It looked like a cheeseburger.
I tilted my head and squinted. Okay, not exactly like a cheeseburger, but the last cloud really had been shaped like a sundae. My stomach rumbled, and I patted it until it stopped. My trick was going to stop working soon, and then I’d be out of luck. I should have taken the free sandwich when I had the chance. Too bad swallowing your pride didn’t kill hunger pangs.
The sun was still bright. The hood of the car warmed the backs of my legs as I stretched out against the windshield. Ethan used to love to sit on the hood of the car and watch the clouds or count the baby ducks as they trailed behind their mama.
But he’d been little back then, and a day at the park is the highlight of your week when you’re four-years-old and fascinated by the ducklings. Duckwings, he’d called them. Baby duckwings. My stomach rumbled again, and I took a deep breath. Perhaps I could Zen my way out of starvation.
The diner across the street wasn’t helping. The burgers smelled divine. Divine and juicy; perfectly seared and a little pink on the inside. Served on fluffy buns toasted golden, with melted cheese and crispy lettuce and fries so hot they burned your tongue–
Oh, knock it off.
I hopped off the car. I’d spent three days making and freezing meals. I’d made so many soups and stews and casseroles my stomach had begun to wretch at the very thought of having to eat them, too. Now I was stuck in the middle of nowhere without so much as a granola bar, and now it demanded sustenance? I slid in the front seat as another rumble escaped my tummy. I poked at it.
“Three days’ worth of casseroles you missed–so pipe down.”
I pulled the bills from the center console–just in case I’d counted wrong the first time. I hadn’t. David had “rules for the road” he still made me follow. He’d made a show of pulling a stack of cash from his wallet while giving me the standard lecture about my never being prepared. Then he peeled off the smaller bills and shoved them in my hand. I muttered thank you, and he smiled as he put the $20s back into his wallet.
There was seventeen dollars. Seventeen. It might have been enough to get a half tank of gas or a meal–but not both. I shouldn’t complain–it was seventeen more dollars than I’d had otherwise. I should be grateful–it’s what David would want.
I glanced from one side of the road to the other. This was the perfect place to contemplate my life choices; a gas station on one corner, a diner on another, and what at one time must have been a thriving corner store on the last. I was in the parking lot of a motel that boasted the “cheapest rates this side of Snake River.”
It could’ve doubled as the set of any number of slasher films, with dark rows of dusty windows and room numbers faded against chipped paint. The “vacancy” sign creaked on one hinge, an ominous welcome. It appeared their entire business model was based on a horror theme.
I rested my forehead on the steering wheel. It wouldn’t have been a big deal to go back in and ask the man in the pink shirt for help–he seemed nice enough. Or try to make my way back to the gas station where I’d left my wallet and hope someone had turned it in. I’d lose a day’s travel at most. Or I could have–
I needed to be strong. People disappeared into the wilderness all the time and survived on nothing more than gumption, a paperclip, and working knowledge of poisonous plants. And urine–occasionally, there was a story that included someone drinking their own urine. But I had a car, and cars beat paperclips, so there needn’t be any drinking of urine. I’d be fine if I could get through a few days.
I turned the radio on and dialed through static until I landed on something clear. A Dolly Parton song filled the car, her voice bright but desperate, pleading with Jolene not to steal her man. I used to love that song. I’d pretend it had been my emerald eyes and a fiery mane she envied, and I was the temptation that threatened all common sense. I wanted a voice like a summer rain–one that would make men fall so madly in love with me they would talk about me in their sleep. But that wasn’t me. I just made men fall asleep.
I was never the exciting one. Everything about me was a perpetual before picture. And I have never lured anyone’s boyfriend away from anything–not even my own. And I tried. One day I’d borrowed pom-poms Candy still had from high school and did my best cheerleader impression–naked. He’d jumped from the couch and pulled me away from the TV, yelling that I’d made him miss the kickoff. I’d been mortified and humiliated. Hard to believe I went ahead and married him anyway.
I touched my fingers to the roots of my hair. One of the other class moms said I was lucky–the gray was blending nicely into the dishwater blonde, turning it from murky to mousey. I might have added the “murky and mousey” part, but she had said I was lucky since color upkeep wasn’t going to be a thing I needed to worry about. I think it was a compliment. Maybe. I shoved a stray curl behind my ear without looking in the rearview mirror. I was never going to be a Jolene.
But I would be stuck in this little town if I didn’t figure out a plan. I weighed my options again; one corner offered gas, beer, and cigarettes at state minimum pricing. The opposite one hinted at a hot meal and heartburn to match. The corner store promised fresh milk and live bait, according to the hand-painted signs. The corner I was on foretold of a gruesome death I likely could have avoided had it not been for a series of ill-advised choices and blatant disregard for some not-so-subtle foreshadowing.
I took one of the bills from the center console and headed for the corner store.
It, too, looked like a movie set; overgrown weeds tangled around the posts of the covered porch. Weathered steps led to a set of doors, and bells, still flecked with silver, hung in front of the screens. Rocking chairs faced each other, the chessboard between them left mid-game. A phonebook dangled from a chain attached to the payphone, its pages faded and tattered.
The bell clanged, and I looked up, half expecting to see Atticus Finch saunter out and ask me if I’d seen which way Scout had run off to. It was a teenager, earbuds in, head bouncing to the music, cracking open an energy drink. Not Scout, and not Gregory Peck. The ice machine sat along the wall, clattering away in a rather upbeat death march. I doubted the ice was really only a nickel.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the light. There was no rhyme or reason to the layout; it was as if everything had been shoved to wherever it fit, or wherever there had been an outlet. At the front stood the only register, a relic that still “ching-ed” every time the man running it pushed a button, which wasn’t often by the looks of it.
