This post, part of the fiction I’m working on, was written in response to an Indie Ink prompt. Lance challenged me with: The devil makes you an offer you can’t refuse. I challenged Rachel with Terms and conditions may apply.
* * *
Bitsy Barnes put on a pot of coffee and contemplated the fragility of sound. The sound of a midnight darkness was plush and inviting and as lovely as dark chocolate. As night turned softly towards day and the rooster crowed, the town would begin to rouse itself, stretching and rolling over to stay in bed for just five minutes more. Medford gentled into the day that way. But now, the silence stretched thin—taut and quiet and beautiful as daybreak—made even the more precious because at any moment, once the first rays of sunlight kissed the ground of Medford, the silence would be shattered into a thousand pieces.
“Hiya, Bitsy!” Her cook blasted through the swinging double doors.
“You don’t sound all that thrilled to see me.” Spank observed, yanking up his pants with one hand.
“Just a little tired this morning.” Truth was, Bitsy enjoyed her solitude in the kitchen. She enjoyed the quiet rhythms, the between time; the time after the diner closed for the day or before it opened. She liked the kneading of the yeast rolls; the brewing of the coffee; the sizzling of the sausage links upon the griddle.
“It’s the weather.” Spank switched on the portable radio and tuned it to an oldies station. “Thunderstorm coming.”
Bitsy frowned as she measured yeast into a wooden mixing bowl. It wasn’t the weather. She hated when people felt obliged to give reason to everything, to explain away the unexplainable. “Maybe.” She turned on the water and waited for it to warm. Water too hot would kill the yeast, the way the coal companies had killed this town. But water too cold wouldn’t get the yeast motivated quickly enough. Kind of like Bitsy today.
For Bitsy, the befores and the afters of her day were like music. Once Spank got there, the kitchen seemed to be running to two different beats. Hers, slow and deliberate; languorous you could almost say. But Spank was quick as lightning, running hither and yon in the kitchen like the place was afire. She watched him hike up his pants again. No wonder the man was so thin, the way he dashed about.
Bitsy liked Spank all right. It was just two different personalities trying to get along in one kitchen; a recently married woman and her mother-in-law. But Bitsy’s mother had hired Spank the day he dropped out of high school, when he didn’t know the difference between Zest soap and lemon zest. And he’d been there ever since, regular as clockwork, never missing a day in his life. She owed it to her mother to keep Spank on. And sometimes, Bitsy mused, the diner seemed more to belong to Spank than it did to her.
Bitsy sighed. Throughout the day, she would gather up the scattered pieces of silence and re-forge them into the quiet she so desired. And then, after dinner was over, she could return to her apartment and fall into the thickness of the dark.
“You hear Ransom O’Neill’s in jail?” Spank tied an apron around his tiny waist and took up a thirty-six pack of eggs, cracking them rapid-fire into a metal bowl.
Bitsy stirred the water into the yeast and added a bit of sugar to the mixture.
“Stealing cars again. Selling ‘em for drugs. Kid’ll never graduate.”
A knot formed in Bitsy’s stomach. This town had outlived its usefulness: a child’s toy outgrown and tossed aside—and the people with it. It had been forgotten. Shelved. Tucked away in a dark corner where any noise it might make would be too weak to be noticed by more important people.
Medford was nestled among the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, less than twenty miles from the Ohio River as the crow flies. Route 232 had the distinct advantage of being the only road leading into town. It also was the only way out.
“The devil is in that boy.” Spank shredded cheese into the eggs.
The coal companies, once they’d plundered all they could from the earth, had packed up their equipment and followed 232 out of town, leaving behind ill, unemployed men coughing heavily into freshly-ironed cotton handkerchiefs as they wandered aimlessly about town. The banks began foreclosing. Once-proud houses lost their sheen and sagged heavily on weakened joists. Flowerbeds languished.
“It’s not the devil, Spank. Sure as I speak, it’s pure and simple human nature, what Ransom did. People’ve been hanging their own mistakes on poor Satan’s shoulders since time began.”
