This story is part of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure’s First Ever Short Story Contest.
e were only eighty miles outside of Tulsa, our destination, when my pregnant cousin demanded that we stop at the next restaurant, gas station or rest stop. It was 3:30 and she was hungry, never mind we had just had lunch less than two hours ago. My mother, who was driving this shift, crinkled up her face and looked in the rearview.
“We just had lunch, Marianna.”
“That was like five hours ago,” my cousin whined.
Aunt Lelia leaned forward and joined us staring into the openness of I-40. “Just a quick bite, Charlotte. She’s pregnant.”
As she reclined back into the seat, Aunt Lelia lifted Marianna’s shaggy bangs away from her forehead with her tanned pinky finger.
“Next place we see, okay?”
The words were still hanging in the air when Marianna bolted forward and pointed at a billboard we were fast approaching.
“Look! There’s one! Next exit, Aunt Charlotte,” she yelped.
My mother squinted at the sign. The blue and white paint was chipping and the words were barely readable. I could make out a plump, pink pig dancing around a chicken holding a banjo. Did that say…
“Pick-N-Chickens? Oh, honey I don’t know if that place is going to be open,” my mother said.
Here comes the temper tantrum, I thought. Marianna is one of those clichéd tragedies, a stat you hear about on 20/20, the story entitled “Babies Having Babies.” She’s sixteen and her boyfriend Tommy “got her” pregnant. (I love this saying, ‘got her’ pregnant, like he wiped his cooties on her lunch box or sneezed in her direction). One would think she was carrying the Christ Child in there, and it was only August–we had four more months to go. Whenever she didn’t get her way, she reverted to being three years old. Yep, babies having babies is about right. I’m only a few years behind her and if I had a dime for every time my mother said to me, ‘Don’t you dare end up like Marianna!’ I’d be filthy rich. There’s another one: ‘End up’ pregnant. How can the female race ever get the respect it deserves as long as there’s males around to ‘get us’ pregnant, so we’ll tragically ‘end up’ with a pack of kids we had nothing to do with?
Although I was nowhere near hungry, I decided to nip the tantrum in the bud.
“That looks good. Exit 65,” I said as my mother shot me a glance that could have impressed Medusa. Marianna had already heaved her fat self between the seats in anticipation of a fight but my bud-nipping worked. She kept quiet and eased herself back down into the seat as Aunt Lelia started rummaging through her purse.
“It doesn’t look like the kind of place that takes Visa. I’ve only got…seven dollars and some change. What have you got, Charlotte?”
“Oh I never carry cash, never,” my mother said with robust surety. I fished through her bag and found three twenties in her billfold. I fanned them out in my lap and shot her a sideways glance.
“Shit,” she murmured as she looked down at the money. She reached for her cigarettes which had spilled out onto the floorboard. Exit 65 was now visible and as she steered the caravan onto the ramp, she punched in the cigarette lighter.
“Charlotte, we haven’t been smoking around Marianna,” Aunt Lelia said.
“Well, we’re almost out of the car. Just relax.”
Pick-N-Chickens was not closed and as we turned into the dusty parking lot, Aunt Lelia sat upright and said what we were all thinking.
“What?” Marianna asked.
“Well, unless it’s a glass of boiling water, I don’t know if you want to be eating here–might get tuberculosis or something.”
“Hep C, more likely,” I chimed in.
“Shut up, Ruth,” Marianna said.
“You want me to keep going, hon?” my mother asked as the van slowed and she lit her dangling cigarette.
“No, no! I’m just about to throw up back here and all I need is something on my stomach. Y’all don’t know what it’s like!”
As the van came to a stop, Aunt Lelia opened the sliding door on her side but then slammed it shut when she heard her daughter’s lament.
“Who doesn’t know what what’s like, Marianna Hope McCall?”
Silence. I could tell Marianna was deciding between a temper tantrum or a few crocodile tears. Her breathing was loud and exaggerated. She blinked at all of us, one by one, and settled on the tears. As they welled up and distorted her face, she began twisting a stray curl. Aunt Lelia had seen this act before and although she stood up for Marianna about ninety-five percent of the time, that five percent when she didn’t was brutal.
