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Life Line

The special on Tuesdays was fried chicken livers. Meryl Beulow always came in early on Tuesdays.

"When's Estelle coming in?" She called over to where Calvin squatted behind the register, pulling up cartons of cigarettes.

"Nine." Calvin stood and stocked the tobacco display.

Meryl nodded. "Good."

Meryl tossed raw chicken livers around in the big steel bowl until they were completely coated. The guys who worked checking power lines for CP&L came into the Citgo in Bryanstown for lunch every Tuesday, so Meryl always started the livers up first thing. The big white trucks with the blue utilities company lettering on the side and the cherry-picker on the back would pull in around ten-thirty, grumbling into the parking lot at the town end of Beaufort Street. The Citgo was the only gas station in Bryanstown as well as the only grill that wasn't walk-up. If the lot was full, like it so often was in the summertime, jetskis and trailered bass boats nudging each other between the gas pumps, the CP&L boys lined the trucks up across the street in the empty lot beside Walker's Inn. Tuesdays hadn't changed in the eight years Meryl had worked as a cook at the store and grill; she could even depend on the customers to be as constant as the sun.

Today, she knew too, would be even busier than usual. Seine Beach was sponsoring a week-long bass tournament and she figured on a crowd from that too; she'd come in an hour early even and didn't mind it. That hour meant an extra five-fifty and besides she liked just cooking when the store was slow. Calvin hummed softly to canned Muzack as he stocked and restocked. It was near nine o'clock and Estelle would be in any minute; Meryl was glad Calvin had enough sense to schedule the two of them together every Tuesday. They worked like a team, passing off hot dog buns and orders quick and efficient. They never bumped into each other or the tables and customers, especially the good ones like Buck, never had to wait.

"Estelle the belle!" An old man leaned against the counter just beyond the display case, sipping coffee.

Estelle tromped around the counter, opening a set of lockers hidden in a corner and shoving her big black purse out of view. She pulled a white cotton apron from the hook beside the lockers and draped the top strap around her neck, then tied the strings around her waist. "Buster Wiggins, you need to hush."

She immediately bent to the warmer and started pulling out plastic wrapped packages of hot dog rolls, restocking the wire shelves above the grill. "Where we at?" She asked Meryl.

Meryl lifted her hands from the steel bowl tossed with livers and flour. She pointed to the flour line on her forearm. "'Bout up to here."

Estelle grinned and moved over to check the freezer, making sure Calvin had ordered everything they needed. "How's Keith?" She asked from inside the freezer door.

"Fat and sassy." Keith was Meryl's baby, seven this year, playing baseball and soccer and everything else he could cajole Meryl into paying for through Bryanstown Community Sports. Estelle's children were all grown and gone, but she never once failed to ask about Meryl's Keithy first thing every morning they shifted together. Meryl scooped more breading into the steel bowl from a big plastic white tub. "He's got a cold, though. Coughing something awful last night."

"Bless his heart. You take him to the doctor?" Estelle finished up her count in the freezer and moved to paper goods, plates, and trays. Styrofoam bowls came up out of a plastic sleeve and towered in Estelle's hand.

"Naw, just a change of season cold, I reckon." Meryl's hands and arms, covered with an extra skin of dried sticky flour, worked in the bowl without missing a beat. She lifted two handfuls of battered meat out of the depths of the steel bowl and spread it expertly on a waiting lined tray. Then Meryl dumped more meat into the bowl. "I am worried about him, though."

Estelle stepped up with a new empty tray; she whisked the full one away, setting it by the fryer, calling over her shoulder. "He had the cold long?"

"Day or so. Just long enough to make him ill as a snake." Meryl grabbed up the salt and pepper and shook them over the bowl. "But you know how he is. Take his shoes off in the dead a winter."

"He's always been a barefoot baby." Estelle laughed. She slung open the heavy door to the walk-in freezer and hoisted up another box of frozen chicken livers. She carried to the prep table beside Meryl and slit it open with a paring knife. "But you think he's okay?"

"Oh sure, sure." Meryl didn't look up, just tossed the food by handfuls.

Estelle glanced at Meryl as she poked a hole through the plastic bag inside the box and then slit the bag from corner to corner. "What you worried about then?"

