It’s one of those words that you don’t hear too often in daily conversation, but it was what I kept thinking again and again as I eaves dropped on a man and woman at the Poke Bowl restaurant while having an early lunch the other day. At first, I thought they were a couple. He was your normal T-shirt and jeans wearing grease monkey. She appeared to be a someone who didn’t quite match his taste, maybe a little above his station, no offense to the working man who spins a wrench or heaves a sledge hammer. Her green lacy top and deep purple knee length skirt, and cork-heeled sandals, told me she had a job behind a desk. The horn-rimmed glasses connected to a gold chain around her neck threw me off. There sits a young 30-something with bad eyesight. Maybe they were cheater glasses as my wife called them, but still.
She seemed uptight holding her single-sheet menu, her eyes moving to the door she faced time and time again. The bright sun glinted off her glasses, shooting rays of light onto the walls and ceiling. He sat calmly. The grey along his temples and salt-and-pepper moustache suggested he might be a little older, by about 10 years. The rest of his hair was a curly brown mess like someone had turned a bowl of thick noodles over on his head. He cleared his throat to get her attention.
“Someone you waitin’ for?” he asked. “You keep starin’ at that front door.”
He said it loud enough to attract attention. The kind-faced proprietor glanced up from behind the counter, then signaled to a nearby waitress, making eye contact and nodding. Not quite the novice, the waif of a girl with pigtails made her way over to the table where they sat.
“Can I get you something to drink while you decide? Take your time.” The waitress shifted her weight awkwardly, enduring a long pause. “Water?” she asked meekly in a high-pitched voice.
The man grumbled something under his breath, while the woman spoke over him.
“We’ll have water, yes. You’ll have to excuse my brother. He gets this way sometimes. Please do, we’ll need a few minutes,” she said, looking over the frames of her glasses. “And, I’ll have a cup of coffee, too.”
“Two waters and coffee, coming right up,” the waitress said, feeling their tension, relieved to step away.
“Hey, you asked me here,” the man said, leaning across the table. “I don’t normally eat lunch, at least not no fancy schmancy fem bullshit. I’m better off with a lunch pail. Say, why are we here anyway?”
“Will you hold your horses, and keep your voice down for Christ sake.” She unfolded her legs under the table, allowing her foot to forcefully brush his shin. “And if you don’t, the next one’ll be harder. Now decide what you’re going to eat.”
His eyes narrowed, sparks flying through his growing pupils. He shook his menu, turning it backward and forward. Finally, he set it down.
“No steak and eggs,” he said, sounding disappointed. “Think they take requests?”
“If they don’t, then I’ll make the meal myself,” she said, letting a loud sigh escape. “Just ask for a burger and eggs, and don’t cause a scene.”
“I ain’t hungry,” he said, scowling. “Just say what you gotta say, cause I gotta get back to work. That transmission I’m workin’ on aint’ gonna fix itself.”
“Fine, I’ll order for you,” she said, grabbing his menu.
The waitress returned, setting the drinks on the table. He stayed staring at the straw she dropped near his glass, which was already sweating. She pulled her order tablet out of the pocket of her red polka-dotted apron and held her flowery ink pen at the ready.
“You guys know what you want?” she said, letting her casual talk take over, after a little eaves dropping of her own. She had seen men like him, simple, straight-forward, and most of the time, friendly – truckers and farmers who stopped by, speaking in fragments, expounding on work and trading a few tasteless jokes with their buddies.
“We’ll have breakfast,” the woman said, letting her best cordial voice escape, like a young Scarlett Johansson – not a hint of pretentiousness, but a tiny lilt of attitude. She was real, brave, sitting with her older brother who obviously had better things to do than enjoy the company of his baby sister, who he hadn’t seen in months, now suddenly making an appearance.
“He’ll have your breakfast burrito and I’ll have your spinach and bacon quiche… Oh, and can you give us a pot of coffee,” she said, holding tight to the handle of a large white mug.
