Despite the oppressive heat, John was able to reach town within a few minutes. On the edge of town stood a rusting sign said that proclaimed the community’s name. Even though the sign was weathered by years of exposure to the briny air, John was able to make out the name "Salton" on its surface.
Walking through town, he was able to see the reason for this name. Every building’s exterior had been ravaged by the salty air. Holes in the paint of each structure left the metal exposed. Spots of rust were easily visible. John walked for some distance before seeing a curio shop that peaked his interest. From the sidewalk, he was able to make out various items in the store’s window front. An old bottle, an anchor, and a porcelain ship all served to lure customers in. Once inside, John was greeted by an older man with salt-and-pepper stubble. John acknowledged the storekeeper and looked about. An acoustic guitar along the far wall caught his eye. The instrument looked as though it had been exposed to the salty air for far too long, but remained in John’s mind long after he left the shop.
As the sun rose directly above the earth, Turner began to grow hungry. John realized that he had only eaten a few bites of the breakfast prepared for him by Martha. Looking around, he quickly spotted a restaurant with large windows that allowed him to see much of the dining room. Only one person sat in the diner. With his head stuck in a newspaper, the man looked oblivious to the girl collecting dirty dishes around him.
John was suddenly struck by the girl’s appearance. Her flaxen hair, her clear blue eyes, and the spray of freckles on her face all seemed so out of place in a town such as this. The only residents he had seen thus far were much older and carried countenances weathered by time. In regards to age, she appeared only a few years younger than John.
Opening the front door, John could feel a rush of cool air hit his face. Along the far wall, he was able to see an elevated area of the floor that looked much like a stage. The jingle of the bell tied around the door handle startled the girl. She set the plates in her hand on a nearby table and walked to the front of the restaurant.
“Table or booth?”
John, still struck by the girl’s sweet looks, failed to register her question. She repeated it and he replied “Table.”
The girl led John to a table only a few feet away from the booth of the only other patron. The man looked up from his paper and spoke to John.
“You look new here.”
“Yeah, I just got into town last night. I plan to leave as soon as I can get my truck fixed.”
“It break down on you?”
“Yeah,” replied John softly.
The girl walked over John’s table and asked him, “Coffee or soda?”
“I’ll just have water.”
She left and quickly returned with a glass full of water. John looked closely at the glass and was able to see a layer of salt lying along its bottom.
“This is the only water we can pump here,” she said. “Now if you want some coffee, it’ll cost you a dollar.”
John looked at the liquid placed before him with hyperbolic melancholy. The girl grinned, revealing two rows of pearly whites. He agreed to her proposal and was given a mug full of hot coffee just a few minutes later.
John sipped his coffee for some time. As the girl passed by him, he asked “Could I order some food?”
“Sure,” the girl replied. “We serve burgers and fries. You can have both, either, or neither. I'm sure that you want either or both since you asked. Both would be a little heavy, especially in this heat and after your coffee. You wanted something filling and the fries wouldn't fulfill that desire very well. How would you like your burger done? We cook 'em medium-rare."
John smiled and said "Medium-rare is fine. I was planning on ordering it that way anyway, but you went ahead and read my mind."
The other patron, still sitting in his booth, interjected "She does that."
"I'll be back with your burger in a few minutes," said the girl.
As John waited for his burger, he heard the bell on the front door jingle. Looking up, he saw Bill Hodge walking in. The other patron finished reading the paper, walked out the door, and exchanged pleasantries with Bill. The girl noticed Bill's entrance and walked out of the kitchen to greet him. The plate she carried out of the kitchen held a large steaming burger. As the girl walked by John's table, she placed the plate in front of him.
"If it isn't Bill Hodge! How are you doing?"
"I'm doing just fine. Thanks for asking."
"And Mrs. Hodge?"
"She's good. She's good."
"Well, what can I do for you, Bill?"
"I just came in to see how John was doing."
"Well, from the look on his face right now, he's enjoying one of my burgers."
The girl smiled at John and walked back to the kitchen. Bill took the seat across from Turner and began to speak.
"I talked to Dave Bruner and, unfortunately, his truck's winch is broken. This might make your getting back on the road a bit more difficult. It would take a week or so to get the winch repaired. As for your truck, that could be anywhere from a week to a month. Salton isn't exactly a metropolitan center. Fortunately, this predicament gives you more time to stay in town."
"Well," John replied, thinking back to the girl in the kitchen, "It's a pretty nice town."
Bill nodded and glanced at the kitchen door. John followed suite and saw the girl walking out of the kitchen with a coffee pot. She walked to the two men's table and filled both their mugs with coffee. Once both their cups were full, she took a seat at the table.
"So you've met Lissie?" asked Bill.
Exchanging smiles with Lissie, John said "We've talked a little bit."
Lissie interrupted, "I read his mind."
"She read my mind," confirmed John.
"She does that," said Bill.
Lissie directed her conversation towards John.
"So what brings you to Salton?"
"Well, a few dozen miles out of town, my truck broke down. Bill, here, chanced upon me and saved me from the cold weather."
"Bill's letting me stay in his home."
"That's nice. Especially with Bill. He's not like Mrs. Hodge. Doesn't care much for visitors."
"Well, John's different. I could tell he was a lot better than the people that usually come to my house."
"You mean Debora and Sarah?"
"Yeah. Anyway, John's going to be staying here a few days until we can get his truck fixed."
John nodded and Bill continued.
"Lucky for him, the chili festival is in a few days." Bill turned toward John. "You'll get to taste Lissie's chili. It really is some of the best in the region." He added quickly, "Still can't beat my Martha's."
Lissie jabbed Bill in the side with her elbow.
"Now, Bill, you know my chili has won the contest three years in a row."
"Maybe, but don't expect a fourth. Martha's been perfecting her recipe and I'm sure it has what it takes to win this year. I should know. She's been making me taste test it.
"We'll see when the contest comes."
After a few minutes, Bill and Lissie directed their attention towards John, who sat listening to their banter with an amused smirk on his face.
"So, John, you ought to attend the chili contest," Bill said, "Every entrant makes a mean pot of chili but the competition is always a toss-up between Mrs. Hodge and Lissie. It's just two days away."
John expressed his desire to attend and Bill cheered. At the man's exuberant exclamation, both Lissie and John laughed.
Bill glanced at his watch and spoke. "Well, I should probably get going. Martha wants me to test some more of her recipe. I swear to God, I'll be sick of chili by the time this contest is over."
Bill stood up from the table, and walked towards the front door. Lissie followed him and they exchanged a few words. John soon followed and asked the waitress about his tab.
Lissie responded "A couple bucks will do."
John handed her two bills and left the restaurant.