I see Dennis has a pile of toilet paper in front of him and I know what he's doing. Every time we come in to say hi to Grandma, Dennis gets up from his place at the very end of the bar, goes into the bathroom, and comes out a minute later. He takes toilet paper back to his seat where he sits squishing and turning and rolling it into the shape of a rose. It's always a rose and it's always for me. The first time he gave me one, he put his empty hand out for me to shake and I felt Mama go stiff and dangerous beside me. Grandma spoke up, soothing, "Jo, Dennis has been here longer than the Truck Stop has." And to me, "R.D., would you look at that flower." I shook Dennis's big hand, which felt too rough to grow a flower out of TP, and said thank you and he went back to his seat. There are ten toilet-paper flowers on the shelf by my bed, and number eleven is interrupted when the Truck Stop door opens and in walks Timmy's mom. I know Timmy from sometimes when we get babysat together so I know his mom too, but today the Hardware Man is hanging on his mom's arm and I forget what I'm doing and drop Baby Mouse down the side of the jukebox remembering how the Hardware Man brought Mama in one night after driving her home from the Truck Stop. I watched his shadow over Grandma's shoulder when she leaned down to hug me and whisper goodnight, but he didn't whisper at all when he offered too many times to tuck Mama into bed. He kept offering even after Grandma left until Mama told him loud and clear, "Thanks for the ride, Jack." She said "ride" like a car door slamming, quick and hard enough to break a finger, and that must've been what convinced him it was actually time to go; besides, his name isn't Jack.
I push my cheek against the wall to where I can see Mouse caught against the jukebox in the dark. I kneel down and scrunch up as close as I can, reach my hand through cobwebs and cigarette butts, stretch my fingers, feeling for a leg or whisker, and finally, mouse tail. I hold tight with thumb and finger, and pull. She sticks but she comes out. The heart is unstitched from one paw but Mouse held on to it with the other and I am dusting her off when Mama comes over and says, "Friday and Saturday nights, Ror. Come meet my boss."
At the end of the bar, Dennis finishes flower number eleven and messes my hair, and I wish my thank-you smile was loud enough to cover the Hardware Man's voice saying, "Another jailhouse bouquet, Dennis." And to me, "One day a real man'll bring you a real bouquet, hon."
The Hardware Man says "bouquet" like it looks, " bow-ket," and I don't think before I say, "It's bouquet, Jack. Like okay."
From the corner of my eye I see the Ice Cream Man swivel away on his barstool like he just remembered he's there to drink, but Dennis laughs loud and slaps the bar. I figure that's going to make the apology I'll have to say worth it when the Hardware Man starts laughing too, even though there's not much funny in his voice: "O-kay, bou-quet! Got a smart one here, boys, look out! O-kay! Bou-quet!" He hits his knees and says it over and over, " O-kay! Bou-quet!" until Timmy's mom puts her hand on his arm and says to me, "Why Lori, you've got such a pretty face," without caring if I'm pretty at all. Her bright blond hair is in big silky curls and they bounce when she turns and says to Mama, "This must be the first time I've seen Lori's nose out of a book," and she sure cares how pretty Mama is because her eyes move up and down and get narrow like her voice, but Mama's voice rolls right back at her, growling with r's, "Rory is the best reader in three grades."
Timmy's mom's face goes white and dumb and my face goes pink as mouse ears with the hot shame of being smart and rubbing the Hardware Man's nose in it and I'm still burning when up comes Pigeon. Pigeon is the tiny lady with dark hair who gave Mama weekend shifts we can count on, and she cuts right through all the laughter and growling, bends down, and takes my hand. She says my name right, like if she's been saying it all her life, "I expect I'll be seeing a lot more of you, Rory Dawn," and we shake on it, like grown-ups.
Excerpted from Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman. Copyright © 2012 by Tupelo Hassman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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