The bar crowd was trickling into the restaurant, kind of slow for a Saturday night. I scribbled an order for a cheeseburger and fries onto my pad, called the order to Jake, the night cook, and went back to wiping the counter. Somebody dropped a quarter into the jukebox and the sound of Willie Nelson’s voice drowned out the wheeze of the overworked air conditioner. The diner’s name was honest. Squeeze Inn was just what the sign said, enough room to squeeze into a stool at the long counter. The food was greasy and the tips sucked, but there weren’t many jobs to pick from in a town with only two traffic lights.
I had come to this town three months ago, like I had twenty times before to other small mountain towns, either chasing some man or being drug by one. The men were long gone and I was waiting for either the energy or inspiration to force me on down the road. Tonight I was feeling weary of it all. My rode hard twenty-three years was showing heavy on my face. I looked thirty. Too much whiskey and too many cigarettes, burned out in body, soul, and mind.
A group of two women and two men took the empty stools in front of me. They squinted their eyes over my head to the menu board and gave me their orders. I could smell the booze on their breath, as I set them up with paper napkins and cokes. Jake threw four more burgers onto the grill.
I grabbed the last order from the window and set it down in front of Earl, one of my regulars, a big man with long dirty hair. As I did I asked, “Earl won’t ya play B14 for me?”
“Don’t ya ever get tired of that song?” He grinned showing his bad teeth. “Where the hell is Lodi, anyhow?”
“It’s any hick town that you don’t have enough money to leave,” I said. “So I guess Lodi is right here.” He ambled over to the jukebox at the end of the counter, put a quarter in, and as soon as Willie quit singing about a “Bloody Mary Morning,” the voices of CCR began their version of a sad song.
Jake rang the bell and I picked up the plates, doing a balancing act that is the mark of a true waitress. As I approached the foursome with their dinners, one of the men growled “Fuckin bitch,” as he backhanded the bleached blonde at his side across the mouth.
“Jake, get out here,” I yelled.
Jake shoved the kitchen door open with one of his big tattooed arms. In the other hand, he held a baseball bat. The joint got real quiet as Jake asked the blonde, “You alright?”
The blonde wiped a trickle of blood from her lip as she looked up at her boyfriend. “Yeah man, it’s cool. I just said somethin that pissed Donnie off. My fault. We won’t be causin no trouble.” She wiped at the blood again smearing it into the heavy eyeliner that seemed to be melting down her cheeks.
“How bout you?” Jake pointed the bat at Donnie. “You got any troubles here?”
“Naw,” the boyfriend mumbled. He measured Jake with his cold blue eyes before looking away.
Jake nodded at the plates, “Shay, put these folks’ food into a go-box. I think they’ll be eating it elsewhere.”
I handed the blonde a wet towel. “Here, clean up your face.”
“Thanks,” she said as she wiped at the blood and Maybelline.
“I’m sorry,” I said, without knowing exactly what I was sorry for.
“Me too,” she said.
I bagged the food and handed it to her. She paid the bill and they walked out the door as Jake and the bat watched.
The rest of the night went by with no more excitement than greasy burgers and fries. Finally, closing time, three o’clock in the sweet a.m., rolled around and I waited beside the door as Jake turned the key in the big padlock. We walked down the street together toward the Five and Dime. As I started up the steps to my apartment Jake asked, “You need company to rock you to sleep this mornin?”
I shook my head and laughed, “You ask the same question every day. Ain't you tired of gettin turned down?”
“Naw, I calculate that if I keep askin, someday you’ll get wore down and say yeah.”
I climbed the long stairs to my one room and a bath above the Five and Dime, as Jake watched from the sidewalk until I went inside.
. . . I took inventory of the shabby room, torn wallpaper, ragged curtains, and the only redeeming virtue, a big stained claw-footed bathtub, squeezed into a tiny bathroom. Big enough to float in if you had enough patience to wait for the small stream of water to fill it from the rusted faucet. I had lived in worse.
