I had the next day off. The chill of my nightmares still clung to my bones that morning, so I selected a new book – I had finished the one I’d been reading the night before – and took it outside with me.
Summer had arrived a month early in Georgia this year, and now that we were in the dog days of it, the heat and humidity had created a cloying, oppressive atmosphere that was damn near tyrannical. For two weeks now I had felt a thunderstorm building, the air getting denser and stiller with every passing day, and yet the clouds that dotted the cornflower blue sky were still few and far between. The man on the news this morning had warned that it would be some time before the weather broke, and had cautioned the old and the infirm to stay indoors and the rest of us to stay well hydrated.
Momma had a dozen phrases for this kind of heat. “Ruby, there’s nothing but a screen door between here and hell,” was a particular favorite. So was, “Seems like Satan has come to spend his summer vacation in Georgia.” Momma had talked about the devil almost as much as she talked about sin.
The yard was overgrown with an ocean of weeds that rushed right up to the small brick patio just outside the front door like waves crashing into a seawall. On it stood the charcoal grill that I hadn’t touched in months, my rust-caked beach chair, and a small, plastic end table that had started life a vibrant crimson, but had since faded to a pale, lifeless pink. I set the towel and book I carried down onto the chair, and, remembering what the weatherman had said, went to fetch myself some water. Beads of condensation sprung out over the tall glass the second I stepped back outside, forcing me to carry it two-handed so I didn’t drop it.
The one good thing about the lack of rain was that the Jurassic-sized mosquitoes that normally plagued this swamp-infested part of the county were few and far between. I heard not so much as a hum of one while I laid out.
I only lasted an hour. And when I peeled myself up off my towel, an outline of where I had been was clearly visible in sweat. Gross. At least I wasn’t cold anymore.
I went inside and took a long, lukewarm shower. When I was done, I wiped the mirror off and inspected my reflection, trying to determine whether I had noticeably tanned. In the winter, my skin was a deep olive. In the summers it easily darkened to bronze. Spic, towel-head, wop, dago, nigger, curry powder, I had heard them all. No one knew what my heritage was, just that I probably wasn’t white, so they called me whatever new slurs they learned from their parents or made up on the fly.
Momma had said my father was Indian, or maybe Greek or Cuban. Or Italian. Or Egyptian. Her guesses changed throughout the years. She had met him in Biloxi, when she and a few friends had gone down for a weekend of fun and gambling. He had been a sailor on shore leave with beautiful dark skin and muddy green eyes. She never did get his last name, and so when she realized she was pregnant, she didn’t try to find him. Why risk getting worked up and going through all that trouble to track him down just so he could tell her that he wanted nothing to do with her or a baby?
Part of me wished that she had. If only so I knew which slurs were applicable.
My hair was thick and dark and wavy. I wore it long, because it was easier to deal with when it was. Most days I plaited it in a braid down my back. Today I decided to let it air dry while I tweezed my eyebrows, which seemed hell bent on invading my entire browline. When I was done, I straightened and inspected my reflection. I had grown into my face some. My skin was even and smooth, and my nose was straight, if a little large for my face. My eyes, muddy green like my father’s, didn’t appear so far apart anymore, and my lips were nice and full. I kept them closed as much as possible since outgrowing my allergies, because my teeth were as crooked as ever and the years of being called snaggletooth by my classmates had worked their way beneath my skin and dug their claws in.
I would never be beautiful; the most I could hope for was pretty, and it had taken me years to accept that fact. As a child I had read too many stories with the ugly duckling growing into the graceful swan theme. They had given me hope. False hope, it turned out, and I resented them for that.
I worked long shifts at the diner six days a week, so the one day I had off I usually spent running errands. Today was no different. My aging Jeep Cherokee needed an oil change. And then it was the laundry mat, the post office to mail off bills, and finally, grocery shopping two towns over at the nearest bulk store. I ran into Billy Cudger there, one of my old highschool boyfriends, and his wife Melissa, who had graduated a year after us. They had a snot-nosed toddler in their cart, and by the looks of Melissa, another one due soon. I came around the corner just as they were arguing over the price of potatoes.
It had been an awkward exchange, to say the least, and I had gotten out of there as quickly as possible, storing the memory of them away for the next time I felt lonely. Lonely I could manage. Being poor I could manage. Being so poor that I had to argue with my partner about whether or not we could afford potatoes? No thank you.
It was three days later when he came in again. The lunch rush was over, and dinner was still a ways off. There was a lone trucker sitting at one end of the counter, staring off into space as he crunched on his salad. His wife had nagged him into eating better, he had explained after ordering, as if I had been judging him. As if eating a salad somehow brought his manliness into question.
Ah, the fragility of masculinity.
Normally I would have spaced out, thought myself elsewhere, to a place filled with magic and mayhem. But the past few days had been different. The past few days I had been locked in, keyed up, almost as if I was hoping that the stranger would come back. I tried to tell myself that it had nothing to do with his looks, or the suicidal bird, or the strange hush that followed him out, or my continued nightmares. That it was just the break in the monotony that I craved. But I was self-aware enough that it was difficult to lie to myself.
