I parked outside his house. All I really knew about him was his first name, Dale, that he tipped well, took his coffee black, and I guessed he worked early in the morning, because he always came in to the donut shop where I worked at 6:08 on the button. Like an alarm clock sounding after the snooze-button, he would re-awaken me the second his no-sock, tennis-shoe feet slid through the bell-ringing doorway. “Mornin’, Connie,” he’d smile.
“Good mornin’,” I roll out, pretending I haven’t fallen in love with the way his hair fuzzles up along the part. “What’ll you have today, Dale?”
Yeah, he told us girls his name, but other than that he talked little. Smiled even less often—usually when we baked the blueberry crullers—but he always seemed in a good mood. Those smile teeth were so straight and not at all coffee-stained. And never once did he try peeking down my dress when I leaned pouring coffee.
He was an event in the workday for me and the girls I worked with. It is not the sort of job you love, but we all had reasons for keeping ourselves stuck there. Most days we acted like little girls—teasing the regulars and throwing sprinkles at each other. Trying to forget where we were and why.
We talked like sisters. Joanne complained her husband was so lazy even his hair never grew. And Cousin Betsy told lovey-dovey stories about her boyfriend to the point that we all were secretly glad when the two of them fought. And Ruthie, whose kids were grown, gave us her “so-and-so never calls me” complaints, and “did I ever tell you about when so-and-so was five and…” stories. She reminded me of Mamma, cause she was real pretty when she was younger like Mamma was. Plus Mamma always wanted a bunch of kids to tell those stories about.
The girls got to hear me go on about all my dates—how Billy was so boring that I started daydreaming and he left the restaurant and I didn’t notice, or how Bobby’s laugh sounded like he was having a seizure, or how Tommy tried to score an hour into our first date so I socked him in the mouth. They all tease that I’m too pretty not find a guy. Like, “Honey, if my butt were as tight as yours, I’d’ve landed me a man by now.” They didn’t seem to understand that I didn’t just want some drooling boy. I wanted someone thoughtful and wild and real.
I didn’t know why I ended-up sitting out there in Dale’s night neighborhood. But his house fit him as perfect as those worn-out jeans of his. The grass, like his stubbly beard, needed trimming. Eleven-thirty on a Monday night, but the Sunday paper sat on his warping porch. And every light in the house shined, though I knew he lived alone and there were no other cars in the driveway—all cracked-up with weeds. The one splotch of color on the gray two-story—a hanging basket of wilty fuchsia geraniums—dangled from the sagging porch roof, swaying in and out of the gold-white light from the front window. I wondered why he chose that color of flower. Is that the color his Mamma always had? I imagined him at the Wal-Mart garden-center, studying the colors to get the prettiest one. The basket swayed with the strengthening wet-smelling wind, threatening to yank the rusty hook out of the old wood. The house was perfect for him. Not fussy-neat like Mamma kept our house. But not ugly either. Comfortable. A car rolled by and I ducked, laughing at myself for being there, but not wanting to leave just yet. It was nice there. Peaceful. And I could just kinda let my mind go all over the place. Like we all do sometimes at work.
We girls all tried to guess at what Dale did for a living. But we promised each other never to ask. That would ruin the fun of guessing. He was our little game. “I think he’s a teacher,” Joanne said one day, dumping coffee grounds in the trash. “History teacher. Cause he’s so quiet and serious all the time. Can’t you just picture him flipping through big old leather books all day?”
“Can’t be,” I said, filling up salt shakers, “cause he wears jeans every day.”
“Yes, honey, he sure does wear jeans, don’t he,” Joanne said, smiling. I giggled, spilling salt on the counter.
“Wears ’em like a bee wears stripes,” Cousin Betsy said, laughing, and I flicked some salt at her. Betsy thought Dale was smart with fixing stuff—like a car mechanic. And he just changed into that little blue jumpsuit with the “Dale” patch on the chest when he got to the garage.
But those are the usual old jobs of the guys in town. Dale had to have something better.
Exciting. His Mamma probably didn’t fight all the time with a TV repair-man daddy. And Dale was getting out someday. I always wanted to save up some money for a nice car and then go someplace real crazy full of people—maybe Nashville or New Orleans—and find a nice guy like Dale to lay on the couch with. A guy who wouldn’t go all silly over me being pretty. I got tired of that. I knew I was pretty—telling me that was not gonna win you any prize in my heart. I wanted someone to listen to me, and talk to me, and take me away.