The window fan seemed to be bringing more hot air into the stuffy little room. I turned it on high and stripped down to my panties before falling wearily onto the wrinkled sheets. As I lay there, I took inventory of the shabby room, torn wallpaper, ragged curtains, and the only redeeming virtue, a big stained claw-footed bathtub, squeezed into a tiny bathroom. Big enough to float in if you had enough patience to wait for the small stream of water to fill it from the rusted faucet. I had lived in worse. At least it was mine. As long as I paid the twenty-five dollar a week rent, nobody couldn’t kick me out.
I dozed and woke up as the sun began to peek its weak early morning rays into the window. I turned on the radio and flipped through three stations talking about firing the president before finding a country music station playing Freddie Fender. I hate the way he looks, but love to hear him sing. I poured a generous amount of whiskey into a glass as I waited for the tub to fill. When the water level was sufficient, I sank my weary body into the tub. I submerged my head while holding the glass above the waterline. When I ran out of air I raised my head and took a long swallow of the whiskey. It burned a trail over my tongue and down my throat, leaving warmth in my chest that seemed to center around my heart. This was a good thing, the thing that gave me courage to go on. My breasts bobbed in the water and I ran a washcloth over them and down to my stomach, massaging the crooked stretch marks that began at my navel and ended at the triangle of dark hair below. These marks were all I had left of a little boy. He was six years old now, and the only mother he knew was his grandmother, my mama.
I was a seventeen-year-old high school senior when Beau Ashe drifted into town. He was good looking and picked a guitar, so it didn’t take him long to steal my heart, then my cherry. Next thing I knew, three weeks before graduation, I was knocked up. I thought I loved Beau Ashe and was sure he had meant every sweet thing he said to me when he was in the process of getting into my britches. When I told him about our pending parenthood, he turned pale. I didn’t hear love words that day and I went home alone to face the wrath of my momma and daddy. Beau Ashe was nowhere to be found. They didn’t kick me out like I expected and when my baby boy was born they fell in love with him. Who wouldn’t love him? He was perfect, sandy hair and big brown eyes. I named him James, after my Daddy. We called him Jimmy.
When my little boy was six months old, a rusty red pick up truck pulled up in front of our house. It was Beau Ashe bearing gifts, just like Santa Claus. He had a toy fire truck for the baby and a small gold ring with a diamond chip for me. Without thinking, my hand went to the ring, now resting on a chain between my breasts. Beau Ashe had big plans. He said he had a gig playing with a band in Nashville. He begged me to come with him. I said, “How are we gonna take care of a baby in Nashville?”
He was ready with a quick answer. Maybe my momma and daddy would keep the baby for a while. Just until we were settled.
Next thing I knew, my clothes were loaded into the back of the pick-up and I was bound for Nashville. We never made it far. After a day’s travel, Beau Ashe stopped off in Knoxville to play with some boys he knew. We were there for six months before he took off with a redheaded bar maid. I stayed there for a while, too ashamed to tuck tail and go home.
Months turned into years and one town became another. Beau Ashe became John then Frank then Steve; one thing they all had in common was wanderlust and pretty words for me. I was sick to death of words from men. Somewhere along the way while they chased their dreams, I lost mine. No house with a white fence, no kids playing in the yard, no man, no until death do us part. With the soapy rag, I scrubbed my skin hard, wanting to wash away the pain, the men and the lost dreams. After my whiskey and bath, I still wasn’t sleepy, so I pulled on some not so dirty jeans and shoved the rest of my dirty clothes into a plastic garbage bag. I was feeling sweaty again by the time I lugged the bag down the stairs and the two blocks to the laundromat. While the clothes washed, I couldn’t shake my earlier thoughts. I tried reading an outdated People magazine and listening to music coming from the radio, but it didn’t help. I wondered what my momma and my little Jimmy were doing. Early Sunday morning, Momma would be cooking eggs and bacon, a print apron over her Sunday dress. My boy would be just waking up, maybe watching Scooby Doo while he waited for breakfast and time to go to church. God, I’d like to see them for just a minute to say I was sorry. I walked to the pay phone and shoved three dollars' worth of quarters in the slot, dialed the number and waited while it rang three times.
Momma answered, “Hello.” I held my breath, her voice sounded so good. “Hello, who’s there?” There was a pause before she said, “Isabel Shay, I know that’s you. Please, honey, say somethin. We love you and you can come home. It don’t matter none what you’ve done. This is still your home.”
