Monday, January 9, 2012

If, Then

Alexis Flores is pretty sure she has things figured out. The world makes sense, if you know how to look at it. Signs are everywhere, pointing out dangers and opportunities, pitfalls and advantages. They’re not obvious, giant neon-glowing billboards with instructions written just for you. No. They’re quiet things. Everyday things. The sort of thing you’d walk right past without a second thought. Nobody looks twice at ice cream melting on pavement or a shivering light bulb in a street lamp, not unless they know what they’re looking for. Which Alexis Flores does, and she never ignores the signs.

So when she sees the car ahead of them on I-10 riding the break harder than a Baptist Preacher on the devil, she doesn’t see a nervous driver. She sees Morse code in red lights, stop – stop – stop, and pulls her mom’s suburban off on the next exit, following the small road to a diner. The only establishment for miles and miles, it seems. One bright spot in the middle of pine trees and kudzu.

“I knew we shouldn’t’ve let you drive.” Phoebe Holt throws up her hands. Alexis sees them in them in the rear view mirror. Wrists covered in every kind of bracelet you can find at the Gulfport strip mall. “You owe me a Raging Fine ticket, Lex. Sweet Lord a’mighty, where the hell are we.”

From shotgun, Kayla Montgomery gathers her purse from the floor and glances over her shoulder at Phoebe. She’s used to following Alexis’s lead. At first, it bothered her, but it doesn’t any more. She’s seen enough to know that there’ll probably be a twenty-car pile-up a mile down the road, or a bomb at the concert right in their section. She doesn’t question Alexis’s gut anymore. She follows it.

Now, she turns to Phoebe, who’s fidgeting in the back seat and says, “We’re at Mama Beaux’s Diner for dinner. I hope they have pie.”

They aren’t so far from home. Just far enough that they’ve gone past all the Gulfport suburbs on the way to New Orleans. And just far enough that there’s nothing significant on the map for another dozen miles or more. Alexis thinks Mama Beaux’s must be fine dining for these parts judging by the number of trucks and SUVs in the parking lot. She decides there must be something good here. Something tasty. That’s why they were stopped here and not five miles before where their choices would’ve been fast food or faster food. Her stomach growls.

Walking inside the diner is like waking up in the middle of the day with the sun heavy on your skin. None of the girls realized how quiet it was in the parking lot, how lonely and dark, until they fell into the noise and warmth of Mama Beaux’s. It’s the sort of place that feels like home even if you’re only ever there once.

“Oh, they have pie,” Phoebe says, wryly. She points to a sign over the bar that reads, Yes, We’ve got pie!

The girls are seated in a booth that’s covered in rooster d├ęcor. Rosters are carved into the seats, a painting of a giant rooster stretches across the table, and a little rooster lamp sits between salt and pepper shakers and a bottle of ketchup.

“What’s the deal?” Kayla asks, looking up at Alexis with a glimmer in her eyes. “We’re supposed to miss the concert and buy a rooster?”

“Just Phoebe,” Alexis answers.

Phoebe’s expression lacks all humor, but she doesn’t have time to respond before their waiter stops at the edge of the table. Red hair, white t-shirt, blue jeans that have come by their distress honestly.

“Can I get you ladies something to drink?” He’s too young to be calling them ladies, but he does it with the sort of tired confidence wrought of repetition.

Phoebe stares. Kayla Simpers. Alexis says, “Coffee for all of us, please.”

“Comin’ right up,” he says, pushing his notepad into his back pocket without bothering to write on it.

“Never mind,” Kayla says when she’s sure he’s out of earshot. “It’s all so clear, now.”

But Alexis only roles her eyes and reaches for one of the menus he dropped on their table. There’s an entire page dedicated to pie. Alexis takes one look, notices a small smudge of dark purple-blue, and decides on a slice of blueberry. Kayla and Phoebe don’t decide so easily and when the waiter returns with their mugs of coffee on a tray, they ask him for his favorite.

