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The ladies of the church often noted that Hattie Bohannon appeared taller than she really was. They regretted that she took a tan well and looked fashionable, while most women her age, raised on the class/ color quotient, had shied from the sun to maintain their perch above the rising tide of social democracy. However, current fashion equated tans with health and youth. So these same women drove first to the tanning salon on the town square, where they burned for $15 an hour, and then trudged to a pink gym twice a week so they could jiggle in pastel sweatsuits, like fruit-and-butterscotch swirl puddings, in front of a huge mirror. They drew the line at the sauna. Diseases lurked there.
What disturbed them even more about Hattie Bohannon was her ease in handling orphanhood, widowhood, and de facto single parenthood. Hattie had no breakdowns or depressions or weight gains or drug dependencies. Equally disturbing was her smooth clear skin that hinted of expensive treatments, old Atlanta, and inner peace. There was no Christian way not to admire her.
She was friendly and moral—the kind of woman you could trust with your husband—but come to think of it, that was a little peculiar. Did she think she was too good for their husbands? Impossible. She was from Brentone, the resort town on the other side of the mountain, where questionable things wenton. Northerners vacationed there, demanding foods with foreign names. They spent the evenings splashing nude (it was reported) in the natural springs. As a girl, Hattie Dameron had waitressed at the resort and snagged Oakley Bohannon, a man twice her age, for a husband.
In truth, the Resurrection ladies claimed they rarely thought of her, except on the few occasions when they emerged from aerobics, sapped and glowing, and spotted her coming from the bank, dry in a cotton print dress, another transaction mastered and satisfaction reflected in her calm smile. That woman could flatter a pair of overalls, they'd think, and wonder what they were doing wrong—not that they'd be caught dead in overalls.
They watched her new truck-stop venture with more attention. Even went up there and ate and were surprised that the grubs—truckers—it was designed for had not made the place grubby. It was okay for a cheap meal, say on a Wednesday night before church, but not the place to go for a nice dinner out.
This gossip that clogged the telephone wires at the Maridoches exchange drove Jewell Miller, telephone operator and police dispatcher, veteran of World War II, absolutely mad. Was this the democracy she had fought for in the Women's Army Corps? Was this why she had lost her left leg below the knee? More than once she'd misconnected parties only to have the conversations flow smoothly into one another without a pause for subject-verb agreement.
In the blue light of the dawn, Hattie Bohannon held her hand out to feel the air. She stood in shadow on her porch and leaned over the rail, testing the darkness. In it she smelled heat, the tips of summer's fingers creeping into the valley. From now on, whatever drifted into Maridoches would wallow there until football season began.
Hattie licked her lips. It would be her truck stop's first summer. Fifty yards below her house it gleamed, an island of light in the Ruby River Valley. She had created a world bigger than the dark mountains outlined across the highway, a world as vast as the brightening sky. Seeds planted in distant soils, in arid climates and in cold ones, grew into vegetables and grains, were harvested, packed, and sent in cool trucks to her address, where they nourished thousands of customers, who, in her mind's eye, became a sea of different-colored bill caps bent over Coca-Colas. Mississippi catfish slinking along muddy river bottoms, Iowa beef grazing dumbly near corrugated steel sheds, Florida oranges fluorescent against their green foliage, crisp apples from Delaware, Kentucky raspberries so lusciously red she always wanted to plunge her hands into the containers. Her heart beat with awe at the world she had spun around her.
She tested the cup of coffee cooling on the rail. Mornings like this made her miss Oakley. The big sign over his former fields, Bohannon's, would have pleased him. But this was not his world anymore. She'd razed his tobacco barn to make room for the truck stop. The dark wood had heaved and groaned before collapsing into the sweetest-smelling lumber she'd ever known. She was glad he'd been in Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., the last four years, spared the upheaval of the interstate. But he'd always imagined coming back home. She sighed. A year after his death, his body was stuck in beaurocratic limbo. The good people at Walter Reed had lost his remains. She drained her coffee and went inside to rouse her daughters.
When she came out, dressed in her uniform, ready to lead her parade of girls to work, she saw a tractor trailer, sporting a logo of vegetables doing the can-can, park behind the truck stop. Hattie leapt off the porch and ran down the driveway past the bank of wild roses, scattering gravel, until her sneakers smacked the flat blacktop parking lot. As the truck's accordion back door squealed open, she picked up her pace. She flung herself across the delivery entrance. Her breath was hot.
A trucker in wide-hipped jeans backed toward her, balancing a box in his arms.
"Open that box," she said. A broom leaned against the wall, just out of reach.
