Bonnie took a toothpick and dug at her fire-eaten scalp. Fifteen more minutes. Her mama always loved Bonnie’s red curls. “Just as sweet as the bluebirds singing in the oaks,” Mama would whisper to her. “God spun those curls out of fire with his little finger just for you, precious.”
Maybe that’s why the perm solution and the hair dye burned so bad: Bonnie was trying her best to take on God’s job.
In the past few years, her perfects curls had turned into frizzy wires and her flame-red hair diluted into a muddy rust. The first time Bonnie colored her hair, her husband’s mouth swung open like one of the pond catfish with a hook hanging in it. “Holy Christ. You look like a cherry slushy from the fair.”
He didn’t get dinner for two days.
The Yellow Rose of Texas erupted from her cell phone. Who cared if she wasn’t from Texas? She liked that song—well at least she used to, until the past few months; now just hearing the first drum strike she cringed, knowing it was bound to be some annoying thing or another.
“Hey ya, girl.” Rosie. Yep, some damn annoying thing or another. Forgive me, Lord, I shouldn’t be swearin’ in my mind. “I told you. Didn’t I tell you? No Krissy. Not a call, text, tweet, even a Snapgram or whatever those damn kids use nowadays.” Rosie laughed so hard she sounded like old Tom Hedford rolling out of his whiskey barrel every December playing Santa in the Christmas parade.
Bonnie sighed, looking at the timer. “Yeah. Be there in thirty. Have Julio help you.”
“How the hell is Julio gonna help me? He’s gotta cook the damn food. Come on, girl, hurry up. I told you you should have fired her.”
“Uh huh, maybe the one I should be firing is you.”
“You wish,” Rosie squealed and hung up. Bonnie snapped the toothpick in two and ducked her head under the faucet. Being manager was supposed to be a good thing, but it just seemed to be more trouble and no tips.
Bonnie’s car rumbled and stalled. Did everything have to go wrong today? Her Chevy worked even on the coldest days, even when her clothes cracked on the laundry line after the stupid dryer gave out last winter. Why today? She got into her husband’s old pickup, her wet hair tighter than Shirley Temple’s and Little Orphan Annie’s rolled into one.
Bonnie threw the shifter from first to third gear as the truck’s wheels rumbled down the dirt road. She couldn’t help wondering what life would be like if it was just easy; like those rich country stars had in those mansions across town.
A blur flashed sideways across the road. She muscled the brake and clutch, her calves pressing tight against her favorite key-lime capris. The tiny embroidered red apples dug into her skin. The truck bucked up and down like a bull being roped for the first time. The gears jammed. Thick, greasy oil fumes filled her nostrils and her mouth. She twisted the stick shift until she practically fell on top of it and landed into first.
Bright red eyes blinked at her from the middle of the road. A prickly chill slid up and down her spine. A deer. An albino deer. It looked like a ghost…a ghost animal.
Bonnie’s hands began to shake as she gripped the steering wheel. She didn’t want to remember, but somehow the memory flooded into her thoughts and took over her body as she stared at the ghost-like deer.
It was a bunny, a little white bunny that made Mama stop short that day. Bonnie had called out, “Look, Mama!” Then Mama pushed on the brakes so hard Bonnie’s body flew forward and jerked back. Gray clouds covered the front of the car. Mama quickly turned around. “Good Lord, that little thing surprised me. Okay, precious?” Bonnie nodded. Mama patted her on her head and smiled but her hand was shaking. “Well that’s one lucky bunny, got across the road. Mama’s just gonna put some water in the engine. You sit still and be good now.” Bonnie watched Mama go out; she pulled herself up to peek through the back window, ducking when Mama closed the trunk and started walking with a big jug of water.
A sound loud and quick, like a giant had pulled up a tree and cracked it over his knee, caused Bonnie to jump. Her legs began to tremble; her stomach felt funny, a bad funny. She peeked out the back window and the side windows, but Mama wasn’t there. Bonnie wanted to be good and sit still, but she couldn’t. She pushed the door handle down; the leaves seemed to swallow up her feet and ankles. She shuffled across the dried out leaves, the crunching sounded so loud Bonnie couldn’t even hear her own voice yelling out Mama!
It seemed forever until she got to the front of the car. She saw the jug near the front tire; nearby a long piece of tan cloth. Mama’s coat, the one she bought with the coins she saved in the fat, round piggy bank. Bonnie always laughed when Mama shook it and said, “This fat piggy’s gonna be a skinny piggy soon.”
Bonnie followed the long cloth up to Mama’s face. She looked like one of those possums in the fields when you got too close and they fall down and stop moving. “Mama, Mama wake up!” Bonnie leaned down, touching the soft skin of Mama’s thin wrist poking out from bits of lace.
