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Chili Scramble
Gerry Gurevich

"Whatever you do, don't embarrass me. You have to be on your toes," Fran told Alex. They stood in front of the Manhattan Grille holding hands.

"Okay. I'll keep my mouth shut. God knows, I don't want to look foolish at the diner," Alex said sarcastically.

"I don't really care if you're embarrassed. Just don't let me down. I'm a regular there, and if I bring you in, then I'm responsible for your behavior. I love these people, they're like family."

Alex turned to face her. "Don't you think we're rushing things, then? I mean, we only slept together once, and already your bringing me to meet your family? Maybe we should go back to your place." He kissed her quickly and grinned at her. She kissed him back, and they walked through the door.

"Just be careful in here. They're friendly, but they're tough."

Alex was struck by the aroma of coffee and onion bagels, and just a faint whiff of cayenne pepper. The clatter of plates competed with several conversations for attention. A large man behind the counter yelled at Fran, "Didn't you see my new sign. You are not welcome in this establishment." His name was Sam and he pointed to the sign hanging from a black thread in the ceiling. Pasted to the sign was a picture of Fran with a red circle and slash blotting out her face. It said, "BANNED: For being a faithful Redskin Fan."

Fran fired back, "Look, this is Washington. I'm a Redskin fan. And if you don't like it, get your New York ass back to Albany, or whatever podunk town you came from."

"New York City, darling. Da big apple. And my Giants are going to tear your Redskins a new asshole today."

Fran wrinkled her nose, "Nice language. You've been hanging out with Juan sniffing dumpster fumes too long." Fran turned to Alex and said, "It was so much nicer when the Skins were winning. All these jesters had a lot less to say on Sundays." She yelled back into the kitchen, "At least we didn't lose four Super Bowls in a row, like your team, Juan."

Over the open door a sign read, "No Spitting." Juan poked his head out and said, "Stop living in the past, Frannie. The Deadskins are nowhere. This is the Bills' year."

"In your dreams, Juan. Sam, let me have two coffees...and a menu for my friend, Alex."

Sam looked Alex over. Alex hadn't shaved, and he looked a little rumpled. "You want two cawfees also, or is she going to let you have one of hers, young man."

"I think we'll share." Alex offered.

"That's sweet. Hey Juan, two cawfees for Fran and her new sweetheart."

Juan yelled back, "I make the food. You pour the goddammed coffee."

Sam pulled two mugs from under the counter. He poured from the closest of the four coffee pots. "Here you go, young man. Here's your cawfee. Today's special is scrambled eggs with chili. But your girlfriend there is gonna want the pancakes."

Fran chimed in, "When are you going to put hash on the menu?"

"If I thought you would eat it darling, I would add it," Sam said. He turned away and sniped, "Hey Sally, you want some cawfee to go with that sugar?" Sally grunted and continued to shake down four sugar packets as she looked over a man's shoulder to see the headlines of The Washington Post.

The diner was small. An ell shaped counter seated five people -- three on the long side, two on the short. There were two high tables along one wall of the diner, and one low table along the front by the window. The Potomac River rolled by one block away. Photos of Joe Dimaggio, Babe Ruth, Frank Gifford, Y. A. Tittle, and Walt Frazier hung on the walls. The rest of the space was filled with sarcastic slogans and clever bumper stickers. Things like, "This ain't no Burger King, you don't get it your way," and "I ♠ my dog." Alex and Fran sat down at the low table next to a poster of the New Yorker's view of the United States. It featured the New York skyline as two-thirds of the map. The rest the country was compressed into three abbreviated regions, Corn, Dirt, and California.

Alex handed Fran her coffee and she said, "You better order the special. He'll be hurt if you don't."

"Chili & Eggs? At this time of the morning?"

"It's almost noon."

"Where does the time go?" Alex asked.

"I guess we didn't fall asleep until late."

"I hardly slept at all. But I'm in such a good mood it doesn't matter."

"I know how you feel." Fran's eyes crinkled up in a smile. They kissed again.

"Hey! You lovebirds gonna order or what?" Sam hollered.

"Pancakes for me, with extra blueberries. And the chili special for Alex," Fran said.

"He's a good man, this one. And brave too. Juan, we gotta order of Prima Donna Pancakes with extra blueberries for the lady, and chili for the gentleman."

Juan stuck his head out and said, "Brave man!"

Alex turned to Fran and asked, "How'd you ever end up as a regular at this place?"

"I was looking for a newspaper last winter and I wandered in. They started yelling at me to shut the goddammed door. And it's been home for me ever since."

Sally sipped her coffee and looked over her companion's shoulder. "Look at this, this lady was swimming with the dolphins at Aqua-Theater in Key West, when one of the male dolphins was feeling a little frisky. He rubbed up against her in, quote, an amorous way."

"Let me see that picture," Sam said. He looked over the newspaper, "At least the dolphin has good taste. She's a looker."

"I did one of those swim with the dolphins things," Juan said. "They never got friendly with me."

"They took one look at your mug and thought it was Godzilla rising from the sea to crush Tokyo again," said the man with the paper.

"I've been on dates like that. Men can be such brutes, it doesn't matter which species they are," Sally said.

"Your date tried to crush Tokyo?" asked Sam.

"No. I've had dates like that dolphin swim. One guy took me dancing. First date, we're dancing to some funky stuff, jumping around, having fun. Then they switch to a slow song, and he just walks up and embraces me, and starts grinding his crotch into me like I was some sort of scratching post."

