I step off the city bus at the courthouse, buttoning my K-Mart fake cashmere coat up to the collar. The sky’s white as a blank sheet of paper, so cold it aches to take a deep breath. I hurry three blocks to the Rexall, purse dangling from my shoulder, heavy stack of school books shifting arm to arm. My ears are freezing numb and a blister at my heel’s popped and rubbed raw. Which means my new stockings are trashed.
Everything’s still Christmassy in town—strings of colored lights across the streets, decorated trees in shop windows, Santa scenes, train sets, doll babies. Now shabby and sad as a leftover turkey carcass.
Rexall just hired a new soda fountain guy and doesn’t need anybody else. Miriam’s Fine Fashions is still closed for the holidays. The Beauty Box and the hardware store aren’t hiring. Where the shops end on my side of Main Street, I cross the railroad tracks and try the other side.
No luck at the Five and Dime, Jinx’s Fabrics, or the Feed and Seed. First Bethany Bank, on the corner of Oak and Main, is shut down for the weekend. I cut through the bank parking lot and limp my way down Oak. I don’t bother with Quigley’s Funeral Home. Next is the two-story, blue Victorian house that’s now—according to the sign in front—a lawyer’s office and an insurance agency. The door’s locked. Friday afternoon might not be the best time to look for a job. I keep walking. The beautiful old homes give way to a row of one-story shingle houses with rusted awnings, overgrown yards, and old cars on concrete blocks. I’m about to give up and turn around when I spot The Grill on the corner. I’ve always thought it looked seedy, a dingy-white concrete bunker of a place.
Merry Xmas and Happy New Year is scrawled across the front glass in fake, spray-on snow. Inside an aluminum Christmas tree rotates under a spotlight that changes from red to yellow to green. I take the green light as a sign and open the door. A cowbell clanks to announce me. It’s a small diner with about a dozen red vinyl booths and a few tables in between, a jukebox in one corner, and a soda fountain where two cops are perched on stools, smoking and drinking coffee. They’re the only customers. Nobody’s at the cash register. I stand by the Kiwanis bubblegum machine, shifting my books and shedding my coat, waiting for somebody to speak to. When the cops stand and head toward the cash register, a waitress in a turquoise uniform busts through a pair of swinging doors to meet them.
“Boots treat y’all right?” The waitress flashes the older, heavier cop a grin, takes his money, punches the register, makes change, and sticks his bill on a spike in less than three seconds. Her Elvis-black hair’s in a French twist. Her uniform’s so tight over her big bosom that the buttons strain to stay closed. Elsewhere, she’s thin as can be.
“You gals always take good care of us,” the cop says.
“You know it, sugar.” The waitress grins and winks.
The younger cop pops a toothpick in his mouth and puts his hat on. I move aside as they pass me on their way out, handcuffs and keys jangling.
“Help you, hon?” the waitress says. Her name tag reads Carlene.
“I was, uh, just wondering if y’all needed any help. Just part-time, I mean. I’m in school.”
“You old enough to work?” She looks me up and down, a teasing smile on her face.
“How old you got to be?”
“Old enough to be hard-down desperate, I reckon.” She laughs. “We did have a gal quit last week. Lemme go ask the boss man.” She disappears through the double doors again and I hear her yell, loud as a hog caller, “Mr. B, somebody’s out here asking for a job.”
In a moment she’s back. “He says come on.”
I look for a spot to leave my coat and books. Behind the fountain is a middle-aged, orange-haired waitress with a sour look on her face. If she was there before, I didn’t notice. “Mind if I leave my things here a minute?” I ask.
“Suit your own self,” she says, shrugging her shoulders.
“Go ahead. No skin offa her ol’ buffalo hide,” Carlene says.
I leave my coat on one stool and my books on another and follow Carlene through the double doors into the kitchen. Steamy hot air and the smell of deep fat frying hit me in the face. Silverware clinks and plates clatter. A colored woman the size of a fridge is tending the grill. She wears a spattered white apron and a yellow shower cap over her hair. “Jubilee?” I say.
She looks up, surprised, then breaks out a smile. “Well, if it ain’t Little Sissy, I’ll declare.” She wipes sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. “You grown two foot since last time I seen you. What you doing here?”
“Looking for a job.”
She forks meat from a vat of popping grease and piles it on a platter. A stack of whole catfish, missing only the heads. “I sure was sorry to hear Miz Caledonia passed,” she says. “Mighty fine lady, she was.”
My throat narrows into a hard knot. I look away. “Thanks.”
She turns her head and yells, “Get me some plates over here, Junior, and I don’t mean tomorrow.”
