“Hey Carrie,” Rusty said, a grin on his wide red face. He raised his mesh baseball cap and scratched his blond hair with the bill.
“Hey Rusty,” Caroline said, coming out from the kitchen. She looked at the other woman and tried to suck her belly in without looking like she were trying to suck her belly in.
“Hi!” the woman said, lifting the long vowel sound up quite far before dropping it on back down again.
Caroline smiled and, without thinking, slumped her head--just a little--toward the floor.
“Hey-ey Joe!” Caroline said, trying to match the other woman’s candy voice and hearing the attempt fall flat instead. “What are you two up to?” Caroline asked, looking at Rusty.
Rusty turned from Joe to Caroline (had he been looking at Joe’s chest? her butt? does he like that green eyeshadow, that pink blush? that cute goddam way she has her hair done, sharp at her jaw, the grayblond streak runnin down the side?) He smiled, blinking his frogcolored eyes.
“Oh, uh,” he said, caught off guard (damn him damn him). “Yeah. We’s gettin ready to get the boys from day care and head on out to T-ball practice.” Rusty nodded as he spoke, his words drawling.
Caroline nodded and smiled.
“Okay,” she said, looking back at Joe, who stood there with her little jeweled hands on her tiny hips. “I get off here about eight. Practice’ll be over by then, huh?”
“Uh-huh!” Joe said. “But my boys want your boys to come over after practice and play. Would that be all right?”
Caroline smiled, not showing her teeth.
“Well . . . I wouldnt want you to have to put up with em . . .”
Joe made a shocked face and said “Ah!”, like she was mad at Caroline. She shooed at her with her little hand (unchipped nails).
“Now dont you worry! Theyre a delight, just a delight! And Randy’ll be there, and Rusty, too, right Rusty?”
Joe turned to look at Rusty, who looked at Caroline.
“Yeah, uhhh,” Rusty said. “Uh . . . me’n Randy’s talked about it, and, uhh, we been wantin, you know, to . . . uhh, drinkacouplebeers and, uhhh . . . talk about how the team’s doin. Whad’you think, Carrie?”
Caroline continued to smile.
“That’s fine with me, hon!” she said.
Caroline saw how the night would unfold, clear as prophecy: When I get off work, they wont be home. Him and the boysll still be over there. I’ll call and say Rusty whenre yall comin home? He’ll say soon, so I’ll sit and watch TV by myself, and an hour later I’ll call and he’ll still be there. I’ll ask when he’s gonna be home and he’ll get mad and say soon and hang up and make fun of me to Randy and Joe Troy both and the boys wont want to leave and theyll all be mad at me and theyll stay another hour. Theyll stay until I call and say, Rusty, why wont yall come home? and no matter how hard I try, I wont be able to not sound whiny. And Rustyll get mad and cuss me on the phone and embarrass himself in front of Joe and Randy and he’ll drink more beers and then he’ll come home yellin and I’ll yell and we’ll have us a big cussfight and the boys’ll get mad and scared and
“Okay!” Rusty said. He turned to Joe and smiled, she smiled back, and Caroline smiled at them both. He stepped forward to kiss Caroline on top of the head. Caroline knew her head had to smell of fried food and sweat, that funk no amount of shampoo had erased in fifteen years, and she cringed a little when he came close. But she just looked up at her husband and smiled.
“See you later, Care,” he said.
She batted her eyes. She wanted to flirt with him. She wanted to touch him in front of Joe Troy. She put her hands on his chest.
“Okay, hon.” She had a sudden flash of inspiration, a way to get them all home faster.
“Hey! I’ll go pick up a pizza for supper. Okay?” she said.
“Oh,” Rusty pulled away and coughed. He glanced at Joe. “Uh . . .”
“Oh!” Joe said, like an idea had hit her. “If you aint gonna get off until eight, and ball practice ends at six-thirty, I’ll just fix supper at the house and they can all eat with us. How’s that sound?”
Rusty looked at Caroline, his eyebrows lifting.
“Well, that sounds pretty easy, dont it?” he asked.
Caroline struggled to keep her face under control. Had they talked about this already? Did they have this all worked out? Was there a plan? Did these two plan something together?
My husband . . .
“Yeah, okay, sure. That makes more sense. I’ll just, uh, I’ll just eat something here before I go, you know,” she glanced back and forth from Rusty to Joe. “A salad, something.”
Joe nodded hearty approval, and Caroline felt a dozen cuts in her belly.
“Okay,” Rusty said. He smiled at Caroline, took a step back, his feet and body pointing toward the door. “We’d better run, hon. I’ll see you later on, okay?”
“Okay!” Caroline said, smiling. She wanted him to come back and touch her again, kiss her, do something, do anything, to show that she was his. But he just turned, walked to the door, opened it and held it--waiting for Joe.
“So good to see you, Caroline!” Joe said. She stepped forward and placed her fingers on Caroline’s arm. “We’ll have to get together sometime, you know?”
Caroline smiled, and nodded, and Joe turned and walked out the door. Caroline watched her meaty rear end sashay into the heat, and when she looked up, Rusty was walking away, leaving the door to the restaurant slightly, just slightly, open. The two got into the truck, laughing, happy, and drove away.
“That girl’s a sweetheart,” the cook said.
“That girl, that girl,” Caroline muttered, remembering a day back in high school. Caroline and her best friend, Aubrey, had been sitting in English class with Joe Troy (her last name was Branscom, then). They were talking about weight. Neither Caroline nor Aubrey were thin, but neither was very heavy either--Caroline’s fat days were ahead of her, and Aubrey’s were in the past (the boys in elementary school used to call her Chubrey). But Joe was thin; always had been, and always would be.
“I feel sorry for girls who are big,” Caroline had said.
“Yeah,” Aubrey agreed, careful not to say too much.
“Well,” Joe had said, “it aint easy bein skinny either! When people call me skinny or bony or twiggy, I just feel so bad! It feels just as bad to be called skinny as it does to be called fat!”
“That bad, huh?” Aubrey had deadpanned. Caroline had almost swallowed her tongue.
Caroline smiled at the memory, chuckling to herself at the flat way Aubrey had spoken, the halflidded, skeptical look in her face, and the oblivious gusto with which Joe had responded, elaborating on her claim even as both Caroline and Aubrey struggled not to laugh at the poor dumb girl.
Then Caroline felt sad. Been so long since I’ve even seen Aubrey--eight years, almost. Wonder how she’s doin up in Tulsa? Still workin for that energy company?
Caroline had wandered deeper into the kitchen, lost in thought, so she had not noticed the truck pull into the driveway. Hadnt noticed the man exit, hadnt seen him in the windows, and didnt know he was there until he opened the door. When he did, when he stepped into the diningroom and when Caroline could see him fully, he actually took her breath away.
*****Brian Ted Jones was born in Oklahoma in 1984. He is a graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, Jenne, and their son Oscar.