I finished filling the salt shakers while Joanne tried to guess what subjects Dale would teach if he was a teacher. “Definitely history,” Joanne said, “in a classroom with all those big colored maps behind him, all divided up into pink and yellow countries.” I slid a fresh pan of doughnuts on the counter to drizzle them with berry-colored icing.
I remembered baking Christmas cookies with Mamma. Matching pink aprons. I watched, and tried, but mine never turned out like hers. “Someday,” she would say, sprinkling flour onto the rolling pin, “someday you’ll bake cookies for your husband.” I’d smile, smushing my fingers down into the dusty dough. But she never really explained how that would happen. Who he would be. Just that he would “take my breath away.” Like Daddy took hers away when she was young, I guessed. I wondered what that would feel like.
Mamma took her baking very seriously. Slid a knife along the top of her measuring cup to make sure it held the exact amount of sugar. Sifted her dry ingredients together, twice. Room-temperature eggs. Cold bowls. And her dough never once stuck to the countertop. Daddy never commented on the pretty, sugar-sprinkled, pastel-frosted shapes when I would set them by his Lay-Z-Boy. He would pick them up without looking away from “The Price is Right.” I would hear them crunch—like he liked them—but he never actually told me he liked them. Mamma would clean up the kitchen.
I swirled the icing on the doughnuts and arranged them on the display shelf. Joanne laughed and smacked my rear-end with a towel. “What do you think?” she said to me and Betsy, “History? Or maybe science?” She pretended to look at the doughnuts with a magnifying glass. “Connie, didn’t you date a scientist once?”
“Not really,” I smiled. “I mean, he was studying plants and stuff at the community college, but that doesn’t make him a scientist.”
“Was he that skinny little one with the…” she demonstrated his limp, exaggerating.
“Well,” I said, trying not to laugh, “I guess there’s always a little something wrong with all of them.”
“Uh-huh!” They said in unison, rolling their eyes. I went out with him because he gave me a glass paperweight with a pink butterfly inside. And I went out with him a second time because he had asked me if he could hold my hand, instead of just snatching it. But I didn’t really like him much.
“Well, I say Dale couldn’t teach science,” Cousin Betsy said, making a face. “Too gross.
Have to cut open animals and stuff.”
But whatever the other girls thought Dale did for a living, I just knew he was a writer. A writer can leave anytime he wants, just by pretending with words. He gets paid just to put his imagination all out on paper. Dale was so quiet—there was probably all kinds of imagination going on inside that beautiful head of his. And part of his daily routine, to get his creative juices flowing through that head, was to roll out of bed at six and head down here for his coffee and donut. Then he would go back home and sit in front of his typewriter—he couldn’t afford a computer yet, or just preferred the tickety-tick—and his soft, sturdy fingers would fly. Then after a half-hour or so he would stop, and crumple up his paper. But he would save all those crumple-ups in an old file cabinet. They were probably all full of thoughts of cozy, still-dark mornings, a smart wife in pink slippers, and freshly-baked blueberry crullers.
So I sat there, in front of his grandma-looking house, my car hidden by the dark. Not even the moon’s light could poke through the thick tar cloud-cover warning of rain. I kept the radio running, real low, with the late-night love-song program. Songs about the kind of guys who don’t exist. I thought that Dale would probably sing nice—gravelly and sincere.
I glanced at the coupon-stuffed newspaper on the porch. It was that paper that brought me there to his house. I had read, in the little column listing the cultural-type stuff going on in the city that there was going to be a book-signing at the mall for “local author, Dale Dautry, who will be presenting his first novel on Tuesday.” I told the girls at work that I was right. He was a writer. I looked up his name in the phone book and found the house. I wondered at the lights—all on at midnight. Maybe he was writing. I was proud. The swing on his porch swayed in the wind, creaking on rusted chains.
I remembered a conversation I had with my friend, Tammy, when we were fourteen, sitting on Mamma’s old front porch swing, August, hot outside. The memory sort of seeped up out of my lungs.
“Connie, when are you gonna move on outta here?” Tammy had asked me, sucking a grape popsicle.
“Why would I move anyplace?” I had all the things I needed, things you don’t just leave, the dog, a crush on Toby down the street, the garden full of snap peas and marigolds.
“I don’t know,” Tammy said, “but Chip told me that…”
“If you’re just rattling off what that idiot told you, then I’m not listening.” I hated Tammy listening to her brother, Chip. Chip, who said my toes were fat. Chip, who broke the head off Tammy’s new Barbie. Chip, who had just about the prettiest eyes in my world, but who kissed Peggy Patterson, the girl who won best smile in the yearbook, even though everyone knew she had had braces. “Chip’s always telling you lies.”