Bonnie was only five, but she knew, she knew what she was seeing; she was seeing death. She started screaming and crying so hard one of her wobbly baby teeth flew out of her mouth. Bonnie fell on the ground, her body limp. Then she started remembering a story in Bible School, how someone had woken up from the dead. Maybe Mama could wake up too. Bonnie pressed her hands together like they did in church and waited.
A drum strike made Bonnie jump from the seat. The Yellow Rose of Texas. She touched her chest. Her heart was racing. She looked down at her hands. She wasn’t five, she was forty- forty years old today and Mama isn’t lying out there. Mama’s gone. Forever. She turned the key in the ignition; the white deer dead center of the road. Mama would still be here if that white bunny hadn’t been in the road.
Bonnie put her foot on the gas pedal, her sadness turning into rage. She was going to kill that deer blocking her path, just like Mama should’ve killed that bunny long ago. Bonnie put her hand on the stick shift. Tears falling from her eyes like a rainstorm, her vision turning into a foggy, wet cloud.
The engine roared under her foot. She just needed to close her eyes and go. She tried to press down on the pedal, but felt her foot jerk back. She couldn’t do it; just like Mama couldn’t. The deer raised its front hooves into the air, wild-eyed and ran at the truck like it was a rabid dog. Bonnie threw her hands across her face as she heard a thud.
She took a deep breath and pulled her hands away, gasping; the animal stared at her from the hood, its pink ears and antlers giving a slight color to its ghostly shape. The deer blinked a few times, and then it flew again, jumping so high it made her think of white seagulls. She turned to see it go, but it had disappeared. Her phone beeped and buzzed.
God knows how many cars were backed up in the drive-thru. Rosie was probably swearing at the customers, Julio was probably burning everything or sending it out raw, and the customers had probably stormed the restaurant looking for the manager. Bonnie scratched wildly at her scalp; half from pain, half from anxiety. She looked down; her fingernails were wet with blood.
“Hellfire.” She pulled the rearview mirror down to look at her scalp. It was a bloody mess. Mama used to sing so pretty when she brushed out Bonnie’s curls. “Oh Mama.” Bonnie bit her lip. No crying, one birthday without crying.
She turned the key in the truck; it lurched as she pushed the gears from first to third. The thick, greasy fumes rose up again, filling her nostrils as the wheels sped down the hill. If she had hit that deer and killed it, she probably would have had deer meat for a year. Now all she was going to have was a mechanic’s bill.
The cousins would be coming over tonight. She’d put the last of the sauce with her deer sausage in the Crock-Pot before she left. She couldn’t believe Cousin Billy still didn’t know, after all these years, he’d been eating deer meat. She went to tell him once, but Uncle Hank pulled her away. “Better not, he’ll lose it. You’d think he’s one of those vegetarians or something.”
She tried to laugh, imagining Cousin Billy’s face if she told him, but she remembered the white deer staring at her from the hood of the truck. Maybe it’s true what they say about albino deer: If you kill them, it’s bad luck or more.
Bonnie reached the bottom of the hill toward the highway. Josephine was sitting on the corner in her rocking chair holding her flea market sign. She honked and waved at her. Josephine knew a good buyer when she saw one, so she was always on the lookout for a ceramic pug for Bonnie. Two more and Bonnie would have one hundred in her hutch, but there was no way she could stop now.
Bonnie pulled into the parking lot of the Shake and Fried. Cars and trucks wound around one side of the parking lot to the other, honking so loud she had to cover her ears as she ran in. It was hard to believe the police hadn’t shown up.
The inside was completely empty, except for Rosie sitting at one of the booths.
“What the hell, Rosie?”
“Well there’s nobody inside here. Listen, I told you, I’m too damn old to be working and not getting tips, and I’m sure as hell not doing that damn girl’s job just ’cause she’s too stupid or lazy to show up. Tell ’em all to get out of their cars and sit down in here if they want to eat.”
Julio ran back and forth from the kitchen to the window like a hamster frantically spinning on his wheel. Rosie shrugged her shoulders, turned a page of the Pennysaver. “By the way, you owe me a dollar. Did you forget you were gonna stop swearing?”
“Jesus Christ, I think what I’m forgettin’ is why I let you work here.” Bonnie ran over to the drive-thru window, waving Julio to the kitchen. “Yes, ma’am, we are so sorry, one of our employees took sick today, but I promise we’ll be getting your food to you right away.”
Bonnie threw her hand over the microphone. “Get the hell over here and help me, Rosie, or I swear to God, I will fire you, I don’t give a damn if you are my best friend.” Rosie laughed and slowly walked over to her. “Give me the food, Julio, I’ll put it in the bags. By the way, happy birthday, grumpy boss lady; got this for you.”