“Poor Satan? What do you mean to say, Bits?” Spank didn’t turn his attention from his scrambled eggs—Spank staked his reputation on his cooking—but Bitsy could hear the tension in his voice.
The pharmacy closed. The library cut back its hours. The post office stopped delivering the mail.
The years passed.
But still. The town was a living thing. An entity that breathed and pulsed with life.
The forgotten people of Medford, Ohio knew they’d been discarded. But still, they pressed on with their lives. The people still loved and made love. They read and they learned and they grew. They hoped for better lives for their children. And the people of Medford still needed food.
Bitsy Barnes believed in food. Yes, food had the power to nourish a body, to sustain a life. But she also believed that a shared meal could begin to mend a broken relationship. Yes, Bitsy believed in food. But she wasn’t so foolish to think that food could mend a broken heart. Although God knows she’d tried. “There isn’t any devil, Spank, and you know it.”
Spank crossed himself like a good Catholic would. “Where’d all this trouble come from then, Bitsy?” He waved his spatula out the window. But it was unnecessary. Bitsy took his meaning. “We made a deal with the devil, a deal we had no choice but to take or starve to death.”
Starve to death. The words rang hollow in her ears. Over the years, Bitsy had eaten beyond her needs, in the same way, she mused, as the coal companies had taken more than their due. She had eaten from a hunger that could not be sated with food. She had eaten and hidden away the source of her pain behind her size, as an oyster secrets saliva to protect itself from a grain of sand. She’d buried that pain. Shelved it, until no one in town could even recall that she was in pain, that she wasn’t just a woman who ate too much. Sometimes, even she was able to forget for a moment. But then, the memories would come rushing back in and she was filled with such deep sadness, such a weight of grief, that it made her knees buckle. She’d reach for the back of a chair to steady herself and one of the patrons would ask if her knees were troubling her again and when was the last time she’d gone to the doctor, anyhow?
No one in town called Bitsy Barnes fat, leastways not in her presence. People called her big boned, as if bones could truly account for her size. The worst were the children. No, not because they stared, open-mouthed and pointed, which they did. Nor because some of them went so far as to laugh out loud, only to be slapped into silence by hardened mothers with pink gashes of lipstick slashed across mouths and thick layers of eye shadow disguising their beauty. No, the children were the worst because they reminded her of all she’d lost.
Friends and neighbors and customers, she knew, were awed at her propensity to eat, to lose and gain the amount of weight she had over a lifetime. Among themselves, she understood, they wondered about her body’s capacity to transport her from place to place. But, mostly, they were kind. Because most folks in Medford were decent folk, and besides, where else would they find fried chicken and dumplings on a Friday night?
“We chose this Spank. And now the kids like Ransom are having to deal with our bad choices the only way they know how.”
She glanced out the window and traced 232 out of town. From the top of Beacon’s Hill, the Lincoln Hotel blinked blind eyes. The hotel was helpless. Derelict. Abandoned. Just like Medford itself.
“Humankind made up the devil, Spank, so we can blame him for everything that’s gone wrong. Passing the buck just like all those coal companies did. Those companies ruined the land, ruined lives, ruined hopes and dreams and battered relationships long held together on memory alone. But we chose it, Spank, and that’s what we must remember.”
“We didn’t choose it, Bitsy. They came in.”
“We sold our land. We worked for them. Surely you can’t forget that.” Memories lasted longer here in Medford. It was all that people had to hang their hopes upon. But memory was breaking up. And Medford was breaking up with it.
Soon, it would be gone. “You say we made a deal with the devil, Spank. A deal we couldn’t refuse. But I say we got ourselves into this mess. I say there is no devil.”
“I think you’re wrong there, Elizabeth Anne Barnes.” But there was an element of uncertainty to Spank’s voice as he turned back to prepare breakfast for a town of sinners and saints and people just doing their best to get along in this tired old world.
And, outside of the oldies playing gently in the background, the diner fell into silence again, but this was a silence that wore heavily upon Bitsy’s shoulders, a silence she wished she could shake off. This was an unwelcome silence. Bitsy cleared her throat, if only to shatter the silence that had come between them.
Labels: Fiction, Indie Ink