Here in a (finally!) rainy Southern California, I'm still hard at work on my latest novel, Bachelor Number Five. This story follows Amanda Perkins, a small-town waitress from Iowa who dreams of romance with a contestant on her favorite reality TV show. I've decided to post a new chapter here every Sunday for the next six weeks or so. After that, I'm hoping to have the book ready for publication, fingers crossed. In the meantime, here's the first installment!
The dinner rush ended early in a town the size of Quincy. Farmers up before dawn didn’t generally stay out much past 8 p.m. By the time Amanda Perkins cleared the last table in her section, the only customer left in the place was Floyd Jenkins, a retired railroad engineer who sat in his usual place at the counter, eating a steak with green beans and mashed potatoes.
Amanda wore a white waitress’ uniform, with white skirt and red trim. She was 24 years old, of average height and weight, with long brown hair and pleasant features. She considered herself to be average in every way, though friends told her otherwise. They told her that she was smart and pretty, with a great singing voice and a bright future, yet it was hard to believe any of it when here she was, slinging hash in this small-town diner. Things in life had not worked out the way Amanda had hoped and lately she was beginning to think they never would. She hoisted a tray of dirty dishes onto her shoulder and carried it past the counter, through a swinging door and into the back. She dropped the dishes at a wash station before wiping her hands on a rag.
“That about it for the evening?” asked Sonny, a middle aged cook who stood in the kitchen in a white apron with a white paper hat on his head.
“Looks that way, Sonny,” Amanda answered. She put down the rag and returned through the swinging door and into the dining room. The restaurant looked like a thousand other diners in a thousand other small, Midwest towns just like this one. Worn red vinyl booths lined the walls, with a row of tables in the center and a long counter stretching from one end of the room to the other. Behind the counter stood Lucy, the graying, no-nonsense proprietor, cleaning around the coffee machine.
“Don’t turn that off yet, you know I’m going to want some with my pie!” said Floyd.
“I know, Floyd.” Lucy’s impatience showed.
Beyond Lucy stood the small and wiry Piper in a waitress uniform of her own. She held a remote control in one hand and pointed it at an old television mounted near the ceiling.
“Oh, you ain’t puttin’ on that there bridal show again?!” Floyd complained.
“It’s called The Bride and if you don’t like it, you can just go somewhere else!” Piper replied.
“There ain’t nowhere else to go and you know it!”
“Too bad, then.” Piper put down the remote and looked up at the screen. A group of eight handsome young men in black tuxedos stood lied up in the foyer of an enormous mansion. A solid wooden staircase curved around one side of the room and on up to the second floor. A man who could only be the host of the show stood on one of the stairs facing the contestants.
Amanda made her way past Lucy to Piper’s side where the two of them leaned back against the counter, heads tilted up to watch the show.
“There he is,” said Piper. “Back for another week.”
“There who is?” said Floyd.
“Number five!” answered an annoyed Piper.
“Who’s number five?” Floyd pressed.
“Bachelor Number Five!” Piper snapped at him.
Floyd merely shook his head. Trying to understand these women was a lost cause.
“Amanda has a crush on number five,” Lucy tried to explain.
“I’m not the only one!” Amanda protested. “Piper likes him too!”
“No, number five is yours. He’s too slick for me, with that blonde hair and those chiseled beach-boy looks. I like number nine. He’s my type. That’s a man with some edge to him. Some style.”
“Ah, none a them ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of pretty boys, ya ask me.”
“Nobody asked you!” said Piper. “Besides, can we help it if there aren’t enough manly men like you to go around?”
“Don’t be makin’ fun now!” said Floyd.
“Shhh… turn up the sound, I want to hear this!” said Amanda.
Piper raised the remote and increased the volume. On the screen a woman appeared at the top of the stairs, looking glamorous in full makeup with long blonde hair and wearing a full-length gown of green chiffon. Very carefully, she made her way down the stairs.
“It’s a wonder she doesn’t trip and fall flat on her face in that gown!” said Lucy as she paused from her cleaning.
“Might make the damn show more interesting,” said Floyd.
