The Other Cheek by Jennifer Porter

Granny Earle’s Soft Pretzels announced that all 14 metro Detroit locations will offer free dipping sauce to guests today, after a fight broke out between two customers and an employee.

The Detroit Times

 

 

I just knew it was going to be a bad day. Like a snowball that starts out a flake but keeps rolling and growing and sucking up sharp twigs and dried brown leaves and little old granny’s with walkers picking up their morning paper off the sidewalk. Finally it careens into an intersection, big as that rock King Sisyphus has to push up the hill, swallowing up motorcycles and cars and small innocent children.

It started when my mother crept up on me, wearing her all-night-online gambling hair. She likes to sneak attack, only she eats her own cubs.

“Are those clothes dry?” she asked.

“God, Mom! I didn’t hear you walk in.” I stood there folding laundry at six o’clock on a Saturday morning in my Dad’s old t-shirt. I stole the shirt out of the trash after he drove off for forever on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and even though it had stopped smelling like him, it still felt good against my skin like baby powder after a shower.

“Did you let the dryer finish?” Mom lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, tilting her head back and giving me the Gestapo glare. As a little girl she’d scare the submission into me but I was leaving soon for forever; there was a light at the end of my childhood. Things had been feeling different. “Or did you pull the clothes out early?”

Now, I pulled the clothes out early. I had to get to work and I needed a clean Granny Earle’s Soft Pretzels uniform. I was at a crossroads and honesty did not intersect there. Honesty was pointless with my mother, and I needed to put on my make-up. Should we have a blow-out or not?

I thought about what Pastor Bob might say. I started showing up at his church this summer, and while he still didn’t know what to make of me and my multiple piercings and bobbed hair the color of blue envy, he was trying hard to set me on the path to all-consuming righteousness.

Never look a demon in the eye.

I turned from her and continued folding, “They’re dry enough.” I had checked first and they were hot and they felt dry.

“Let me see,” she yanked a skirt out of my hands, put it to her nose and breathed in. “I smell mold. Goddammit, Harley-Jane. I knew it was you. I knew you weren’t drying the clothes all the way. You smell this?” She thrust the skirt in my face. “Moldy!”

It used to kill me when I made her unhappy, when I disappointed her, but that can only go on so long before you wake up and smell the ashes of your life. I grabbed my uniform while she tore through the stack of folded clothes, sniffing them and shouting “Moldy!” She flung open the dryer door, ranting and raving about the “entire cycle.” She had to get to her job at the Oakwood Motel, cleaning rooms and stealing pain pills so she could put a roof over my head.

“Well, I have to get work to pay for college. You’re not keeping me in this hell hole any longer,” and I raced out before she could slap me.

I worried she would burst into my cramped bedroom where the water stains look like giant amoeba. I kept globbing my mascara. I couldn’t find my keys. I was seven minutes twenty-three seconds late to work. My supervisor Dyaniesha was tapping her watch with her pointy red nail while I tied my apron. Her nails were shaped into vampire fangs.

“That’s the fourth time you been late,” Dyaniesha said. “That’s four times too many.”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry. Something happened right before I could leave.”

“Like what? Your apartment burned down? Ha! You thought I wouldn’t go check to see if that really happened? I should fire you for lying!”

Lying had gotten me through eighteen years, but it wasn’t putting my best cheek forward. And I wanted to be different. I wanted to show up at the dorm with my shit together.

“I admit I exaggerated but the couch my mother passed out on did catch fire. I had to throw the cushions out the window. It’s just. I need this job, Dyaniesha.” I tried to look as sad as possible with my big green eyes. The college financial aid package was generous but it wasn’t going to cover everything. I had to get out of this shop rat town. The last thing my father said to me: Working in a hydraulic hose factory will make your heart as hard as your heels, Harley-Jane. Promise me you’ll use that brain of yours and do better.