Estelle dumped the new livers into the drainer in the big steel sink; they had to be washed before they disappeared into the breading. Meryl emptied the bowl again, ready for another batch.

Estelle glanced back over her shoulder to see where Calvin was, then lowered her voice. "Is it . . ." Her voice trailed off.

Meryl looked up at her. "What?"

Estelle kept her voice low. "You know, that other thing?"

Meryl scooped up a handful of breaded chicken, shaking her palm a little to separate the pieces; wet, they curled like babies against each other in the breading bowl. She dropped them one by one on to the tray. "Naw, I feel too silly."

"But if you're worried, can't be no harm in asking." Estelle ran a strong straight stream of cold water over the meat in the sink.

"Asking who?" Meryl finished the tray and carried it herself over to the rack by the deep fryer. When she came back, she pushed the rounded scoop aside and just dumped what was left in the big flour tin into the bowl.

Estelle put one hand on her hip, her eyes big. "The doctor, that's who."

Meryl concentrated on the food in front of her. "They don't usually do no palm-reading when he has a checkup."

"Don't have to be short." Estelle said. "I just think if you're worried, you ought to—"

Meryl cut her off. "What am I s'posed to say? Excuse me, Dr. Shappley, but could you take a look at Keithy's hand? He seems to be missing a lifeline." She swung the metal industrial salt and pepper shakers like hammers.

Estelle raised her hand, palm up, and studied it. She pointed and asked, "This one here's your life line, right?"

Meryl nodded. Estelle splayed her fingers wide in the air. "Well, what's this one here?"

Meryl used both hands and sifted the salt and pepper through the breading, then stopped to look at Estelle's upraised palm. "Which one?"

"This one?" She pointed to a deep line crossing the top of her palm.

"That's your heart line." Meryl pulled her hands up from the bowl. "You right-handed or left-handed?"

"Why?"

"'Cause that's the hand you read first. It's your conscious hand." She looked into her own palm. Sticky flour clung to her skin, accentuating the lines in her hand. "That's your heart line and this one here's the head line." She touched the fleshy pads beneath each finger. "These things mean something too, but I never can remember what." She buried her hands back into the bowl and set to tossing the chicken.

"How you know so much about this anyway?" Estelle still stared at her own hand.

Meryl shook her head. "One of them books you can get at the grocery store." She shuffled her fists through the sticky breading. "Stupid kid stuff."

"Still," Estelle said "If you're worried, you ought to say something to the doctor."

"Yeah right. 'Stead of looking at Keith, he'll sit me up on the table. Or send me to a head doctor."

Estelle laughed. "Or send you to Sister Alice over to Kinston." She heaved the over-sized strainer with the next load of livers up out of the sink and set it on the white rags Meryl had spread all over the worktable. "You seen she's doing TV now? Commercials even for palm-reading and spiritual advisement."

"She's something, that's for sure." Meryl emptied the strainer into the flour. It took her two tries to bury them completely under the breading. "All that stuff doesn't mean anything anyway."

"Okay, if you say so." Estelle moved to the display case. The bell on the front door jingled and jangled then jingled and jangled some more and several carloads of customers came in. "I just hate for you to worry."

Meryl checked her watch. Still early yet, not even ten. "Naw, I'm just being a silly mama."

Estelle smiled at her. "All mama's silly, I guess. Even when the younguns ain't little no more." An old farmer approached the case and Estelle turned to him. "Can I help you, sir?"

Meryl pictured Keithy's smooth unlined palm. She'd never tell Estelle, but Sister Alice was the first one to read her palm. She and Paul Nelson, her boyfriend in high school, had driven there in his old Mustang on Halloween their junior year. Sister Alice lived in a green singlewide off the bypass on the way to Wilson. Meryl had leaned against the counter in the little kitchen while Sister Alice in her pink Jaclyn Smith jogging suit read Paul's hand. Look and you shall see. Paul was part Lumbee Indian and his broad-cheeked face and dark eyes had been so intense that Meryl felt embarrassed; she'd spent the whole time waiting and staring into a two-day old pot of macaroni and cheese cooked hard and brown sitting just below the GE symbol on Sister Alice's stove.

