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2011 Fiction honorable mention

Posted by on Tuesday, June 28, 2011 in Articles, Issue, July 2011.

Pickin’ Up Puppies Off the Side of the Road

by Mandy Haynes

Pediatric Echo Lab

I knowed she was trouble as soon as she came through the door. She couldn’t have been a day over sixteen and had to have been at least six months along. Sashayin’ in, without a speck of decency; no shame at all in the way her short dress stretched across her round belly – didn’t even try to hide it. Not to mention all the eye makeup! Lord, she looked like a raccoon.

I watched her from the kitchen where I’d stepped back to sneak a couple of puffs off my menthol. I had officially quit three years ago, but every once in a while (especially on Thursdays when Clayton’s bunch came in for lunch) I still needed a puff or two. As I stood there starin’ through the window where Pat slides me my orders I saw her walk right up to the counter without a care in the world.

I put out my cigarette and took a drink of my diet coke thinkin’ about how much times have changed.  Back in my day if you found yourself in that “condition” you kept yourself at home and tried not to embarrass your parents any more than you already had. You didn’t flaunt it in a hot pink sundress.

“What can I get you?” I asked, startlin’ her as I came through the swingin’ doors.

“A glass of milk and an order of onion rings.” She said without lookin’ up. I wasn’t one bit surprised by her lack of respect.

As I poured her milk into a cold mug I noticed that she was countin’ her change.  I bet she was goin’ to try to sneak out without paying so I made a mental note to watch the door.

Pat was out by the dumpsters smokin’ a half a pack of Camels (Clayton and his golf buddies were pigs – they ordered two cheeseburgers apiece and a dozen orders of onion rings, complainin’ the whole time about the service but always comin’ back a week later to torment us again) so I put the girl’s onion rings in the deep fryer for him. Why, I bet she had never cooked a meal for herself – she probably had a mama at home right now wringin’ her hands over her wild child; beatin’ herself up wonderin’ where she’d gone wrong. Her poor mama had probably worried herself sick over her unborn grandchild; while her daughter is out lookin’ for ways to steal onion rings and probably (by the way she was dressed) a new boyfriend.

I had worked myself into a tizzy by the time her onion rings were ready. Thinkin’ about that Lady DaDa, and Bridgette Spears – good lord, no wonder kids today have no respect for their parents or themselves!  Runnin’ around in their underwear and all. Back in my day we didn’t have all that mess on TV to warp our tender minds. Even if we had, my daddy wouldn’t have put up with it. Not for a second! Why I could have never worn a dress like that, pregnant or not!

I tried to calm myself as I walked back to the counter – the last thing I needed to do was have a “come to Jesus meeting” right here before our dinner rush with a some sassy teenager I’d never even met.

“Here you go….” I said as I handed Miss Priss her onion rings but she still didn’t look at me and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up. I was goin’ to make her look me in the eye at least once; it wouldn’t kill her to show a little respect.  “Ketchup?” I barked.

It worked a little better than I’d intended– she (and Shelby Jean and Georgia sittin’ two tables over) looked at me. I noticed right away that what I had mistaken for too much eye makeup was bruises that were startin’ to fade. I didn’t have to look twice to make sure, ‘cause lord knows I’d seen them same eyes starin’ back at me from my own mirror.  I felt my stomach drop clear to my feet and a tightness creep across my chest. I put my hand on my heart to stop it from flutterin’. Sights like that were always hard for me to ignore – but lookin’ at her was like lookin’ at a ghost from my past.

“Lord – don’t I look a sight! I ran right into my bedroom door a couple of nights ago…” she laughed a funny laugh complete with a snort and it sounded pretty genuine. If I hadn’t laughed that same laugh for years I might have been fooled by it, but I knew better, “’just about knocked myself plum out!”

“I’d hate to see the door that does that to a person,”was all I could find to say. My mind was racin’ a hundred and ten miles an hour. It felt like the room was turnin’ upside down.