She poured a few packets of sweetener, allowing the white powder to settle into the deep dark well of French brew, which was produced from freshly ground beans and a machine that drowned out all other noises. The loud grinding made the man’s mood worse and his sister could tell. Maybe this wasn’t the right place to tell him about what happened to her, though part of the story was all over the local news.
Minced down, it was even carried on the AP Wire as a mention. For west Nebraska, it might as well have been a banner headline. The local rag, instead, printed it on the lower half of Page One, describing the discovery of a decapitated body in inglorious detail, stating how it was found in an irrigation ditch southeast of Gering as a farmhand uncovered what was clogging the waterway. It also described what he was wearing, and provided the police chief’s comment on how they had no concrete leads. This was a real mystery, considering no one was reported missing, at least not in Scotts Bluff County. Bulletins that were sent out to the tri-state region which included Colorado and Wyoming turned up zilch. The woman took the newspaper out of her purse and set it on the table, pointing to the story.
“You read this?” she asked her brother.
He shook his head. “You know I don’t get the paper,” he said, sitting back further on his wooden chair, causing the legs to scrape along the tile floor like fingernails on a chalkboard. He turned his head and nodded at a couple of his friends walking past their table.
“What’s up, Rob?” said one of them.
“N’much,” he said. “Just catching up with the sister.”
“Oh yeah, hey Cheryl,” the man said, pulling out his chair to sit down. “How you been?”
“Just fine, Roger,” she said. “Figure, I’d come out of hiding.”
“Just in time, football season’s about to start,” the man said, grinning. “Should be a good one.”
“Yeah, man, Go Big Red!” Rob said.
The thin waitress walked back up to the table where Rob and Cheryl sat, depositing the warm breakfasts, steam rising off their plates. “You guys need anything else?” she said.
Cheryl stayed staring at her brother. “Well,” she said.
“Well, what?” he answered, beginning to act bothered about her serious tone. He guessed he really didn’t know another side to his sister. She had been an elementary school teacher for the past 12 years, and still, after all this time, in no serious relationship. Rob figured she’d warn off suitors being too smart for her own good. At one point, he thought she might be a lesbian because she didn’t wear makeup and kept her hair short, a close crop, with one side shaved. She explained it as style, and got an earful from the principal, who said he’d gotten a few worried comments from parents. She brushed it off, of course, telling him to get with the times, that nobody gets out of joint when a lady shaves her head because she has cancer, and other girls who colored their hair blue and orange, and “shit” like that. The principal backed off when she mentioned getting the teachers’ union involved. In his mind, there were bigger fish.
What Rob didn’t know was that she was on Match.com and that she’d only go out with guys who lived out of state, mainly nearby Fort Collins and Denver, places where she could smoke pot legally. In her mind, this town was too small to do otherwise. She didn’t want her name coming up in gossip circles. The idea of busybodies pecking at her already questionable reputation made her cringe.
I stayed still in my chair two tables away, pretending to turn the pages of my mystery novel. The proprietor called me out.
“What’s the deal?” she asked. “You been here for an hour already. I might have to charge you rent.”
That was her subtle way of telling me the restaurant was under siege with the lunch rush, and she was going to need a table. I compromised, moving to one of the smaller tables for two people. I looked at my watch, though, I had no place to be – no meetings and no one to visit, being semi-retired and looking forward to the day I’d finally get up the courage to move to Costa Rica and live in my dreamscape beach house.
“Alright. Guess I’ll have some dessert. Bring me a few of those baked cookies,” I said, pointing to the sweets in the glass enclosure next to the cash register.
“Which ones?” she asked sharply.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said.
“Alright,” she answered, rolling her eyes. “Don’t blame me if you don’t like ’em.” She brought over a plate of two large peanut butter cookies and small scoop of vanilla ice cream. “Eat up!” The proprietor, noticing the influx of new diners coming in the door, dashed back to the kitchen. The sun glowed through the side window, casting shadows in the dim light. All the loud conversations blended together.
“Don’t be a wise ass,” Cheryl said, sounding different to Rob, like she was needing big brotherly advice about something. “Did you hear anything about this happening?”