“Because there’s two women in this here car who’s been pregnant–more than once, and given birth, more than once. And we’re still standing! The world didn’t come to end ‘cause we got pregnant. Now, if you’re saying ‘we don’t know what it’s like’ because we weren’t stupid enough to get ourselves pregnant at sixteen years old, well yes, you’re right sugar, we don’t know what that’s like. Why don’t you tell us all about it? Tell us how you worked in getting laid between going to the mall, downloading music to your i-pod, and playing beer pong with your friends? Because Aunt Charlotte, Ruth and I have no idea how hard that must have been!”
I looked over at my mother smoking her cigarette. She took a deep, slow draw and shot out a plume of smoke like a jazz musician. Was she grinning? You could hear a fly fart, and I wanted to say something to break the silence. Marianna finally asked for a tissue. I scrambled through the glove box and pulled out two or three, stretching my arm back to her.
“Let’s just go in. I’ll get a cup of soup or something and it’ll be real quick. Thanks Ruth,” she said as she took the tissues and blew her nose.
My mother threw her half-smoked cigarette out the slit in the window and my aunt jerked the sliding door open again. I took a deep breath and apparently let out an audible sigh because my mother turned to me and patted my knee.
“It’s alright. Tiger’s still in the cage. Did you take your vitamin C this morning?” she asked.
“I took the whole alphabet, thanks for asking,” I said to the cadence of all four doors slamming shut.
ords cannot do justice to the roadside attraction of the Pick-N-Chickens. In fact, justice may have left this stretch of I-40 and Oklahoma to its own devices long ago. The eight Harley Davidsons were all parked at forty-five degree angles to one another, the scorching sun shining down upon them, their chrome blinding. Galileo himself could not have made a straighter line.
We strode single-file into the building, my mother leading the pack. From the side, I’d like to say we looked that one Beatles album, all long-legged strides crossing a street, the happy sun on our shoulders, but think of the opposite of that image and that’s more like it.
As we got closer, I felt my stomach dance a bit, in a reaction similar to that of a rabbit who’s just seen a wolf cross into her terrain—a frozen worry. I peered in as the door opened and a blast of country music smacked the air around us. Since it was August, none of us had a whole lot of clothes on. I am a full-fledged tomboy anyway and never cared much what I looked like but felt the need as we stepped into the Pick-N-Chickens to run back to the car and grab my Clemson sweatshirt–a wearable foxhole. My mother rolled in to this den of grease with her own defense: 5’11” and willow-like, she bunched her blonde hair up in a scrunchie on the top of her head, making a hair fountain and poof! Her 5’11” frame transformed into 6’2″. Aunt Lelia brought up the rear and was probably timing how long we should stay. Three and a half minutes if we could get something to go, ten at the very most if we had to sit. She exaggerated her yell to my mother as soon as we were all inside, no doubt to announce that is was her opinion that their jukebox was too damn loud.
“DO YOU SEE THE MAITRE D’, CHARLOTTE?”
I snickered, then turned to Marianna, whose regret at not holding out for a Hardee’s or rest stop vending machine was clearly evident. She glared back at me and let out one of her pregnant sighs, which was always accompanied by her left hand falling to her belly.
“Y’all can wait in the car, I’ll just get something to go, alright? Jesus!”
“Oh, no, shug. We ain’t leaving you in here by yourself,” Aunt Lelia said as she moved further into the seating area.
From the outside, the Pick-N-Chickens looked much bigger than the diner we were standing in: a modest counter with five or six stools reminiscent of an ice cream parlor, six or seven shoddy tables with menus stuck next to the paper napkin dispensers, and a tray of hot sauces—a sign you were still in the South. The smell of fried food was only slightly more pungent than the smell of cigarette smoke, and the mix of both only slightly less nauseating than the stench of a mop pail hiding some place out of sight.
The entire room of customers–three leather-clad bikers, an elderly farmer and his wife, and a single man at the counter wearing way too many layers of clothes for summer–looked up as our entourage fumbled in. A cook wearing a waitress uniform stood over a grill where two hamburger patties sizzled in harmony. She motioned with her spatula toward the tables, instructing us to sit anywhere and as she did the grease from her spatula dribbled a semi-circle around her.