“Is not!” Tammy sucked a drip from her popsicle. “He said everyone moves sometime or another to get life experience.” She looked satisfied, her lips staining purple. “He’s going to live with our Aunt Rhonda in Nashville. Maybe go to college.” I was mad. I didn’t want to leave, and I didn’t want her leaving on account of something Chip said. And I wondered if Daddy was out there getting all that experience. “So, Connie, when are you leaving?”
“Never,” I said. “I like it here.” Tammy moved to Ohio after high-school for a factory job building bicycles.
I remembered how happy I was at age fourteen. I didn’t need anything more than what I could get in that stuffed-full drawer by the kitchen telephone—a barrette, my fruity-scented markers, or Mamma’s address book. Most everyone else thought of things they said they needed—things they had to go away to get. Like Chip and Tammy. Like Daddy. But no crowded, far-away city could tell me more about my life. And how could I leave Mamma?
Mamma was all I had. After Daddy left she started working at a day-care in the basement of St. Mark’s Lutheran. I remember hating to see her leave in the morning, wearing earrings and perfume, going off to play with some other people’s kids instead of me. Then having the nerve to talk about them to me while she made supper. “Hand me that spatula, Connie. Oh, you wouldn’t believe what Tommy Smalls did with the dominoes this morning…” And my stomach would swirl itself all up like it was full of soda bubbles, my fingers tingly. It got so that every time Mamma left for work it was like she was sneaking off to the Bi-Way Motel with some shoe salesman who smelled like Nachos. Like she couldn’t be trusted.
Still Mamma, for as long as remembering, was all there was for me. And I couldn’t ever leave.
It got me to thinking about all the places Dale might have been in his life. I thought he was probably a dreamy-type who would have gone away from home, traveled around a bit. Probably had a bunch of friends and a romance with a nice girl who wanted to make a daddy out of him. He probably left her cause he needed time by himself, to write. And being a husband, let alone a daddy, would have got his thinking all jumbled up. He preferred to be alone, until he met a girl who would understand his need for thinking time, and writing time, and just plain old time.
I saw a few of the lights finally go out downstairs in Dale’s house. Only the bluish glow of the TV shined through an upstairs window. I turned off the radio, feeling more of a need to hide myself. As if the darkness in his house meant that it was also quieter—quiet enough for him to hear the Air Supply in my twelve-year-old Chevy. I had not realized until then, but my pulse had quickened, and I had been holding my breath. I exhaled and sucked-in a chestful of raincloud night, wondering if his window was open so he could have been breathing my air. I wondered what he was watching on TV. Probably “I Dream of Jeannie” re-runs. He would like her ponytail and the way the Master could always stuff her back into her bottle when he needed to be alone. He would probably watch TV to fall asleep.
I remembered that at bedtime Mamma would click on my ballerina lamp and read to me. I would trace the bright pictures with my fingers and imagine myself in the stories, as if someone was telling my life, making pictures out of my thoughts. Everything I needed to know was painted on those pages. No extra questions. Then Mamma would turn off my lamp and kiss my nose, and tell me I was her pretty little angel. And I would try as hard as I could to remember the drawings and the perfect letters in the dark.
Once the flickering blue glow in Dale’s window clicked to black, I drove away, my nerves all riled-up and feeling sad and foolish. I turned off the engine in my driveway and sat still for a moment. I wondered if the rain I could taste in the air was ever going to fall. And I wondered how in the world I had just allowed myself to sit outside Dale’s house until one in the morning when I had to work at five-thirty. The air felt thick and still. Inside my apartment was the same. Maybe it wasn’t the air, but me who was feeling so thick and still. Like my own body alone just couldn’t move itself.
I lay on the couch without turning on the light, and it felt good just to cry a little onto my cheeks and hair. I lay wondering why Daddy left Mamma when she tried everything to make his life good. And I remembered how Mamma always said “someday” I would have a nice husband to take care of. But it already was “someday.” Every girl I knew had a boyfriend or husband, even if they didn’t even like him all that much. So maybe we were all just supposed to find some man and marry him even if he didn’t really matter. Maybe there were no Mr. Perfects—just the ones we liked enough to think about from time to time, and who maybe thought about us too and kept a picture of us in their wallet.
