Nola wiped the front of her shirt and chased the breadcrumbs down her pregnant belly. Licking the grape jelly off her fingers, she sighed; it wasn’t what she was looking for. She took a final sip from her Coke, and threw the can into the backseat of her Toyota Camry. It landed between a half-empty box of fried chicken and the garbage bag that held her life.
Her makeup was long gone, leaving behind only trails of what was once there. Her brown eyes were puffy and the dark circles worse than the day before. The day before, the worst of her life, unless you count the day before that, and the one even before. She ran her fingers through her dishwater blonde hair, and cried out from the jelly-clumped tangles. Giving up, she went back to concentrating on driving.
The cravings had begun almost the minute she ran away from her mother’s house. She’d begun to show that day, five months ago, one week before she’d left for college. For three months she wasn’t even sure the pregnancy test had been right, but when she put on her favorite jeans that morning and couldn’t button them up, she knew it was impossible to hide. Instead of telling her mother what had happened and face her disappointment, Nola packed her few possessions and headed on the road.
As soon as she hit the highway, she began to hunger for something she couldn’t place. The feelings grew stronger the farther away she got. She almost ate the whole menu off the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tama and gorged on pies at the Baker’s Square in Davenport where she’d worked for the past five months, until she was too pregnant to be on her feet all day.
If questioned, she would describe the feeling as something between the anticipation of the first day of school and finding your favorite goldfish was dead. It was part excitement, part dread, part emptiness she couldn’t fill. It was always there, clawing at her insides, wanting more than she was able to give.
The banana air-freshener she bought at the Amoco the day before made her stomach turn. It had smelled so wonderful at first, and it covered the odor of old food and the fact that she hadn’t bathed for a few days, but the thought of smelling it for the next one hundred miles made her nuts. She ripped it from the rearview mirror and tossed it out the half-open window, watching its progress in the mirror as it fluttered away. Every time it found a home, a car passed by, leaving it up in the air again. Nola looked away and kept driving.
She stopped at a truck stop on highway thirty to fill up on gas and to eat lunch. The car smelled hot and had been making a noise that sounded like someone was beating a squirrel. She knew she should have someone look at it, but her funds were dwindling. She’d just have to take the chance that the car would last until she got where she was going.
After putting three dollars worth of gas in the car and pulling off into a parking space, she went into the restaurant. It looked amazingly like the place where she’d stopped for breakfast. All the waitresses wore pink uniforms with starched white aprons. They even looked like the waitresses at the other restaurant, all big hair and butts. The tables were covered with white paper tablecloths that the waitresses ripped off and replaced when a patron was gone. Silk blue roses sat in vases on the counter.
She sat at the counter in the only empty seat of the crowded restaurant. The restaurant was full of truckers and families on vacations. Small children ran around tables of bleary-eyed men drinking coffee to keep awake on the road for a few more hours.
Reaching into her purse to grab a cigarette, Nola saw the no smoking sign. She needed to cut back anyway. She returned them to her purse then took a sugar cube and put it under her tongue. It melted as she waited for the waitress to come and take her order. Nola tried to catch the waitress’s eye, but saw she was being avoided. She’d looked that way herself before.
A booth opened up and she grabbed it ahead of an old couple out for Sunday breakfast. Nola didn’t even consider letting them have it. She’d been driving for days and her legs and hemorrhoids were bothering her. Her first attempt at entering the booth failed, her belly was too swollen to fit beside the table. She tried a second time, backing into the booth and letting her belly sit below. Once squashed in she pushed the dirty dishes to the side and deftly pocketed the two-dollar tip left behind.
“We usually save the booths for two or more people on Sundays, but I can see you brought your second with you.” The redheaded waitress laughed, pointing at Nola’s belly.
Nola shook her head and forced a smiled in response.
“What can I get you, hon?” she asked her, a pencil poised to take her order. “Do you want the buffet, or something off the menu?”
“What’s on the buffet?”
“Just about everything you could want. Fried chicken, bacon and eggs. Lots of desserts.
“Is there pie?”
“I’ll take the buffet.”
“Right.” The waitress wrote something on her pad. “The plates are up there. Enjoy.”
