College meant escape. So when I graduated, there was no way I was crawling all skink-like back to Tolby Hollow. The last place I called home was anything but. Half the time, my foster mom was drunker than a black bear who happened upon fermented apples. Come the new year, we always had more bills than firewood and she could never be bothered to pick up a hatchet. I spent more time coaxing eggs out of our scrawny chickens than I did hanging out with friends. In fact, I had only one friend: Tilly, whose world was as small and as dark as mine. On Friday nights, I wrote letters to my dead parents before Tilly and I burned them in a bonfire ritual.
Crossing the stage was an out of body experience. That moment when I shook my department chair's hand and took my diploma was a moment out of a movie. I didn't belong there. In an alternate universe, I was an addict who squatted in abandoned buildings covered in kudzu. That was my legacy and what uppity white-trash hillbilly thinks she can change what's written in the stars? Yet photos of me donning a cap and gown are evidence that I defied all expectations. Instead of taking up a needle, I took up a pencil. It wasn't a noble act. It was the only way I knew how to rebel.
To get to that place on the stage, I even boarded a plane—for the first and only time in my life—and saw miles of Roman ruins in Italy. My eyes, the same eyes that woke up to weekly beatings and empty cupboards and black mold, had cried at the Colliseum. The tears turned into sobs when I realized I wasn't crying because of the structure's beauty or wonder. I was crying because I felt victorious. Those were the same tears a gladiator must've shed after taking down a lion. All of those hours spent fighting with school counselors and post office employees and scholarship committees had brought me here. I was here, exactly where everyone told me I didn't belong.
But the euphoria over my college graduation was short-lived. I had to feed myself and fast. Tilly and I indulged in a single night of crushing cans and reading professors' notes on old papers before we settled on a plan. The next morning, Tilly—a fellow anthropology major and scholarship kid at our all-girls private college—would drive me into Roanoke and we'd flood every business with our resumes.
“You got an extra flash drive?” Tilly asked a few quiet moments after we finalized our strategy. Gwen Stefani's voice on my laptop was the only sound in the room. We were lying on my dorm bed, staring at a tiny spider trawling the spleen-colored ceiling. The last beer was long gone.
When the last No Doubt song on my hard drive ended, I said, “That's pretty much the only thing I do have.”
No restaurant manager in the world cares that you aced your senior seminar because your GPA has no bearing on how well you'll greet customers or take orders. But Tilly and I weren't thinking about that when we got to Kinko's. All we could think about was how much we hated being hungry.
“You think twenty is enough?” I asked as I fiddled with buttons on the copier.
“Twenty? It won't even print two,” Tilly muttered. Then she turned and waved at an employee who could've passed for someone's creepy uncle in a bad made-for-TV movie. “Hey, excuse me?”
“I'll be there in a minute,” he said before disappearing behind a shelf of filing folders. He never came back.
I studied Tilly as she tinkered with the machine again. Tolby Hollow had made her solid as a sycamore. My mind flashed to that Sunday afternoon our sophomore year of high school when we ran into each other at the food bank downtown. Neither one of us said a thing. I wanted to hug Tilly and tell her that one day we wouldn't have to kick copiers in run-down shopping centers, but her exclamation of “Fuck this, let's just hit up Market Square and leave our phone numbers” jolted me out of that feeling of tenderness.
“Yeah, let's do it,” I said.
Tilly drove a Ford Explorer that had failed inspection three years prior but she never bothered fixing it. We got in and attempted to buckle our busted seat belts anyway. We kept the windows down less because of the heat than because the exhaust blew into the cabin. The A/C only worked sporadically, anyway. Once the blue box finally started, it rumbled down Electric Road the way it always did: noisily and perpetually on the verge of death.
When we got close, Tilly double-parked outside of the Taubman Museum and told me to run. I bolted toward a deli with olive green doors. Inside, the stink of pastrami hit me hard.
“Um, hi,” I said to the beautiful boy slicing bread behind the counter. Even with mustard stains on his apron, he looked as clean as the Hampden-Sydney boys I never had the courage to approach at intercollegiate mixers.
“Hi,” he said. “What can I get you?”
“Are you hiring?”
I waited for him to say more. He just stared at me. Nothing.
“Um, well, here's my resume.”
“Here, fill this out.” He wiped his hands on his apron and ducked down to pull out an application from under the register.
“Could I have one for my friend, too?”
He grabbed another application, placed it on the counter, and pushed both sheets of paper toward me. I glanced down at them and then back at him.
“I like your hair,” he said.
I wasn't sure I heard him right. “What?”