Dyaniesha swept me into her enormous bosom. “I know you work hard. I’m proud of you, I am. No father. Crazy-ass mother. Aw right. Get to work.” Then she released me and as she sashayed away said, “Don’t be late no more and get the Freezee cleaned. Night shift forgot.”

This was a terrible punishment to me and Dyaniesha knew it. The Freezee produced frozen slushies: blue raspberry, coke, cherry, Faygo orange. And if it wasn’t cleaned every single night it gunked up and jammed. It had to be taken apart and every single part scrubbed. My hands sweated in the plastic gloves and the colors smelled awful. We weren’t allowed to scrape with anything hard because then we’d scratch the stainless steel. We had to bend over and scrub with a soft bristled brush. Ugh.

Life is not a practice test, it’s a pop quiz.

Once I tried to tell Pastor Bob about Robert Johnson and how he’d traded his soul at the crossroads to play the guitar like no one else could play the guitar. I wondered if maybe I could trade for a fairy godmother.

Pastor Bob nodded his bald head with the ring of orange-gray hair that shaded his over-sized ears and stared at me through his bifocals. He was wrinkly and tall and wore bad polyester suits.

I went on, “I’ve surrendered my heart to Jesus, but my mind likes to travel the other roads. And those roads constantly lead me to the crossroads. I’m trying my best not to make any deals. I’m trying my best to keep the demons inside a little closet, but it’s cramped and stuffy and smelly in there and they’re crowding me.” There was Demon Scream-My-Head-Off and Demon Punch-the-Wall and Miss Apathy and Ms. Lack of Self-Confidence.

“Jesus didn’t walk on water, Harley-Jane, just to watch you drown,” he’d said.

Now I was drowning in slushie with an ache in my back and it wouldn’t be long before Gary came over to watch me bent over. I could tell he was there when the back of my neck felt like a just hatched spider egg. Oh, here come the baby spiders!

“Gary, do you mind? I can’t work with your eyeballs like laser beams on my booty,” I stood and faced him.

Gary’s winter-gray mall security uniform hung from his stick figure. His eyes leaked and he had black hairy nostrils. “I wrote you another poem,” he said. “Wanna hear?”

I rolled my eyes. “Don’t you have elusive shop lifters to chase?” He shook his head. “How about a false fire alarm?” Again with the head. “No security video tapes to pore over?”

“It’s about you.”

“Surprise, surprise, this must be my lucky day.” Gary started leaning over the counter to breathe his phlegmy asthmatic germs all over it. I thrust up my hands, “STOP right there. Back up, Gary. Do not make me clean that counter again.”

Gary thought this was funny: holding the counter hostage. He opened his mouth wide and went in for the kill.

“Okay! Tell me the damn poem.”

Gary’s missing lateral incisor tooth reminded me of a portal to an underground sewer where refugees had gathered in the hopes of rescue only to never be seen again. He tried to stand up straight but one shoulder bent at a funny angle. He swiped his greasy black hair off his forehead then cleared his throat.

“The title of this poem is: The Corpse Bride.”

“Isn’t that a Tim Burton movie?”

“Are you gonna listen or just criticize?”

“Okay, hurry up. I’ve got to put the Freezee back together.”

“As I was saying:

The Corpse Bride

by Gary Vanheusen.

My beautiful corpse bride

Your flesh has died

Gleaming white your skull

My heart is full.

No one else can ever

Have you, Never!”

“Jesus, Gary! What the hell? You’re such a creeper.”

“Do you like it?”

“Oh yeah, it’s right up there with a Charles Simic.”

“You think so? It’s a Halloween poem.” He was so damn proud he got real cute for about two seconds. “What are you doing for lunch?”

“Going to my car to get my phone. I forgot it.”

“Okay, I’ll walk you out. See you later I’ve got to do my rounds now.” He waved good-bye and smiled, his portal trying to suck me in while I shouted, “I don’t need any help!”

When Heaven’s on your doorstep, take your shoes off.

