“MAKE sure you wipe down ketchup and mustard bottles,” Pasha Batalov’s father called over his shoulder as the pair trudged into the back door of the little diner. “Sharon said they looked like shit when we closed up Wednesday night.” Even after twenty years in the United States, Ivan still sounded like he’d just stepped off the plane from St. Petersburg.
Pasha bit his tongue on his initial sour response, that if Sharon had thought the ketchup and mustard bottles needed wiping down, she should have done it herself. It was just as dead at the end of her shift as it was at the beginning of his.
“You hear me?” Ivan snapped when Pasha didn’t answer right away.
“Da. Yes, I heard you.”
“Then say something so I know you listening!”
Pasha kept mute. Five thirty in the morning was too early to start arguing about stupid shit. He hung his coat up on the peg next to the back door and headed into the dining room, where he turned up the heat and started a pot of coffee. The little diner had twelve booths and three small tables that sat a grand total of sixty customers, sixty-six if people wanted to get cozy. Another five seats were available at the counter for anyone who wanted to look into the kitchen through the window separating it from the dining room. The walls were painted an uninspired shade of beige to match the scuffed brown floor and dull upholstery, and framed posters of Greek temples and vases hung on the walls. On Wednesday, Sharon had decked the halls for Christmas with twinkling lights, velvet bows, and red-and-green garland. Everyone else said it looked pretty, but Pasha thought the whole thing was overdone and gaudy.
“Put on news,” Ivan yelled from the kitchen.
Pasha groaned but didn’t argue. When the old man said “news” he didn’t mean MPR—Michigan Public Radio—or even some middle-of-the-road station that might give an even view of the world around them. No, he meant WJR, the local home of Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh wouldn’t be on until later in the day, but Pasha wasn’t too keen on listening to the morning guy, either. Choices, however, were a luxury that was in short supply in Pasha’s life.
He tuned the radio to WJR and took stock of what needed to be done to get the place ready for breakfast service, not that customers were likely to start pouring in when they opened. Starting with his least favorite job, Pasha got the ketchup and mustard bottles out of the pie case behind the counter. Sharon was right, they did look like shit, although those probably weren’t her exact words. In the twelve years he’d known her, Pasha had never heard Sharon swear or raise her voice. After combining the half-empty plastic squeeze bottles, he took the empties back to the dish room for his cousin Samara to wash when she came in at nine, and grabbed as many clean bottles as he could find on the shelves.
While he was in the back, he headed to the prep area to grab a few lemons out of the walk-in cooler. A quick glance at the shelves assured him they had enough milk to get through breakfast and probably lunch as well. Just the same, he added “milk” to the grocery list hanging on the cooler door. For all the good it does. Dad would wait until they were completely out of something before sending someone across the street to the grocery store to buy more.
When he got back to the dining room, Pasha set the lemons aside, filled up the mustard and ketchup bottles he’d found in the dish room, wiped them all down, and started setting the bottles out at every other booth.
“How come you don’t put ketchup and mustard on all tables?” Ivan hollered.
“Because these are all the clean bottles we have.”
“So wash goddamned dirty bottles! I don’t pay you to do half-ass job, I pay you to work! It’s going to be busy day, Pasha. I want every table set up.”
Pasha couldn’t remember the last time they’d had a truly busy weekday breakfast, but he didn’t argue. The only days he made any real money waiting tables were Saturday and Sunday—and lately, even the weekends weren’t so hot. What had been seventy- and eighty-dollar days were now fifty-dollar days, and it wasn’t because customers weren’t tipping. Half the buildings around the diner stood empty with “for sale” or “for rent” signs in the windows.
“I’ll run a load of dishes as soon as I get everything else done,” he promised his father. He would have anyway, just to stave off boredom.
Thirty minutes later—with all of his sidework done, and the dish machine loaded and running—Pasha turned on the neon “open” sign. “Crap,” he swore under his breath when he saw a big silver and black delivery truck sitting in their lot, taking up most of the meager parking space. If Dad saw it, he’d have a conniption. The old man hated truckers who parked in their lot, even when they didn’t have any customers. Without bothering to get his coat, Pasha darted out the front door and across the lot to get rid of the guy before Dad noticed him.
As he approached, the driver rolled down his window and offered up an amiable “Hey.”
Pasha stopped dead in his tracks. It wasn’t just the guy’s unexpectedly friendly attitude that made him stop short, it was that the man was gorgeous. He had caramel-colored skin, warm chocolate-brown eyes, and thick jet-black hair that hung in a loose braid draped over one shoulder. And his smile…. God, what a smile. Heat rushed to Pasha’s cheeks as he realized he was gawking. He cleared his throat. “You ah, you’re blocking our lot. We just opened up.”