Sister Alice had called honey, honey before Meryl heard her and took Paul's place at the Formica covered table. Give me your hand. Weakness for men. Yeah, like who couldn't tell that by looking at her, Meryl had thought. But she listened, tracing a cigarette burn in the Formica, like a tiny bomb crater, when Sister Alice talked about travel and foreign shores. She'd thought more than once about putting Keith in the car and driving him down Highway 264 to Sister Alice; it might be worth paying the twenty-five dollars to have the woman look into his little hand. But it took five hours of chicken livers or cheese biscuits to earn twenty-five bucks and Meryl just couldn't make it not seem stupid to spend their money that way. The truth was she wasn't sure she wanted to hear what Sister Alice would say when she saw Keith's hand smooth as sheet of glass.

"Look who's here early, Meryl." Estelle laughed through the sweat boiling off her cocoa-colored face as she lifted wire basket after wire basket out of the deep fryer. Estelle dumped knots of battered fried chicken livers into waiting paper trays with her left hand, dropping another basket of floury peppery pieces into the hot oil with her right.

Meryl spun to see Buck Thompson, the CP&L crew chief, standing at the counter. He was only a few years shy of retirement, a good twenty years older than Meryl's thirty-four. But they had become friends, and Meryl had a hard time thinking of Buck as old.

"I see ya, Buck." Meryl called from the steel prep table.

The rest of the utility crew lined up behind where Buck stood in front of the display case full of potato wedges, collards, and fried apple uglies. Meryl called out her usual greeting. "You keeping 'em straight, Buck?"

Buck's quick smile was one of the reasons Meryl liked her job. They always joked around when he came in. "Sheeet," he'd usually say, "Sheeet, Miss Meryl, you know you can't teach these boys nothing." Even now, two younger men jostled each other behind him, eyeing a young blonde woman at the register, waiting for Calvin to ring up her Coke and candy bar. But Buck didn't say anything. Maybe he hadn't heard her.

Calvin had the Muzak going full-bore overhead and Meryl bobbed her head in time to an instrumental version of Muskrat Love even though she hated that song. She looked up at Buck expecting him to rib her about the song, but instead he studied his thumbnail, cigarette smoke a haze around his head. Meryl washed her hands, the powdery gloves of flour turning to dough under the water, then she beaded it off as she moved toward the front. She glanced at the clock. "You knockin' off early, Buck?"

"Yall ain't heard? Plane crashed into them Trade Towers in New York." He stubbed out the smoking butt in his hand in a nearby ashtray, then immediately shuffled another Pall Mall out of his striped pocket and hung it slow on his lip; he flicked his lighter open but it didn't light.

"What? When?"

"Little while ago. News on the TV at the dispatch office. I watched as long as I could, then decided it was time for me to go home to Dottie." He fired the lighter and lit the dangling cigarette. He spoke slowly. "Give me an eight piece of white, will ya, Meryl? To go." He pointed to the fried chicken they ran as a regular special. She grabbed a red and white cardboard box and popped it open. Then she took the tongs and started piecing out chicken from beneath the heat lamps.

He squinted against the smoke in his eyes. "Y'all ain't got no news on in here?"

"News?" Meryl looked around. It was the slow time of the morning. Calvin wasn't at the register; he was probably in the office. Estelle was back in the walk-in. The song changed and a Muzak version of Fleetwood Mac's Dreams whistled through the store. "Calvin always leaves just the music on."

Buck took his box of chicken down and held it at his side.

"Two planes. Somebody actually flew two planes into them buildings."

"Little planes?" Meryl frowned.

"Nope, passenger jets. First tower already come down." He drew long on the cigarette, deepening the lines around his eyes and mouth. "They're saying maybe it was a bunch of them A-rabs."

"I don't understand." Meryl didn't know any Arabs. Wait, yes, there was one, a kid in Keith's class named Nassar. Keith had come home all excited when Nassar was new to his class, chattering about how he was from Egypt and had flown on an airplane all the way here. Keith followed her around one whole Saturday wanting to know if Nassar's family had lived in pyramids before they came to Bryanstown. Were Egyptians Arabs? Meryl didn't know.

"Is it real bad?" Meryl asked.

Buck shrugged, looking up toward the register. "Bad enough."

The bell on the front door dinged and Calvin came in from outside. Meryl called out to him. "I thought you was in the office." Calvin crossed the store and went around the end of the grill to get behind the counter.

