I spent the next three days at home, feigning one excuse after another, anything not to go to the diner. I paced the living room floor for hours, struggling to devise a way to approach Valerie about Gertrude.
I was certain Valerie had told me how she and Gertrude met, dead certain. All I had to do was remember it.
I rehearsed several methodologies in my head, each designed to get Valerie to divulge the information I needed. As crafty and conniving as I felt my plans were, the safest thing to do was to ask Gertrude.
The smell of fresh baked bread filled the diner, enveloping me completely as I entered through the front door. What I wanted was to march straight back to the kitchen and confront Gertrude... man to man as it were. The reality was the woman scared me to death.
"Don't look, don't look," I whispered to myself, turning a shoulder to the tea pot. I held up a hand, pretending to scratch my temple, deliberately blocking my view as I slid pass the vessel. If the lid was off again, I didn't want to know.
Slowly, I pushed opened the stainless steel kitchen door, peering cautiously inside, before entering. The image of Gertrude with the knife and tomato had been set very deeply in my memory, something I had no wish to experience again.
She was alone, leafing apathetically through a magazine.
"Gertrude?" I called softly.
"Busy," she replied without looking up.
"I have a favor to ask," I said slipping to her side of the door.
"Valerie isn't here," she said sternly, pulling herself upright, standing.
"I know, she's picking up cheese for the lunch rush," I offered, still holding onto the door.
"So, why are you here?" she asked, folding her arms.
"Your bread smells great," I offered lightly, wringing my hands nervously as I moved closer.
"Come clean bean counter. Why are you here?" she said harshly, throwing the magazine under the counter.
"You saw her," I began, gulping air like a goldfish in order to breathe.
"I told you, your Bogle, your problem," she scolded, unmoved by my dilemma.
"Gertrude, she said, she would go away if I asked one question."
"Not from me it didn't," she said waving a hand to dismiss me.
"One question, damn, how hard can that be? Come on, help me out here?" I pleaded.
Gertie stood immobile, staring at me.
"Hi. What are you doing here?" Valerie asked, suddenly standing at the back door.
"I stopped by on the way to work, you know just to say hi and maybe get one of Gertie's cinnamon rolls." I lied, trying to think quickly on my feet.
"Your bean counter lies. He has a Bogle," Gertrude blurted.
"How nice for you. Why didn't you say so? Gertie has lots of bogle experience," Valerie said cheerfully.
"You need help?" I asked my wife, shooting an annoyed look at Gertie.
"No, that's alright, I got it. You and Gertie go on with your bogle problem," she said giving me a little wave.
"Do you know what a bogle is?" I asked now feeling put out. I had a real problem and she was treating it like a joke.
"Of course, it's a German ghost... a pest, a mean spirited person that has died and now refuses to move on and wants to take it out on the living," Valerie shrugged as she went out the door.
I turned to Gertie for conformation.
She said nothing beyond frowning slightly, twisting her hand back and forth.
"More or less?" I asked weakly, mirroring her hand movements.
"Ask your question," Gertie said, turning away.
"Edna said..." I began
"AWKK," Gertie returned quickly, slapping an open hand to the stainless steel table with a loud bang.
I was startled, the sound made my heart jump in my chest.
"Bogle," she corrected. "Do not give it a name."
"Sorry, my bogle said she brought you and Valerie together. She wants..."
"It wants," she injected brusquely.
"It wants me to ask how you and Valerie met," I said, finally spitting it out.
"So, it is not done. It will not rest with this one question. Tell it no," she ordered flatly.
"Gertie, please, I'm begging you," I implored in the most pathetic voice I could muster.
"Well, did we solve it?" My wife asked happily, entering with two big shopping bags.
"Awhh, see how you are? Let me help," I insisted, rushing to her.
"It looks heavier than it is, I'm fine," she said, ignoring me. "Did you get a roll? Gertie has out done herself this morning."
"No, not yet."
"I'll get it for you... you didn't answer me... did we solve it? The bogle problem? Are we done?" she asked, busying herself with the contents of the bags.
"No, we're still working on it... and while we're at it what do you know of bogles?" I asked.
"Well, Gertrude and I had our share of bogles growing up, didn't we Gertie?"
I turned to the woman, surprised by my wife's reaction.
"Yes, many," she agreed dully.
"There was this one girl... what was her name Gertie? Katherine something. It was all so long ago I can't recall," Valerie joked, retrieving a cinnamon roll from the cooling rack, covering it's top with warm glaze.
