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On a Wednesday evening after choir practice and two glasses of Prosecco, I’d promised Mary Lynn “Marlin” Perkins I’d be her ride-or-die friend to the end. Even with the twenty-year gap in age—she being the older—the whole widow thing made us strange yet sisterly bedfellows.
Plus, Preacher Don had asked me to keep an eye on her since she got herself into a bit of trouble every now and again.
That’s why on Friday morning after she’d called the night before and told me she had a family emergency in her home state of Texas, I waited for her in my comfortable Prius in the Second Baptist Church parking lot. (Don’t ask what happened to the First Baptist Church. We don’t talk about that.)
My eighteen-year-old daughter, Alicia, occupied the driver’s seat and popped her gum.
Either I was early, or Marlin was late. I glanced at the glowing time on the dashboard, frustration building over my mistake in trying to remember the exact time of our meeting. In my defense, Marlin talked a lot, really fast, and had a tendency to accentuate every sentence with hon, sweetem’s, lil’ momma or the like.
Preacher Don had it wrong though. I wasn’t the bright shining example he assumed me to be. I’d learned long ago to internalize my negative thoughts like a good Georgia girl. Eat them before they manifest into words, my momma had said at least every other day. The trick was to put bless your heart in front any little negative thought or comment that couldn’t be held back.
With Marlin, I said more bless your hearts than my Catholic friend Sherri said Hail Mary’s after her weekly confession.
I cracked the window just enough to allow a light breeze to tickle my nose. I loved spring in Georgia. Soon, we’d go from the nice March weather and get into the rainy April season. Then hot and humid would overtake Macon like a bed of angry fire ants. But for now, I could enjoy spring.
I glanced at my FitBit, a birthday present from the kids, and tapped it until I got the time just to make sure it matched the dashboard. I lolled my head toward Alicia. “I’ve changed my mind. I can’t leave you and your brother at the house alone for two whole days. And I don’t have all my steps in for the week either.”
“Mom-ma.” Alicia drug out my name in that tone just to irritate me. “You haven’t left us alone for the past two years. We’ll be all right and you need a break.”
“My baby might need me,” I argued back, thinking of my little Jackie who’d refused to get his butt out of bed and see me off.
“Your baby is fourteen, and he’s not a baby.”
I twisted the edge of my lip and processed her words. How quickly the time passed.
I didn’t blame her for being annoyed but I couldn’t help myself. Two years, three weeks, one day, and a multitude of hours I finally stopped counting we’d received news of my husband’s helicopter crash in Afghanistan. A little over two long years had passed since the morning I had to tell my babies their daddy wasn’t coming home. We’d survived. But leaving them on their own for more than a few hours had become almost unbearable.
Alicia sighed and twirled her strawberry blonde hair, wrapping it and unwrapping it around her finger. A trait she’d picked up from me.
I loved my kids to the moon and back five times over.
In four months and a week, Alicia would be off to college at the University of Georgia. Only an hour and forty-seven minutes’ drive away from our little house outside of Macon, I reminded myself for the hundredth time just that morning.
She’d mentioned maybe joining the Air Force after graduation but I’d crumbled into a puddle at her feet, so that idea went by the wayside. Preacher Don always said God would never give us more than we can handle. Losing one of my babies to the same fate as their father would test that for certain.
If Jackson were here, he’d tell me it’s my job to teach our kids to live life to the fullest.
I preferred safe.
In typical teenager fashion Alicia slumped down in the driver’s seat and popped in her earbuds, her thumbs clicking away on her smart phone’s cracked screen. That meant our conversation was over.
I exited and plopped down on the front bumper, careful not to get bug guts on the rear of my soft jeans. I turned my head and snapped my fingers. “Wash this car while I’m gone.”
All I got was a, “Huh? Can’t hear you,” mouthed through the windshield.
She heard me. I tugged at the edge of my flowery blouse and then tightened my ponytail.
A bonk, bonk, bonk, bonk, bonk, caught my attention from the corner of Church Street and Culpepper Avenue. Too much noise for seven a.m.
A bright purple and pink food truck idled at the stop sign. The driver waved like a lunatic and for nothing more than to have good manners, I waved back. When the driver pulled forward and guided the monstrosity into the church parking lot my heart flip-flopped.
