Creative Loafing Tampa Fiction Contest 2019: "Comfort"

“When the Waffle House closes, it’s time to get the fuck out of town,” Jimmy Dugan told me one morning after I poured his first cup. “You’ll know when to leave. Hell, girl, there’ll be plenty of signs everywhere, like cow shit on Dairy Road.”

Truth be told, there had been so many signs already.

“And trust me, Nina, it’s gonna close. They can’t go much longer on nothing. You need to get away from here.”

I held the pot of coffee like I was gonna pour it, but I didn’t. “Where would I go?”

Jimmy said, “There a place down south, near the Panhandle.” His gap-toothed smile lit up his craggy face. “The women, they all have the same hairstyle. It’s rightly noticeable.”

#

I left on the hottest day of August, the time of year when sweet tea and thin cotton are all that’ll get you through. I drove to the only place I would find familiar — the Waffle House — but it was just a stopping point, a place to get my bearings.

My intention had been to sleep in the lot of a Walmart but when I saw white clouds against the purest blue sky, the yellow sign hovering like an answer from heaven, I pulled into the center of the lot and rolled down my windows.

“There is not a Walmart anywhere around these parts,” a woman said when I unfolded the map. I spoke to her from my car, hoping a local would direct me to the Walmart so I could buy supplies and wind down after thirteen hours on the road. A thin streak of turquoise framed the side of her face with the end of it curling up, like rebellion. She wore a yellow dress and with the Waffle House sign above her, she looked like she’d been placed there for a magazine photograph.

“I bet you tip real good,” I couldn’t help but say.

She bent, shaded her eyes and peeked in the back window, nodding once at my son Paulie, then took a glance at Cub, our six-year-old lab mix. “When y’all get to Comfort, ask for Ruby Fawn. She’ll let you rest for a spell.”

#

Used to be, if I had to, I wouldn’t imagine hurting anyone, but everything changes the more living you do.

It was last month, one month ago yesterday to be exact. I was working at the Waffle House, waiting on Jimmy Dugan and Neil. Their names might as well have been etched in the Formica because they were always there at that same table, talking about politics or their time in Vietnam. They tipped their hats like real gentlemen every weekday morning.

Woodrow let me work because he knew Jimmy Dugan real well, and Neil was his second cousin. Plus, Woodrow hadn’t worked much since the cuts at the plant. We needed the money.

He didn’t know Jimmy Dugan was sweet on me. Jimmy never said so out loud. He was too respectful about a woman being married and all. Plus, I was at least thirty years younger than them boys.

Jimmy Dugan noticed the black eye I tried to hide with my Cover Girl foundation. “Woodrow do that to you?”

I refilled his coffee and looked at table four. New folks. They looked like decent tippers.

“This place is gonna end up closing just like the one over on West Dairy,” Neil said.

“I’d know it if it was,” I said. “We ain’t closing.”

Jimmy Dugan patted his front pocket like he was gonna take out his cigarettes but when he looked at me, I knew he remembered he ain’t supposed to do that. “Damn, girl. Be ready. Fill the tank with gas. Make the kid some sandwiches and don’t look back.”

Maybe having those two old guys there every morning helped me to think things weren’t so bad. I’d been living with Woodrow and his fists for ten years but besides Paulie, those boys were what I looked forward to most.

Then my boss called me in the kitchen after my shift. She handed me a paycheck. “I’m so sorry, Nina. Doors are closing for good. You can apply at a different location if a position comes open...”

Jimmy Dugan and Neil were sitting at their table. I walked over without the coffee and they both started giving me shit. “What’s wrong?” Jimmy said. “You think we don’t need a refill?”

“I got let go.”

“Hell no,” Neil said.

“They’re closing. You was right.”

Jimmy looked at Neil, hard. Then at me. He patted the fake leather and I sat down next to him.

“We knew it would happen,” Jimmy Dugan said. “Now don’t you argue.” He slipped an envelope toward me.

Neil nodded. “There’s a map in there as well. You just go home and get the kid and don’t say nothing to Woodrow. Get on the road, follow the route we marked, and don’t look back.”

“I’m gonna miss you boys.”

The courage took three days to find me. Woodrow decided he didn’t much like the way I had my hair. Said I looked like a whore. Paulie saw me pick up the skillet, though. That’s the part I regret.

Soon as Woodrow fell, I started packing. “Hurry and grab a few toys and your pillow, baby. I’ll get the rest.”

Paulie ran down the hall to his bedroom. He came back into the kitchen, Hotwheels and a teddy bear in his pillowcase.  Woodrow moaned from below me. If he came to, he’d surely kill me and maybe even Paulie. “Hurry, baby,” I said, “Daddy’s not going to sleep for long and when he wakes he’s gonna be mad as all get out.”

#

“How do I find Ruby Fawn?” I asked the woman in the yellow dress.

