"Said the Spider to the Fly"
Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash
“How much for that one?” a sailor asked, gesturing toward me as I chopped onions on the worn linoleum countertop in the back of the diner. He sat at the scared work table a few feet away eating breakfast with the owner, Mrs. Green, another sailor, and a girl from high school with an iffy reputation. I laughed, thinking he was making a joke about me being some type of food. Tears streamed down my cheeks—not from the joke. I was never good with onion.
“Go out front and clean the tables. I’ll chop. Stay there and take the orders.” Mrs. Green barked as she flashed a blazing look at the sailor.
I gratefully gave up the knife, wiped my eyes with my apron, and headed to the front of the diner. A blast of cool air washed over my face when I pushed open the swinging door. There was no grill- heat battling the air-conditioning out front. It was almost as refreshing as stepping into the walk-in refrigerator. Sweat stained my armpits even though the air-conditioning was on. It was going to be another hot, humid day in Texas, something I was not used to, having recently relocated from California.
As the door swung closed, I heard Mrs. Green say. “She’s an officer’s daughter. You can look but don’t touch.” I wondered what that was all about. I was a freshman in high school without a whole lot of experience under my belt.
Mrs. Green kept me out front for the rest of my shift, making shakes, assembling hamburger buns, taking phone orders from the Navy base, which was within spitting distance of the South Gate and our diner. “ I got an order from the Commissary for twenty-five burgers and twenty-five shakes,” I hollered to Mrs. Green. This was back in the early ‘60s before computers were common. Back when we made shakes with fresh fruit and hard ice cream.
“Who’s it from?” she asked. When I told her, she said, “Call them back and ask the officer in charge to confirm. We’ve gotten way too many prank calls from the base, and I’m not going to throw good food in the trash! Sailors are always up to something.” I made the call and sure enough, no one fessed-up.
As the day progressed, men from the base came and went. I rarely saw women at the counter. I was the only girl working at the diner and the men talked nonsense all the time while I’d make their shakes and cones. “You sure are a sight for sore eyes. Do you ever date sailors? I’m in love with you. You are the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen.” I felt sorry for these lonesome guys and always smiled in response.
My shift ended at 5:00 PM when the night crew arrived. They’d close up at 10:00 PM and run things alone because Mrs. Green always emptied the till and took off for the evenings.
I walked home watching my feet, leaning into the unrelenting wind that blows off the gulf. Our quarters were only about a mile and half from the diner and the South gate. My hair whipped across my face but at least the wind kept the bugs at bay and dried the sweat on my clothes. Salt crusted on my skin. No amount of hair spray could maintain any kind of hair-do. Women had to wear dresses on the base, which was nuts, given the wind. I either had to gather my skirt in my fists or wear a straight skirt to keep my legs covered. I’m sure the sailors enjoyed the show when my skirt billowed. What was a girl to do? Sidewalks were non-existent. Caliche and crushed oyster shell laced with tendrils of thick St. Augustine grass formed an uneven path along the roadway’s edge. Each footfall rustled-up the smell of brine gone-bad. At the gate, I flashed my pass to the Marine sentry, who’d inevitably wave me to the guardhouse for a more thorough look. I didn’t mind. I enjoyed being a girl.
I graduated to the night shift and the grill after a couple of months of training. I worked after school three nights a week and during the day on weekends. I felt like I was making the big bucks at seventy-five cents an hour. Babysitting only paid twenty-five cents an hour. Mrs. Green told me to always work the front because the sailors liked my looks. I figured she wanted me there because of my lack of cooking skills. I still remember the embarrassment of a sailor returning his raw burger and asking, “Don’t you know how to cook? You gotta wait until it stops bleeding before putting it on a bun. What are you just another pretty face?” His quick cooking lesson was better than any Mrs. Green gave me.
Mrs. Green lived in a single-wide trailer behind the diner shielded from view by oleanders bushes decorated with wind-blown litter. The area between the diner and her trailer had a well-worn path that would become slick with mud when it rained. She’d pop in and out to help when we had a rush. “Work the front,” she’d demand and I’d go, grateful for the cool air. During lulls she’d sit in the front window licking a soft cone while I’d clean-up. She’d fondle her breast and take long, lingering passes with her tongue around a melting ice cream. Her behavior seemed odd to me, but sailors honked as they drove by. What did I know? I was only a kid.
One evening, Mrs. Green came rushing into the diner. “Close up early and get out,” she said without preamble. “My ex is headed here with a shotgun. If he shows up, tell him I’m gone.”
Before I could utter a word, she left. She sprang into her ancient Oldsmobile, as big as a tank, and drove off in a cloud of caliche dust. I stood there wondering if I should call someone. Fortunately, there were no customers in the diner or, maybe I should say unfortunately. Not knowing what to do, I did what I was told and began the shut-down procedure. First, I flipped the open sign to “closed” and locked the front door. I raced through the procedures, heart pounding. I conjured up grizzly scenarios and swiftly turned off the grill. I didn’t lock the back door in my hurry because that’s the last thing on the list since that was the night crew’s exit. In what seemed like mere minutes since Mrs. Green left, the back door banged opened and in walked a man with a twelve gauge. I froze.
“Where’s my wife?” he bellowed. “That whore should be wiped off the face of the earth.”
