“Marie, pretty darlin’,” Hank snarled, “I will have another slice of that delicious blueberry pie.”
The oaf’s saliva dangled on his chin, thick and full just like the late afternoon sun heating the parched lawn outside. 4th of July and the last stragglers who’d visited the Chicopee Parade were on their way home. Two young boys by the entrance threw cake muck at each other and their mother sat there, with the silent sun silhouetting her. She was defeated and her eyes hinted at bored delirium.
Marie felt no pity as she bent to tie her shoes, yawning whilst she had the chance. Force of habit, even if the boss was out anyway. She didn’t want Mr. McCrory noticing her fly-catching; the old pervert needed no excuse to take her out back for a ‘little talk’. She hated the way he closed the diner door just so, to breathe the smell of tar and day old cheeseburger on her white neck. A shaky hand would make its way onto her shoulder whilst his daughters played out front.
She tiptoed into the kitchen and didn’t know why, sliding the fridge door open to get to the two remaining slices of pie. That same old yellowish light spluttered into life, a failing engine at odds with the machine’s obvious baritone, Marie mused. Its monotonous hum was a comfort, hell sure it was, as dumb as that sounds. It sounded wise and constant and Marie wanted to stay listening to it, but knew better – she was the only one working right now after Jeanette ran off with the pastor’s son to her folks’ place in Oklahoma City, if Mrs. O’ Hare’s wicked tongue was to be believed. The place was a dump, but who was gonna whisk her away to Oklahoma City?
Mr. McCrory wasn’t due back for another half hour. Marie patted her apron pocket for her mirror. Fuck, where did I leave it?She sidled over to the worktop and bent over, the roundness of her breasts swelling against her blouse. She liked the way her body felt, still youthful at 32 against the crisp cotton. Sure, she’d been around. Three years here, two and a half in Mr. Delacour’s before that, five in Nashville with the band before it all broke down. Mr. Delacour had been a real gentleman and the memory of his ink-stained neckerchief with the Kansas State flag on it sure made her smile. But the cancer took him like the dark comes for the daytime and you can’t go back.
She picked up the pie and scrunched her face theatrically, plucking a chestnut red hair from the crust which could only be her own. She’d squidged a dollop of ice cream on top and it made her sick to look at it, but she didn’t know why. Hank didn’t take time to look up from the toothpick he fumbled with in his hands, but she sure knew that as soon as her back was turned his hot stare would be on her, ice cream melting in the constant heat, up and down, up and down…
The door clanged its lullaby as another weary traveller stepped through the threshold, Marie was sure. She was examining her reflection in the back of an upturned spoon on the counter and was weirdly absorbed by its unnatural cleanness when he spoke.
“Marie Burbank, unless my pretty blues do deceive me.” His eyes were pretty, just like they’d always been back in high school. Gosh, she hadn’t seen him in 15 years. The eyes were the same, the midriff a little wider, the boots and hat a little fancier. But it was him.
They spoke for what could have been five minutes or five hours. Time didn’t exist no more; even Hank left with three bucks slammed on the counter and without a word, for which she was grateful. He hardly said a word, staring at her lips as she talked. They didn’t tremble and she was relieved, but didn’t know how. And it felt like she hadn’t spoken in years, not really. Perhaps it was because she hadn’t been listened to in years, but she laughed, blushed, whispered and nodded with something that had been missing for too long and she was occasionally mindful of losing it.
It began to get dark and no one came – not even McCrory – and she shocked herself with fantasies of the bastard having a heart attack. He sat across from her and laughed so hard just as she thought of it and was reminded of a line: ‘hell is empty and all the devils are here’, but she had no idea where it came from or why she thought it, either.
“Little Miss. Kansas, nine-teen seventy five” he boomed, jumping up and taking her hand. They danced in the near darkness, bumping into chairs and laughing all the while, knocking ketchup bottles to the floor. He whisked her back to that day when she’d stood on stage, just 16 and with rouge on her cheeks for the first time. The thorn in the roses they gave her had scratched her hand and she had to wipe it on the back of her burgundy dress when the judges weren’t looking. Even her daddy had made it to sit in the audience; they danced closer just at the moment she thought of this.
McCrory had a bottle of Jack out back she knew, the old goon taking it out for a tumbler whenever his wife rang through to crow at him for something stupid the girls had done. She whispered into his ear that she was going to get a couple of glasses, and a dull shockwave went through her as she let go of his hand, brushing her thigh against him as she walked to the left of the counter, to the cupboard under the till where they kept the glasses. She thought she heard a stirring and turned before she knelt down, but he wasn’t looking. He rested on the counter, moving the rings on his knuckles. A distant firework exploded and then fizzled out to nothingness.
Her eyes burned and the floor rocked as another firework, and another, and another went off in quick succession. In her skull. Head smashed into counter crunched into glass. The white light of the moon shone on her, black liquid snaking on the floor underneath her temple. In a moment of complete lucidity, she realised that he had stepped over her to the till. It rang a sickly sweet note and he slid it shut again a moment later. Her bones moaned but she couldn’t move a muscle. Just then, or was it before, or after, the faint rumble of an engine distanced, distanced itself from her outstretched hand that grabbed only cool evening air.
She looked to her left and saw it. Her pocket mirror she’d misplaced hours ago had cracked, the glass peppering the blood-smudged floor like snowflakes in a field of flowers. Tucked behind the glass was a Polaroid with cracks at the edges but a young woman clearly visible, the unmistakeable words ‘Little Miss. Kansas, 1975’ screaming from the banner overhead.
The smashed glass had cut the picture down the middle. A firework went off. She finally began to sob.