"That was no man, darling. That was a weasel. I hope you left him curled up on that dance floor, clutching himself and gasping for air."

"No, but I made it a short night, sent him packing, and never saw him again."

"This is why my daughters won't be allowed leave the house until they're married. And they won't be allowed to date while they live in my house. There's too many weasels out there" said Sam.

"So you're not going to let them date and you're not letting them out 'til they get married. How's that supposed to work?" asked Sally

"Simple, I'll arrange their marriages for them."

"You're going to be popular with those little girls."

"I'm already popular with them, I'm king of their castle. And they are my perfect little darlings. And they are not, I repeat, NOT, going on any dates with weasels. Or horny little dolphins for that matter."

"That's a nice story, Sam, but that's not reality," said Sally.

"They're going to have to date a few weasels before they meet any princes," added Fran.

"How 'bout this guy, Frannie? Is this guy a weasel or a prince?"

"I don't know yet. The jury is still out," Fran smiled at Alex.

"The jury is still out, huh? I don't suppose I can poll the jurors?" asked Alex.

"No, but I'm willing to admit additional evidence. You can start by picking up the tab for breakfast."

"But of course, m'lady." They both smiled, locking eyes for a moment. Then they sipped their coffee and looked around the diner.

Alex said, "So you used to have a thing for weasels?"

"No, I never had a thing for them. Although I attracted them often enough. God, I dated this one creep back in college..." Fran suddenly screamed, and Alex jumped back in his seat. A large bird crashed into the front of the diner.

"What the hell was that?" yelled Sam.

"It's just a bird," said Alex as he caught his breath.

"Oh...he must be hurt." Fran stood up and walked toward the door.

"Did he leave any blood on the window?" asked Sam

"Nope, but it looks like he smudged it a bit," said Alex.

Fran was outside crouched near the bird. She looked up at Alex through the smudge and called to him.

Alex got up, and Sam said, "If you're going out there, how about wiping down the window."

Sally ran her fingers through her hair as she watched Fran and Alex. "I read this story a couple of weeks ago. This bird was migrating from Canada to South America and got caught up in a real strong wind. It blew him clear across the ocean. He ended up in a bird sanctuary in England where he flew into a window and died. Isn't that sad?"

Sam said, "Sad for who? The poor guy who had to clean up his window?"

Juan said, "Maybe we can add a new special for lunch."

The man with the paper said, "I don't know. It looks a little puny. I think your going to need some Dead Bird Helper."

"I could add it to the chili. It might make a good seasoning."

Sally said, "You all are horrible. I don't even think it's dead." She craned her neck to look out the window. "What are they doing out there?"

Alex walked back into the diner. "I don't suppose I could have a dry towel. The bird seems to be alive, and Fran thinks it would be best to cover it up and keep it warm."

"Keep it warm? Should we call 911 and have the paramedics resuscitate the poor dear? It's a bird!" said Sam.

"Well actually she thinks we should call the humane society, or an animal hospital."

"I'll tell you what. I'll give you a broom and dustpan. You can toss it in the dumpster around back."

Juan added, "How about tossing it into the chili?"

Alex said, "Look, I'll make you a deal. I'll wipe down the window for you if you'll let me borrow a couple of dry towels for a few minutes. It would mean a lot to Fran."

Sam tossed a towel to Alex and said, "Give her the towel, but you're going to give that window a thorough cleaning, young man. The whole thing, not just the bird gradoo."

"You got a deal."

Alex and Fran walked into the diner. Sally was gone, the man with the paper, too. A trio of cyclists sat at their table near the window. Sam stood behind the counter with a fresh pot of coffee. "Well look who's back from the hospital. You all ready for some refills? Or how 'bout your breakfast? I think it got a little cold, though."

"Two coffees," said Alex.

"Her too, or are you sharing again."

"We're still sharing," said Fran. She gave a weary smile. "I don't suppose we could get some fresh food? Blueberry pancakes...and a chili scramble?"

"For you, darling, I'll even toss in some extra blueberries." Sam walked back to the kitchen and started to prepare the food.

"Where's Juan?" asked Alex

"He's having a smoke. So how's the bird? And more importantly, where's my towel?"

"He's going to make it. I'm not too sure about the towel. Sorry about that," said Alex.

"Mostly, he was just stunned, but he broke his wing and that's going to take a while to heal," said Fran. "They put him in the cutest little splint. The vet's assistant is going to take care of him until he can fly again."

"If you're done with that cawfee, I got a little job for you Alec," said Sam. "Come on back behind the counter here. That's a boy. There's a bucket under the sink. You got a window to take care of...before you eat!"

"Sam! What are you talking about?" cried Fran.

"That's okay Fran. I promised to take care of the window. A deal's a deal."

"He owes me at least that much. He asked to borrow the towel, not keep it."

Alex took the bucket and the squeegee and went outside. He smiled at Fran through the window. Sam flipped the pancakes. "You did a good thing today, darling."

"Thanks, Sam."

"So you like this weasel, Frannie?"

"Yeah, I think so. He's got some prince potential."

"I'll withhold judgement 'til I see how good a job he does on my windows. By the way, your skins are down 17-0 at the half."

Fran moaned as Sam served up the pancakes. He reached over the counter and pulled the "banned" sign down. "You'll always be welcome in my restaurant."

She took a slow sip of her coffee and smiled up at the big man. "I know, Sam. Thanks."

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