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Close to the Edge
Every morning, it's the same.
She pours some coffee and brings it out in front of the roadhouse. The view is identical in either direction.
To the east lies Cajun country, the bayous, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, then on down to New Orleans. She lived there once. Before her daddy passed; before Mama married again.
To the west lies Texas. She's never been there.
The road goes on forever either way. Straight and flat and right now, dusty. Drought.
If a vehicle heads toward the ramshackle place, clouds of dust announce its imminent arrival. Nothing so far this morning, but it's early.
She lights her first cigarette of the day. It's already hot: another scorcher. Sitting on the steps, the sun caresses her shoulders. By sundown, they'll be slick with sweat.
Finished with her coffee, she stands for a moment, gazing at the bleak vista. A vagrant breeze blows the hair away from her face: a face so serene and impassive, she might be mistaken for a saint or a madwoman.
Natalie, the patron saint of nowhere. It's time to set up for the day, so that's what she does.
It wasn't always like this. But her mother is gone, lost to the dust, consumed by a cancer that camped out in her bones, and Natalie is stuck here, with a mean drunk of a stepfather and a lazy, brutal husband. Her body is a map of misery, a catalogue of beatings and fights fueled by too much booze consumed by the men she serves daily. They come to the roadhouse for food or gas, or a room for the night. Sometimes they merely come for Natalie: to gape and stare and grope. Sometimes, she lets them.
She lets them fuck her for money because someday, she'll have enough to leave. It's not so bad. She lies there and thinks about other things. She listens to the music in her mind. They're just renting her body; her soul is her own.
Gradually, men file in, parking their trucks out in front, filmed with dirt from the road. Men who haul goods from one place to another. They get off the Interstate because this is the only place for another fifty miles where the coffee is strong and the food is tasty. Natalie is a good cook and she's easy on the eyes, with her long dark curls and big tits.
The rooms are clean, too.
Billy swaggers in, calls out greetings all around. He sidles his way past Natalie as she flips pancakes. She turns to pour him coffee, but he slaps her ass and the hot brown liquid splashes, burning her thigh beneath her flimsy cotton dress. She glares; says nothing.
"Stupid clumsy cunt." Silently, she hands him a fresh cup. This little bit of domestic drama is meant to convey something. Hands off, she's mine.
Fuck you, you fucking prick. She sets a plate of grits and bacon on the long counter, smiling automatically at the beefy trucker who waits for his food. Music blares from the jukebox while Natalie scrambles eggs, flips burgers, pours coffee. She ties her hair back with a violet ribbon, damp with sweat.
Breakfast is over by ten. Lunch is over by two. By three, Natalie's been shoved, pushed, propositioned and sucker-punched in the stomach by her stepfather. Dan the man. Dan with his shriveled dick and a heart to match. He's too drunk for sex today. Billy's off to Baton Rouge until tomorrow. Natalie washes her face, grateful for the break.
Around seven-thirty, dust appears on the horizon. They don't do much dinner business, but Natalie can always put something together. Dan is out back in his trailer, passed out cold. She tiptoes in, leaves the bottle of Jack next to his bed. The trailer stinks of dirty socks and dried semen. Once she's safely outside, she takes a big gulp of air as if it was a gift from God.
The dust cloud draws closer. Natalie squints; nobody familiar. A red pickup truck. Nothing special. She peers through the grease coated plastic curtains, trying to get a good look at the driver. Young, short blond hair. Couple of tattoos. Good biceps. Long, slim body: no beer belly on this one. A nice change, she thinks, hoping she doesn't look too much like the dog's dinner. She doesn't want to be caught staring, so when the screen door bangs open, she pretends to be looking for something in the glass-fronted refrigerator case.
"Hey," she says, still looking the other way.
"Hey yourself." Natalie whirls around. That's no young man sitting there. It's a low pitched, but distinctly female voice. She's about Natalie's age, or a bit older. Tanned, in a white tank top; high cheekbones and lips made for kissing.
"What's good? If you're still serving, that is."
Natalie's mouth is bone dry.
The woman smiles. "Cat got your tongue?"
"There's a couple pieces of fried chicken left, okra and tomatoes on the side."
"No complaints from me." She narrows her eyes, appraising Natalie. "You alone here, sugar?"
