After chaperoning the junior/senior prom, I escaped to the Hilltop Diner in lieu of going back to my empty condo. Occupying my usual table next to the wheezing room air conditioner was Savannah Crosby, the owner’s daughter. She wore the same strapless prom dress with gold brocade that she’d worn to prom. Savannah began waiting tables when she was twelve so we knew each other well. Every night for the last fourteen months, ever since my wife moved back to Red Lodge, I’d eaten at the Hilltop.
“Hello, Miss Crosby.”
Her floor-length gown featured a strapless embroidered bustier. A red orchid wrist corsage lay on the table. Her bleached blonde hair had begun to droop. “Where’s your date?”
“Darren said the music was too loud.” Savannah looked up from her untouched piece of coconut cream pie. “Noise bothers him.”
“That’s too bad,” I told her as I settled into my usual chair.
“No, Mr. Lewis, it’s fine. He danced three songs. His friends took video to post on YouTube. He got a selfie with his hot date.”
“That would be you.”
“Absolutely,” she said. “‘Hot date’ was Darren’s evaluation, not mine.”
As Savannah’s high school English teacher, I chose not to comment.
“We spent half-an-hour in line to get our pictures taken, then he was ready to go home. He’d had his prom.”
“No. That was fine with me….” Savannah caught herself. “That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Darren’s a good kid. He looked terrific in the tux.” She leaned in toward me and lowered her voice. “You should have seen his eyes bug out when he saw my dress.”
Savannah usually wore baggy jeans and a sweatshirt, or a peasant blouse when the weather was warmer. At the Hilltop, she dressed in a red and gray uniform and tied her hair back in a ponytail.
“His friends couldn’t have been nicer.” She slowly shook her head, replaying the evening. “I had a good time, too. This was my fifth prom, going back to eighth grade.” She took a stab into the pie. “Best prom ever.” She noticed my skepticism. “No really. It actually was my best prom ever.”
“You did a nice thing, taking that poor kid to prom.”
Savannah shook off the suggestion. “Listen, Mr. Lewis, if you want coffee, or pie, it will be faster if you go get it yourself.” She motioned with her head toward Helena, the waitress leaning on the lunch counter, engaged in an animated conversation with a short-haul trucker name Roy, who was also a regular.
I’d learned about the prom situation from Savannah’s mother, Olivia. As part of court-ordered community service, Savannah volunteered at the Holden Hendrix Developmental Workshop. That’s where she’d met Darren Pany. Even though they were both seniors at Plain View High School, Darren’s special education track kept him isolated from the general student population. He participated in the Workshop’s afterschool vocational program because of his learning disability.
When I returned to the table with decaf coffee and a piece of pecan pie, Savannah pushed her plate aside. She stared at her own empty cup.
“I still think it was a sweet thing to do,” I told her.
“It didn’t start out that way,” she admitted.
“What do you mean?” I asked, my mouth full of pie.
“I like the kid. Darren is funny, in a dorky ‘special ed’ kind of way.”
“Like your little brother.”
“Yes. Like my little brother. Darren’s problems aren’t as profound as Skip’s, but there are similarities. I made a point to chat him up.”
“Which boosted his self-esteem….”
Savannah pulled the slice of cream pie back in front of her and attacked it. “Screw the diet,” she to no one in particular. “Darren got cocky whenever I paid him the slightest attention. And one day, for some reason, that bugged me. So to bring him down a notch, I asked him in front of his buddies, ‘Are you making a prom-posal to some lucky girl?’”
Savannah seemed disgusted with herself. “Mr. Lewis, he wouldn’t know a prom-posal from a linear equation. Darren wears those dark sunglasses because he’s legally blind, and he’s got the social skills of a walrus. Until tonight, he’d never been on a date.” She finished the pie and pushed the plate aside. “To his credit, though, he’s a hell of a baker’s assistant. He works hard. He’s focused. And he’s funny, in a very, very, very dorky way.”
“I believe you mentioned that.”
Savannah looked up at me. “When I told Mom what I’d done—how I’d embarrassed Daren in front of his friends—she asked me how I was going to fix it.”
“And you told her, you’d ask him to prom.”
“That must have been tough for you. I bet a lot of guys wanted to ask you.”
“Oh, yes.” She laughed, and then leaned back in the chair and crossed her arms in front of her. “None for the right reasons.” Savannah looked at her empty coffee cup. She looked at Helena chatting up the trucker and at the middle-aged couple two tables down who had menus but were still waiting to put in their order. “Oh, waitress!” she called out. “Could I get a fucking refill on the decaf?”
Helena looked up. She saw Savannah the owner’s daughter red-faced and angry, and the very uncomfortable couple with menus. Helena snatched up the pot of decaf and hurried over. As she filled our cups, Savannah leaned into her and whispered, “When you take their order, apologize to them for my language. Explain that I’m off my meds, and then comp their meal. We don’t want to lose customers over shit like this.”
Helena nodded, hurried over to the other table, took their order, lowered her voice, and invented some lie about Savannah. When she got to the part about the free meal, the husband and wife started to decline, but Helena insisted, at which time they broke into smiles and added desserts. I knew for a fact the pecan pie was superb.
Savannah leaned in and told me, sotto voce, “Someday I’m going to own this place. I need to retain the customer base.”