I wished I could see all the imaginings whirling around in Dale’s head. Even if he never made it famous as a writer, he could have me to share his insides with. Even if we never had a chance to go anyplace for real, he could curl me up in his arms and take me anywhere I might want to go just by telling me his stories. The rain finally started tapping on the roof, and I fell asleep on the couch, trying to combine all the men I had known, and Dale.
The next morning I baked the blueberry crullers, making one of them extra big with a thick crust of cinnamon-sugar flaky on top. I imagined that big smile Dale would get when he tasted it. And I would walk over to brew more coffee, and he would watch me walk. Apron swishing thigh to thigh.
I thought how Mamma’s apron hung from a brass hook near the pantry. When she tied her apron around her waist it was like something magic was gonna happen. She would be flinging open cupboards and drawers, opening mason jars put up last season, pulling bricks of pink meats from the freezer chest. And all the while with the kitchen-wall phone pinched between her shoulder and ear, the long green cord slinking around, then away from, then back around her calves like a kitten. And somehow she would produce a glorious, steaming supper—crusted-brown roasts, glossy gravies, vegetables of various greens and yellows in ruffly heaps on platters. I remember thinking I would never be able to do that.
Later on, when she got a job, Mamma cooked like I do now at home. Stuff from cans is just fine now. Seems silly to dirty all those measuring cups and whisks for just me. At work at least I get to ice and sprinkle the donuts just how they should be—usually color-coded for the next holiday. The kids just love that—their little feet pattering side to side while they pick one out. And I brew the coffee stronger than I am supposed to. Better that way.
When Dale finally slid through the door with the neon “open” sign he smiled right away, his teeth shining bright against the still-dark air outside. I felt like I do after fitting the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle—a really hard one with lots of trees. “I smell blueberry!” He sat on his usual stool at the end of the counter, and I poured him his coffee and presented him with his extra-cinnamony cruller. I don’t know whether he noticed the cinnamon-sugar, but I watched it sparkle as it crumbled and rained on his chin-stubble.
“You look tired today, Dale,” I lied, leaning my hip on the counter next to him. “Up late?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” He brushed sugar from his lips. I could feel the doughy warmth of the cruller coating his insides.
“Got anything special going today?” None of the other girls were in yet, so we were alone. The coffee steam and pink neon glow from the front door glass haloed his small, muscular form, and it held us two together in there, separated from the damp outside dark.
“Not really.” He sipped from his mug. I had to know for sure, hear him say, that he was Dale Dautry, the writer. That he sat up in that barely-kept-up, gray two-story till all hours, ticking at his old typewriter. That he wrote every morning about crullers and maybe a wife, and that someday he would be a famous author. And when he got famous he would grab-up my body and take me away from this town and my apartment and even Mamma, to a city where everyone is beautiful and we would lay in a big bathtub together, me stroking his thinning hair while he would write and write in a big yellow notepad and read it all aloud to me.
“Dale hun, are you by any chance an author, a writer?” I blurted, wiping off the already-clean formica counter. I could feel the greasy heat from the kitchen behind me, warming my calves. His eyes narrowed a bit, and his brow wrinkled itself up.
“Nope,” he said.
I laughed, just once, and quickly. And though I knew that Dale could not possibly know why I had laughed, he smiled anyway, warmly but blankly, with his hands wrapped around his warm mug. I felt ridiculous. But at least then I could stop imagining crazy things that were never going to happen. Stop playing. My feet hurt. Swollen and heavy, the soles pressing down on the bottom of my white tennis shoes and through to the floor. And my heart somewhere down there too, mashed in the treads.
Dale tossed some bills on the counter, took one last swig of his coffee, and left with a winking “Bye now!” He didn’t even finish his blueberry cruller. Just slipped back out into the darkness of the town, and the air inside was quiet without him.
Cousin Betsy came in at seven.
“Dale already leave?” she grinned, nudging me with her elbow.
“Yeah,” I said. “Just a bit ago.”
“You all right?” she asked, tying her apron. “Look sick or something.”
“Tired, I guess.”
“OK.” She didn’t look convinced. “Here—I’ll fix your coffee, sweetie.” She poured me a cup and I sat down, glad she was there. She and the other girls would always be there. And so would I. Without someone to hold my hand and steal me away, giggling, out of here and maybe even straight off the Earth, I felt like I had no other choice but to just let myself fall to the ground. Let my cheek smack hard against the cold, sugar-and-flour-gritty floor. Lay there, thick and still, in that familiar spot, with the routine perfected. Lay there and live a while longer.