"No. My stepdad's out in the trailer."
The woman extends a hand. "Nice to meet you. I'm Georgie. On my way back from New Orleans. You ever go there?"
Natalie says, "Not lately." and offers her own hand in return. Georgie's fingers are warm and strong. She lifts up the hand Natalie has extended.
"You got such little hands!" She reaches over and picks up the other one, staring down at Natalie's wedding band. "Sowhere's your husband?" She slides a long finger the length of Natalie's palm, making her shiver.
"Baton Rouge. Let me get your food."
Blushing like a fool, Natalie hurries out to the kitchen. She can hear the sound of change jingling. Georgie must be getting ready to put money in the jukebox. Her heart is pound-ing in her chest, as she wills her hands to stop trembling. I must be losing my mind. And of course, Georgie has chosen Patsy Cline. "Crazy for lovin' you "
Georgie eats, not like the usual hungry truckers who never pause for breath. She cuts her food and chews slowly, deliberately, all the while watching Natalie cleaning up, wiping down the countertops, refilling the salt and pepper shakers, closing up for the night. As Georgie eats and Natalie rinses dishes, they exchange glances, cutting their eyes away when they happen to meet. The radio plays softly in the background; Georgie's selections are over.
"We still got some pie left," Natalie offers, taking away the empty plate. "Coffee?"
Georgie shakes her head. "Nah, it'll just keep me up all night can I get a room? From the looks of things, you're not exactly full up." She rests her chin on her hand and cocks her head. "I know I've seen you before somewhere. I never forget a face though it might have been a dream." Her slow smile makes promises she'd like to keep.
Once again, Natalie's mouth is dry. "Sure. Let me just get the place ready. We have three cabins out back. Some bunk beds in one of them, you know, every now and then it gets busy, so the guys will bunk together." She has no idea why she's telling Georgie all this. I'm nervous is all. "I'll just be a sec."
Outside, the sky is lowering, crouching beyond the vast flatness of the land. The very last bit of sunset glows red, like the embers of a dying fire. Natalie pauses to take it all in, and this is when she hears the screen door bang in its frame. This is when she turns her head and sees Georgie slouching in the doorway, her short hair ruffled by another passing breeze. Georgie, with those long legs. Baby's got her blue jeans on, all right.
Georgie comes to her and holds Natalie's face in her hands, forcing her to meet that steady blue gaze, blue as Natalie imagines the Gulf of Mexico must be, blue as the morning sky on the day after a hurricane has come and gone. Natalie looks. For the first time, she sees something like she had imagined long ago, before Billy and his bleary gaze, bloodshot and lit up with lust. Georgie whispers in her ear, "Hey girl, let me muss up that hair a little."
Natalie buries her face in Georgie's neck and nods yes. Wordlessly, she takes Georgie to the cabin, the one she likes to hide out in when things get so bad she can't take any more. Here they pull off their clothes and Natalie wakes up; it's like coming back to life.
So this is what they talk about when they talk about living on the edge and it's so much sweeter and better than anything she's ever read in a book and she never wants it to stop.
When midnight comes, so does Dan, weaving and capering, a drunken ape, banging on the door, let me in, slut, bitch I'll fuckin' kill you this time.
Let me in, bitch. Open the damn door.
Georgie holds her while they fuck; Georgie holds her when they sleep.
This morning, it's the same, but it's not and the cloud of dust heading towards East Texas is the cloud Natalie rides toward freedom, her meager possessions stowed in the back of Georgie's truck; Georgie's hand rests on her thigh. Lighting a cigarette, Natalie rolls down the window and tosses her wedding ring out. It winks at her, caught in a ray of sunlight before it drops into an empty field.
When the truckers pull up, the sign on the door reads, 'Closed' and they curse or spit and drive off on the burning black ribbon of road.
When Billy gets back from Baton Rouge, he finds Dan's body and nothing else. It is as if Natalie never existed. The cops come, find nothing, shake their heads and write a report.
Death by misadventure.
Georgie and Natalie climb a sand dune, holding hands. The Gulf of Mexico spreads out before them.
"Beautiful, isn't it?"
Natalie agrees. Her bruises have faded awayand so has life as she knew it. And oh, baby, it's going to be good from now on.
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