"'What cheer, how may I help ye?' says Justin. I heard once that every time a Mayflower Queen employee forgets to use this scripted greeting, one cent is docked from their paycheck."
Life rarely turns out exactly how we imagine, and that's certainly the case for Justin, who works in a hilariously period-piece fast food joint, as well as this story's narrator, who can't exactly escape the past.
We found ourselves hungry for pilgrim fare after this tender, surprising story. Happy reading/eating.
I work at my dad's hardware store. At first we thought it was a summer gig, but after the accident it turned into a year-long gig, and then due to recovery complications it turned into an indefinite gig, and now it's three years out so it's looking terminal.
I get to be the paint guy. You don't need artistic talent to mix paint. The computer does it all. It doesn't matter if you're working with a swatch or a picture torn from a magazine or a customer's dead grandmother's dishcloth: the spectrophotometer matches the shade, spits out the formula, adds the colors, and shakes the can smooth. All I do is pry the lids off, mallet them closed, and advise buyers whether they need matte or semi-gloss finish.
Every day feels like bring-your-kid-to-work day. Every day, my dad and I put coffee in a thermos older than I am and drive to the store. Just about every day, we either leave Jose in charge or put an "out to lunch" sign on the swinging door and go to The Mayflower Queen.
I'm waiting in line to put in my order when I recognize the counter girl, Justin. I had a crush on her once. I sensed we were meant to be together. I don’t know what I mean by that. Neither of us was cut out for romance. Maybe that was the appeal. The problem was that she got teased a lot and I didn't know how to talk to people, so she always thought I was making fun of her. The other problem was that sometimes I was making fun of her. The other other problem was that she moved away in grade 10.
I reach into my pocket for my phone to text someone, until I remember there's no one to text.
"What cheer, how may I help ye?" says Justin. I heard once that every time a Mayflower Queen employee forgets to use this scripted greeting, one cent is docked from their paycheck.
She looks up from the register and says, "Fuck."
Her hair's pulled back in a tight, waspy bun. In high school, her hair was always in her face; I'd wanted to push it back, but never did.
"I haven't seen you since you moved," I say.
"That'd generally be how moving works," she says, the blush beginning to creep up on her. Kids used to call her Brick because when she was embarrassed, which was often, she turned opaque red from her collarbone to her hairline. "What's your order?"
"Oh. Right." I lift my cap and scratch my head. "I'll have the Goody Proctor."
"Here or to go?"
"Grilled or crispy?"
"Listen," I say, impulsively. I lean in and lower my tone. "Let's catch up sometime."
There's nothing more harmless to say than "Let's catch up sometime," but somehow I make it sound both insidious and dumb, like a line spoken by a killer in a made-for-TV horror movie.
She ignores me. "Crispy it is."
Dad's already sitting down. He's gotten the Myles Standwich, a kind of greasy turkey-corn-cranberry hand pastry. That's sort of what the Pilgrims ate, except it comes with a generous side of whipped potatoes and gravy, and I'd read once that Pilgrims didn't have potatoes. I should yell at him — we made a pact to stick to lean protein and dressing-on-the-side salads because of my weight and his heart condition — but I'm too busy watching Justin take orders, hand out cups, stack trays.
Mayflower employees have to wear plastic visors shaped like Pilgrim hats secured around their heads with Velcro. When all the kids on our street used to trick-or-treat, Justin wore the same costume year after year, the black ribbon of a homemade witch's hat tied in a little bow beneath her chin, until finally she got too big for it and a gust of wind blew it off her head and into a ditch.
"Don't tell your mother," Dad says, crumpling his napkin between his hands and winking at me. I hate when he makes me his accomplice, but it's too late to protest. Sometimes he eats so fast, so greedily, it's like he thinks he'll die before he can finish.
"Remember a girl who used to live down the street? Justin? Used to come trick-or-treating with us?"
"Friend of yours?"
"Sorta," I say, "kinda," and then, "not really."
