While I Was Out


If I was alive the day John F. Kennedy was shot, I would have most likely been drinking a milkshake at Highland Park Soda Fountain. Butterscotch would have been my poison of choice, and I wouldn't have waited to slide the change I’d found in my mother's purse across the counter, before sticking a finger in the top of the glass and licking my finger clean. My mother's words, "that is not a thing ladies do," would be playing in the back of my mind, but I would have continued on. My beehive hairdo would have been freshly wrapped and plump and crisp with hairspray, just like The Ronettes, and I would have felt just as alluring as them, but half as classy. The only thing keeping my skirt intact would have been the safety pin I clipped to it that morning, expanding as my belly did, as the milkshake escaped my glass and filtered into my mouth faster than the server could refill glasses of Dr. Pepper.

At 12:30 p.m. I would spin around to see Doug Henley staring just north of my waist and just south of my glass as I pulled the straw away from my mouth and sat the glass on the counter. I would wipe the moisture from my lips with the glide of my thumb and Doug would blush. Try to slow his breath and bite his lip to keep me from seeing how much my presence unwound him. This time of year the shop would have been nearly empty. Men and women deciding to stay inside their stale offices and cluttered homes and slurp their homemade soup instead of risking a cold from what mild breeze there may have been that day.

Despite the chill that would now coat my skin, the ignited warmth between Doug Henley and I would be undeniable. I would have tilted my head that way women do when they meet a man and try to guess what he's about. Wonder what and who he’s doing at night, and what his day job might be. All things between Doug and I would be familiar though. I would have been the kind of girl that teased him but never let him go too far, and he would have been the kind of guy that could never move past all the awful things his mother said about me. On days like this, when not many people were around, Doug would have painted himself in faux confidence and moved to the stool next to me.

“Bit of a chilly day to be eating ice cream don’t you think?” he’d ask.

“Bit of a chilly day to be eating alone,” I’d reply. And the smirk on my face would tell him that I was teasing, and that I wouldn’t want him to go.

“Another milkshake for the lady,” he’d say to the server, who now stood just across from us, staring at the narrow space between us.

“Strawberry, this time,” I’d chime in. And Doug would go on to order his usual Swiss grilled cheese and Coke, and I’d think how unoriginally American we both were.

By 1:00 p.m. our dishes would have been cleared and the atmosphere around us would have felt eerily quiet. On my sugar high I would have barely noticed, and would have been probing Doug about the primadonna he took to the movies last weekend. “You know Susie Faley,” he’d say. “She’s a nice girl.”

“A complete shell of a person,” I’d say, with no actual justification, just the fact that I disliked her messing up my weekly run-ins with Doug. He would have tried to convince me, just as he was trying to convince himself, that her eyes sparkled of diamonds because she was the girl his mother was fond of.

Our conversation would have continued on until 2:38 p.m. when the server leaned on the back counter, tossed the cloth he’d used to wipe the countertops on the soda fountain, and flipped the radio switch on. I probably would have been saying something about my Thanksgiving plans and my aunt’s dry yams when the server shushed me, pressing his ear closer to the radio. Inside the box a monotone voice would speak out, displaying all signs of exhaustion. Not one of us would have said a word about what he announced. Just sat there in our emotions and overflowing feelings. The server would have blown his nose into the handkerchief just tucked in his pocket and excused himself to the back. The world would have been stricken with panic attacks and unnerving grief, and sitting in Highland Park Soda Fountain talking to someone else’s future husband, I would have missed it all.

Cree Pettaway is a first year MFA student at Louisiana State University. Her most recent work of fiction, “Why We’re Not Married,” is set to appear in the inaugural issue of Oyster River Pages in August.