When she said that, I couldn’t take any more. I wanted to go home so bad, but I couldn’t face them. I had abandoned my child and parents to chase men and party. I pushed the receiver down and fought back tears. I had to get out of there. Shoving the half-wet clothes back into the garbage bag, I walked back to my room and my whiskey bottle.
I woke up an hour before my shift was to begin. The empty whiskey bottle lying on my chest explained the sledgehammer pounding inside my skull and the desert in my mouth. I popped three Tylenol and washed them down with a glass of water. A wave of dizzying nausea hit me, and I dropped to my knees, hugging the commode, praying for relief or death, whichever was easiest.
As I walked into the restaurant half an hour late. Janet, the day shift waitress, looked up. “Lord, you look like shit.”
“That’s good, cause I shore feel like shit,” I replied softly, so as to not make the gorilla with the sledgehammer in my head angry. I fixed myself a glass of Coke and lit a Marlboro. Small sips, I told myself.
Janet asked, “Are you gonna be alright to work tonight?”
I shrugged, “Have to be.” I tried the Tylenol again. This time it stayed in my burning gut. After two cigarettes, I felt good enough to make my way into the kitchen where Jake was doing his prep work. He looked me up and down before saying, “Shoulda let me rock ya to sleep this morning. Looks like what you tried didn’t work so good.”
“Yeah, maybe I shoulda.”
Jake was an ex-con, still on parole. He worked at keeping his life simple and easy, with no situations that might send him back inside. Some people mistook this easygoing manner for cowardice. They were wrong. You wouldn’t want to be on his bad side.
I grated some cabbage and made coleslaw. When I went to the bathroom to take a pee, I looked in the mirror. The face looking back at me would have scared the devil. So I smeared some make up on before walking out. There were a few people waiting to give their orders at the counter so I started to work, feeling half human again.
The bell over the door tinkled and Travis Mackey walked in. He owned the only car dealership in town, and if you could judge by the big diamond on his finger or the fancy watch on his wrist, he had money. I wasn’t sure if it was the money or the nice way his jeans hugged his backside that made all the women in town chase him. Whatever the reason, they did, and it didn’t matter that he had a wife and a couple of kids. He asked me out once, and I shot him down. I think getting told no turned him on, because he kept coming back.
Travis sat down at the counter and I poured him a cup of coffee. “You eatin?” I asked.
“Naw, the ole lady is cookin sumpin. I guess she’s spectin me to be home cause she’s called three times to remind me.”
I grinned at him. “Maybe she wanted you to be on time for supper. Or could it be she’s checkin up on you and that little blonde you got workin in your office.”
Travis denied this for the truth. “She ain't knowin nothing bout me and no blonde.”
Everyone at the counter laughed. They all knew better. Most of them had seen his big black truck parked by the railroad underpass late at night. Some swore that they had seen a blond head bopping up and down when their headlights caught the truck just right.
Travis grinned and placed his finger in front his lips. “Don’t y’all be tellin everybody my business now.” Shaking his head he walked out the same door he’d just entered.
About an hour before closing time, Jake and I decided to take advantage of the now empty restaurant and get a head start on clean up. He was mopping the floor while I wiped down the counter front. I fed all my quarter tips into the jukebox. “Wild Thing” was one of my selections. When it began to play, Jake danced over to me and started to sing along. He was off key, but to give him credit, he was loud. I started to dance around him, shaking my ass in time with the music.
As the chorus wound up Jake grabbed me, bent me over and sang in my ear “but I don’t know foe shore.” I was laughing so hard tears were streaming down my face. How did men know where my soft spot was? I moved away then danced back toward him doing my best to move seductively, but I couldn’t carry it off. I was laughing too hard.
The door opened and Travis caught my dance routine as he walked in. He grinned, “Looks like I missed the party.”
I was feeling good, kind of sexy for the first time in a while. I turned my back to Travis, giving him a view of what I considered my best feature, and I danced backwards toward him.
He whistled, “Shake it, gal." I threw back my head and gyrated my pelvis. When I looked back at Jake, he was no longer laughing. He looked pissed. Shit, you can’t have a good time with a man without him thinking he owns you. I liked Jake, but he was exactly where I didn’t want to be, stuck in a hick town with no sight of leavin.
