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Morgan City, USA.

It wasn’t a name that carried a lot of magic. Not like Hollywood, or Miami, or New York. An occasional tourist at the Indian Summit resort might ask, “Named after J. Pierpont Morgan, right? The multimillionaire. Maybe he started the place, yeah?”

The residents, upon hearing such a question, would just smile knowingly and neither nod nor shake their heads. The truth—which they seldom shared—was that Morgan was the name of the trapper who had built a shack there over a hundred years ago and had ended up ignominiously scalped and butchered by the local Indians.

Morgan Lodge, a headquarters for hunters, had become Morgan Resort in the early twenties. The town that grew up to house the people who worked at Morgan Resort became Morgan City.

But in truth it remained a town, marooned in the middle of the country, clinging desperately to the past with a vague hope for the future, but mostly just happy to eke out a present.

Morgan City had all the prerequisites of a classic American town. There was a weather-beaten post office; a pseudo-Colonial town hall; an American Legion building that desperately needed a paint job; a pseudo-Gothic high school and a ticky-tacky box of an elementary school. And of course there were clusters of suburban houses strewn around, each built in whatever cheap style predominated in the decade of their creation.

But the single, enduring symbol of an earlier innocence, of a period of hope and prosperity, as well as the cornerstone of its social life, to say nothing of its gustatory tradition, was the town diner.

The Tick Tock Diner was built in the late forties in the classic roadside Pullman design, as though poised and ready to be hitched up to some train and make a streamlined exit at any moment. It was the fifties, however, that had left its stamp on the place, when Tandy Rumpyard had bought it and called it Tick Tock after the garish neon clock sign he’d purchased in Denver at a bankrupty sale. Even today Elvis songs still played on the jukebox and echoed against the diner’s metal walls. The whole place smelled of years’ worth of malteds and cheeseburgers. A cemetery of cracked linoleum and dulled metal, the Tick Tock might have been a monument to nostalgic memories of better days if the owner had cared to polish it up a bit, take out the patched orange booth seats, and remortar some of the tile. But why should he? Morgan City was too busy just hanging on to care much about nostalgia. It was too busy using the Tick Tock Diner as a place to eat and meet to think in terms of its history and style.

And they all did use it, from the oldest resident to the youngest, each agreeing you could say what you wanted about the grease and the pall, but the Tick Tock still managed to brew the best coffee in town.

Sheriff Herb Geller certainly thought so. It was his kind of coffee, all right, not like the battery-acid stuff at the local McDonald’s. This coffee was thick and rich, dark and deep, with a smooth taste and no afterbite. And they served it with real cream too—well, half-and-half. Close enough.

The sheriff half turned on the creaky old metal stool that sat as part of a row in front of the counter. He looked out into the afternoon light, and then he looked back at his coffee in its chipped cup, and then he looked over to where Fran Hewitt sat, dreamily watching the convection heat rise from the macadam parking lot. The sheriff was dying to make some conversation with the lady, and coffee, he supposed, was about as good a subject as any.

“Coffee’s even better than usual,” said Sheriff Geller, easing his girth a little closer to the counter.

Fran looked over at him, her eyebrows raised. She didn’t seem at all annoyed that he’d interrupted her daydreaming. “Pardon me, Herb?”

“I said, I’d take this coffee any day over that battery acid they dredge up over at McDonald’s!”

“Yeah, it ain’t bad, is it?” Fran was a handsome lady in her thirties, with a kind of resignation hanging on her that signified she’d been waiting on tables all her life so far, and expected to be waiting on tables the rest of her years. Still, she kept herself looking good, and had a touch of sass to her that Herb found appealing. “You want some more?” she asked.

“Sure do!”

She poured him some more coffee and the steam and rich, nutty flavor rose up in a hot breath from the stained ceramic cup. “You’re an obstinate fella, Herb. Everybody else who comes in here is sucking up the iced tea on a scorcher like today, and you’re sticking to your coffee.”

He was about to respond to that, when a pair of telephone linemen barged through into the diner and plopped into a booth.

“Pardon me, Herb. Ma Bell rings,” said Fran, pulling a couple of menus from a rack and going around to serve the men.

Herb took a stainless steel metal creamer from its spot by the salt and pepper and poured himself some into his coffee. Steam rose, and clouds swirled in the liquid as he looked at that coffee. Hell, he thought. Why am I drinking hot coffee on a day like this?

Fran came back and he immediately waved at her.

“You know, I’m one stubborn son of a bitch. You’re right. Gimme an ice tea, Fran.”

She smiled, filled a glass with ice and poured. “Good. I suppose you’ve guessed that the manager is giving me a healthy commission on iced tea today!”

Geller laughed as he took the iced tea. He drank some, no sugar, and he said, “Yeah, Fran. Hits the old spot!”

It was that kind of day.

He was about to start up another conversation—broaching a subject he’d been working up to for half an hour now—when the linemen started waving for Fran’s attention.

Herb Geller had been sheriff of Morgan City for over ten years now. Before that he’d been a police officer in Denver, accepting a job as a cop in the small town when he got sick of dealing with big city stuff and just wanted to get away. When Sheriff Patterson had thrown in the towel and retired, Herb Geller had been in the exact right spot to run for sheriff. He liked the job; he really did. It wasn’t just that he liked being a big fish in a little pond. He had honestly grown to care about this town and its people, to sympathize with their problems. They were people just like people everywhere, and the fact that they had to hang on just a little harder than most to keep their town alive appealed to Geller.

