A Noble Calling
“Sugar time,” smiled Bud, lifting himself onto the barstool with a heave.
He was a big guy. The burly type, thought Eugene — for what seemed like the millionth time — as he watched Bud settle in.
Eugene grabbed the seat beside him, quietly organizing the space before himself at the bar. Salt and pepper shakers. Fork and napkin. Coffee and creamer. All neatly squared up at right angles.
Betse approached, straightening her apron and pushing a shiny green pencil behind her ear. She whirled around the end of the counter and stopped in front of them on the other side.
“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” she chuckled, looking at her watch, “right on cue.”
“He’s Dum,” huffed Bud, pushing an elbow into Eugene’s ribs with a wink.
Eugene let out a nervous laugh, wriggling to the far edge of his seat. He turned his mug over as Betse poured coffee for them both.
“I just love your new uniforms,” she said, eyeing their wrinkled grey shirts with sewn-on names, “So official.”
Betse set the coffee pot down behind the bar. “As if them little critters cared.”
Bud leaned forward. “Now listen,” he said, pointing a stubby finger toward Betse, “Animal control is a noble calling.” He proceeded to push his napkin into the space between his collar and neck. It stuck out like a crooked paper tie. Bud flattened it with his palms.
“It’s a brotherhood,” he continued, “An order, if you will — with a rich and colorful histoire.”
Betse raised her eyebrows at hearing a french accent come out of Bud’s mouth. There was a slender pass-through window behind her that opened up to the kitchen. Eugene watched as two plates with steaming food were pushed through it onto a stainless steel ledge. The cook on the other side tapped a little chrome bell.
“Speaking of order,” grinned Betse, “yours is up.”
She grabbed the plates and set them in front of Bud and Eugene.
“Twin patty melts, open-faced,” she continued, “for the fraternal order of lost dogs.”
She dropped a sprig of parsley onto the edge of Eugene’s plate.
Bud straightened, pushing himself forward on his stool. “Breakfast of champions, eh Jeans?” he said, grinning sidelong at Eugene.
Eugene was quiet. He eyed the opening behind Betse.
“How does Sugar do it?” he asked, in a voice just louder than a whisper.
Bud was already cutting into his patty melt. He stabbed a piece with his fork and popped it into his mouth.
“Do what?” he muttered, loosely chewing.
Betse grabbed a fresh pot of coffee and made her way toward the tables on the far side of the diner. Eugene continued to peer through the pass-through window behind the bar.
“Every Saturday morning, we roll in here. And it’s not like we’re on a schedule. I mean, we get here when we get here.”
Bud took another bite. “Um-hmm,” he nodded.
Eugene continued, “But every Saturday morning, Sugar’s got our food ready almost as soon as we sit down.”
Bud set his fork down and took a sip of coffee. “You’re overthinking it, Jeans,” he replied. “We always get the same thing. It ain’t rocket science. And Sugar’s been cookin’ his whole life. He’s crackerjack.”
Betse returned, stepping around the end of the bar. “Crackerjack what?” she asked.
Bud hooked another chunk of patty melt with his fork and pointed at Eugene. He whirled it in a loose circular motion. “Crackerjack here was asking about Sugar — and how he seems to know what we’re having before we have it.”
Eugene looked down at his plate. He pushed at the parsley with the edge of his thumb. Betse grinned, leaning over the counter.
“First of all, his real name ain’t Sugar,” she whispered.
Bud took a loud slurp from his coffee cup. He set his fork down and reached for the maple syrup dispenser. Eugene looked past Betse to the slim kitchen window over her shoulder. He saw movement on the other side, but couldn’t make out any defined shapes.
Betse stepped toward the cash register a few feet away. She hit three buttons in quick succession. The last one made a loud ding as the cash drawer slid open.
“It’s Sheraga,” she added. “He’s an ex rabbi from a long time ago.”
She proceeded to pull loose bills from her apron, flattening them out among the slotted spaces inside the drawer.
Eugene could hear Bud humming to himself as he poured syrup over the remains of his patty melt.
Betse continued, “A man of the cloth, from the old country. He never said what happened, but he gave it all up to start this place. Cooks everyday, from Sunday to Shabbat.”
She frowned, pushing her hand to the bottom of her apron pocket. She fished around and pulled out a handful of twigs and crumpled gum wrappers. Betse tossed them into the waste basket beside her.
“Sheraga Maxwell Baum,” she said, closing the cash drawer with a thunk.
Bud was pushing at his last bit of food with his fork. The maple syrup glistened as he smeared it around his plate.
Eugene watched as he brought the dripping morsel up to his mouth.
There was a large black dot on the underside. Eugene couldn’t help but notice. It looked like a fly, covered in wet amber gloss. And it was traveling, along with the last bite of patty melt, straight past Bud’s open lips.
Eugene started, but stopped short of speaking. He looked on instead — silently watching as Bud licked the last streaks of syrup from his empty fork.
“You know,” said Betse, lowering her voice, “Sugar’s got lots of secrets. Locals ’round here don’t think he left the calling by choice. They think maybe he got forced out. Asked to leave.”
She tossed a rag over her shoulder and picked up a pile of menus. “Leveraged, if you know what I mean.”
Bud pulled the paper napkin from his collar and wiped his mouth. He inhaled with a short gasp, swallowing a burp.
“Speaking of leaving,” he said, wheeling around in his stool and tossing a wadded tangle of bills on the counter, “the errant beasts of Cococino County ain’t gonna collar themselves.”
Eugene carefully pulled the uneaten patty melt from his plate and laid it neatly on top of a paper napkin. He folded the edgess over the top and lifted it into one hand.
Bud was already halfway out the door. He waved behind him as Eugene followed.
“Thanks, Bets,” Bud motioned, “and tell Sugar we’ll … echh,” he paused to stifle a cough.
“Tell Sugar we’ll see him next Saturday.”
Betse grinned, hand on her hip. “Be nice to them animals out there,” she said as the door jangled, glinting in the morning sun.
“They’s all God’s creatures.”