“Course I did,” he said, tamping down his frustration. If she really did need a voice of reason, he could listen and put on his best manners. “You’d have to live under a rock. Really Cheryl? Just cut to the chase. I’m getting the feeling you’re going to say something I might not like.”
Cheryl picked at her quiche and watched her brother shovel the egg-and-bacon-filled burrito into his mouth like he hadn’t eaten in years. She peered back down to the news article and read the part that concerned her. It was the last line of the story, which asked if anyone had information to get in touch with law enforcement. She pictured herself nervously dialing the Gering police. What would she say? That this was a guy she went out with last week, and yes, he was from out of town, and how could anyone really know? He didn’t have a head, and with no head, and no face, how could he match up to any description?
She barely knew him, two hours for dinner and two more hours in a dark movie theater watching ‘Atomic Blonde’ at Monument Mall. The story said he was wearing a blue collared shirt, tan pants and work boots. The clincher was a Marine Corps tattoo on his left arm, but there are probably a lot of guys who were in the Marines who had that tattoo. Yet, the coincidences started to add up. When they parted ways at the mall parking lot, she guessed a lot of things. They drove separate cars, and in fact, she didn’t know what he drove, because they walked to her car after the movie. He waited for an invitation to her place that never came. Too many weirdos in the world. She met her fair share of nice guys on Match, but not enough to be sure there wasn’t a serial killer or rapist among them. You couldn’t be too careful.
“I think I know the guy,” she finally told Rob. “I think I went out on a date with him.”
My ears perked up and I waited for the other shoe. Rob laid down his fork, then peered up at his sister. “You got to be kidding,” he said. He observed the worry lines forming across her forehead, not knowing how else to respond. He resumed eating, scraping the fork against his plate, then taking a big swallow of coffee. Finishing off the last bit of bacon, he grabbed the napkin and made sure nothing ended up in his moustache for later.
He finally broke down, and asked, “What else? You act like there’s something else.”
At that moment, I bit into my cookie and followed it with a big spoonful of ice cream, savoring the taste and closing my book.
Cheryl turned to her left and noticed me. The lunch rush was ending and only a few of the other tables remained occupied. I raised my eyebrows and she gave a confused look.
“Look, we need to go outside. This is something I don’t want getting around town. You know how this place is.”
“Oh, you mean gossip,” Rob said in a rich sarcastic tone. “Yeah, I gotta be getting back to work anyway. No chatterboxes there.”
“Alright, you get the bill?” Cheryl said, grabbing her purse off the table.
“Yeah, I got it? That’s what big brothers are for.”
“Meet you outside.”
I got up and paid my tab before Rob got up to the counter, then went outside to the front of the restaurant. Cheryl stood near one of the tables on the patio, waiting for her brother. Walking past her, I said, “Have a good day.”
“You do the same,” she said, reaching into her purse for her sun glasses, and trading them for the horn-rims, then I got this chill, sensing the whole of her person had changed.
I pretended to walk toward my car, then stood on the curb near some bushes that lined the restaurant’s patio. Rob emerged. I could hear him say. “So, what’s so important that you couldn’t say in there?”
“Well… I’d call the police with the information I have, but…” She slowed her speech, hesitant about how she might word her weighty thoughts.
“C’mon sis, I don’t got all day. Is this something I can help you with, or not?”
“There’s no other way to say it, except just to tell you. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s the guy I went out with the other night, and I’ll tell you why I think so.” Cheryl glanced around first, scanning the restaurant entrance, then the patio, nary a customer or wait staff. The coast was clear. Just empty tables, or so she thought.
“The reason is because this morning when I went to get some meat out of my freezer to thaw, get this, I found his head in there.”
She said it so coolly and without hesitation. My own head spun. I was dizzy. The only way I could describe it was the one word that kept repeating, ever since the start of Cheryl telling her side of the story. Could this be? A lonely elementary school teacher involved in a heinous murder? There was doubt, and confusion.
Obfuscate. Obfuscate. Obfuscate.