Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, has had over 290 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. Four collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, and The Tales of Talker Knock, have been published.His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
By Steve Carr
Each of the twenty-eight oversized pink burning candles arranged as a smiley face on Jolene’s birthday cake reminded her of middle fingers sticking up at her, telling her to go screw herself. The smile section of the candles grinned at her mockingly. The eyes conveyed their disdain. Bent over and preparing to blow the candles out she felt the heat of the flames on her cheeks. The aroma of the thick, slightly burnt chocolate fudge icing filled her nostrils.
“Blow ’em out, Jolene,” her mother said, standing on the other side of the table with her arms crossed and the ever-present impatient scowl plastered on her face. “You ain’t gettin’ any younger.”
Jolene hated birthdays, especially those shared with her mother. Jolene felt the air to blow the candles out had gotten stuck in her lungs like wads of toilet paper. She wanted to puke, but that too felt caught in her throat, choking her. She gripped the edge of the table, feeling the slick, oily texture of the plastic table cloth in her fingers. She parted her parched lips and tried to find a meager wisp of breath she could expel from her dry mouth.
“Oh, for God’s sake. This is takin’ all day,” her mother said, and then leaned over and blew out the candles.
Traces of extinguished candle-flame smoke momentarily blinded Jolene and she rocked back on her heels. She closed her eyes and squeezed them tight, trying to produce tears to wash the haze from her eyeballs. She opened her eyes just as her mother began jerking the candles from the cake, leaving pockmarks in the icing.
Jolene turned to leave the kitchen. “I have to get some fresh air,” she said.
“Ain’t you goin’ to have some of this cake? I made it just for you,” her mother said. “God knows no one else was goin’ to do it.”
As Jolene walked through the disheveled living room furnished with secondhand mismatched furniture and opened the front screen door, her mother yelled, “No one but me wished you a happy birthday. How come you ain’t got any friends?”
Jolene stepped out onto the porch, letting the door slam behind her. Standing perfectly still she opened her mouth and breathed in the scents of pine and honeysuckle, tasting the fragrances as they wafted over her tongue. The air was balmy and filled with the cacophonous noise of bullfrogs, cicadas and evening birdsong.
If I ever get enough money to get away from here, this is the only thing I’ll miss, she thought.
She raised her necklace and kissed the coin that dangled from it, and then let the coin drop back into place between her cleavage.
Reaching behind a pile of clothes and shoes in the bottom of her clothes closet, Jolene pulled out a small tin box and sat back on the floor with it in her lap. She took the small key from her clinched teeth and inserted the key into the box. Raising the lid she hoped that somehow the contents of the box had magically doubled. She gingerly lifted the bills out of the box and counted them very slowly, although she had counted them already that morning. There were six hundred dollars total.
“I need at least twice that,” she said aloud.
She put the money back in the box, locked it, and put it back in the closet. She got up from the floor and opened her black lacquered music box that sat on the vanity dresser. A tinny rendition of “Somewhere My Love” began to play as a plastic ballerina in a faded blue tulle tutu spun around on a small metal disc. She put the key in the box and closed the lid.
Standing in front of the vanity dresser mirror, she zipped up the back of her bright pink uniform and then smoothed out the wrinkles in the front with her hands. The way it clung to her body made her slightly embarrassed. As part of the required outfit, she tucked a white handkerchief in the pocket above her left breast. Only a tip of the folded handkerchief showed, just enough to stand out like a neon light to draw attention to her ample sized tits. She ran her fingers through her hair, combing it back from her face, and then stared at her reflection in the mirror. She pursed her lips and squinted, trying to reduce her resemblance to her mother. The last thing she did before turning away from the mirror was pull the necklace from under the inside of the collar of her uniform, and laid the coin between her breasts. She picked up her scuffed white pumps from the floor and walked out of her bedroom.
“I’m goin’ to work now,” she said to her mother who was sitting at a card table and working on a puzzle. A plate with a half eaten slice of the birthday cake was on one corner of the table. Cigarette butts were stuck into the cake.
Her mother looked up. “One night you’re goin’ to get raped wearin’ that getup and walkin’ to that diner at night.”
Jolene didn’t want to admit that she worried about that also. “I have to earn money and Clarence only lets me work the night shift,” she said.
“If you hadn’t gone through that money so quick you got from Drew’s death, you wouldn’t need to work,” her mother said.
“That was three years ago and it was hardly enough to last a year,” Jolene said. “As you know, Pray Healy usually walks with me most of the way anyway.”
Her mother snorted. “Pray Healy is a half-wit who couldn’t defend you from a butterfly. Besides he wants the same thing from you all the other men in Prattville want.”
Jolene opened the screen door. “I can’t help that,” she said. “Pray was Drew’s best friend so he wouldn’t lay a hand on me.”
“It don’t matter. Drew’s dead and Pray has the same urges all men have.” Her mother put a piece of the puzzle in its place. “You should take my extra pistol. No one’s goin’ to mess with you if you got a gun in your hands.”
“Just what I need in my life, to kill someone,” Jolene said.
She stepped out onto the porch, let the screen door close, and paused briefly to take in the beauty of the woods bathed in moonlight. She then walked down the steps and stepped into the dirt of the pathway leading to the house. It was surprisingly cool beneath her bare feet. In the sky a hawk screeched and from nearby in the surrounding trees an owl hooted. She walked on, swinging her shoes from her left hand.
At the swinging footbridge that spanned over the narrow, shallow Piney Creek, she put the shoes between her clenched teeth and put both hands on the railings and walked across the bridge. With every step the bridge swayed slightly and creaked as if built with rusty hinges. On the other side of the bridge the path widened and ended at the paved road that led into town. She put on her shoes, turned right, and began to walk.
