The Treasure Within

by Bob Nailor

An un-edited, first pass written for NaNoWriMo 2013.

Jolene sauntered into the kitchen with dirty dishes in hand and a smile on her face. It was a slow day at Pop's Burger Joint with Jack, Dag and Charlie sipping coffee waiting for Ben, the owner, to show and a family of three waiting for their order.

"When you going to marry me?" Henry flipped the three hamburgers then glanced over at her with a devilish grin. "This will be ready in a minute." The burgers sizzled as he smashed them under the spatula onto the grill. Henry reached over and bounced the basket of hot fries he'd just removed from the fryer.

"Thanks, Henry." She winked at him and continued her path, but with a perky sashay.

"I'm still waiting for an answer, Jolene."

Jolene gently spilled the stack of dishes into the sink and they clattered on top of the others already sitting in the water. She placed her hand to hip, leaned against the sink and once again cocked her head to survey him. He was a total package, good looks with sky-blue eyes, chiseled chin, early five o'clock shadow, muscles under a form-fitting T-shirt, tight jeans almost hidden in an apron and cowboy boots. "I've told you before—when you get the money to support me in the lifestyle of the rich and famous." She giggled, shrugged her shoulders and started toward the front of the restaurant. "By the way, any idea when Ben's going to show?"

"Nah. He mumbled about fixing something up.  He called over an hour ago." Henry plopped the burgers onto the buns already loaded with tomato and lettuce with a pickle and onion to the side. A quick movement and he placed them in wax-paper lined, colorful plastic baskets.  Grabbing tongs, he placed a heap of fries beside the burgers. "Maybe his old truck finally broke down and he's stranded."

"If he needs help, he would most certainly call."

The phone rang.

Jolene and Henry stared at each other, mouths gaping open. They laughed as Jolene reached over and grabbed the phone.

"Pop's Burger Joint."

A pause. She reached up to her ear for the pencil so she could write.

"Oh, hi, Ben. Where are you?"  She stuck the pencil back and fingered the hair around it to make sure everything appeared neat.

A pause. Henry placed the baskets on the kitchen order window and tapped the bell. It's ring echoed in the almost empty restaurant. Jolene frowned. Henry grinned and shrugged his shoulders as he walked toward the dirty dishes waiting in the sink.

"Let me check."  Jolene leaned out the kitchen door.  "Jack?  Can you go pick up Ben? He's stranded out on Route 87, just south of town about five miles."

"I done used up all the gas until Friday, Jo."

She pulled back into the kitchen.  "Jack will pick you up in a few minutes.  He needs to get some gas before he heads out.  See you in a few." Jolene placed the phone back on the wall and slowly breathed in, holding it for a mere second before she let it rush out.

"It can't be a bad day, Jo." Henry was suddenly behind her, his strong hands slowly massaging her neck.

Jolene pulled away. "Don't." She offered a weak smile. "I better get that order out." She slammed her palm on the door to push it open.

She grabbed the first two baskets and cautiously stacked one on the other. Henry's grinning face appeared next to the remaining basket and his hand captured hers as she reached for it.

"You going to tell me what the problem is?"

"Let go. I need to get these to the table before they're completely cold." She wrestled her hand free. "I'm okay. Don't fret." Jolene offered him a smile and wrinkled her nose.  "Honest."  She grabbed the third basket and headed for the table with the family.

Jolene placed a basket in front of the teenage boy. "There you go. One well-done burger." She grabbed the top basket and placed it in front of the woman and the other in front of the man.  "Two medium-well. Sorry for the delay, folks. The boss called."

The woman gave her a dour look. "Yes, we all heard. Is this any way to run a business?" She grimaced and cast a casual glance at the empty restaurant. "Besides clientele, it is obvious this place needs a good scrubbing." She waggled her hand and fingers in the air. "All this Arizona dust and grime collects too easily in here."

The man patted his wife's hand. "Now, dear. No need to get upset." He gave Jolene a weak smile. "It's been a long trip."

"I need catsup," the teenager whined. He slammed down the empty bottle. A small amount of catsup squirted out.

Jolene leaned to the table behind her and grabbed the catsup and started to hand it to the boy. Her free hand was already getting out the damp towel to clean up the spilled catsup.

"Don't patronize me, Ronald. This place is a dump. Your dad should have sold it years ago!"

Jolene jerked, almost dropping the full catsup dispenser. Dad? This was Ben's son? The one who'd walked out twenty years ago and hadn't been heard from?  She righted the bottle and quickly swiped the towel to clean the table of the offending catsup.