Aunt Lelia moved closer to the register and scanned the room for any other employees.
“Excuse me, but we’d just like to get something to go?”
The waitress-cook had turned her back to us and was smacking the burgers. She began chopping some onions that were on the grill with the side of her versatile spatula. As Mariana shifted from foot to foot, I noticed my mother had attracted the attention of one of the bikers.
Aunt Lelia’s question got as far as her throat, as the waitress-cook ignored us. We gagged in the air and the heat of the place, and watched the biker walk toward us. It was as if he forged a telepathic contract with my mother, not taking his eyes off of her. I guessed it said, ‘I would throw you on the back of my motorcycle right now if you didn’t have those trolls with you.’
As he brushed past us he said, “Scuse me, m’am,” to which my mother sassed out, “No problem, sir.” At that point the waitress-cook whipped around, clutching the ever-handy spatula.
“Y’all gonna sit down or whistle Dixie out yer pie holes? ‘Cause we ain’t seen that one in a while. Don’t make no difference to me, hmnf, Eddie?” she winked at the single man sitting at the counter.
Aunt Lelia turned back to us and shoved a menu into Marianna’s hand.
“I guess we’re sitting, unless of course, you’re in the mood for whistling out your pie hole. Make it quick. I’ll be right back.”
She went in the same direction the big biker had gone, and my mother steered us over to the counter, where Eddie—as the waitress-cook had called him—was bobbing up and down. A half-drunk strawberry milkshake with two straws poking out of it and a huge plate of Tater Tots sat in front of him–not home fries, not french fries, Tater Tots.
I surveyed the seating. There were only three stools beyond Eddie, then the wall. There was a single stool on the other side of Eddie however the stools were stationary. Unless my mother planned on one of us standing, somebody was going to have to ask Eddie to move down one, and then sit next to him. I figured that somebody would probably be me so before my mother could say, ‘Do me a favor, Ruthie,’ I tapped Eddie on the shoulder.
“Sir? Would it be too much trouble to ask you to move down one? There’s four of us.”
Eddie gave me the once-over, sucked his teeth then turned back to his milkshake. He stared straight ahead, as if waiting for some guidance from the waitress-cook. Then I’ll be damned if she didn’t look over her shoulder, sling that spatula in the direction of the vacant seat beside him and say, ‘Go on, it’s okay’ to which Eddie moved his bottom and his plate of Tater Tots all in one fell swoop. He faked-smiled at me as I slid him his milkshake. Marianna was next while my mother took the safety seat next to the wall leaving the remaining stool for Aunt Lelia, who was returning from wherever she went.
“Why aren’t you eating yet?” she barked at Marianna.
“Mama, we just sat down. I need to go to the bathroom first anyway. Where is it?”
“You’re gonna have to wait, sweet pea.”
“What for? Is there a line?”
“No, just wait, Marianna Hope. I thought you were hungry!”
“Jesus Christ I never seen such fussing! Come on, I’ll go with her,” my mother said as she bounced off of her stool and grabbed Marianna’s arm.
“Charlotte, wait! I wouldn’t do that,” Aunt Lelia said. Then, to me, “Do not use the bathroom here, Ruth. Do you hear me?”
I nodded yes while picking up the vibe of Eddie’s bobbing which had started up again as my mother and Marianna marched past him. The waitress-cook turned to face us, welding her ever-loving spatula and fishing deep into her apron pocket. Kool 100’s. Of course. She lit one and leaned against the grill.
“What’s it going to be, ladies?”
Neither Aunt Lelia nor myself were looking at menus; I figured I should get something just to give this woman something to do. Aunt Lelia was not so generous, and squinted at the waitress-cook as if she had just witnessed her pick her ass.
“We’re not eating. My daughter’s the one who wanted to stop here. She’ll be right out.”
“I’ll have a milkshake,” I blurted out as I gazed over at Eddie’s. “Do you have chocolate?”
Aunt Lelia’s jaw dropped as she turned to me, followed by the same expression she had used on the waitress-cook.
“Hep C, Ruth, Hep C…” she sang.
I rolled my eyes at her, pretending to forget it was my idea originally.
