For Valentine’s Day: Some Not-So-Young Lovers

waffle-house

Yesterday I finished the full first draft of a novel I’ve been working on for about a year and a half. Last year I posted an excerpt in honor of Mother’s Day, and today I thought it only fitting to share another excerpt for Valentine’s Day. I hope you enjoy it and would love to hear what you think!

***

Rhondette had fallen asleep with her phone in her hand, the words ‘manumissive power’ typed into her search engine. Overnight the battery died, and Rhondette woke up mid-morning, having slept through what should have been her alarm. She was two hours late for her shift at Waffle House. She briefly wondered why no one had called to find out why she wasn’t at work, but then she remembered that they would have called her on her cell, which sat dark and dead in her hand. It’s like that old song about the hole in the bucket, she thought.

She felt frumpier than usual when she squeezed herself into the tiny bathroom stall and changed into her frilly yellow pinafore. She was still huffing and puffing from the climb up the stairs. When she emerged from the bathroom, the day manager – a jerkoff named Leland – was waiting for her with his arms folded.

“Leland,” Rhondette began.

He cut her off. “

Don’t you check your phone, Rhondette?” he asked. His nasty little moustache twitched. Rhondette dropped her eyes in embarrassment and saw that Leland’s fly was open. Dingy gray briefs peeked out at her to say hello.

“The battery died, Leland,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’ve had a lot on my mind. I fell asleep before I could plug in the charger.”

“And this morning?” Leland asked. “Did you check your messages this morning?”

No, Leland, I didn’t. I didn’t want anything to make me any later than I already was.”

“If you had checked this morning, you would have found that your employment at Waffle House had been terminated. This is your third late arrival, Rhondette. You know the rules.”

Rhondette scanned her memory. When had she been late before today? There was the day her cousins hijacked the tram just a few seconds before she got there, taunting her as the tram sped them off on a beach vacation. She had been maybe twenty minutes late that day, but she had called. Besides that? Maybe a minute here, a minute there, tops. She stopped herself before she asked, though, realizing in one sudden gasp that the last thing she wanted to know was how intimately Leland knew her past infractions by heart. She suspected that his mind was a veritable file cabinet filled with fractions of minutes and grievances involving frilly yellow uniforms and customers who complained that their coffee was cold, and a single glimpse inside that file cabinet might make her cry, and if she cried, who knew when she would stop? The only other thing she thought of saying was that her grandmother had gotten her this job and knew the regional manager, but how could she say that? She was thirty-nine. She lived in a burrow underground. Her parents were dead, and her grandmother and her cousin dictated every move she made. There was a time when she wanted things – lots of things – now all she wanted was not to cry in front of this squirrely little man who was so determined to ruin her day that he couldn’t even be bothered to zip his pants. She stood there for a moment with her mouth open, considering various responses, but finally she just nodded and pulled the yellow pinafore over her head. Then she stepped out the back entrance and stared at the landscape in front of her: a credit union with a drive-through ATM, a flower store with a broken sign, a Hardee’s, a doughnut place, a pet store. And, of course, also time. There was time out there too, as far as the eyes could see.

Slowly she made her way across the parking lot to the doughnut place. There would be coffee there, and surely a few doughnuts added to her hips would hardly make her day worse than it already was. She was surprised at how terrible she felt. The job at Waffle House had been her first real foray into mainstream employment. It was a job fit for a sixteen year-old kid saving money for a prom dress – a job even a sixteen year-old kid would complain about – yet it had suited her: she liked schmoozing with the regulars at the counter, a coffee pot in her hand and a pad of paper and a pen in the breast pocket of her pinafore. Where do you go once you’ve been fired from Waffle House? Rhondette had no idea.

A black pickup truck idled in front of the doughnut place. When Rhondette approached it, she detected a funky smell around the truck – a nauseating miasma somehow connected to the foul-looking fluids that mainstreams put into cars in those shops along route 82 called Pep Boys and Midas and Jiffy Lube. The smell turned Rhondette’s stomach, but because of the smell she scrutinized the truck more closely than she would have otherwise, wondering what kind of person would tolerate such a stench around his vehicle, and when she looked closely she realized that there was a man in the cab of the truck, and that man was Errol Borland.

