Pink Cowboy Boots
Cindy leans against the counter and looks out the diner's window. Seeing only an untraveled ribbon of asphalt splitting the rocky, scrubby flatlands into equal halves, she slings a leg over a knee and hooks a boot heel against the stool's rung and waits.
"More coffee, hun?" the waitress asks. She holds a steaming carafe.
Cindy rotates the stool and faces her. "No, ma'am." She smiles a half-smile.
"Let me know if you need anything."
She looks at her watch. She's been here a while. Just her and the waitress and the cook who, with the lack of orders, sat a few stools down from Cindy. He glanced at her before folding his newspaper into quarters and working the crossword. Then he returned to the kitchen.
A country music radio station plays. Twangy guitars and nasally vocals, and it reminds her of when she and Wes would drive in to the honky-tonk on Friday or Saturday night. They'd get a pitcher of beer and eat the free popcorn and dance. Line dance. Two-step. Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. Boots shuffling across the floor.
Dancing. That was a long time ago. She remembers it like an old movie she's seen before: the tan cowboy hat, his mouth pinched in a tense line, his ass shoehorned into Wranglers, the room washed in neon from the beer signs.
"I sure like those boots," the waitress says. She nods toward Cindy's feet.
Cindy smiles meekly again. "They got a lot of miles on them."
"What don't, sugar?"
"Guess you're right."
"Sure I can't get you anything? Somethin to eat? I see you sittin here, lookin out that window . . ."
"I'm sorry," she says. She reaches for her purse. "I thought I'd already be gone by now. I didn't mean to be a bother."
"It's no bother. I just . . ." She pauses. She almost says something about how she can't stand to see girls waiting for something or someone that never comes, but she stops. "I can't forget about you is all. Always got to make sure my customers are happy."
"Yes, ma'am. I'm fine."
The waitress walks away. Cindy lights a cigarette. She wishes it were later and they were meeting where she could get a drink. She wouldn't mind having something to settle her. Because she was a little anxious. She hadn't seen him in a long time and wasn't expecting to see him again when her mother said that he called, looking for her. Wanting to know how she was doing.
"He asked if you were with someone. I told him you weren't settled I don't know how many times, and he kept asking if you were with someone. I told him I wasn't your spokesperson and that if he had any questions, he could just ask you himself. Get it straight from the source, I told him."
Cindy pulls at the cigarette. "No," she told him. She wasn't married. There wasn't anyone serious right now.
"Well," he said.
He didn't ask anything else. She didn't volunteer anything else. If he wanted to know more, he'd have to ask.
She grinds the cigarette into the tray until it stops smoldering. She rises from the stool and walks to the door near the cash register where wire racks hold copies of the Thrifty Nickel and religious tracts. She picks up a pamphlet and opens it and looks at the picture of the church's pastor. The Reverend Lloyd Briggs. A grandfatherly, trustworthy face that wouldn't hurt you. He'd be happy to put up your window screens in the spring or fix a broken hinge and then stay and eat something sweet and leave you with a piece of good advice . . .
Gravel crunches outside, and she looks up and sees him. The tract spills limply from her fingers as he closes his truck's door and moves closer. Toward her.
She tucks the pamphlet back in its slot, and she opens the door, holding it for him. "Wes," she says.
He stops. He doesn't smile, and his face doesn't convey anything. He looks her in the eye, and his expression does not change as he scans her - down to her toes and back to her eyes. Then he nods. "Lo, Cindy."
They stand there, her holding the door, him a few steps away until she says, "Well. Aren't we going inside?"
He follows her to the counter. They sit on the stools. As he eases down, he says, "Maybe we should go someplace else." He looks around the room as if to check if someone were listening. "Get somethin to drink. Might help things. With me, anyway."
"We're fine here."
"You by yourself?"
The waitress appears on the other side of the counter. She fills Cindy's cup and asks Wes if he'd like anything. He orders coffee. She pours him a cup. It steams. He empties a container of cream into it, and his spoon clinks as he stirs.
