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Monday, May 7, 2012

Welcome Back to the Shack

[This is the second piece of my ten-story cycle, a series connected more or less tenuously, depending on the story, by the Rocket’s Burger Shack setting. If you missed the first story, you can read it here. "Thank you for coming to Rocket's! May I take your order?"]

For All These Things, Let Us
Praise the Lord©

      She stumbled a little, but only from exhaustion. She’s so drunk, she can’t walk straight, said her father’s voice in her head, and once again she silently reminded him that she was not her mother and did not drink. She wouldn’t do that to her kids. You’ve got her genes, the voice reminded her. And yours, too, you mean bastard, but I’m not either one of you! Now lie back down in your grave and shut up!

      Coffee would do the trick. It always did.

Tired as she was, the first cup of morning coffee would steady her physically, banish the voices in her head and give her a little island of calm solitude before the boys were up. Then, she knew, she could negotiate the before-school part of the morning and maybe later wangle another hour or so of sleep before Brad woke up, wanting her. She loved that he wanted her. It was only the timing of his desire that sometimes had her at the end of her rope, near frantic with fatigue.

      Ah, there, that was it! The nerve-soothing comfort and edge-smoothing solace that her mother, after a fifth child, had taken from whiskey, Kelly was able to find (blessedly!) in coffee. It seemed such a miracle that she thanked her lucky stars every morning with the first cup. Thank you, Jesus! Always, that was her first prayer of the day. Kelly had never in her life not been religious, but she had never gone in for formal prayers, either. Formal kinds of communication just didn’t belong in a personal relationship. She felt God and Jesus and Mary the Mother of God and St. Joseph in her daily life, walking beside her, and expressed herself naturally to them. A cup of coffee was not too small a thing for gratitude. Nothing was.

      But only one cup before she hurried into blue jeans and a sweater and picked her short, curly hair into a semblance of order and gave herself a passing grade in the mirror, although she didn’t really care all that much how anyone in the outside world would see her. Alone with her husband, deliciously naked in the slippery dark, lit by the streetlamp through the window and a crack of light coming under the bedroom door from the hall, she knew she looked as good as she felt. That was all that really mattered. Now, though, it was time to get the boys up.

Up, dressed, teeth brushed and out to the car. This part of the morning was a minefield! They were such little fireballs, bursting with energy--tightly coiled, supercharged--and once they were awake, quiet was as unnatural to them as swimming would be to chickens. Not that Brad would ever hurt any of them, her or the boys, if they disturbed his sleep. The rage of her parents’ marriage was no part of Brad and Kelly’s life. But Brad lived on the edge of exhaustion, too, and Kelly, with her visceral memory of the past, wanted to keep danger and temptation at bay. It was her way of protecting Brad, and protecting him kept them all safe. Her family would all get through this time if she had to run through the days and nights on her hands!

Brad had no idea. Of course, she knew she had no idea what he went through, either, working as hard as he did. She knew that. Thank you for Brad!

“Mom! Mom!” Justin, the younger boy, flung his arms around her neck almost before he opened his eyes. “It’s a school day!”

The words burst out of him like racehorses out of the starting gate or fireworks exploding on the fourth of July.
Everything excited Justin. No, everything excited Justin!!! A school day, a weekend, a holiday of any kind (minor or major), a vacation trip (they’d had one the past summer, and he still wasn’t over the thrill of visiting “another state!”), grocery shopping, breakfast at the Burger Shack—it didn’t matter what was on the agenda. Justin’s cup of life was always overflowing. This made him popular with other kids and grownups alike, except (Kelly thought, with impatient dismissal) for those mysterious grownups who found any measure of enthusiasm in children an unwanted intrusion on their calm, boring lives! Well, there were none of those people in this house, but Daddy was sleeping, as Kelly reminded Justin with a finger laid on his lips.

      His eyes opened wider and gleamed. The demands of quiet challenged him severely, but he loved the conspiratorial aspect of their mornings. His next words came out in a loud, hoarse whisper. “Mom, are we going to the Burger Shack?”

      “Yes, we’re going to Rocket’s, but you have to get dressed and brush your teeth, and you have to do it quickly and quietly. Can you do that?”

      “Yes!” It was almost a yell, and immediately he looked stricken and shook his head vigorously and admonished himself with a “No, no, no!” He knew he wasn’t supposed to yell when Daddy was sleeping, but it was so hard!

      “It’s okay,” Kelly told him softly. “You forgot. Just start over.”

      He hugged her again, exclaiming, “I love you, Mom!”

      Well, that wasn’t a whisper, either, but how could she scold such sweetness?

      Robert was a different challenge. He always clung to sleep, burrowing deeper  and deeper under the covers when called to get up, needing to be hauled out bodily. Kelly flung back his comforter and sheet and hauled, and Robert flopped onto his belly, sprawling and moaning complaints.

      “Robert, come on! It’s time to get up!”