Nola piled her plate high with fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy. Surely she would get full in this place. The dessert table was separate from the rest of the buffet. On it, Nola saw cakes and pies that made her mouth water. There was carrot cake and brownies, lemon meringue pie and apple. Nola grabbed a piece of French silk pie, the one kind she hadn’t tried, before returning to the table.
The waitress had been there while she was gone. She’d taken the old dishes away and put down a fresh piece of white paper, along with a vase of flowers. She’d also left a glass of water and one of milk. The bill was discreetly put off to the side.
Nola looked at the pie put in front of her with hopes of feeling better. When she took the first bite, the sweetness touched her tongue with promises, but halfway through, she realized that it wasn’t what she wanted. She pushed the half-eaten pie away and started on her plate. The fried chicken was fresh and crisp. Better than anything Nola had tasted in a while. She dipped it in her mashed potatoes and gravy.
She sighed, knowing that the feeling wasn’t going away. She could feel the burning behind her eyes. Tears dropped down her nose, onto the plate. She kept eating, only stopping to drink the water the waitress kept refilling.
The baby moved inside her and made her cry harder. What was she going to do? She hadn’t even been to see a doctor. She didn’t know when the baby was due. She’d tried to forget that she was pregnant at all, telling herself that the movement was only gas. But the knowledge that there would soon be a baby here to take care of scared her.
She was making noises that she’d never heard before. It came from deep inside her. She could see the faces of neighboring tables looking at her, but she couldn’t stop. The waitress ran to her side, holding a paper bag up to her mouth.
“Just take long, deep breaths, hon. Everything’s going to be OK.”
Nola breathed into the paper bag. It smelled of old fruit and wetness.
“Its just hormones,” the waitress told her, smoothing Nola’s sweat soaked hair from her face. “These things happen.”
Nola’s breathing slowed. She’d never felt like that before. Like she was going to die right there. Like she would suffocate in a room full of people.
“Now put your head between your legs.”
Nola did what she was told. The waitress rubbed her shoulders, calming her. She remembered her mother rubbing her back until she fell asleep at night when she was little. When did her mother stop rubbing her back? When did she stop being a little girl?
When Nola got her breathing under control, she was too embarrassed to look at the crowd that had surrounded her.
“Why don’t you run to the bathroom and clean up, hon?”
“Right.” Nola grabbed her purse and headed to the restroom across the room. When she saw that the waitress wasn’t watching her anymore, she slipped out the door and to her car, the tip money burning in her pocket.
She drove her car back on the highway and headed west. She’d decided at some point to visit her best friend, Heather, from high school. They’d been planning on going to school together in Omaha. That was before Nola left without telling anyone. She knew that once she got on campus, she’d be able to find her friend.
What she’d do after that, she didn’t know. She’d have to find a job sometime, and a place to stay, all after the baby was born. Until then, she’d play it by ear.
She saw the water tower to her hometown before she saw the sign. She’d have to go past State Center on her way to Nebraska, though she’d never thought about the moment when she would drive by.
She thought about driving through town late at night when no one could see her. She wanted to see if things were as she remembered. Not a perfect small town, but a nice place to grow up. People were a little nosy at times, that’s one of the reasons she left. She couldn’t stand for people to talk about her and her mother. It would have been easier if she’d lived someplace like Des Moines, where their movements wouldn’t have been monitored.
The car jerked under her hand and made a growling noise. She struggled with the steering wheel to get to the side of the road. She turned off the car, not knowing what else to do, when she saw the car smoking. This was one of the times in her life that she wished her dad were around. She missed him most at milestone events, dance recitals, graduation. Even though she’d never known him, he was always there, a shadow in her life. Her own child would face the same predicament.
She rolled the window down to let the slight breeze cool her. She noticed the wetness on her face again, not knowing if they were new tears or if she’d never stopped crying.
“Need some help?” A man asked through her opened window. He was dressed in a dark uniform with a nametag that said Steve on his chest. He was in his mid-forties and had graying hair around his temples. He had a kind broad face, and Nola felt comfortable with him immediately.
“I’m not sure what the problem is.” She wiped the tears on the back of her hand.
“Don’t worry. I’ve seen plenty of tears in this business. No one’s ever prepared for their car to stall. I could tow you in.”