“Oh. Thank you.” Before I knew it, I was nervously twirling a tendril. “So that's it?”
“Yeah, just fill them out and bring them back tomorrow.”
“Cool. Uh, what was your name again?”
He wiped his hand on his apron and extended his hand. It took me too long to realize he wanted to shake mine.
“Nice to meet you, Doreen,” he said, clinging to my hand like a snapping turtle.
I blushed. “Yeah, you too.”
Then I picked up the applications and tripped past the wicker chairs and tables to the sidewalk. When I got outside, I couldn't remember if I was going left or right. Tilly called my name before I could figure it out.
“Oh, hey!” I waved and walked toward the Ford. “You found parking,” I said once inside the car.
“Yeah, I had to circle around a couple of times. Those the applications?”
“Yep. Let's fill them out now.”
We grabbed pens from the dirty cup holder between our seats and spent a few minutes scribbling. Tilly put her pen down first.
“Four years of socio-linguistics to work here,” she said. “All summer long, we're going to be taking orders from high school kids and their parents on their stupid college tours.”
“It's not forever. Plus, it's a cute place.”
“I still can't believe we didn't apply to grad school.”
“You got $200,000 in the bank I don't know about?”
“We probably could've gotten full-rides again.”
“Yeah, and when did we have time for applications? Was I supposed to worry about all that when I was writing my thesis?”
“Look, I know. I just thought I'd be going farther away than this. I mean, what if my mama overdoses again? Am I going to cave in and go back home? Am I too close to say I live too far away to help?”
“You don't need distance. You have me. This is far enough for now.”
“Is it?” Tilly turned to me. Her face crumpled into the face of the girl I met when we were both six years old and wearing free clothes from the Baptist church down the road where an all-white cat with yellow eyes lived. No matter how far we traveled down I-81, we'd always have Knoxville in us.
We hugged and my mind went to that white cat chasing mice in the church yard. When Tilly and I let each other go, I checked the last box on my application and asked if she'd run our papers inside.
“Take a look at the place,” I said. “It's not bad.”
She nodded and got out of the car. I pulled out a stick of cinnamon gum and stared out at Market Square. The white cat always fascinated me as a child because it stayed so clean. Nothing in any of my foster homes was that clean, not with the clogged-up sinks and the soiled carpets and the broken appliances on the lawn. Despite living outdoors, the white cat stayed immaculate.
Then the car door clicked open.
“You didn't tell me about the babe behind the counter,” Tilly gasped. “He's gorgeous!”
“Yeah,” I grinned.
Her voice got hard. “Oh, lemme guess—you call dibs?”
“No, I …”
Her voice softened. “I know, little virgin miss. I'm teasing you. But, really, he's a hunk.”
“Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “Now where else should we apply?”
“Are you kidding? Those jobs are ours. We'll ditch them when something far away calls.”
“Doesn't it feel nice not to scramble for once? Why can't we coast for a bit?”
Within two days, Tilly and I were both working at the deli. We signed a lease for an apartment the size of a chicken coop, but at least we could walk to work instead of relying on the doomed Ford. We learned how to slice charcuterie, identify more kinds of cheese than we knew existed, and wrap to-go orders prettier than Christmas presents. The owner dropped by when he felt like it, but never worked full shifts. It was Michael who trained us. He guided my hands on the meat slicer, peered over my shoulder as I labeled the cheeses, and helped me carry supplies from the storage room. He mostly talked to Tilly, who has experience as a cashier and waitress, to tell her what she was doing wrong.
“You're going to get really good at this,” Michael told me whenever he noticed me wrestling with plastic wrap or flubbing at the cash register. He leaned in close when he said it. Though I liked the attention, I never encouraged it. I was too shy and too unsure of what I wanted.
I never told Michael that every restaurant I had ever worked for had fired me and rather quickly at that. That's how I ended up working at the campus library all four years.
Whenever Michael stroked my shoulder or complimented my appearance, Tilly tried hard to save the dagger eyes but her level of self-control ebbed and flowed. One time she chucked a whole bell pepper at Michael's ear. Another time she tripped him. Once she slapped him and then tried immediately to kiss him. Michael laughed off every outburst.
No matter what happened between Michael and Tilly that day, Tilly and I ended every shift with a smoke and a root beer on the same Market Square bench. By the end of two weeks, it had become our new ritual.
“How much money do you think we need to get away?” Tilly asked on what I counted to be our twenty-eighth day of work. It was the longest I had lasted at any job outside of the library.
“Come on, Tilly. We just started.”