The woman glared at Jolene.  "It's too late now, Miss—" She squinted to read the badge. "Miss Jolene. When Ronald inherits this joint, the first line of business will be to terminate all employees, gut the place and make a respectable restaurant." She once more glanced around the room. "If that idea is even a possibility." She pursed her lips and stared down at her burger. "You twit! I didn't want tomato! Did you hear me say tomato?"

"No, ma'am," Jolene offered. "You asked for the Big Burger, medium-well. It comes with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. If you'd like I can—"

"Please," the woman sneered. "You'll get me another. Yes, I know. You'll take this back behind the door and remove the tomato, wait thirty seconds and then bring it back out. I'm not stupid. I can take the damned piece of tomato off myself."

Jolene straightened her back. "If there is anything you need, let me know." She walked away, headed for Jack. She reached in her pocket and pulled a five from her meager tips.

"Take this and go get gas. Then head out on 87 and pick up Ben."

Jack glanced around Jolene at the threesome in the booth. "Whut ‘bout them? That there is his kin. Why can't he go git'em?"

"Whatever you do, don't you dare mention that Ron is in town." Jolene cuffed his shirt near the top and scowled at him. "Do you hear me? Not one word."

"Fine, Jo. I don't say nutin." He pulled an imaginary zipper across his lips. "Our secret." He snapped the bill from her hands. He turned to the other two men. "You keep drinking that java. I'll be right back." He lumbered out.

"Miss Jolene!" Fingers authoritatively snapped in the air.

She turned to stare at the teenage boy who was summoning her. The arrogance. She approached the booth with apprehension.

"Is there something I can get?"  

"I ordered a well-done burger. When I say well-done, I don't expect to see any red or shade like that in the meat." He held up the catsup slathered burger. "See?" He pointed to an extremely small section of possibly palest pink burger, or, it could be catsup bleed-over.

Any other time I'd tell the little snit to suck it up and eat the damned burger but this is Ben's grandson.  I'd best be nice. Jolene glanced at the woman and the smirk told more than she wanted to  know. Jolene smiled.

"I'm sorry. I won't bill you for that."

"Of course, you won't," the woman said. "And you'll bring Ronnie Junior another one, properly cooked." She hesitated. "For free."

"This one is no charge, ma'am. If Junior wants another, I will need to charge for it." Jolene shrugged. "House rules."

"Just let it go, Lori." Again Ronald patted his wife's hand to comfort her. "Junior gets another sandwich and I'll pay for it. No reason to cheat them out of all their profit."  Ronald closed his eyes and ever so slightly shook his head before gazing back at Jolene. "How long before my father shows?"

Jolene flipped her wrist to check the watch on there. "Taking into account how slow Jack moves, it will be probably close to twenty more minutes before your father arrives." She smiled politely. "Would you like more coffee?"

"Absolutely not." Lori reached for a napkin, stuck it in the remaining coffee and turned the cup over on the sauce. "That has to be the worst coffee I've ever been served."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Mrs... uh..." Jolene stumbled trying to remember Ben's last name. Masters! "I'm sorry, Mrs. Masters. Most people around here consider our coffee one of the best in the area."

"The name is Mrs. Stewart. Mrs. Ronald J. Stewart." Lori cocked an eye at Jolene. "Your impertinence has been duly noted."

Ronald inhaled deeply. "Mom left Dad when I was three and took back her maiden name. She had mine changed since Dad wasn't paying any support."

"You don't owe this woman any explanation. Your father disowned you over twenty years ago when you tried to make amends and be his son."  Lori waved her hand to dismiss Jolene. "Just let us know when the bastard shows up."

"Yes, ma'am," Jolene replied.  I'll agree to anything to get away from this table and away from her. "I'll get another Big Burger, right away." She grabbed the basket from in front of Junior who had continued to eat the French fries.

She headed for the kitchen and dumped the food in the garbage pail by the prep table.

"I need another Big Burger basket.  This time, make sure it is well-done with no indication of any pink inside." She placed a hand on Henry's left arm, feeling the muscles ripple under the T-shirt as he slapped a burger on the grill. "Just don't burn it."  She hesitated. "Do you know who those three people are?" She didn't wait. "That's Ben's son. That's Ronald."

"Ronald J. Masters?" Henry cast a casual glance out the serving window toward the booth where the three people sat.