She took a drink of her milk and shook her head, her smile startin’ to fade. “How much is a cheeseburger?” she asked to change the subject. I realized I’d never asked her if she wanted to see a menu (talk about a lack of manners) but in my defense that shiny pink material stretched near to bursting over her belly had distracted me.

“$2.49.” I replied and got her a menu, takin’ a couple of deep breaths to calm myself.

“Oh, thanks but I bet I won’t be able to eat one after this glass of milk and all these onion rings.” We both looked down to her empty plate. She had eaten them faster than anyone in Clayton’s crew. She must be starvin’. “I’ll just have to get one next time.”

“Would you like another glass of milk?”

She shook her head but I got her one anyway. “Refills are free.”

She looked back down at the counter and I realized what I’d taken for lack of respect was a just plain old fashioned shame.  Pure and simple.

“My name is Millie,” I held out my hand and she took it; her grip surprisingly strong.

“I’m Tipsy – I mean my name is Tipsy – nice to meet you.”

“What kind of name is Tipsy?” I asked before I had time to stop myself.

“One that usually needs to be repeated a couple of times before people believe it’s my real name. My mama – she’s a real cut up.”

“Where is your mama?” I wondered what kind of woman would name her kid Tipsy…

“She’s around somewhere – last time I talked to her she was over in Friendship, but she wasn’t there when I called. I thought she might have come here, she said somethin’ about a job at the Bi-Rite down the road, but her boyfriend said she’d gone down to Mobile for a week or two…..”

So, I almost said out loud, that’s the kind of woman that would name her baby daughter Tipsy.

Tipsy stopped to take a big gulp of milk and I realized just how much we had in common. She had a lot to get off her chest and hadn’t had anybody to listen – nobody to ever ask her to tell it. Well, anybody that knows me knows I don’t mind askin’ a question or two!

“Do you have any other family?” I knew I was being nosy but now I was downright curious. Who was takin’ care of this child? And who was goin’ to take care of the one that would be here in a few months? I had a lot of questions and she didn’t seem to mind my askin’.

“I have a sister; she’s a little bit older than me. But she left last week to go to California.”

“Why didn’t you go with her?”

She looked up at me and I noticed that one eye was green and one eye was blue. I hadn’t noticed much before but the bruises.

“We…” she patted her stomach, “…wasn’t invited.”

“Honey – she just up and left you?”

“Well I wasn’t feelin’ up to travelin’ anyway. She left me a box of clothes though; none of mine would fit me anymore. And she said she would try to get a hold of me once she got settled.” She reached down, self consciously tuggin’ at the hem of her dress. Well, I wasn’t the brightest crayon in the box, but I knew by the look in her eyes not to push that question any further.

“What about your daddy?”

She shrugged right as the bell rang over the front door letting me know I had another customer. I had never been so happy to hear that bell in my life; I needed a minute or two to collect my thoughts.  I was perplexed. I’d never been so wrong about a person before – if you don’t count Raylen – and I was conflicted. I didn’t want anyone here to misjudge her like I had. Suddenly I felt very protective of Tipsy.

“Good afternoon, Bobby.” I said a little too loudly to the man in overalls. He made his way up to his regular place at the counter noddin’ as he passed. Bobby wasn’t much of a talker. “The usual?”

I put in an order for a cheeseburger and a bowl of vegetable soup before taking a mug out of the freezer. Bobby had been comin’ here every Tuesday and Thursday for years. He always ordered a grilled cheese, soup and two cold Budweiser’s which he’d eat and drink while he read the paper.

“What about your…um, the…er,” I didn’t know what to call him so I just pointed towards her belly.

“Oh, he’s…well, he wasn’t who I thought he was,” she touched her right eye gingerly and sighed, “my baby deserves better than that.”  I felt another flutter in my chest, but this felt like something comin’ loose instead of tightenin’ up – maybe this is what they mean when they say somethin’ tugs at your heart strings.  Whatever it was it was powerful.

