Jacee worked at the Waffle House on I-95 in Haswick, Georgia going on five years. She’d started the day after graduating high school when her mother told her to get a job or “move on.” Lisa-Marie – that’s what her mother had said to call her since Jacee was in eighth grade – couldn’t support both of them, not with her job at the paper plant always in trouble. Given the number of empty storefronts even after the word recession had faded from the headlines, serving up platters of pecan waffles and large bowls of cheese grits for a bit above minimum wage plus tips had seemed decent. At least until Jacee learned what “move on” meant. A year after Jacee got her diploma and her job, Lisa-Marie left.
The House, as it was called in the kitchen and in the parking lot after work, had its regulars, counter sitters. Two-day-a-week Tim always ordered a ribeye, medium, even at seven in the morning; daily Roy never ordered anything but black coffee and a triple order of what the House called “real” hashbrowns (Jacee still wasn’t sure what that meant but didn’t care enough to ask); and Saturday night Dan just pointed at the menu, mostly at the pancakes.
In the kitchen, Deena called the shots, but Gary flipped everything that could burn and frequently did. Ashlynn was the other girl taking orders and shifts, a DIY dye-job girl who had once worn a cheer skirt at the high school just across the county line. The four of them were close enough to call for rides to work when a car battery died, to take extra shifts when a kid had an upset stomach, to borrow a tampon if needed (even Gary once, and Jacee didn’t ask why). But none of them were close enough for details, and Jacee was fine with that. They knew she wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, after she finished her A.A. at the community college down the road. They knew she had a sob-story scholarship and six credits left. They knew better than to ask about her mother, and they knew she was touchy about religion. Deena had invited her to a Sunday service once. Jacee politely said, “Hell, no.” Before that, the last time someone asked her flat-out about Jesus was in ninth grade, on the basketball court outside the Jewel P. Garrison Junior High School. Jacee punched the girl in the stomach. No one asked again.
Most Saturdays at the House, Jacee and Ashlynn rubber-soled from booth to booth, filling waters, doling out straws, and making room on crowded tabletops for plates that could have been buckets at the zoo. Jacee’s tables were near the restrooms in back; she’d learned fast that customers who sat near the door often ducked out without paying.
She didn’t see him until he was already seated at Table 12. He was wearing a plaid shirt that made her think of Montana, even though she’d never wanted to go west, and he was reading a book. Catcher in the Rye. She hadn’t seen or thought of that book since tenth grade English, Miss Myer. Jacee had sat in the second row. She remembered being bored, because the book was in a boy’s point of view.
But there was one line in that book that could have been hers. She remembered that, too.
Will was a graduate student in English Literature, always capital E/capital L, at UNC. Or at least he would be, once he officially signed the papers to move into his apartment two miles from campus. In his application essay, he’d declared himself an Americanist, interested in researching Salinger’s treatment of the blah blah blah through the lens of Derrida – by the end he’d bored himself. Personally, he had no use for thesis statements or theory. It was the stories that mattered to him.
But he’d been accepted and given a teaching fellowship that would pay him enough money to leave Deland, the landlocked town in Florida where he’d spent eighteen years growing up and another three and a half cobbling together a Bachelor’s degree in English on state funds. All the while, his parents sat on the back porch, arguing about the Gators and about what the hell their kid went to “extra school” for because the language he was speaking wasn’t English. Occasionally, his dad would hit his mom, and his mom would apologize.
Will bought a silver Ford Taurus for $1500 from his admissions counselor at Stetson, a guy named Frank who knew someone who owned a body shop and a scrapyard. It had a dent in the front left fender and a right taillight that didn’t work in the rain. But it started reliably and got good gas mileage. It would take him to Chapel Hill, but it would never take him back.
Will packed only his things in the Taurus: the air mattress he’d slept on for a year since his dad decided the mattress he shared with Will’s mother apparently was shit for springs and claimed Will’s; the signed poster of Yazmine Bleeth in her Baywatch-red swimsuit (Will had seen several episodes on cable once at a friend’s house and fell in love with boob jobs and slow-mo running); a couple long-sleeved shirts, a couple short-sleeved shirts, a couple pairs of jeans, and a ton of underwear; about a hundred CDs that included the Steve Miller Band and Jimmy Eat World; and a crap-load of Carver, McCarthy, Steinbeck, and other classic authors he’d bought by the sack at library sales and Goodwill.
