The Saturday that Cindy walks out, they have made twelve hundred biscuits. They have laid forty-three portions of roast beef into plain white ramekins and baked them in groups of three until, even through the dish room’s fog of warm water and half-eaten steak fries, the humble, peppery scent of bubbling gravy reaches their noses. Deftly they navigate the small space they share, covered in sweat and flour, their hair restrained by law, by white nylon nets. Chuck has to wear one to cover his beard and mustache. It is like having a second beard over the first, a white atop the gray. The biscuit cutter is industrial and outlines many biscuits at once; it is the size of a cookie sheet and has compartments, a stainless-steel honeycomb. Cindy is crying as she cuts the dough, wiping the sides of her latex gloves across her cheeks and leaving smudges of flour. Chuck wonders what she is thinking. When he gets off work, he always smells of butter and chicken stock. The smell lives deep inside his skin where soap doesn’t reach, and sometimes he stands on the bathmat still glistening from his shower and looks in the mirror, grips the pale, soft mounds of fat around his stomach and thinks, I look like a dinner roll. I’m a biscuit with a dick.
“Goddamn rednecks,” says Cindy. “Fuck this job.”
“It’s not the world’s only job, you know,” says Chuck, who has been at this restaurant twelve years.
“I can’t get another job.” Cindy wipes her nose on her sleeve. “My teeth are too jacked up.”
It is true: Cindy is barely forty years old but has fewer than ten teeth remaining. Certain consonants become distorted as they slide past her gums, so that she sounds drunk when she talks. Some people at the restaurant do come to work drunk, and it took Chuck several weeks to realize Cindy wasn’t one of them. Sobriety makes her a desirable employee in his book, though he supposes it might be a shock to see her at the grocery store checkout, or to hear her mangled country slur on the other end of a sex line.
“Your teeth aren’t that bad.”
“Your eyes are going, honey,” she says. “Or else you’re a nice guy, after all.” She smiles a little then. Chuck thinks she could probably get a job in a haunted house, but that would only be seasonal.
Cindy makes it through three more roast beefs. If Bart hadn’t come back to the cooking area, she might have made it through to the end of the shift. She would have gone home and smoked a joint and put up her aching feet, and by five the next morning, she would have been ready to come in again. But Bart rounds the corner by the salad cooler, wearing his shirt that is peach from one angle and pink from another. He is trying to grow a beard, and stubble covers his face like a spice rub.
“Hey, Cindy,” he says. “Did you see we’re out of biscuits?”
“Who do I look like, Stevie Wonder?”
Bart’s eyes go narrow. “Excuse me?”
Chuck hunkers down over his kettle of green beans and tries to make himself seem smaller. It’s no easy task.
Cindy has started crying again. “I said, you think I look like some blind-ass motherfucker? Biscuits are in the oven, and they can stay in there till they burn the place down for all I care!”
She is yelling now. Waitresses and dishwashers and grill cooks hover, not quite out of sight. Bart’s entire face is red, his chest heaving, shirt flashing peach-pink-peach-pink. “Okay,” he says. “In the office. Now.”
“You go in the office. You go in the office and rub one out all over your fancy-ass paperwork. Fuck you. Fuck your biscuits.” Cindy turns toward the kettle, peels back her lips in a quivering, decaying grin. “Bye, Chuck, honey. Jesus bless you and Margo.”
And then she is gone. She has retrieved her purse from the break-room lockers and walked out into the evening sunlight. The front-porch vista has opened itself in front of her: motel windows with curtains just parted, where travelers consult the local yellow pages; gray crisscross of town roads; cement roofs of gas stations; bulge of green mountains rolling down to the interstate as far as the eye can see. The air must be fresh. It must be a warm, humid afternoon. Chuck will have to pre-cook all the next morning’s bacon himself.
Margo is fat. She is not a little fat; she is not fat like the women in diet pill commercials, who beam with pride as they hold up old pants only three sizes larger than their new pants. She does not pull out her wedding dress and cry when she sees how small it is. She is properly fat, her stomach hanging out from under her shirt grandiose and unapologetic, her rear end so wide the toilet seat leaves red marks down the edges of her buttocks when she takes her “morning constitutional.” She was fat when Chuck married her; in their wedding photos the fat on her arms covers her elbows like an overbite. Chuck does not mind this, nor is he ashamed to go out in public with her. Most of the people in this town are fat, anyway. He is a fair size himself, and he likes that his wife is a good cook. He does not want to cook when he is at home.
“You won’t believe what happened this morning,” Margo says. She is standing in front of the stove talking to Chuck, who is sitting on the living-room couch. The trailer is a ’78; half of it is one room, and everything is wood paneled. On the walls are a plaster peacock, shelves of angel figurines, and a portrait of Margo’s parents in horn-rimmed glasses.
“What happened?” says Chuck. He is reading TV Guide.
