My mom tends bar at the best place in town to get a cold beer and listen to a jukebox. I sit there and watch her grind nutshells between her pink painted nails as she tells me, “Danielle, don’t end up like me.”
I want to tell her that ship has sailed; I’m sixteen and spending my time in a bar instead of with friends or a boyfriend, neither of which I have. She wouldn’t want to hear it. She wants me to have much better than disposable memories and men drunk on Jose Cuervo.
I eat the peanuts in front of me. Better than nothing, I suppose. Mom flanked me. “No, you gotta eat regular food.” She removed the snacks and replaced them with a sandwich. She probably packed it at home and brought it here for me, the same way she brought my homework and extra pencils.
“It’s turkey,” I say.
“I like ham and cheddar.”
“Not healthy. Turkey is healthy.”
A man walked by, waiving his second hand smoke into my face. I didn’t cough. Was used to it by now, having grown up on this stool, in this bar, in this town. Far as places in Florida go, Apopka could be more rustic. Doesn’t make it any less than it already is. I don’t mind it much, not like my mom.
She wants me to get out, go to college, travel. To get the chances she didn’t get as a teenager because she was homeless, then a single mother, and now working here in this bar. She describes her life like it’s fucking Exodus Egypt, and she delivered me to a promise land. A land where all free time is spent solving equations and writing papers at this scratched up counter with the laptop from All American Pawn.
I slam the screen shut and mom scolds me, “I had to work two weeks to afford that. You be careful.”
“Why can’t I go to the football game tonight like a normal person? We’re playing Lyman. Supposed to be a big old thing with a party whether we win or lose.” I’m dressed for the occasion, with sandals and a black romper.
“You don’t need to go to that,” she says. “Now stop stalling and do your homework.”
“It’s Saturday,” I remind her, glum.
“And school is Monday. All this work gotta get done.”
It wouldn’t matter what the event was. I wasn’t allowed to go to anything that would interfere with my schooling. No sports. No parties. No activities of any kind that don’t relate to academics. She even made me give up my music elective, the only thing in school I ever really enjoyed. Don’t know why I bothered asking; mom doesn’t want me to get tied down to this town. If I want to do something fun, mom’s always standing in my way with her demand that I get all of two pages of math problems and a world geography worksheet.
“Why do we bother with all this?” I ask. We have this conversation at least once or twice a week. I wasn’t exactly failing, but I wasn’t exactly passing. I’m not smart. C-average at best.
“Because,” she says, and that’s the end of that. A patron waves her down, and she waddles to his end clutching her hip. A reminder that she does this, all of this for me.
I settle over cosigns and tangents, absentmindedly picking at the sandwich. The turkey is saltless and saggy, as is the cheese. I only take bites when mom looks my way. Once she’s gone, the contents are spit back into a napkin.
We stay like this – me ‘working’ and her bartending – for a good while, long enough for the game on the television to switch fields. Football to baseball, I think. The man with the cigarette rejoins us. “Hey Dot,” he says to my mom. “How’s it going?”
“Oh, it’s going, one way or another.” She pops the top off another beer and slides it his way. He misses and the whole thing spills onto my arm, leg, and textbook.
“Shit!” I exclaim as the man apologizes. Mom scolds me for my language as I stand and shake the suds off. I’m approached with napkins, and more apologies. “It’s fine,” I say, but it isn’t. Mom looks at me with worry lines around her lips. She doesn’t like it when bar things happen to me, and I see the opportunity and I take it.
“It’s fine,” I say again, this time, meaning it. “I’m gonna head on home and change.”
Mom’s worry lines increase. “You sure, baby?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Be easier to focus without all the noise around here anyways.”
Mom doesn’t want to relent, I know. She likes to keep an eye on me. At some point, she gives in. Can’t have me wandering around at sixteen reeking of Corona.
“Thanks,” I say, gathering my stuff fast as a bullet.
She gives a wave and lets me go. “If you need me, you know where to find me.”
