Susan Tepper is a twenty-year writer and the author of nine published books of fiction and poetry. Her most recent are CONFESS (poetry from Cervena Barva Press, 2020) and a zany road novel WHAT DRIVES MEN (Wilderness House Press, 2019). Right now she’s in pre-production of an Off-Broadway play titled ‘The Crooked Heart’ re-written and adapted from an earlier novel, which focuses on artist Jackson Pollock in his later years.
By Susan Tepper
Dead of night while Luanne slept he packed the car. He’d lapsed the insurance on The Coconut Grill a year earlier. Push to shove, he couldn’t say why.
Luanne, of course, having no idea, cooked merrily along at The Coconut till the hurricane hit. The storm surge swallowed up the entire wooden structure plus everything beachfront for miles. All that remained was the shallow cellar they used for food storage. Kids jumped in and out, slopping around in the dirty water, bashing each other with bags of ruined food.
After he got the car packed, he went in the living room, nursing a bottle of Scotch, waiting for the sun to come up. Thought about her crouched on the tile floor during his cancer treatments, head resting on his leg, hours passing, the sounds coming from those machines.
At breakfast, he announced he was going north for the hunting season.
Frying up pancakes in a red skillet pan, Luanne chuckled. “Crocs?”
She looked over her shoulder. “Deer?”
He stared back, keeping it all empty around the eyes.
“Where deer? Where north? Alaska?” she said.
“Not that far north. Bucks County.”
Luanne’s pancakes always turned out perfect golden. He watched her flip the first batch. She deserved her own cooking show but of course, you need connections. Who here in Pompano Beach was connected? Nobody he knew.
“Bucks County.” She held the spatula aloft. “Where the hell is that?”
The hurricane had damaged the house, too, though minor. Ripped out an entire kitchen storm window along with the frame. Taped over, the plastic sheeting was starting to come loose. He’d planned on replacing that window. A warm breeze flapped the plastic hitting his mama’s shoulder. She knocked it aside. “Don’t go burning my hot cakes,” the old lady called out.
A kitchen towel tucked around her trim waist, here was Luanne cooking breakfast for his mama. Cooking all their meals and not complaining. They had nowhere else to put the old lady. He felt a wash of guilt. Luanne’s backbones flexed in the white T-shirt as she worked at the stove. A do-rag thingy holding back her pretty hair. The kitchen was already uncomfortably warm.
“Mama,” she said, “I don’t burn food. I’m a professional cook.” Then she threw him a look that could choke a rattlesnake. “At least I was … during the time I was under the impression we had insurance on the restaurant.” She didn’t say Coconut Grill. She only said restaurant when the subject came up now. Which wasn’t often.
He watched her long slender arm go taut as she squirted more butter in the pan. No doubt about it, she was a hottie. When The Grill was operational, it gave the two women plenty of space. Now Luanne went along day by day in a quiet state of mental hell. She’d never been much for the family scene. Left home right after high school. Bummed around learning to cook in diners and coffee shops. Never explained that period of her life. Just told him It was time to be on my own.
She stacked the cakes on a plate, thumping it down in front of his mama. Then she thumped down the syrup bottle, sat, crossed her legs and lit a cigarette.
Standing near the screen door, he watched it all play out like a movie. Debated about bringing his golf clubs. He was thinking nature can play cruel tricks on a person’s destiny.
“So, like I was asking, where is this Bucks County anyway?” said Luanne.
“Pennsylvania.” The old lady poked at the pancakes with a fork. “These are mushy.”
Luanne blew smoke out her nose. “They’re fully cooked.”
“I don’t know about that.”
She reached for the plate. “You don’t want them?”
“I never said!”
“Mama please eat these pancakes Luanne cooked special for you.”
“Bucks County General,” squealed the old lady. “That’s where my Ray got born. His daddy worked the steel mill. It was a fine place to grow a boy.”
Luanne snickered. “You grow vegetables. Boys grow themselves.”
He yanked a chair across the floor. “You have to wind her up, Luanne?”
His mama said, “Ssssshh. I want my breakfast in peace.”
“And I just want a nice peaceful drive up the coast. Is that too much to ask for?”
“Hold it right there! Ray am I getting this correctly?” Luanne stubbed out the cigarette in her bowl of magical crystal stones, smoke rising. “You’re thinking of driving to Bucks County by yourself?”
