First few chapters.
I’ve tried to get over the thud in my gut that came when I had to turn tail and come back home. Something I swore I’d never do. The day I turned eighteen, I tried to join the Navy to see the world. With no boogie men like Hitler and Mussolini left in the world, there wasn’t a real high demand for solders, but I went on and joined anyway so that I could be anywhere but here.
The Navy said I had a weak heart, a murmur. Nothing to worry about the moonfaced nurse promised as she stamped my file with thick black ink. REJECTED. My next physical, I coughed like I had the pleurisy and not just when I was supposed to. But the Marines, the Army, and the Air Force were all wise to that trick. Even the Coast Guard passed on me.
I was so torn up after that, I did the only thing I could do, I came back home to Round O. That was six years ago and ever since then, I believe I can hear my defect mocking me. It happens on days like today when there’s a little breeze in the air, when the sky is fresh out of clouds, and “The Halls of Montezuma” sounds like a real place I’ll never see from this hell hole.
I used to wish this town was the real Round O in Texas, but it’s not. It’s just some podunk town in South Carolina where people live and die without much in between. My life is as redundant as the name of this town. But I’d rather die than wallow in public pity. Most days I wake up and try to picture my life different. I figure if I try hard enough, I can make it so. Every time I turn an egg or a hoe cake on this griddle, I picture my life turning, changing into something more than six days a week at the Sit Down Diner. Unfortunately, today is not one of those days.
“Two eggs. Spank them yolks. Grits, extra butter. Biscuits. Bacon.” Tiny likes that her booming voice startles me. She seems to get a motherly kind of satisfaction out getting my mind back on the griddle. “Today is just like yesterday, Shug.” I give her a dirty look and she runs her hand through her hair so that only I can see that she’s giving me the finger. “Who stomped on your biscuits this morning?”
I nod at the order she’s put on the carousel and crack an egg with each hand; they settle onto the griddle and begin to harden. Tiny pops her gum and looks at me, waiting for a wisecrack but I’m fresh out of snappy comebacks.
“You better spank those eggs and fry them hard or you’ll be doing ‘em again.”
I glance up at another order and see the veiled image of a woman through the screen door. The morning sun outlines her small frame. I don’t have to see her face to know she’s beautiful. I picture her opening the door. I flip a salmon croquette over. It sizzles and I imagine loving her the minute I lay eyes on her.
I know that sounds trite. Working ten hour days at the diner, I don’t use words like trite. But it’s a good word to describe the work I do, this place, hell, the whole town. We are commonplace, as stale as yesterday’s mackerel.
My heart pounds. The murmur doesn’t sound like it usually does, sloshy, like an old wringer washing machine on it’s last leg. No, can I feel the sound of each chamber opening and closing, strong, like a big base drum beating for the woman behind the screen.
Joe Pike clears his throat in a nasty guttural sort of way that always makes the ladies cringe and even turns heads at the back table where the truckers usually sit. What if she’s already in love? What if she’s not but can never love me back? The thoughts make the rejection the Navy and the rest of the armed services doled out petty, almost laughable.
I guess if I was a praying man, I’d beg God to let her stand here on the other side of forever and let me love her from my kitchen. But me and God have been on the outs for a long time.
She hesitates a moment like she is rethinking the sameness of her own life. She stands in the threshold for so long, I panic like maybe there is a god. And if there is, I’m in trouble from thumbing my nose up at him for a multitude of sins, some of them my own. That last thought lays into me like a good stiff punch, and I almost drop the heavy skillet I yanked off the back burner the moment I saw her.
The door opens slowly. Even from my cubbyhole her face is luminous, and trust me, that is a word you will never hear used about women in this town, no matter how old or young they might be. Still, seeing her standing there, backlit by the promise of a new day; she takes my breath away.
She looks surprised, maybe even a little embarrassed that Tiny knows she is new in town. She blushes as Tiny sets about taking her order and prying into her business. My daddy used to bawl Tiny out for being such a busybody. After he left the diner to me, there are times when I get on the old woman good for being so nosey, but not today.
“Need a minute?” The woman shakes her head and Tiny seems satisfied with the woman’s bashful answers that can’t be heard above the clatter. I want to holler out from the kitchen for everyone to shut up so I can hear her voice.
“Crab cakes, grits, and tea–with milk of all things.” Tiny winks at me and I try not to beg her for another morsel. “Single.” She belts out the word and whirls the carousel so hard the the tickets nearly fly off.
If I wasn’t so elated over the woman’s marital status, I’d be mortified by Tiny’s lack of discretion. “Vada.” Tiny half mouths half says under her breath. “Vada Hadley.”
I feel my insides bursting, every cell careening around my body crashing into one another, screaming her name. Straight away I scoop up a handful of crab cake I mixed up around five this morning but then I throw it back in the bowl. I should make Vada a new batch, make sure they’re the best damn crab cakes she’s ever had. But that might take too long.
