Minnie collapsed on the green imitation leather couch and flipped on the Merle Haggard CD. She was whipped after the night at COUNTRY STEAK SHOPPE. Friday nights were murderous things with the all-you-can-eat chicken fried steak. People, mostly fat, the rest slobs, plus kids in shorts and flip-flops, lined up out the door. Her bunions screamed, but she kept delivering platters of mystery meat slathered with imitation cream gravy until the kitchen closed at nine.
Now she could try to recover as she nursed her bottle of vin rose. Her starched pink uniform, name tag, orthopedic nursey shoes and hairnet were scattered on the floor. She looked at her heavy breasts. Hey, you two, she said, we survived another night. Her belly was huge and she wished this wasn't so, but she too had eaten way too much of the make-believe banana pudding at the STEAK SHOPPE. For way too many months. It was fake stuff, not anything like Mamaw used to make at the farm. But Minnie believed that Merle would still love her if their starcrossed paths ever came together, even if she didn't know for sure if Merle liked his girls plump or skinny, and this heavy doubt made her so nervous she ate more and more pudding.
She was thinking about slimming down when she noticed the dark spot on her inner thigh. It was new. What had she done or run into to cause a bruise? She pulled her heavy white leg up as close as she could without hurting, and what she saw frightened her.
It was no bruise. It was a new strip center, just a few stores she could see so far. There was a five buck haircut joint, a fifty cent store, a used wig shop and a pizza place. The pizza place was so new their sign wasn't even up yet. She took a big sip of vin rose and, god help her, there was another strip center growing on her other thigh. This one was larger and, given the location, much more intimate. There was no zoning that she could see. There was a tanning place, a NAUGHTY-NEGLIGEES-R-US outfit, and a psychic reader that she imagined was a cover for something nasty. She could see people parking their cars in the brand spanking new parking lot and coming to the stores. She even recognized a few of them from church and the COUNTRY STEAK SHOPPE. And one woman she knew from AA. Beyond the strip centers, she could see new subdivisions reaching into and swallowing the fields. There were cars in driveways and kids riding bikes, teenagers selling drugs on corners and thieves carting things out of houses while people were away at work. She saw steeples of churches and admired them, but she also saw, what do you call it, a mosque, kinda like that castle at Disneyworld but not, where the suicide bombers lived. There were car repair stores and drive-thru donut shops. It was exhausting to see it all, and especially on her body, even in crevices where the sun don't shine. Mercy me, she said.
What's happening, she wondered. She wanted to know what was in that imitation cream gravy. It had to be that. Her vin rose had never let her down before. She looked closer to see if there was a new COUNTRY STEAK SHOPPE coming about, but so far there wasn't. Secretly she hoped there would be, one with a nicer manager than Bert, who farted and belched so much she was afraid her tips might suffer. She tried to flex the muscles in her thighs to see more, but she was too tired and fat, and she feared that the muscles had left town for good.
Merle, she said, I've only had one glass of vin rose, what's happening to me? But he crooned on in that crusty voice that always sent shivers up and down her spine. Her thighs always had the "Open" sign out for Merle, but she was afraid the new businesses would keep him away.
She was afraid to look at her inner arms. She feared more, and worse, discoveries. She couldn't look at her thighs again, but she could feel them growing, swelling up, as more stores opened.
Which was why she struggled so in the morning once she awoke and remembered she had volunteered to work Saturday lunch for Sandy, who needed to drive a hundred miles for an abortion. Saturday lunch was all about catfish, all-you-can-eat. She fought like hell to get her stockings on, but they ripped with all the new businesses coming about. Hell, she said, I'll just go without my nylons. She staggered to her battered Buick in the driveway and drove on the feeder all the way to the COUNTRY STEAK SHOPPE, where a line was already forming.
On the way there she surveyed her thighs again, balancing her mug of strong coffee and trying to keep her eyes on the road. That's when she noticed the psychic reader's store again. Now, out in front and for all and God to see, was a placard that read, "Psychic Assistant Required - Inquire Within."
Minnie almost drove off the road. This was a divine sign to her. She decided she would drive to that psychic store and apply for the job. Maybe it wasn't a cover for something nasty. Maybe she was just being prejudiced because of the way she felt about gypsies and their kind. Or, if it was something nasty, maybe she could get used to it. She wasn't getting any younger, and her Merle had never shown up in all the years she had worshipped him.
As she drove past the COUNTRY STEAK SHOPPE, she could see the line of people outside, waiting for the restaurant to open. It was like a shrine being overrun by zealous pilgrims. She saw Bert standing in the door, and she knew he was smelling up the foyer.
She sipped her coffee and didn't stop. She kept driving. She headed to the new parts of town. The New World. She kept one eye on the road and the other on her thigh, which she knew would lead her to her new life just a few miles away.
Christopher Woods lives in Houston and Chappell Hill, Texas.
He is the author of a novel, THE DREAM PATCH, a prose collection, UNDER A RIVERBED SKY, and a book of stage monologues for actors, HEART SPEAK. Presently he is working on a novel, HEARTS IN THE DARK, about a crazed radio talk show host and his victims in the American
underbelly. He is also a photographer.
Moonbird Hill Arts-