I perked up when I heard the crunch of gravel beneath tires. A non-descript white car that looked like it had a higher mpg rating than it did horsepower pulled around the side of the diner and slid into a parking space. I sank back down, disappointed. Men like him didn’t own cars like that. I had learned this from the countless romance novels I’d read. They rode Harley’s, or drove sleek European imports, or souped up muscle cars with roaring engines.
The door of the car opened and out he stepped, proving me wrong. “Now that’s a tall drink of water,” Momma would have said with a whistle. Then she would have elbowed me in the ribs and added, “And I’m just dying of thirst,” before cackling like some sort of deranged hyena. No shame, that woman.
God, I missed her.
The man wore jeans and a white v-neck t-shirt. He had a nice build. Broad shoulders, tapering waist, not too muscle bound, but clearly he worked out. More like a triathlete than a body builder. His hair looked slightly windswept, as if he had been driving with the windows down. Highly reflective aviators hid his eyes from view.
I took this all in at a glance, my pride refusing to let me be caught staring. Even if the only one to do so would be a trucker who’d recently been emasculated by lettuce.
The bell over the door chimed when the man walked in. He pushed the aviators up onto his head so that they kept the longer pieces of his hair from falling into his eyes, glanced around the diner, and smiled when he spotted me.
Overhead, the music still filtered down from the speakers in the ceiling. Behind me, plates still rattled in the kitchen. The trucker glanced up, gave the newcomer the once over, and then tucked back into his salad, nonplussed.
Had I been living so long in imaginary worlds that I was having trouble separating fantasy from reality? Or had I been so thunderstruck the first time I had seen him that I had zeroed in on him like a hunting hound and simply filtered everything else out? Either way, I felt like a damned fool.
“Hiya Ruby,” the stranger said, coming right over to plop down onto the stool across from me.
“Hi,” I said. “What can I get for you today?”
“Name’s Levi,” he said, extending a hand across the counter.
I didn’t want to take it, but years of Momma’s lectures on politeness bore down on me. His hand was warm and firm, completely covering mine in his large grip. I shook it once and let go.
“Nice to meet you, Levi,” I said.
He looked past me, at the menu scrawled out in chalk over the blackboard that hung on the wall. I tried not to stare, but up close his eyes were such a striking color blue, and his features so breathtakingly handsome, that I was finding it hard to force my gaze away.
“I’ll have a chocolate malt again, and a plate of chicken fingers with French fries and a side of honey and ketchup.”
“Sure thing,” I said, turning away to put the order in.
“So, you from the area?” he asked as I was making his drink.
Why? I almost blurted. I took a deep breath, telling myself that he was just being friendly. That just because I thought he was handsome didn’t mean that I had to be a jerk to him. That it was just a defensive mechanism. Reject him before he could reject me. That was my shit. My baggage. I’d be an asshole to take it out on him.
I’d heard this exact same question from hundreds of people, usually because they were passing through and wanted to know if there was anything they should do or see before they left, and I resolved myself to treat him exactly the way I had all those others.
“Sure am,” I answered.
“Anything fun to do around here?” he asked.
I almost smiled. Yup, just like the others.
“Honestly? No,” I said, handing him his drink.
His looked at me askance, unconvinced. “Aw, come on. There’s not a good swimming hole? A creepy old run down building you dared each other to go explore as kids? Gossipy old biddies to set all atwitter? I just moved in next town over, and I’m already running out of ways to keep myself occupied on weekends.”
My stomach sank. He had moved in. He wasn’t just visiting. I might have to see him on a regular basis. The thought bothered me. I already had books filling up my head with worlds that I could never live in. Last thing I needed was someone like him filling up my world with things I could never have.
Again, not his fault, I reminded myself.
“In that case,” I said, having to look away from him when he wrapped his lips around the straw and began to suck down his malt, “there’s a good creek for fishing on Old Mill Road, out at mile marker twelve. The buildings that are falling down aren’t really creepy, just depressing, but they say the cemetery is haunted, so you could always stroll through it at midnight if you want to freak yourself out. And the old biddies are always all atwitter. They spend their days down on Branford, at the hair salon or the bakery next door. You’re new in town, so all you’d have to do is walk by to stir them up.”
“Yeah?” he said, brightening. He was charismatic, I’d give him that.
I smiled in response, careful to keep my lips closed. “Sure.”
“And if I walked by next to a pretty local girl like yourself?”
I couldn’t tell if he was flirting, teasing, or just playful by nature. What I did know was that the truth – that those old bitches would probably whisper cattily to each other about what a shame it was that a nice white boy like himself would muddy the waters with trailer trash like me – would probably put an end to his smiling, and I didn’t want to be the one to do that.
“Oh, that would definitely set some tongues wagging,” I said instead.
He slurped down the last of his malt and slapped the counter. “That settles it. When do you want to meet up?”
The mischievous look he gave me made me feel like we were co-conspirators in some hilarious prank, and I began to think that he wasn’t teasing or flirting, but that we was just a nice guy. New in town and maybe a little lonely. Looking to make his first friend in an unfamiliar place. A petty part of me also relished the idea of strolling through downtown with him. Of those even pettier old women not being able to say a goddamn word of warning to this man without sounding like the racists they were.
And so I made a deal to meet him at the café in town for coffee on Saturday morning, with plans to walk up and down the street several times to make sure we were seen.
It was the first of many deals I made with him. All of which I would live to regret.