“I don’t have the money,” she said, getting out of the car. He looked at her belly, then back to her face.
“I could at least take you to a phone.”
“I don’t really have anyone to call.”
“Not from around her?” He had reached into her car to pop the hood.
“Well, really I’m from State Center, I just haven’t been back for awhile.”
“How long’s awhile?”
“About five months.”
She could see he was trying not to laugh at her. To other people five months was nothing, to her it felt like a lifetime. She’d run away from home in the past five months, had a job and lost it, lived in a rent by the week efficiency where she didn’t have room to get away from herself and grown so big that she didn’t recognize herself.
“I know it doesn’t seem that long.”
“Not really. Do you still know anyone here?”
“My mom.” The words caught in her throat.
“Do you want to call her? Or I could take you to her place. What’s her name?”
When she told him, recognition dawned on his face.
“You’re Natalie’s girl? She’s been wondering where you are.”
Nola didn’t answer.
“Jump in. I’ll take you to her, and the car to the garage. I’m sure she’ll cover it for you.”
Nola had never been in a tow truck, but she was sure they weren’t normally so clean. The cab had a faint smell of oil covered up by Steve’s cologne. Other than a clipboard on the seat, the truck was free of debris. Not one leaf on the floor, not one streak on the windshield. A CB radio squawked something that made her jump.
“All ready,” Steve said, climbing in next to her. He wiped his hands on a clean cloth he pulled from him pocket, concentrating his efforts on his nails. “I’ll have you home in no time.”
Main Street was deserted when they drove by. She counted three businesses boarded up: Burt’s Pharmacy, Carmon’s Woman’s Wear, and Kitchen Korner.
“Things have changed since you left,” Steve said, inclining his head to the town.
“Yeah,” Nola said. She sat with her arms across her chest, not looking at him.
“You look hungry.” He offered her a Snicker from his glove compartment.
“Thanks.” The candy was warm and melted in her mouth. She longed for it to sooth her stomach, to make the aching go away, but it left her wanting more.
“How do you know my mom?” she asked, between bites.
“I towed that old wreck of hers a few months ago. Had to junk the thing. I couldn’t believe she was still driving it.”
“She’s been driving that car for years.”
“Did she talk about me?” Nola asked.
Nola turned to look at him and noticed his face turning red.
“We’ve been out a couple of times.”
“Oh.” Nola had never known her mother to date. All through school, Nola wished that she’d find someone to be with and leave her alone. But her mother concentrated on raising her and giving her a good life. Nola felt a twinge of jealousy thinking about this man spending so much time with her mother.
“It’s not serious, not yet at least. She’s a good woman. You hurt her a lot.”
“You don’t know anything about it.”
“You’re right, I don’t,” Steve admitted. “I’ve only heard her side. Do you want to tell me yours?”
Nola wanted nothing more than to tell her story to this man. She wanted to tell him about her fears of disappointing her mother, of losing her mother’s love.
“Just between you and me,” he promised. She turned to look at his profile as he drove.
“Isn’t it obvious why I left?” she said, pointing to her belly.
He didn’t say anything, just waited for her to go on.
“I was afraid. I didn’t know how my mother would take it.”
“How do you think she’ll react now?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I do,” Steve said. “She’ll just be happy that you’re safe. Here’s your stop.”
He pulled up in front of her mother’s house.
“Tell your mother I’ll call her later. And don’t forget she loves you.”
Nola only nodded in response. She watched as he drove away before looking at the house that she’d left five months ago.
The lawn was cut too short and the grass was burned in spots, but the yard was free of weeds and leaves. Bulbs her mother and her planted the previous fall were sprouting and a fresh layer of yellow paint covered the once gray house.
Nola climbed the porch and knocked on the screen door. She waited, hoping to hear the sound of her mother coming, the scrape of a chair, the sound of her bare feet on the linoleum. But her mother didn’t come. She picked up the gnome that always held the house key. She turned the statue over, shaking it to try and hear the key rattle inside, but found nothing. She collapsed on the step head in hand. Everything was wrong. No one was at home, and everything was different.
Nola stood as a car pulled into the driveway. Her mother jumped out of her new VW bug to give her daughter an awkward hug before the car even stopped.