Much as I hate the smell of beer, I’m glad for that man, secretly. It was a cheap excuse, but one to get away. Even if I’ll go home and do my homework, at least I can do it without the eye of mother sparrow watching over my shoulder.
I don’t have a car and we’re too far from downtown for the buses to reach, so I walk. Not far from the bar to our townhouse anyhow. I pass by the Publix, the gas station, and the fancy Waffle House. The sun licks my face with its rays, heat dangling like saliva down my chin. It feels good, young even, to be standing in the middle of my small town. Sometimes I think mom is wrong; ain’t nothing wrong with planting foot and sole in a place like this.
I’m not watching where I’m going, and I run into someone and their bike, if the chain scraping my ankle is any indication.
“Watch where you’re going,” I bark just as a gentle voice says, “I’m sorry.” I look up to see Joshua Franey, a proud member of our church’s youth group. I only know because this has been his fun fact when introducing himself to the class every year. We had music classes together back in the day, where he always tried to get everyone to come out to church. Everyone except me. Even the losers know that Danielle Ashley Sole don’t have much social life.
At first, I don’t think he remembers me. Small school, small town, but still, I can be forgettable. Then he recognizes my pinched face. “Danielle, hey!”
I give him a weak, “Hey there.”
He apologizes again, grimacing as he looks at my leg, which is now red and oozing. Dirt and grass cling to the bleeding bubbles.
“Ooh, that looks bad,” he says.
“Yeah, no shit.” I reach down and try to plug the wound myself. When it doesn’t work, Joshua guides me to sit down. “It’ll be alright,” I say. “I can walk it off.”
Out of his backpack comes a first aid kit. Of course, a guy like him would have one. He presses iodine into the cut, places a gauze pad on my leg. His touch almost erases the pain. Almost. He rises and says, “Danielle, again, I am so, so sorry.”
When I tell him it’s alright, I kinda mean it this time. Joshua’s nice; makes it hard to stay ornery at him for any length of time. I’m already turning red by the way he looks at me. Not romantically, but tenderly, like he cares.
“Thanks for patching me up,” I tell him.
He shrugs it off. “Always here to help a friend in need.”
“So we’re friends now?”
It’s his turn to blush. “I like to think of myself as everybody’s friend.”
“Even to a little Florida redneck like me.”
“No,” he says. “You don’t strike me as the redneck type. Always with your face in a book, focusing hard on your studies.”
My shoulders deflate like a palm branch being ripped from its root. “Not really by choice. My mom’s really on me about my grades.”
He puts his hands in his pockets. “I understand.”
A tricky silence comes between us ‘till I ask, “You heading off to the football game?”
“No.” He shakes his head. “Ah, Saturday night is youth group.”
I nod once. “Of course.”
“Do you go to First Baptist?”
“I did, once upon a time.”
He crosses his arms and asks what happened. I’m too ashamed to admit mom decided homework was more important than Jesus. I expect him to get preachy, say something about me always be welcome back in the arms of the Lord. Instead, he grabs his bike off the ground. “That’s okay, but I have to get to choir auditions now.”
I grab him by the shoulder. “Choir auditions?”
“Yeah, we’re looking for more choir members.” He looks at me earnestly, to which I reply, “I’m not a singer, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
He retires the overzealous look, replacing it with one of pure business. “Oh, we’re looking for all sorts of musicians. It’s not a youth choir, but anyone is welcome to come and try out.”
That catches my ear and keeps me firmly in place. A few hours ago, I would have just walked away. But that spill at the bar and my time in the sun shocked some sense into me; enough sense to realize what I missed out on listening to my mom.
Apopka is just a town. Can’t fault me for wanting to trade my wings for hometown roots in some capacity.
“Anyone?” I ask.
He confirms, “Anyone.”
I gesture to my outfit, beer coated and exposing my shoulders and thighs. He’s wearing a collared shirt and tie for Christ’s sake. “I’m not exactly dressed for church.”