Trouble was, here he sat, a good three years past the big four oh, and his wife, Abby, was long gone. She said she couldn’t stand it here, that she missed Denver. So she moved back and got hitched up to some other cop. And now Herb Geller was getting tired of just dating the pretty snow bunnies that showed up for winter vacations; now he was looking around for someone steady.

And then, just last year, Fran Hewitt showed up. She was with some guy at the time but now the guy was gone. Herb had started noticing her right away, but at first Fran had seemed about as friendly as a rattlesnake. She wouldn’t go out with nobody. But lately she was getting friendlier, smiling at him and talking; then it was his turn to get nervous and tongue tied. It was one thing to chase ladies who were eager for a holiday romance, ladies you probably would never see again. It was a different thing entirely with a woman you saw every day, who knew all your warts and tics and probably your history as well.

So now he was really thinking hard about putting it on the line, thinking about finally asking Fran Hewitt out.

He drained half the cold glass, thinking about what to say.

As Fran stepped behind the counter and slapped the order onto the ledge of the window between the serving area and the kitchen, Geller groped in his mind for another conversation starter.

“That’s the biggest order the whole hour I’ve been here,” he said. “Looks like the game’s put you out of business.”

She looked at him strangely, then realized he was just making conversation. “Don’t worry. When they’re done screaming their heads off, they’ll come in here like a flood. More ice tea?”

Herb pushed his glass forward. “Please!”

Fran had long hair that was drawn tightly behind her head now, making her look severe. But those bluish eyes and those soft lips betrayed a kind of vulnerability that appealed immensely to Herb Geller, that made him really want to know about this lady. As she poured him the tea, he noted admiringly the way she kept her uniformed starched and clean. He caught a whiff of fresh-scrubbed skin, a hint of Opium perfume, which just happened to be his very favorite.

“Good to see this town get up on its hind legs about something,” she said. “Even if it is only a football game.”

“Takes their minds off their troubles. Been a lean year for most folks.”

Fran shrugged. “Ski season’s almost here. There’ll be tourists. I hear you like the tourists especially, Herb.”

Before he could comment, she grabbed his plate, which held the remnants of his tuna on whole wheat. “You done with this?”

“Yeah.”

Cripes! he thought. So she’d heard about him and the ski ladies. It figured. This wasn’t a big town, and it was only to be expected that the sheriff’s sexual activities would get talked about. Still, her comment did put a bit of a crimp in his confidence. He had been planning on playing himself as a shy and lonely guy—both of which he really and truly was, down deep. But with his reputation, it sure didn’t look like it. The truth was he didn’t really mind much getting rejected by ladies he didn’t especially care about. Experience showed that about one in seven would say yes anyway. But when you did care…

Ah, the hell with it, he thought. Get on with it, Geller!

“You know, Fran,” he said, “they got a new band out at the Tin Palace tonight. The Spurs. Country and western, so they say.”

“Is that right?” Fran turned, but her expression stayed blank.

“Supposed to be pretty good.”

“That’s nice.”

“You like country music?” Herb continued, not knowing what else to say.

Then she seemed to get it. She leveled her gaze at him, really looking at him for the first time all day. “Herb, are you askin’ me out?”

Herb stammered for a moment. “Well, er… uhm… Well, yeah! I guess I am!”

Suddenly it was Fran’s turn to be flustered, and Herb Geller couldn’t tell why. He had a bad feeling, though, as she scribbled out his check, her back turned to him.

“I don’t know,” she said suddenly. “I’m stuck here pretty late. Gotta make a living, you know.”

Uh-oh! Here come the excuses. Herb knew a gentle letdown when he heard it, and he didn’t have to hear any more. Feelings sinking a bit, he tried to bow out gracefully.

“Yeah. Must be tough to get away.”

Suddenly a commotion sounded from outside. Both Herb and Fran shifted their gaze to the street, viewed through the diner’s window. What they saw was a horde of high school students, streaming banners and making noise, descending upon the diner.

“We won!” was the cry. “We beat ’em, Fran,” yelped a girl in glasses as she flung open the door and entered, bringing the noise inside with her. “We won, twenty-one to fourteen!”

“Oh, shit,” said Fran. She turned, bent down, and hollered into the kitchen. “George! Here they come!”

The teenagers poured in, sweaty and wide eyed, whooping and waving, turning the whole diner into instant chaos.

Herb shook his head at the sight. He pulled out his wallet to pay, took out one of his cards, and handed it to Fran along with a five-dollar bill. “If you ever get a little time to yourself, here’s my number down at the station,” he said. “Oh, and keep the change.”

Hardly acknowledging this, Fran just grabbed the money and the card. Stuffing both into her pocket, she went off to deal with the babbling teenagers at the counter. “Okay! One at a time!” she yelled.

Bemused, Herb looked down at the receipt she had handed him.

Below the addition, words were jotted: I’m off at 11:00, they read.

A rush of relief and happiness flooded Herb Geller. Not a rejection after all! He had a date! A real, genuine, maybe-this-might-lead-to-something date!

He stuffed the check behind his ticket book, squared his shoulders, straightened his gun and holster, and sauntered off to his cruiser, feeling proud and happy.

The teenagers ignored him.

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