The man wore jeans and boots and a green teeshirt that framed his solid, V-shaped trunk. The sleeves ended midway down his arms and stretched across his thick, dimpled biceps. He had dark hair; clean strands of it fell across his forehead. His shoulders were broad, his skin tan and healthy. When she saw him, it was like Caroline were staring at a picture in a magazine. He had a book in his hands. Caroline watched him as he looked around the diningroom.
Suddenly, she realized who he was.
That’s James Harshaw! I went to high school with him! But could that really be him? He was such a scrawny thing back then! Good god, where has he been? What’s happened to him?
“Get on out there,” the cook said. Caroline jumped and spun.
“I said get on out there. Quit hidin.”
Caroline opened her mouth, affronted.
“I am not hiding!”
“Yes you are,” the cook said, wiping her hands on her gray workshirt. “I seen that man. You get out there and take his order.”
Caroline glared at the cook, then turned to take another peek into the diningroom. James had taken a seat in a corner booth. He glanced around, looking a little bewildered at the emptiness, then opened his book and began to read. Caroline took a deep breath, straightened her clothes, smoothing them out. She grabbed a menu off the stack and walked over.
James looked up when she came out, frowned, and then his face lit up.
“Caroline! How are you?”
Caroline froze as he stood, stepped forward, and wrapped her in a hug. Her heart began to beat so fast she felt embarrassed, sure that James would feel it.
“Hi, James!” she said, when he’d pulled away and smiled at her. She began to blush, and while a part of her didnt want James ever to take his strong, goodsmelling arms away, she wanted her distance. She smelled like hamburger, her hair didnt look good, and she hadnt checked her makeup in an hour.
James stepped away and folded his arms across his chest. Caroline smiled at him and blinked. The little guy with the skinny arms, the pimples, the guy who’d never played football? That was this man, standing here in front of her, in this big, clean, gorgeous body? She found she had nothing to say, and panicked, and said the first thing that popped into her head.
“So . . . uh, what can I get for you?”
James’s face shifted. He looked put off by the abruptness. Then he smiled--‘oh well’--and pointed at the menu.
“I dont need that Caroline,” he said. “I’ll just have a bacon cheeseburger and an iced tea.”
Caroline nodded and smiled.
“Okay,” she said, and nothing else.
Why am I being so distant? Why am I being so rude?
James looked uncomfortable standing up. Caroline hadnt turned to walk away yet, so the two of them just stood there, awkwardly, the useless menu in Caroline’s hand.
“Um, what are you doing down here in Talihina?” she finally asked. “I hadnt heard anything about where you were livin . . .”
Caroline trailed off, and blushed, but James looked relieved that he’d asked her something he could talk about.
“Yeah, I’m just down visiting my folks. I teach in a little college up in Maryland.”
Caroline’s eyes bulged a little. Maryland? She wasnt exactly sure where that was, but it sounded far away.
“Wow, that must be . . .”
She couldnt think of an adjective.
James nodded and sat down.
“Yeah, well. I enjoy it,” he said, sliding further into the booth and reaching for the book he’d been reading.
He’s done with me.
“What’re you reading?” she asked, before she knew she was going to.
James looked up at her, then down at the big blue book.
“Oh, uh, it’s for school.” He cleared his throat and blushed, just a little.
There he is, Caroline thought. There’s the guy I remember. She felt an odd comfort, a feeling like she had the upper hand.
“Oh?” she asked, craning her neck to read the title.
“Yeah,” James said. He coughed into his fist. “It’s, uh . . . War and Peace.”
This made Caroline angry. She looked annoyed at James, even before she could stop herself. James blushed darker and looked down at the book, then back at Caroline. He smiled and flipped the book open. Caroline said nothing else, and James began to read. She scrambled through her memory, wanting to keep his attention, looking for something, anything at all, which would give her something else to say.
And before she had time to consider, censor, or reject this story, she was already telling it.
“One time my momma . . .” she began.
James looked up, and if he were annoyed, it didnt show.
“She had this cyst . . .”
THIS is what I’m telling him.
Disaster. But there was no turning back.
“And Dr. Parker, you know, the one who works at the hospital?” she asked.
James’s cheeks lifted. A forced smile, a nod. Caroline blushed.
“Well, she asked Dr. Parker how to get rid of it, and he said . . .” Caroline began to laugh, fakely.
“He said the best way he’d found to do it was to get a real big book and drop it right on top, you know, of the cyst.”
Her laughter got bigger, more grand. James was quiet, polite, interested.
Caroline said, “and she asked him, ‘well, for a cyst this big, how big a book would that take?’”
Caroline put her hand on her waist, cocked her hip, and raised her voice. As if putting more of herself into the story would make it all seem less embarrassing.
“And he said, ‘Oh-h-h . . .’”
Caroline pretended to be nearly overcome with laughter, in order to hide how deeply she was blushing.
“‘For a cyst this big,’” she said, “‘I’d say War an Peace oughtta do it.’”
A beat after the punchline, and James widened his eyes, opening his mouth.
“Oh--” he said, and then began to shake his shoulders up and down, imitating a chuckle. It was so forced as to look nearly grotesque. Caroline continued her own pantomime of amusement, heaving, growing redder and redder, hand placed upon her upper chest in a figure of ladylike mirth. The two continued these laughter charades for nearly ten more seconds.
“Oh!” Caroline said finally, pretending to catch her breath. “Whew! Well. I’ll go put in that order for you,” she said.
James smiled, the skin around his eyes strained from his efforts at smiling. “Thank you.”
Caroline walked back to the kitchen, wrapped in depression.
“Bacon cheeseburger french fries,” she mumbled to the cook.
“I liked that story,” the cook said.
Caroline continued past the cook and into the bathroom, closing the door sharply behind her.
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.