He grabbed the bowl of stones and held it under cold running water.
“These are good hot cakes,” said the old lady, suddenly agreeable.
“Ray, if you think I’m about to baby-sit your mama while you cruise up the coast to kill deer.” She pulled the dish towel off her waist flinging it. “In case it skipped your mind we have a situation. It’s either rebuild the restaurant or sell off as a vacant lot. That’s gonna take time. Whose time, Ray?” She was up on her feet and in his face.
“Honey. It’s just a little vacation. Not even a vacation. A few days and I’m back before you even realize.”
“Oh, I realize.”
The old lady dabbed at syrup she’d dripped on the vinyl tablecloth, asking for another napkin. Luanne just stood there still as her stones.
“Take one from the napkin holder, Mama.”
“Thank you, Son.” She pushed at the syrup smearing it.
“Not like that,” he said rushing in.
Luanne yanked off the do-rag, her long hair tumbling down. “This just ain’t gonna happen.”
He knew it was his turn, but didn’t utter a sound, just stood at the sink drying the stones one by one, placing them back in the bowl. “It’s a miracle they weren’t scorched.” He put the bowl on the table then sat down tilting the chair far back.
“Watch it, Son, you could get hurt.”
It made him uneasy when Luanne grinned. She fingered the crystals. Held up a purplish one formed like a bullet.
“All right, Ray. You and your mama go to Bucks County Pennsylvania. Snag a bunch of deer. Go visit your daddy’s grave. Have a ball.”
He brought the chair back down. “How can I take Mama all the way to Pennsylvania alone? What about bathroom stops?”
“What about them?”
“Times Square,” the old lady piped up. “He’s going to see the naked painted girls.”
“Mama where’d you come up with such an idea?”
“Naked painted girls?” said Luanne.
The old lady waved her fork. “I heard you talking with Deeter.”
Luanne’s eyes had narrowed to slits. He got up and increased the cold knob on the free-standing air conditioner. The thing was a complete piece of shit. He should have replaced the damn window and put back a proper window unit. “Mama doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
“I sure as heck fire do.”
“Look. I can’t take an old woman into gas station bathrooms. Someone sees, the next thing you got the cops on your back for indecent actions.”
Leaning against the counter, Luanne lit another cigarette. “Tell them it’s your mama. That she has arthritis and can’t get on the bowl by herself. The cops will understand. It’s part of their compassion training.”
“You’re saying you won’t stay here with Mama?”
She laughed and smacked open the screen door leaving the house.
After pouring more coffee for the old lady, he followed Luanne outside. She perched on the railing of their small front deck. She looked small. Even the sun, as it neared noontime. Small. Glowing unnaturally orange with a kind of mist. “That sun look orange to you?” he said.
“I hear the tide swells yesterday brought in some real choice crab. Too bad we have no restaurant anymore.”
Shielding his eyes he turned his face toward the causeway bridge.
She slid off the rail, a hand on her hip. Pretty aggressive stance, he was thinking; and that she could use a little heft up top and in the rear. The naked painted girls in Times Square looked pretty fleshy on the internet. Deter calling it a flesh parade. He’d never seen anything quite like it; not even here with them on the beach in those thong bikinis. The naked painted girls posing with the tourists, eating hot dogs with them, drinking soda through straws, smiling, petting dogs. He couldn’t get them out of his mind. It was fucking insane. Every square inch of flesh painted.
“When I get back Luanne we should get married.”
The first time in weeks he saw her smile for real. Softening. Sooner or later Luanne always softened.
He circled the top of her arm with his index finger, whispering baby, baby. She smiled bigger. The sun’s strange orange glinting off her teeth, turning them gold, glinting off her white T-shirt where he could smell bleach. Off the palm trees, too, and a line of parking meters, and sides of cars trolling the main drag. Everything bright and aglow. And, would be again when he got back.
“So we’re OK?” he said.
“Mister.” It came out low and throaty. She had this way of working her tongue at the corner of her mouth. Super sexy shit. He wanted to take her into the back bedroom but Mama was awake.
“So we’re good?” he repeated.
Luanne was checking her phone.
Before he could react, she had skipped lightly down the few steps, sliding into his car, pulling away. Before he could do anything.