      “I didn’t finish my dream yet,” he protested sleepily.

      Kelly sighed and rubbed his back. It was his father’s back in miniature, bony shoulder blades and all. “I know the feeling, sweetie,” she said softly, “but you can have more tonight and every night, as long as you live. Isn’t that wonderful?”

      He scootched across the bed to wrap his arms around her waist and bury his face against her side. “There were white horses,” he whispered drowsily. “Too many to count. What if I don’t get that dream back?”

      “If you don’t, you’ll have other dreams just as wonderful. And tonight, when you’re going to sleep, picture the white horses in your mind, and maybe that dream will come back. But now you have to get up.”

      Robert groaned and sat up, fixing her with the skeptical look that always made him look much older his nine years, but she forestalled further questions and complaints.

      “We can talk about it over breakfast.”

      By then he would have forgotten, pulled into complete wakefulness and a myriad of more urgent concerns by his irrepressible brother. “The best present we ever gave Robert was Justin,” Brad liked to say, and it was true. As different as day and night, once awake and on the go Robert and Justin were a tight, self-sufficient little duo, as closely bonded as if they had been formed in the same egg.

      Once out the door, all constraint was out of the question. The boys bounded for the car, already arguing over who got which side this time. For some reason, both preferred to sit behind the driver’s seat. Was this because the one in that position could more easily imagine himself as driver or because the other position was more easily observable from the actual driver’s seat?

      “No!” Robert yelled again. “You had it last time!”

      “I don’t care!” Justin retorted. “I should get it every time, because you’re older and you get other things first every time.”

      “Like what?”

      The quarreling meant nothing. It was their bond in another aspect, as Kelly recognized easily from her own sibling relationships.

      “I don’t see anyone opening a car door yet,” she observed mildly. “Justin, right side, Robert left.”

      “Which side is left again?” Justin asked with wide-eyed innocence as his brother triumphantly took possession of the desired left-hand carseat. (They were still in carseats but facing forward now, thank God!) “No fair!” howled the younger, on the verge of tears.

      The tears would not last. They meant as little as the quarreling.

      As Kelly made certain they were both secure in their seats, she reminded Justin that it was his turn to choose which street they took out to the highway. “Pine or Maple?” she asked. He chose Pine Street every time, but whenever it was his turn she asked the question, as much out of curiosity as fairness. Would he ever choose Maple? And what was so special about Pine? He would never say, but the way the name exploded joyously and triumphantly from his mouth, there had to be a reason for the choice. Robert liked to draw out the moment of decision, but Kelly thought he only did it for the attention—which was, she reminded herself on Robert’s turns, as good a reason as any. Why shouldn’t the quieter first-born make sure he continued to get his share of attention?

      Driving, she turned her attention to the road and let the boys amuse themselves. It was early, and traffic was light. She was alert but relaxed. She liked driving, liked the way it narrowed and concentrated her obligations and responsibilities for the length of time she was behind the wheel. Nowhere else was life so simple, she thought as she turned into Rocket’s parking lot.

      If driving was like being in a spaceship, getting out of the car was the return to earth.

      “Mom, can I have--?”

      “Mom, he’s bringing his game in, and you said we couldn’t!”

      “I’m keeping it in my pocket! Mom, can I have French toast?”

      “He always gets his own way!”

      She stopped at the door, turned and faced them down. “Enough! You can behave and go in for breakfast, or we can go back to the car right now!”

      They outnumbered her, but she held the power. Two little faces looked down at the ground.

      “I don’t hear you. Car?”

      Two voices, a beat apart, muttered, “Breakfast.”


      “Breakfast, please.”

      “That’s better.”

      She already felt guilty taking them to a Burger Shack for breakfast as often as she did instead of feeding them at home. What had started as a special occasion, a way to ease the boys into quiet mornings while their father worked second shift, had gradually become her sanity insurance. At Rocket’s someone else cooked, and someone else cleaned up, and, while she couldn’t let the boys yell over their breakfast, she didn’t have to keep their talk to a whisper, either. She wasn’t on her feet, making endless round trips between table and counter, table and refrigerator. Enjoying her coffee in a clean booth and keeping current with world news on the television set over the boys’ heads was almost as good as driving.

      “Let Rocket’s do it,” she thought. What a great advertising slogan!

Kelly had worked briefly in advertising.Only in a small way on the local newspaper, but she had loved the challenge of helping people in business find the right words to sell their products, and she was almost always able to put together something catchy, if not memorable. The difficult advertisers to work with were the ones who fancied themselves creative writers without knowing even the rudiments of grammar. English had been Kelly’s best subject in high school (her yearbook work had helped her land the newspaper job), and she was shocked to meet well-to-do business people much older than she was who were so clueless, though since she was young and hadn’t gone to college, getting desired changes made could be tricky. And the unbelievably bad lines some clients thought were clever! She had erased most of them from memory, but one would forever remain, an ad for an expensive Italian restaurant. The owner wanted to bring people in with the phrase, “Where Your Food Comes Alive!” What the hell was that supposed to mean? Several possible interpretations came to Kelly’s mind, all of them negative, but the guy wouldn’t budge.