“Custard,” he answers, his eyes drifting to Alexis. But Alexis orders blueberry.

^ ^ ^

Kayla won’t stop talking about Rooster. That’s what she’s decided to call the waiter, since they failed to obtain his name that night at the diner. She’s certain that’s why Alexis was pulled off the road. Not for the best pie they’ve ever tasted, but for Rooster. There was no terrible accident on the highway and no bomb at the Arena, but that doesn’t always mean much to Alexis. Sometimes, the signs are preventative and you never know why. You just have to trust. If they’d gone, then something horrible would’ve happened. Since they didn’t, nothing did. It’s self-evident from where Alexis stands.

When Kayla texts her a picture of a rooster with his white chest all puffed out and the caption, Keepin’ it cocky, scrawled beneath, Alexis just laughs. Sets the photo as Kayla’s icon in her phone and responds with an image of a dead end sign.

“Why do you always wait for things to happen to you?” Kayla asks when school’s finally over and she can dig into this conversation. “He was clearly into you, right? And you might deny it, but you’re into him.”

“Waiting is safest.” Alexis won’t deny she’s into Rooster, but without the signs, it’s pointless. If she’s meant to see him again, then she will. Until then, she dismisses any thoughts she’s begun to have of Rooster’s red hair.

This works pretty well until the very end of her shift at the Winn Dixie when she’s called back to the storeroom.

“What do you know about these pies?” The boss asks Alexis, but she’s not really expecting an answer. This boss is the sort of person who’s incessantly inquisitive. She answers questions with questions. Answers gum up the process.

Alexis sees three boxes on the floor between them. Each one has been sliced open to reveal neat stacks of pies.

“Why would I ever make an order like this?” The boss asks, running her middle finger down the order sheet again. “What am I going to do with two dozen custard pies? Lexie? Will you see what you can do with them?”

Alexis says she will and begins loading them onto a cart, two by two. It’s easy enough to find room for food in a grocery store.

“And why custard?” Her boss continues, pressing one palm to her forehead as if waiting for the logic of it.

“Maybe the vendor got it wrong?” Alexis suggests, careful to use a question, but it makes sense to her.

^ ^ ^

Alexis doesn’t know what to expect, but that’s okay. She doesn’t need to know. She just needs to follow the signs, and that’s what she does. Right back to Mama Beaux’s Diner. She sends Kayla a picture of the front door, just for the fun of it.

The diner isn’t as packed on a weeknight as it was the night they landed here. Alexis is given a booth all to her self. But she’s not just sitting there looking lonely. No. She’s prepared and has schoolbooks to spread out in a way that looks productive. Headphones, too, just in case.

A waiter appears at the end of her table. Alexis is surprised to find it’s not Rooster, but a woman with an apron tied high over her pregnant belly. Her cheeks are flushed and she’s as nice as her curls, but Alexis has begun to wonder what she’s doing here. She orders coffee and one slice of custard pie.

She’s mid-way through her second round of coffee – black with two packets of sugar, the real stuff, not the chemicals – when someone slides into the booth across from her.

It’s Rooster. And he looks even more like a rooster with his hair stuck up at odd angles, but his t-shirt is brown and that diminishes the comparison.

“I didn’t catch your name,” says Rooster. “And I meant to. But I had a feeling I’d see you again, so I didn’t panic.”

This is the sort of comment that makes Alexis smile against her will. She prefers to keep her emotional reactions private, but she was caught by surprise. She says, “Alexis Flores. And you’re right, this pie is excellent.”

“Ford Weber,” he answers, glancing at her books, then out the window where the parking lot is painted in gray scale. “I’m ready whenever you are.”

Alexis hears her favorite song come over the diner’s sound system, she notices that her bill comes to six dollars and fifty-four cents, leaving her exactly three dollars to tip. She follows the pattern to its logical conclusion: the two of them leave the diner for their first date.