"Katherine Burgess," Gertie added.
"That's right, Katherine Burgess. I'll bet she's a sour old cow by now," Valerie said gleefully. "So which is it for you? Someone at work or a customer?"
Gertrude lowered her head to look at me, shaking her head no, giving me a stern warning without a word.
"Someone at work," I lied quickly.
"Ouch, that can be rough," Valerie said sympathetically.
"Yes, yes it can. While we're on the subject, exactly how long have you and Gertrude been friends?"
"Seems like forever," she said looking to the ceiling as if the answer to my question had been written there. "We met in junior high."
"Really? How did you meet? I don't think you ever told me," I said suddenly filled with self-satisfaction.
"We had lockers together, I think. Yes, that's it lockers."
I knew it. I knew it had to be something simple, that it had nothing to do with Edna Weaver what-so-ever.
I felt as if a giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders... the sky was bluer, the air fresher... all was right with the world.
"Tell him, it's been long enough," Gertrude said firmly folding her arms.
Valerie's face suddenly filled with concern. Her eyes darted between me and Gertie.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," she said, turning her back to us in a huff.
"If you don't, I will," Gertie threatened.
"Don't you dare," Valerie snapped, spinning to face her.
"When Valerie's mother found out she was pregnant with her she climbed to the top of the closest dresser and..."
"Gertrude Oberdorf," Valerie shouted, her eyes wild with apprehension.
"So? Tell him," Gertie barked in return.
No one moved... no one spoke.
At last, Valerie's bottom lip began to quiver, her eyes welled with tears.
"She threw herself off to belly flop on the floor... she didn't want me," Valerie choked, falling into my arms.
I was shocked. I didn't know what to say. I tried to wrap my head around her words. They soaked into me, chilling me to the bone. Valerie had never mentioned anything of the kind to me in the forty plus years we had been together, never once complained about her mother or her childhood.
I had known they weren't close but this, this was more than I would have ever guessed.
"Valerie... I," I stammered, completely lost for words.
"Now, tell him the rest. Tell him how we met," Gertrude ordered, pointing at me.
Slowly, she pulled free of me, turning her back.
"I used to have a barrette. It belonged to my grandmother... a silly little thing but it meant the world to me. She gave it to me on my twelfth birthday. I was stupid. I wore it to school and Gertie..." Valerie said, her voice quivered, barely above a whisper.
"Dearheart, please, you don't have too," I interjected sympathetically.
"I... I..." she choked.
"There were four of us. I was their leader... we beat her up and took her barrette... it was my idea," Gertrude confessed unabashed.
A part of me wasn't surprised, in fact, I had suspected she was a thug from the first moment I met her.
"I cried all the way home. When I told my mother what happened she went crazy, making me get into the car. We drove for more than an hour trying to hunt them down. At last, we found them behind the convenience store over on eighth, smoking," she choked, her voice grew jagged, on the verge of crying.
I waited for her to gather herself.
"Her mother made her get out of the car to get the barrette back," Gertie said in her place, handing Valerie a kitchen towel to wipe her tears.
"What happened?" I asked after an uncomfortable amount of time.
"Valerie stepped out of the car and her mother drove away," Gertie continued.
"You can't be serious," I said incensed at the thought.
"Very," Gertie said, reflecting my disdain, folding her arms.
"What did you do?" I asked Valerie.
"We beat her up again," Gertie pronounced proudly.
"What?" I asked bewildered.
"Yep, her mother brought her back to us three times and we beat her up every time."
"The forth time mother dropped me off she told me to come home with the barrette or don't come home at all," Valerie said. "Then, she just drove away."
I wrapped my arms around her, holding her close.
"What happened then?" I asked after a long pause, giving Gertrude a nasty look of disapproval.
"If I couldn't go home, then nothing else mattered. They would have to kill me to make me stop. To my surprise Gertrude took pity on me, telling the others to leave me alone. This time, when a fight broke out, she fought for me. Gertie and I stood back to back, side by side... until we won.
"When I got home, I threw the barrette on the floor at mother's feet before I went upstairs to cry myself to sleep.
"I never saw it again, never spoke of it until now."
Valerie threw her arms around Gertie and they both wept out loud.
"Valerie, I... Why didn't you tell me?" I asked.
"Because inside here, she has the heart of a true German," Gertie said with pride, kissing Valerie's forehead. "And that, bean counter, is how we met. Go tell your bogle."