Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson
By SMW Staff
Rose Mae Lolley is a fierce and dirty girl, long-suppressed under flowery skirts and bow-trimmed ballet flats. As “Mrs. Ro Grandee” she’s trapped in a marriage that’s thick with love and sick with abuse. Her true self has been bound in the chains of marital bliss in rural Texas, letting “Ro” make eggs, iron shirts, and take her punches. She seems doomed to spend the rest of her life battered outside by her husband and inside by her former self, until fate throws her in the path of an airport gypsy—one who shares her past and knows her future. The tarot cards foretell that Rose’s beautiful, abusive husband is going to kill her. Unless she kills him first.
Hot-blooded Rose Mae escapes from under Ro’s perky compliance and emerges with a gun and a plan to beat the hand she’s been dealt. Following messages that her long-missing mother has left hidden for her in graffiti and behind paintings, Rose and her dog Gretel set out from Amarillo, TX back to her hometown of Fruiton, AL, and then on to California, unearthing a host of family secrets as she goes. Running for her life, she realizes that she must face her past in order to overcome her fate—death by marriage—and become a girl who is strong enough to save herself from the one who loves her best.
Rose Mae Lolley was wearing the mask—warm smile, light step—of the fake girl she’d grown over herself. Rose Mae had worn that face over hers all the time, every waking minute for almost two years now, since the moment she’d figured she’d taken enough beatings for her long-gone mother and lit out from her daddy’s house. She’d waitressed her way west down the coast, every few months trading one small town with a bad job and a worse boyfriend for another, much the same.
She’d yet to find a town or job or man that made her feel safe enough to take that face off. At work, her sweet exterior upped her tips, and her most recent home was a cheap furnished room with kitchen privileges and no privacy. Her landlady, Kim, claimed to be a lesbian, but Rose guessed she had given up women in favor of Captain Morgan. Kim would barrel into Rose’s room at all hours, demanding to know where the salt had gotten to or asking if Rose had taken any messages. She never knocked or apologized, even the time she burst in on a freshly showered Rose wearing nothing but a sheer white bra.
“You ain’t got drugs in here, do ya?” Kim’d said that time.
“Of course not,” said Rose in her best pep-squad girl voice, picking up her towel. She was trying not to glance at her bed. A pair of red fuzzy dice was lying beside Rose’s uniform. The dice were Kim’s, and Rose had stolen them out of the coat closet. She planned to take them to work and sneak to hang them in the short order cook’s car. He seemed like he was a single pair of fuzzy dice away from lighting out for Vegas, and since he couldn’t keep his hands off her ass, Rose Mae wanted to give him a nudge.
Kim didn’t notice the dice. She didn’t seem to notice Rose’s state of undress either, even though Rose Mae Lolley laid bare was worth seeing: long waist, tightly curved hips, creamy skin. Kim turned laboriously and began her drunken shuffle out. Some lesbian, thought Rose, tossing the towel over the dice in case Kim looked back.
“I don’t do drugs,” Rose called after her, still working the perky, and Kim grunted in a way that could have meant satisfied or disappointed.
With no safe space, Rose kept her smiling shell on all the time, but some days it felt as thin as the candy pink cotton of her retro fifties waitress uniform. The uniform had a white peter pan collar and a miniature apron. It was cut to fit and the skirt was short, and when Thom Grandee came in on a double date that first evening, his girl didn’t like that uniform one bit.
The sign by the door said, “Seat Yourself,” so Thom did, sliding into one side of a four-top booth. His date followed, and the other couple sat down across. Rose was the only waitress on at this hour. She could tell by looking they were from the A & M Kingsville campus. She’d pegged them as sports boys, taking their dates for eggs after the victory party.
And it had been a victory. Rose Mae could smell it on the boys as she came around the counter bringing the coffee pot and four plastic-coated menus, a mix of pheromones and beer and fresh male sweat. The smell of win.
They were both good looking boys, but her eye went right to Thom. He was six feet tall with a thick, meaty build that said football to her, and she liked the Roman nose. She also liked the way he eyed her as she swayed toward them. To the other couple she was a vague pink waitress shape, bringing menus. Thom looked.
Thom’s date had a high ponytail that was beginning to unravel into fronds onto her pretty neck. She had a mound of bangs, flat on the back side, teased into a rigid foam of curls that humped over her forehead. This late, her Breck was beginning to fail her, and the bang puff was listing to starboard.
