Around the time that Ada, with her blazing hazel eyes, reached her first birthday, Lorna’s hands began to shine, ever so slightly, like snakeskin newly shed. It was a difference that no one else would likely detect, this aging skin, but it told Lorna she might be changing into someone better.
From birth, Ada had been buoyant as all get-out—big-boned and noisy—always up with the sun and chortling in her crib. Lorna, a tall, serious woman who rarely smiled, was happier with Ada in her space. She laughed now, not for show. She cried more often, too. Lorna ate more robustly and slept more deeply than she could remember doing. She bought sparklers and frosted cupcakes on the Fourth for nobody but her and her kid.
Right after Ada started walking, she liked to put on the big white cowboy hat Lorna had to wear to work, the image of a dancing rotisserie chicken stitched on the front. When Ada put it on, her huge eyes were obscured, but that didn’t stop her from committing to a clumsy chicken dance, going “cluck-cluck,” like Lorna had taught her, or sometimes “cluck-fuck,” depending on how often Lorna had said the f-word that week.
“She’s a headless chicken in a diaper,” Lorna’s older sister, Pam, pointed out when she visited from Dallas. They drank too much Corona, and Pam assured Lorna she was a good mother.
“How do you know? You don’t have kids.”
“You’re not with him,” Pam finally said.
Ada sat on the floor at their feet, wearing Lorna’s hat, playing with blocks.
“Cluck-fuck,” Ada said, and the sisters lost it, Pam snorting mid-swallow and making them laugh worse.
The lines around Lorna’s mouth had deepened so obviously that Ada loved to trace them with her thumbs. They didn’t bother Lorna, not the way age bothered Pam. The lines told Lorna she was changing—something was coming. That’s what she told herself.
Ada was happier than Lorna by nature. She grinned a crooked smile when Lorna picked her up from daycare after a long day at the restaurant. On Lorna’s day off, Ada gripped her mother’s long salt-and-pepper hair as they walked the house “room-talking,” Lorna pointing out the windows and flowerpots and their cat, Pretzel.
“No, don’t cry, baby girl,” Lorna said one late afternoon when they were walking and room-talking.
Ada was wailing out of nowhere, the Texas sky having shifted gold to purple, thunder galloping in the distance.
“It’s just a rainstorm, baby.”
But her daughter’s tears made Lorna lonely, and for a second she admitted to herself she missed Tim. Lorna hugged Ada close and lay down with her on the daybed in the TV room until the little girl fell asleep and the cat nuzzled in. When Ada breathed, her cheeks slick with tears, she shuddered. In her sleep, the baby’s tiny hands gripped Lorna’s hair in a tight way that made Lorna glad Tim would never get to see her.
She meant to hold onto that caution the way Ada held onto Lorna for life.
Lorna didn’t have to work to remember being small and afraid, sitting with her older sister under the low kitchen table while their parents fought in the living room, while a heavy ashtray or lamp sailed through, slamming against the wall hard as a poorly aimed baseball. She remembered her mother collapsed on the living room floor with one eye swollen shut, how she’d climbed on top of her mom’s belly and pressed her face to her neck saying a silent goodbye. “She’ll be all right, baby—she’s faking it,” her father told her. And in fact, her mother was all right come the next early morning, wobbly and bruised but okay enough to buckle Lorna and Pam into the minivan and leave. They drove to New Orleans, her mama hoping they’d stay for Mardi Gras. Instead, they lived in a Motel 6—the girls allowed to jump on the bed— and ate heavenly jambalaya out of paper cups. Lorna and Pam wanted to stay forever. Mama drove them home after money ran low—though Lorna knew the bigger reason was her mother’s heartache—and their lives with flying objects resumed.
Lorna’s hazel-eyed mother smiled and laughed in the most beautiful yet inauthentic way around her and Pam’s father, those theatrical sounds usually signaling that there wouldn’t be a fight—at least not that night. When their father wasn’t around, though, her mother never laughed, not anymore. Increasingly, she waited on her husband to know how to react, to light up…or pretend to.
On the day Lorna chose to carry Ada to term, she wished for her child to be born with something inside that would never fully burn out, or power down, a low light that would keep her warm and unafraid of other people’s fucked-up-ness, like a smile that no one else got to see. She was driving and listening to “Heart of Gold” on the radio, and she made that dumb wish like it was a custom order she could put in easy as you please.
Lorna hadn’t had such a compass when she was a fat baby, a beanpole child, a teen, a grown woman engaged to be married—hadn’t begun to sense the compass till she’d left Ada’s father, Tim.
“I want this baby,” Lorna had announced—she realized she was holding her cheeks protectively.
“How come you’re so damn skinny if you’re that far along?”
“I don’t eat right lately.” When life got rough, food had always repulsed her.
“You tricked me,” Tim said to her.
Then he said she’d have to choose between him and “the whatever.”
Right then, that baby kicked Lorna really hard (for the first time ever)—maybe because she wanted more of her mama’s half-eaten nachos—and yet this move was the opposite of the way her fiancé would smack her face or grab her upper arm when he got enraged.
That kick from the inside, it was urgent love, a happy, heavy knock at the door—simple as an impromptu dance step.
Lorna took off running without shoes through the ice-cold woods and climbed inside her car with cuts all over her feet. She waited there, shivering and half-hoping Tim would run up and pound on the window, make some funny Tim face that would override all the bad shit, and beg her to come home. For about five minutes she couldn’t bring herself to shift into drive. But the car’s iffy heater felt so good, thank God, and Neil Young came on the radio. When she saw Tim in lanky silhouette walking at his fucking leisure toward the rear of her Hyundai, she began to drive. She saw in the rearview how he just stopped.
