"Garden Blend Buck Stops"
Karen S. Kane
April, 1973. The summer-like early night seemed breathless and clammy, truly, the last legs of that day, as Claudine Maine pulled the diner door open, stepped out. Break time.
She grasped her waitress cap/hairnet with one hand, tussling free long thick black waves at the sides of her face, while her other hand snatched a scrap paper sign loosed from the glass as she'd passed. “New Management” read red crayon letters. Tape gave up, it'd been there a month. She crumpled the paper, tossed it in the trash can beside her, then sat on the curb of the entryway walk.
Yep, Claudine thought, Fat Sam Money-bags did buy the dump. So long to their Road Stop smocks worn with sneakers and jeans. There were “uniforms” now, white ruffled caps, chintzy black dresses, stain-craving white aprons-- French maid-looking things that stunk of old grease even fresh from the wash. New menus, revised schedules, half-priced waitress meals that used to be free, and the earth-quake change too- The truckers' rigs and their house trailers had to be off the back lot by July. After living eight years in Roy O'Connor's rust-bucket trailer with her mom and that freak, Claudine would be outta there finally-- thank God.
Should she stay in Iowa, or should she take off? Come June 22, she'd be sixteen. With the four-hundred-twenty-five dollars she'd stashed in a Kotex box on her closet shelf, could be Claudine taking care of her mom, instead of vice versa for once. They could go where ever they wanted.
Nice thought, Claudine smiled, and glanced back at Nadine coming out of the diner with a Coke from the hot-for-her cook. Claudine's best friend, okay, her only friend, Nadine was a year younger, and a good three inches taller than Claudine, probably five-four or better, her strawberry blond hair sparkling, pixie-like, short. Whatever folks call not-alike-at-all twins, that's what they were. “The Deen Queens,” they called themselves. They were soul-sisters, cousins, some sort of kin.
Nadine handed the Coke to Claudine who took it and drank, handing it back as Nadine sat beside her. “Looks like your grandma is about to pull in,” Claudine said, nodding toward an aqua-blue dot nearing the access road entrance. She dropped her gaze to the curb where they sat as it stretched side-to-side of the diner. With air pumps on one end of the building, the public restrooms were on the other, those facing a ratty motel. Lousy, small world. Claudine spit on her gravy-stained shoe, rubbed it, then glanced behind her at the entryway clock.
Seven-ten, five minutes left of her break. Dinner from four until seven, slow shift from then until ten. Claudine worked dinner four nights a week, with slow shift after on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Her mother said more wouldn't do, not for Claudine, beings she was a student. Barbara's eyeballs glittered like diamonds whenever she'd use that word.
And even Claudine might glitter a little about the have-to of school if not for the snotty got-it-all bunch. Their giggles and winks turned a broken back waitress' diamond-eyed pride to a bottle-cap's glitter in a pile of garbage. Trailer trash, that was Claudine, and, since they were best friends, Nadine was trash too, even though she lived with her grandma in a real house. Not good for much, their going to school, since Superman himself couldn't change things.
Claudine glanced again at the time. Save the clean square left by dropped sign, a muddle of hand prints fogged the glass double-door, and a scratched up “open 24 hours” decal curled up off its surface by the dull metal frame. Anyone who came here already knew that the joint never closed; sure didn't need that scrap of trash to advise them.
Advise. What an absolutely very cool word, thought Claudine. Imagine being an “advisor” someday, with soft leather pumps in place of her dirty white shoes, a classy dark skirt, a jacket to match, maybe a vest, and a white satin blouse. She'd put a dark little tie, like a man's, at the neck...
With a gas-smelly gush of auto exhaust, Grandma pulled up in her trusty old car, sending the “advise” in Claudine's mind back to dream land. She pulled the hairnet from her lap as she stood, then watched Nadine get into the car.
“See ya tomorrow, 'Deen,” Claudine said, “Good seein' ya, Gran,” she added, stooping to wave at the twig-like old lady at the wheel of the car. Grandma waved back while pulling away, with Nadine's head bent forward, eyes on her lap-- Probably counting her tips, thought Claudine. She always made good ones, both of them did. Let the got-it-all snots top them on that. Claudine tossed the pop bottle into the trash, tucked her hair in the net, and pulled open the dirty-glass door.
Slow night, only two guys in a booth by the windows. Claudine freshened their coffee, joked, chatted a bit, then started the change-of-shift chores: re-stock the clean cups, sort silver, wash the bus cart, fresh towels. Chores, chores, sundry snacks a couple of coffees, and then it was ten o'clock. Shirley arrived for her shift. Claudine waved a quick hi-and-goodbye as she walked to the back.
“'Night, Spence,” she called to the middle-shift cook as she passed through the kitchen. In his sweaty worn whites and stained apron, he was fervently mopping the floor. The kitchen always smelled like an arm pit at clean-up, Claudine thought, feeling pity for Spence and his earnest trying, then, glancing down, she opened the diner back door.
