Pancakes smiled at me. A mouth fashioned from whipped cream, edges melting into a golden face like a worn starlet’s lipstick. JT’s handiwork, the line cook known for his deep-U grins.
I delivered the plate to a girl in pigtails. Pancake International was a favored breakfast spot for families whose kids played weekend hockey at the Garner Iceplex.
A rapid-fire order from table five and my pencil skidded across the pad, but that whipped cream smile stuck. I blamed Mama.
“Make your own happy, Lorelai.” Mama’s phone edict last week was meant to drown out complaints about customers, anemic paychecks, and hours that didn’t qualify for health insurance.
“Easy for you to say.”
“Not easy for me at all.”
“Quit your moaning. I raised you to be stronger than that.”
Headed to the kitchen, chestnut hair escaped mismatched barrettes. My whole life was mismatched: plates, socks, sheets, where I’d started and how I’d ended up.
Mama knew about manufacturing happy. Diagnosed with Crohn’s after Daddy left, she’d stood tall and tucked her colostomy bag under flowing shirts in the face of all he threw at her: the Raleigh apartment with his hygienist, the shiny Camaro when he picked me up each Saturday, the shinier smile he flashed. Mama said, “She must clean his teeth day and night. They’re white as Chiclets.”
And yet, her eyes retained their amber shine at daffodil buds along the highway in spring and honey-colored leaves in autumn.
In the kitchen, I reached for the warming shelf.
“Hot plates,” JT called from the grill.
“Too late.” My fingertips stung.
“Let me.” He wrapped ice in a towel, took my wrist. “Keep this on.”
JT liked me, didn’t mind the hot-plate wounds on my hands. Would he mind the marks on my upper arm, leftovers from a hot-tempered man?
Leonard. Our fetus had lived twenty weeks, and then left invisible scars in my womb, and on my heart.
Our marriage had lasted twelve weeks more. Until the night he tipped his Bic lighter to the sleeve of my favorite orange shirt. Mama drove to the emergency room, but first waved a gun in Leonard’s face. “Come near her again and I’ll kill you.”
I didn’t even know Mama owned a gun. For a woman who couldn’t poop on her own, she scared the shit out of that man. I never saw him again.
Never wore orange either.
I retrieved my hand from JT. “Need to feed my customers.”
“Wait.” He grabbed Reddi-Wip, drew a smile on my palm.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” But we both knew I wasn’t mad.
He grinned and I worked to grin back.
“Go to your grill.” I toweled off the cream, still felt the spumy smile on my skin. I gripped cooled plates and wondered what would happen if I tangled with JT. What scars would he leave on me?
Then I heaved through the swinging door, and the smile faded from my palm.
Sharon Kurtzman is Jersey girl who calls the South home. She writes short and flash fiction, a bit of nonfiction, and is working on a novel. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Crack the Spine, Better After 50, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Still Crazy Literary Magazine, Every Writer’s Resource: Stories, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Belle Reve Literary Journal and Main Street Rag’s anthology, Voices from the Porch. Visit Sharon Kurtzman’s website, sharonkurtzman.com, and follow her on Twitter at @sharonkurtzman1.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #11.