He swung around and stepped toward her. Two drops of sweat peered, like the eyes of a field mouse, out of his mustache. She didn't recognize him—probably an independent, gotten cheap. His box of Florida Sun-Ripened Tomatoes rested in his arms just inches from her nose. Flattened against the closed door, she looked beyond him into the yawning trailer full of gassed vegetables. Once he got the box into the truck stop, she had to accept this delivery.
"Open it." A small crowd, witnesses, had come out of the restaurant. She pushed the box back at him.
He staggered. "Lady, I'm not going to unload every tomato by hand."
"Open the box."
The box slid down to the shimmering pavement. He ripped the cardboard and, with a grin, raised a pink tomato above his head. The crowd booed. He hitched his pants, paused, hitched them again, then strutted toward the loaded dolly.
"Don't unload another one of those things." Hattie picked up the broom and stepped into the lot. She tossed the firm tomato high above the truck, a pink ball brilliant against the blue sky. As it fell, she swung. A solid hit on the broom straw. The tomato careened off the shiny truck, barely missing the trucker's head, and landed in the parking lot.
Gee Sullivan, a regular customer who was half deaf, hollered, "It ain't even split."
"Hit another one, Hattie, to make sure," said Haw, Gee's twin.
She rested the broom against the wall and waved the customers away. "I got business to take care of." Not a bad swing for a forty-two-year-old, she thought. She yelled to the trucker, who shoved the box with his foot. "I won't buy shoddy produce. This is the third shipment in a row of substandard vegetables. Tell Mr. Ranford I wouldn't take them."
"I'll save him some trouble. This is the last delivery you'll see for a while," said the trucker.
Hattie turned on her heel and strode into her restaurant, where the steady sound of silverware and the intermittent flutter of napkins was all the applause she needed. The place was clean and comfortable. She conceded one small aisle to the right of the cashier for chips, candy, cigarettes, and cold drinks. A red arrow glued to the cash register directed customers down the long counter that swept into a curve, opening up a large room lined with padded booths and private phones, the preference of truckers and travelers. In the center of the room, beneath a shower of country songs, round tables spun with local romance.
The decor did not look like it belonged in a truck stop. Hattie refused the deer heads, stuffed fish, and presidents' portraits suggested by Kenny Ranford's salesman. She believed people wanted to eat in comfort without something dead looking at them. She painted the walls sky blue, chose dark blue seat covers, and placed seasonal flowers in thin juice glasses on the tables.
Weaving through the breakfast crowd, Hattie smiled as she recalled her interview with Kenny Ranford two years ago. He'd said, "You are doing this truck-stop thing because you have no other way to make a living. You are a desperate woman."
Desperate as Hank Aaron, she thought. Desperate as Babe Ruth. In her office, she opened the ledger to the savings account and felt a quick rush of pleasure. The balance always gave her a lift, not that she had extravagant plans for the profits she made. Only to send Heather, who was seven, to college when the time came. The other girls, Connie at sixteen, Darla, eighteen, and Jessamine, twenty-one, were too old to benefit from a savings plan. They thought she ought to get a new car. She had no use for a new car. True, Oakley's Jetstar 88 was an antique, having passed its twentieth birthday. But it was a large steel machine and it gave her a tremendous sense of security as she drove on the highway. Let those expensive toys cruise by but they'd better not hit her. The Jetstar would squash them flat. No, she'd tell her girls, I don't need a new car. This one is in prime condition. No sense replacing steel with fiberglass. Kenny Ranford wanted her to be a showy success. He'd cook up something like a gold Cadillac with a vanity plate proclaiming EATS.
She picked up the mail, half sorted. A pink envelope from North Carolina topped the stack. Inside was a matchbook. Printed in red and black letters, its cover read: FULL-COLOR PHOTOS OF BEAUTIFUL MODELS ON ADHESIVE-BACKED DECALS. Its small print said, Apply to automobile dash or locker door or carry in wallet. She unfolded the matchbook. A naked woman stretched diagonally across the yellow one-by-one inch square. Her glow-in-the-dark red mouth was open, her eyes shut, one hand on a bent knee, the other cupping her thigh underneath her very white buttocks. She was wearing short black heels. The photo was out of focus. Dixie Nudes, indeed.
Hattie threw it in the trash. She was amazed by the amount of creativity that went into the advertisement of condoms. Scented ones she could not fathom. If you had to scent the condom, you shouldn't be near the man who needed it. Naturally, Kenny Ranford had told her nothing about the disgusting machines that could junk up her rest rooms if she let them. Instead, he delighted in annoying her and began their conversations with his private secret of success. "I offer truck-stop franchises to single mothers. Divorced women. I do not mean the women with gold bracelets on their arms and booze on their breath. I mean women who fall into bed every night and sing hallelujah for the soft cushion of their pillows."