“Momma, who is that?” Alicia asked as I dived into the passenger seat.
“I don’t know.” But most likely a serial killer with his own traveling torture chamber. Only I would wave at a murderer on wheels. “Lock the doors and for blessed’s sake roll up your window!”
“I think that’s Mary Lou.”
I fought with my seatbelt. Click darn you. Click! Alicia’s words hit me after my third try and failure. “He’s got Marlin?”
“Calm down, spazzy. That’s Mary Lou driving the food truck.”
Spazzy? “What have I told you about calling me that name?”
She lifted one shoulder and gave me the impish grin I swore could sway any argument. Her father had perfected that look too. “Not to do it in front of people?”
The tap tap tap on my window resulted in a screech from me. I’d forgotten all about the serial killer.
Marlin leaned down and her tanning-bed-tanned-face filled the window. She wore her dyed brown hair in the bouffant style of Patsy Cline and more makeup than Lady GaGa with a poker face. Today’s V-neck shirt showed off her ample bosom. She looked good for a sixty-year-old. “C’mon, Miss Beanie O’Rourke. We gotta get a move on. Gee Pee Essie says it’ll take us ten hours to get there.”
I didn’t roll down the window.
“Where’s your car?” I’d given each word the proper enunciation to discourage any miscommunication. I added a point to the pink and purple truck with rusted holes near the wheel wells. The faded swirly script on the side read Lola’s Three Amigas and a Taco.
Alicia groaned and cracked my window from her control panel. “Stop being weird, Beanie.”
“Don’t call me that either.” The only person in the world who called me Beanie was Marlin. The rest of the world called me Beatrice.
Marlin pressed her lips to the crack to answer my question about the truck. “We need this for the trip. My friend Patty let me borrow it for the weekend.”
“You mean Lola?” I asked.
Confusion scrunched her face into a pucker. “Who?”
I rolled the window back up and double-checked my lock. Preacher Don would have to forgive me for not wanting to keep an eye on Marlin in a food truck. There weren’t enough bless your hearts for that. “Drive away now.”
“Get out of the car, Momma.” Alicia pushed her door open and got out. She opened the back door and grabbed my overnight bag. Then she jogged over to the truck and tossed it inside.
I cracked the window again. “Marlin, we can’t travel ten hours and through three states in a food truck.”
“Of course, we can, darlin’. My friend Patty said we don’t need a special license or anything.”
“I don’t think that’s right,” I grumbled and eased my door open. If I hurried I could grab my bag and make it back to the car before Alicia locked me out. If it didn’t have my expensive smart phone inside, I’d consider leaving the black and white bag with my initials embroidered on the side.
My first born and I thought too much alike. As soon as I exited the car, she jumped in. Marlin pushed the passenger door closed with her hip and Alicia hit the locks with a click. She cranked it and put it in drive so fast I heard the transmission groan. Then she left me in the church parking lot without even a see ya later, Momma.
I gestured at the truck, my last good nerve at a frazzle. “What’s the gas mileage on that thing?”
“This thing is a 1962 GMC Grumman food truck.” Marlin patted the hood, a measure of pride shining in her eyes for something that didn’t belong to her. “It’s a gas guzzler for sure. You’ll only need to chip in about forty bucks though. What kind of friend would I be if I made you pay more than that?”
This friendship needed an evaluation. I’d considered us casual friends. The kind that gave the other a ride to church every now and again or sometimes shared a meal together. I’d made a mistake when I’d carelessly used the term ride-or-die.
I leaned my head inside the truck. “Marlin, when you called me last night, crying I might add, you told me there was a family emergency, and you needed a co-driver because you often get highway hypnosis and didn’t want to die in a fiery crash.”
She pointed to the sky and closed her eyes. “Your lips to God’s ears.”
A sharp pain hit the middle of my forehead and spread to the back of my eyes. Bless my heart for falling for it. “I really think you need to take me home.”
Her brown eyes swelled to twice their size, pools of unshed tears gathering at the bottom. “It’s just that if my Earl were still here, I wouldn’t have to ask someone else to come with me.”