"Nope. It is Ronald J. Stewart." She smiled at Henry's confused look. "He goes by his mother's maiden name. Did you know they left Ben when Ronnie was like three years old?"

"And he didn't make another appearance until after his eighteenth birthday."

Jolene jerked around to see Ben standing by the frig, his grin barely noticeable through all the stubble and whiskers. "Nope. She done left me, taking little Ronnie with her. I tried to find her but she didn't want found. Then one morning, this kid comes in and tells me he's my son and how I owed him." Ben hobbled across to a chair and sat down. "I told him he could start by washing the dishes if he was looking for a job. No, sir-ree-bob, I wasn't handing over money for nothing. I'd rather give it to Jack."

"Jack!" Jolene glanced at her watch. "I told him to go get you." She frowned. "How'd you get here so fast? There's no way Jack got you."

Ben tugged on his whiskers and llet out a small laugh. "By the time I walked back to the truck, well, she kicked right up when I tried the ignition. So I drove on in." He paused. "You sent Jack?" Ben frowned. "Hell, woman, I saw his clunker sitting at the edge of town when I drove in. He's probably still walking to it."

"Junior's burger is ready." Henry handed the basket to Jolene. "Well-done but not burnt. It's slow right now so give me a few minutes and I'll go pick up Jack and bring him back to the restaurant." He pulled the apron off. "I'll drive by Smitty's station just to make sure he hasn't made it that far and is getting gas."

"By the way." Jolene turned to Ben while holding the basket of food. "Why'd you come in the back door?"

Ben shrugged. "No reason." He stretched up to gaze over the kitchen pick-up counter. "Is that them out there?" He reached for the basket. "Let me take it out."

"No way." She pulled the basket away from his hand. "I've had to deal with Junior this morning and I will take it out to him.  Besides, I don't want you horning in on any possibility of a tip."

Ben snickered. "IF he is anything like his mother, he can squeeze a nickel so tight, Jefferson from the front side will be answering the door of Monticello on the back side."

Jolene laughed. "I wasn't really expecting a tip." She hustled out of the kitchen and placed the new Big Burger basket in front of Junior.  "Hope this meets your approval, sir." She ignored the snide look he gave her. "Perhaps you'd like to cut it in half. You know, just to be sure it is cooked all the way through before you cover it with catsup."

"Do you treat all your customers with such impertinence, young lady?" Lori dropped the hamburger into the basket letting the contents fall willy-nilly atop the fries. With elbows on the table, she raised one arm and pointed a highly polished and well-manicured fingernail. "If you don't like serving the public, find a job elsewhere." Lori turned to Ronald. "If your father was here, I'd have this... this... I'd have her fired."

"Well, I just happen to be the owner and this is my best waitress. She's been with me for almost ten years now. If you don't like the food or service..." He pointed at the entrance. "There's the door and don't let it slap your ass as you're leaving." He glanced down at the table. "And don't mind worrying about paying the bill."

"Hi, Dad." Ronald stood and offered a hand to shake.

"Hmm." Ben eyeballed the hand. "I take it you finally got around to read the mail I sent."

"Got it last week when I drove to Jerome to..." Ronald inhaled deeply. "When I went to visit mom's grave. She wanted to be buried in the family plot there. I go there once a month to check mail."

"So your mom moved back home, even though your Aunt Charlotte claimed she had no idea where you and your mom were thirty-some years ago." He gripped the wood bar on the back of the booth. "That woman didn't like me from the first time I dated Elsa. She's lied to me every day since."

"About the letter. Exactly what did you mean by—"

"This hain't the time or place to discuss that letter. You staying somewhere close cuz I don't ‘spect you want to live at my place. It hain't all fancy like."

"I saw a place out near U. S. 40 where I'm sure we can get a room for the night." He glared at his wife knowing full well she was about to complain. "For a night, you'll survive." Turning once more to Ben, he realized introductions had been ignored. "This is my wife, Lori, and this is our son, Ronnie Junior. This is my father, Ben Masters."

"You told me grandpa was dead!" Junior glared at his father.

Once more Ronald took a deep breath. "For all practical purposes, he is. Now, let's leave before this scene gets any worse."

"But my hamburger," Junior whined.

"Wrap it up and take it with you. Or leave it. Your call." Ronald helped Lori from the booth and gently urged her toward the front door. Junior followed.

Ben watched the three leave. "On the bright side, things just keep getting worse and more complicated.  Sure glad I did what I done this morning.  Makes it all a lot easier. I got witnesses."

© 2013 Robert Nailor -- All Rights Reserved