“I’ve been waitin’ on you,” Pray said as he stepped out of the shadows of the trees. The moonlight gave his gaunt face a greenish pallor. Tall and skinny, his red plaid flannel shirt and threadbare jeans hung loosely from his frame, giving him the appearance of a scarecrow.
Startled, Jolene said, “Good Lord, Pray, you nearly gave me a heart attack.”
“I’m sorry, Jolene,” he said. He kicked at the concrete with the tip of his cowboy boot. His lower lip quivered. “I hope you’re not mad at me.”
Jolene patted him on the arm. “I’m not mad at you, Pray. C’mon, we have to walk fast. I’m runnin’ late and don’t want to be late for work. Clarence is lookin’ for an excuse to fire me.”
Walking beside her, he said, “You’re too good to be workin’ there. You should quit.”
“I need the pay, especially the tips,” she said. “I’m savin’ up to get away from here. I’m goin’ crazy livin’ with my mother. When I get a thousand bucks saved up I’m gettin’ on a bus and leavin’ Pratville for good. I’ve been hangin’ around here way too long. Drew was the only reason I stayed here to begin with.”
“I miss Drew,” he said reflectively.
“I do too.” She fingered the coin on the necklace. “This is about all I have to remember him by. Everything else has been sold or pawned.”
“You ever find out where Drew got that coin?” he said.
“No, he never said, but you knew how Drew was. All the time he was in the Army and traveling all over he was always pickin’ up somethin’ he thought was interestin’ in some shop in one place to sell somewhere else,” she said. “I could probably get fifty dollars if I wanted to sell this, but fifty dollars won’t really help that much.” She raised the coin. “He made the frame around the coin and the latch that hooks it to the necklace himself.”
“He fixed my bicycle a couple of times,” he said.
“Drew was very clever,” she said.
At Bobo’s Diner, there was a white Mercedes-Benz parked in the lot.
Jolene removed her shoes and turned on the hose attached to the side of the building. She handed her shoes to Pray and washed the dirt from her feet, then turned off the hose and put her shoes back on. Before opening the door to the diner, she said to him, “Come in and I’ll get Harry to make you a burger, no charge.”
Jolene wrinkled her nose as they walked through the door. The smell of the diner never changed, a mixture of hot grease and floor cleaner. Its interior looked as if hundreds of cans of pink paint had exploded, dousing everything in pink. Only the floor that had once been white was a dingy yellow. The owner, Barbara Jaxall, nicknamed Bobo, loved pink. Her husband, Clarence, who ran the diner, loved Bobo’s money.
The only customers were two men seated across from one another in one of the booths. They had already been served by the evening waitress, Kalee, who ran out the door as soon as Jolene arrived.
“You can have my tip,” Kalee said as she rushed by Jolene.
“Sit down in the booth,” Jolene told Pray as she went behind the counter, stuck her head through the serving window and said hello to Harry, the cook, and ordered Pray’s hamburger along with some fries. She put on a pink apron lined with pink ruffles and then picked up a full coffee pot and walked to the booth with the two men.
She felt their eyes all over her and felt as if she had just been covered in sewage.
“How are you gentlemen doing this evenin’?” she said as she filled their cups.
“Better now that you’re here,” the one with an obvious toupee said. “You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
“If you need anything just let me know,” Jolene said, trying to avoid the toupee-wearer’s unwavering leer.
The other customer, a rotund man with rheumy eyes, leaned toward her and said, “That’s a very interesting piece you have on your necklace. Would you mind if I had a closer look at it?”
“It’s just an old coin that my husband brought back from overseas,” she said. She slipped the necklace off and handed it to him.
He shoved his plate of food aside, laid the necklace out on the table, and bent over with his eyes close to the coin. He turned it over, looked at it for a minute more, and then sat back.
“I’m a collector of old coins,” he said. “That’s an unusual one you have there. Would you be interested in selling it?”
Jolene picked up the necklace and looked at the coin, thoughtfully. “How much do you think it’s worth?”
“No more than five hundred dollars,” he said. “I’ve got that on me if you want to sell it.”
Jolene didn’t hesitate. “You have a deal,” she nearly shouted as she slapped the necklace down on the table.
In the morning when Jolene left the diner, Pray was sitting on an overturned crate near the entrance. He stood up. “I’ll walk you home,” he said.
“You don’t need to, Pray. I got the money I needed from sellin’ that coin and I’m so happy I could almost fly home,” she said. “I’m packin’ my things as soon as I get home and gettin’ outta here.”
“Jolene, I didn’t want to tell you this, but I overheard that man say the coin was worth ten times the amount he gave you.
Jolene’s face suddenly turned pale. She put her hand in her uniform pocket and felt the roll of money. “Well, if I combine this with the money I’ve already saved I still got enough to get out of this shit hole,” she said.
As always when getting home from work, so as to not awaken her mother, Jolene tiptoed shoeless through the house and into the kitchen first thing to fix a cup of coffee. On the kitchen table there was a note from her mother that read, “I’ve gone with Mavis for a few days to play the slots and live it up over in Shelbyville. I put the rest of your birthday cake in the refrigerator.”
Where did she get the money to do that?
Then she heard it, the faint sound of her music box. She rushed from the kitchen and down the hall to her bedroom. Her door was open and the lid to the music box was up. The clothes and shoes that had been in the bottom of her closet were strewn on the bedroom floor. Sitting open in the back of the closet was the empty tin box.