The next week, Lorna put in a request to waitress at a different restaurant location in the chain; she signed a lease for a place using her middle name and her mother’s maiden name on the mailbox. At night, though, she thought about Tim and called to him in her sleep—ashamed as she was the next morning, she understood that she wanted him to want to know Ada. She understood she wanted him to want her.
Not long before she delivered the child, her hair started coming in gray, just a little, in the front, like her mama’s had when she was thirty-five. Despite her enormous pregnant tummy and slower pace, the restaurant promoted her to manager because she exuded such calm, her regional supervisor said. She even offered her a potential transfer to New Orleans, because Lorna had mentioned offhandedly she’d love to raise her kid there.
“This gray hair means the end of Tim,” Lorna promised herself in the mirror while she brushed her teeth. But her dreams of him didn’t stop. And late at night the idea of moving out of Texas scared her worse than seeing him.
At the restaurant this afternoon, she had finally seen Tim. He waited for a table, and Lorna’s pulse sped as she watched through the porthole in the kitchen door.
He’d come at mid-lunch when there was a wait, longer than usual. Lorna ran to find her purse in the office and withdraw her cell, a lovely photo of Ada its screensaver.
“You have to meet Ada!” she wanted to scream. Isn’t that why he’d come?
She knew they’d cross paths or he’d get bored and find her and Ada sooner or later, but she wasn’t sure how to play the moment. Her unflattering new manager portrait hung in the restaurant’s entryway, but it didn’t really look like her—had he even noticed?
“How fucking long?” Tim barked at the middle-aged hostess, a blonde date having appeared on Tim’s arm looking like she could use a meal.
“Want me to take this?” asked Will, her assistant manager, as they peered through the circle of glass together.
Lorna shook her head—she was manager, and she suddenly knew what she had to do. She walked straight up to Tim and gave the hostess a coffee break. Next, she confirmed by his cold-water face he wasn’t expecting to see her.
“You look tired,” Tim told her, forgetting manners. “But still pretty and stuff.”
“Hello,” Lorna said to the girl, trying for a polite smile but failing.
“I like your chicken,” Rachel said.
Tim was wearing his brown work overalls, and he looked the same: cute but hung-over. Ada had inherited his generous off-center mouth, the thought of which killed Lorna as Tim beamed at Rachel’s unguarded comment.
She’d take her time: Lorna just stood there with a hand on her hip and checked her watch. He wasn’t there to see her or Ada, and even if he had been, so what.
“So how long, Lorna?” Tim said, side-hugging the heavily made-up girl like he was in high school or something. “Can’t you pull strings?”
Lorna and Rachel locked eyes. If only she could summon her maternal-mother-hen-whatever that got her promoted and tell her to run any which way.
“Cluck-fuck,” Lorna said quietly, in place of a worse string of expletives.
“How’s that?” Tim said.
Rachel giggled despite herself.
“Cluck-fuck,” Lorna repeated, making hard eye contact with his friend.
“What’s up with this fucking bullshit—how long’s the wait?” Tim asked.
“Hush now,” Rachel told him, and he swung her arm so hard she tap-danced a few steps away from him and stayed there looking stunned as heck.
An older couple waiting for their lunch table watched the exchange like it was something on TV.
“You’re gonna have to wait a lifetime to sit down and eat here,” Lorna told Tim, and her smile wasn’t real, but the one inside was creeping to life.
“You coming?” Tim said to Rachel, who was sitting on a bench, tuning up pretty bad.
Tim did a little sprint over to Rachel and spat something ugly in her face, which Lorna couldn’t make out. Whatever he said, it caused Rachel to whimper at the sheer insult. And then he walked away, out the door, out of Lorna’s life if not Rachel’s.
“I can call you an Uber,” Lorna said. She was surprised to feel fairly fine.
“This was our first date, but I like him,” Rachel said through her tears.
“You look pretty happy,” Lorna said, taking a seat beside the young woman with her mascara bleeding everywhere.
Rachel rolled her eyes, but she smiled at the joke.
“Where do guys like him get off?”
“Wherever we let ‘em,” Lorna said.
“He seemed so…not like that.”
Rachel turned around and looked toward the parking lot.
“Want some chicken?” Lorna asked her, standing up. “On the house—we can go in the kitchen and eat it.”
She waited patiently for an answer, flipping through baby photos on her phone.
“I didn’t eat breakfast,” Rachel finally said, getting to her feet, deciding probably to go with Lorna. “Too excited about the date.”
“I’m starving, too,” Lorna said, taking Rachel’s arm playfully. She got an image in mind of Ada doing her crazy chicken dance, her lips curling despite herself. “Let’s go in there and have us a feast, what do you say?”
© Betsy Boyd
Betsy Boyd is a fiction writer and journalist. She is a faculty member in the Creative Writing and Publishing Arts MFA program at the University of Baltimore, and is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council award, an Elliot Coleman Writing Fellowship, a James A. Michener Fellowship and residencies through Fundación Valparaíso, the Alfred and Trafford Klots International Program for Artists and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Betsy’s fiction has been published most recently–or is forthcoming–in Del Sol Review. Sententia, Shenandoah, Eclectica, and Loch Raven Review. Her short story “Scarecrow” received a Pushcart Prize.