"You must be new here," the waitress, taking a break from serving a table of noisy office workers, said to Otis and Trampis, who had just sat down in a booth next to a window facing the highway.
She was middle aged, with a heavy drawl. This was not unusual since they were in the Deep South, in a small roadside diner a few blocks from the center of a tiny, backward town. The boys hailed from another small, southern community about sixty miles away.
They knew well the ways of places like this. You had to be friendly, say just the right thing, with the right tone of voice and the right look on your big old Southern face. One wrong move and the town would slam down the wall, good and tight, covered with Spanish moss with a few firecrackers thrown in for extra measure. Then they would screw you good.
"Yes, maam," Otis said in the softest, slowest drawl he could muster up. "We're just headin' back home to Cowford." He emphasized the word 'Cowford,' hoping the folks in this neck of the woods didn't have a problem with Cowford.
"Never been there," the waitress replied. From her face, Otis knew he was safe. She registered no emotion one way or another. She was probably like Tanya back home – been a waitress since she was sixteen, sticking with her job all these years. She never went anywhere except once in a while the family would shop in the big city to the North. That was about it.
"This's got to be the best chicken in the South," Trampis said to the waitress when she came to see if they wanted more iced tea. He knew how to butter up the ladies, in a nice way of course.
Both men had seen the sheriff and two deputies in a booth further down. None of them looked at each other. You didn't do that. You just knew. It was in the air. There were strangers here. There were local lawmen here. Kindness could easily kill. That was the Southern way.
"Why thank you," the waitress said, beaming.
After a meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, pole beans and a small salad, the men sat back, trying to feel relaxed. They certainly looked relaxed on the outside. Inside their guts were tight as a steel drum.
"Dessert?" The waitress said. Even though the table with the office crowd kept her busy, she seemed to have lots of time for the two strangers. "We've got apple pie, peach pie and red devil cake."
Neither Otis nor Trampis were about to say no to this woman, not even to dessert. Even if the dessert would choke its way down their nervous gullets.
"I'll have the apple pie," Otis said. He hated apple pie, but at a time like this, it seemed the right choice.
"Peach pie for me," said Trampis. He was not about to say the word 'red devil' to her. He had never had peach pie and imagined a soggy mess with a dried up crust on top.
The waitress seemed pleased at their orders. She was either looking for compliments or more likely, a larger tip.
Otis and Trampis were sidekicks. They had grown up together and somehow always ended up together. They cut classes, got caught smoking in the school bathrooms, dropped out of school and went to jail for drunk and disorderly together. They hadn't played football or gone to church or anything like that. They knew the woods and how to hunt. They knew how to mess up a nasty neighbor's riding lawnmower and how to unlatch the rabbit cages of an old woman who screamed at them for setting off giant firecrackers on New Year's Eve. To top off the New Year, they had shot out a row of streetlights down Main Street. In other words, they were just a couple of country bumpkins who were a bit on the wild side.
"That's the best apple pie I ever had," Otis said. He hadn't really tasted what he had put in his mouth, but it seemed fitting to say that. The waitress smiled a broad grin.
"Why thank you. My sister in law made it." Was this one of those towns where everybody had the same last name and was related to each other? That's the kind of place Otis and Trampis did not want to get involved with. You didn't want to mess with family, no way.
Customers would come and go and everyone knew everybody else by their first names. Yup, Otis and Trampis were definitely not from here. The large table finally cleared out and disappeared into their trucks and new looking cars. Seemed like they had bought their vehicles from the same dealership. Probably owned by their cousin.
Otis and Trampis made sure the waitress got a big tip. They put it on the table. They had faced wild pigs, a panther and some alligators with attitudes, but they were not about to make the slightest false move to this old gal, like putting a few dollars in her apron pocket. No sireee!
The waitress began clearing the table. Her peripheral vision told her the two strangers backed out and pulled out onto the highway, heading west.
She didn't say anything, did not run out after them, when she saw the brown paper bag sitting on the worn out dark green vinyl booth seat. She wouldn't even touch it. After all, Grover, the sheriff, was still in the back with his deputies.
"Tramp, you got the stuff?" Otis said when they were a few miles down the road.
"You had the bag," Trampis said. He felt blood rushing to his face.
Both men scrambled around the seat of the car and Trampis, in the passenger seat, rifled through the mess on the back seat.
"Dang," Otis yelled, hitting his fist against the steering wheel. "Looks like we left them a really big tip."
They were not about to go back there, even if the bag had contained lollipops. The kind of candy it contained would come in right handy to that cotton pickin' sheriff and his sidekicks.
"Remind me to bring my own lunch the next time," Trampis said. Well, there'd be another day, another job. Partly because of the lard in the chicken and pie and mostly from losing a bag they had paid a lot of money for, they were sick, very sick indeed.
The sheriff grinned as he opened the bag. "Well, boys, looks like we got us a real nice present." The deputies grinned, almost in unison. They were the law around here. The law got its perks, one way or another.