"You hear about them planes in New York?" Meryl asked, but then she saw Calvin had a small black and white TV in his hand.

He lifted it a little. "Yeah, thought we might want to catch the news." He carried the little set over behind the register and plugged it in. A newsman's face filled the screen first off, then was followed by prerecorded pictures of a plane slamming into the side of the first tower. Meryl just stared; a second plane came out of nowhere and sheared through the corner of the second tower.

Buck made a hard swallowing sound, almost a growl, and Meryl turned to look at him.

"I gotta go." He gave her a half wave and took the chicken to Calvin at the cash register. Estelle yelled from the walk-in; the box of thighs that needed to be thawed for tomorrow was heavy. Could Meryl come help her? The walk-in crackled with cold; Meryl lifted her end of the box and they hauled it the length of the walk-in, frozen breath exploding from both of them in little puffs on the air.

Meryl passed the next few hours in a daze. The newsman with the hair that didn't move talked on all day behind where Calvin rang people up. The lunch rush came and went; everyone talked about the disaster in New York. Meryl and Estelle still moved like dance partners, chicken in, customers out. Meryl listened from the prep table as the TV reported the numbers of dead and missing. It grew every hour. She floured and breaded and fried and grilled and dialed the number to the Bryanstown school three times. All three times, she hung up. She was being silly again. She really just wanted someone to tell her that Keith was okay. They all jumped, Calvin, Estelle, and Meryl, looking at each other, when the phone rang, expecting it to be something even worse than what kept playing and replaying on the TV. Meryl served up collards and cornbread or hotdogs, all the time not sure she couldn't imagine what could be worse.

She started watching the wall clock around two. Belinda was on nights and Meryl needed to make sure she knew what to prep for the morning. But Belinda at twenty made Meryl feel old; the girl never did come in early, always rushing in like a high wind at ten till three, usually hungover and sporting at least one new hickey from some guy or another she'd met out to Hard Times. The phone rang just before three and Calvin snatched it up. "Citgo."

Estelle patted Meryl on the arm as she passed the prep table. "Almost that time, girl."

"Needs to be." Meryl said. She wanted to pick Keith up, check on his cold, and get them both home where at least it felt safe. No planes pointed, she felt sure, at her little trailer down on Beaufort Street.

She heard Calvin say, "We'll manage." He hung up.

"Belinda called in." He yelled over to Meryl and Estelle.

"Again?" Estelle asked. "What she got this time?"

Calvin shrugged.

Meryl finished washing up the steel bowls and threw them up on top of the drainer. "You call somebody in for her?" She called over to where Calvin was counting out the cash drawer for his change of shift.

The night manager, Dennis, was a college boy from Boston; Meryl loved to hear him talk. His accent put her in mind of the movies and most days, she would hang around just to listen to him for a little bit. Today, though, she just wanted to go home.

Calvin closed the money drawer and shook his head. "Nobody to call."

Meryl and Estelle stared at each other.

"Meryl, it's your turn to pull a double."

She spun around. "But I need to get Keith."

Calvin shrugged. "It's your turn."

Estelle stopped untying her apron. "I'll do it, Calvin."

He shook his head. "Nope, can't. You've pulled two doubles already this week. Law says no more." He looked at Meryl. "I'm sorry, Meryl, but it's gotta be you."

She turned back to the sink, snatched up a white rag, and scrubbed at the last pot in the sink. "I'll have to find a sitter."

Estelle finished taking off her apron. She got her purse from the locker. "Look, don't call nobody. I'll go get Keith and watch him."

"You ain't got to do that."

"I know I don't." Estelle's round face softened. "I want to. I ain't seen him in a while." She snapped her big purse closed and smiled. "I'll get him from school and take him to your place. We'll have a good time."

Meryl sighed. "I sure would appreciate that, Stelle."

"No problem." She walked around the counter. "We'll be just fine till you get home." Estelle patted the top of the hot case and waved.

Meryl turned back to the table. If Belinda wasn't coming in, she had a whole night of chicken to cut up and biscuit dough to make. Then she remembered something. "Stelle! Wait! Don't forget his cold." Meryl crossed to where Estelle stood near the door. "Keith's gonna need that Robitussin again before he goes to bed. He 'bout coughed himself to death last night."

