The loud fan started up and Caroline breathed deeply, enjoying the cool air, trying to calm down. She leaned over the sink, turned her face to the mirror, and sighed.
Caroline used to have long, beautiful, chestnut hair. But the Oklahoma summers, the hot stoves, the heat of labor, the necessity of constant washing to fight the fried funk--all this stacked up and finally convinced Caroline to cut it short, shoulderlength. She cried all day long and well into the night after the job was done. Rusty told her how much he liked it. Her mother, sisters and all of her friends told her how cute it looked. She got over the loss. But a small part of her felt guilty. Like she had betrayed herself, forsaken her mother’s countless hours of brushing, her own countless hours of washing and tending--all to keep her neck cool, while she waited tables.
Something caught her eye in the reflection, and her throat tightened up. There, punching through the layers of foundation, blush, grease, and sweat, at the right corner of her mouth, was a pimple. A big, fat, ugly whitehead. Obvious as all hell all day long to everyone who had seen her, to James and Rusty . . . to Joe.
A vibration, hot and sick, rushed up her insides. She snapped off the lights and savored the darkness for a moment before the vibration caught back up. She walked out of the bathroom, past the cook, past James Harshaw and out the door, startling the bells, not shutting the door all the way behind her and to holy hell with the air conditioning. Got inside her tiny red car. Started the engine and backed out without looking behind her. There was a bang and a shout, and her body was tossed forward. She turned to look, and saw that she had run right square into the side of the delivery girl’s car.
Both women were out, Caroline’s heart jumping into her throat.
“Why didnt you look where you was goin!”
“I’m sorry,” Caroline whispered.
“Well! You know your insurance is gonna pay for this!”
“Uh huh,” Caroline said. She thought of her premiums going up.
“What the hell was you doin leavin work, anyway!” “I dont know . . .”
“Shit, well . . . Shit! I’m leavin too! You cant make deliveries without a car!”
“You can use mine,” Caroline said, then, remembering what had happened, she added, “I mean, I can call Rusty, he can bring our truck for you to use . . .”
The delivery girl smirked.
“Then how’ll he and Joe Troy drive all them kids to T-ball?”
There had been some malice in the big girl’s question--a slight, undeniable meanness of tone, sure--but Caroline attacked her with a fury beyond all proportion. Haymaker to the eyeball, elbow to the breasts. The big girl fell back hard against her car, covering her face, shrieking. Caroline landed on her, hands clawing at her scalp. By the time the rage had subsided, James Harshaw had her in a full nelson and Louanne, the diner’s owner and boss--who had pulled into the parking lot during the attack--was holding the delivery girl and patting her screaming head.
“What in hell’s the matter with you?” Louanne yelled.
Caroline had nothing to say. It felt too good to be in James’s arms.
“You’re fired.” Louanne’s black eyes flashed. “Come on, Chantilly,” she said to the wailing delivery girl, walking her towards her own car. The two got in and drove out of the parking lot.
James let go of Caroline. By the time she’d turned around, he was back inside. She stood on the steaming gravel and watched him through the window. He left a five and two ones beside his plate (‘a cheap tip,’ she thought, more in hurt than resentment). He walked out of the restaurant and on to his truck without so much a glance in Caroline’s direction. He got in and drove away.
Caroline looked around at the skyline of weeds on each side of the parking lot, listening to the high sharp grasshopper sounds beyond. She moved slowly back, sat down on the hot concrete sidewalk, and began to cry.
Inside the kitchen, the cook tonged a piece of frybread out of the boiling grease and set it upon a napkin to let it cool and dry. She took a plastic, bear-shaped bottle of honey off the shelf behind her. With honey in one hand and bread in the other, she walked out of the restaurant to Caroline.
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.