“I don’t know, Sir. She told me to lock up early and she drove off in her car,” I replied with my hands held palms up in front of me.
“That bitch put my son in a military school. She did it so she could run her little operation. I ain’t gonna shoot you, but if I find her, she’s dead,” and he stomped out the back after he’d made a quick inspection of the diner to make sure she wasn’t curled into some corner.
“The heck with the rest of the shut-down,” I said to no one. I wasn’t about to mop the floor and risk a repeat. I threw the clasp on the backdoor lock. When I saw the beam of his headlights disappear, I left by the front door instead of the back because an overhead light illuminated the parking lot. I turned the thumb lock on the inside, pulled the door closed behind me, and tripped. I forgot to watch my feet. Up in a flash, bruised knees ignored, and scraped hands wiped on my skirt, I hoofed it to the South Gate and the protection of gun-toting Marines. I flashed my ID and didn’t stop to talk. Once inside the base I felt safe again, and protected.
I also didn’t tell my parents about what happened. I knew my dad would bring the full force and might of the military down on Mrs. Green if he thought I’d been threatened. Mom would be mortified. She was the one who insisted I work to help carry the load. It was hard for her to make ends meet with two growing teenagers, her mother, and my two younger siblings needing a chunk of Dad’s paycheck.
However, I did tell my boyfriend, Larry, because he was sixteen, Texas born and bred. He said he’d seen it before. “Texans like to take things into their own hands,” he explained, and I remembered when Larry and his dad went after his sister’s husband the morning after their wedding. She had called to say he tried to kill her on their wedding night. Fortunately, they didn’t find him. “You don’t involve the sheriff in family business,” Larry said and I let the incident go, chalking it up to Texans. I decided not to quit after my conversation with Larry. Mrs. Green was the one who needed to worry, not me. Besides, I didn’t want to appear immature and I needed the job because I wanted to buy a new bathing suit. My teenage logic and innocence trumped good sense.
The diner remained closed for two days, and on the third, Mrs. Green called to say the coast was clear. I returned, and she acted as if nothing had happened. Her explanation was, “He’s hot-headed. He’d never hurt anyone. It was just a family thing.” I guess Larry was right and I reassured her that I had not told my parents about what had happened, but I stuck to day shifts even if it did pay less.
Around Christmas time, Mrs. Green invited Larry and me to her trailer for lunch. The winter in Texas is not much different weather-wise form any other time. It’s a bit muggier because of the rain and the wind is a few degrees cooler but that’s about it. She said she had a special gift for me. My mom seemed pleased and suggested that I might get a raise. It’s not often an employer honored a couple of high school kids with an invitation to their home, mom explained. Larry wore a dress-shirt and clean jeans. I wore his favorite dress which constantly billowed. We sat at her dinette in the front of the trailer and she served us hamburgers, Frito-pies—my favorite — and milkshakes while she chit-chatted with us about school. She wasn’t a particularly good housekeeper. There was a spider web in the window. Then she asked, “You guys ever done it before?”
“Done what?” I asked in an orb of confusion.
“Y’all know—had sex, made love to each other? You seem like you really like each other.”
Larry and I stiffened, taken aback. I looked at her and the spider in the web behind her.
Larry said, “Ma’am, that’s none of your business, but I will say that I believe that sex should be saved for the marriage bed.” He was a good southern Baptist who respected the rules. I was speechless, shocked, and embarrassed by her boldness—and his. Sex was a taboo subject in my household.
“Well, here is a present for y’all. It’s a gift to both of you.”” said Mrs. Green grinning and she handed me a box, wrapped for the season. “ Go on now, open it.”
I removed the bow and wrapping paper and unfolded the delicate tissue paper with care out of politeness, not knowing what to expect. Then I held up a negligee. I gaped. Soft and see-through, like nothing I’d ever seen before. I was a t-shirt and panties type of girl.
“Pull it out. I think it’ll fit,” she said. “Go try it on. First bedroom on the right. You and Larry can use the room and I’ll watch to make sure everything goes well. You don’t have to wait for your wedding night to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh.”
I let the negligee fall to the floor. Larry grabbed my hand and I flew for the door dragging him behind me. Mrs. Green cackled and said as we left, “You’re missing out on a lot of fun.”
We didn’t say a word to each other as our minds processed what happened. Larry drove to our spot on Oso Creek, stopped the car, and turned to me. “You need to quit that place. I bet she’s running a whore house out of her trailer and she wants you to be one of her girls. She probably keeps you out front as advertising.” That’s when everything clicked into place and I realized I really was just another pretty face.
Valarie J. Anderson is an author, historian, and avocational archaeologist. She believes that life is enriched by the curious. Growing up, she drove her parents crazy by repeatedly asking “Why?” It is still her favorite question. Her blog, The Footfalls of History, explore the “why” of things based upon research unearthed while writing her non-fiction works. CommuterLit has shared her words with the world. Valarie released Money Eater; Bernard Otto Kuehn in 2019, a book of historical non-fiction about one of the spies at Pearl Harbor. Her current work of literary non-fiction, Pearl Harbor’s Final Warning will be released in September of 2021 in time for the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Valarie’s web site is: www.valarieanderson.com
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