Dining In

I swore off fast food, cigarettes, and birth control pills at the age of thirty. I am hungry, out driving in the rain on errands, and there's Wendy's. Wendy's with the yellow and pigtails and salad bars. Ninety-nine cent menu. I park. Feel okay about eating fast and getting out plus I can't recall how avoiding Burger King and Taco Bell makes my body cleaner. My town is small with limited choices.

I spread all of my food out on a table for four. Chili, large, with crackers and packets of hot chili spice, plus a Ceasar salad, the dressing having not a lot of grams of anything bad, all for three dollars and three cents. The cashier loaned me a penny. Now she sweeps near my table. Glances and sweeps. I feel a stupid look on my face. I try to look friendly because people tend to think I am not.

"Do you have kids?" she says

I only look alone. I participate in a big life outside of here with many people who love me and laugh at my jokes. I receive phone calls from Australia, emails from Germany and letters from the coast. They can't all be here, now, you understand. I am a godmother, a favorite cousin, a bridesmaid six times over. My AT&T usage warrants a special calling plan. I am an aunt without the "aunt" in front of my name. My hair has been documented in regional poetry and I have been thanked in book dedications. I can't wear all of this for you. "Nope," I say.

"Well don't have boys," she says. Leora is her name. She seems to like her job.

"Oh, why? I love my nephew!" I say. Sometimes I talk. The friendliness of southerners used to threaten me and my secure indifference, make me edgy about hanging around without any protection from their social advances. When a person sits alone someplace they're really asking for it.

"I love my nephew too, but my husband pees off the porch." All of this to tell me. I don't mean to be suspicious, but he's probably done it just the one time. "I can't make him quit," Leora says. Appears baffled. I am not sure what all she has tried. She shakes her head and smiles with an overbite. "If I had a little boy he'd be out there with his daddy doin' it too. Following daddy."

I try to picture this man. Peeing. I remember high school keg parties in the desert and lucky boys. Girls had to hide and squat. "It might be worse with a girl," I say. "It would be very difficult for her."

"Ain't no reason why she'd be out there with daddy while he's peeing! She wouldn't be following daddy!" Leora says. "Uh-uh, she'd be in the kitchen with me."

Leora is right about this. Why would the child be out there when dad has his thing out? Thank goodness I don't have children. I am not sure why Leora doesn't. "Why doesn't your husband use the bathroom?" I ask.

"It's too far away, especially in the middle of the night. See, here's our bedroom--" she flattens her hands "--and here's the sliding doors to the porch. He goes right out there and pees from it. Otherwise, here's the bedroom and the hall and the kitchen, then the bathroom, almost to the living room. He'd rather go right out--"

Leora must take an order at the counter. I sip my water and nod.

I was out to buy socks when I got hungry. I am quite picky about my socks and have very sensitive skin. I only wear silky fabrics and cotton, and do not like elastic bands curling in where I might feel them. They should do their job without me noticing. For a time, I wore white socks with everything but read somewhere that this was tacky. I do not usually care about fashion errors, but I prefer not to draw attention to myself and tacky socks might make me stand out when I don't really feel like it. I also needed a watch.

Leora sweeps sort of near my table again. I consider telling Leora about my sock shopping. Another female Wendy's employee sits on the floor by the restrooms with a screwdriver and a vacuum cleaner. "I figured it out," she tells Leora and goes on about the machinery. The rain on the window makes my reflection look wet, like I am sitting at the table dripping in water while eating green lettuce.

"Yeah, he'd be following daddy," Leora says, like the child exists, has a name already, wakes her up thirsty or dreaming about a bear in the closet. I see him too, blond like me not her and growing from toddler to a shirtless tree-climbing boy in the country and I realize it's all from a book. Huck Finn. Tom. Nobody real.I put down my fork.

"And imagine when all his buddies come over." She leans on the broom. "All lined up out there." Leora likes to pretend. Wendy's must get be boring.

"Mmmhmm," I say in a down-home kind of way. "He'd be right out there with them, they'd all be lined up seeing who could pee the farthest and he'd try too." I sound chatty, get sort of a twang.

Leora laughs, turns pink. She wears no make-up at all and her hair bushes out from her Wendy's cap. She talks about growing up in the country and riding her pet deer, Patches, like a pony. I didn't know you could do that, I tell her, ride a deer. Does everyone know about riding deer? Leora would fall asleep in the barn, if it was raining, say, and the deer (there were three) would nuzzle right up next to her. She folds her shoulders and twists back and forth. Leora doesn't care what she tells me, what I know about her early days, her husband's bad habits, her non-existent son yearning to be a man. "I loved living out there. Oh and their horns, or antlers or whatever you call 'em, turned fuzzy as they got older. That's how you could tell," Leora says.

"Really? I didn't know that," I say.

"Yeah, they feel like velvet." She strokes the air with her hand. "Like soft velvet bones."

The girl on the floor with the vacuum cleaner calls out to me, seems to want to get in on the action. "Ma'am, would you mind if I turned this on for a minute? It should only take a second. Do you mind?"

"Sure," I answer.

It will be difficult to talk with the vacuum cleaner running. I'm still not used to ma'am. Leora takes a rag and heads toward a table by the window.

"I don't have any kids either," Leora says as she wipes where the salt and pepper shakers used to be. They are in one of her hands. "But I am married."

I blink. Swallow. Feel red.

I figure the vacuum cleaner should be whirring by now but it's quiet. Someone in a car warbles an order. I cannot possibly eat so much food and reconsider my choices, fast-food chili oozing around my insides and maybe tearing up valuable tissue or clinging to impressionable walls. Leora has moved off, away from me.

Outside there's still rain and I am not quick enough with the umbrella. I thought I remembered an awning, something between inside and out where I could get myself adjusted. In my car I think about my apartment and rearrange the furniture as I drive. The couch could go back a bit more, I am thinking, but I am not moving those bookcases again.

About the author:

Peggy M. Price studies writing at The University of Southern Mississippi, where she works as a librarian in the Special Collections department. Her fiction has appeared in Dicey Brown and is forthcoming in Opium Magazine.