“Shhh!!!” the two girls replied in unison.
When the camera panned back to the eager bachelors, Amanda kept her eyes glued to number five. He looked so handsome with his broad chest filling out his crisp tuxedo. A wisp of hair hung down over his right eye. She couldn’t imagine “the bride” choosing any other contestant, despite what Piper thought. Number five was perfect in every way. In fact, Amanda couldn’t imagine how he ended up on this show in the first place, competing with a bunch of less-worthy bachelors for the hand of one un-deserving woman. Surely there must be a gagillion other girls around the world who would marry him in a heartbeat. Why fight for this shallow, narcissistic bride who obviously cared only for herself? Why throw himself at a woman who could never appreciate his finer qualities? His kindness, for example, or his intelligence? Did he really want to get married that badly? If so, Amanda was here, waiting for him in this little diner in the middle of nowhere. She would appreciate him. She would make him happy, no matter what it took, if only she could somehow let him know.
On the television, the host was busy explaining to the viewing audience that one of these eight bachelors, from an original group of twenty-four, would not be invited back for the following week. It was up to the bride to decide which suitor would be sent packing. In her right hand she held a stack of nine invitations.
“Have you made your decision?” the host asked her.
“Yes, I have, but it’s getting so hard?!” the bride giggled. “It gets harder and harder every week!”
“Well, you know what time it is.”
“Yes, I do,” the bride blushed lightly. She held up her stack of envelopes and looked to the envelope on the top of the stack. “The first invitation goes to the bachelor who made the biggest impression on our date this week. Bachelor Number Two.”
Amanda’s heart sank just a little bit. She knew that if number five wasn’t chosen, she’d never see him again. If he made it until the end, however, he might actually marry this woman. That would be the worst outcome of all. On screen, bachelor number two walked up to the staircase and held out his hand. When the bride gave him the invitation, number two smiled and winked at her.
“Oh please!” Piper protested loudly. “Did you see that? How cheesy can you be?!”
“I thought it was kind of cute,” said Lucy.
“Is this woman actually going to marry one of these pretty boys?” said Floyd.
“If she does they get half a million dollars. All they have to do is stay married for a year,” Amanda explained.
“Hell, I’d marry her for a quarter mil, if that’s what she’s after.”
“I’m sure you would,” said Lucy.
“I might even bring her here for dinner. Now gimme a slice o’ that lemon meringue pie, would ya?”
“And coffee,” said Lucy.
“That’s right. See what I love about you gals?”
“I ain’t a gal no more.” Lucy cleared his empty plate and replaced it with pie and a coffee. On the television, the girls watched as the bride chose bachelors four, seven, twelve and eighteen.
“What is she thinking?!” Piper shouted. “Number nine! Pick number nine!” When the bride did so on the next pass, Piper threw up her hands. “Jesus, it’s about time!”
In the end it came down to two remaining bachelors. Number five and number sixteen. One of these would be going home.
“She’ll pick him, she’s got to,” said Piper.
Amanda’s tension was obvious as she crossed her fingers and looked away. “I can hardly watch.”
“My last invitation goes to…” the bride paused for effect. “Bachelor number… five!”
Amanda looked back just in time to see a big smile cross the face of Bachelor Number Five. He clasped his hands together and looked up to the ceiling as though thanking the heavens. Amanda felt the same sense of relief.
“Bachelor Number Five, you may step forward and accept your invitation,” said the host. “Bachelor Number Sixteen, I’m sorry but you will not be attending the wedding.”
Lucy looked to her two idle employees, still leaning motionless against the counter. “All right girls, you can turn it off now. I’m not paying you to watch TV.”
“You love it as much as we do and you know it!” said Piper, raising the remote to turn off the television.
“Let’s go, this place won’t clean itself,” Lucy added.
Amanda picked up a bussing tub from beneath the counter and walked back around to the dining room. She made her way through, collecting catsup and mustard containers from each table one after the other. Piper followed behind, setting each place with clean napkins and silverware for the next morning’s breakfast customers.