“It's good to have goals.”
“Yeah, but, I mean, I don't hate it here.”
“Uh-huh. That's because you're in love with Michael.”
“I am not!”
“You practically let that boy whisper in your ear.”
“No, I don't!”
“He's seducing you. That boy wants you over a pickle barrel.”
“Do you hear yourself?”
“Yes, I do, and I know I'm right. You're falling for him and you won't let yourself make plans because of it.”
“At least we're not in Knoxville.”
“That's how low you set the bar, isn't it?”
“Why are you being so judgmental?”
“Because you need a kick in the ass, Doreen.”
“Doesn't it feel nice not to scramble for once? Why can't we coast for a bit?”
“I'm not going in tomorrow. You and Michael can have your love fest. I'm applying to other jobs. At this point, I'll take a job teaching English in Korea. There's no damn way crossing a state line is far enough.”
She threw her cigarette down and stomped on it without offering me a drag. Then she stormed off in the direction of our chicken coop. She didn't turn around when I called her name.
The first time Tilly's mama overdosed was the first Friday night of our freshman year of high school. The fireflies had already gone for the year and the evenings were getting shorter. We put on long-sleeved shirts to stave off the chill that began biting the mountain air. We had started our bonfire ritual that summer, only a few weeks before a neighbor found Mrs. Deskins convulsing on the kitchen floor. By Monday, all of Tolby Hollow knew how Mrs. Deskins foamed at the mouth.
Back then, the tone in my letters to my dead parents was sad, never angry. I burned the letters to hide them from my foster parents. It was only later that I burned them out of hatred and resentment. The bonfire was my idea, but Tilly made it possible. She brought the kerosene and the marshmallows. That night, she started the fire and let me watch as I shredded the letters in silence.
“Should we chant something?” she asked when it was all set.
She nodded as she threw another tree branch onto the fire. After the first piece of paper turned to ashes, I felt something or someone join me on the damp log where I sat. I jumped up and screamed.
Tilly howled and pointed but was laughing too hard to talk. “It's the white cat!” she finally sputtered.
We watched the cat's citrine eyes glow in the moonlight until we heard the wail of an ambulance. The red lights flashed at the top of the hill near the main road. We watched the ambulance travel down the hill. Then it halted at Tilly's trailer. We left the fire raging and ran.
When I got to the deli the next morning, Michael was already there spritzing the countertops, his muscles rippling through his red shirt. He looked up when he heard the door open.
“What happened to Thing Two?”
“She's not feeling well.”
“At least it's Sunday. We can handle it by ourselves. Me and Captain D.”
And since we didn't have a single customer all day, it was just us in the storage room when he pressed me hard against the wall. I'll never forget that raw feeling between my legs or how hard I cried. The tears I shed were very different from the ones I shed before the Coliseum.
When I got home, there was a scrap of paper on my pillow with the note “Mama OD'd again” scribbled on it. The ink was red, the letters all caps. Tilly had cleared out all of her belongings. I sat on her bed and stared at my cell phone before deciding not to call or text her. Even if I was pregnant—which I wasn't sure was the case—it didn't matter. Knoxville came first. Knoxville always came first.
I brought a lighter to the hem of my deli apron and started to burn it before I told myself ashes wouldn't change anything. So I blew out the flame, scrunched the apron into a ball, and tossed it in the garbage. After I emptied the coffeemaker to bury the apron in coffee grounds, the kitchen smelled like a coffee shop until I took out the garbage the next night.
When Michael wouldn't stop texting me, I blocked him. If he had gone looking for me, he would've found me working at the Tex-Mex restaurant a couple blocks away. People came there for the margaritas, meaning I usually had plenty of leftovers to bring home. I took my smoke breaks by myself, with only an alley cat for company. My feline friend was a dead-ringer for the one Tilly and I grew up with. It paced around the back door when I came into work and it always was there when I left for the night.
Then one day about a month into working there, I took the day off to go to Planned Parenthood for a pregnancy test. I broke down when the test came back negative. Michael may have taken my dignity, but at least the burden ended there.
When I returned to work the next morning, I rounded the restaurant to the enter through the backdoor like usual. The backlot looked the same until I looked down. The white cat had been run over and almost perfectly flattened. Its guts had been pushed out into a purple pile next to its belly and dark brown streams stained the pavement. Edged in fresher blood, the cat's citrine eyes sparkled beneath the streetlamp. But I couldn't linger. The dawn shift had just begun.
Christine Stoddard is a native Arlingtonian, graduate of VCU, and founder of Quail Bell Magazine.