“The police came and arrested all those people in that blue trailer next door.” She turns to look at him, lowers her voice. “They had a meth lab in there. Can you believe it? They could have blown us all to kingdom come.”
“Trash,” says Chuck.
Margo picks up a spatula and flips the fried squash. The sizzling spikes, then returns to a constant. “I just thought they had a lot of friends stop over.”
Chuck smiles into the TV Guide. “I guess we could have got us some meth if we wanted.”
“Charles!” Margo says, but then she laughs. “I could probably ask Randy for meth. I’m pretty sure I could.” Randy works with Margo at the KwikMart. Neither Margo nor Chuck has ever done drugs, not even marijuana.
“Cindy walked out in the middle of lunch.”
Margo is peeping into the oven to check the tuna casserole. “No!” she says, straightening up and letting the door snap shut. “Was it that bad today?”
“It did suck, yeah.” The cat, brown and also fat, jumps onto the couch. Chuck rubs its head, and it begins to purr. “She was crying a lot,” he says. Once, Chuck went into the walk-in cooler and slammed frozen tilapia fillets against the wall until his fingers were numb, then told Bart he had accidentally dropped them. But at least he has never cried at work.
“That poor woman,” says Margo, who has never met Cindy. “What will she do?”
Chuck lets the TV Guide lie open in his lap, stares at the peacock on the wall across from him. “I don’t know,” he says. “She’s got a terrible mouth on her.”
“Well surely she can keep quiet when she needs to.”
“You don’t understand,” he says.
They eat dinner on the front porch, which is a concrete slab with two plastic lawn chairs and a doormat in the shape of an apple. Across the grass of their yard and behind a low wooden fence sits the blue trailer, yellow police tape wrapped around the railing of its leaning rear porch, back door hanging open to reveal the beige edge of a washing machine, a wood-paneled corner leading into a dark hallway. Weeds sprout skyward from the edge of the roof, and at the bottom of the back steps is a ceramic bear, paint chipping off its back.
“Don’t they teach you how to close doors in the police academy?” says Chuck.
“They’ve got a washer,” says Margo. She does laundry in town at the Launder-Land.
“They don’t have it anymore.”
“I guess not.”
Chuck eats the tuna casserole; under the slick of egg noodles and cheddar cheese, he can taste Worcestershire sauce, chili powder, something tomato based. “Did you use Campbell’s for this?” he says.
“Their tomato was on sale. I know you like the mushroom.”
“It’s okay,” he says.
Twilight comes over the yard, and they linger, sipping glasses of milk. The doorway of the other trailer becomes dark, police tape hanging vivid in the bluing like a crooked square halo. Chuck thinks about everything he will have to do in the morning since Cindy will not be there. It will be the day for making stuffing; he will have to begin the morning’s bread like usual, then drag the day-old bread from the freezer and break it down for mixing with sage and poultry seasoning. He will have to bake extra mu˜ns for the Sunday morning church crowd. There will be the meatloaves, the potato casserole, the roast beefs, the chicken soup, and so on. He will have to rub baking potatoes with shortening and sprinkle them with salt. His hands will be greasy, and he will wipe them all over his apron, and because there is no one to talk to, he will talk to himself, he will grumble and complain, he will sing the chorus of “Idiot Wind” under his breath as the whir of the bread machine fills the air.
Chuck has been in the restaurant business more than forty years. He has worked at bars and diners and strip clubs and family restaurants. He has cooked everything from manicotti to country ham to specialty fudge. Except for a period in ’84, when he moonlighted as a janitor after the baby died, Chuck has only ever worked in food prep. He took his first job at sixteen, grilling for a diner on Court Street called Simon’s. Chuck did burgers there, and catfish fillets, and pots of pork barbeque that masked the smell from the persistent cloud of secondhand smoke. When Kennedy was shot Chuck saw a man watch the news on the TV over the bar until the ash that hung from his cigarette became a fragile gray arc as long as a pinky finger. He thinks of the cigarette now, when he is sixty-two. Something has burned away and left the shape of him.
It is a hard week without Cindy. Wednesday night he gets behind on biscuits; waitresses with bottled red hair round his corner and argue with him. Thursday he drops a pan of raw beef on the floor, this time truly by accident, and has to file a food cost report. Over the weekend a woman who usually works in the dish room is assigned to help him, but she has not cooked for almost a year, and she ruins six batches of cornbread. Monday is his day off, but he has to come in anyway, because someone else is sick or just hungover. His eyes feel like he has dipped them in flour and put them back into their sockets.
“Chuck.” It is Bart. His shirt is yellow today. He has given up on the beard and nicked himself shaving. There is a boy wearing an apron with him. “This is Luke. He’s our new backup cook. Luke, Chuck’ll be training you. He’s been here since the restaurant opened.”
