“Too big,” he finally replied, shaking his head. “Won’t work.”
Don-Keun shook his head as well and gave me a back-away-while-you-can—it-is-too-late-to-save-me look.
I smiled and tried to develop a sudden and all-consuming interest in the menu. It only seemed right to order something. I scanned it over and over, as if I just couldn’t decide between the waffle sandwich or the hash browns covered in cheese.
“Have some coffee,” Don-Keun said, coming over and handing me a cup. The coffee was completely burned and had a rank smell, but this was not the time to be picky. I think he was just offering me backup, anyway.
“You said you were on a train?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, pointing out the window. Both Don-Keun and Tinfoil Guy turned to look, but the storm had picked up. The train was invisible.
“No,” Tinfoil Guy said again. “Trains won’t work.”
He adjusted his tin cuffs to punctuate this remark.
“Does that help?” I asked, finally feeling the need to mention the obvious.
“Does what help?”
“That stuff. Is it like that stuff runners have to wear when they finish marathons?”
“What tinfoil?” he asked.
On that, I abandoned both politeness and Don-Keun and went and sat by the window, watching the pane shudder as the snow and wind hit it.
Far away, the Smorgasbord was at full tilt. All the food would be out by this point: the freakish hams, multiple turkeys, meatballs, potatoes baked in cream, rice pudding, cookies, the four kinds of pickled fish . . .
In other words, this would be a bad time to call Noah. Except he had told me to call when I got there. This was as far as I was getting.
So I called, and was immediately shuffled off to voice mail. I hadn’t planned out what I was going to say or what kind of attitude I was going to adopt. I defaulted into “funny-ha-ha,” and left a quick, probably incomprehensible message about being stranded in a strange town, along an interstate, at a Waffle House, with a man dressed in foil. It wasn’t until I hung up that I realized he would think I was joking—weirdly joking—and calling him when he was busy to boot. The message would probably annoy him.
I was about to call back and use a more sincere and sad voice to clarify that all of the above was not a joke . . . when there was a rush of wind, a bit of suction as the outside doors were opened, and then another person in our midst. He was tall, and thin, and apparently male. But it was hard to tell much else because he had wet plastic shopping bags on his head, his hands, and his feet. That made two people using non-clothing items for clothes.
I was starting to dislike Gracetown.
“I lost control of my car on Sunrise,” the guy said to the room in general. “Had to ditch it.”
Don-Keun nodded in understanding.
“Need a tow?” Tinfoil Guy said.
“No, that’s okay. It’s snowing so hard, I don’t even know if I could find it again.”
As he peeled off the bags, the guy turned out to be very normal-looking, with damp and dark curly hair, kind of skinny, jeans a little too big for him. He looked at the counter, then headed over to me.
“Is it okay if I sit here?” he asked in a low voice. He nodded slightly in the direction of Tinfoil Guy. Obviously, he didn’t want to sit over there, either.
“Sure,” I said.
“He’s harmless,” the guy said, still very quietly. “But he can talk a lot. I got stuck with him for about a half an hour once. He really likes cups. He can talk about cups for a long time.”
“Does he always wear tinfoil?”
“I don’t think I’d recognize him without it. I’m Stuart, by the way.”
“I’m . . . Julie.”
“How did you get here?” he asked.
“My train,” I said, pointing to the vista of snow and darkness. “We got stuck.”
“Where were you going?” he asked.
“To Florida. To see my grandparents. My parents are in jail.”
I decided it was worth a try, just slipping it into the conversation like that. It got the reaction I half expected. Stuart laughed.
“Are you with anyone?” he asked.
“I have a boyfriend,” I said.
I’m usually not this stupid, I promise you. My brain was on a Noah track. I was still thinking about my idiotic message.
The corners of Stuart’s mouth wrinkled, like he was trying not to laugh. He beat a little rhythm on the table and smiled as if trying to blow my awkward moment away. I should have taken the out he was giving me, but I couldn’t just leave it. I had to try to cover.
“The only reason I said that,” I began, seeing the doomed conversational path open wide in front of me and getting myself into sprinting position, “is that I’m supposed to be calling him. But I don’t have a signal.”
Yes. I had stolen Jeb’s story. Sadly, though, when I spoke, I didn’t take into account that my phone was sitting in front of me, proudly displaying a full range of bars. Stuart looked at it, then at me, but said nothing.
Now I really had something to prove. I would never be able to let it go until I showed him just how normal I was.
“I didn’t,” I said. “Until just now.”
“Probably the weather,” he said charitably.
“Probably. I’ll just try now, really quick.”
“Take as long as you like,” he said.
Which was fair enough. He’d only sat with me to escape a long conversation about cups with Tinfoil Guy. It wasn’t like we were accountable to each other’s schedules. Stuart was probably glad that I was breaking off this conversation. He got up and took off his coat as I called. He was wearing a Target uniform underneath, and even more plastic bags. They came tumbling out of the inner folds of his coat, about a dozen of them. He gathered them up, completely unfazed.
When I got Noah’s voice mail, I tried to hide my frustration by craning my head to look out the window. I didn’t want to leave my pathetic follow-up message in front of Stuart, so I just hung up.
Stuart gave me a little “nothing?” shrug as he sat down.
“They must be busy with the Smorgasbord,” I said.
“Noah’s family is tangentially Swedish, so they put out an amazing Smorgasbord on Christmas Eve.”
I saw his eyebrow go up when I said “tangentially.” I use that word a lot. It’s one of Noah’s favorites. I picked it up from him. I wish I’d remembered not to use it around other people, because it was kind of our word. Also, when on a campaign to convince a stranger that you aren’t a few fries short of a Happy Meal, throwing around phrases like “tangentially Swedish” is not the best way to go.