It was Wednesday and we hadn't even made it to Texas yet. We'd been sleeping late, swimming during daylight hours, but we were going to have to move if we wanted to make it to California in time.
In a shitty little town in Louisiana, which was full of shitty little towns, we stopped at a Waffle House and sat at the counter. My father liked to sit at counters because he liked to be among the peopleyou couldn't just ask if they'd been saved, you had to win them over first, had to make them like youbut there was no time left for niceties. He had brought along a bundle of tracts that said "All Suffering SOON TO END!"
When the waitress asked how we were doing, he handed her one.
"The world is passing away," he said, "but those who do the will of God will remain forever."
In response, she set a tiny napkin in front of him with a knife and fork on top. Then she moved down the line: my sister, Elise, and my mother and me.
I watched my father, who was looking around pleasantly to see if there was anyone who might be willing to talk to him. There wasn't. There hardly ever was. He was either preaching to the choir or trying to convert the unconvertible, but it didn't stop him from going through the motionsthe futility of it was central, necessary. He didn't really want all 7 billion people on the planet to be saved. We wouldn't be special then. We wouldn't be the chosen ones.
I set my elbows on the counter. It was sticky with syrup, and I liked that this Waffle House was like every other Waffle House I'd ever been to. I knew where the bathroom was and what I wanted to eat and what it would taste like.
I peeled my elbows off the counter and looked at them.
"Excuse me, miss," my mother said, too quietly for the waitress to hear her. "Excuse me," she said again, louder.
The waitress came over and stood in front of us. She was tall and hulking and had a missing tooth, or maybe it was just a large gapthe space didn't seem quite big enough for a tooth. I stared at her openly. She was ugly and I wasn't afraid of ugly people.
"This counter is sticky," my mother said, touching it with her finger.
The waitress left and came back, wiped it off with a dirty-looking rag.
Elise dug around in her purse and pulled out her lip gloss. She smeared it on her bottom lip and top lip and pressed them together. It was almost obscene, watching her put on makeup. Boys frequently told me she was a knockout and then waited expectantly for my response. Of course there was nothing to do but agree. She was a knockout and I wasn't. What was there to say about it?
"Why don't y'all go clean up?" our mother asked. Neither Elise nor I said anything. We didn't respond to suggestions, only direct orders.
I brought my hands to my face. "Clean as a whistle," I said.
"I wonder where that saying comes from," my sister said. "Whistles aren't clean, they're full of spit." She got out her phone and Googled it, and I watched her face as she read, the dents at the tops of her eyebrows. "?'One possibility is that the old simile describes the whistling sound of a sword as it swishes through the air to decapitate someone, and an early nineteenth-century quotation suggests this connection: a first-rate shot, his head taken off as clean as a whistle.'?"
She hopped off her stool and I turned to watch her go, ponytail and hips swinging. It was how she walked down the halls of our high school. She never looked at anybody and made people call her name again and again before turning. She was wearing her King Jesus Returns! t-shirt with a pair of shorts that were so short you couldn't tell she was wearing them. I saw a man watching her, too, a mean-looking little man with a girl on his lap. The girl was skinny with big joints and glasses, one arm choking a ratty stuffed animal. He pulled her thumb out of her mouth and she put it back and he pulled it out and she put it back in again. I looked around at the other diners: they were all hideous. I could live easily in a town like this.
Excerpted from The Last Days of California: A Novel by Mary Miller. Copyright © 2014 by Mary Miller. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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