“One more week of number nine!” said Piper cheerily. “Nine for me and five for you!”
“Doesn’t it just depress you sometimes, watching that show?”
“Me? Depressed? Not over something as stupid as a TV show. I’m not going to shed any tears over The Bride, that’s for sure.”
“It’s not the show itself that depresses me. It’s just… Don’t you ever wonder where your prince charming is? When is he going to come walking through the door of this diner and sweep you off your feet?”
“Unlike you, I live in the real world. Besides, I’ve got my prince charming.”
“Is that what you call Donny?”
“What’s wrong with Donny?!”
“Nothing, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Just because you think you’re too good for this place doesn’t mean some of us don’t like it here!”
“Look, I said I was sorry!”
Piper paused to look Amanda in the eye before deciding to forgive her. “Your prince is out there,” she said. “You’re going to find him, you’ll see. You just have to have some faith, that’s all.”
“Thanks, Piper. I wish it was easier to believe you.”
When they’d cleaned and set all of the tables, swept and mopped the floor, Piper ducked into the back to clock out and change out of her uniform. Amanda saw Donny’s old Chevy pickup truck pull up out front. He parked in a space near the door and shut off his lights, not bothering to come inside. When Piper reappeared in the dining room she wore jeans and a grey sweater. “We’re going to Rusty’s if you want to come!” she said to Amanda.
“Nah, thanks anyway. I don’t think I’m up for it tonight.”
“All right, don’t wait up for me!”
“Don’t worry, I won’t.”
“See ya Lucy, see ya Floyd!” Piper added.
“You keep yourself outta trouble!” said Floyd.
Piper smirked and then bounced on through the door. Amanda watched as she climbed into the truck on the passenger side and then slid across the bench seat to give her man a kiss. Donny started the engine, turned the lights back on and then eased the truck backwards before heading off down the road.
“You all right?” said Lucy.
“Yeah, fine,” Amanda replied, snapping out of a trance. “I’m fine.” She headed into the back herself to clock out, trying to fight off a melancholy that seemed to be descending upon her. Why couldn’t she be like Piper, content to spend her whole life in a place like this? Piper was happy. She had everything she needed; friends, family, Donny and a night or two out per week at Rusty’s Road House. Before long Donny would propose, they’d get married, have a few kids and that would be that. So simple. So easy. And so utterly depressing as far as Amanda was concerned. Not that she wasn’t happy for Piper, but it wasn’t the kind of future Amanda dreamed of. Maybe it was television shows like The Bride that ruined her for this place. Maybe it was the knowledge that men like Bachelor Number Five existed out there in the world. All she knew for sure was that if she ever wanted to find happiness of her own, she was going to have to leave and the sooner the better.
Amanda found her purse and jacket in the break room and then lowered her card into the time clock and punched out. She moved through the kitchen where the cook was busy scrubbing the grill. “Good night, Sonny!” she called out.
“You take care, now!” he called back.
Amanda pushed her way through the swinging door for the last time that night. Floyd was gone and Lucy was at the front window flipping the “Open” sign to “Closed.”
“See you tomorrow, Lucy.”
“Have a good evening.”
Amanda walked out and across the parking lot to her faded green Ford Focus, illuminated by a single street light mounted directly above. A chill was in the air with the arrival of fall. Soon it would be winter, with the plains covered in a thick blanket of snow. Another winter stuck here in Quincy. No love. No life. She tried not to feel sorry for herself. She tried to take a lesson from Piper, to be happy with whatever came her way. Piper wasn’t a glass half-full type of person, she was a glass completely full person. Life was simply what it was, with no time for regrets or second guessing. One had to make the most of it, and that was all. Amanda wished she had this outlook. She longed for it, but wanting it and having it were too different things.
Putting her purse on the roof of her car, Amanda slid into her jacket. When she’d zipped it up, she lifted her purse again and dug through it until her fingers found her keys. She opened the car door and slid inside. The starter struggled a few times before the engine turned over and Amanda headed home to the small house she and Piper shared. To another night spent sitting on the couch, watching TV all alone.