“Where are you stayin’?” I just asked straight out.

“I have a friend who is lettin’ me stay in her room until her parents get back from vacation. It’s real nice.”

“Where’s your friend stayin’?”

“Her boyfriend’s.” I rolled my eyes and Tipsy giggled.

“I know, right? She has the nicest house – her room has that white and gold furniture that I always wanted and her bed has lace hangin’ over it just like a princess’s but she hates it and says it’s a baby’s room.” We both looked down at her belly. “If only my baby could be so lucky.” She patted him or her and smiled at me.

“What are you goin’ to do when they come home?”

“Order up!” Pat shouted through the window so I didn’t get to hear an answer; which I’m sure was fine with her because I don’t think Tipsy had one.

I picked up the order and took it over to Bobby. “Dangit! Pat’s getting senile….” I put Bobby’s soup in front of him and walked the cheeseburger back to the window.

“Pat – I need a grilled cheese!” I barked and held up the burger, givin’ him a wink and a nod.

“It says right …”

“You need to get your glasses checked – since when does Bobby eat cheeseburgers?” I stared him down since the wink hadn’t worked and he knew better than to argue. Instead he lit a camel right in front of the window even though nobody was supposed to smoke inside. I let it go – I owed him one.

“Here, Tipsy – I know you’re not hungry but it will go in the trash if you don’t eat it and that’d be a shame. Pat does make the best burger in the state of Tennessee.” I glanced over my shoulder at Pat to see if he heard the compliment. He must have – he answered with a smoke ring in my direction.

“Thanks!” Tipsy answered quick, grabbin’ the burger up before I had time set the plate all the way down; completely forgettin’ to act like she wasn’t hungry.

I picked up the pitcher of sweet tea and walked over to table four my mind racin’ as I refilled the glasses. Had she seen a doctor? Was she plannin’ on keepin’ her child? I’m sure she was, but how could she? Was she in school, did she want to be if she wasn’t, did her selfish – ignorant mama even know that her baby daughter was pregnant? Would she care?  Would she want to know that Tipsy was sittin’ here at my counter half starved and beaten?

“Hey Millie!” I heard a shriek and snapped back to reality. Lookin’ down I noticed that the syrupy sweet goodness that was known as Millie’s Sugar Tea was a hair away from pourin’ over into Shelby Jeans Frito Chili Pie.

“Sorry, Shelby Jean – I was ponderin’ on somethin’.” I patted her shoulder and handed her a straw from the front pocket of my apron. “Use this till you drink it down an inch or two….”

“She givin’ you trouble?” Shelby Jean whispered and cut her eyes over towards Tipsy.

I followed her stare and realized Shelby Jean was seein’ Tipsy the same why I had when she first came through the door. Shelby Jean saw a piece of white trash in a tacky tight dress lookin’ for trouble. Every parent’s worse nightmare; an unwed pregnant teenager. She saw our hard earned tax money flushed down the drain. A little hussy in the makin’ no doubt – probably somebody thinkin’ that the world owed her somethin’. But we couldn’t have been more wrong.

What I saw now was a lost little girl. A child lost to her own parent’s ignorance and irresponsibility, payin’ for the stupidity of others; someone who just wants to be loved like everyone else; but who went lookin’ for it in the wrong place.

I saw me thirty years earlier standin’ with Raylen in front of the Justice of the Peace.

“Trouble? Lord, no – that’s Tipsy. She might start workin’ here some, helpin’ Pat in the kitchen and givin’ me a break every once in a while.”

“Oh Millie….” Shelby Jean shook her head.

“Oh Millie what?” but I knew what was comin’.

“Raylen always said you was too tender hearted.” I took a deep breath and tried to make myself walk back to the counter and not hear her but my feet weren’t cooperatin’ and neither were my ears.

