sausage biscuits and sweet tea

The early morning fog matched her mood, clinging thick to the trees on Highway 21. The radio showed 6:33, the blinking colon in the middle counting time to a rhythm different from the beat of the pop song playing over the flat screechy rear speakers. Four more hours to go. The overnight energy drinks were wearing off, and she knew she’d need to stop soon. A sausage biscuit and a quick catnap would be good. But she knew sleep wouldn’t come. Not right now. A bathroom break would help. But honestly, just getting home would be it’s own reward right now, for what it’s worth…

Driving home, quite honestly, was something she thought she would never do. Never have to do. Never want to do. She had been gone too long, made too much of herself, to consider the possibility. When she’d left, she’d meant it for good. But now on this souped in stretch of highway, she gave herself permission to consider the implications of going back home, of pulling into the driveway, of knocking on the door after crossing the wide wooden porch filled with lazy summertime memories and rainy damp sadness.

She pulled into a Hardee’s parking lot. Out of the car, quick restroom break to clear her body of the dregs of her sugared and caffeinated buzz, washing the crust off from the drive so far. She splashed in the sink, water going up her nose a little, making her reflex a messy sneeze. She wiped her face and the mirror. The person staring back wasn’t the same one who’d made the drive away from home before. This was a different person, someone who’d been through it and still needed to wipe the yuck off. She noticed it mostly in the eyes, always self-considered her best feature, now with a little less lustre, a little more depth, a little murkiness mixed into the deep blue around her dialated pupils.

She ordered a sausage biscuit and a sweet tea, less than five dollars, not a huge bite out of the twenty-seven and change she’d been able to scrounge from the sofa cushions, the floorboards and Eddie’s wallet before leaving. She was thankful at least to be in a land where “sweet tea” still meant something. Leaving the South to make her own way, she’d just never developed the taste for unsweetened tea. The thought had never occurred to her: that drastically uprooting life might take away sweet tea. You just don’t factor the little things into the equation. As she sipped the sweet Ambrosia of the Gods, she felt a prayer of thanksgiving rise up in her blessed little heart…

“Bless her little heart” – she knew how most conversations in her absence would have been going. She sat in a corner booth with her sweet glorious nectar and her sausage biscuit, thinking of the times she had called home to just let someone know she was okay. Those “conversations” rarely went as planned. When it was her Dad answering the phone, that was a conversation. Anyone else, like her brother, or his wife, or… anyone else and “checking in” quickly detiorated into Let’s Interrogate Alex, the game she had left town to escape in the first place. “Bless her little heart” was the euphemism of choice, standing in for the less polite “she’s such a damned fool” in the deep sweet tea loving South.

She missed her Dad. It was the only reason she was coming back, even if, in too many ways, it was the only reason she’d left in the first place. Momma had passed away when Alex was in seventh grade, a difficult enough time in a girl’s life. But Daddy had done the best he could, and she deeply loved and respected her father for that. It hurt to say goodbye, knowing she was driving a stake in his heart through her own tears, his tears, their last hug before getting in her car, driving off, not looking back. He would never get into the “bless her little heart” talk that backstabbed the one being “blessed”. He would only wish her well, remind her if she needed a bed, they’d have one handy and ready, and that he loved her very much, always will.

She knew it had been love. She knew it had been devotion, affection, fatherly warmth and protection. At the time, though, she felt caged, enclosed, and she needed space, her space, adventurous space to stretch and run and grow the way she felt was right. She still needed space, but now… she sighed and hoped some of the other was still there, too.

She took the last bite of her biscuit, realizing she needed to go to the restroom to wipe her face again, telling herself not to forget a refill on the sweet tea before hitting the road again. Before driving home again. Before seeing Daddy again and trying to set things right.

SEVEN YEARS AGO
He was pretty sure there was nothing he could do to stop what was transpiring before him. His baby girl had packed her Honda CRV with all her earthly possessions, ready to head out on her own adventure.

