“You leaving?” she asked as I stopped, standing a few feet away from her.
“Robertsdale,” I replied.
“Scarlet ain’t wanting to come home then.” It wasn’t really a question. More of a statement.
I shook my head. “No. She’s happy there. Wants to stay. I can’t . . . I want to be with her.”
Momma stood up slowly. Her age starting to show in things as simple as standing after being on her knees. She dusted her jeans to get some of the dirt off, then stood straight and looked me directly in the eyes. “I reckon that girl has some bad things in her past. People talk and I’ve heard enough about that momma of hers to know Scarlet’s childhood wasn’t a good one. Never saw a real smile on that girl’s face. So you be careful. I’m not saying she’s not worth chasing. I am saying she may run harder, fight meaner, and build walls you can’t climb. If she’s worth it you’ll figure it all out. If she’s not then there’s a bed in that house that will always be yours.” She stopped then. When she was done with whatever she planned on saying she ended the conversation. Asking her for more info than she provided was pointless. She’d give you all you needed to know first. No more.
“Thanks, Momma,” I said once I knew she was done. After a short nod, she pointed at the bucket by her feet. “Pick that up and carry it back to the kitchen on your way.”
I did as instructed, but as I walked back by her I stopped and put my arm around her shoulders in a small hug. “I love you.” I wasn’t one to say those words. Never had been. But at this moment I felt like she needed to hear them.
“I know you do, boy. I know you do.”
With a smirk, I walked back toward the house with the bucket of carrots in my left hand. Before I turned off the path that led where Momma was in the garden I heard her call out. “And I love you too.”
My smirk turned into a smile. “I know, Momma. I know.” I said quietly.
THE APPLE COBBLER wasn’t tart enough, the collards needed more salt, but the new warm potato salad was a hit. That could be because the Lions Club wasn’t eating today. It was almost as if the majority of customers knew my day was shitty and I needed them to go easy on me. The complaints about the cobbler, well . . . I had to agree with them. It was not Netty’s best. Once you’ve had her cobbler you expect delicious.
The two old men who complained about the collards more than likely needed less salt in their life anyway. The majority had been easy. A few had made me smile with their comments. Ethel had yelled across the restaurant asking Netty or Jim to bring her something or fix something. She had no inside voice.
It was Diesel who made the day difficult. He kept watching me like he expected me to burst into tears at any moment. He studied me. His smile rarely there. I hadn’t seen one dimple all day. That should be a reason to celebrate. He normally used his dimples as a way to get better tips. They worked better than any service I could render.
“Take the two old bastards at table five some of this blueberry cobbler and tell them it’s on the house,” Ethel told me not even trying to whisper. “And here are some fresh sugar cookies for those sweet babies at table seven. They’re headed home from vacation and need a treat to brighten their day.”
I took the tray from her and went to the table where George and Norman sat. George owned the Feed and Seed across the street. Norman was retired from the ministry. They met here for lunch most days. “Ethel wanted the both of you to have a slice of Netty’s cobbler. It’s really good today,” I assured them.
Norman smiled. “Well, thank you, Scarlet.”
“She called us Bastards. I heard her. The evil witch,” George said picking up his fork. “Looks delicious.”
Norman only chuckled then took a bite of the cobbler and finished it up with a sound of appreciation. “Netty outdid herself.”
“She better after screwing up the apple cobbler,” George replied.
“You two enjoy,” I said to them as I made my way over to the next table. It was a family from Tennessee. They had twin girls who were five years old and they were sad their beach vacation was over.
“Mrs. Ethel wanted you two to have these. She said they make the traveling back home easier,” I placed a cookie in front of each freckle-faced redhead.
The talkative one looked up at me. Her smile was missing a front tooth. But only one so far. “I like your hair. I wish mine looked like yours.”
Her hair was a bright orange. I couldn’t be sure it would ever darken but she was adorable anyway. Mine had been that color once. It had turned into this by the time I was eight though. Red hair can be tricky. “I think yours is beautiful like that. As are you. Both of you.”
That reply got big smiles from both girls. The other one who was shyer was missing both of her front teeth. I knew all too well about the summer sun causing freckles. The two of them would be a perfect summer picture.
“Thank you!” they said in unison. Then their mother thanked me too. I nodded and headed back to the kitchen. Diesel was standing there watching me again. His arms crossed over his chest and a frown on his face.
“You need to take your break. I can handle the rest of the lunch crowd. It’s thinning out anyway.”
I wasn’t hungry. I shook my head. “I don’t need a break. I can wait until three.”
“That’s in twenty minutes. Go on now.”
“No, Diesel. I don’t need to,” I replied firmly. He wasn’t my boss. I didn’t need his concern. Or his advice.
“You didn’t eat breakfast either,” he continued.
I wasn’t going to argue right here in front of the entire dining room. Instead, I pushed past him and into the kitchen. The tea was getting low and we wouldn’t completely thin out until three thirty. I had planned on making more once I had my tables taken care of.
“I’ve seen his kind. He’s an asshole. You’re better than that.”
I froze, my hand on the tea bags I had picked up and I took a deep breath before moving again. This was not the time to lose my temper with Diesel. I had already done that once today. Ethel had forgiven me. I needed him to back off and let me work now.
“Diesel, I’ve known Bray most of my life. There is nothing I do not know about him. You, however, have known me a short time. You’ve briefly met Bray. So please, back off. Shut up and do your job. Let me do mine.”
That was kind enough I thought. Not too bossy. Not too angry. Just to the point.
“Girl is right, boy. Stay out of her business. She ain’t asking you for any advice. Table six just left. Go bus it,” Ethel said behind me.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Saying thank you to Ethel for getting rid of her nephew seemed a little rude so I went about making the urn of tea like I had planned on.
“He means well. He has a protective streak when he cares about someone. You made it onto that list. I’m afraid he cares too much. I’ve seen you barely able to smile today. The sadness in your eyes tells me that your heart is hurting. That means it’s taken. He’ll accept it eventually.”
I simply nodded as I turned to look at her. I didn’t have to be told Diesel liked me. No guy would be that involved in my moods and life if he didn’t. But Ethel was right. My heart was hurting. But even if I didn’t love Bray, I wouldn’t ever be able to love Diesel. He was too happy. There was no darkness there and he’d been in prison. Even that hadn’t brought him down. He made me laugh and smile when I needed it but that never took away what was underneath. And I knew it was something he would never be able to live with. It was too twisted.