Transplants from Sweet Grove, Texas to Macon a year ago, Marlin’s husband Earl had taken a job at Armstrong World Industries, the leading plant in ceiling tiles. He’d then had a heart attack right in the middle of a visiting preacher’s fire-and-brimstone service. Marlin always said it was a shame God hadn’t called him home from their beloved Texas.
“Earl would appreciate what a good friend you are.” A single tear strolled down her cheek, leaving a streak of cloudy foundation in its path. “A ride-or-die like you said the other night.”
Blessed be. No more wine for me. Ever. “Fine. But we have to be back before Sunday evening service.”
“You betcha.” She vibrated excitement.
I walked inside to the kitchenette area. “There’s only one seat in the truck. Where am I supposed to sit?”
“You put this little stool right here and use this cord.” She held up a yellow cord with a black hook on each end. Her tears were long gone. Almost like my sanity for even considering riding in the truck.
My backside hit the counter as she moved closer. I held up my hand to ward her off. Bless her… oh forget it. I couldn’t say it one more time. She’d lost her mind. “That’s a bungee cord.”
“Sit down and I’ll hook you in. We’re burning daylight.” She backed me up another step until I caved onto the stool. With nimble fingers she wove the hook around my waist and the stool, clipping the ends onto the cabinet handles.
“This isn’t a legal restraint.” One giant bounce from a pothole and I’d have a dent in my head.
“Just stay down so the Staties don’t pull us over and we’ll be just fine. I promise I’ll drive the slow lane all the way there.”
I sucked in a deep breath. Who was I kidding? This antique truck probably wouldn’t make it past the county line. I’d be calling Alicia to pick us up within the hour. One hour. Sixty minutes. Three thousand and six hundred seconds.
“What’s that, sweets?”
“Nothing,” I answered, realizing I must have counted out loud again. My grief counselor called it my coping mechanism. The numbers helped me stay calm in stressful situations.
It took three tries for the food truck beast’s engine to turn over and when it finally caught Marlin pumped her fist in the air twice. “Hang on, lil’ momma!”
We bounced out of the parking lot and onto the main road. Less than five minutes into the ride Marlin called from the front, “We gotta make one little stop first.”
“You’ll see,” she sang out in an opera-like voice.
This would’ve been the best time to tell Marlin that I wasn’t good with surprises.
The truck stopped, but she didn’t shut off the engine. “Don’t get up, hon. I’ll be less than a shake of two tail feathers.”
I adjusted my bungee cord seat belt so I didn’t get a friction burn around my waist.
Marlin’s voice rang out from the door. “C’mon Austin, you can do it. That’s mommy’s big boy.”
Marlin backed onto the truck and tugged a bright purple leash, making kissy noises at her feet. My stomach flopped at the brown and black smooshed-face dog that appeared at the other end of the leash.
“What is that?” Not that I didn’t know, but I wanted to hear her say the words out loud.
She scratched the dog’s head and patted his back with a few solid thuds. “This is Austin, my pug. Isn’t he an angel sent from above?”
Any other time and I might have agreed. “When did you get a dog?”
Have mercy. “Marlin, we cannot take a dog with us on this trip.” I said all this as if I still planned to partake in this ride of destined doom.
“Of course, we can, sweetems. He’ll sit back here with you. I promise you won’t even know he’s there.”
Nope. I’d played along long enough. My left eye began an involuntary twitch. “Take me home, please.” I kept my voice even and firm.
I looked down at my hands when she started with the big eyes again.
“But my emergency. . .”
“Have you even told me what this emergency is yet?” Still not looking up, I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I want to go home.”
“Fine, sit tight back here with Austin and I’ll drop you off at your house.” Her voice took on a sharp edge of disappointment.
Relief stopped the eye twitch. “Thank you.”
She sniffed and tied Austin’s leash around a handle next to me. Austin gurgled and snorted and flopped down at my feet.
I could tell from Marlin’s posture I’d hurt her feelings and now I’d get the cold shoulder. Maybe it would last a few weeks. A cold shoulder, I could handle it. Ten hours in the back of a food truck with a dog, I could not.
The truck bounced down the road and I gave Austin’s head a little pat. The tip of his pink tongue stuck out. “It’s not you, bud. It’s me. I’m not ready for whatever this is.”