A bead of sweat drops off of my forehead and I miss catching it before it falls into the bowl because I am distracted by the way she holds her tea cup with two hands. Her elbows perch on the table in a way make it look like perfect etiquette.
She finishes her tea, adjusts the little chain that keeps her sweater around her shoulders. She shifts around in the booth like maybe she’s rethinking her decision to stop here for a bite to eat. She looks around this place, back toward the part of the building that is both general store and post office. Her gaze settles on the screen door.
I scoop up two handfuls of my daddy’s secret recipe and throw them on the griddle with a little extra butter. In four minutes they are on a plate beside lumpy stone ground grits with a little puddle of yellow butter in the center.
Tiny puts the plate on her forearm that has hardened over the years into the serving position by arthritis and repetition. A carafe of hot water for more tea dangling from her good arm. I pray that the cakes are done enough as Tiny strolls her way toward the table.
“Frank won’t brag, but his crab cakes are the best in the Low Country. Won’t tell a soul what the secret ingredient is.”
Vada smiles and nods like she agrees before she’s had a the first bite. Even from here I can see that her hands are pale and soft. Her lips part for the fork. I imagine them parting for my lips. She makes the face I want to see every day for the rest of my life. Scrunched up like a young girl’s, blissful like a woman’s. Her shoulders raise and then lower slowly in approval as she takes another bite.
“Your hoe cakes are burning,” a voice says from the counter. Old Joe Pike is pointing to his coffee cup. “Even when Tiny was running her mouth, your daddy never let nobody’s coffee cup go empty. Burned them things good, you did. Serves you right.”
I should throw him out of here, but the crusty old bastard knows I won’t. I give him the eye again and bark out an order. “Tiny. Order up. And get Joe some more coffee. Pronto.” He gives me the eye right back to let me know him and me will never be square.
I snatch the cake off the griddle barehanded and toss it into the waste bin. My finger tips throb hard in perfect time with my selfish heart that has kept me in this awful town for one reason.
“You’ll have to talk to the boss man.” Tiny nods toward me and winks. “He rents the post boxes. Are you month to month or are you going to be here for a while?”
All sounds ceases in the diner and every customer turns to listen. Vada looks around the restaurant; everyone is frozen, waiting for her answer. Her eyes are the truest shade of blue I have ever seen. She blushes again and pushes a strand of wispy blonde hair behind her ear.
“For the school year at least. I’m a teacher.”
The clatter returns in a gush and I can’t make out what she is saying. All I know is that breakfast is almost over and in twenty minutes, I’ll be face-to-face with my own true love.
The waitress seems nice and, with the exception of the scowling old man at the counter, all of the people who stop to listen to her give me the third degree have kind faces. Still, her inquisition makes me blush hard. I don’t have to look in a mirror to know the embarrassment is traveling down my neck, under the bodice of my sundress. Even my arms are pink. As soon as I say I’ll be here for the school year, I know I’ve made a huge mistake. But it’s too late. The diner noise gushes back like a giant wave, and every soul in here is satisfied that they know my business.
My stomach pulses to match the ache in my chest over the lies I just told about who I am and where I come from. While I am sure leaving home was the right thing to do, my body hungers for the trappings of my old life. I should kick myself for feeling such a thing, but everyone keeps eyeing me. I re cross my legs and sit up a little straighter, refusing to be least bit sorry I ran away.
I won’t miss a thing about my old life. My cheeks blaze, a telltale of another lie. I will miss my beloved Rosa Lee. Just the thought of her makes my nose sting, makes me ache for her to hold me close, to soothe me and set the world right like she has since the day I was born. But there are some things that even Rosa Lee can’t set right. While she helped me pack, she made me promise to watch for the signs, by the time she helped me sneak out of the house, she was begging me.
This morning, when the principal said I got the job, he seemed genuinely excited, like I was the only person who had ever applied for the position. My first interview, for my first job? That’s a really good sign. I could feel my face burning bright when he teased, “Now you’re not related to those rich Hadley’s in Charleston, are you?” I was sure the jig was up until he chuckled. “Of course not. If you were, you sure wouldn’t be applying to teach in our little old two room school house.”
It was as wrong of him to make the assumption that all people who come from my station in life thumb their noses at the small, the ordinary. Granted, Round O is no Charleston, but it’s a nice enough place. Sure my room at the boarding house is a far cry from 32 Legare Street, but I still live in the biggest house in town. I rent a small room by the week and share a bathroom with three gentlemen boarders and a widow woman with three adorable children. Aside from the children, the best thing about Miss Mamie’s house is there are no haughty neighbors, no pointless parties and, best of all, no ridiculous expectations because my last name is Hadley.