Mercifully, the song was short and ended before the two roosters got into a full-fledged cockfight.
“You come back for dessert?” I asked Travis while I wiped the sweat off my face with a paper napkin.
“Dependin on what you got,” he replied.
“I think there’s some of Janet’s apple pie left. Want me to get you some?”
“Naw, I don’t think apple pie is what I got a hankerin for.”
I looked toward Jake and caught sight of his back going through the kitchen door. “I think apple pie is bout all the sweetnin we got left here tonight.” Travis got my meaning.
“Well, I guess I'll leave and come back another time when you might have something I want.”
I said, “Later,” as he walked back out the door.
Jake didn’t say much that morning as he walked me home. When we got to the Five and Dime, I started to walk up the steps, but he grabbed my arm. “I know you’re sad, but don’t go lookin for answers in a bottle. They ain't there. I know, I’ve looked a lot of bottles from top to bottom and the only answer I got was three years in the pen.”
I patted his hand and walked up to my room. Whether it was Jake’s advice or my hangover, I don’t know, but whiskey didn’t seem so appealing to me for the moment. I went up to my little room, took a bath and capped my evening off by polishing my toenails. Then I went to sleep and dreamed about walking in snow. It was very cold and nothing was there, just endless white.
I awoke to rain blowing in the window. Hell, my luck, my day off and it rains. I spent the afternoon cleaning up my room and wondering what dreaming of snow meant. Trying to read a book that I had been trying to read for the last six months didn‘t help. It wasn’t any more interesting now than it had been when I bought it. I’d thought it was about being afraid to fly in an airplane, but it wasn’t. It was just smut with big words.
At about seven o’clock, my stomach was growling and I decided to stop in the diner for something to eat. I pulled an old sweatshirt on and walked up the street, staying close to the buildings so I wouldn’t get too wet. Marcy was working the counter. She was younger than me and had a husband and baby. Her old man didn’t like her working at the diner, but she didn’t have much choice since he was laid off from his job down at the Piggly Wiggly. I liked Marcy. She had a sweet, kind attitude, and she was always concerned about other people. You could tell her anything and trust it wouldn’t show up later as gossip.
I helped myself to a coke at the fountain and sat down at the kitchen end of the counter.
“You hungry?” Marcy asked as she passed, her hands loaded.
I said, “Yeah, starving. I thought Janet was workin tonight.”
“She was, but she wanted off. She wanted to go hear some band, so we traded shifts,” Marcy said over her shoulder.
When she came back without her load she stopped, “Chili’s fresh. I just made it. Want me to get you a bowl?”
“That’s ok, I’ll get it.” I slid off the stool and walked into the kitchen.
Jake was at the grill and he turned toward me as I came through the door. “You look better tonight.”
I began dipping chili from the pot into a chipped white bowl. “I think I feel better, but I don’t know what to do with myself if I ain't workin. I was thinking about goin down to the river and sittin in the sun but Mother Nature nixed that plan.” I leaned against the sink and started to eat my chili, watching as Jake scrapped the grease and burned food from the grill. I could see the muscles in his back move beneath the white t-shirt he was wearing.
He finished cleaning the grill and walked to the back door, standing in front of the screen as he lit a cigarette. “Next sunny day that we’re off together, I could drive us down to the quarry. It’s real pretty down there and not too crowded during the week.” He took a deep drag off the cigarette and exhaled slowly.
“Sounds like a plan,” I replied between bites of chili. Jake pulled his cap off his head and his ponytail fell down his back. Seeing his hair always surprised me. Most of the time it was tucked under his hat. His hair was a sharp contrast to the big man. It was dark brown; long, thick, shiny, and feminine, the kind you saw in shampoo commercials.
I finished my chili, put the bowl in the sink as Jake was finishing his cigarette. “See ya tomorrow night,” I said as I walked back into the diner. Marcy was ringing up a customer at the register. I sat down and took a drink of my coke. Several of the regulars were sitting at the counter, bullshitting.
The bell jangled as Janet and her latest boyfriend came through the door. One of the regulars asked, “Where you goin all dolled up?”