When Thom spent too long looking at Rose’s face before the inevitable stealthy eye-slide down her body, Rose could feel the girl bristle up. Rose was only twenty-one, but this girl looked young even to her. A freshman with a glamour shot in the facebook. The girl narrowed her eyes, venomous, telling Rose plain that she wasn’t used to chapped-lipped waitrons with no tan stealing her male gazes. She’d no doubt been the prettiest girl in her high school, but Rose was willing to bet that it had been a small school.
“Good morning!” Rose gave them her best three a.m. cheerful, passing out the menus. “Welcome to Duff’s. I’m Ro. I’ll be taking care of you this morning.”
They all had flipped their mugs right side up, so Rose leaned across to pour coffee, first for the dark haired boy, then for his date.
“Morning,” Thom said back. He was the only one who spoke to her. She turned to pour his coffee. And then, because he was looking at her face again, not her tits and not his date, looking at her like she was a person, she found herself saying, “So, what position do you play?”
“Outfield,” he said. “Sometimes third base.”
She shook her head. “I asked what position you played, mister. I didn’t ask what you did in spring to stay in shape.”
He grinned then, giving her an assessing nod, like he was adding smart and sly to the pretty. “Strong-side safety.”
“Oh. Fast boy,” she said, and started filling his date’s cup.
“What the hell are you doing?” his date demanded, bangs atremble.
Rose stopped and tipped the pot upright, smile fading. “I’m sorry?” Rose said.
“Did I order coffee?” Bangs asked.
Rose said, “I’m sorry. You turned your cup over.”
“Yeah. Because I want hot cocoa.”
“Sure thing,” said Rose. “I’ll get that while ya’ll look over the menu.”
“What can I get for you today?” the girl said to her friend across the table. “What would you like to drink? Would you care for a beverage? You’d think you’d get those lines on, like, the very first day of waitress school.”
Rose felt the fever of a blush rising in her cheeks, and she knew it was painfully visible on her pale skin. Dropping her eyelids, she focused on her feet so that none of them could see the furious deeps in her eyes. She held her hand very still to keep from pouring scalding coffee over that bang puff. She could practically smell the ashy scent the girl’s hair products would release, could hear her surprised cry as the hot liquid seared her scalp and ran down to blister that smug face. While the girl was screaming and clawing at herself, Rose would say, calmly, “You turn your cup over in a diner, it means you want coffee.” Then she’d call an ambulance.
“I apologize,” Rose said. Her voice was trembling with the effort that it took to stay her hand. She picked up the cup with the small splash of black liquid in the bottom. Made herself pivot. Forced herself to walk away.
Duff’s was quiet. She heard her every footfall on the floor. There were the two obligatory old drunk guys silently nursing coffee at the counter, yellow-skinned because they had maybe half a working liver left between them. They hadn’t asked out loud for their coffee, just flipped their mugs over and waited to be served. A couple in the back had cuddled up on the same side of their booth, whispering to each other. No one was feeding the juke. She could hear Bangs saying something low and giggly. She caught the word, “Caspar.”
Her blush was traveling, flushing the backs of her pale, bare legs. The girl’s friend was laughing with her now in a high pitched trill that sounded to Rose like a mean pig squealing.
Back behind the counter, Rose dumped a packet of Swiss Miss with mini-mallows into a clean mug. That girl, Bangs, was wearing a sundress, crisp green and new. She had a sheer white sweater thrown around her shoulders. It was a frivolous sweater, the kind a doting mother would buy along with new bedding and a tiny dorm refrigerator. Rose would bet her week’s tips that that same mother kept Bangs’ girlhood room intact, waiting for Christmas and spring break.
And meanwhile, here was Rose, prettier and smarter and nicer in public, drifting motherless from town to town. Rose lived alone in her dank room with no lock on the door. Even Kim’s damn cat, Boo, could open Rose’s door. He’d stand on the back of the couch and bang the knob with his scabby paw. He was all over scabs. A flea allergy, Kim said, but she never took him to the vet. He’d creep into Rose’s room when she was sleeping and slide under her blankets to press against her side, desperate and moist. Rose couldn’t stand to pet him, but she let Boo press and press against her, because she was that desperate right back.
She acted like a girl in hiding, but her father was too busy, what with his part time construction work and his full-time drinking, to ever come looking. No one else came either. She day-dreamed her long-gone mother would burst in, crying, “I’m so sorry! This time I’ll take you with me!” or that her high school boyfriend, Jim Beverly, would re-appear to shoo the foul cat away and say, “Here you are! Thank God, I finally found you!” They never came. The room, the cat, the diner, the chafing mask of a happier girl, they were her whole real life, and she was living it.