Sundays the shop is closed. Dad stays parked in his armchair Saturday night until Monday, yelling at ads or Democrats or Patriots getting penalties. Mom's at her canasta group when we get home so I make sure Dad's settled with his TV and microwave dinner. I hook two beers from the fridge and go down cellar, where my brother John sleeps.
"Justin," John says, opening one of the beers with his lighter in that show-off way of his. He keeps public access on 24/7. It's mostly boring, but every now and then he turns up real gems, like the guy with foot-long mutton chops who turns up at town meetings to espouse his theory that the Founding Fathers were closet socialists. "The kid who got stuck in the mud field behind the playground in grade three?"
"No, dipshit, girl Justin."
"They left his little boots there for like, weeks after they got him out," says John, grinning fondly at the memory.
"Brick?" I say. I gesture like I'm a woman fondling my own breasts, except it's sad, because I'm fat now, and I do actually have breasts.
Incredibly, this jogs his memory.
"Oh," John says, with insufficient awe and surprise. "Forgot about her. Mayflower Queen?"
"Dark," he says. "How's she look? Still a Brick?"
"She looks all right," I shrug.
I fidget with the JV baseball trophy on his dresser, the figurine of which has come loose from its pedestal. He won it back before he quit to protect his fingers. He claims they're insured, which my parents won't confirm or deny. He's a competitive Smash Bros. player. People sponsor and bet on him like he's a real athlete. I was supposed to be the first in our family to go to college, but John was the first to make college irrelevant.
He could leave, but doesn't want to, superstitious that any change in his routine will throw him off. He has a long-distance Twitch girlfriend. Lame, I know, except she's hot. I swore she was AI until he showed me her Facebook to prove she was real.
When noon rolls around on Monday and my Dad says, "Mayflower?" I say sure.
"Come here often?" Justin says when I approach the counter, hands tucked into my pockets. Her smile looks confrontational, but maybe that's how she smiles now. Maybe she's cranky. I'd be, too, if I got paid minimum to pretend I just stepped off at Plymouth Rock.
"I work around the corner," I say. "The hardware place. Remember?"
"That's too bad," she says. "What'll it be?"
She says it so quiet and quick I'm not sure I heard her right. "What's too bad?"
"I mean, too bad that you never did anything with your life," she says. I wait for the telltale splotches to gather like storm clouds along her neck, but she's pale, normal.
"Stuff happened," I say. "You work at The Mayflower Queen."
"That's right," she says. "Stuff happened."
We look at each other until the lady behind me taps my shoulder and says, "This pilgrim making any progress with his order?"
"Goody Proctor, then?" Justin says, with a smug grin.
"And a large soda," I say, just to show her she doesn't know everything. I yank the cup she offers sharply out of her hand.
I can't shake that exchange the rest of the day, thinking belatedly of implausible retorts.
"Mom," I say, bringing the plates up from the table to the sink after dinner. "You remember Justin? Used to live down the street?"
"Justin," says Mom, thinking. "Yes. Quiet, polite. Not like you."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You were different, is all."
It's true. My report cards usually contained euphemisms like "lively" or "spirited." I'm quieter now, except for the occasional bizarre, uncontrollable laughing fit. John said once that the accident improved my personality and Mom got so mad she didn't speak to him for days.
"Not that different," I say.
"One time her mother called to complain."
"Something you said or did," she says. "I kept asking if she was sure it was you. 'My Davie?'"
"Jeez," I say. "What'd I do?"
"Oh, I don't know. It was sort of an in-context thing and I've forgotten it now," she says, waving it away with an arm covered to the elbow in a soft rime of dish soap. "I asked your father to talk to you about it."
That has a ring of truth to it. I went through a long phase where every message had to be relayed through Dad. "Dad?"
Dad stretches one arm up and scratches the back of his head with the other. "It bothered me that the mother called. It seemed like no big deal. Normal kid stuff."
"So you do remember Justin?"
"Just something about a mother calling."
"Did I apologize?"