The black car matched her dark wardrobe, matched her lightless eyes. She was rebelling, and he was going to let her. Everything in his heart screamed to wake up, to ditch the nightmare playing out in the driveway. It seemed like the breeze was alive, whisking her away. The birds were quiet, transfixed with the scene. Or they were conspiring, beady bird eyes watching every move to make sure all went according to…

The timing was bad. This should not be happening. Not now, not like this. But there she is, looking older and more mature than he realized, beautiful and headstrong like her mother. At least that part of this felt right. Her Mom would’ve done the same thing. Heck, for all he knew, she HAD done the same thing in leaving home and marrying him. But not like this.

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the dinner party

To say that things had changed since the dinner plans had been made would be an understatement. A week ago, the world was a different place. The birds were singing. Autumn was taking over from summer. Network TV was kicking off the new fall line-ups of shows that would be cancelled in a month’s time anyway. Baseball was winding down as football was hitting its weekly stride. There were no warnings of alien invasion.

A week later, and the thing you noticed most was that the birds were gone. No singing, not flitting around, no Canadian geese crossing the road up by the subdivision’s pond, nothing. No birds. They had been the first planetwide casualties. We’re still not sure ecologically what that will mean for the future, or why they all succumbed so suddenly, so early in the week. Autumn was still happening – even freakish cataclysmic war can’t stop seasonal change; at least we didn’t think it had, not yet anyway. Network TV was a different beast today, mostly news from what was left, from who was left. Baseball would not end this season. Quite frankly football was not high on anyone’s agenda, though there was talk of re-grouping and reorganizing something with fewer professional teams later, but that was months if not a few years down the road.

Tonight’s dinner party had been synced on google calendars last week, just a night for our group of friends to get together at our house. There were six of us, two couples and one single who was bringing his new friend for everyone to meet. It had grown to three couples and five singles, eleven in all, and that was the way these things typically worked out. It’s one of the things I’ve grown to love about our little scheduled/spontaneous get-togethers over the years. But in a week’s time, the world can change. And our eleven friends and acquaintances getting together for nachos and dinner and a ballgame had morphed into five survivors wondering if the calendar event on their iphones would still be on or not.

Of course it was still on. It had to be, right? Coffee was on, even if the ballgame wouldn’t be. And everyone had something to talk about.

pencil tapping

The pencil had a mind of its own. Or rather, a soul of its own. A groove that it continued to hammer on the desk. A thinking beat, a thump-thump-thump-thump in rhythm with his heartbeat, with his anxiety, with his dread over this poem due in the morning.

He stared at the blank paper, mouthing an empty epithet at his dad for not letting him type out his rough draft. At the PC, at least there was an Internet to help, to distract, to entertain. At the kitchen table there was nothing but this blasted pencil with the happy feet. The smell of coffee was strong in the kitchen, too. He hated coffee. And the lingering aroma of dinner, just KFC chicken and fixin’s, and it had been so good… thump thump thump thump the eraser kept time to his thoughts and digestive gyrations.

He wrote in big heavy-handed script. “My Poem”, dead center of the top of the white college-ruled page. It was a start. Thump thump and he knew that starting was probably the worst thump thump of it, almost thump thump looking forward to the assignment. But he wouldn’t tell thump thump his dad.

midweak

The calendar said Wednesday, but of course it felt like a Monday. It's always Monday lately. He looked down at his watch. 8:32am. Early for the nine o'clock meeting, still feeling the lingering yuck of the night before.

The bistro was almost empty, save himself and a little old lady at the counter trying to decide which danish to buy. Cheese? Apple? You know, the apples in the northeast part of the state are so juicy this time of year. Oh dear… it went on and on as the level of his venti quad macchiato got lower and lower in his eco-friendly recycled paper cup.

8:46am. Impatient, he thought to himself.

driving home

Her greyish Honda was steady enough, moreso than her own inner workings. The interstate was comforting somehow, I-20 East towards the coast of South Carolina. It was early. The morning commuters in the big city were encroaching on her space, adding a bit of claustrophobic anxiety. But she didn't blame them. They had lives, had jobs, had things to do, people to see, dreams to lose, too.