She continued to stare into the back seat while her hand fumbled through a designer tote. “Ruby isn’t too fond of dogs, but you go on and give her a visit.” She handed me a business card with an address for Ruby Fawn’s Salon and then she turned to walk toward the restaurant..

“You sure have nice hair,” I called after her.

The woman turned and waved. “Comfort’s just south. Follow the sign off the Interstate. There’s only one sign and the exit makes it look like it goes to nowhere, but trust me.”

#

The first time he hit me was like permission, a floodgate of sorts. Maybe if I’d left him back then, back before Paulie was part of it all, maybe he would have stopped, but I never stood up for myself and he just kept on punching.  

Thinking back, it wasn’t the fear of Woodrow’s fist that made me grab the skillet. It was the bottle of Jack and the belt he removed when Paulie squealed over Cub’s typical antics. They were playing outside the kitchen door and Woodrow mumbled something about kids and how our son was a mama’s boy.  

Paulie chose that moment to walk into the kitchen. My sweet child with the incessant cowlick smack dab on top of his head, with his scuffed sneakers and skinned elbows. His admiration for me was apparent. Maybe that’s what bothered Woodrow so much.

Cub tore past him, knocking Woodrow’s leg. Woodrow whipped his belt toward the dog but hit Paulie’s ear instead. His anger grew like fire; his belt became the flames. He stumbled forward, cutting the air toward Paulie.

#

“I’m looking for a woman named Ruby Fawn,” I said when I pulled into the dirt parking lot of what I later learned was Comfort’s only gas station and grocer. Three old men sat in rockers on the front porch.

“Ruby’s downtown,” one of the men answered. “She has peacock hair, ya can’t miss her.”

The other two chuckled and the third one stood. “Can we get you something to drink? Awful warm today.”

Paulie stared from the back seat and I nodded at him. “Would you like something? Ice cream?”

Inside, a woman stood behind the counter as if she’d been waiting all day for us to arrive. I smelled fresh-brewed coffee and it sent me into nostalgia. “Afternoon,” the woman said. “Mighty hot and a bit too muggy.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The woman was round like Paulie’s teddy bear and dressed in a flower-print top and white capris. Everything about her looked like an advertisement for middle-aged Florida fashion. Everything but her hair. I tried not to stare but like the woman in the Waffle House parking lot, she had a streak of color — pink — on her left side.

“I’m heading over to meet Ruby Fawn,” I said, more to break the sudden silence than anything. I grabbed two waters from the cooler and reached into the case next to it, an old-style slide-open freezer lined by ice.

“Of course you are,” the woman said. “Tell her that Sue said hey.” She handed me a paper bag containing my waters and ice cream sandwiches. She added a bag of chips, two apples, and a group of bananas. “I’m sure it’s been a long road.”

#

Woodrow thrashed a drunken arm and knocked the kitchen chair sideways. “Nina?” he had moaned.  

Paulie’s fearful eyes met mine and he turned and ran outside with his pillow and the dog food. I reached for my best knife and backed away. Truth be told, I didn’t have an ounce of courage left in me more than what it would take to drive as fast and as far away as I could.

I drove until we crossed the border into Florida from Georgia. No radio, no chatty voice coming from the back seat. I stared at my son’s sleeping reflection and wondered why I hadn’t done this before now.

It seemed like forever and a day when I finally saw the big yellow Waffle House sign over the exit. “I don’t know what I’m going to do or even where we are,” I whispered to the rearview mirror. Cub tilted his head as if he didn’t know the answer either.

It must have woken Paulie because he yawned and asked, “Can we go to a motel, Mama?”

How was I going to support him? What would I do about work? I had two hundred and sixty-four dollars and some change, plus the change from the hundred-dollar bill the guys had given me for gas. “We’ll find somewhere to sleep tonight, honey. It’s almost morning anyway. You close your eyes till then.”

#

Most of Comfort’s roads are paved but I found Ruby Fawn’s down a gravel-lined side street off Main.  Ruby Fawn’s: 1 mile straight ahead, one sign read, and another, You are 1/2 mile from Ruby Fawn’s.

Her shop, as it was called, was a nondescript building with huge windows plastered with images of beautiful women with perfect hairstyles, probably from the end of the 1990s. I parked in the first spot in front of it and laughed under my breath.

A woman exited, smiling, and put her sunglasses on. Her blond hair was bobbed and she had a green strand that curled up at the end. “Afternoon,” she said. “Her next appointment rescheduled so you’re in luck.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m not here for a—"

The woman walked off and I decided I didn’t need to say anything to anyone. I should know better, I thought.

I helped Paulie out of his booster seat and patted Cub’s head. “We’ll be right back, boy.”

“The mutt will have to sleep out back,” a woman said. She was pretty, probably in her early forties, with perfect brown skin and stern amber eyes.  Her hair was straightened and cut in a bob with streaks of teal and purple down the left side of her face. “Welcome. I’ve gotten out the bedding and there’s a cot in the closet.”

“How’d you know I was coming?”