Bonnie waved the next car over as she looked down at the counter.
Rosie smiled triumphantly. “One of those Cuban cigars. Maybe now you won’t be so mad.”
Only Rosie knew Bonnie enjoyed sneaking out onto her back porch and smoking cigars when there was a full moon. She gave Rosie a grimace but softened. Rosie was the biggest pain in the ass sometimes, but she was also her best friend, from the very first day of school when Bonnie swapped out a squirrel’s tail for Rosie’s shiny silver dollar.
Red-tinged sweat rolled down Bonnie’s forehead as she moved the cars through the line. It looked like they were done with the rush as the last car, a fancy Mercedes, pulled up and a woman with a thick, shiny gold necklace and sparkling, diamond earrings blinked the longest pair of fake eyelashes she’d ever seen. Bonnie could hear a dog in the backseat barking frantically. She couldn’t believe this woman was in the line at the Shake and Fried. By the looks of her, she doubted this woman ate anything except maybe some celery or lettuce leaves. “Yes, ma’am, welcome. What can I get you?”
The dog leaped over the back seat into the woman’s lap.
“Duchess, get down.” The black pug jumped up to lick the woman’s face. “Bad dog, back, go back.” The woman pointed to the back seat as the dog curled tight into her lap. “Yes, oh dear Lord, I’m terribly lost, I need to get to Ivy Hills. Am I close?”
Rosie squeezed next to Bonnie in the window “Ivy Hills? Ma’am, you are about as far from Ivy Hills as I am from living there.” She burst into her Santa Claus belly laugh, high-fiving a confused Julio as he passed by.
“This can’t be true. What am I going to do? Is it possible that I could have a glass of water? My head is pounding. I’ve been lost for three hours. It seems like this GPS in the car isn’t working. I have no idea what is wrong with it.”
Bonnie pushed Rosie away from the window. “Yes, ma’am, of course. Just a minute.”
As Bonnie walked over to fill the cup of water, Rosie whispered in her ear, “That lady has a Mercedes bigger than my house and you’re getting her water for free? You should be charging her five dollars.”
“Rosie, you know what? I believe you’re getting close to being put on the going to Hell list, do you know that?”
Bonnie walked back to the window. “Here you go, ma’am.”
The woman’s head was on top of the steering wheel. The dog started whimpering. “Ma’am, here you go.”
Bonnie felt her stomach spin. Five, she knew this was death. Dear God, please don’t let me be looking at death again. Like a possum, not moving. “Ma’am?”
Bonnie was sure her body had become frozen but somehow she was moving, running out the front door toward the car. She reached into the open window and touched the woman. She was breathing but not awake. If she put her hands together. Bonnie pulled out her cell phone, and called 911.
The fire truck, the ambulance, and the police all showed up—it felt like a dream and a tornado occurring at the same time. Somewhere in all of it, the little black pug had jumped into her arms. No one had noticed, not even Rosie; who was busy checking out the Mercedes. Bonnie took the dog and walked toward the back office. She poured it a salad bowl of water, put a burger on a plate, and locked it in the office.
The inside of the restaurant started to fill up for lunch like nothing had happened. The large Mercedes had already been towed away, other cars now in a line at the drive-thru. Krissy showed, saying she must have been mixed up about whether she was working the breakfast or afternoon shift. Bonnie just nodded as she walked over to Julio. “I’m leaving; I’m not supposed to be working today. Looks like everything should be fine.” Another waitress walked in to help Rosie, and Bonnie felt herself moving by it all like she was floating way above it.
Bonnie went and got the truck and drove it around the back. She pulled open the back window of the office, crawled in, and picked up the pug. She unlocked the office door and then crawled back out the window with the dog. “Duchess, right?” The dog nuzzled up to her. She put it in her lap and shifted the gears from first to third as she rounded corners and flew up the hill toward her house.
Bonnie walked in the kitchen and put the dog down. It began to run around in circles, she sat down at the table and laughed until she cried, The dog jumped back into her lap and licked her face. “Well, Duchess, guess you’re gonna to be at my birthday party.” She rubbed the short black fur as the dog curled up in her lap and quieted down. “No, I guess you can’t, Joe’s allergic.”
The dog looked up at her. “Maybe we won’t tell Joe. Maybe we won’t tell anyone? You can stay in the gardening shed; weather’s good for a while. Are you thinkin’ maybe you might like to be my dog?” The dog licked her hand. Bonnie took that as a yes. Besides, that woman was in pretty bad shape; even if she somehow recovered, she probably couldn’t take care of the dog. Bonnie pushed down the feeling that keeping the dog for herself might just put her on the going to Hell list. She walked Duchess toward the shed and scratched the top of the dog’s head. Mama always wanted a dog.