It was quiet in the car. No radio, just the steady hum of the engine and a clicking sound that had started sporadically when she crossed the state line. The boy was asleep in the backseat, drooling on his blanket, hat pulled down over his forehead. She knew it was tough on him, packing up and leaving friends and school and homework. That made her smile. He wouldn't miss homework. They would start over, she hoped. And it would be better. Easier. That made her frown. No, not easier. She knew that.

The cars coming onto the freeway from the ramps were whisking around her. She had the cruise control set at just over the speed limit, and she wasn't in a hurry. But they were. She teared up a little. I remember when I was in a hurry. I remember what that bought me. I remember… she thought. Recollected. Sighed.

They were two hours from the coastline. One hundred twenty minutes from whatever was "next" in their lives. No one knew she was coming back home. And she knew that would be okay. And hard. She knew it would be hard.

blinkers & left turns

The late model Chevy in front of me had been flashing left left left for the past fourteen miles. Traffic wasn't bad, just full, as we were all driving home from a long day at work. Or at least, I was driving home from a long day at work. Thinking the best of my fellow drivers, I assumed they had been working hard all day, too. But I knew that some had been at work, that some had been at school, that come may have been engaged in criminal activities, that others were probably hiding from their pasts. But on this stretch of interstate we were all at least heading in the same direction. And I just happened to be behind Mr. Old Geezer in the rusty green Chevy trying to make a perpetual left into the median.

Left left left. It was a rapid blink, which I had learned over the years meant that his front blinker was out. The electrical circuit ran fast because this was the only light on the grid as far as it was concerned. Probably didn't make a sound inside, either blown out there, too, or his 89-year-old ears weren't able to pick it out of the surrounding highway road noise and the blaringly loud right-wing AM radio from the dash. I concocted a whole backstory for Mr. Geezer as I less-than-patiently drove behind him the length of my evening commute. His 50-yr-old trophy wife was probably waiting on him at home with their 2.5 grandkids, babysitting for his deadbeat son who was out of town for a few weeks on "business" but really trying to score a "new mommy" for those kids. I felt bad, thinking so small of this gentleman in frontt of me, until the left turn blink blink blink brought me back to my own version of reality. Where was I? Oh yes – he was coming home from his long day at the office, too – the back office of some small realtor's shop where he had scammed a widow out of her last dimes on a mortgage she couldn't afford. We was working because his own nest egg had been sucked dry by the parole board, by the trophy wife, by the son who couldn't keep a job, by the leeching grandkids and their ipods and video games.

Left left left. I saw myself in however many years. Driving the same way, hopefully not leaving my own blinker flashing in a direction I couldn't turn for some bored commuter behind me to make fun of on his own way home. I tried to think happier thoughts, actually wished the old man well, his wife well, his kids well as he made it home safely and surely and with a busted front turn signal on the driver side. I wished him well, not knowing it was my last thought before the flash of white, before the rushing energy blew the paint off my own late model Honda, before the explosion blew me into the back of the Chevy, blew us both to the left a bit if I remember straight, and into eternity.

Aroma

“What’s that smell?” the patron in lane five wanted to know. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and all the turkeys are gone, ninety percent of the canned cranberry sauce, three-fourths of the hand. Slim pickin’s as folks run in and out of the store trying to find the missing ingredients to life and Aunt Edna’s special dressing recipe.

The cashier smelled it, too. A smile surprised her face, remembering the little lady about three hours early. She had needed three onions, that’s all, just three to throw into her stuffing for the family. She wore too much makeup, had on clothes too classy for a grocery store. And she smelled of old baby powder. It was a lingering smell, an aroma that evidently had left its mark.

“Just some baby powder, ma’am. Sorry if it’s too strong.”

“No no. It’s okay. Just reminded me of someone.”

“Me, too,” she smiled. “So, paper bags okay for today?”