She approached the truck slowly, thinking that she must be wrong, that it couldn’t possibly be him. What would he be doing here? Hadn’t he left last night, to go back to Oregon or wherever? But when she knocked softly on the window of the truck, his head turned and his mouth unfolded itself into a smile, exposing the gaps between his yellowish teeth, she felt her entire body slacken in relief.

Errol leaned across the front seat of the cab and pulled up the old-fashioned push-button lock on the passenger-side door. “Well, hey there,” he said when Rhondette opened the door. “What a coincidence.”

“I can’t tell you how happy I am to see a friendly face,” Rhondette said. “I just got fired.” She whispered the word fired. She couldn’t say it out loud.

“I’ll bet that’s a story,” Errol said. He nodded his head toward the doughnut shop. “Care to tell me about it over doughnuts?” he asked. “My treat.”

“I would love to,” Rhondette said. She shut the door and waited for Errol to climb down from the driver’s side, his body robust but cautious. How old was he anyway? Rhondette thought. Eighty? Older? Or, more to the point: Was there so much kindness in the world that Rhondette could afford to turn down an offer of friendship from this man? Of course there wasn’t. She smiled and accepted the offer.

Fifteen minutes later, they were in the cab of Errol’s truck, heading out of town on Route 295. Rhondette had jerked her head toward the truck as soon as Errol paid for the doughnuts, having immediately noticed that ants swarmed the floor of the shop and the few customers at tables looked like the sort that liked to talk to strangers. She held her own coffee and Errol’s as he backed out of the parking lot and merged onto the highway, and now that they had settled into the middle lane he held his own coffee and she handed him bite-sized pieces of chocolate-frosted old fashioned doughnuts from the bag she held in her lap. She told him how Leland had fired her with his zipper open and he almost choked.

“Strange breed of man, here in Beaufort, no?” Errol said through his laughter.

Rhondette looked around – first out of the windshield in front of her, and then out the window to her right. “I can’t say I’m going to miss that little fucker,” she said. She paused for a moment, hoping the thought of Leland and his nasty underwear would overtake her sadness. It didn’t, though, so she followed her feelings where they went – and where they went was to Errol. “What am I going to do, though?” she asked. She rested the frosted cake doughnut she had been eating in her lap. “It’s all well and good to laugh at that little pissant Leland, but what’s next? I’m no closer to finding Dale Deacon, and the minute my grandmother finds out about I got fired –

“The minute your grandmother finds out you got fired,” Errol said, “she’ll pour you a glass of wine and celebrate.”

“But – ” Rhondette began.

“You can say what you want about those cousins of yours,” Errol continued, plowing right through Rhondette’s objections. “They’re a bunch of peckerwoods, if you ask me – hearts in the right place notwithstanding. A bunch of power-worshippers. Hierarchy whores. Fuck ‘em. But your grandmother is the real deal. She’s got the goods. She may have to kowtow to those younger guys to make a point, but there’s no way she’s letting you suffer from being canned from that awful place. She’ll respect you more is all.”

“It’s not like I stood up against injustice or anything,” Rhondette said. She wiped her eyes and nose with a napkin from the doughnut place. “All I did was sleep through my alarm.”

“Your grandmother hasn’t woken up to an alarm clock in her life,” Errol said. When Rhondette didn’t comment, he asked, “has she?”

“I don’t know,” Rhondette said. “Probably not.”

“I can’t quite believe I’m about to admit this,” Errol said, “but the old ways of all you witches weren’t all bad. The harmony with nature. The circadian rhythms, the menstrual cycles and what-all. The phases of the moon. You Restorer folks are on the right track – full equality is the way to go – but I hardly think it’s an accident that you put a bunch of alpha males in charge and the next thing you know everyone’s putting on suits and ties and punching clocks, worshipping the almighty dollar.”