He kept Salinger in the front seat. It would be an eight-hour drive.
The first two hours he listened to Morning Edition on NPR. The third hour he listened to The Who and Led Zeppelin, a CD his ex – Renee – had made for him long before she was his ex and told him she didn’t really like those bands at all. The fourth hour he needed to pee.
He read the blue signs, hearing his mother’s voice. Despite her appreciation of Bud Lite and summer afternoons at any of the Orlando alligator parks, she was a rest-stop snob.
Not Hardee’s unless it’s local. Toilet paper on the floor, hand dryers, no soap. One stall’s always broken, I guarantee you.
Starbuck’s? Gotta be kidding. A single stall and three bucks for some kinda grande skinny mocha fru-fru cuppa joe you can buy black and strong for 99 cents.
McDonald’s maybe. Depends on if there’s a Wendy’s next door. Then they up their game. Keep the sinks clean. Get your order right.
Her favorite was the Waffle House. She’d never had a bad waffle, from Baltimore, where she was born, to Deland, where she’d met Will’s dad on a Harley, looking for a chick who would do anything for a tiger tattoo.
Will found a Waffle House in Haswick, Georgia, .2 miles from the highway. He paused inside the door. The morning-messy blonde in a tight black t-shirt and jeans with holes in the knees carrying a tray of mugs from the kitchen to the front was a townie version of Renee. She smiled his way, but kept moving to a booth near the door. He glanced around, noted the other waitress: a brunette with the tight look of someone mentally running a checklist. He headed for the restrooms in the back.
His mother was right. They were clean, with plenty of paper towels. Someone had even put a room deodorizer – some Christmasy thing – near the sink.
When he finished, he chose a booth in the back. The place was fairly crowded, so he flipped through the plastic menu behind the ketchup, took Salinger from his jacket pocket, and waited.
“Wanna start with a beverage?”
He wanted a regular coffee and a regular waffle, but all Jacee kept thinking about was the book, one he barely put down when he gave his order. The book looked tired, the cover ragged and missing corners, stained on the back. He looked tired, too. But most customers did when they came in.
She set down his mug and plate. “Mothers are all slightly insane.”
He gaped at her. “What?”
“I know what you said.”
“Then why the ape face?”
He blinked. “You quoted Catcher.”
“Yeah. I’m surprised too, really. I hate that book.”
“I hate that book.” She flicked her chin at the bearded dude beyond his shoulder in the next booth, who was lifting his water glass for her to refill. “Flag me down if you need something before I bring your order.”
Will stared at the girl with the tight checklist face and scraggly ponytail as she went behind the counter for a pitcher of ice water.
Who fucking hated Catcher in the Rye?
But more than that, if someone did hate it, how could they quote his all-time favorite fucking line?
He was waving her over with a subtle flick of his hand.
“Something wrong with your waffle?”
“Who fucking hates Catcher in the Rye?”
“The waffle won’t be good if you let it get cold.”
“How come you hate it?”
“Seriously, it’ll taste like a dog toy.”
“You’ve tasted a dog toy?”
Jacee shot the guy the look she usually gave Gary when he was being a smartass.
He shook his head. He looked a bit meek, maybe more than a bit kind. Had to be the stubble. It made her think of some old Lionel Ritchie song that popped up on her car radio every once in a while: easy like Sunday mornings.
“ ‘K.” She went to turn away.
“Why did you quote that line?”
She paused, but only a half-second. “Jesus is not my buddy.”
Jacee did her job booth to booth, all the while mentally rehashing her exchange with Table 12. She was used to giving the big smile, the “where you headed,” the “go ahead have another piece of pie, you look great.” She wasn’t used to quoting from books, especially quotes involving mothers and Jesus, and certainly never called a customer an ape face, especially when clear as day they did not have one. But he made her think about Lisa-Marie, which was something Jacee had tried not to do since her mom left Haswick with nearly every stitch of clothing and nearly every penny Jacee had.