Her mother had told me that three weeks ago Savannah showed up outside of the special ed classroom with a stuffed teddy in a tuxedo that she’d gotten at Build a Bear. The bear held a sign that said, Make me beary happy. Take me to prom. She told Darren to squeeze the bear’s paw. When he did, Savannah’s recorded voice spoke out, “Hello, Darren. Will you be my prom date?”
“He thinks I’m beautiful,” she said flatly.
“You are,” I told her, “a pretty prom date.” According to her mother, she was also loud, frequently angry, and an alcoholic. “You did a good thing….”
“Once Darren was safely home, why didn’t you go to the After Prom Event? Bands, casino games, prizes, food at the mall. No date required.”
“Mother didn’t think it was a good idea.” Traffic in the café picked up. Another waitress had joined Helena. Savannah would have to go to work soon. “Darren’s mother didn’t think so either.”
“She chauffeured us, using her Cadillac SUV as a limo. Mom rode shotgun.” Before I could say anything she added, “I mean I sure couldn’t drive. And Darren doesn’t have a license.”
Savannah lost her license a year ago. With three DUIs, she had to pay court costs and do community service. Now she was going to AA meetings with her mom, who’d just gotten her one-year chip.
“It was fun, the three of us ganging up on the poor kid.”
“How did Darren’s mom get involved?”
“Before I asked him to the prom, Mom insisted that I get permission. She told me, ‘A few years from now, if someone asks your brother out, I want to be consulted.”
She looked up. “Who’s going to ask Skip out? I mean I love the kid, but….” Savannah looked over for affirmation. “You know what he’s like.” Her brother, Skip, was often at the Hilltop with Olivia.
“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay it forward. You do something special for Darren, maybe down the line, someone does the same for Skip.”
“That’s the plan, I guess.” She sighed as a trio of prom couples took seats at the lunch counter. “Mom scheduled me for the midnight to 8 a.m. shift. She always loads up on staff after dances. We’re the only place open after midnight.” One of the young women glanced back at Savannah. “I get puke patrol, cleaning up the restrooms and bussing tables. It’s a perk of working in a family business. Mom’s coming in at four a.m. to start the biscuits.”
I motioned to her prom dress. “You’re not going to bus tables in that are you?”
“No. Just not quite ready to take it off.”
“Too many good memories?” I asked skeptically.
“Not exactly.” She hesitated. “Do you remember Melissa Graphton?”
“Graphton? Of course.” Melissa had been a junior two years ago. She’d gone to prom with one of the senior lacrosse players. A maid found her in a hotel suite the next morning, dead from alcohol poisoning.
“I didn’t attend the lacrosse party,” Savannah told me. “My date that year was Jackson Burris.”
“The All-State offensive lineman?”
“Oh, he was offensive all right.” Savannah finished her coffee. “Two dozen people were there besides Melissa. Not one stayed to help her when she passed out. They all went to the After Prom Event instead. Someone wrote on her stomach with a Sharpie, ‘Can’t hold her liquor.’ I’ve been thinking, that could have been me.” Savannah pushed back from the table. “Guess I should go to work.”
“Wait,” I said. “Tell me first why this was your best prom ever.”
Savannah folded her arms across her chest and gave me the same disgusted look her mother, Olivia, gave me after I’d spilled my guts out to her over a late-night coffee and cheesecake. I tried to glare back.
“I’ll tell you, but after that you should go home. We need the table, and you need the sleep. You’re not getting any younger.”
“Fair enough.” I didn’t like her tone, but I was ready to call it a night anyway. “Is that all?”
“No.” She pulled a pen from her purse and scrawled a number on a napkin. “This is Mom’s cell phone.”
“I already have her number.”
“Really?” She glared again. “So why haven’t you called her? Your wife is not coming back.”
Sixteen months ago, my soon-to-be ex-wife reconnected with her high school sweetheart on Facebook. Two months after that she moved back to her hometown to be closer to him. They were planning a June wedding.
“Mom’s day off is Monday. Take her to a movie for God’s sake. You’ve been mooning over each other long enough. Throw the poor woman a bone.” When I didn’t immediately respond, she added, “You don’t come in for the potato salad.”
I hesitated. “Deal.” I snatched up the napkin and put it in my pocket. “Now it’s your turn. Why was this the best prom ever?”
“My first prom was when I was in 8th grade. I’d just turned fourteen. My date was 17 and a junior. My mother agreed to let me go if I promised not to lose my virginity in the process. I assured her that wouldn’t happen. She didn’t know I’d already lost it.”
Savannah stood up. “Every prom since then, I’ve ended the night drunk and naked with some boy trying to prove he was a man, while I tried to prove something else.”
She looked down at me. “I spent this prom sober with a date who respected me. What’s not to like?” She started to leave, but then added. “But for god’s sake, don’t tell my mother any of this.”
Before I could pledge my silence, she was gone.
Paul Lewellan taught fiction writing in the public schools for three decades before retiring. Now he teaches communications studies at Augustana College. He’s married to his best friend, Pamela, who is also his chief literary critic and his accountant. They share their home with an annoying little Shi Tzu named Mannie. Last year he published stories in Lodestone Journal, Black Heart Magazine, Euphemism, and Dirty Pool.
Photo by Rushina Morrison for Unsplash.com