes the shiny wood. Judd believes she has the plainest face he has ever seen, a blank slate on which anything could be written.


He takes the same table as yesterday. When she walks over, he orders the Coke and club sandwich again. “How’s the lady who fainted here yesterday?”


“She’ll be okay, but she has to stay in the hospital for a few days.”


The cook walks through the kitchen door carrying plates of burgers.


“Hey, there, came back, did ya? Checkin’ up to see what happens here next?” “More like checking on your boss,” Judd says. The waitress turns back.


“Actually, she’s my grandma. They want to run some tests before they let her go." She gives Judd a little smile and walks to the kitchen. The cook winks at him.

“She’s helping out for a few days. Her name’s Gretchen.” He follows her back through the swinging door. More customers enter: a man alone, a young couple, a motorcyclist carrying his helmet, a snack truck driver who has just made a delivery around the back. Judd watches them all as they place their orders and make small talk with each other. Except for the young couple, he is the only one at a table, so he gets up and moves to a cracked leather barstool.

The driver of the snack truck nods at him then takes a swig of his beer. “Nice day.” Gretchen returns with his Coke and sandwich and moves quickly down the bar to take the motorcyclist’s order. Judd watches her as he takes a swig. Her ponytail is held with a black Scrunchie and her jeans are clean and new.


He thinks of his sister, a farmwoman all her life, who took in their grandma after their mother died. Those two are his only family, and better off without him, though the sight of Gretchen makes him wonder how they are. His sister paid his bail and now she was out ten thousand. The sandwich is cold and dry, and Judd no longer wants it. He asks for his bill.


“Something wrong with the food?” Gretchen asks as if she really wants to know.


“No, just not as hungry as I thought.”


“Let me wrap it up for you.”


Judd reaches back in his pocket for his wallet. “Thanks,” he says not meeting her eye.


Outside, the day has grown cold. The wind blows dry leaves across the boards of the porch floor. With his sandwich in a white paper bag, Judd looks up at white clouds scudding across a blue gray sky, going somewhere. The tang of tobacco smoke draws him toward the old cook standing at the end of the porch, hacking a cough.


“Those things’ll kill ya,” Judd says. He looks both ways, walks across the road, thinking how lucky he is. Lucky old Herman gave him a job with no references and, after a year, lets him run the place, only checking in once a month to pay bills with the money Judd takes in. Lucky he has a small apartment and a car that still runs. “Runs” is a funny word, he thinks as he goes back to work.


The day ends with a sudden shower that leaves muddy puddles around the old concrete garage. Judd has locked up and is sliding behind the wheel of his car when he hears someone call his name. His whole body freezes.


“Judd! Come over here!” Gretchen stands in the alley behind the hotel, beckoning with one arm.


Judd runs across the road and follows her to where a small man is lying in the dirt. He moans and tries to sit up.


“Whoa, hold it there, buddy.” Judd stoops to get closer. “What the hell happened to you?”


“He doesn’t speak English,” says Gretchen. “I already tried. Looks like somebody beat him up, though.”


A cough from behind and Judd sees the cook in the open back door.


“More trouble.” He spits on the ground.


Judd feels cold. “Do you know who did this?”


“Not for sure, but lots of guys don’t care for wetbacks takin’ all the jobs. One of ‘em might have had too much of it.” He turns and goes back inside.


Gretchen and Judd check the man in the alley. He is not seriously hurt. He says Gracias over and over as they help him to his feet. Judd uses hand gestures to ask if he needs a ride, but the man shakes his head and mimes a thumb-up hitchhiking gesture. He hobbles out to the road and they watch until he is out of sight.


“Oh. My. God.” Gretchen turns to Judd. “Where do you think he’s going?”


“I have no idea. But he wanted to get away from here pretty fast. Must be runnin’ from somethin’ awful bad.”


The words have no sooner left his mouth than a line of fear crawls up his back and lodges in his shoulders. Gretchen steps close and looks down the quiet highway.


“How long can he keep running?” Her question pushes at a spot below his heart. He turns to this woman who reminds him of his sister, of family, of who he was, of who he still can be. “Listen, I’m going away for a while. I have some things to take care of.”


A sudden gust of wind shakes the mums in their pots beside the porch. He feels Gretchen’s eyes on his back as he crosses the road.

Linda C. Wisniewski lives in Bucks County, PA, where she volunteers as a docent at the home of author Pearl S. Buck. Her work has been published in literary magazines and websites and her memoir, Off Kilter, was published by Pearlsong Press. Visit her blog at

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