Just the thought of my last name congers up mages of Mother and Dadda’s stern faces. I expect they are trying to salvage the marriage they planned before my birth. They probably sent Justin to roam the streets of my favorite cities to look for me. He’ll start in New York. The Waldorf Astoria because he thinks it’s my favorite hotel. He’ll spend the afternoon searching the shops on Fifth Avenue.
Just the thought of Mecca makes my fingers travel across the smooth blue gingham silk of my favorite sundress, a reminder that there will be no more trips to the boutiques in New York and certainly not Paris. There was a time I thought I would die without the latest goodies in Jacques Fath’s or Nina Ricci’s salons, but I am giving up all of that for a new life, a better life.
My foot peeks out from under the table at me, with the most perfect sandals Salvatore Ferragamo could possibly imagine. He’d called them an artistic fantasy, a mirage of comfort as he slipped them on my feet. The pang in my stomach hardens into the realization that, above all, and aside from a precious few people, what I’ll miss most about my old life is the shoes.
The thought conjures up that annoying look that frequents Justin’s face that says he knows everything about everything. At this very moment I’m sure he’s sauntering into my favorite little shop on West 57th this very moment, fully expecting to find me surrounded by doting sales people and Charles Jourdan footwear. Justin has never been the diligent sort. His search won’t last more than a couple of hours then he’ll shrug off his failure and head to Delmonoco’s. They’ll know him because it’s his favorite restaurant. After dinner and a show, he’ll chase his disappointment with a brandy and a smelly old cigar.
I know it sounds like I hate Justin, but I don’t. He’s just doing what he’s told to do, by his father and mine. I know he doesn’t really love me, not the kind of love that makes a man search endlessly for the woman he loves. That’s the kind of love I want. Rosa Lee seemed to understand this when I told her I was leaving. She was crying when she asked me if I’d ever come home again? I couldn’t stop crying long enough to answer her, but maybe, if and when Charleston high society became less high, more practical. Reasonable.
After all, who marries two names together without one care about the people attached to those names? It’s barbaric; that’s what it is; a betrayal of love itself, and unforgivable. No matter how perfect the match seems to everyone except me, I will never love Justin. Therefore I can never marry him. For all I care, Justin McLoid can keep right on looking. Not in a million years would he think of looking in a sensible town like Round O, South Carolina.
“More tea, Shug?” The waitress’ face is hardened from the years but her eyes have the fire of a teenager’s. She pours without waiting for permission; my mother would be mortified.
“Frank, I’ll be right out. You are still interested in the post box, aren’t you?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am.”
“How were your crab cakes?” I wonder if her hearing is sputtering on and off because she speaks in a normal tone and then shouts out questions like I’m the one who’s hard of hearing.
“Wonderful.” They weren’t like Rosa Lee’s. If I miss anything about 32 Legare Street it’s her and the way she poured love into every morsel of food she made for us. I miss the way she said, I love you, chil’, out loud and often, making Mother nnd Dadda cringe. Not because Rosa Lee is colored. Because they don’t believe in the kind of love that is so big, you can’t hold it inside.
Love, like everything else is reserved. My mother told me this when I asked why her and Dada didn’t gush over me like Rosa Lee did. I remember asking them, “reserved for what?” I didn’t understand then and I still don’t. But one thing I am sure of is that I don’t want to love like that and I don’t want to be loved like that.
“You wanted to see me about a post box?”
I shake my head to bring myself back to my present life. The one I’ve chosen. The man’s smile fades, his lips are a thin line and his eyes are dark, almost sad. I don’t know how long he’s been standing there, but he turns to leave.
“I’m sorry. Yes. Yes, I do.”
He is tall with chestnut-colored hair. His smile is timid. We shake hands and he cups his other hand over mine for a few seconds; I wonder if he feels the same thing I felt, that quickening the moment we touched. He must have, he’s smiling again, but his green eyes are still sad.
My face burns, and I pull away, folding my hands in my lap.
“Darling is my last name. But you can call me Frank.”
“Don’t be embarrassed. Happens all the time. Can I sit down?”
“Yes, please. I’m Vada Hadley.”
“Tiny says you need a post box.”
“I’m staying at Miss Mamie’s.”
He nods and laughs under his breath.
“Does that mean something?”
“I know Miss Mamie–very well, and she’s–” Bet he doesn’t know her as well as I do. The old lady is controlling and down right mean at times. She even open my mail. Did she broadcast my dilemma to the whole town? Maybe not, he’s still smiling when he continues. “Well, she’s inquisitive for one thing. Mr. Clip, Mr. Stanley, Mr. Mann, and Widow Greeley have had post boxes here for quite a while.”