Dad widens his eyes and holds his hands out, like, what do you want me to do.
"Would've been helpful to know I was a dick," I say. "That seems like pretty standard parenting. 'Don't be a dick, Davie.'"
"I told you that plenty of times and it didn't do any good," says John, who's hitherto been engrossed in his phone.
I chuck my wadded-up paper napkin at him. "You deserved it, it's not the same."
John whips the napkin back at me twice as hard.
"Boys," intones Dad, digging between his teeth with one of the picks Mom keeps in a little transparent jar on the table.
I sit there, irritated but not wanting to look like a child storming off to my room.
Mom, hands now dry, pats my shoulder. "What made you ask, dear?"
There were about six kids all the same age on my street and as soon as we made fourth grade we told our parents to stop waiting with us for the school bus. There were more trees than people where we lived; nothing bad was going to happen, and nothing ever did, except once we found an evil-smelling raccoon carcass by the side of the road. I'd stand there with Jim and Billy and Sophie and then Justin would amble up, always last, with her hair still wet or partly frozen in winter.
"Justin," I'd ask. "How come you're late?"
Then the red creep would start up her neck and climb to the tips of her ears. It was hard to predict what might set it off. Sometimes all it took was knowing that someone was looking at her. We were at cross-purposes like that a lot. I'd sit behind her with Billy on the bus and watch while she tried to finish her math homework or stared out the window with headphones on, CD player in her lap, forehead pressed to the glass like she could fly away if she willed it.
Then, in seventh grade, the first hot and sunny day of the year, the first day we didn't need jackets, she showed up with her long, wet hair down. It left splotches on her t-shirt, right over her tits. Being 13, not only did I stare, but I pointed right at nipple level and said, "You're lactating." I knew this word from Mom, who believed in explaining breastfeeding and all other elements of life to children as she would to adults.
Maybe I thought I was performing a service, the same way people appreciate it when you point out there's mustard on their shirt or their shoes are untied. If I didn't, someone at school would, and be nastier about it, too.
Jim and Billy and Sophie burst out laughing. I grinned, too, because I liked to make them laugh. They were all still laughing and pointing when the bus rolled up. I didn't realize what I'd done, not even when I took my seat at the back and watched her, face lobster-red, run home with her backpack clutched to her chest. Not even when she was early for the bus, hair dry, every day until she moved.
The next time Dad lowers the daily paper and says, "Mayflower?" I pretend I'm craving Chinese.
We stop by the pharmacy so Dad can refill his prescriptions. I wait in the car, zoned out. The doctors say I don't need to come for scans anymore, but since the accident, I can lose minutes and hours in drumming my fingers on the dash, or listening to radio fuzz, or tracking the paint machine swirls, or watching Dad through the pharmacy's plate glass. I spend so much time with the man that these trips are about the only time I see him from a distance. He looks hearty and invulnerable, if you don't know better.
There's a rap at my window. I jump and look to my left. It's Billy's mom.
Grief isn't always apparent. I have a thick line above my ear where the hair won't grow back and 70 pounds to show for my sorrow. Billy's Mom, who must've suffered worse than I did, looks about the same as before the accident: short curly gray hair; cheeks wrinkled and soft like an unmade bed.
I roll down the window.
"Hi, Davie," she says.
"You look well," she says.
"You too," I say, having trouble meeting her gaze. I don't dare ask how she's doing. "The Joker'' is on the radio. I can't think of a worse time for that song. I'd give anything to turn it off, but can't acknowledge it by reaching for the dial. The silence is painful as Steve Miller insists that some people call him Maurice.
Billy would've found this funny.
I hear the bell above the door ringing: Dad's back.
"Well. I won't keep you," she says, though she wasn't keeping me from jack.
I nod and hope she understands my unspoken apology. I mean for the music, but it could be anything. Sorry for not looking her in the eye. For not talking to her about her son. For doing nothing with the time that was taken from Billy, but granted to me.