Georgia piped up, “What was it he used to say to you – oh yeah – “Quit pickin’ up puppies off the side of the road!” they both laughed as I felt my ears burn. It took every ounce of restraint not to douse Georgia’s new updo with my sugar tea.

“Well, Raylen ain’t here is he? I pay the utilities here don’t I? Always have. And If I want to hire some extra help it’s my business – Raylen can go to hell.”  I stopped right there and thought to myself – Oh wait – he’s already there. See my husband, Raylen, died a couple of years ago when his heart gave out. He was somethin’ – he’d left my face like Tipsy’s more times than I could remember. He was selfish and greedy and wouldn’t go out of his way to help anybody outside of his circle of poker playin’, cigar smokin’, skirt chasin’ friends. And that was only if he knew he was goin’ to get paid back with interest.

Raylen had a way to make everybody think that he was the first one there to help and the last one to leave, but in all the years that I’d been married to him I never knew him to get his hands dirty from working. Not once.  Nobody ever knew the real Raylen – he could charm the skin off a snake. Yep, Raylen was a sneaky one and could talk circles around anybody. Mind you, he didn’t like to have conversations – he just liked to talk. Lord, he thought that the sun rose just to hear him crow! He would get everythin’ so twisted up you didn’t know if you were comin’ or goin’; he could talk you into anythin’. And I ought to know – he’d talked me into marryin’ him the day I turned sixteen. Had my mama’s signature on the license before he even proposed to me…

Tipsy had turned around and was watchin’ us so I knew she’d heard me. I hadn’t even asked her if she was interested in workin’ here or what her plans were. I was real bad to fix everybody’s problems for them (except my own – it took a heart attack to do that) and years of livin’ had taught me that not everyone wanted that. But it still didn’t stop me from tryin’.

I walked back over to my side of the counter and patted Tipsy’s hand. She looked at me – just looked straight at me and I was hoping that she was seein’ me for the first time, too.

“Bobby, you ready for another?” I got a fresh mug out of the freezer.

I turned to Tipsy as I filled it with Budweiser. “I have an extra bedroom upstairs, rent free while you work here – nothin’ fancy; no lace covered princess bed or nothin’ that fancy but it’s not bad. We open at 5 a.m. for breakfast so you could make a pan of biscuits before school…” Tipsy sat up straighter at the word school, “and you could help with the dinner crowd afterwards if it suits you. Of course when the baby comes you’ll need some time to recover.”

She jumped off the stool and followed me on the opposite side of the counter as I walked Bobby’s beer down to him.

“Are you serious? Seriously, are you serious?” I glanced her way and saw that her hands were shakin’.

“We’ll have to find a sitter durin’ school hours – but he or she – could hang out with us here in the afternoons. My office is right there,” I pointed to my right, “we could put a crib and a playpen there for now.”

“But, but…”

“Now I won’t be able to pay you much,” then again I wouldn’t be asking her to do much – she’d have her hands full with a new baby and school, “but like I said the room is free and you’ll get three meals a day. Pat’s not too hard to work with and the regulars are nice and easy to please. The high school is within walkin’ distance on nice days, but the bus stops there on the corner if you’d rather take it– what else, oh, a doctor – do you have a doctor, honey?”

She shook her head and looked away so I just kept right on goin’.

“The clinic is right around the block here – we’ll get you set up on Monday. Hmmmm, I cain’t think of anythin’ else.  Can you start tomorrow?” I knew I was bein’ extra pushy, but I was scared she’d chicken out – sometimes it’s harder to accept kindness from people than it is to accept meanness. It just depends on what you are used to. I knew that for a fact.

We had walked back to the other end of the counter – her mirrorin’ me – and now she was standin’ directly in front of me. A single tear ran down her cheek as she reached up and hugged my neck. I hugged her back and felt the weight the girl was carryin’ on her shoulders let up a little.

‘But why? You don’t even know me.” She whispered almost as much to herself as to me. I took her by the shoulders and stepped back so she could see my face. Really see me.

“Oh honey, yes I do.”