Chuck shakes hands with Luke, who grins. He has all his teeth, which have braces on them. His hair is blond and curly, and one of his ears is pierced. Bart pats Chuck on the shoulder and walks back around the corner to the office, looking at something on a clipboard. Luke scratches his nose. “Hey,” he says.
“How old are you?” says Chuck.
“Ever worked in a restaurant before?”
“Ever baked biscuits before?”
“Ever used an oven?”
“I’ve made frozen pizzas.” Luke grins again, a grin that pretends to be sheepish but is confident underneath. He is not ashamed. From below his apron comes a buzzing sound, and he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a cell phone. He slides a keyboard out from under the screen and begins to type with his thumbs.
“There’s no texting except in the break room,” says Chuck.
It is either hold on or tattle to Bart, so Chuck holds on. Luke laughs under his breath as he types, mutters something Chuck cannot hear.
“So what are you gonna do when you drop that thing into a kettle of collard greens, mister?” says Chuck.
“I won’t hold it over a kettle of collard greens.”
“The woman who worked here before you, Cindy? She could have bought a month of groceries for what that little gadget cost.”
Luke pushes the keyboard in and puts the phone back in his pocket. He looks interested now, to a degree. “What happened to her?”
Chuck shrugs. “This place is a hole. Why did you come here?”
Luke pats his pocket. “I got phone bills. Payments on my car. My girlfriend wants to go places all the time.”
Chuck has met Luke before. Not Luke specifically, but boys like Luke, and girls too. They pass through kitchens and dish rooms and grill lines in a never-ending flow, their numbers swelling in the summer and during the holidays, dwindling in Septembers and Januaries. They are putting in their time, sometimes out of real need, sometimes at their parents’ insistence; this job, this series of hours spent scraping grease and exchanging dirty jokes, mopping up food scraps and peeling potatoes, this is their initiation to toil. After their stint they depart to fulfill their choice; they graduate from trade schools and universities. They go to their o˜ces, salons, and workshops, leaving behind the world of the restaurant, pouring around it the salt of their joy like a spell cleaving dark and light.
“So was she hot?” says Luke.
“She had nice teeth,” says Chuck.
Luke is a decent worker, but he is not very bright. Chuck tries to explain to him that they must bake the cornbread at a diverent temperature than the one in the manual, because the manual is written for lower altitudes. Luke’s corn muffins do not rise in golden mounds, but lie flat and hard, slide over the rims of their compartments and burn.
“How should I know what the fuck sea level is?” Luke is not angry. He is just using language. He spits the word out from around his braces, making it thick.
“From high school, you would think.”
“I don’t remember anything from high school. What is it?”
“It’s the level of the sea,” Chuck explains.
“We’re nowhere near the sea.”
“It’s—it’s just a unit of measurement, Luke. It measures how high up a place is. We’re in the mountains, so that means we’re high up, and we have to change our baking temperatures.”
“Because of the air pressure.”
“How can air have pressure if it’s not inside a tire?”
“I don’t know! It just does. It’s science.”
“Science fucking sucks.”
The phone is a constant presence. Luke types with one hand while he stirs kettles with the other. If he is dicing onions, he will let the knife lie on the cutting board while he turns away from Chuck to pull out the phone, the backs of his bent elbows shaking ever so slightly from the movement of his thumbs. After a week, Chuck stops saying things about it, but he is ba?ed. He does not understand how Luke could have so much to talk about with his friends, or his girlfriend, or whomever he is texting. Chuck imagines having a cell phone, texting Margo while she is at home or at the KwikMart. “Out of BBQ today, shipment in tmrw. Burned finger on pan!” And she to him: “Randy says can get u-know-what lol.”
Sometimes he and Luke work in silence, or with Luke singing along to the radio, which plays pop songs Chuck does not know. Luke dances when he sings, or half dances, moving his head up and down and tapping his feet, pivoting now and again as he moves across the aisle between the kettles and the steel table. He is never fatigued. He bounces and smiles. He thinks everything is funny. Sometimes, if the radio is tuned to the country station, they talk instead. Chuck tells stories he thinks Luke will like. He tells him about working at Love Shack, the strip club, and about a stripper named Daphne who got grabbed by a drunken lawyer, put her stiletto heel straight through his eye, and never went to jail for it. He tells Luke about the time he caught a grill on fire, how the grease flames towered six feet and set off all the sprinklers in the restaurant. Children were running and laughing as their parents tried to get them out the door while the manager told everyone to remain calm. Chuck used the fire extinguisher, which got chemical dust all over everything. In the dining room, half-eaten slices of toast grew wet like croutons in soup.
Luke is impressed. He says, “That’s so badass!”
“It wasn’t badass, mister. Somebody could have gotten hurt. I got fired.”
What Chuck does not say is that now, twenty years after the fact, he does tend to think of the grease fire as somewhat badass.