“It’s not about the – ”

“Fine. Worshipping what? If not the dollar, what?”

Rhondette was stumped. What did her family worship? Jordan wanted obedience. He loved that he could give commands and that Rhondette, six years his senior, had to obey. He wanted his own brain waves to emanate out into the real world and come to life there, without mistakes or effort. He wanted the rest of the movement to be his hands and feet.

“Recognition, I think,” she said slowly. “Status. Power.”

“That’s all just a long way of saying money,” Errol said. “I know, I know – the movement isn’t making anybody rich. But money is more than just a number in a bank account. It’s a culture. It’s about structures and spreadsheets and rules and regulations and getting fired. And yes, it’s about recognition and status and power too. And in case you hadn’t noticed,” Errol paused, “it’s mainstream culture. That’s what happened when your movement got going – it moved away from the culture of witchcraft and started acting like the worst of the mainstreams.”

Rhondette was impressed, but she withheld comment. Instead she said, “You use that word? You call yourselves mainstreams?”

Errol smiled. “Long habit. You get inured to it after while. Plus, it suits us: mainstreams. It’s what we are. And we’re not all bad – but your family seems to have a knack for imitating us at our worst.”

“So what then?” Rhondette asked. “What do we do? What do I do?”

Errol smiled. “I’m glad you asked. We have a long drive ahead of us to talk it through.”

***

“They’re burning the soybean fields,” Errol said. He had seen Rhondette sniffing the air and explained the concept of a control burn. The whole town stank. Rhondette even detected a faint trace of ash on her hamburger.

They sat in the cab of Errol’s truck, eating burgers and drinking cherry limeades outside of a Sonic in a town off I-40 called Stuttgart, Arkansas. Across the parking lot was a Waffle House. Irrationally, Rhondette wanted to stay low, as if her face were on a Waffle House wanted poster and employees all across the region would be on the lookout for her.

“You know what would make this thing better?” Rhondette said, holding the styrafoam cup that held her cherry limeade up to the light. Errol made a noise that sounded vaguely interested, so she answered her own question: “Vodka.”

“No can do,” Errol said. “Dry county.” With a wave of his hand he indicated the entire landscape: the gauzy gray over the soybean fields, the two-lane highway, the split concrete outside the Waffle House.

“I’ve heard of those,” Rhondette said. “I hoped I’d never see one.”

“Well, look around. I’m betting that about a hundred feet farther down the highway we find the First Baptist Church.”

“First of how many?” Rhondette asked. She had lifted the lid off her cherry limeade and was fishing around inside it for the maraschino cherry.

“Thousands,” Errol said, smiling. “Millions, even. Chock full of missionaries, every one.”

“Oh, you,” Rhondette said. She gave him a limp-armed backhand swat, her hand bouncing off his upper arm as harmlessly as a flounder.

“You think I’m joking?” Errol said. “The missionary position is going on all around us, millions of millions of times, in every house in the land. You and me are a variable nucleus in a big atom made up of the missionary position.”

“I keep trying to tell myself that you don’t know any better,” Rhondette said. “But you’re not making my job easy, let me tell you.”

“Now don’t take this the wrong way,” Errol said. “But when it comes to life up here on the surface – you know, the place everyone else thinks of as the real world – you, my friend, are the one who doesn’t know any better.” He took one last straw-suck of his cherry limeade and then passed it to Rhondette. “Drink this for me, will you?” he asked. “I’m supposed to take it easy on the sugar.”

Rhondette knew he was right but preferred to change the subject rather than concede the point. “So tell me,” she said, “what is the master plan? Now that you’ve kidnapped me, I mean?”

“What a coincidence,” Errol said. “I was just about to ask you the same question.”

“Were you looking for me when you were in that parking lot?”

Errol smiled and licked his fingers after eating the last of his French fries. “Oh, there’s a chance I was looking for you. I had a feeling you and I would make a good team.”

“A good team for what?”