It was a slow morning, so I made too many pretzels. I made jalapeno cheese ones then blueberry then artichoke cashew. I stacked them and re-stacked them and then ate a couple while Dyaniesha was in the back office. Since Gary knew my schedule like he knew the insides of his eyelids, he arrived promptly to escort me to my car.

My tire was flat.

“Your tire’s flat,” he said.

“No shit. Like one of your poems.”

Gary frowned, put a hand up to his heart like I’d just stabbed him.

Where was my other cheek? On a road trip.  “Sorry. It’s just. I’m having a really bad day. Had a mold problem this morning with my mom.”

“Yeah, mom’s can be a real pain. Laugh when you read your poems.”

“Or when you tell her you might want to be a geodesist.”

“You want to study geodynamical phenomena such as the tides and polar motion?”

You know what a geodesist does?”

“My roommate’s talked about it. I go to Michigan. I’m in the aerospace program.”

“Jesus, Gary! You never told me!”

“Thought you didn’t like nerds. You’re so cool. Not a nerd at all, but super smart.”

“Thank you.” Gary’s cute factor multiplied exponentially at that moment. “Sorry about what I said about your poems.”

“That’s okay. I was just writing them to impress you. Pop open your trunk and I’ll show you how to change the tire.”

It took us so long, my lunch break was over. The lug nuts on my 1992 Chevy Geo Metro were corroded so Gary and I had to run to Speedy Auto Parts and buy some WD-40. I could pay Gary back after I got my paycheck. He sprayed the lug nuts until they dripped rusty brown. Then I whacked him in the knee with that pole that sticks out of the jack. He was still limping when we ran back to Granny Earle’s. I was almost late again so Dyaniesha was using her nail fang to tap against the punch clock.

“Thanks, Gary,” I handed him an ice pack. “I owe you.”

But that snowball was still gathering flotsam and the jetsam walked right up to the counter, with their straightened glossy hair and their wide-angle ‘tudes. I just knew there was going to be trouble as I had waited on them before and it had been very hard not to be a smart-ass.

The taller girl said, “Yeah, we ordered nacho cheese dip and you gave us the wrong dip. This ain’t nacho cheese dip. It’s somethin’ else.” She wore a black tube top for a skirt and a yellow sleeveless blouse that emphasized her cleavage. She slapped the plastic cup of yellow dip on the counter.

More than half the dip was gone. The demons squirmed inside me. Who eats more than half the dip before they realize it’s not what they ordered?

“Yeah, that’s somethin’ else,” the other girl said. “Somethin’ we didn’t order.” She slung out her chunky hip at a sharp angle and stuck her hand where her skinny jeans forced her flesh into undulating rolls.

I swallowed then angled my best cheek forward – the one with the Marilyn Monroe mole. “May I please see your receipt?”

The taller girl worked her I-Phone out of her uplift then peeled the itty bitty receipt off the back of the phone. She flung the receipt and it floated and landed on my just-sprayed clean counter. I could see its damp germy spots. The demons hissed and one of them started tapping on the door, with her sharp pointy red nail. I snapped the finger tips of my latex glove tight. Sometimes I could control myself through the measuring out of small shocks of pain. I picked up the receipt. The words were mostly rubbed off so I had to hold it close to my face. It smelled like that worm smell after it rains in summer when the worms inch across the concrete. I gagged a little. But sure enough, it said they ordered nacho cheese dip.

“See! I ordered nacho cheese dip,” the tall one said. One of her boobs was overly-exposed from all the rummaging around in the bra. “You got to give me what I ordered.”

I couldn’t speak, but I pointed to the boob while nodding and refusing to look.

She put her boob away as if I’d asked her to lasso the moon. “I didn’t order no mustard.”

I couldn’t believe I had given a customer mustard and not nacho cheese. I made a mistake? Mistakes meant screaming and shoving and slapping and hysterical tears. I grabbed the dip and took a big whiff. It was mustard. The demons wanted out, wanted me to blow through the red light at the crossroads.