She thought of Kenny's saying on nights when she found the softness of the pillow too oppressively nonhuman. Then she'd get furious. If the Veterans Administration returned Oakley's body, she could forge a new social life. With, perhaps, the sheriff? She flushed. He was due at ten o'clock with his squad for breakfast.
"I am not desperate," she announced to herself. Adversity was an old defeated friend, and Hattie, who believed she operated best under duress, looked forward to beating the business odds in the same foolish perverse way she had looked forward to the labor and delivery of her first child.
The red-orange soup puckered then popped loud kisses as I bent over the cauldron, a two-gallon can of kidney beans digging into my hip. If I hurried the simmer, I could add cayenne before Gert, the day cook, returned with the meat for her special spaghetti sauce. Even though I was the kitchen manager at the truck stop, she and I fought all the time over the recipes. Gert thought there were three food groups: sugar, salt, and oil. If I cooked up a vegetable, she slipped a slab of bacon into the pot. I preferred food to taste like itself.
I tipped the can and stirred. The beans settled like silt. Strips of jalapeños, seeds intact, and sliced red onions bobbed in the thickening stew. I picked up the pepper sauce and shook it into the pot. That would give truckers a wake-up call before they hit the road.
Gert said that's not our job. They got drugs for that.
She came back overloaded with packages of ground beef. Because she forced all her thick hair into a hair net, her nose gained prominence, arching forward like a dolphin diving into the spray. Her head looked unbalanced. Gert dumped the packages on the counter, then knifed each one before skinning off the plastic and cracking the Styrofoam backing. The meat hissed as it hit the hot griddle. I shuddered to imagine her with a fresh-shot deer.
When the ground beef turned from pink to brown, Gert took up her dicing knife and quartered a dozen garlic cloves. She scooted the shavings into a pile. "When is your mama going out with the sheriff?"
She liked to bring Mama into our arguments. It was her way of saying if I wasn't the owner's daughter, she'd be the manager and I'd be the cook. "Sheriff Dodd's a regular customer, that's all."
"She ought to be looking somewhere else for happiness," Gert said.
"She's not dating him, okay?" I scraped the cauldron hard to drown out what she might say next.
"Your mother's been off her feed of late." Gert moved down the grill and poked the warming sausages with a giant prong.
I glanced at the clock. My heart picked up a beat. Soon Richard would arrive and I would go on break. I pictured him like he was the day we met, standing on the deck of a speedboat, the wind whipping around his tanned chest, the flecks of gray in his hair like the rifts of foam on the dark lake.
"It's hot as hell," said Gert, as she threw open the back door. Late spring's languor was starting to build on the blacktop.
A drop of sweat formed on my forehead and fell toward the chili. I lifted my head to brush it dry and saw Richard staring through the EMPLOYEES ONLY door. I blushed to my roots because I knew from his crooked grin that we were remembering another drop of sweat and how it came to be, he and I so close we shared it. I watched the drop spread on the edge of the pot and vanish.
Even without looking I knew his shirt was tucked crisply into his ironed khakis. He had a nice face, with just enough cheekbone to offset his blue eyes. He was forty-seven but still built, square shouldered, kind of shy in public like me. Our bodies talked best for us.
Gert peered down her arched nose at me. She knew the air had changed and she seemed to have got a whiff of why. She shook her head and went harumpf and muttered some evil little prayer, but I did not care because I knew what Richard and me did was absolutely right.
I tasted the chili and it was perfect, full-bodied and peppery.
Gert took off her apron and freed her thick dark hair from the hair net. Swaths of flesh fell from her shoulders and gathered neatly like balloon drapes above her hard round elbows. The rest of her looked solid, shoulders and legs muscled for action. "I'm going to ask your mother to come to church with me."
She was gone before I could answer. Richard said Gert's church, the Church of the Holy Resurrection, was like the kudzu weed overrunning the South. His wife attended services there daily. Mama would never brighten their door. Richard's clean plate came in on Connie's tray, the circle of crab apple placed dead center, like a bull's eye.
It was cool and dark in the storeroom. I lingered in Mama's recliner, soft gold, worn corduroy. It reminded me of the rows of corn across the valley in the fall, burnished and even. I leaned back, cradled by the soft cloth, and smiled. It was all I could do. My clothes were here and there and Richard had left me glowing again.
He had held my breasts as if they were precious and fragile, then caressed them with his mouth as if they provided succulent necessary nourishment. He did this before and after and during.
The chair felt to me like the hand of God. I was held in His great palm, the golden light of His approval washing over us as we made love. There was nothing else that feeling could be but holy.
Excerpted from RUBY RIVER by Lynn Pruett. Copyright © 2002 by Lynn Pruett. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.