Was this a trap? Did Jimmy Dugan or Neil tell Woodrow where I was headed?

“Comfort is a small town,” she answered.

My eyes stung and started to water. How did I ever get to this place in my life — in a stranger’s hair salon in the godforsaken boonies of Florida?

“Well, come on, now, come back here and take a look.” She motioned with a French manicured hand.

“Ma’am?”

“You need a place to sleep, don’t you?”

I nodded.

“And that’s what Florence seemed to think after meeting you at the Waffle House.”

She looked me up and down, smiled and let her lips straighten into a line, like a pencil drawing of disappointment. “You can start looking for work soon as you’re ready if you decide to stay with us. If not, we’ll pack you with some essentials and set you up with a tank of gas.” She paused and when she spoke again, her voice had found tenderness. “You’ll be all right, sweetie.”

“Mommy?” Paulie asked. He snuggled against me and I pulled his shoulders tight.

“Thank you,” I said to Ruby Fawn. “I don’t have a lot of money, so may I please ask how much—”

“We don’t take money for this.” She looked toward the front door. “I should close the shop. You go on now, get some rest.”  

“Thank you,” I repeated.

“Dog stays outside.”

“Of course,” I said, somewhat ashamed at myself for resenting her lack of affection for my pup.

Bells rang as they hit against the glass door and Ruby Fawn locked it behind her.  

Soon, Paulie and I unlocked the same door and went out to check on Cub. Paulie fed him and we filled his water bowl from one of the sinks in the salon. “Be a good boy,” Paulie told him. “If Dad comes, you bark real loud, okay?”

I shivered and glanced toward Main Street. Could he find us if he wanted to? Would he even try? “Come back inside,” I said and locked the door behind us.

A good week into getting used to the shop and a few of the people around Comfort, I started wondering where to go next. I told myself I shouldn’t start making friends. What if Woodrow corners Neil and opens a bottle, reminds him they’re family? Would Neil talk then?

“Who’s got your sensibilities all messed up?” Ruby Fawn asked. “What or who is on your mind?” She was cutting a client’s gray hair, orange dye ready for a stripe. The client’s eyes met mine in the mirror.

Outside, Cub barked. I froze and thought of Paulie, playing in the back room, hoping he’d stay put.

A man I had never seen was staring at the shop, amused or something. His smile sure didn’t look friendly.

Ruby Fawn nodded in the mirror and the gray-haired woman nodded back. The gray-haired woman started messing with her cell phone and Ruby Fawn laid the scissors on a little table by her station, opened one of the drawers, and pulled something out.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Ruby Fawn, is that a gun?”

The gray-haired woman smiled. “Good thing she hasn’t put the dye in yet.”

Within minutes, three of Ruby Fawn’s clients came in. Then two more. Another two after that. Every woman had a line of color in her hair.

“He still outside?” Ruby Fawn asked.

One of the women bent forward to get a better view of the parking lot. “He’s back in his car. Who’s your next client?”

“Gail.”

“I’ll call and warn her,” a purple-streak woman said. “I reckon that’s the ex.”

The man got out of his car and looked at his watch. The women left the shop and circled him in the parking lot. I couldn’t help but feel curious, but since Paulie was still playing in the back room, I stayed put.

The same purple-streak who had called the woman named Gail set her hands on her hips. Her left hand rose and she pointed her finger like a gun, like she was shooting the man. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but the man bent his chin up and laughed. Ruby Fawn stepped forward and the group of women stepped back. The man moved closer, toward her. I gasped and held my breath.

Then, quick as it started, the man got in his car and drove off. The women, all but Ruby Fawn and her client, left too. Whatever that was all about, it gave me the guts to consider staying. If Woodrow was looking for us, he would’ve found a way by now.

But the telephone startled me out of my daydream. It shifted me back in time and knocked my gut like one of Woodrow’s fists.

“Girl, is it good to hear your voice,” Jimmy Dugan said. “How you been?”

“Jimmy. Hi. I’m good. Thank you.” I swallowed whatever words wanted to come out. There were too many questions.

“Listen, honey,” he started. “Woodrow, he already has a new woman there at the house.”

I exhaled. “Is he trying to find me?”

“Far as we know, he ain’t.”

“You sure?”

“Listen, the woman, she don’t come out much. Me and Neil pass by every day. We been driving over to the Denny’s past the end of Dairy Road.” He paused. “None of them waitresses knows how to keep the coffee hot, though.”

“Jimmy, you and Neil, you should come on down this way sometime.” I missed them like I missed my father after he died.

“To Comfort?”

“Sure,” I said. “Why not? There’s a real nice Waffle House not too far. I’m thinking of applying. You know, get Paulie enrolled in school and maybe get an apartment.”

“You never know, girl. We sure could use a better cup of coffee.”

“And Jimmy? I plan to let Ruby cut a few inches off my hair. Maybe get a streak of gold painted in it.”

He laughed and I imagined his happy, craggy face. “Well, that sounds just fine. Yes it does.”

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