Janet laughed. “I do clean up good, don’t I?” She twirled around showing off her tight black jeans and sparkly red shirt. “We’re goin to the Holiday Inn, over on the highway. They got a band playin in the lounge. Some guys outta Alabama, I think.” She looked down the counter and saw me. “Hey Shay, whatcha up to?”
“Nothin much, just warmin this stool,” I answered.
“Why don’t ya come with us? It would do you good to get out with people and have some fun.”
I thought for a minute before answering “Yeah, I think I will. Shore ain't got nothin better to do.”
“Aw now that’s an insult,” Marcy said. “You could sit here and watch me work. What better entertainment could you ask for?”
I shook my head and laughed. “I think that would be too much excitement for me. I think I’ll go with them,”
I followed Janet and her boyfriend up the sidewalk toward a rusty pickup. The pickup’s bumper sported a Goldwater sticker and another of a peace sign that read, “Symbol of the American Chicken.” Janet climbed in the truck, kicking empty beer cans aside and straddling the floor gearshift. I got in behind her, as her new boyfriend started the truck.
Even though it was early, the parking lot at the lounge was crowded. We paid our two-dollar cover charge and walked into the packed room. “Hey, Janet,” yelled a girl sitting at a table.
Janet said, “Be back in a minute, Shay. I gotta talk to some people over there.” She walked with her boyfriend over to the table, calling loudly, “Girlfriend, where the hell ya been?”
I looked the place over. Typical bar crowd. I saw a few people I knew from the diner. Some nodded their heads at me when I caught their eye. The band hadn’t started to play yet, so most people were talking and congregating around the room. I made my way through the crowd and elbowed to the bar. “Jack and Coke” I said when the bartender made his way to me. When I had paid for my drink I leaned my back to the bar and took a sip. It tasted weak. When you get used to drinking straight whiskey, it’s hard to swallow a mixed drink.
About the time the keyboard player walked onto the small stage, Earl, one of the regulars at the diner, came up to me. “Hey girl, they let you outta there ever once and a while?”
“Everybody except death row gets paroled after enough time,” I said, laughing.
As I talked with Earl, the band was warming up. When they started to play, the voice of the singer made a lump rise in my throat, and my chest became tight. I couldn’t speak, nor could I hear a damn word Earl was saying. There on the stage singing was Beau Ashe in the flesh. He looked good, a little heavier. His hair was darker and longer. He looked like a man, not the punk-assed kid of my memory. Couples were making their way to the dance floor. I strained to look around them, ignoring Earl who finally moved on down the bar. My mind whirled. I didn’t know whether to throw myself around Beau Ashe’s neck or to find a gun to shoot him.
He finished the fast song he was singing and started talking to the crowd. “Ya all feelin good tonight? Well, this here is the Good Time band and I‘m Beau with the beauuuuutiffffful voice.” He proceeded to introduce the members of the band. “You all ready to party?” he yelled as the band broke into the song of the same name.
After a couple more fast songs, the next song he sang was “Brown Eyed Girl.” I fought tears as I remembered his voice singing these words soft and low in my ear. By the end of the song, the back of my eyeballs were throbbing with un-cried tears. Damn him, I’d done cried enough. Signaling for the bartender, I ordered a double shot of Jack and threw it back. Beau called a band break. With the whiskey burning a warm trail down my chest I headed for the stage. Before I got halfway a woman walked up to Beau and handed him a beer. I stopped where I was. It was the same red head he had run off with all those years ago. The stage light caught the flash of a wedding band on her left hand. My hand went to the ring that was suddenly heavy on the chain around my neck. As I tugged at it, the chain broke. I held the ring in my hand and as a waitress passed I grabbed her arm. “Do me a big favor?”
“What?” she asked. I took a napkin from her tray and folded it around the ring.
“Give this to the singer.”
She looked at my face and said, “Ok.”
I pulled a five from my pocket and stuck it in her hand as insurance. “Please, this is important.” She shoved the money into her pocket and nodded yes.
I walked over to the door and watched as she made her way to the stage. Beau was talking with the drummer as she handed him the wadded up napkin. He held it in his hand as he continued his conversation. Finally, he un-wrapped the ring and stared at it for a few long seconds. Then he looked up, his eyes scanning the crowd. I slipped out the exit and into the misty rain.