“Sorry about that. My GPS died and I’m trying to get someone on the phone to help me figure out where I am, but nobody’s picking up in the office. Which I s’pose isn’t your problem.” The driver’s smile turned apologetic. “I’ll get out of your lot.” He leaned back into the cab.
That should have been the end of it, but instead of heading back inside, Pasha stepped closer to the truck and asked, “Where are you trying to get to?”
“Jay’s Party Store. Any chance it’s around here somewhere?”
“Sorry, never heard of it,” Pasha told him. “What street is it on?”
“Jeez, you really are lost.”
The driver let out a rueful little laugh. “Story of my life. I don’t suppose you could help me get un-lost?”
Pasha grinned; un-lost, that was a new one. “Wattles is Seventeen Mile Road. This is Main Street.” He pointed to the road in front of the diner. “Twelve Mile is the next light up.” He pointed north, but it didn’t seem to help, the trucker still looked confused. A gust of wind cut through Pasha’s thin white uniform shirt, making him shiver. He crossed his arms over his chest and asked, “Where exactly are you trying to get to?”
“You wanna hop in out of the cold?” the truck driver offered.
Pasha hesitated—but seriously, what was the guy going to do, drive off with him as a hostage? I could think of worse fates. “Yeah, thanks.”
Instead of motioning him around to the passenger’s side, the trucker opened up the driver’s side door and slid over, making room for Pasha behind the massive steering wheel. “I’m the one who should be saying thank you. It’s been one of those days from the get-go.”
Pasha returned his smile. “Same here.” His dad had been in a foul mood long before they got to the restaurant that morning. Yesterday hadn’t been any picnic either. Holidays never were, but after everything that happened last year, family gatherings were more tense than ever. Pasha didn’t want to even think about what Christmas was going to be like. “I can’t believe this weather. It’s not even December yet, and I swear it’s going to snow today.”
“They’re saying up to six inches,” the trucker told him.
“Not a fan of snow?” He looked like he was trying not to laugh at Pasha’s sour expression.
“Not a fan of shoveling snow.”
“No arguments there. I’m Daniel, by the way.” The guy pulled off one of his heavy gloves and held out his hand.
Daniel’s grip was strong but not overpowering, and his hand was big and warm and thick with calluses. Heat crept into Pasha’s cheeks again as he realized it was his turn to introduce himself. “I’m Pasha.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot.” “Interesting” was one of the nicest things people had to say about his name. “It’s sort of short for Pavel, which is Russian for Paul. I tried going by that for a while, but….” But he was babbling. He pulled his hand into his lap. “Sorry. You’re probably more interested in getting back on the road.”
“Only because I have to get this stuff delivered by seven or my boss is going to have my ass. And not in a fun way.” Daniel’s brows shot up and his lips curled into a mischievous grin.
Pasha blinked—then gave himself a good mental shake. There was no way Daniel meant that the way it had sounded. Statistically speaking only one, maybe two, out of every ten people were gay, which meant that no matter where he went, the odds would always be against him meeting another gay man. Except at a gay bar. And if I ever ran into this guy there, he wouldn’t give me the time of day. It was like his friend Ty said: the beautiful ones stuck together.
And Pasha wasn’t beautiful.
He wasn’t Quasimodo or anything, but he wasn’t tall or fit and he’d never been thin. A thirty-eight-inch waist might not make him obese, but add to it very average looks and short ash-brown hair that was starting to thin, and you came up with the kind of guy other men simply were not clamoring to meet. Pasha cleared his throat. “The ah, the easiest way to get to Wattles from here is to head north on Main. Take a left out of the lot,” he clarified. Then added, “Main turns into Livernois when you hit Fourteen Mile Road. What cross street are you looking for?”
“Dequinder.” It came out sounding more like a question than a statement.
“When you get to Wattles, make a right. Dequinder’s only a few miles down. It’ll be the next main road you come to after John R. You’ll be there in no time,” he promised.
“Thanks, you’re a real lifesaver.”
“Anytime,” Pasha told him. The warmth of Daniel’s smile made his stomach turn summersaults.
Daniel’s grin turned mischievous again. “Guess I’ll have to remember that the next time I get lost out this way. Or maybe I should get lost on purpose, just to have an excuse to come see you again.” He waggled his brows and just for a second, Pasha forgot how to breathe. Daniel was flirting with him, he had to be! But why on earth would a guy who looked like that flirt with him? Daniel could walk into any club and have his pick of the guys lined up along the bar.
Daniel cleared his throat. “Well, I guess I should let you get back to work. Thanks again for helping me get back on track here.”
Did he really sound as disappointed as Pasha thought he did? Or am I just hearing what I want to? He supposed there was only one way to find out. “Do you want to come in for a cup of coffee or something before you hit the road?” What was the worst that could happen anyway? He’d get a polite brush off and never see Daniel again?