He also learns things about Luke. Luke’s girlfriend’s name is Kaleigh, and they have been dating for almost a year. Luke wants to be a pilot, but Kaleigh thinks he should become a pharmacy technician because the school is not so long. Luke’s father is a jewelry salesman for a chain store, and his mother is dead. Every autumn his father takes him hiking, and they sprinkle a little more of his mother’s ashes out into the New River Gorge.
“You can see the bridge from Long Point,” Luke says. “She always had a picture of the bridge on her desk at home.” He chops the celery more neatly than usual, dividing the stalks with short, even cuts, with great attention.
Chuck tells Margo about Luke. Today, Luke jammed his finger on the mixer. Today, Luke pulled out his phone and showed me a picture of his dog. Luke was late, Luke gave me some lip, Luke made the beef stew too floury and it had to be thrown away. Luke told a joke, let me see if I can remember it.
One night she says, “I’m glad you made a friend.”
“He’s not my friend. He’s a punk.”
“He sounds like a nice boy to me.” Margo puts Chuck’s feet up on the couch and rubs them with her big fingers, hands him the remote control so he can watch Law & Order.
“He’s all right, I guess.”
She says, “I think you like him.”
The cat is sick. Chuck gets up one morning to find it squatting in the bathtub, growling low in its throat. He picks it up and sees there is urine on the bottom of the tub; the urine has red in it, he tells Margo. He brings her into the bathroom and points. The next day the cat will not eat. It squats in the tub, in the sink, on the kitchen counter. Margo picks the cat up when it squats and takes it to the litter box, but it will not go.
“What’s wrong, Petey?” she says. “Do you hurt?” The cat looks up at her with its round yellow eyes, its eyes like the yolks of eggs.
That night they wake up because the cat is howling. It sounds like it is dying, its cries filling the dark trailer, rising sharp above the sound of the ceiling fan in their bedroom. The windows are open, and when Chuck sits up in bed, he thinks cats must be fighting in the yard. He stumbles across the room and looks outside, where the dim, green shadow of lawn meets the woods at some invisible line. His feet ache deep in the arches; he shifts his weight between them, sees nothing.
“It’s Petey!” Margo says, crawling out of the bed, her breasts swinging low beneath her white cotton nightgown.
They go into the living room, where the cat lies on the floor. Margo reaches down to pick it up, but it shrieks when she touches it. Chuck steps barefoot into vomit. Margo wrings her hands, paces back and forth across the carpet. She shakes Chuck by the shoulders.
“What if he’s dying?” she says. “What if he is?”
“Should we call the vet?” Chuck says, peering around her to where the cat twitches its feet and moans. He looks at the clock on the wall. It is 3:50. He has to be to work by five.
They decide that Margo will take the cat to the all-night clinic in Lewisburg. She ties her hair in a ponytail and puts on her pink sweat suit. They wrap the cat in an afghan and nestle it in the front seat of the Cougar. As Margo gets behind the wheel, she is crying. She waves at Chuck as the Cougar passes the fence, pale star of her hand afloat in the dark. He stands in the yard in green boxers and no shirt, watching the taillights disappear over the hill. The first of the dew beads on his slippers. Across from him the door of the blue trailer is hanging open again, though now the police tape is gone. Chuck walks over to the fence and rests his elbow on one of the posts, squints into the laundry room of the trailer. Beyond the beige splotch of the washer is the corner to the hallway; there are no pictures on the wall beyond the laundry-room door.
He remembers the hallway of the house he grew up in. The bathroom was at the far end of it, and when he was a boy, he sat on the toilet and stared at the corner by the bathroom door. He knew that something was tiptoeing down the hall toward him, something he couldn’t see. He could hear its footsteps, soft and quickening in his ears. The footsteps were his heartbeat, but he only understood this later. He crosses the yard and goes back inside his own trailer.
It is now too late to go back to sleep, and Chuck sits at the table with his coffee, wonders if the cat will die. It is possible they are too old now for a new cat. He remembers there are old cats at the shelter too; perhaps they can take home another old cat instead. If Petey lives, Chuck thinks, maybe they should get another cat anyway. That way, when one of the cats dies, it will not be the only cat they have.
At eleven o’clock Bart comes to the prep area to tell Chuck he has a phone call. Chuck walks to the front vestibule, where the phone receiver lies on the counter next to a waitress keying an order into a computer. Her hands flash over the touch screen: sirloin, baked potato, salad. Chuck wonders if he needs to put more potatoes in the oven. People eating steak get angry so easily. He learned this lesson in ’77, courtesy of a bank teller’s fist.
It is Margo on the phone. She says that Petey has a urethral obstruction, and that he must stay at the clinic for catheterization. It will take at least two days, she says. She and Chuck must take the money from the Folgers can under the stove. If Petey does not have the catheterization, he will die. Chuck knows she is holding the phone to her ear with her shoulder while she wrings her hands. He says they will pay for the catheterization.