The accident was like the paint machine at work, shaking my head to make a new color of my brain. Apparently my time in the hospital was spent laughing uncontrollably, as if it was all a hilarious joke. My parents were bewildered and disturbed, but the nurses loved it. Class clown, they called me.
"Mayflower, pardner?" Dad says, putting down his paper.
"Chop suey?" I counter.
"We haven't been to Mayflower in weeks," he says. "You find a fly in your salad or something?"
I'm not quick enough to think of a lie. "No."
"Then let's go. I've got a hankerin'," he says, trying to be a cowboy through his thick Gloucester accent.
Maybe Justin won't be scheduled. Heck, maybe she quit. I couldn't last more than five minutes at that place, so I wouldn't be surprised to find her gone after less than a month.
But of course she's there, looking aggravatingly cute in her prim collar. I stand behind my Dad, trying to hide under my hat and the pulled-up neck of my jacket.
"Go ahead, Dad," I say, when our turn in line comes, hoping if I time it right, I'll be called to another cashier.
"I'm not ready," he says, looking at the board as though he hasn't looked at it thousands of times before. "Don't rush me."
I step to the counter.
"The prodigal son returns," she says.
I can't tell if she's saying that or if this is more of her trying to stay in Puritan character.
"It's almost like you're stalking me or something," she adds, putting special emphasis on the word stalking, almost barking it.
"I'm not – look, can I just get the usual, please?"
"Are you on a diet? We have other things on the menu aside from salad, you know," she says.
That stings. "I don't remember you being funny," I say, trying to save face.
"You don't get to coast by on good looks at The Mayflower Queen," she says.
I've gotten the same thing since I graduated from the kids’ menu without ever looking at what else is on offer. The Simon Sea-well, a fried fish platter. The Cotton Meat-her, a double bacon burger. Biscuits are called biscuits, French fries are confusingly called "hard tack," and the signature sauce is the "Devil's Last Preserves," though it's indistinguishable from ketchup.
"Give me the Charles Wentworth Upham," I say, picking the last thing I remember seeing.
"Bold choice," she says, keying it into the register.
I collect my tray and sit with Dad. The Upham turns out to be a pita stuffed with chopped white onions, cream cheese, and ham. Its flavor is best described as aggressive.
Dad has today's paper open on the table. He looks stern with his reading glasses, which he doesn't like to wear, preferring to squint. He thinks they make him look nebbish, which is absurd and vain for a man who stands 6 foot 5 and weighs over 300 pounds.
"Listen to this: 'A new retail option is coming to town. Walmart has plans to replace the vacant strip mall at Turnpike and Mt. Vernon, bringing nearly 200 jobs…'"
I'm only half-listening. I stand up and cut the line to get in front of Justin, ignoring the grumbles from behind me.
"Sorry about what I said about your breasts," I say, nervous and talking too loud. "Sorry we called you Brick. And sorry for anything else. All my friends are dead and I don't remember things so great, so."
She stares at me. The people in line stare at me. A pimple-pocked Pilgrim at the next register stares at me.
I walk out.
I'm talking to a dopey customer with a mustache.
"Semi-gloss finish for baseboards," I say for the fifth time.
He keeps looking at the samples I've given him, one in each hand, saying, "Dunno," over and over. Work is even slower than normal today. I have no reason to rush. Still, it's hard to have patience for a person who needs the totality of his cognitive abilities to choose between "bisque" and "chowder."
Justin comes in. Her hair's down, the Pilgrim visor's gone, and she looks so nice I almost forget she hates me.
"You let me know when you're ready," I tell Dopey.
Justin walks me over to the gardening section, which is private, packed down like a bunker with 40-pound bags of mulch and suet and the birdseed brand my mother likes.
She chews her cheek, darts her eyes, and says, "I, um. You can order a salad whenever you want. I didn't mean, I, I mean if you're on a diet, that's cool."
"Also," she says, and here she turns red, the way boiling witches' cauldrons do in cartoons, "If you still want to catch up, I'd be okay to catch up. I mean. No pressure."