Moonlit bits of cellophane wrap and broken glass made a Milky Way path to the changed-that-day dumpster. The air smelled like spring and not garbage. How nice, thought Claudine. Her hand in her pocket tapping her tips, she crossed the narrow dirt road between the diner's backside and the trailers.
All-in-all, there were five of them in a line, length-wise. Cardboard covered the broken rear windows of the one at the end, beside it was another with a few loose siding panels drooping down to the ground. On the stoop of the third trailer was a filthy spittoon with a lopsided lawn chair beside it, those first three to the right of Roy's, and one to the left, with his, by far, not the worst of the bunch.
Claudine's mother, Barbara, kept Roy's trailer up. The dirt had been turned in the planter attached to the stoop by the door. Like always, there'd be flowers come June. Claudine smiled at that until she glanced to the gravel patch at the end of the line. Roy's rig was parked there with the others. Lord, he was home- Probably a stop-over, he'd be gone tomorrow. Bolstered by that thought, she opened the door of Roy's trailer.
Seated on a bench of the built-in dinette to the right of the door, her mother was pouring over the same beat-up seed catalog that she pulled out every spring. Like Claudine, she was small-bodied, with long hair the color of sand, and always tightly pulled back in a thin ponytail that she'd wind in a bun at the nape of her neck for her work shifts.
Claudine kissed her mom as she entered, then turned toward the hallway at the far end of a living room area split from the kitchen by a long Formica-topped counter. Yuk. There he was, seeming asleep in a beat-up recliner angled away from the door-- Rolland O'Connor, or “Roy-O”, his CB name on the road. With his smallish eyes closed, his thin-lipped mouth hung open a bit, and the little white ribs of a wife-beater tee-shirt bulged with the round of a big bloated belly seeming bitten by a thick leather belt, although the belt was unbuckled, and his unzipped jeans, laid open, exposed the wadded tail of his tee-shirt.
With his cowboy boots in a heap by the chair, his stockinged feet stunk up the air, so careful to not wake him and holding her breath, Claudine hustled past to the first of two doors in the hall. Thinking she'd start up the shower, she reached for the tap, gasping at dashing black dots on the floor of the stall.
“Mom,” she called, “The bugs are back.”
Barbara appeared in a snap, with the bleach bottle in one hand, the other one twisting its cap. “Go on and get ready,” she said, “I'll douse 'em and start up the shower so it will get hot.”
Behind the next door, in her room, Claudine stripped down, threw on her mini red robe, and stepped into high-heeled fake-feather slippers. Like rich women wear in old movies, her mother had laughed when Claudine unwrapped them that Christmas. They'd been meant as a joke, silliness, really, but, in the mirror on the back of her bedroom door, Claudine noted again how the heels lengthened the line of nude legs to the hem of the robe that was just past her hips. She was, indeed, a movie queen, Claudine thought, and pouted like Marilyn at herself in the mirror as she reached for the door latch beside it.
She took a few steps to the door of the bath, as her mother, having finished her task, met Claudine in the hall. The chair groaned, Roy had left it. The air went weird, snapped, sort of, it sizzled, and there was Roy-O, three feet from the hall, his body tensely bent forward. Like a dog on raw meat, he was fixed on Claudine with his hand in the gaping fly of his pants.
Their eyes met, his and Claudine's. Roy blanched, cleared his throat, walked to the kitchen, got a glass, turned the tap on. Water gurgled, gulped down by the drain.
Confused, kind of, shocked and unsettled, Claudine turned to her mom. The iris of Barbara's eyes were razor-edged, their lids tautly wide open.
The night remained tense after that, like they were all sitting there naked. Nobody said a darn thing, although Claudine heard a tangle of whispers as she was drifting to sleep. The next morning, her mother was at work when Claudine woke, with Roy racked out in his recliner, where he slept more often than not any more, while Barbara slept alone on the couch.
Carefully not waking Roy, Claudine readied for school and left for the diner where she'd wait for the bus. It would be late, always was, with not one seat open for the trailer trash bunch. As she stood by the front doors, resigning herself to a standup ride on display in the aisle, Roy came dancing past the two late-breakfast waitresses on their way in.
“You girls are lovely, like roses in spring,” he crooned as he held the door open for them. At forty-five, maybe fifty, the “girls” were pleasant-faced, big-busted matrons, and one of them, Hilda, elbowed Roy as she passed.
“You are full of malarkey, Rolland O'Connor, which every woman knows soon's you open your mouth.” Both women laughed while stowing their purses at the register counter. She took up a coffee pot and headed into the crowd with Roy calling out that each stop on the road was a garden, but this one, he said, with these two, this one was surely the best. Having come in with Hilda, the other of the two, Betty laughed, “You're so full of shit,” and patted Roy's belly on her way to the back. Barbara bent at the check-desk, put her tips in her purse. Her eyes on Roy, not smiling, she walked to where he stood at the door.