He rubs more potatoes with shortening.
“What’s catheterization?” says Luke.
Chuck repeats what Margo explained. “Oh hell no,” Luke says and covers his mouth with his hand.
“It’s just like using a straw, I guess.”
“Oh hell no.”
Chuck works on beef noodle soup for the dinner shift while Luke cuts biscuits. The radio is on the oldies station. Kaleigh is mad at Luke because he called her an asshole. Chuck has never used that word for a woman, even in his head. He wonders why. It is natural to call a man a dick, but both women and men have assholes.
“She won’t give me head until I apply for pharmacy school,” Luke says.
“Well,” Chuck says, “I guess you have to decide whether you want to get sucked off or fly airplanes.” He is happy to have someone with whom he can say “sucked off.”
“I want both.”
“You’ll have to grow out of that, mister.”
Luke presses the honeycomb cutter into the rolled dough and begins to place the biscuits on a pan. “She’ll get over it,” he says.
“Can’t you just apply and then tell her you didn’t get in?”
Luke shakes his head. “Everyone gets into pharmacy school. If I’m not smart enough to count how many pills go in a bottle, I’m not smart enough to be a pilot.”
“You seem smart to me,” says Chuck. He would not ride in a plane flown by someone who did not understand air pressure, but this seems like a mean thing to say. He tries to think of something else. “Maybe you should be a vet,” he says.
“And stick a straw up a cat’s wang? No way.”
“They’re charging me an arm and a leg for it, though. I could get at least ten cats for the price of keeping this one.”
“Then why do it? Isn’t your cat totally old?”
Chuck remembers a night more than twenty years ago when he woke up to the sound of screaming. He ran down the hall of the trailer and into the main room to find Margo standing in her nightgown, holding a carton of Neapolitan ice cream. She scooped it out and flung it on the walls, the floor, the furniture. Ice cream sat melting on the seat of his recliner, left streaks of pink, brown, and yellow down the pleated fabric of the lampshade. Margo threw ice cream at him as well. Drops lingered in the hair on his chest.
“We had a baby that died once,” he says. “My wife gets upset over sickness.”
“Oh.” Luke has just taken some finished biscuits out of the oven. He stands in the middle of the aisle holding the pan and looking at Chuck. “I’m sorry.”
“Was it a boy or a girl?”
“Sarah. She died from SIDS.”
“It’s when a baby dies for no reason.”
“Oh.” Luke sets the pan of biscuits on the counter and begins to brush them with a butter mixture. They glisten gold under the fluorescent lights. “My mom got hit by lightning,” he says.
The Lion’s Club carnival has come to town, and Chuck takes Margo there to keep her from worrying over Petey. The carnival is set up on the campus of the community college; red-and-white striped tents perch over trampled grass and the clay dirt of a softball field. There is a carousel, a gravity wheel, and a long plastic slide children ride down on sheets of burlap. Every booth plays a diverent song, and the mixed music rises above the tents, where a Ferris wheel turns a bright-bulbed circle through the sky. Chuck and Margo eat hot dogs and nachos at a picnic table. The chili on the hot dogs is made by the Methodist church and needs more cumin.
“You can ride the rides if you want,” says Margo. She is too fat for most of the rides.
“Can you ride the bench on the carousel?”
They finish their hot dogs and ride the carousel, both of them sitting on the bright blue-and-yellow bench. Chuck watches the hooves of the horses move up and down in front of him. Gum is stuck on the hoof of one, and dirt is stuck on the gum. He looks away from the horses and out over the carnival grounds. A dunking chair, a cotton-candy booth, and a beanbag toss swing by him in a repeating loop. Parents stand outside the metal gate of the carousel and wave at their children on the horses. A man throws a burger wrapper toward a garbage can and misses. On his third time around, Chuck sees Luke buying a blue cotton candy for a girl who must be Kaleigh. She has long brown hair with chunky blonde highlights and is wearing a pink knitted cap. She is pretty and petite, just like Chuck imagined she would be. Luke pulls off a tuft of the cotton candy and puts it into Kaleigh’s mouth. He leans in to kiss her, but the carousel turns too far for Chuck to see the kiss. He finds himself hoping that Luke will see him. He wonders if it would be strange to say hello.
By the time the ride ends, though, Luke and Kaleigh have left the cotton-candy stand. It would definitely be strange to go looking for Luke, so Chuck decides not to. Since they cannot go on any more rides, he and Margo visit the game booths. They play a game of bingo but do not win any money. Chuck plays the football toss and wins a keychain with the mascot of a local school’s team on it. They buy a funnel cake and eat it next to the moon bounce, then they go into a tent where children are standing on stools and reaching into a large tank. The tank is shaped like a ring and made of metal; it is open at the top, and water flows around it in a loop. Floating on the water are dozens of plastic ducks in bright colors: pink, yellow, orange, green, and red. The object of the game is to lift the ducks out of the water and see what is written on their bellies. If the belly has a smiley face, you win a prize. If there is a frowny face, you win nothing. The more money you spend, the more ducks you get to pick up. The more smiley faces you get, the nicer your prize.