She kept working part-time after Robert was born, took time off with Justin, and then somehow never got back to advertising. Her sister-in-law had a catering business, and Kelly started helping out sporadically when Christina had big jobs. Depending on the occasion, tips could be good. Brad’s mother didn’t mind babysitting, either, as long as it didn’t involve a regular, scheduled commitment. Trouble was, the catering jobs were mostly in the evening, so she and Brad both got home late, both tired, neither in the mood to fix dinner. --No, that wasn’t the real trouble. The real trouble was that, nice as Christina was, working for her felt like a high school girl’s job, not a job for the woman Kelly felt herself to be.

Still, it was work, and Kelly knew she and Brad were lucky. He wasn’t nuts about his job, either, especially the shift aspect, but he was lucky not to be laid off, just as she was lucky to have part-time work and a free babysitter. They had each other, too, which Kelly never took for granted. That thought alone, whenever it occurred wherever she happened to be other than driving the car, gave her reason to close her eyes for a brief instant and murmur, Thank you! Of all her prayers, it was the most frequent.

The television screen before her eyes was bright and full of flickering motion, and Robert and Justin, across the booth from her, had finished as much as they would eat of breakfast and were now wrestling and laughing and about to fall off the bench seat. The man with the laptop who was in Rocket’s every morning was staring at her in annoyance, too, but for a minute or two Kelly saw nothing around her. She was imagining her return home after she dropped the boys off at school. Brad would still be sleeping, and she would undress quickly and slip under the covers to press against his warm back. If he slept on, she would soon become drowsy herself and fall asleep, but sooner or later, right away or in an hour or two, he would turn to her and take her in his arms, and everything else she did, all day long, she did for the sake of that embrace and that joining and that leaving-behind of the “everything else.”

The queasy feeling, the same one she’d had the day before, jolted her back to the present moment. It filled her with dread, and up from her heart, automatically, came the Please! prayer. Please, no! Let it be someone else, some woman who hasn’t been able to get pregnant! Not me! Two is all I can handle!

      She felt a little angry (even to herself she could admit only to a “little” anger) at the ordinariness of her predicament and at the realization that most other people would not think of it as that, or as a “predicament” at all. She was happily married, young and healthy, her husband had a steady job, and it wasn’t as if they had a dozen kids already. How much harder could life be with three? Well, she didn’t want to find out!

      She remembered worrying, with her first pregnancy, that the wild, abandoned lovemaking she and Brad enjoyed might cause a miscarriage. Her obstetrician had laughed, and the parents-to-be, relieved, had continued to enjoy uninhibited sex. If only, she thought now. Not then but now, this time! She imagined again being in Brad’s arms, with all the pleasure that would follow and build to a shuddering climax for both of them, and then, as they lay side by side afterward in that delicious suspension of time, the world light years away, she imagined that the trickle between her legs might suddenly gush red. If it hurt a little—even a lot—that would be all right, too.

      “What is it?” Brad would ask in alarm.

      “It’s all right,” Kelly would tell him. “It’s the answer to a prayer. We’re going to be just fine.”



Dawn said...

I came over expressly to read this, as I noticed it before but didn't have enough time. I like your writing.

Kathy in Oz said...

Well? What happens next?

P. J. Grath said...

Next comes a different situation with a completely different main character. Yep, that's the downside of short stories. But don't you often have that feeling at the end of a novel, too? Unless the main character has died, I always wonder where the story would go on from there. Thank you both for reading.

Laurie said...

Pamela, I love all these people! Beautifully called into existence. I care about them already, all in a short story's time. I love Kelly especially. "A cup of coffee was not too small a thing for gratitude. Nothing was." I love her telling Justin "It's okay. You forgot. Just start over." Such gracious, generous advice.

"Where your food comes alive!" Hahahahaha - I'll never forget that, either, from the now-defunct (no surprise there) Jackie's Ribs in Kzoo. I always imagined a plate of ribs pulling itself together into a whole cow and charging at me. No, gracias! Made vegetarianism seem like the only choice.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks, Laurie. I love Kelly, too, for her gratitude and for her gentleness with her kids. You should be forewarned that you may not love all the characters who turn up at the Burger Shack, but I'm realizing that each of them is portrayed--I think--from his or her point of view, whether the story is in third person (like this one) or first (like a couple of others).

You remember the billboard! Wasn't it a hoot? Yes, what images those words conjured up!

Helen said...

I was engrossed, Pamela, and didn't want it to end. I wanted to see her in bed with Brad!

P. J. Grath said...

Ah, but this is a short story, Helen, not a chapter in a novel!