“So that’s why you left,” her mother said, pulling away to look at Nola’s stomach. Nola blushed and put her hand protectively on her belly.
“Well come on in. No need to give the neighbors a show.” Nola’s mother led the way into the house. She was skinnier than Nola remembered. Her hair was shorter and blonder too.
“You changed your hair.”
“Yes.” Her mother’s hand went up to fluff it. “Do you like it?”
Nola followed her mother into the kitchen. Nola noticed that the cat’s bowl wasn’t there.
“Where’s Whiskers?” she said.
“Oh, honey, he died. I’m sorry.” Her mother opened the refrigerator, making room for the new groceries.
“How?” Nola asked.
“He was just old.” Her mother kept putting the food away from the paper bags. Nola watched her smooth movements. She noticed she was getting spaghetti sauce with mushrooms instead of plain.
“Oh.” Nola wanted to ask more. Wanted to know about his death and whether or not she could have prevented it. Instead she looked out the window into her mother’s backyard where her old swing set still stood. Her mother used to push her on that swing for hours, always pushing higher when Nola called out. Her mother had never got rid of it. Nola wondered if her mother had wanted more children at some point.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Her mother asked, bringing Nola’s focus back to the present.
“Maybe later.” She’d been too ashamed five months ago to admit to her mother that she’d ignored all the sex talks. She’d imagined her mother getting that look of disappointment in her eye that was way worse than anger or sadness, when her eighteen-year old daughter told her she was pregnant. But her mother wasn’t looking at her with anything but concern and love.
“It happens,” she said, putting the peanut butter in the cupboard. “Why don’t you sit down and I’ll fix us some dinner. You hungry? I think I have fish sticks and tater tots. They were always your favorite.”
Nola watched her mother prepare dinner. She didn’t just throw the food in the oven. She sprinkled the fish with Parmesan and the tater tots with cayenne pepper to spice them up. Then she grabbed a lemon off the counter and began squeezing it to make lemonade.
“You weren’t here,” Nola blurted.
“Nola, I was at the store. You know that,” Nola’s mother sat at the Formica table across from her daughter. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse, but looked down at her daughter’s belly before putting them away.
“It’s OK,” Nola said.
“No it’s not. I won’t smoke in front of my grandchild.”
“The key wasn’t in the gnome.”
Her mother laughed. “I moved it. What’s this about?”
“I came home thinking it would be the same. I thought you’d be the same, but your hair is different, and you have a new car, and the damn key isn’t where it’s supposed to be. And your dating some guy named Steve. And my cat’s dead.”
Her mother got up and grabbed a dishtowel and handed it to Nola who’d begun crying. She wrapped her arms around her daughter, setting her chin on her head.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Nola whipped her eyes on the towel. “This baby is due any day, I don’t have a job, I don’t have a place to stay. I don’t even know if I want to keep the baby. I’m scared to death.” Her words followed each other so fast that she lost her breath and feared that she’d have a relapse of the incident at the restaurant.
“We’ll work it out,” her mother said.
“No, we won’t. This is something I have to do on my own.”
“But not by yourself.” Her mother sat down across from her, taking her Nola’s hands in hers. “I know what you’re going through, and you have to take responsibility for it, but I’m here to help you anyway I can.
“Listen,” her mother went on. “Having you was the best thing that ever happened to me. But it wasn’t always that way. Raising you by myself wasn’t easy all the time, but it was worth it. You’re lucky; you have me to help you. I know the ropes of single motherhood.” She smiled at her daughter.
“Thanks, Mama.” Nola threw herself into her mother’s arms.
“Let’s eat,” her mother said, when the timer from the oven rang.
Nola’s mother put dinner in front of her. Nola piled the fish and potatoes on her plate, hoping there was enough to keep the growls down. Nola ate the first stick in three bites. She didn’t even take the time to put the tater sauce that came with it on. She slowed after the second one, which was dispersed with tots. She stopped after the first bite of her third piece, not knowing what was the matter.
“What’s wrong?” her mother asked, looking up from her own dinner.
“I’m full,” she answered, pushing herself away from the table.
Trish O’Brien-Edwards is a graduate of Iowa State University. She lives in Ames, Iowa with her husband. Her work has recently appeared in Outsider Ink. E-mail: trishieo[at]yahoo.com.