"That's fine. I'll remember." Estelle smiled indulgently and Meryl knew why. Estelle had raised three boys already; she knew how to take care of Keith.

But Meryl couldn't help herself. "It's up on top of the fridge, and how much to give him's in the chart on the back."

Estelle nodded. "I'll remember."

"It's by weight and I give him the amount for fifty-six pounds." Meryl tapped the top of the display case; it was greasy and her fingers left streaks. Estelle reached up and squeezed her hand.

"We'll be just fine, Meryl. I'll treat him just like he was my own."

Meryl wiped the grease off on her apron and nodded, watching after Estelle when she left.

The door closed behind Estelle and Meryl went back to the walk-in, dragging a case of whole fryers out into the middle of the floor. She peeled back the plastic inside and began to count the bare cold hens.

Dennis was late, so Calvin sat on the wooden stool behind the register. The second plane flew repeatedly on videotape over his left shoulder as Meryl lifted and counted out what would be needed for tomorrow's grill.

Both the stainless steel tables and the vinyl covering on the floor shone by ten-thirty that night when Meryl walked out the door in front of Dennis. Even the town end of Beaufort Street was quiet as a church this late at night and Meryl stood for a second, just listening to the silence. Dennis said, "Hold up, Meryl, and I'll walk you to the car."

He locked up and then walked her to her battered Honda where it sat at the far end of the Citgo lot. "Looks almost abandoned, don't it?"

"Lonely's all." Meryl pictured all the cars she'd seen on the TV today, so covered in ash from when the towers fell down that they looked like snowdrifts lining the streets.

"Bet it is lonely. You been here since six?" Dennis shook his head.

"Five today." She dug her keys out.

Dennis grinned. "Leave a car on the street this long in Boston, you'd be lucky to have a car at all."

Usually Meryl would have teased him about leaving off the r in car. Her keys jingled and Dennis gave her a little salute. His new truck sat a few feet away in the space marked Manager. Meryl found the door key and unlocked her door. "Well, least it gets me here."

"That it does." Dennis saw her into the car and then walked away.

Meryl didn't wait for the Honda to warm up before she left; the motor ticked and complained the whole way to her house on Beaufort Street.

Estelle was asleep on the couch, the news on, when Meryl got home. The newscaster was talking about the empty New York skyline and she thought about turning the sound down. But she didn't. She woke Estelle and thanked her and bundled her out the door. Estelle stood there a second in the porch light, still half-asleep, going on and on about how good Keith was. "A pure angel," she said. "I gave him his medicine and he went right on to bed. Out like a light when I checked."

"I sure do appreciate it, 'Stelle."

Estelle smiled sleepily. "It's just fine. And he is too." She patted Meryl's hand where it hung on the door handle. "You should be proud."

"I am." Meryl said, then impulsively, she hugged Estelle. "Thank you, 'Stelle."

She closed the trailer door and snapped the deadbolt into place. Meryl stood for a moment on bones so tired they felt like they had gone to sleep ahead of her. Then she sat down to untie her shoes. When she looked up again, the president filled the screen. Meryl didn't know which made her more tired, the double-shift, or the idea that in New York, in Washington, there were so many people going to bed without a clue about their families, the people they loved. She got to her feet; her heels bunched so hard beneath her from standing that, even in her sock feet, she still felt the weight of her shoes; painfully she crept across the carpet to Keith's bedroom. At first, she just leaned against the doorjamb, looking at him in the yellow glow of his Pokémon night-light. She heard the president behind her as he called the acts of terrorism evil. Buck Thompson's face came back to her, his eyes wreathed in smoke and time. She imagined Dottie had been relieved to see him come home early for a change.

The local television station cut in to do updates on the delta status of Fort Bragg, Cherry Point, and Camp Lejeune, all local military bases right down the road. Oh god, Meryl thought, she hadn't even thought about that. Then she recognized the voice of Miss Cleo, the phone psychic who advertised her services including the first three minutes free! Meryl managed a tired smile at that; Keith did imitations of Miss Cleo, usually when they were together in the car.