He wants to offer me a jacket, I can tell, but thinks better when he sees my cross brows. “I’m sure Pastor Brian is more worried about the choir than he is about you.”
First Baptist was one of many churches tucked into the side of the road. Churches parked themselves on every back road in this state, and this was no exception, except it was the nicest. The inside of the building was full of noise from the people bustling about, running between the pews lined up like eyelashes. A projection screen stared back at the crowd, echoing a rotation of verse: Be strong and courageous! Do not be discouraged, for God is with you everywhere you go.
Pastor Brian was easy to spot, even after all them years away from the church. He wore all black cleric clothing, except his shoes; bright red converse with neon laces. His hands slicked back a thick stack of sheet music as he approached the pair of us.
“Hey Joshua! How’s it hanging,” he said, attempting a fist bump, which Joshua lamely reciprocated. Pastor Brian turned to me. “You’re Dottie’s girl, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir. I am.”
“Haven’t seen much of y’all lately, but that’s alright. Are you here for service?”
“Actually,” Joshua said. “She’s here for the choir auditions.”
Pastor Brian straightens up. “Really?”
I’m about to answer, when Joshua cuts me off. “We took classes together freshman year. You should see her play, or even hear her sing. It’s truly something amazing.”
I don’t know what I’m more floored by; the fact he remembers me so well or that he up and decided for me what exactly I’m doing here.
“I’m here for…whatever,” I answer for myself. “Whatever you need. I’ve been looking for ways to fill my spare time anyways.”
Pastor Brian senses the unease and extends his olive hand. “Come here, Danielle. Let’s chat for a bit and decide what exactly you want to do.”
I silently thank him as he leads me down the aisle.
“It’s no problem,” he says. “We need to catch up regardless.”
He takes a foldable chair and turns it around, sitting in it like a teenager. I sit in the front pew and find it hard to take him serious, but his voice is sure as sugar as he says, “So, Danielle, tell me a bit about yourself.”
There isn’t much to tell him that he don’t already know; I’m sixteen now, in my junior year, focusing on my studies and spending time with my mom, who’s doing just fine, thanks for asking.
“No, no, I don’t mean all of that.” Pastor Brian leans in closer. “I mean, tell me about yourself. Your interests, your hobbies…” He lingers when I don’t have answers. “How about this. How would you describe yourself emotionally, Danielle?”
This was easy. “I would describe myself as occasionally happy.”
He sits up straighter. “Well, that’s not very good.”
“You’re telling me.”
He mulls over that for a moment like he’s waiting for a cup of tea to cool. When he speaks again, his words are definite and paternal. “Tell me, Danielle: why did you come here today?”
I’m surprised at myself when the truth comes out. “My mom wants me to go to college, she’s always harping on me about school work. She’s made me give up just about everything but, and it’s like she doesn’t trust me to make my own choices, so she makes them all for me.
“I’m not happy. I’m not. I just want one thing for myself. I may not be the most religious person, but this is something, I suppose. Joshua bringing me here ain’t a coincidence.”
“You’re right about that,” he said. “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I’m not as big on coincidence, more on faith.”
“Well, you are a man of the cloth.”
He chuckles at my quip. “I can’t tell you what to do, but if you want to be here, then by definition, we’re happy to have you!” He points to the stack of music. “What do you want to do? Sing? Guitar? Play tambourine?”
“Who plays the tambourine?”
“You would be surprised.”
I think it over before saying, “I want to play piano.”
It was the instrument I played the least in school but was the most excited to learn. Pastor Brian perks up and says, “That’s dope. Is that a thing you all still say? Dope? In any event, we switch out organists every weekend so anyone who wants to gets a chance. There’s one catch, you have to be good. Are you good?”
“I like to think so.”
“Have at it, then.”
The belief in myself fueled by Pastor Brian is short lived. Seated at the piano, the music for Jesus Paid It All on display, my fingers forget every note they’ve ever played. I take a few breaths, and convince myself that it’s possible. Trust without faith means little more than a peanut, but if mustard seeds can move mountains, I can get this job playing the church organ.