Bonnie went to the bathroom mirror, pulling at the frizz and trying to mold it back into curls with spit and water. The color was somewhere between a cherry slushy and the embroidered apples on her pants; at least she was getting closer. Her husband had just come home for dinner and the cousins were on their way. She walked over to the Crock-Pot and stirred. Duchess seemed okay with the shed when Bonnie put the blanket down for her. She’d have to think of something better when the weather got colder. She put a pan of cornbread into the oven.
Joe whistled as he walked in and handed her a box. “Happy birthday.” He gave her a peck on her lips as she opened the box, it was a ceramic pug with a big blue bow. Joe smiled. “Josephine’s been keeping this one from you, saved it for me.” Joe winked at her as the cousins walked in with their loud chorus of “Happy Birthday,” carrying a four-layer banana whipped cream cake.
Billy walked right over to the Crock-Pot and put a big spoon in and tasted the chili. “This is the best you’ve ever made, Bonnie.” She nodded thank you. She knew she’d never tell Billy, but for the first time felt a little bad thinking about it. The cousins and their little ones filled the house with noise and laughter as bowls and spoons, cake plates and forks were passed.
Billy gave her a hug and a kiss on her cheek when they all started leaving. “You know, the family would never have been the same if you hadn’t been the one we could count on, Bonnie.” She nodded and smiled. Billy’s words made her shake, he seemed to know she decided long ago she was gonna be what Mama would have been for all of them. She gave a quick good-bye and slipped away to her bedroom, getting the cigar. She walked onto the back porch and looked up at the sky: a full moon. She wondered if Mama could see her from up there in heaven. “It’s my birthday Mama. I’m a year older than you were when you…”
She lit the cigar and took in a deep breath. The full moon cast a spotlight on the backyard. Her eye caught something moving near the bushes. Bonnie stood up. It looked like a giant white rabbit lying in the grass. She stepped off the porch slowly, probably just a patch of fog. She heard whimpering. Duchess.
The white figure stood up and moved closer. It wasn’t a rabbit; it was the albino deer. It moved closer; she could feel its breath. She reached her hand out. Duchess began to cry louder. Joe would hear the dog.
The door to the shed popped open. Duchess ran to her, jumping at her. The deer didn’t move. Duchess curled into a ball and became silent. The deer came even closer. Its eyes were bright blue and moist, almost like they were filled with tears. Joe called her name; she turned around. “Here, quiet.”
Bonnie turned back again toward the deer; it was gone. Joe walked up to her. “What the hell is that, a pug?”
“Yes, my birthday present.” Bonnie walked toward the house.
“Oh hell, damn that Rosie, did she go and tell you I’m not allergic?” Duchess growled at Joe.
“You mean to tell me you been lying all these years and knowing I wanted a dog?” Bonnie set Duchess down. “I’m guessin’ that you’re gonna be making your own meals from now on,”
“Wait a minute, where’d you get that dog?”
“A rich woman brought it to me, from heaven.”
“My god, Bonnie, have you lost your mind? That’s only a cigar you’ve been smoking, right?”
Duchess jumped at her ankles as Bonnie walked back into the house and started clearing the plates. She stopped at an envelope in the middle of the kitchen table, a note from Billy: “Found this picture, slipped out today from an old album, thought you might want it.”
Bonnie fell into the chair, crying so hard she couldn’t breathe. Duchess leapt into her lap, licking her face.
“What, what is it?” Joe picked up the photo.
Bonnie pulled Duchess close. “Billy gave me a picture of Mama when she was young. She’s holding a dog, a little black pug.”
Joe sat down in the chair next to her. “Damn.”
Yellow Rose of Texas rang loudly. Bonnie stared at the phone. “I’m not going into work.” She clicked the button, “What?”
Rosie’s voice sounded like she’d been sucking down coffee all day, she was talking so fast. “Hey, that woman, I called the hospital and asked how she was. Hell, I thought maybe you might get some kind of reward, you know. I mean maybe me too; I did talk to her in the drive-thru. Guess what the hospital staff told me? She left hours ago. I was like, they’re idiots, the woman was half-dead, where’s she goin’, but then Howie calls from the towing place saying someone came by, telling him to give the Mercedes to the lady with the red curls and that lawyers are sending the paperwork over and if we find the dog, could we find a good home for it. Something about how the dog drove the woman crazy, Bonnie? Are you listening? You just got yourself one fancy-ass car, girl. I guess happy birthday to you, huh? Of course you’re gonna let me borrow it, right? Howie said the woman flew home to Texas, she said you saved her life. Holy Christ, girl, you been rubbing a rabbit’s foot or something?”
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