She sat down on the side of the bed and touched the top of his head. Miss Cleo knows ALL the answers! Meryl loved the way Keith could mimic pretty much anything he heard. He twisted his young mouth around a foreign accent as easily as he wrapped his fingers around a baseball.

Now, he slept on his side, his hands folded loosely together on the pillow beside his face. Meryl picked up his hand, but then glanced at him, afraid she was going to wake him up. His lips gapped open, but he didn't even stir when she turned his hand over and touched the soft cup of his palm with her fingers. Smooth skin met her touch where the lines in his hand were supposed to be. She traced the mound at the base of his thumb until her fingertips stopped on the inside of his wrist. His pulse beat slow and even beneath her fingers. When he was a baby, she had asked Dr. Shappley to teach her how to take a pulse the right way. He slept so deeply as an infant that when she touched his wrist or the small throb of blood in the side of his neck, a lot of times, she hadn't been able to tell whether she was feeling his pulse or her own.

She closed her eyes and counted his pulse. Then she laid his small hand down on the pillow, carefully, palm up.

Meryl took the two steps to the trailer's only bathroom and rumbled around in the one cabinet until she found what she wanted. She returned to the bedroom, but this time, Meryl pushed the door open completely. Light from the lamps on in the living room dimly illuminated the edge of the pillow and Keith's face. She sat again on the side of his bed and whispered his name. "Keith?"

No answer. "Keithy, honey, it's Mama."

He didn't stir; she heard only his soft breath, in and out, in and out. Meryl slid Keith's hand over to the edge of the pillow. His sleeping fingers curled just a little bit toward his palm, and Meryl took a deep breath, expecting him any minute to wake up and say Mama. He would wake up sometimes and want to climb up into her lap; usually, she let him. He smelled like sleep and soap, and wanted her to tell him his favorite bedtime story.

What am I gonna be when I grow up, Mama?

What do you want to be?

Tonight, I want to be a fireman.

Other nights, Keithy said policeman, or bullrider, or racecar driver. Meryl would smell his hair and tell him everything she knew about whatever job he picked, but the stories always ended the same way.

She unfolded her own fingers. A razor blade lay square and dully lit in her hand. Meryl heard Dan Rather and Buck Thompson saying Bad enough over and over as the edge of the old-style blade caught for one second in the light before Meryl pinched it between her thumb and her index finger. It was one of the three blades that went with her daddy's old-fashioned double-edged razor. Her mama had given it to her after Daddy died—for Keith, she'd said. Meryl had always been careful to keep the whole shaving kit in the back of the cabinet well out of reach.

Bad enough.

Meryl watched Keith's face closely. If she drew the blade slowly, not pressing too hard, maybe he wouldn't feel it. She just needed to make a line from the folded skin at Keith's thumb to the mound beneath it. But she'd have to do it hard enough so it'd scab, then scar. Meryl imagined tiny drops melting together to form a thin red crescent down Keith's palm. The blade, cold at first, now warmed between her fingertips. Keith stirred, then let go a small gasp that faded to a sleeping sigh.

Meryl stood and took the blade back into the bathroom, tucking it back with the others in her father's shaving kit. Returning to the bedroom, she saw Keith's mouth flash a half-smile from his dream. She moved him over in the small bed and slid into the Pokémon sheets beside him. He shifted a little, and his hands came to rest just beneath her cheek. She whispered into them. "It's okay, shhh, Mama's here."

It took a minute for her body to relax into the soft mattress. She hoped Dottie appreciated the chicken Buck had bought and then she reminded herself to tell Estelle that she'd cover for her next week so she could have an extra day off. The TV was still on; she ought to go turn it off. Dan Rather's voice droned like a faraway engine, Meryl thought sleepily. Or a plane, maybe. Keith jumped up and down when the planes from the airforce base flew over, excited, pointing at the sky. "Plane, Mama."

He had such good ears, Meryl thought sleepily, ears good enough to mimic any accent, good enough to hear a plane when it was nothing more than an invisible hum somewhere up over the trees.

Printed in the Fall/Winter 2003 issue of CLR

Mary Carroll-Hackett

Mary Carroll-Hackett currently teaches at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Cities & Roads, Wellspring, Kimera, Independence Boulevard, and Lynx Eye, among others.

She is pursuing an MFA through the Writing Seminars at Bennington College.


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