What would Jesus have done when his customers complained? Let’s say, Mary Magdalene ordered cherry cabinets and Jesus forgot, say he had a lot on his mind, like Scriptures or something important, maybe he couldn’t decide which college to go to, and he forgot Mary Magdalene ordered cherry and instead he made her cabinets out of oak. No, they didn’t have oak in Israel, so he used olive trees or … maybe driftwood. He built fires with driftwood that he cooked fish over. And she got all pissed about it. But she didn’t get pissed until a month after he installed them. She used them, had all her plates in them. Mary trounced over to the counter where Jesus worked and said, You made me the wrong cabinets!

The last thing you should do is the first thing you think of.

I turned to get some nacho cheese dip, instead of doing all the other things I wanted to do. Like slap somebody. Or say something that would get me fired. I felt like I was getting very close to the tipping point. It was a tired achy feeling; I kept pushing the boulder and it kept rolling back down and my shoulders were sore.

The tall girl said, “That’s right! You GOT to gimme my dip. Uh huh. Nacho cheese dip. And it better be hot. I am the customer and you got to do what I say!” She and the other girl laughed.

I turned back. “Only a couple of diptards would eat more than half a cup of mustard before realizing it was NOT nacho cheese dip. So since a couple of diptards did exactly that, maybe those diptards ought to pay for the nacho cheese dip they want now.”

The chunky girl said, “What? You callin’ us diptards?”

The other one leaned over, slamming her filthy hands on the counter. “You better get my goddamn nacho cheese dip. Where’s the manager? I wanna speak to the manager. You need your ass fired.”

“You want nacho cheese dip?” I hissed; the barrier inside me now completely vaporized. Nothing was going to stop me from being the wrong kind of person. Not all those catchy phrases Pastor Bob flung around like ping pong balls in a glass box. Not the shame of acting like my mother. Not the light at the end, beckoning to me, whispering that life could be different. That I could be different.

“I’ll get your goddamn nacho cheese dip.” I shuffled to the dip machine and filled the cup to overflowing and shuffled back to the now toxic counter. “Here’s your fucking nacho cheese dip!”

I whipped it at them.

Before I knew it both of them were over the counter. The tall one landed a punch on my nose and the other girl threw me into the Freezee. Dyaniesha came out of the back shouting like she was on fire then held me by the shoulders. “Somebody call Mall Security,” she yelled.

Gary limped over then escorted the ‘victims’ out of Granny Earle’s. He sent long sorrowful looks my way while taking reports.

Pastor Bob got there in no time flat. We sat on the wooden bench across from Granny Earle’s. I still wore my apron damp with blue raspberry freezee and my hair was no longer in a net. The tussle had seen to that. I suspected it was flying around my head similar to Medusa’s snakes. I looked down and realized I’d lost one of my faded black hard-soled shoes and my big toe had worked its way out of the hole in my black sock. The contrast between my pale toe and the black sock startled me. A little drip of nacho cheese dip clung to my toenail and I spread it around to simulate nail polish. At least I wasn’t going to jail.

“You’re lucky you’re not going to jail,” Pastor Bob said and I threw a sideways glance at him for speaking aloud one of my thoughts. I wondered if I’d been talking my thoughts aloud or if my skull was like an osmotic membrane, open to anyone to reach inside and pull out what I was thinking.

“It was by mutual consent and remorse that everyone dropped all charges,” I said. After all, I was punched in the face and thrown against the Freezee. “All I did was throw nacho cheese dip. They’re the ones who came over the counter.”

“Your supervisor said you’re officially fired and should never approach a Granny Earle’s ever again.”

“My entire life.”

“Your entire life.”

I did like the pretzels there.

“I know you think you have no control over what you call the demons in your closet, Harley-Jane, but I’d like to challenge you to re-configure that conclusion.”

“That’s been a definite problem for me. All day long I’ve been running up against the worst my life delivers.”

Pastor Bob wiped his sweaty forehead. “So, Harley-Jane, have you arrived at the crossroads?”

“You mean like Robert Johnson did?”

