PRAYER SONG FOR JOHNNY CASH
Until that day, I’d never met a man named Gilligan, and it’s likely I never will again, but there he was in my section with a bad case of the shakes, ordering a pitcher of ice water and Breakfast #7. Gilligan was embroidered above his shirt pocket, so I knew he only worked for some trucking company and wasn’t the owner of that red Peterbuilt cab glistening outside our window, meaning there was no chance of his being my ticket out of that Seventh Circle: Kansas. Truck stop. Johnny Cash drawling out “Ring of Fire” over local radio.
Escape was all I looked for in a man back then.
“Looker,” Peggy said as I hustled Gilligan’s order to Jailbait, our 16-year-old grill chef and the boy Peggy slept with off and on. Peggy had a thirteen-year-old son and a husband who’d turned funny after his return from Gulf War Number 1.
“Not my type,” I said. “See that stupid name over his stupid pocket?” Gilligan.
Jailbait waved my incomplete order slip in the air. “Little Girl? How’s your ‘looker’ want his eggs done?” Jailbait called me Little Girl on account of my stature and because, despite my time wasted on a college degree, I was dumb enough to lend Peggy that 400 bucks we all knew I’d never see again.
“Think I’m clairvoyant?” Jailbait asked me. “Clairvoyant. They teach you them kind of words in school? Means I know what everybody wants.”
“You just think everybody wants you,” Peggy said, still eyeing my Gilligan as she headed toward the door for a smoke. “Table swap?” she shouted, but she only had Mr. and Mrs. Dutchess, dotty but generous with a tip, so I knew she was kidding.
“Down, down, down,” Mr. Dutchess was bellowing as Mrs. Dutchess beamed. Eighty-nine years old and married seventy-one, the Dutchesses smiled 24/7 because they hardly heard a thing. “Walking Miracles” their daughter called them when she wasn’t trying to take away their car keys.
I returned to Gilligan’s table with his pitcher of water. “Eggs?” I asked him.
“Over,” he said as he stared out the window at nothing but highway and prairie and Peggy smoking her cigarette, her skirt riding the wind, knowing full well she was exposing everything.
“Down, down, down,” Mr. Dutchess kept hollering though Johnny Cash was done.
I set down the pitcher. We were all sinking deep and we knew it.
Then Gilligan seized my wrists. Fingers shaking, he traced those telltale pink lines, saying, “These trap you here?”
In towns so small everyone knows your scars, it’s easy to forget what’s exposed.
He started laughing. “Hell,” he said. “Made it here. Finally.”
I fled to the kitchen.
When Peggy came back in, she swore my looker had vanished and that she never saw any rig coming or going. Jailbait threw out the steak he’d started, insisting he’d known all along I’d called in a false order just to torture him. “Clairvoyant,” he said again, as if the word might actually mean something, but I was already walking out of the kitchen and toward the front door, believing Johnny Cash himself had sent that strange phantom in that red Peterbuilt cab just to warn me that days lost to sorrow, discontent, and regret can spiral smaller and smaller and even knot themselves into forever and take your whole life if you’re not vigilant.
JENNIFER SEARS’ fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in J Journal, Witness, Ninth Letter, Fence, Fiction International, Barrelhouse, Sequestrum, The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, and other publications. She has received awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Summer Literary Seminars, the Millay Colony for Arts, the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, and the Money for Women Fund. After many years of teaching yoga and dance, she is Assistant Professor of English at New York City College of Technology.