Chuck remembers that the Folgers can under the stove is now empty, but he still buys five dollars’ worth of ducks. Margo makes her way to the side of the tank, where children part for her girth. She picks up the first duck: a frowny face. The second duck is the same. Chuck feels a tap on his shoulder and turns around.
“Hey,” says Luke.
“Where’s Kaleigh?” says Chuck, and when Luke looks surprised, “I saw you buying cotton candy earlier. That was Kaleigh, wasn’t it?”
Luke laughs and says, “Yeah, it was. Did you think you got me in trouble?”
Chuck is startled. “No! I wouldn’t get you in trouble.”
“She met some of her friends. They went to do something, I don’t know. Whatever girls do.” Luke is casual, but there is a tenseness about his face that suggests he is still not getting sucked off. “Playing the ducks, huh?”
“Margo is,” Chuck says. Margo turns around at the sound of her name, and Chuck introduces her to Luke. He looks amused but not displeased, as if he had gone out to eat and been presented with a much larger portion than he expected.
“I’ve heard nice things about you,” he says, shaking Margo’s hand.
“And Chuck tells me all about you,” she replies, smiling at Chuck over Luke’s shoulder. Chuck feels his face go red.
“Good stuff, right?”
“Very good stuff, Luke.”
Margo shakes her head. “I got all frowns.” She holds up the fifth duck, on the belly of which is a sad face drawn in Sharpie.
Luke grins. “You’re just not listening to the ducks,” he says. “Watch.” He hands a ten-dollar bill to the man who runs the game. Chuck moves closer to the tank to watch. Luke shakes his shoulders, closes his eyes, and holds his hands palms down over the motorized river of ducks. He spreads his fingers and wiggles them, then stands perfectly still for several seconds before reaching down into the water and grabbing a pink duck. He opens his eyes and turns the duck over: a smiley face.
“Luck!” says Margo. She is laughing.
“No way,” says Luke, setting the duck on the edge of the tank. “Watch.” He performs the same silly ritual, and this time lifts a green duck, also with a smiley face. Chuck wonders if it is possible to cheat at this game. He does not see how it could be done. There is no reflection off the bottom of the tank. Luke’s third duck also has a smiley face. He must be very lucky.
“I am the god of ducks,” he says.
Now Chuck is laughing too. Children are abandoning their own ducks and watching the three of them. The man who runs the game is shaking his head and beaming. He also does not seem to believe Luke is cheating. Margo and Chuck stand on either side of Luke, and she looks at Chuck over Luke’s shoulder again, her dark brown eyes nearly lost in the laugh lines of her face. A feeling comes up in Chuck’s chest, stiv and aggressive, similar to heartburn but pleasant. Luke’s sixth duck is the first frowny, and gathered children and parents groan in dismay. Chuck reaches up to pat Luke on the back. The fabric of Luke’s T-shirt is soft and warm. “You’ll get the next one,” Chuck says.
Out of ten ducks, Luke gets smileys on seven. He receives a stuved blue kangaroo, which he tucks under his arm as he pulls out his phone to read a text message. It is from Kaleigh; she is waiting at the car. Chuck wonders how they can be off again. They seemed so close at the cotton-candy stand. Then again, he thinks, it has been a long time since he was eighteen. He may have forgotten what it was like.
Luke gives the kangaroo to Margo. “I hope your cat gets better,” he says.
“What a sweet boy,” says Margo later, as they walk across the field to their car. Squashed paper cups and burger wrappers dot the ground. Dozens of vehicles are parked on the grass in rows like typewriter keys. Chuck and Margo get into the Cougar and roll down the windows, Margo holding the kangaroo on her lap. She scratches its stiv ears and squeezes it, making the plastic bead stuffing crinkle.
Chuck drives them home over twisting double-lined roads, the summer air filling the car and moving their clothing. When they reach the railroad track, the light is flashing, and the striped barrier moves toward the road in a slow arc. A freight train hauls its black length across their path, and Chuck rolls up his window to dull the rumble. In the glow of the streetlight outside her own window, Margo further examines the kangaroo. She reads the tag to see how it should be washed. She runs her fingers over the blue belly to see if the pouch really opens and emits a soft sound of surprise when it does. Reaching her hand inside the pocket, she pauses and makes a confused face, then pulls something out.
“Chuck,” she says. He glances over and sees that she is clutching a folded twenty-dollar bill. She looks like she is going to cry.
“What a sweet boy,” she says, hugging the kangaroo to her chest and staring at the boxcars full of coal as they cross the road in steady, clanking succession. Chuck reaches over the gear shift and puts his hand on Margo’s arm. She takes one of her hands off the kangaroo and places it on top of his hand. Together they look in front of them. They wait for the train to pass.