“Eddie, make this little ginger a chocolate milkshake, will ya?” the waitress-cook said as she stacked the burgers onto their toasty buns, ashed her cigarette into her apron pocket with a jerk of her head, and finally lined the plates up her left arm, leaving her right hand free to grab the bottles of ketchup and mustard. Off she went to the farmer and his wife.
Bobbing Eddie slunk off behind the other side of the counter. He spun a shiny, silver cup on his elbow then planted it down in front of me. It tinged and I could hear my Aunt Lelia say, “Oh, lord” over my right shoulder. He bent down behind the counter then popped up again, plopping several scoops of vanilla ice cream into the silver cup. He pulled a vat of chocolate sauce up from below the counter.
“You like it real chocolatey, or just average?” he asked.
His voice didn’t sound as hill-billyish as I’d imagined, and now that I was his audience of one, he looked kind of cute, despite the Oklahoma clothing emergency. His tanned, veiny hands held the ice cream scooper and the silver cup, giving off some sort of milkshake confidence, like he was a master. The Master of Milkshakes.
“Um, pretty chocolatey, but not overboard,” I suggested.
“Um hmm. Almost deluxe chocolatey but pull back a little bit, right?”
“Yes! That sounds good.”
My mother and Marianna returned from the bathroom as Eddie started his creation. Marianna’s wicked laugh was interrupted by her number one mantra, ‘Oh my God/Oh my God,’ and my mother’s face was beet-red as she kept telling Marianna to hush. They sat down, my mother as if she had ants in her pants, Marianna in her slow, pregnant descent.
I looked at her with keen curiosity. I hadn’t seen Marianna laugh in a very long time. Cry, yes. Whine, yes. Bitch, yes. But laugh?
“What is so funny?”
“Marianna, shut up. Ruth, don’t worry about it,” my mother said. Aunt Lelia was smiling her big pie face at my mother while Marianna continued her ‘Oh my God’ line ad infinitum.
“Is it really gross or something?” I asked, still enraptured by Eddie’s handiwork with what I knew was going to be the best milkshake I’d ever had.
The waitress-cook returned to her post in front of the grill not saying a word but awaiting Marianna’s order. She seemed a bit aggravated since Aunt Lelia had mentioned hepatitis. Eddie had gone around the corner with the silver cup, and as I craned my neck, I saw the makings of my milkshake starting to spin on the milkshake caddy. The noise of the machine forced the waitress-cook to yell at Marianna.
“What’s it gonna be, barefoot?”
Marianna settled down and blinked at the menu.
“Let’s see. Well, what’s the doctor order?” Marianna asked.
My mother, Aunt Lelia and Marianna howled once more, my mother slapping her hand on the Formica like she was in a jug-band. My aunt stammered, “Stop! I’m gonna pee my pants!”
Eddie returned with the silver cup. He pulled a fancy soda-fountain type glass from below the counter and set it in front of me. He carefully poured the chocolatey-deluxe-but-pulled- back-a-little milkshake into it.
“Whipped cream?” His eyebrows shot up quizzically as he took in my family.
“Yes, please. And excuse the laughing hyenas,” I said.
The waitress-cook who was nodding her head, lit another cigarette and rested her gray eyes on Marianna.
“I know what you need,” she said with a thin smile.
Eddie, considerate thing that he was, tore off all but the tip of the paper on a straw and stuck it in the center of my creation.
“Enjoy,” he said then returned to his seat beside me.
I took a healthy slurp and mixed the whipped cream a bit with the straw. I was right: that was the best goddamn milkshake I had ever had.
“So, where y’all headed?” Eddie asked.
“Tulsa. To see my sister. This is really delicious, thank you.”
“Your sister? She ain’t your sister?” He twirled his almost-gone milkshake in Marianna’s direction.
“No. She’s my cousin. But she’s really good friends with my sister Angie, on top of being her cousin too. That’s why she’s got to come with us–they’re real close,” I said.
“Off to Tulsa, huh?” Eddie grunted.
“We’re having an intervention. My sister’s in a bad situation,” I said, as if I knew how interventions worked. I looked up to see the waitress-cook shaking out a mess of fried circles into a paper bag. She shook it gently, threw in some salt, poured them out on a plate, then placed it in front of Marianna.