“You're making an ass of yourself,” she hissed as she neared him. Claudine stepped back, trying hard not to hear.
“A 'garden,' huh? Wanna tell me what kind of 'flower' I am?” Barbara sneered in Roy's face. “
How 'bout Claudine, Roy, what kind is she?” She charged out of the door as Roy held it. He followed. Concerned for her mother, Claudine slipped out behind them.
“What kind of shit you thinkin',” Roy growled. “Thought you been with me long enough you'd-a left off that gutter-girl crap,” he went on. “Think I don't know you're scared your kid's a tramp, just like you were?”
The school bus pulled onto the lot as Roy strode past Claudine on his way to his truck. Claudine kissed her mom, scanning her eyes for any hurt, pain. There seemed none, but the lines at the corners made webs in her flesh, like when gravel's been spit to a windshield, while the iris were glistening and sharp-edged, as if focused intently on something far-off. Claudine would never have guessed that her mother's eyes were on Barbara herself, eight years before, her first time in the trailer with Roy-O.
“Ain't much,” he'd said as he flicked on the lights.
Like a damp crawl-space, there was a musty closed-up smell, dirty. To the right of the door, there were mountains of unwashed dishes in the kitchenette sink, and dried-up puddles of some sort of food made a moon crater-surface on the stove top beside. To the left, nearly all of the living room was filled with an opened hidea-bed couch. Like a faintly feathered nearly dead baby bird, a worn-thin naked down pillow nestled in a wadded-up sheet, with wisps of batting from a ragged red quilt woven into the bedding as if the missing mama bird had been lining her nest.
“Woman's touch,” Roy muttered. “Got none.”
Barbara could feel the man blush, and warmth radiated from her gut to her hands while her eyes swept the mess like a surgeon's. “So happens I got a fair share of that. I could come with my little girl, fix it all up. She's in our motel room asleepI've already checked her, but I gotta go in a minute. I'll just sort these dishes, wash 'em tomorrow,” she said, and crossed the kitchen nook to the sink.
With her back to him, she was at work, when, soft and firm, on her hips, were Roy's hands. Heat from them seared her skin through her waitress smock, her dress, and her slip, through her panties. His breath on her neck singed like fire. He turned her to the solid stretch of his chest as if wrapping her in a great robe of mink, ermine, of sable, and she was a princess being wooed by the king, brought to his castle, to keep it.
That had been Barbara's thought as Roy switched the lights off, and she rolled with him on his sofa-bed pull-out while moonlight glowed on their clothing that had been dropped to the floor. Like the flanks of a bull, his hips parted her thighs, and he thrust himself deeply in her, deeper, then deeper, pounding her, pounding, until she was shattered, with the shards of herself, in slivers of breath, embedded in Roy-O forever. He'd keep and protect her as part of himself. She was safe, safe at last, finally. Their climax was sacred in the hope she had felt.
About six years after that bridal-suite-in-a-bird's-nest moon-speckled scene, there was the less sacred climax of a boy in Claudine when she'd been all of fourteen. She'd lost the battle to keep on her jeans in the filthy back seat of his car while helping find keys he told her he'd tossed there. Con job. Couldn't tell Barbara, because Barbara said no, Claudine could not go with a boy in a car, that that was just asking for trouble. Claudine deserved what she got, didn't listen. Deserved it or not, word got around. With most dates after a gimme-some deal, Claudine dated no one at all.
So Claudine couldn't have fathomed the soul-searing fizzle of a long ago hope that she'd seen in Barbara's sad eyes, as it'd been born and had died in that “trouble, please,” man-woman thing that Claudine had wiped from her mind. But she could see that the buck finally stopped on Roy's “garden walks,” and with that she'd sensed a change.
Turned out she'd been right. In the fourth week of that April, a day waitress got a last-straw raw shiner from her out-of-work spouse, and bought Roy's trailer, with everything in it, for three hundred and twenty-five dollars.
The woman had begged every dime from her folks so she and her kids could live on their farm. They'd be safe, safe at last, finally. Ironic, a little, how the same desperate hope inside two separate moms is born in each one by a man's set of arms. One hopes to be eternally enfolded by them, the other to escape them, please, God.
“Same old story,” Barbara Maine muttered that evening while packing a bag, planning to check out some houses on Roy's Sioux City route. “She'll be back with that bastard in less than a week,” she sighed, then zipped the bag closed and carried it to the truck.
Born of her experience as a twice-divorced battered wife and a working mother in sole-support of her four kids, Karen Kane's fiction features the flip side of the American Dream too often tolerated by women unaware of their rights. Her further experience as the surprise survivor of a near-fatal car crash, its on-going recovery spanning twenty-five years, has Kane, now 60, include determination and faith, or the lack of those virtues, among the themes guiding her stories. Happily remarried for the past twenty years, Kane has held an MFA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha since 2007, and seeks to use it all, her experience and education, to erase disability however she can.