The catheterization is a success. Petey must stay at the Lewisburg clinic for another day of observation, then he can return home. Margo calls Chuck at the restaurant at ten o’clock to tell him the news. Even though they are short on money, they decide they will celebrate by eating dinner at Hal’s Barbeque. Margo is so happy that Chuck becomes happy. He hums as he squeezes the meatloaf blend from its plastic freezer tube into the greased steel pan. Luke is scheduled in at noon, and Chuck is eager to thank him for the twenty dollars, and to tell him that Petey is fine.
But Luke does not arrive at noon. Occasionally he is late, so this must be one of those times. Chuck begins to mix the biscuit dough himself, so that Luke will not get in trouble. Maybe Luke is late because he and Kaleigh have reconciled, and they are lying in bed smiling and touching each other. Luke is brushing Kaleigh’s hair away from her ear and kissing it, whispering about how he will fly her away in a plane. Up above the mountains and across the sea, they will go, until they are soaring over Europe, over castles and cathedrals, over the kinds of things people like them almost never get to see. Chuck thinks this is a clever tactic. If it turns out the two have not reconciled, he will tell Luke to try it.
Chuck waits until twelve-thirty, but then he is unable to wait any longer. He has gotten the biscuits into the oven, but he cannot make cornbread and roast beef at the same time. He goes to the o˜ce and tells Bart that Luke is not there. Bart looks in the computer for Luke’s father’s number, and Chuck returns to the beef. He portions it and spoons the gravy on top, tucks a square of aluminum foil around the rim of each ramekin. He puts the first three ramekins into the oven and the rest into the walk-in refrigerator. When a quarter hour has passed, he returns to the o˜ce. Bart is sitting at his desk with the back of the phone receiver pressed against his lips. A series of shrill, demanding beeps from the earpiece indicate the connection is severed.
Chuck knocks on the open door, and Bart looks up but does not put down the receiver. “I spoke to Luke’s aunt,” he says.
Chuck hesitates. “Is Luke sick?”
“Luke’s, um . . .” Bart lowers the receiver and looks down at it in his hand like it is foreign and confounding. Moving very slowly, he hangs it up, then rubs his smooth cheeks and adjusts his glasses. “Luke’s dead, Chuck.”
The sudden onrush of adrenaline throws off Chuck’s center of balance; he grabs the edge of the office door and leans into it, dizzy. Bart’s shirt is lilac. The phone is white. The dry-erase board says, “The customer is always first.” Chuck digests these facts to remain in place. He hears himself say, “What?”
Bart clears his throat. “He and his girlfriend were hit by a semi-truck on Route 19 last night. The driver was drunk.”
“What about Kaleigh?”
Bart shakes his head. He clears his throat again and puts the palm of his hand against it as if he were choking. He closes his eyes for longer than a blink, then opens them again. “I guess I’ll, um . . . I guess I’ll get someone to come in and help you, if I can.”
Chuck leaves the doorway and heads down the server aisle toward the prep area. He stops in front of the coffee machine because his legs feel like noodles. Beside the coffee burners is a steel pan filled with mostly melted ice, and inside that pan is a smaller one filled with plastic one-serving creamers. Some of the packets have fallen out of their pan, and Chuck watches them bob in the icy water. He thinks of the ducks. He goes back to the prep area and begins to make the cornbread batter, stirring the bacon grease into the big steel bowl, feeling the mix grow thick and resist his arm. He pulls the whisk out of the bowl and stares at it, then somehow it slips out of his hand and hits the floor with a spatter of yellow gunk. Chuck bends down to pick it up, and then he is on his knees, and he is crying.
He bends all the way down to the floor, until his face is inches from the scum of grease and flour that always coats it. His tears leave dark round dots in the places they fall. Ripping through his chest is a jagged confusion; he does not understand what he is crying about. Even though he is sad about Luke, the happiness at Petey’s recovery has not gone away. Both are present in him like separate spices, and suddenly there are other flavors too, spices he cannot identify, mingling and building inside him until he can no longer pick out the taste of one over another. He sobs into the floor, the sound of it muted by the restaurant’s constant din of shouting and dish hoses and sizzling meat. He will not die on Route 19; he will never be hit by a drunk driver. He knows it as surely as he knows a thousand recipes. He will die here, baking biscuits, of a stroke or a massive heart attack. He will hit the floor on his back, gasping then going still, and flour will trickle over him like pollen, like early snow, like the ashes of Luke’s mother drifting down into the New River Gorge.
“God has a reason for everything,” says Margo that night at Hal’s Barbeque, where they have still decided to eat dinner. “We can’t see His whole plan, but all the pieces fit together in the end.”