“Thousand Islands, Ranch or both?”
“Are these fried pickles?” Marianna squealed.
“Just what the doctor ordered, darlin,’” the waitress-cook said as she turned back to the cooler and brought out the two containers of Thousand Island and Ranch. Marianna asked if she could please have a decaffeinated soda.
As Aunt Lelia and my mother adjusted the time frame of arriving in Tulsa and Marianna scarfed down her pickles, I contented myself with my milkshake and Eddie’s company.
“Do you work here?” I asked, knowing he must.
“Is there something funny about your bathrooms?”
“No. Not that I can think of,” he said.
“‘Cause for some reason, my mother and my aunt do not want me to use them.”
Eddie sniffed, sucked up the rest of his milkshake and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
“Makes you want to go to the bathroom, don’t it?” he asked, not a tinge of malice or smart aleck in his voice. He was right.
“Yeah, I kind of do, even though you know, I don’t have to go,” I confessed.
“Well, this here’s a small operation. And the bathrooms are shared by the bar. This is a roadhouse, did you know that? We get all kinds of good bands in here Friday and Saturday nights. I mean, this? This is just to keep the drunks a skosh soberer by feeding ‘em.”
I looked around. That’s why it looked so big from the outside, because it was–it was a Road House. With some vast dance floor somewhere, probably a riding bull too. And pigs and chickens playing banjos and God knows what else. I looked over at Marianna in her pickle heaven and then to my mother and Aunt Lelia. They had invited the waitress-cook into their calculations, all three with consternated looks on their faces. My mother was smoking one of the waitress-cook’s Kool 100’s.
“I’ll be right back,” I whispered to Eddie, leaving my state champion of a milkshake on the counter.
I ran through the tight maze of tables and down a darkened hallway. There were two doors. On one door, there were three cartoon cats: a gray one, a pink one, and an orange one. They were fluffy and curvaceous with eyes at half-mast. A cartoon bubble hung over the mouth of the orange cat and painted inside was the word, ‘purrrr.’ On this door read the word ‘Pussys.’ On the other door, there was a black cat equally frisky-looking sitting on her haunches. Standing above her was a cartoon boy-cat wearing a white lab coat and glasses. A stethoscope ran from his rascally ears down to the black cat’s chest, his cat lips pursed in a whistle.
On this door read the words, ‘Pussy Doctors.’
This was what was so funny? Bizarre, yes. A bit disgusting. But they made out like it was the funniest thing they had ever seen, something that might make Aunt Lelia pee her pants. As my hand touched the door to push it open, a figure appeared at the opposite end of the hallway. I tried to make out who it was but before my eyes could fully adjust, Eddie was standing right in front of me.
“Hey. I see you found the bathroom alright,” he blurted out and with one hasty push of his arms, he and I were stumbling through the ‘Pussys’ door.
“So what do you think of the bathroom, Ruth?” Eddie’s strawberry breath was hot in my face. I blinked at him, my palms starting their ancient flight-or-fight sweat. He was close enough to count freckles and then, out of my peripheral vision, I noticed the walls of the bathroom. They were plastered floor to ceiling with pictures of naked women and men doing all kinds of stuff. And not drawings or paintings but magazine pages.
I looked back into Eddie’s face, knowing that in a matter of minutes, seconds perhaps, my mother would be storming through the door.
“How’d you know my name?”
“I heard the laughing hyenas talking about you.” Eddie’s face inched ever closer but his hands hung safely by his side.
“Did you like the milkshake?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, my voice cracking.
“What other kinds of things do you like, Ruth?”
I laughed nervously and stepped back into the wall, a photo of a purple-veined penis inches from my nose.
“You’re not gonna want to be in here when my mama comes in,” I said, finding it hard not to smile. Eddie pushed himself against me. Was it all those clothes? Or did I feel something sprouting in Eddie’s pants?
“How old are you?” he asked without making it a serious question.
“Any minute now. I mean, she’s skinny as a twig but she’s mighty. She’ll kick your ass, man.”
“Is that right.” Eddie pinned me against the porn wallpaper. His strawberry tongue shot into my mouth, almost touched my tonsils. My lips stung a little from the force. Our eyeballs locked when we heard my mother’s voice.