It’s only a week later that Kayla and Phoebe beg Alexis to read the signs for them. They say they’d both like a rooster of their own. No matter how many times he’s come around, Kayla refuses to address him as anything but Rooster. Surprisingly, Ford’s okay with this.

Alexis thinks their request is a strange one. They’ve never had trouble finding dates or boyfriends when they wanted them. She asks them why they suddenly need her?

They give the same answer: your love is destiny.

“It’s not destiny,” she says, ignoring the bit about love. Sunlight falls through her bedroom window and hits a blue top in her closet. Instinctively, she puts it on. “It’s a negotiation.”

^ ^ ^

Ford is waiting for Alexis on the beach. It’s their sixth date and his turn to choose. Alexis was perplexed when he told her to bring a towel, which she also took to mean, “wear a bathing suit.”

There’s a sign by the boardwalk warning people away but those aren’t always the important signs, and Alexis walks past without reading. When the board walk ends, she kicks off her shoes, making her way across the sand to where Ford stands with the surf slipping around his toes. Alexis can already taste the salt.

“C’mon,” says Ford, pulling his shirt off over his head and his pants down over his hips until he stands only in his suit. “I’ve got something to show you.”

Alexis feels a thrill stutter through her body, it’s like caffeine hurrying her blood along as fast as it can go. This isn’t the sort of thing she does. Not because she wouldn’t, but because she doesn’t think of things like this. Not normally. She strips down to her one-piece and takes Ford’s hand.

The water is cold, at first, but it’s better when she’s in all the way to her neck, lifting her chin above the little waves that ripple past. There aren’t real waves this far behind the breaker islands, just their playful echoes, so it’s easy to swim into the deeper water.

“What do you want to show me?” Alexis asks, noting the way the water becomes dark up ahead when all around them the wavelets catch moonlight on their tips.

“If I tell you, it won’t be a surprise.”

Ford swims away, into the dark water where shadows leech all the red from his hair until it’s as black as waves. Alexis doesn’t follow. She treads water and scans the space ahead for any signs of danger. But if the danger’s beneath the surface, it could be anywhere. Why weren’t they supposed to be out here? Maybe she should have paid more attention to the sign by the boardwalk.

“Maybe we shouldn’t,” she calls. “It’s so dark, Ford. Let’s go back.”

But Ford swims a little farther from her. “Dark is the point. C’mon, they’ll only be here a little while, and maybe never again.”

Alexis knows this is a bad idea. The sign is clear. The path ahead is murky, unknown, and potentially dangerous. There’s only one established reaction to this sign: go back.

She doesn’t move.

“I don’t know,” she says. And distantly wonders if this is why Kayla and Phoebe wanted her help. Because knowing is safer than not?

Ford swims toward her a short way. Raises his hand, bobbing as he treads the black water. His palm fills with moonlight, but the back remains dark with shadow. Alexis thinks this, too, could be a sign, but she knows better. It’s not a sign. It feels too uncertain, too risky and exciting to be a sign. This is something else.

Moving to the edge of the dark water, Alexis probes it with her toe and shivers at how much colder it is there than here. If she returns to shore, she knows she’ll be safe. She will dry off in the moonlight, climb back into her clothes, and return home none the worse for the wear. If she doesn’t go back to shore, anything might happen, and ‘anything’ includes the full spectrum of horrible things.

Ford sees her hesitation. “I’ll go back with you if you want. But I promise, this is worth it, and I’ll be with you.”

Again, Alexis feels a twinge of excitement. If she goes with him, she doesn’t know what will happen. She doesn’t know if it will be safe or exciting and she isn’t sure which one is right. It makes her tread faster and her skin feel hotter. It makes her feel awake and alive. She wonders if this is what it feels like to live without the safety of signs, to never know which choice is the safest.

She looks again at Ford’s hand, one small piece of light surrounded by darkness, takes a deep breath, and crosses into the dark water.

*****
Thank you for reading. Check back on Monday for a new Tangle started by Lacey.

Photo by kagey_b via Flickr Creative Commons.

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