It should be me in that booth, Rose thought, a college girl like Bangs, smart and busy and worthy, going places with a sharp looking sports boy watching. For half a minute, bantering about football, the smiling girl with the sass and the bouncy step hadn’t been a skin. Rose had really been her, and it had felt like coming home to someplace new and clean.
Bangs could have spared her that thirty seconds, because Bangs had had all night. Hell, Bangs had all year, and more years coming. Rose poured hot water and watched the cocoa foam to life. All Rose had was prettiness, a spoon, and the right to stir the cocoa of bitches until it was smooth. It was too much to swallow, and Rose found she had literally built up a fine and bitter coat of spit inside her mouth.
She couldn’t help it. She had nothing, and her thirty seconds had been ruined. She crouched down, her sweet second skin finally off, disappearing behind the counter. She pursed her mouth into a kiss and bent her head over the mug. The long wad of spit drooled down into the cocoa. Rose stirred it in. She was smiling now, a genuine and ugly thing, so wide it showed her back teeth.
When she looked up, Thom Grandee was leaning over the counter. She froze, more naked in that moment then she had been the day when Kim came barreling into her room. He saw her. He saw the real Rose Mae Lolley, no longer hidden by Ro-the-perky-waitress. His face wasn’t readable.
She stood up, slow, holding the mug, trying to call her sugary smile back.
He said, “I came to get change,” and his smile was plain and open.
She blinked stupidly at the dollar he held out, uncertain. Maybe he had only just poked his big head over the counter when she looked up?
“For the juke box?” he said.
“It takes dollars,” Rose said, her voice rusty. “It’s one song for a quarter, but if you put in the dollar, you get five.”
“That’s cool,” he said, retracting the money.
The closest yellow drunk said, “Refill?” It seemed he was blessed with the power of speech after all. The red vinyl on his stool creaked as he shifted his butt, backing away from the surprise of his own voice.
Thom said, “Want me to tote her cocoa back to the table for ya?”
He couldn’t hold the plain face he was making anymore. His , and his eyebrow quirked and his bland blue eyes changed. They filled up with enough devil to match her. He had seen.
She felt another blush coming. “I’ll make her a new one.”
She pulled the spoon out, but he was already reaching for the mug.
“I’m Thom Grandee,” he said
“Ro,” she said. She let him take the mug.
“I saw that,” he said, and for a second she thought he meant the spit. Then he gestured with his free hand to the gold name-tag pinned north of her left breast. “Rose Mae,” he read. “Go ahead and get that guy his coffee. No worries. I’ll take this over.”
She went to pour for the drunk, peeking out from under her lashes as Thom Grandee walked back too the table with the cocoa. He handed it to Bangs.
The second drunk was pointing at the donuts in the cake stand. Rose got him one, and then picked up her pad, prepping to check on the couple in the back booth and then go take Thom Grandee’s order. All the while, she watched him watching Bangs sip spit.
As she came across to their booth, Thom pried the mug from Bangs’ fingers. All four were laughing and talking now. As she came toward them, Thom was saying to Bangs, “Didn’t you go to kindergarten? Didn’t you learn to share?” and as Rose came close he lifted up the cup and drank and his eyes met hers over the rim. He was drinking in her spit, greedy, taking all of it, though the cocoa was still so hot it must be scalding him. He opened his throat and drank it down and didn’t for one second look away from Rose.
“Oh my God! You hog!” Bangs said, laughy-teasy. “Now you have to buy me another.”
“What can I get ya’ll to eat,” Rose asked cautiously. They ordered their breakfasts and at the end Thom Grandee said, “And Caroline wants another cocoa.” He grinned at Rose. “Exactly like the first.”
She recognized him then. He was every boy that had ever belonged to her, from her daddy on down.
Copyright (c) 2010 by Joshilyn Jackson. Published in June 2010 by Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured by the Publisher.
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Author’s website: Joshilyn Jackson
New York Times bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson lives in Georgia with her husband, their two children, and way too many feckless animals. Her debut, Gods in Alabama, won SIBA’s 2005 Novel of the year Award and was a #1 BookSense pick. Jackson won Georgia Author of the Year for her second novel, Between, Georgia, which also a #1 BookSense pick, making Jackson the first author in BookSense history to receive #1 status in back to back years. Her third novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, was a Break-Out book at Target, and has been shortlisted for the Townsend Prize for Fiction. All three books were chosen for the Books-A-Million Book Club. Her latest, Backseat Saints (June, 2010), hit the New York Times bestseller list in its first week of release.
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