Jacee’s closet had been open when she got home from the House that night. So, too, were the drawers of her yellow dresser. Drawers that never closed, unless you slammed them just right. Jacee knew the trick. Lisa-Marie didn’t.
A few shirts, ones her mother couldn’t button across her full chest, lay limp across the twin bed. There was a note – a pink Post-It with a logo from the paper plant – on the pillow.
I’m sorry. Jesus Christ is all you need, baby-girl.
For a second, Jacee just stood there, gaping at the childish black letters in Sharpie.
Jesus Christ is all you need.
“Jesus fucking Christ. Is that all you left me with?”
Without another thought, Jacee yanked the top drawer of the dresser so hard it slid off its tracks and crashed to the floor.
A bible, covered in pink suede, was the only thing that tumbled out. Lisa-Marie had supposedly given it to Jacee when she was born, or so the story went.
Jacee reached down and grabbed the book, hurled it toward the window. It hit the sill with a soft thwack and fell to the carpet, pages splayed.
The next day, it was in the dumpster behind the House.
Will usually drank coffee the way he drank soda, warm and fast. And he usually ate a bit faster than he drank, too busy to chew much or worry about crumbs or taste for that matter.
The waffle sat there. The ball of butter pooled in several divots. He hadn’t yet creamed his coffee.
He flipped through the book and found the quote. He’d underlined it years ago, when he was ten, when he first read it. Black Sharpie. It had seeped through to the other side of the page.
When he was nine, his mother had told him, after dinner, that they were going to sleep in the car that night, away from the house. He’d asked her why, why were they doing that when his dad was coming home soon from his job at the quarry. “He had a bad day, Will,” she said, and he knew better than to ask again. He knew better than to ask why they weren’t going to one of their friend’s houses, or a motel. She was prone to slapping a fresh mouth. His dad was prone to worse.
They curled together in the backseat of her Oldsmobile in Ryman Park, in the parking lot behind the restrooms. He couldn’t sleep, so he read. His mother cried into his back, said more than once, “I believe in him, Will. I do, I do, I do.” They went home the next day, but never slept in the car again after that. His dad took the keys at night, right after dinner.
Will ended up telling Jacee this story long after his waffle turned to rubber, when the clink and clatter of the restaurant ebbed, nearly an hour after he’d arrived. Renee had never known that story. They had dated three years.
Jacee left him alone for a half-hour, glancing his way every few minutes just to make sure he was still there. If he was any other customer, she would have freshed his coffee, asked him if he wanted another waffle. But he hadn’t touched his drink or his food, just stared at that book ever since she left him.
“Taking a smoke,” Ashlynn said on her way toward the back door, and Jacee nodded. The herd was thinning a bit. She could hear the reedy sound of Gary’s docked iPod – always Vivaldi – in the kitchen.
“I can’t keep calling you Catcher-boy in my head,” Jacee said lightly, bringing Table 12 a new mug of coffee.
He put down the book. “Will.”
He blinked, owlish, like before. “Does that stand for something?”
“I spell it J-A-C-E-E.”
She gestured toward the waffle. “I told you it would end up rubber.”
“Oh, no. Thanks.”
“Just checking.” She went to turn away.
“Yeah?” She paused.
“Sit for a minute?”
Jacee looked around. Deena was chatting up a customer at the counter. Everything had emptied. “Sure.”
The last time someone had actually listened so raptly to Will was his advisor at school. Dr. Lewis rode his bike to class and was married to one of the Italian instructors. He and Will spoke about writing, the overrated Pushcart Prize winners, the overrated Coen Brothers, and local bands like The Fieldhands, sometimes about Will’s parents, sometimes about finances. But Will knew Dr. Lewis got points for mentoring.
Jacee was a girl in a Waffle House. A girl who asked good questions, questions that led him to forget what he was saying. Every so often she took stock of the restaurant, hand on her apron pocket for a hasty grab of pad and pen, ready to spring. Mostly, she listened to him, interrupting once or twice to make him go on.