“I don’t know about Robert Johnson. Is he a friend of yours?”

“He traded his soul at the crossroads to play the guitar better than anybody ever had before or since. I tried to tell you this once before.”

“I see. He wanted to be able to play the guitar more than anything else. What do you want more than anything else?”

I had to really think about this. I wasn’t sure what I should major in or more importantly, if I was going to be able to afford college. I never knew what to wear on a date. I didn’t know how to get my mother to kick her pill addiction or how to get my father to come back into my life. I didn’t even know why sometimes there were two forks next to the plate. Sometimes I didn’t know how I really felt about Gary. He was cute in a scary kind of creeper way and he knew who Robert Johnson was and sometimes his awful poems made me like him a little. I didn’t know why God had spoken to me that day and had me go to church and then convinced me to be on His team. Why would He want someone like me: a girl with a closet full of demons?

“Yes, I guess I am at the crossroads. But it’s more like being in the middle of the intersection and some of the roads are misty. And my car doesn’t have fog lights, but I know if I go down one of those hazy roads my whole life would change. All I can see clearly are the roads my father left on and my mother walked with me down. But the other roads scare me more sometimes. I can go to a very dark place, and have thoughts no one should have. And do things that I don’t want to do, like throw nacho cheese dip and tell Gary he’s fugly.”

“All I know is what I don’t want to be,” I finally said.

“That’s a good start.”

“You think so?”

He nodded. “Tell me about this.”

“Well, I know that I don’t want to scream at people and call them names and smash my fist into the wall anymore.”

“Or throw dip.”

“Or throw dip. Yes. Or pop pills.”

He nodded.

“I don’t want to be like my mother but when I act like that, I am like my mother. She says terrible cruel things to people and thinks she’s the center of everyone’s universe. She works hard all day in stinky old motel rooms but never has enough money. I’d give anything to not be like my mother.” I took a tissue out of my pants pocket and blew my nose and wiped my eyes.

“I don’t think you have to trade your soul for that,” he said.

“No? It seems very impossible.”

“It will be a lot of hard work but not impossible.”

“Like as hard as being in the Garden of Gethsemane?”

“Possibly. Quite possibly, yes. It’s not easy to learn a new way of being.”

A new way of being. I wanted to be patient and kind and thoughtful. I could be a scientist. “Okay.” Maybe I could even be a good mother. I did want to have a family some day.

“There are no overnight fixes, Harley-Jane. No instant pills. But God will help you.”

“I hope so. Someone better.”

Pastor Bob stood up. “What do you say I walk you to your car?”

“Just a second, I need to apologize to some people.” I walked over to Gary. He was leaning on the counter, talking to Dyaniesha. “Sorry I let you down, Dyaniesha. Thank you for letting me work here.”

“You got to get yourself together, Harley. That was no way to act. You can do better than that,” she smiled ruefully. “I’m gonna miss you.”

“I know,” I said and I did. “I’m going to miss you too.” I felt like such a loser. “I’m so sorry.” I was.

“Aw right. It’s all gonna be alright. I’ll be seein’ you around. Bye, now.” Dyaniesha sashayed away.

“Hey, Gary. How’s the leg?”

“Hey, Harley.” He held his head back enough to emphasize his hairy nostrils. “Sore.”

“I was wondering if you’d like to hang out?” I twisted my head slightly, putting Marilyn in the best light.

Gary looked at me and my mole for a long time. “And do what?”

I shrugged. “See a movie?”

“Like a date?”

“Maybe?” I smiled.

“Yeah, okay.” He smiled. “I thought you’d never ask.”

“Neither did I.”

 

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About the Author

Jennifer Porter lives in metropolitan-Detroit with her long-suffering family and a slew of misfit pets. Her fiction is forthcoming in Beetroot Journal and has appeared in The Dos Passos Review, Jet Fuel Review, Hobo Pancakes, Apeiron Review and Sling Magazine. She earned her MFA at the Bennington Writing Seminars and is a Co-Founding Editor of The Tishman Review.