“Ruth? Are you down here?”
“Shit. I told you! Quick, get in one of the stalls,” I said pushing him off of me with a power that surprised us both. He closed the stall door with a snap and I heard him trying to latch it.
“Get up on the toilet seat! Haven’t you ever hid before?” I gasped. The commotion of my mother’s fury masked the sound of Eddie’s bumbling onto the toilet seat.
“Ruth! There you are. I thought we told you not to go to these nasty-ass bathrooms?”
“This? Nothing I ain’t never seen before. The cats on the door are a little weird,” I huffed, crossing my arms over my chest to keep her from seeing my shaking hands.
“There’s PG-13 ha-ha funny,” my mother said, “and there’s R-rated tasteless funny and these here bathrooms–well, they’re in the latter category. Not really appropriate for my fourteen- year-old daughter. Now come on. We’ll never get there in time if we want to catch Angie before her shift.”
“Well, I really do have to pee,” I said.
“You ain’t peed yet? Well go on. Marianna and Lelia are already in the car,” she said, not moving.
I stood there, staring down at my sneakers. Eddie was as quiet as a dead dog.
“Are you going to watch me?” I asked.
“I don’t need a babysitter.”
“Well, I’m watched like a hawk twenty-four hours a day! You’re so scared I’m going to end up like Angie or Marianna, you can’t let me be me—even a good me or a so-so me. You won’t let me just be me!”
“Ruth, I declare! What in the world!”
“And you know what? I think you might be scared I’m going to end up like you. No, you weren’t sixteen like Marianna but you weren’t far off.”
For that, I should have gotten my mouth slapped but she just stood there, her skinny chest heaving up and down.
“Mama, please. Go on out to the car and let me take a piss in private. I promise you I will not be corrupted between here and there.”
She turned the spigot on full blast, and splashed some water on her face. She stared at herself in the mirror a full minute as I watched the errant spray of water wet the floor. She left the water running and turned to face me.
“Nothing you ain’t seen before, huh?”
I shrugged my shoulders, listening for Eddie.
“That supposed to make me feel better?” she asked, glancing around at the four walls. I walked towards her and hugged her around the middle, pressing my ear against her chest.
“I know I’m your winning ticket, your sure thing,” I said, listening to the wild thump of her heart. “But I am fourteen. I still might be a tomboy but I’m not a baby tomboy.”
My mother started to laugh, then tousled my hair and said, “If you aren’t in that caravan in five minutes…”
“Yeah, okay. Can I have a little privacy?”
“You’ll always be my baby, Ruth,” she said and walked out.
I stood there, trying to figure out how I wanted to spend the next five minutes, since
I knew my mother would be back as sure as my name is Ruth Anne Lancaster. Eddie opened the stall door, walked to the sink and rinsed his mouth out, sticking his whole head in the stream of water. He turned it off, then looked at me in the mirror, as if he knew me but forgot my name, like he was trying to place me. He walked over to me and cradled my neck in his big hands.
“Too bad you’re just passing through.”
“Yeah. We’ve got to, you know, go see my sister,” I said, thinking that must have taken at least two of the minutes.
“Well, maybe y’all will stop in on the way back. If it’s a Saturday night, you can even see my band.”
“Band? What instrument do you play?”
Three minutes. I looked at the door behind him. I wished he would kiss me again, before I got summoned to the caravan. Eddie must have read my mind, because he did kiss me again, but this time he was careful, like he was trying to pour sand through the eye of a needle. His strawberry tongue, now watered down, moved slowly around the inside of my mouth. Before I could say ‘I gotta go,’ Eddie offered to walk me out to the parking lot.
“Better not,” I said.
“How about to the end of the hall?”
As he opened the door for me, a swoosh of cool air swirled into the bathroom. He grabbed my hand, and we walked down the hallway in silence to the door which led out to the parking lot and the brilliant, hot sun.
* * * * *
M.K. SPAIN is a writer living in South Portland, Maine. Cures for tedium include writing, acting, sword-fighting and spontaneous singing (which, by the way, cures more than tedium). She has a degree in Creative Writing from Colorado State University, and will have a play produced in this year’s Maine Playwrights Festival in Portland. This is her first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.