I nod. It's not like I have other plans. Besides, I want to.
She deflates, like she'd been puffed up for a fight. We exchange numbers. She's standing next to the barrel of upside-down rakes. She seems to forget that they're there and remembers again when they brush her ear or the strands of her hair, pulling them in front of her face.
"Not even halfway through October and they're already playing Black Friday commercials."
Normally, it's Dad who yells about this. But he's being oddly quiet, worrying his age-thickened thumbnail with his teeth, so I complain for him.
"Davie," he says. "Turn that down."
"Your mother and I have been thinking," he says. "About the store."
"Why, 'cause of Walmart?"
"Not just that. We're not so young, you know."
"I'm young," I say. "I'm helping."
"We could sell the store and the house."
I can't believe he's talking so casually about this. "And go where?"
"Florida, Vermont, wherever people retire."
"What about me and John?"
"We're not worried about John."
But they are worried about me. I look hard at my own fingernails, ridged and textured like sanded wood, primed for painting. I'm faintly aware of Dad saying, "It's not too late to learn a trade, Davie."
"I'm dumb," I say. "There's something wrong with my head."
"Even dumb people need to live."
"So you agree I'm dumb," I say, trying and failing to lighten the mood.
"You're capable. I dunno. Maybe John could help you learn computers."
I scoffed. Like coding was so easy, something you just picked up. "You want me to get over it."
"I didn't say that."
"Yeah, but I heard it."
"Your mother and I just think change'd be good for you. New people. Dating." Dad tends to get mush-mouthed during difficult conversations.
"You calling me a loser?"
"Don't be an ass," Dad says. "I had cousins drown fishing, friends die in Vietnam. Your forefathers, they survived shipwrecks, epidemics. Wars."
Dad never invokes his past. He seems flustered, like he hadn’t intended to bring the conversation that far back. He doesn’t articulate the thought, but I know it’s there: We kept on living, so why can’t you?
"It's not a competition, Dad."
"Did I say it was?"
To be fair, he did not.
I go to bed early that night so I can stare at the ceiling and think about the future coming at me like two tons of steel barreling down the highway. My phone goes off. It's on the dresser, which means getting out of bed, which means extracting myself from my blanket-furnace and touching my toes to the cold floor, which I don't want to do, but I do. John, 20 feet vertically below me, is texting me to turn on public access.
Justin's on TV, ghostly in the wash of bright lights from the camera. She's with an older guy in a wheelchair, speaking into the reporter's microphone: "I just want to thank everyone for helping my Dad. You know? Every little bit counts." At the bottom of the screen runs the script: COMMUNITY RAISES $5,000 FOR AREA MAN.
On Saturday, Justin and I meet at the Szechuan buffet near the hardware store. Turns out this whole time she's been two towns away. I always thought she moved because something bad happened — her departure was so abrupt, no goodbyes, no letters.
"Miss it?" I ask her about our hometown.
"Nah," she says.
I would, I think, even though my parents' house isn't that nice. It's ranch-style squat with bubblegum-pink wall-to-wall basement carpeting gone spongy with mold. My father worked for years to fix the place up. When he finally got around to scraping away the popcorn ceilings, John and I made angels in the dust that fell to the floor like snow, even though it probably had asbestos.
I hold the door to the restaurant open for her. I hope I'm not the reason she doesn't miss our town. I apologize again, awkwardly. Patrons wait for us to enter so they can exit, including one lady with hair dyed a color Benjamin Moore would call Raisin Torte.
Justin waves me off. "It was a long time ago," she says, "And it wouldn't have been so bad if I didn't have a crush on you."
I stand there holding the door. "Huh," I say.
The buffet has an aquarium as tall as my dad behind the hostess station. It glows neon blue. It's so crowded the fish get into traffic jams. Crabs lurk in the bottom, snapping soundlessly.
"The seafood is so fresh here. Tank to table," I say. We've got our faces pressed against the glass, waiting to be seated.