Chuck has heard her say these things before. The idea itself does not make him feel better, but somehow the fact that she is still saying it does. It is nice to know that if the world were to burn, Margo would say God knew what He was doing. Chuck has never thought very much about God; even now, when such thinking would be understandable, he finds it does not hold his interest. He is paying attention to the barbeque in his mouth, tracing its history all the way back to the pig as it lies in the sun, to tomatoes bulging on some faraway vine, to vinegar and even mother of vinegar, bacteria grabbing hold inside wine and cider.
He lifts his cup of sweet tea with a serious face. “To Luke,” he says. “And Kaleigh.” Margo lifts her cup to tap it against his. “And also to Petey,” Chuck adds.
They cannot avord dessert, so they go home and eat popsicles on the porch. Margo slips her bloated feet out of her flip-flops and wiggles her toes over the concrete. A stretched, distorted shadow wiggles back at her in the lengthening light. She sucks on the popsicle, which is red, white, and blue. “Do you want to have sex?” she says.
They go inside to the bedroom. They undress separately, then Margo takes all the clothes to the hamper in the bathroom. She returns and sits down on the bed next to Chuck, the mattress creaking beneath her. Fat is gathered in rolls along the sides of her back, and between them just over her spine is a thin, smooth furrow of tighter skin. Chuck moves his rough fingers up and down this furrow, then moves to cup each roll individually. The fat fills his hands, rests its weight in them; he massages, then moves his fingers deep between the rolls, where body heat has gathered and covers his hands with a reassuring warmth.
They lie down side by side and kiss for a while, then Chuck moves down the mattress and places a hand on each of Margo’s knees. He spreads his arms, and her legs move apart, thighs hanging heavily around his head as he moves it toward the tiny slip of hair visible beneath the swoop of her stomach. This part is his favorite, the finding. On Margo’s body everything is exaggerated, thighs and stomach and vulva all engorged, all playful and hiding the part Chuck is looking for, the one he knows is tender and swelling, waiting for his mouth to discover it. This is the kind of sex they prefer now. It is nice, and not as athletic.
It does not take Margo long to come. She has always come easily and with relish, and this time is no diverent: the bed trembles as she thrusts into his face, groaning as loudly as she wants to. Her body rumbles and flaps, the rolling boil of her pleasure absorbing Chuck like a particle of salt. When she has cooled she does as much for him, taking him into her mouth with the same enthusiasm she gives to her favorite foods, tracing his shape over and over with her tongue, sucking until he thinks maybe he will have that heart attack here instead, he will die here in bed with his wife, and she will have to make him decent before the ambulance arrives.
When he finishes she says, “You taste good.” She smiles and wraps her arms around him until they have both caught their breath.
They lie together until they begin to get cold. They say I love you, then Margo goes to take a shower. Chuck puts on a T-shirt and a pair of boxers, gets a bottle of beer out of the refrigerator, and takes it out onto the front porch. He stands on the edge of the concrete slab, looking over the twilit yard. It is a chilly evening for August; it is the first night that fall has come into the air, breathing its shy and restful promise into the summer heat. Things will get easier in the restaurant after August. Children will go back to school, and families will stop traveling. People will save up their money for Christmas and will not go out to eat. Someone will still have to replace Luke, but Chuck will not see that person as much. They will work only one to a shift and see each other in passing.
Across the yard, the door of the blue trailer is standing open. Chuck steps off the porch in his bare feet and walks across the grass, climbs over the wooden fence with lumbering effort, and passes the chipped ceramic bear on his way up the steps of the back porch. He stands in front of the yawning doorway, sticks his head a short distance inside. A musty smell greets him, and beneath that is an acridness he cannot place. Though he saw them come in and out, he did not know the people who lived here. He wonders now who they were, and where they came from. They were cooks too, although they cooked meth. Chuck thinks about Cindy and wonders what has happened to her. He thinks about Bart, who works sixty hours a week at the restaurant and has to wear a tie every day. He thinks about Luke’s father, who has lost his family to accident. And he thinks about Luke and Kaleigh, who are in a funeral home at this very moment, perhaps getting makeup applied to their faces or having their hair arranged.
Light is leaving the yard, and Chuck stands on the porch as night enters the trailer, expanding unseen inside the empty rooms. Curiosity visits him, and he imagines going inside, exploring in darkness the emptied space of his neighbors. He stands for a moment with his hand on the threshold, then he reaches for the knob and swings the door shut, pushing all his weight against it until he hears the muffled latch. He climbs back over the low fence. He walks back across his own yard.
Tina Louise Blevins was educated at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and earned an MFA degree from the University of Virginia. Sadly, Tina died on December 2, 2012. A writer of great promise, she will be deeply missed. “God of Ducks” was her first published piece of fiction. It was selected for reprint in The Pushcart Prize XXXVIII: Best of the Small Presses.
“God of Ducks” appears in our Autumn 2012 issue.