The Vagabond Inn
It was a family tradition to go out for a big breakfast before starting out on a camping trip. Major Nick Browning pulled the VW Bug into the parking lot of a cozy looking restaurant and helped his family out of the car. The wonderful smell of early morning pancakes and coffee greeted them as they walked into the Vagabond Inn. Frankie had her thick frizzy black hair in a single thick braid topped by a black watch cap. She wore her favorite plaid car coat, patched jeans and high top converse. Her dad and Elsa were dressed for the outdoors yet Elsa, as usual, looked very pretty with her long blond braid draped over one shoulder and a touch of frosted barely pink lipstick.
They were greeted by an energetic young woman wearing round John Lennon style glasses. She had three glasses of water in one hand and three menus in the other. As she led the way to their booth Frankie thought that the girl’s ponytail had a life of its own.
“OK folks, who wants coffee,” she said as she seated them in a comfortable booth. Elsa and Dad both nodded.
“What about you, Kiddo,” she was eyeing Frankie curiously, “java, juice, Pepsi?”
“Coffee and tomato juice please,” said Frankie. The young waitress smiled at the word “please,” not being much older than Frankie. She made a clicking sound, winked, then bounded away for their drinks, her honey colored ponytail swinging wildly behind her. Frankie took a peek at the girl’s foot wear as she departed: white bobby socks and Keds, “no help there,” she thought. Looking around Frankie noticed that the other waitress was wearing support hose and thick soled nurse’s shoes. “Doesn’t matter, no one will look at me anyway,” she thought as she listened to the radio playing Sunshine Superman by Donovan. Elsa loved Donovan. They studied their menus as the waitress came back with the drinks perfectly balanced on a tiny tray; she expertly distributed the mugs and glasses and then climbed into the booth next to Frankie; her elbows propped on the table, order pad poised and ready. She licked the end of her pencil:
“OK, what’s it going to be?” Did she just raise one eyebrow?
“I’d like country-fried steak and eggs over easy, Miss,” said Nick. Frankie could see by the name tag she was wearing that her name was “Rose.”
“Check!” said Rose, “OK, Mom?” Elsa smiled broadly.
“Eggs benedict, please,” Elsa said in a thick Dutch accent.
“This is great, you guys are so polite!” Rose then turned to Frankie. “Ok, Kiddo?”
“Strawberry pancakes and bacon please.”
“Ew!” said Rose peering at Frankie over her glasses, “look, Kiddo, do yourself a favor, try the apple waffles and aausage instead, trust me!” She winked when Frankie nodded and bolted for the kitchen leaving in her wake the scent of Wind Song perfume and Juicy Fruit gum.
“What a weird girl,” thought Frankie. No one her age had ever been that friendly to her before. Rose quickly returned with the food, dashed off for ketchup which she then plunked down on the table and climbed back into the booth beside Frankie while they were eating.
“Hey you guys, was I right? Isn’t it good? Didn’t I tell you?” Everyone’s mouth was full so they just nodded. “Are you guys going camping?” Rose asked as she studied their attire.
“Ja,” said Elsa, “we heard of a place called Hobo Jungle, you know about it, it’s good, ja?”
“Oh yeah, it’s great, neato-keano, only,” Rose looked around theatrically and lowered her voice; “watch out for Char Man!”
Frankie, suddenly excited, swallowed quickly and chimed in:
“Char Man,” Frankie said, “who’s that?
Rose raised both eyebrows this time. “You guys aren’t from around here, are you?”
“We’re new,” said Nick, “I’m Nick, and my wife Elsa…”
“I’m Rose, where are you from, Elsa?” Rose asked politely.
“I’m from the Netherlands, dear,” Elsa replied.
“Oui, mon ami!”
The two chatted together in French for a moment then Nick, laughing softly, continued with the introductions.
“My daughter Frances here starts her sophomore year at VenturaHigh School this fall”
“You can call me Frankie,” Frankie said as she felt her ears grow warm. She didn’t like people her own age to call her Frances; and she never told people what the “H” of her middle name was. She didn’t need her weird foreign names to set her apart even more than she was.
Rose flashed her class ring. “Groovy! Hi, Frankie,” she said, “I’ll be a junior this fall. If you take drama, we might have a class together. More coffee you guys?”
“Tell me more about this Char Man!” Frankie blurted out before Rose could run off for the coffee pot. As a self-proclaimed solitary being, Frankie didn’t often get a chance to interview people for ghost stories.
“Well,” Rose said in slow exaggerated way, “I don’t want to scare you, Kiddo.”
As a reply, Frankie pulled her Field Journal and a pencil out of her pocket and stared defiantly at Rose.
“OK, OK!” Rose said as she glanced around, her other customers seemed settled in to her satisfaction.
“Char Man was once a real person who lived around here just below Ojai. He was burned in a terrible fire long ago. Now, he roams all the lonely places; Hobo Jungle,” she gestured out the back window, the ocean barely visible through the morning mist, “all the way up Ventura Avenue to FosterPark and beyond to CampComfort–so they say.”
Frankie taking notes as quickly as Rose spoke, glanced up from her Field Journal.
“Have you ever seen him?” she asked.
“Those who have seen him are never seen again. If you call his name out loud three times he’ll come and take you away forever!” She ended with a flourish of her hands. “Well, that last part is bogus if you ask me, but there was this kid I used to tutor in ASL, you know, Ameslan or American Sign Language? Anyway this last spring he disappeared! Of course everyone around here thinks Char Man got him, poor kid.”
The Vagabond Inn was now beginning to get its morning rush. Rose slapped the bill on the table. “I’ll get you guys another cup of coffee for the road!” Then she dashed off to juggle the rest of her customers.
Elsa and Dad were chuckling quietly as the three of them walked to their car, what an exciting breakfast! Just as they were about to drive away Rose came bolting out after them.
“Hey Frankie,” she shouted as she ran up to the car, “a bunch of us kids are going to meet at the South Jetty to go grunion hunting on the full moon, that’s uh, next Wednesday, you should go!”
“Me? Well, um, I…”
“She’d love to go,” said Elsa who always wanted Frankie to get out with people her own age. Frankie’s ears felt hot, her ears always turned red when she had to socialize. Rose didn’t seem to notice.
“Cool, can you meet me here at eight? I’ll drive.”
“Yes, I mean yeah, neat, see you on Wednesday.”
As they drove away to the north entrance of Hobo Jungle near the Rincon, Frankie sat in the back seat of the car and finished up her field journal entry:
Supplemental: Entity- Char Man (colloquial specter)
August 12, 1967 7:15AM
Note: Library- Local maps i.e. parks and recreation
Define “Grunion” significance of full moon?
Personal note: I feel odd, I don’t want Dad to ship out next week, but I’m glad we get to go camping together before he leaves. I got invited somewhere, what should I wear? (As if it matters?)
Note: consult recent copy of “Seventeen Magazine” which Elsa always tries to get me to read.
Final Note: Those were the best waffles I ever had.