The Good Life _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Mark and Rebecca Spencer
The snow is steady, gusts of wind whipping up snow devils. Drifts pile against mailboxes and fences and houses. The vinyl seat of the moving van is like ice. Lon drives slowly, downshifting on hills.
The woman paid us for the move although her boyfriend told her she shouldn't have to. Lon said that half the charge would be okay, but she said she insisted. She knew she had been a pain in the ass, she said seven or eight times. The boyfriend stood off to the side, his arms folded across his chest, his chapped lips pursed, his face getter redder and redder.
As soon as we were out the door, he started ranting. "What kind of horse shit is this, woman?" Lon and Jake and I were outside the house, the doors and windows of which were all shut, and the wind was blowing, but we could still hear him pretty well, his voice only somewhat muffled. "You just throwin' away money! Goddamn! Are you fuckin' nuts? I could use that money!" Then the woman was shrieking. A child screamed.
When we arrive at Lorene's Restaurant, a crowd has gathered although it's not even eleven o'clock yet. There are a lot of regulars but also a lot of farmers who would be home doing work on most days. Several people look at us, nod, say, "How you like this weather?" The large windows that dominate three walls are steamed up. The place is full of cigarette smoke and the smells of coffee and grease. The old wooden tables and chairs wobble, and the pattern on the linoleum floor is worn away. The display case next to the cash register holds pies topped with a good six inches of meringue. On top of the display case is a chalkboard with the day's lunch special written on it: meat loaf, carrots, mashed potatoes, green beans.
Lon and I eat here at Lorene's often. Lorene passed away five years ago. Frita and Skinny Sue wait the tables and operate the cash register. Fred, who's mentally impaired, cooks all the food. Most of the women in the county admit that Fred's a better cook than they are. "Boy can't talk, can't add two and two, but he sure can cook," people say.
Seeing Fred always makes me think of Nick, whose special talent is pictures drawn with charcoal. Animals mostly, animals with expressions on their faces that make them look like people. The animals look like animals, but they look like people, too. He draws squirrels and rabbits and hogs and chickens that have my and Meg's faces, some times the faces of other people I recognize, but usually my and Meg's. A squirrel sitting on a tree limb on its hunches, nibbling a nut it holds between its paws, will look regular enough, like an ordinary squirrel, but then you look close at the squirrel's expression, and there's me, the way I look when I eat apple cobbler. Everything is black and white and shades of gray, mostly gray. The walls of Nick's room at the state home are covered with his pictures. The orderlies and nurses and doctors all say Nick's pictures are really good, but I don't know. I suppose. I wish Nick's gift were cooking instead. It's just that it bothers me to see Meg's face in a picture of a sparrow with a broken wing. Meg's face in a tired old sheep dog. My own face in a cautious-eyed raccoon. People on TV and in movies appear in Nick's animals. Years ago, Jimmy Swaggart in ecstatic-looking rabbits. Bob Newhart in chipmunks. Lucille Ball in dazed-looking foxes. Sylvester Stallone in dark, fierce horses. Danny Devito in rats. Sharon Stone in Persian cats.
Lon and Jake and I have to stand for a couple of minutes while Skinny Sue clears a table near the door. Frita waddles
over and kisses the top of Jake's head. She's wearing a green-and-white apron over a white tee shirt and jeans. She weighs at least three hundred pounds. The spaces between tables are kept wide so that she can get between them.
"How's my favorite man?"
Jake blushes, mumbles, "Fine."
She musses his hair, then waddles off fast to wait on another table.
Jake gave her her name last summer. She had been known for twenty years as Fat Rita. The second or third time Jake came into the restaurant he said, "Hi, Frita."
She smiled at him.
He said, "I'll have a hamburger, Frita."
She said, "I like that. ‘Frita.'" She turned and hollered for the whole place to shut up. Her hollering didn't work, so
she let out a shrill whistle. And the restaurant hushed. "Ya'll been callin' me Fat Rita for two centuries. Well, it's time for a change. From now on, I'm Frita."
Everybody stayed quiet for a minute more. Somebody laughed. Then a man muttered, "Crazy woman." Everybody started talking again. The noise was swelling back to its normal volume when she yelled, "I mean it, damn it!"
After a few weeks of her persistently reminding everyone what her new and proper name was and an occasional excess of
Tabasco sauce in some rude people's food, everybody was calling her "Frita."
Skinny Sue, who looks anorectic and has a barely audible voice and huge watery brown eyes, resents not being able to come up with a new name of her own. "Skew" doesn't work. "Sky Sue" never caught on.
As I said, Lorene died five years ago. She was about eighty. She was our local version of Mae West--a buxom, flirty, peroxide blonde who must have spent hours putting on make-up. She dressed in tight tee shirts and tight jeans and clanked around in platform heels. She called me "The Wood Man." I always smiled and felt shy. But her attention never focused on any one person for long. In the middle of asking one man how he was "hangin'" she'd turn toward another to say, "Has your wife amputated those privates of yours yet the way she should have ten years ago?"
Lorene's mouth never stopped and neither did her arms and legs. She talked fast, jerked her limbs around, and walked briskly, coming down hard on her heels and making her big hairdo bounce.
Then one day while she was serving lunch, a bowl of Fred's "Special-Recipe Beef Stew" in each hand and a plate of curly fries balanced on each forearm, she froze above a table of local business men. Her mouth was open, but for once, no words were
coming out. Everybody sensed that something significant was going on. Bud Perkins, the owner of the hardware store, awaiting his beef stew, smiled up at her and said, "Lorene, you turnin' into one them mimes?"
After she tipped forward, crashing face first across the table, Fred ran out from the kitchen, moaning and waving his arms around. A few people hovered over Lorene, squinting at her. Most people stayed at their tables and asked each other what happened. Fat Rita yelled, "Is there a doctor in the house?" Bud Perkins reminded her that there wasn't a doctor in the whole town. Skinny Sue had the presence of mind to call the county hospital in West Union to send their ambulance. Fred got down on the floor next to Lorene and tried to feed her stew.
Later, the rumor was that the doctor at the hospital took one look at Lorene when she was brought into the emergency room
and pulled the sheet over her face. Lorene had died standing there holding those bowls of stew.
Bud Perkins was pretty shaken up by the thought that he had been joking about mimes with a corpse.
Lorene's Last Will and Testament left the restaurant to Fat Rita, Skinny Sue, and Fred as equal partners. Lorene had never had children. Or a husband. Despite all her lecherous talk and her gaudy appearance, she had never been known to have a man in her life.
I speculated to Meg that Lorene had died a virgin, a nun of sorts of the order of The Greasy Spoon. Meg laughed long and loud and derisively at me. Then she shocked me by informing me that if I hadn't willed myself blind to reality I would have seen that she died not a virgin but a lesbian. I went around with my mouth hanging open for a week.