He does have a kind face. His smile is real and heart felt. He couldn’t possibly know what was in the last letter I caught the old bat reading. This time, I blush again on purpose, and lean slightly forward. The old booth creaks like I weigh a ton. I unleash my hands because I talk best with them and explain to him that I need a good size box. He follows their movements with the precision of a world class musician as I tell him the brief history I’ve created for myself.
“– and a six-month lease will do just fine.”
He tries to hide his disappointment by looking toward the kitchen. He’s sweet.
“Seven dollars for the year.” That boyish smile again. “Otherwise it’s a dollar a month. If you leave early–Well, If you leave Round O before that, I’ll give you your money back myself.”
He put a tiny brass key on the table. The engraving is nearly rubbed off; box 24. I don’t like even numbers. While I stymie my compulsion to ask him for an odd numbered key, he extends his hand to shake on the deal. He has a callous on his palm below his pinkie finger that I didn’t notice before, and two more at the base of his ring and middle finger. Rosa Lee and her husband Desmond have callouses like that. The mark of good people, hard-working people.
“A year it is–Frank Darling.”
Her words are like sweet kisses blown into the air. What is wrong with me, I was going to be a Marine for crying out loud. Is it possible to feel this way from hearing her laugh or getting lost in those eyes? I know she was simply repeating my name back to me, but I imagine it different. Frank, darling. She walks back toward the store and picks up a bottle of rose water and pays Hank Bodette for her purchase. He’s all of ninety and comes to work here every day to avoid dying. Still, he is utterly charmed by her and the womanly power she has but doesn’t seem to be the least bit aware of.
I realize my own powerful wanting for the every day kind of love that comes from Vada Hadley and those eyes that are so blue, they put the sky to shame. Those soft pink lips. I imagine touching those lips with my fingertips, and suddenly I am painfully aware that I am as hard as a cast iron skillet.
The diner is nearly empty. Tiny’s has her back to me, so does Joe Pike. Mick Stallings puts a big tip on the table, hoping Tiny will see it and sauntered back to the post boxes to check his mail. If I stand up like this, Tiny Medford will for sure turn around and make some crack about the tent pitched in my shorts. She’ll be so loud that both Hank and Vada will turn around to see what the fuss is about.
And Joe Pike? He’d like nothing better than to see the wanting in my heart so that he can squash it like a bug. He’d do even worse if he saw my private saluting Vada Hadley. Desperate, I do what I always do at the end of every shift since I resigned myself to a life in Round O. I look around this old place and ask myself the same questions that have haunted me for as long as I can remember. Who marries a diner to a general store to a post office? Who finds the woman of his dreams and then lets her go away forever, and why did she go? Who does that kind of thing? My daddy, that’s who.
The answer never fails to make me feel like I am being sucked into a destiny that is not mine. Unavoidable. Unstoppable. I don’t have to look down at my pants to know I am shrunk down, way past cold shower size. I stand up without the embarrassment of a horny schoolboy and take another look around the Sit Down Diner. For the first time in my life, I thank the God I stopped believing in when I was seven for this old place, for sending the woman of my dreams my way. And if he’s not too busy being mad at me, I pray he’ll let her love me back.
The screen door on the opposite end of the building slams behind her and bounces against the frame a couple of times to underscore the fact that she’s gone. The thud in my gut returns, a different kind of emptiness than when I came to work this morning. I can almost see the promise of a new destiny that is all mine and the promise that Vada Hadley will be back every day but Sunday.
Being a teacher, she’s probably a churchgoer. It might be a good idea to get myself saved again, and–
“I’m talking to you, boy.”
Joe Pike stands and teeters a bit. His legs are bowed from birth, so I’m told, although he swears different. He has a gimpy hand and likes to tell folks it got that way working cattle in Texas when he was south of fifty years old. But I know different.
“Go on home, Joe.”
The words snap the old man’s head back and he looks at me like I just threw a glass of stick sweet iced tea in his face.
“You better mind yourself, Frank Darling.”
“And you better mind yourself, too.”
He pushes off from the table to get his old bowed legs moving and whispers something under his breath so that only Tiny can hear it. Her eyes go wide and her face blushes and I’m terrified of what might come out of her mouth because even though Joe Pike can keep his mouth shut, Tiny is completely incapable.
She walks over my way. “What was that all about?”
I bus Vada’s table myself. Slow like and I wish that I could linger over these dishes all day. But the stink of the past Joe Pike left in the air won’t let me.
“I know he never liked you much, but I’ve never seen him like that.” Tiny’s known me since before I was born and can see something’s wrong. Her face softens. “Maybe he’s jealous.”
I look at her like she’s crazy.
She cocks her head to the side and smiles. “Maybe he saw her first.”
One time Tiny told me that she believed laughing and hard living would keep her alive forever. She lets out a cackle and wants me to laugh right along with her. All I can do is nod at her and go back to my kitchen, to clean up. To try to get back to the part of the morning that was almost perfect.