Without reason, he told her how he took after his dad. Wolfman Jack, his mother called his father when things were held together with string and beer. Like Bill, Will was naturally a beast, with body hair that curled from toes to neck, over butt, over back. But at fourteen, his mother began dragging him outside regularly to be shorn. In the backyard. On a stool. His mother never said a word the entire time.
What he didn’t tell Jacee was, in the last week, as he’d taken stock of what he would take with him to Chapel Hill and what he would leave behind, he realized that he would no longer have someone to trim him, and he was afraid that one day he’d look in the mirror and see his old man.
He shrugged finally, not knowing what else to say or do. “I probably should get going. What do I owe you?”
“Nothing. You didn’t eat or drink anything.”
“I still ordered it.”
Jacee shook her head. “Consider it on the House.”
“I’m sure you don’t make money that way.” He reached into the back pocket of his
jeans for his wallet.
She shook her head. Long strands of hair had looped out of one side of her ponytail. She looked like she’d been running a mile. “Consider it a house-warming gift from me.”
“No.” He opened the wallet, but her hand folded over his.
Her eyes met his full on. He laughed at her attempt to look cross. “You look like a
She answered him with some kind of groan-chuckle. “I was supposed to be mean. It
usually works around here.”
He answered her by sliding his hand from under hers, the hand holding the wallet.
Then he withdrew some ones. “Take the money.”
He put the bills inside her hand and wrapped her fingers tight around them. Then
he stood. “It was nice meeting you, Jacee.”
Jacee let him walk out the door, then glanced around the House. Everyone had gone. Ashlynn was back inside, hunched in a corner over her sparkly pink phone. Deena was lecturing Gary in the back about keeping the Clorox out next to the hamburger buns when he cooked.
On a good day, Jacee never learned much about anyone or anything, unless she had class or unless she turned her car radio to NPR, which she only did on days when TerriGross was interviewing some cool celebrity like the lady on Weeds, or when something inside her needed Terri’s reassuring librarian voice.
The money was still curled in her hand. It was warm from being held close to Will’s body.
With one more look around, she went outside. He was unlocking the driver’s side door of a gray car near the corner of the building. She jogged over. “Hey, take your money back.”
“Stop being stubborn.”
“My real name isn’t J-A-C-E-E.”
Will looked at her, somewhere between confused and amused. She took a step back.
“It isn’t?” he asked. “What is it?”
Jacee leaned against the taillight, looking away, toward her own beige beater parked on the other side of the lot, then upward toward the highway overpass. She suddenly felt a little sick. The few guys she’d dated in high school basically gave her the right answers to questions she realized far too late were far too human for them to truly understand. That realization, and her decision to stop dating idiots who played with balls of any sort, was how she ended up “a tease,” “a whore,” and “a slut.” But that was all tolerable compared to being called out when she was even younger, usually at the beginning of every school year after first and last names were read in homeroom and when recess was a free for all: Who do you think you are? Don’t think you can walk on water, bitch.
She looked back at him. When they’d sat together in the House, she hadn’t realizedhow tall he was. She had to tilt her chin up.
“It’s J period C period.” She murmured in the direction of the towering concrete. “It
stands for Jesus Christ.” He didn’t laugh.
“Wow,” was all he said in a long syllable, then nodded slowly as if he understood.
Jacee let out a long breath, and the story of seventeen-year-old Lisa-Marie finding religion at the non-denomination church, then nailing the guitar player in the hymn band, fell into the exhale. Lisa-Marie, Jacee sighed, wanted a name that was filled with all the love in the universe.
For a few minutes, she and Will talked against the car, letting the highway noise take questions and answers. She told him about the pink bible, the Post-It on the pillow. Eventually, they wandered back inside to Table 12. Jacee brought them both coffee. He told her about Ryman Park. After a time, they quieted against the awkwardness of so much expressed so soon, took sips from their lukewarm mugs.
Will leaned across the table and looked at her, in earnest.
Jacee met his eyes. “I’ll shave your back.”
Michelle Lee is an associate professor of literature, fiction writing, and composition at Daytona State College on the coast of Florida.