The air conditioner was broken in Beau Silver's Silverspoon Diner. Even the red YOU ARE HERE dot on the Massachusetts map by the front door was sweating.
I followed Jinx to the old part, near the grill. The air was sticky, thick with the smell of bacon grease and sweat. The red, white, and blue crepe-paper streamers Beau'd hung for the Bicentennial Parade rippled below the ceiling fans.
Jinx picked a booth beside the jukebox. He dropped a quarter in the slot, and we sat down, him on one side, me on the other. I kept seeing that red YOU ARE HERE dot. Like the light that stays after a camera flash pops.
The grill hissed behind me. "Order up!" Beau Silver yelled.
Mama zipped past, four Tuesday specials balanced down the length of her arm. You would never catch me attempting such a feat! I was the klutz who alwaysmanaged to kick over the orange cones during relay races on field day. "Ours are up next," she said, flashing us a smile.
I smiled back. Jinx didn't bother. He hummed along to the jukebox, staring at the rig parked outside the window. A rig like Pa used to drive.
Mama returned with our plates.
It was Tuesday, Meat Loaf Night. All you can eat for $1.79. Jinx ordered fries, so just to be different, I asked for mashed potatoes. Mama had her usual: a tossed salad with blue-cheese dressing and a Pepsi Light. Mama didn't eat meat. She claimed it was on account of my being born in the meat department of Frank's Hometown Market. There she was, smack-dab in the middle of ordering a pound of cube steak when she went into labor. Frank himself brought me into the world, kicking and sliding on the cold gray tile in the back room, a leg of lamb swaying on a hook over our heads. That's the story I was told, anyway.
Mama undid her apron but left the HI! I'M CECILIA! pin on her uniform. She slid in beside me, her heavy pockets drooping to the sides like ears on a puppy dog. A lump of change pressed against my hip. "You're early," she said.
Jinx shot Mama a lopsided grin. "Afternoon foreman shut us down." He tapped a cigarette on the table and litit, blowing smoke rings that floated straight up and didn't dissolve till the ceiling fan got ahold of them. "Moron's got wood chips for brains. I'll be glad when I'm on nights again, away from his sorry ..." His eyes wandered back outside.
I felt a string on the hem of the shorts I'd made in Home Ec. I pulled and pulled till it snapped loose. "So, Mama," I said, "was it busy today?"
I stared at Mama staring at Jinx staring at whatever he was staring at. I got a good look at her face. I was on the side with the eye that got hit. Mama'd gobbed skin-colored cream on the bruise, then powder over that, but the bump still showed.
Mama rubbed her neck. "That it was, Blue. That it was."
A man who looked something like our real pa hopped in the rig parked by the window. I watched him start it up. Its rhythm rumbled, deep in my ribs. The truck pulled out, slapping a square of sun on our table.
I dug a green bean loose from the sticky mashedpotato lump. I worked my food into three separate piles and stared at the center of the plate where nothing touched anymore.
I felt Mama watching. "Anybody hungry?"
I didn't get to answer. Jinx did. "Now that you mention it, Ceil, I'm really not all that hungry. But I sure amthirsty as the devil." He signaled Beau Silver, pointing toward the middle handle on the beer tap.
"Lyle," Mama saidLyle is Jinx's real name"I thought you were working on your truck tonight." His old Ford pickup needed a muffler bad.
Jinx snuffed out his cigarette in the silver spoon-shaped ashtray and gulped down half the mug of beer Beau brought him. The frost melted where his fingers had been. "Don't start on me, Ceil."
Mama looked away. She poured dressing on her salad, sliding the lettuce and tomato and cucumber round and round in the fake wood bowl.
I took a bite of my meat loaf.
Jinx sucked down the rest of his beer, then waved to Beau Silver for another. Beau wiped his hands on his greasy apron and the mug disappeared.
I kept wishing Star'd walk in. It didn't seem to matter that she'd been gone a month almost. 'Cause every time the door swung open, I watched for her, hair wet from swim practice, smelling of chlorine, sunglasses resting low on her nose.
Beau brought Jinx a second beer. This time the glass wasn't frosty. The top didn't have any foam. The beer looked like pee. I pictured Star and me in the girls' bathroom on the other end of the diner, hooting at thethought of Jinx gulping down somebody's pee. Beau Silver's pee, maybe.
Jinx raised the mug. The bump in his throat bobbed up and down while he swallowed. Four big gulps.
Mama plunged her fork through a thick pile of lettuce. "How was your class party?" she asked me. We'd had our end-of-the-year picnic at Riverside Park that day.
"It was fun," I answered. "Bonnie Price and me went on the roller coaster nine times. Eddie Cumberland threw up on the Scrambler."
Mama smiled. "Sounds exciting. Was five dollars enough?"
"Plenty. I even had money left for games. Bonnie and me won matching mood rings." I flashed the stone at her. Pure black.
"Hey, Blue"Jinx stuck a giant wedge of meat loaf in his mouth, talking and chewing at the same time"seventh grade's been quite a drain on the old economy, hasn't it?"
My stomach grabbed hard on the meat loaf. "What do you mean?"
He stuck a handful of French fries in his mouth, smashing them into a pocket on the side of his face. "Well, seems you just needed five bucks a few weeks ago for some book fair"the lump in his cheek bounced tothe other side"and five more, right after, for some dumb present"
"It wasn't dumb," I said. My voice was calm but tight.
Mama's hand was on my knee under the table. I knew the squeeze meant stop, but I didn't.
"It was for our English teacher, Mrs. Fitzhugh. She's retiring." A truck pulled in where the other one had been. A huge, cool shadow fell over Mama and me. "We got her an engraved watch. All of us didI mean, we all chipped in."
Jinx's fork slammed the table. "Don't you mean your parents all chipped in?"
The people in the next booth turned to look.
Mama squeezed my knee again. Harder. See, she hadn't learned yet what Star and me figured out a long time agoif Jinx was looking to start a fire, he'd start a fire. And he'd find kindling anywhere he could.
Mama reached to touch Jinx's arm. He pulled it back so hard the seat on his side reared up then fell forward.
The people in the next booth got up to leave.
"Lyle," Mama whispered. "Let's not argue here. Please. I've got to work with these people."
Jinx glared at her.
I heard the grill hiss behind me. I heard Beau Silver yell "Order up!" Then I felt the sudden cold splash ofMama's Pepsi Light as Jinx leapt up and the table tipped toward us.
Beau Silver darted through the small swinging door at the end of the counter.
Jinx tore down the aisle.
Mama's eyes got red. Then wet. Her cakey makeup started to run, and her bruisea secret she thought she'd buriedfloated into view.
Beau lifted the table off our legs. He used his rag to dab a blob of blue cheese off Mama's shoulder. Ketchup was smeared on her chest.
I watched out the window as Jinx jumped into his rusty black pickup, gunning the gas pedal hard. A cloud of thick, smelly smoke clung close on all sides.
Mama avoided the eyes staring her down. "Come on, Blue," she said. "Let's go wash up in the little girls' room."
Jinx's truck coughed exhaust as it roared across the parking lot.
I brushed his French fries off the vinyl seat and slid out, relishing the loud clanging noise his muffler made dropping loose in a giant pothole.
Copyright © 2004 by Michelle D. Kwasney