"How've you been?" she asks.
"All right." He thumbs over his shoulder. "Work at the school down the road. Maintenance. Pay ain't bad. Work with my hands." He shrugs and drinks his coffee.
"Ain't bad." He drinks again. "You? What have you been doin . . ." He pauses. "However long it's been."
She lights a cigarette. "A little of this, a little of that."
He waits for more. When there is none, he asks, "A little of what?"
"We don't need to get into all that, do we?"
He looks at her face. It's different from how he remembered it, different from the picture he kept of the two of them. She wasn't smiling now, and he remembers her smiling so much back then her eyes were always squinted into slits. She has a scar running just under her eye to the cheekbone, about three inches long and pinker than the rest of her face that wasn't there before. "Guess not," he says.
They face the fountain drink machine. Its sign exclaims, "Coke!" Then she asks, "Why'd you call?"
He clears his throat. "I got to thinkin about you. Wondered how you were doin. What you were doin. That sort of thing."
"Like a reunion? Where are they now?"
He looks at her. "I guess. But I wanted to tell you a few things."
"You know." He looks over his shoulder out the window, but there's nothing to see other than the empty road and his truck and Cindy's sedan. "I said and did some things back then . . ." He shakes his head.
"You mean like leaving me with the rent and the bills and a baby growing inside me. That?" "Yeah." He pauses. "I should've done things different."
"I'll agree with you."
He picks up Cindy's lighter from the counter and flips it through his fingers, it somersaulting as he moves it between his pinky and ring finger to his thumb and back again. Then he looks at her. "What happened with . . . you know?" He nods toward her stomach.
"The baby?" She touches where he was looking.
"I lost it. I got sick, and I lost it."
He stops fidgeting with the lighter. His mouth draws tight. Then he returns the lighter to the counter. It stands upright in front of the salt and pepper shakers.
"I hate to hear that."
She says nothing.
"Other day," he says, "I figured out that it'd be five, six years old now. Startin first grade, maybe. And, I don't know, I started wonderin what they were like. If they looked like you or me. If they danced like you or threw a ball like me. That sort of thing."
She thinks the same sorts of things, and she wonders how she's doing. If she's healthy. Happy. If she knows how lucky she is to be where she is. Because Cindy couldn't have taken care of a baby then. She was barely getting by herself then and is doing only a little bit better now.
She was a pretty baby. The nurses let her hold her for a little while. After she spent some time under a heating lamp and her skin warmed to a peach color, the nurses wrapped her in a blanket and placed a little white cap on her and carried her to Cindy. She was so little - miniature features like a doll's. Her eyes were closed, and Cindy could see her eyelashes, so wispy and delicate she could count them. Then the baby moved her mouth, and Cindy noticed a dimple on her cheek. She brought the baby close to her face and listened to her breathe, small even puffs, a sound that she'd never heard before. Then the nurses told her it was time to take her to the nursery, that they needed to run some tests. Cindy nodded and kissed the baby's forehead, and the nurse reached down and carried her away.
Cindy says, "I don't know about that."
They sit silently at the counter. Then Cindy stands and picks up her purse. "You want to take me some place and buy me a drink? That be okay with you?"
He leaves some folded ones on the counter, and they walk to the door. He opens it for her, and she walks to his truck. He holds this door open for her, too, and she steps inside. He turns the ignition and points the truck down the highway. Once they're moving, she reaches for his hand. She holds it in her lap. She wants to cry, but she doesn't. She won't cry. Instead, her grip on the hand tightens, and her skin pulls taut over her knuckles as they move through the bright day for a darker, cooler place.
About the author:
D. Elliot Wedge lives in Charleston, South Carolina. He has English degrees from the University of Tulsa and the University of South Carolina. His story "What Are You Doing?" was recognized by the South Carolina Arts Commission as a winner in its 2008 Short Fiction Contest, and another story, "Drowning," appeared in the November 2008 edition of Stirring.