"No," I say. "I did seriously one time see a drunk guy try to have a conversation with that Siamese fighting fish, though."
We eat crab rangoon and garlic broccoli and sesame chicken and the little orange slices they bring with the check. We don't bother looking at our fortunes. We don't mention her dad, or mine.
In the parking lot afterward, I'm out of ideas. I didn't plan a movie. I didn't plan mini-golf. It's been so long since I took a girl on a date — which I'm not even sure this is — that I forget what to do.
I'm relieved when she says, "Can I show you something?" and tells me to drive to The Mayflower Queen.
I see the roof in the distance. It's Mayflower-shaped; the prow and mast are outlined with white lights; the sails, gold. She takes me around back, cutting through the bushes near the drive-through speaker to a metal ladder.
"Come on," she says, with no promise of fun.
On the roof, there's another ladder up to the ship's mast, presumably so they can replace the bulbs easily when they die. We climb it. I can see for miles, black for fields and ponds, amber for the sodium lights of strip mall parking lots, white for new LED road lights, soft gold squares for residential windows. I can see our hardware shop, the poster I'd made by hand to advertise our sale on leaf blowers. I'd misspelled "promotion" as "promoton."
There's a steel grate platform just wide enough for us to sit. We crouch down and breathe into our hands to keep warm.
"How's working here?" I ask.
"Some skinhead came in the other day and threatened to climb over the counter when I told him there was a two-minute wait for his syllabub."
"It's this new seasonal dessert," she says. "Orange-flavored eggnog with whipped cream. It should have cognac in it, but doesn't. That whole place is so dumb. Puritans and Pilgrims aren't even the same thing."
"Don't feel bad," she says. "I only know that 'cause I took an American history class last semester. That's how I wowed them in the interview for this job."
I can tell she wants me to laugh. I do.
"Where do you go?"
"Oh, I don't, anymore," she says. "I left 'cause I was failing. Then Dad got sick. They think I'm going back once he's better."
"So he's gonna get better?"
"Hope so," she says. "What about your accident?"
I haven't had to talk about the accident in a long time. My chest feels tight, bones like staves around a barrel. I tell her. I tell her how Billy and Sophie and Jim and I were out at a kegger late senior year. How Billy took the keys from me and I didn't protest like I should've. How there was a truck.
"Jesus. Sounds like a PSA," she says, then claps a hand over her mouth.
I cut her off before she can apologize. "You're not wrong."
There's more to it, of course. The truck we crashed into was a Dunkin' Donuts tractor-trailer on an early morning delivery. A local reporter said the pavement was covered in a slurry of "brains, blood, and baked goods." Billy was going to marry Sophie; everyone knew.
I woke from my coma laughing, measurably dumber and alone.
Justin reaches out and places her tiny hand over mine where it rests beside me.
"You know Walmart's gonna open here?" she says after a moment. She nods to a dark patch of land already marked with neon-tipped stakes. "I might apply. Same pay, better uniforms."
I wonder how it felt to be a Pilgrim when Massachusetts was new to the white man. How it seems now like the Pilgrims never worried about the right things, about ruining this place or themselves. Many died; none doubted.
Justin's hand is still over mine. I look up at the mast, its bulbs golden and glowing like a Vegas marquee. I'm exiled in Holland at the slots. I'm in buckle shoes and a capotain, unwashed and afraid. I'm pulling the lever on a machine built by the devil's hands. The spinning reels are full of carracks and winged skulls that look like my friends. They will land on the heaven of heaven, or death by scurvy, but it doesn't matter. My winnings are predestined, and my questions were answered a long time ago.
Ariel Courage is a writer whose work has appeared in Guernica, The New Limestone Review, and elsewhere. Her stories have been finalists for Glimmer Train, the Key West Literary Seminar Marianne Russo Award, and The Headlight Review's Chapbook Prize. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College, where she was editor-in-chief of The Brooklyn Review. She is an associate fiction editor at AGNI Magazine.