“Wish I could, Sugar, but I’m behind schedule as it is.”
“Yeah. Right. Sorry.” Polite brush off it is. He turned to open up the door, but the sound of Daniel’s voice stopped him.
“You here all morning?”
Pasha nodded, dumbfounded. “All morning, every morning.”
“What, no time off for good behavior?”
“Who says I behave?” he quipped back without thinking. Shit, where did that come from? Pasha had never quite figured out how to flirt. Sometimes he managed to say something funny but most of the time he fell flat on his face. “I ah, it’s a family business. There’s no such thing as time off when you’re the owner’s son.” Face, meet pavement.
But Daniel smiled. “I guess I know where to find you, then.”
This couldn’t be happening. Guys who looked like Daniel never came on to him. “I um, I really have to go back to work.”
“Yeah, me too. See you ’round?” he asked.
No longer trusting his voice, Pasha nodded. He climbed back down out of the cab as gracelessly as he’d clambered in. It was hard to tell what was really making his stomach flutter so madly, the fear that Daniel was only trying to be polite, or the possibility that he might actually come back. Shivering, he stepped away from the truck and watched as Daniel maneuvered the big rig out of the lot. Before turning onto Main, Daniel leaned out of the cab and waved good-bye one last time.
Please…, Pasha started to pray. But it was stupid. God didn’t answer prayers like that. If he did, Pasha would still be together with Michael. He headed back into the restaurant, where Dad was cooking off more bacon than they could possibly need on a weekday.
“What were you doing outside?” the old man wanted to know.
Pasha settled on the easiest answer he could think of. “Giving directions to a guy who was lost.”
“We’re not Yellow Pages, Pasha, we’re business! Next time some paskudnyak gets lost, you tell him to go buy map from gas station across street!” He waved angrily toward the corner gas station. “I pay you to work!”
“Everything’s set up,” he contended. “There’s nothing left to do except wait for customers to show up.”
“There’s always something to do. You can mop floors, wipe down counters. You can clean goddamned windows! Maybe when you own business, then you understand you don’t got no time to waste on people who do nothing for you, nothing but take up your time and energy. That’s all people are good for, Pasha. Only people you can count on is family.”
Pasha didn’t respond. They’d had this argument before, back when Pasha was still trying to have a social life, real friends outside the bar and Facebook. Back when he was still with his ex, not that Dad knew Michael was his boyfriend. The old man would have lost it if he’d ever caught on that they were more than just friends. As it was, Dad thought they spent too much time together. Friends, the old man argued, would only hold Pasha back. Sometimes he wondered what had made his father so cynical and bitter. Dad had been that way for as long as Pasha could remember.
Before Pasha could come up with any kind of reply, something that wouldn’t totally piss the old man off, he spotted Nate Archer’s big blue Bronco coming around the corner. He’d never been happier to see the retired Marine as he was just then. Nate and his dad could sit around for hours bitching about everything they thought was wrong with the country. It was exactly the distraction Dad needed today; Pasha too. “Nate’s here,” he pointed out, in case his father hadn’t seen the Bronco.
Ivan nodded. Rather than head back into the kitchen—Nate never ordered breakfast anyway—the old man poured two cups of coffee. He set one on the counter and the other on the ledge in front of the pie case. When he reached for a creamer, Pasha stopped him.
“Dad, you’re supposed to be using skim milk. Remember your last checkup? Your cholesterol was through the roof.”
Ivan waved him off. “What do those damned doctors know, huh? There’s nothing wrong with my heart. It’s this damned place that’s killing me.”
“Come on, you need to take better care of yourself.”
“Who are you to tell me what to do? Did you wipe my shitty ass when I was baby? Or did I wipe yours?”
Pasha’s jaw tightened, but he stopped trying to argue. One of these days, the old man was going to keel over from a goddamned heart attack, and with any luck, it wouldn’t kill him. Pasha stalked into the kitchen to finish cooking the bacon his dad had left on the grill.
A moment later the cowbell over the door clattered and Nate walked in. “God damn! It’s as cold as a witch’s tit out there!” he announced, his voice booming through the empty restaurant. “You hear the news this morning? They’re saying six inches of snow by noon!”
“No, that much?” replied Ivan. He took a seat at the counter.
“You better believe it. My goddamned knees are killing me! Arthritis always acts up before a big storm.” Nate shrugged out of his coat and sat down next to Ivan. “Those idiots in Washington keep crying ‘global warming’ then turn around and say ‘snowpocalypse.’”
“What do they know, huh?” Ivan agreed. “All I know is with price of gas going up, it’s gonna cost fortune to keep this place going all winter.”
“Maybe you oughta take a vacation.”
In the kitchen Pasha rolled his eyes; Dad never took time off.