August 2, 1982
Leslie Walker Trahan
It’s 6 a.m. and the morning cook still hasn’t arrived, so Mom unlocks the door and starts the coffee. She ducks under the bar to grab her apron, and when she lifts up, there’s Dad, in the front booth by the door. She’s never seen him in the diner before. She’s never seen him anywhere. When she raises her head, all she sees is an unknown man waiting in a booth in the diner where she works at the age of nineteen. Coffee? Mom asks. Dad waves but doesn’t look up. He’s spread a map across the table and is leaning over it drawing a line with his finger. Mom brings him a mug. She says, Where are you headed? Dad says, I don’t know yet, got any suggestions? He lifts his eyes but leaves his finger pressed into the map. No, Mom says. She’s never been anywhere, she tells him. She was born in the hospital across the street. Dad laughs and says, Well that’s one way to do it. He’s drinking slowly, holding the mug with one finger, the other hand still on the map. Mom goes to the kitchen to get a cup of cream and when she comes back, Dad’s on the floor sweeping ceramic shards into a pile with his hands. Mom grabs a broom, says I’ll get it. But she’s too late. Dad’s already cut his finger. She kneels on the floor next to him. He has his bloody finger in his mouth, but she pulls his hand toward her and wraps it in her apron. This is when the fire starts. Not in the diner, but in the hospital across the street. On the fourth floor, by the laundry chute, a patient smokes a cigarette. Soon the embers will meet the cloth, the flames will grow sharp as knives, and the smoke will barrel its way into every room. But at the diner, Mom and Dad see no cause for alarm. Mom brings out two pieces of key lime pie—Dad’s favorite, but she doesn’t know that yet. When she gets to the table, she realizes she’s forgotten the forks. Dad shrugs and picks the pie up by the crust. Mom laughs and does the same. In a moment, they will see the smoke flooding the street. They will see the red lights cascading through the diner windows. They will join the crowd of people gathering outside the hospital. But for now, they’re still here, sitting in a booth in the diner where Mom works at the age of nineteen. They finish their pie, and they lick their hands clean. And that’s when Mom leans over, points to a spot of blood on Dad’s map. Is that a good sign or bad one? she asks.
Grandma wraps her hair in tight curls every night. She spreads a cream that smells like coconut across her face. “Hon,” she says, “I was the Sweet Peach Beauty Queen three years running. I’m not going down without a fight.” I roll my eyes, but after she goes to bed, I pin my hair atop my head and drape toilet paper across my shoulder like a sash. Mom says all that beauty stuff doesn’t matter. She is tall and thin and has long blonde hair other women always compliment. She shakes her head like it’s nothing, but I’ve seen her brush her hair before the mirror at night. She counts every stroke.
When we go to the library, I sort through the free magazines. No one’s looking, so I pick the fashion ones and put them in my backpack. I like to cut out pictures of models. It started with the eyes and mouths, but soon I moved on to their faces, and their bodies, too. One night I sort through a box of family photos and take my favorite ones back to my room. When Mom goes to bed, I paste the photos of beautiful women over the photos of me. Me with Mom, me with Grandma. The next day I find Mom in my room with the pictures laid out across my bed. When she looks at me, her mouth is wide open and her hands are on her hips. “It’s an art project,” I say, “about how people are always telling young girls what they’re supposed to be.” Mom smiles and nods. “Good girl,” she says. She kisses me on the head.
Leslie Walker Trahan is a writer from Austin, Texas. Her stories and prose poems have been featured in Passages North, Quarterly West, New Delta Review, Cheap Pop, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other publications. You can find her online at lesliewtrahan.com.