My performance is clunky, all over the place, like a metronome that’s been dropped against the concrete. I got the feeling Pastor Brian felt bad for me, a feeling confirmed when he applauded my sloppy performance.
“I’m a little out of practice,” I say sheepishly.
“It’s alright,” the pastor says. “Everyone needs a little practice. The talent is there. What do you say you give it a real go, tonight at the youth group?”
Joshua’s been watching us the whole time, and answers for me, “Yes, she will.”
“Hold on now.” I slide myself off the bench. To Pastor Brian, I say, “I need to think it over.”
He says that’s alright. “It’s up to you to decide. But I do hope we see you tonight.”
Once the pastor is gone, Joshua comes close and sucks back the sour look on my face. “Sorry,” he says. “I was just excited for you.” When I don’t answer him, he keeps on going. “I get so happy for other people—”
“The word you’re looking for is pushy.”
He chokes back some enthusiasm. “Still, I’m happy for you.”
We stand again in silence, until he asks, “Are you coming back tonight?”
I’m angry once I realize I truly don’t know. I’m sixteen goddamn years old and I’m scared of my mom finding out about piano playing at church. I leave Joshua without an answer, steaming with every step I take away from First Baptist and back into the city.
I don’t want to play the piano, I realize.
I want more.
I want pictures of me on the concrete edge of a pool in a bikini, with tan lines around my butt; taking shots out of red solo cups with my arms around a girl, or a guy, anything for a human connection; pictures of me with balloons on my birthday, surrounded by best friends and sushi. Picking strawberries in the summer or hanging downtown in the fall.
I want friends. I want a life of my own, and not my mom’s.
I’m all but prepared to tell her that later, but she’s standing in the living room when I get back home. “Where the hell were you?” she balks. “You said you were coming back here. I asked to leave early just to check on you, and I come home to find that you’re gone?”
“I got sidetracked.”
“For three hours?”
“I auditioned for the church choir and I got in.”
It takes a good moment for her to register my lie and when she does, she slaps me in the face “What is wrong with you?” she asks after a real good while. “I work my ass off to provide for you and you sneak off and…and…”
“And join a youth group? Ooh, stop the presses.”
“Don’t get fresh with me.”
“What is the big deal?”
She doesn’t know what to say at first. I’ve never questioned her so bluntly, at least, not to her face. When she finally does answer, she speaks to me like a child. “You don’t understand. You don’t want to get tied down to a place like this.”
“What’s wrong with this place? Yeah, it’s a little backwoods but—”
“But nothing, Danielle. People are born and die in this town, never seeing anywhere north of Sanford. They get into the rhythm of high school, get pregnant and have kids.” The longer she speaks, it becomes less concern and more resentment. I suspected for years she wanted me to live the life she didn’t.
“That’s the thing, mom. It’s my life. You don’t own me.
She blinks twice. “Yes I do.”
There it is after all them years. I kinda wanna cry, kinda wanna scream in her face. Don’t know what to make of any of this, so I simply say, “I’m going to the youth group.”
“No you’re not.”
“Yes I am.”
“What are you gonna do about it?”
At first she says nothing, and I think she’s gonna do nothing until she comes forward. Instead of yelling or smacking, she cries. The years of stress come tumbling down her sleeve and she sobs. She hugs me. For some reason, I hug her too. I feel the pain in her shaking back, the smell of cheap alcohol and tobacco clinging to her clothes the way she does me. It takes it out of you, I guess, being stuck when you just want to leave.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“I know,” I reply.
I think I’m starting to understand about my mother. She’s mad now, but she’ll be with me in this town or not. That’s what matters. We’re both here, for the time being, together in this burning bush of a town.
She lets me go, and I go to my room and get dressed for the youth group. Not sure if I’ll stay, but hey, whatever I decide, it’s my choice.
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