“You’re a little slow, aren’t you?” Errol asked. “I’m beginning to see what your cousin – ”

Rhondette reached inside the remaining quarter of her cheeseburger, seized a pickle chip, and threw it at Errol. It hit him squarely on the forehead and stuck there like a stamp on a letter. Rhondette laughed out loud at her perfect aim, and Errol chuckled too as he peeled the pickle chip off his forehead and popped it in his mouth. “Let me rephrase my answer,” he said.

“Go ahead.”

“Would you, Rhondette Andrews, take me – old, grumpy, senile Errol Borland – as my awfully beautiful and delightful witch-hunting sidekick? As long as we both shall live?”

Rhondette laughed, but there was a sadness inside her too. The fact that this parody might be the closest thing she would ever hear to wedding vows that contained her name had not escaped her. But all she said, “Witch-hunting? Is that what you do? I thought that went out with arranged marriages.”

“Not witch-hunting,” Errol said. “Not witch-hunting at all. Witch – ” he paused, his face blank as his mind groped for language – “Witch-looking. Witch-man looking. Witch-man looking and helping. Did I mention that I’m senile?”

Rhondette laughed, turning her head to the side in case she coughed out Errol’s cherry limeade. “You are too much,” she said. “You really are too much.”

“You have to admit we have a common interest, no?” Errol said.

“I suppose we do,” Rhondette said. “Is that what we’re doing – looking for Dale Deacon?”

“If you’re willing,” Errol said.

“Of course I’m willing.”

“I thought I’d help you out – give you a little escape from your family while at the same time giving them a reason to take you back. And if we have a little fun along the way, so much the better. I’m a hoot in hotels.”

Rhondette laughed out loud and crammed the thick, heavy Styrafoam cup back into its cupholder. She couldn’t trust herself with a beverage if Errol was going to keep on being this funny. “I’m sure you are, Errol Borland,” she said. “I have a feeling you’re a hoot in a lot of places.”

“So you’re game?” he asked.

“I am as game for this as I’ve ever been for anything,” Rhondette said.

“You’ll have to do the driving after dark,” Errol said. He pointed at his eyes. “My eyes conk out in the dark.”

“Drive?” Rhondette said, surprised. “I can’t drive. You didn’t know that?”

“Are you kidding? A forty year-old woman who can’t drive? What is the world – ”

“I’m thirty-nine, thank you very much. And my family only travels by – ”

“By magical high-speed underground train, I know. But wouldn’t you like to be the first in your family to learn to drive?”

“Apologize for saying I’m forty and maybe I’ll let you teach me.”

“You’re honestly asking me to apologize for missing your age by one pesky year? Do you have any idea how young forty sounds when you’re eighty-one?”

“Eighty-one,” Rhondette considered. “You’re more than twice my age.”

“I’m nine times nine,” Errol said. “Nine squared. I’m nine nine-year-olds. I’m a regular little shrieking screaming birthday party at a bowling alley. If you want to know what it’s like inside my head, picture nine kids, all high on sugar and sliding around in big shoes.”

“And you call yourself senile,” Rhondette said. “I’d say you’re more of a poet.”

“Same difference,” Errol said.

“Speaking of nine year-olds,” Rhondette said, “Did you – ” She hunted for words. “Did you get to spend time with your children when they were little? Or your grandchildren?”

Errol began picking up trash and stuffing it into a paper Sonic bag. “You done with this?” he asked, pointing at the bag that still contained a few of Rhondette’s onion rings.

“Not on your life,” she said, seizing the bag and securing it near her chest.

Errol put up his hands in mocking surrender. “Point taken,” he said. “I’ll never again put myself between a woman and her onion rings.”

“You and I should get along just fine then,” Rhondette said. She wished he wouldn’t dodge her question, but she didn’t push him.

Errol opened the door and climbed down to throw the trash away. Rhondette got out of the truck as well and passed Errol the two near-empty Styrafoam cups. The both climbed back into the cab, and Errol waited until they were back on I-40 before he spoke. “The years when my kids were little – Leilani and Asher of course – they’re all – ”

“There’s a brother?” Rhondette asked. “I was briefed on the family, but no one mentioned a brother.”