A teenage colored boy in an apron lumbers over with a stack of plates. “This here’s my baby,” Jubilee says. “Henry Junior.”
“Hey,” I say. The boy nods and sets the plates beside the fryer.
“Boss back yonder.” Jubilee motions with her head. “Good luck.”
At the back wall a bald man in a short-sleeved white shirt hunches over a stool. I head that way, dodging pools of water on the cracked linoleum floor.
“Sir?” I say, standing right behind him. He’s punching keys on an adding machine. “Excuse me, sir?” I say again. He doesn’t move. “Sir?” I say louder. He still doesn’t move so I go ahead and talk to the back of his bald head. “I’m here to see about a job.”
He turns around slow as a sleepy dog. His nose is red and he’s gnawing the burned-out stump of a cigar. He rolls it from one side of his mouth to the other, under his thick gray moustache, yellow at the lips from tobacco. His eyes take a moment to find mine. “Ya are?” he says. A blast of whiskey breath backs me up a step.
“You got any ’sperience?”
“’Sperience. You done any kinda job before?” He sways a little. For a minute I think he’s going to fall off the stool.
“No, sir. But I learn fast.”
A crash of dishes makes him throw both hands in the air. “God bless our happy home,” he says. “That clumsy boy gonna put me in the poorhouse.”
“I got it, Mr. B,” Jubilee calls out.
Mr. B’s foot slaps the floor and he swings around, squints at a wall calendar. “This’s Friday… no, Saturday…no, by God, it’s Friday.” He picks up a pencil, eraser end down. “What’s your name anyway?”
“Callie. Callie Ingram.”
“Awright, Cowiegram, six o’clock sharp to-goddamn-morrow.” First he tries to write with the eraser, then flips the pencil over and scribbles a K in the square for Saturday. “Don’t drink the orange juice, it costs me a butt cheek. And don’t count your tips in front of the customers.”
“Yes, sir. Uh, do you mean six in the morning?”
“Morning for Chrissake, morning.” He swats the air like he’s after a fly. “Juby’ll find you a uniform.” Then he starts punching the adding machine again.
I stand there, stunned. Did I just get a job? I turn and head back to the grill.
“He said ask you for a uniform,” I tell Jubilee.
“Lord, Lord.” She sets three catfish platters on the pass-through ledge, rings a bell, wipes her hands on her apron then shows me to the lockers.
First thing I do when I get home is try on my uniform. It’s turquoise like Carlene’s and at least two sizes too big with puffy, peasant sleeves and an apron sewn into the skirt. I’m still wearing it when I hear Daddy’s truck in the driveway. I rush to the kitchen. Ruth Anne’s all dolled up for a date, sitting at the table, drinking a Coke and reading Mademoiselle. She stole my cologne. I can smell it.
“What the hell?” she says. “You look like a polka reject from The Lawrence Welk Show. Or one of those figures that jumps out of a cuckoo clock.”
“Very funny.” Soon as Daddy steps in the door, I say, “Guess what? I got a job.”
He takes off his greasy Adams Fertilizer baseball cap and tosses it on the counter. He reeks of motor oil and cigarette smoke. “Well, I’ll be damned.” He smiles, squinting a little from the Viceroy dangling from his lips. “Where at?”
“You know that little diner on Oak? It’ll just be Saturdays and a couple afternoons a week. I start tomorrow.”
“That place is a dump,” Ruth Anne says. “I ate there one time and got sick as a buzzard.”
“Well, long as you keep up your school work,” Daddy says.
“I’ll keep up,” I say, smiling at the sick buzzard. Smirking actually.
I wake up with a jolt in the middle of the night.
“Where you been?” Daddy’s voice, loud. “You got a midnight curfew and here it is three a.m.”
“You shoulda gone to bed.” Ruth Anne.
“I went to a party with Gus. Not that it’s any of your business. I’m seventeen years old, for God’s sake.”
“You are my business long as you live here. You been drinking. I can smell it.”
“So call J. Edgar Hoover.”
“Don’t you sass me, young lady. Who is this boy anyway?”
“Don’t worry about it,” she says. Feet down the hall. Ruth Anne’s door opens, bangs shut. Daddy knocks, rattles the knob. “I ain’t through with you,” he says, giving the door a kick.
I hear Ruth Anne’s window slide up, the screen pop out. Rustling sounds.
“I said open the goddamn door.”
No answer. She’s gone. My heart’s racing and my gut’s in a wad. Not that I give one subatomic particle what my sister’s up to. It just kills me what she does to Daddy. God knows, he’s got a hard enough time trying to raise us without Nana.