He pulled his glasses to his forehead and squinted at the can. “What’s that say?”
“I don’t know, Merv. I can’t see it.” The woman tipped her head back and peered down her nose. “How much did you put on the pork and beans?”
He shrugged. “Didn’t know we had pork and beans.”
She waved the can away from her face. “Just charge me something.”
His glasses fell back to the bridge of his nose. “How much’d you pay last time you bought pork and beans?”
“Why–I don’t know.” The woman looked down like it was written on her shoe. “Seventy-nine cents?”
“Seventy-nine cents sounds fair.” He studied the register. “Let’s see–there’s the point, and I think that’s the seven…”
I’d had enough; I made my way to the aisle marked ‘headache remedies’ and grabbed the cheapest box of aspirin I could find. I passed the hot-dogs rolling on the cooker, turning just a touch brown and crispy. My stomach growled, and I turned away. I didn’t have money for both a hot dog and aspirin.
Merv had moved on to a can of lima beans by the time I returned. The woman was bagging her groceries, gingerly placing each item beside the last.
“You need one of those scanner things like they have at the Walmart,” she said.
Merv pushed his shoulders back, his dowager’s hump smaller in the folds of his dress shirt, and glared over the top of his glasses.
“Elva Luella Richards, I’ve been keying groceries in for fifty-four years. If you like them fancy scanners so much, then get yourself down to the Walmart.”
Elva stopped bagging, her mouth open. “I just meant…”
“I know what you meant.” He turned to me and shoved the can up to my face. “What’s that say?”
I tried to read the faded sticker. I wanted to check the expiration date more.
“A dollar-twenty-nine?” Elva stopped bagging again. “You’re crazy! I’m not paying a dollar-twenty-nine for that. Merv, she’s crazy if she thinks I’m paying that.”
Merv stared at the can a moment, then lifted an eyebrow. “That really say a dollar-twenty-nine?”
“Huh. Must’ve been the new guy–must’ve been the new guy, Elva. But it’s on sale today–seventy-nine cents.” He peered at the keyboard. “There’s the point, and I think that’s the seven…” He glanced at me. “Don’t ‘spose you see the seven, do you?”
I reached up and pushed the worn number.
“How ’bout that, there it is.” He chuckled. “And the nine?”
The nine was more faded than the seven and harder to push. He slid the lima beans over and handed me the next item.
“Would you mind? The new guy didn’t work out so well.”
He stepped aside, and I resisted the urge to ask if there were any other sales I needed to know about. I finished ringing up her items and thanked the Patron Saint of Sales Tax that I hadn’t needed to figure that out, too. I handed back her change and noticed that she’d stopped bagging altogether. Apparently, I’d become a full-service Good Samaritan.
“You are so kind,” she said as I started bagging her items. “And fast!”
“Had to pay for college somehow.”
“College?” she smiled again and patted my arm. “Maybe you can go back and finish up one day.”
I said nothing. The bell clanged, and the screen door banged shut behind her. I followed her out, grocery bags in my arms. I didn’t stop her when she gave me a dollar for a tip–I’m assuming for that college fund she thought I needed.
I went back to pay for my aspirin, but another customer had taken my place in line.
“New girl, Merv?” the man asked through a jowl full of tobacco.
“Yep.” Merv was studying the keyboard again.
I shook my head and got in line behind him. “I’m just buying aspirin.”
Merv looked at me from over his glasses. “You’ll want the one in the yellow box then. That’s the one I take when my arthritis kicks up. It’s the only one that works.”
“I didn’t see a yellow box.”
“We’re out.” He went back to pecking at the register. “Be in Thursday.”
“Where’s the new guy?” Tobacco Man asked.
“Moved on, I reckon.”
Tobacco Man shook his head. “Ain’t your year, Merv. And Lydia not here to help.”
“Nope. Good Lord knows I sure could use some.” He turned to the man and pretended to whisper. “Can’t even tie my own shoes no more. I had to get them Velcro ones. Best she can’t see ’em–she hated Velcro shoes.” Merv put his hand over his heart. “God rest her soul.”
Tobacco Man snatched his cap from his head. “God rest her soul.”
Merv was looking at me from the corner of his eye. I scowled at him, and he went back to studying the register.
“Just gotta get through to Thursday,” he said. “I used to get by with just coffee and a bit a gumption. I reckon that’s gonna have to do me ’til Thursday.”
“God always provides. He’ll send you the answer to your prayers.” Tobacco Man rocked back on his heels; his thumbs hooked into his suspenders. “One way or ‘nuther, He always does.”
I sighed, grabbed his roll of chewing tobacco, and rang him up.
“You train her already, Merv?”
“No need, she’s college-trained.”
“Dang.” Tobacco Man stared at me. “A college-trained woman working at the corner store. This is progress, Merv.”
I counted back his change. “This is not progress.”
Tobacco man chuckled. “Darlin’, you have no idea. A college-trained woman working here is exciting, Merv.”
“Plenty exciting, Clive.”
Great. I was finally exciting to two old men in a dusty corner store.
Tobacco Man grinned at me. “What’s your name, new girl?”
Merv studied me over the top of his glasses. I felt my heart freeze in my chest as the panic began to build.
I could tell them my name, or I could tell them nothing at all. I didn’t have to answer–I wasn’t playing by the rules today, remember? Today was the day I threw expectations and caution, and my phone, to the wind and said screw it. Today I was free. Today I was… exciting.
“Jolene,” I said. “My name is Jolene.”
“Huh.” Tobacco Man shrugged, took his bag, and walked out the door.
“Funny,” Merv said, picking up a feather duster. “You don’t strike me much as a Jolene.”