“Twins,” Errol said.

“Where’s the brother?”

Errol paused. “He’s in prison, I’m sorry to say.”

“Jesus,” Rhondette said. “What for?”

“Kidnapping and assault.” Errol’s face grew more vertical as he spoke.

“What happened?”

“He – well – he kidnapped my grandson. Leilani’s son Max. I was just a few months out of my marriage to Callista when it happened. I was in no place to help. I barely even remember getting the news. He was twenty-five.”

“That’s terrible,” Rhondette said.

“It just about ruptured the family down the middle. First I left, then what happened with Asher. Leilani went into a sort of retreat. I didn’t hear from her for years. Then she resurfaced in Rhode Island, running that hair place.

“For a while after that she kept in touch. I saw her twins once a year or so. I couldn’t believe it. Those two kids– a boy and a girl – just like Leilani and Asher, just the same. Except that I was different. I held them and really felt them in my arms – smelled their hair, their breath. I looked at that poor man – Leilani’s husband – and saw what I had been like thirty years before. A quivering little mouse, just enslaved to my daughter’s moods. I can’t imagine the poor man slept much. It was seeing him like that that made me determined to help witches’ consorts break free. I left Rhode Island after one visit and drove straight west. That was when I met up with the coven in Oregon. I had heard they were helping male witches and mainstream consorts, and the rumors were true.”

“Was that the last time you saw the children?” Rhondette asked.

“Yes. I didn’t mean for it to be. But Leilani got wind of what I was doing with the Oregon coven – reaching out to ex-consorts, creating a network of men who could help us understand and control manumissive power. My name wasn’t on anything – the mistress of the coven in Oregon made sure of that – but Leilani is intuitive. I showed up at the house for a visit – we had talked just the night before when I told her what time my flight would get in – and she opened the door with this shut-down look on her face. ‘I don’t know who you are,’ she said. ‘Go away and – ’” he fought back tears; Rhondette searched the cab and handed him a stray napkin that hadn’t made it into the bag of trash; He took it and dabbed at his eyes – “Go away and don’t bother us again.’ While she was saying it I saw her husband in the house, looking like a ghost. I knew then that I wanted to be the one to get him out of there. I never could, of course, because she found ways to let me know she was keeping tabs on me. I’m not telepathic myself – ”

Rhondette laughed: one single cynical snort of indrawn breath. “Join that club,” she said.

“I’m the president of that club,” Errol said. “Now can I finish?”

“Of course,” Rhondette said, feeling just the tiniest bit abashed.

“I’m not telepathic – but I know when telepaths are tapping into my thoughts. I’m not sure if it comes from spending so much time under Callista’s power or if it’s something I came by naturally, but I know when a witch is in my head, and Leilani found ways to let me know that she was always watching me. I can resist Callista’s powers – and yes, she does still check in from time to time, just for fun – and with other witches I’m not connected to it’s no struggle at all to cast them off – but my daughter? Forget it. I might as well be under an obedience charm to her, although she never administered one. As far as I know, she’s the only witch on Earth that still has powers over me, and I can’t resist her. She tells me to go away, and I go away.”

“That’s heartbreaking,” Rhondette said. “I’m so sorry.” She rested her hand on his shoulder. “Pull over so I can give you a hug.”

“Give me a hug here,” Errol said. “What’s stopping you? This is Arkansas. Local cops have bigger fish to fry than some gal with her seatbelt off.”

Rhondette laughed and pushed the button to release her seatbelt with a glee usually reserved for the ceremonious removal of her bra each night. Tossing it free, she squirmed onto her knees and wrapped her arms around Errol: one behind his shoulders and one across his chest. His right shoulder fit like a puzzle piece into the space between her breasts. She leaned forward, smelled his hair, and planted a kiss on a spot of pink scalp visible beneath his hair, asking herself: Is this happening? Is this happening? Is this happening?

 

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