It was five miles back to town. I needed the walk to clear my head. Until I saw him, I had always truly expected that he would come for me. He hadn’t. He had moved on with his life, got married, still chased his dream of making it big singing. I hadn’t done a damn thing, except learn how to drink whiskey.
A truck pulled up beside me. It was Travis Mackey. He asked, “What you doin out here walkin on the highway?”
“Seemed like a good time for a walk.”
“Climb in here and let me take you back to town.”
“No, I believe I’ll just walk.”
“Come on, now. The cab of this trucks’ all nice and dry and I’m all warm. Might even be a little hot.” Travis laughed, “You might be just the thang I need to cool me off.”
“Fuck off, Travis. I don’t want no damn ride.” I tromped away from the truck.
“Suit yourself. I was just trying to be nice,” he pulled back onto the highway, burning rubber up the road.
I hadn’t walked too much farther when headlights again pulled over behind me. I turned, expecting it to be another of the restaurant’s patrons. Someone got out of the driver’s side and walked toward me. The headlights blinded me and it wasn’t until he spoke that I knew it was Beau. I walked away from his voice.
“Shay, don’t run away, I want to talk to you.” Beau followed me through the rain.
“Now if that ain’t funny,” I said. You fuckin tellin me not to run off.” I began to walk faster toward town.
“Wait up, Shay. I want to talk to you about Jimmy. Your Mom and I tell him about you and show him your picture. We want him to know you.” Beau followed me.
I stopped walking. “You see him?”
“Yeah. I go up one weekend a month and stay at your Mom’s with him. He’s growin up. Always asking questions about you.”
“You stay at my mom’s?”
“Not at first. Your Daddy and her blamed me for hauling you off, and they was right. But I just kept going. I sure didn’t want Jimmy growin up not knowin either one of us. I try to help out, give em a little money now and then when I got it. They want you to come home. I'm to blame for everything fucked up in your life until right now.” Beau swallowed hard. “But from this minute on, if you don’t go back, it’s all your doing. Let me show a picture of our Jimmy.”
He pulled a photo out of his wallet and handed to me. My hand shook so bad it was hard to focus on the snapshot. I turned it toward the truck's headlight and Beau shielded it from the rain with his hand. Jimmy looked like Beau, Beau with my eyes. His smile was all sweet and innocent. A vision of the redhead running her fingers through Jimmy's sandy hair crept into my head. I shoved it away. God, I needed another drink.
"You can keep it. He's like you, real smart at school. He's been beggin me to get him a guitar, but I won’t. I don't want him to live like me. I want him to turn out respectable. I hope he never sees the inside of a beer joint."
"Me too,” I said as I tucked the picture inside my bra, to protect it from the rain.
“Go home, Shay. You are one of the lucky ones. They ain't many people that can do that. Just go home. Your folks won’t even ask where you been."
I turned and began walking on down the road. He called after me one last time, his voice soft and pleading, "Go home."
I heard Beau shut his car door, make a U-turn and go back the way he came. I cried and my tears mixed with snot and rain. My shoes filled with water and with each step they squished. I walked and I cried. My chest hurt. I walked and I cried. I walked and I cursed God. I beat my thighs with my fists. I cried and I prayed to God for forgiveness. I prayed to my mama and my daddy. I prayed to my little Jimmy. I prayed, “Please, understand. I was a fucked up girl. I am so sorry. Please, forgive me.”
Five miles is a long walk in the rain. It’s long enough to find yourself.
I was waiting outside the door when Jake turned the key in the lock of the Squeeze Inn. He smiled when he saw me leaning against the building.
"Girl, what are you doing out in this weather? Not that I ain't glad to see you."
"I got a proposition to make you."
"I been waitin a long time to hear you say that." He was grinning, but as he looked at me his expression became serious. "What kind of proposition have ya got in mind?"
"If I can stay sober for a month, would you like to take a little road trip with me?"
"I'm all for you getting sober. Where you wantin to go?"
"Back where I come from. They's some good people I'd like you to meet.”
Cecile Dixon is a retired emergency department nurse, who has returned home to her beloved Kentucky hills to pursue her writing. She holds an MFA from Bluegrass Writers Studio and her work has appeared in Tributaries, The Dead Mule, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, and Kentucky Herstory Anthologies.