Life for Mae is a daily struggle. Born with a deformity and reared in the foster system, she’s faced obstacles that no young girl should ever face. But Mae has what it takes to overcome. Mae Dae has heart.
Mrs. Price said human brains have two parts: The smart part and the heart part. And she told me ‘twas okay that I didn’t get much of the smart, because I got plenty of heart. I adjust the headband on my bright blue City Burger visor and look out the dust-covered window of the Blue Line bus. Blue Line to 24th Street stop. I have to pay close attention or I’ll miss my get-off. Because I have more heart than smarts, Mrs. Price said to concentrate real hard on the stops and where the lit-up street names above the bus driver’s head says we are.
Twenty-Second Street. That’s one…two more stops. Three people get off and two get on. A little more wiggle room. A little less summer stink from all the hot bodies.
I fiddle with the ends of my ponytail. I’m glad I got my white daddy’s smooth hair and not my black momma’s kinky curls. Not so glad I got a daddy in jail and a momma in the ground. That’s caused me all kinds of worry. I remember their hair, though. I remember playing beauty parlor on the floor of our old single-wide trailer before Daddy burnt it down. I’d run my doll’s combs through their hairs and feel how different. And put makeups on Momma and sometimes Daddy when he was sleepin’ off whatever he took in.
I smudge my initials on the window next to someone else’s smudged initials. MD next to whoever SF is. I worry about lots with my Momma and Daddy and all the what-nexts. Mrs. Price has been so nice and helpful and kind since I was eight years old. And she helped me get this job. And I’m an adult in a few weeks. I need to keep this job at City Burger for as long as I can. I’m one of the longest employees they got at this location.
Me and Eddie Morris.
And Miss Manda say that’s ‘cause me and Eddie Morris keep our heads down and do as we told with no lip.
And we don’t ask off much. Nothin’ much to ask off for.
Being more heart than smart, I see things other people miss, I think. Like how to treat people kind and not get all better than them. I don’t ask them nothing that ain’t my business when I give them their burgers or shakes or clean up their table messes. I try to smile. And Mrs. Price say if I make eye contact and smile and hold my shoulders high that them burger customers respect me more that way and be kind back.
Mostly that be true. Sometimes it ain’t, though.
Twenty-Third Street now. I tap my foot and my knee jumps up and down. I gotta pay attention in a few moments when 24th street comes ‘round. I gotta get situated so my left arm don’t give me no grief getting down off the bus. Gimp arm. All wavy and scrawny from the elbow on down.
I rub it. It gets sore sometimes down deep in the muscles. But Mrs. Price and Miss Manda say they proud of my hard work anyhow.
I don’t complain about my lazy left arm. There’s no use in complain’ when there’s stuff to be done.
I asked Mrs. Price long time back about why I am the way I am. If it was because I’m two colors wrapped in one skin. She wrapped her big white arms around me and kissed my head. And she explained that when Daddy and Momma made me that they wasn’t using their smarts. Had nothin’ to do with their colors. Had to do with the fact that drunk sperm don’t swim straight and that’s why my arm is the way it is. And that mommas on drugs and all that nastiness take away their babies’ smarts sometimes.
But ain’t nothin’ can touch the heart part of a person if we don’t let it. And my heart is good ‘cause I didn’t let my Momma and Daddy’s deeds touch it.
I like Mrs. Price’s big fat arms. Best arms ever.
The letters lit up with 24th Street. I stand up off the sticky bus seat. Sticky with heat and who knows who else’s sweat. I walk a little sideways down the aisle to not bump into other people hangin’ their bodies off their seats. I don’t like bumpin’ into no sweaty bodies right before I gotta go to work all clean and everything.
I don’t much like smelling sweat or bumpin’ into sweaty bodies when I don’t gotta be at work. I take the rail real careful in my right hand and step off the bus. City Burger’s lot is just ahead and my heart beats a little fast. I hope to all the good lords that that old green pickup ain’t in the parking lot today. That green truck give me nightmares.
I look at my digital watch with the lit-up numbers Mrs. Price got for me for Christmas the winter before I got my City Burger job. She worked with me and the school aide worked with me until I got real good at tellin’ time. I can get things like that, but takes lots of patience. And I gotta practice lots to get real good at anything smart-related.
I got ten minutes before my shift starts. That’s good enough time to use the bathroom and get my Mae nametag.
And I’m so grateful Miss Manda took over after my first boss, Mr. Max, got caught takin’ what wasn’t his from the safe. He was always takin’ what wasn’t his and he finally got himself good and caught. And he’d always made fun of my name.
I’d go home crying from City Burger several times a month after a bad name day. Mae Dae. That’s my name. That’s what was printed on my name tag in bright blue letters that matched the visor. And so some customers, usually the young ones close to my age, would scream my name. “Mae Dae! Mae Dae! We’re goin’ down. Help us, Mae Dae!” And they’d fall all over the counter and cause ruckus and draw attention.
I was afraid they’d lose me my job. And I didn’t understand none of it. Till I finally got the whole of the story out to Mrs. Price and she showed me some stuff on the internet about some May Day history and pilots and boat captains in trouble and poles with ribbons.
Now who would go and name their kid Mae when the last name would be Dae? My daddy couldn’t help his last name. And I might have had a grandmother or aunt somewhere with the name of Mae, but my momma shoulda thought that one through.
If I ever have babies, I’ll try out all their names first to be sure they don’t have the same kind of mess I do.
Mr. Max wouldn’t give me a new tag with just Mae on it, even though Mrs. Price came and asked. Something about City Burger policy. So the bullies kept on with their meanness. Mrs. Price told me a trick though. She said to play along and act like it was fun and they’d probably stop. I even came up with a line all by myself. The next time someone shouted “Mae Dae! Mae Dae! Help me,” I’d said, “I’ll help you get fries with that.” And soon it died down.
But when Mr. Max got kicked out, Miss Manda heard a ruckus over it and she printed me up a new name tag that I pin to my shirt every shift. It just say MAE in all big blue letters and she even drew a butterfly by the M and a tulip by the E. And now no one ever comes into City Burger and screams “Mae Dae” at me. ‘Cause they doesn’t know my last name.
And cause Miss Manda care more about me than City Burger policy, she said.
I reach the back door of City Burger and go on into the office where I hang my bag in my cubby and take my MAE nametag out and pin it on my shirt. I’m grateful for my new nametag. I clock in with the cardboard slip that has Mae Dae on the top. I had lots of practice with this. I’m a little scared ‘cause Miss Manda said they be gettin’ a computer to clock in on soon. I’m not so good at the computers, but it hasn’t happened yet, so I’m grateful.
I guess I’m just grateful all over today. For smooth hair and for a watch with lit-up numbers and for my job. Just a grateful kind of day. Grateful I didn’t spot that green pickup, neither.
Eddie is out on the floor between the tables with his mop and bucket. I smile and duck my head so no one could catch me smilin’.
I go behind the bright blue counter and stand at my register. I trained and trained and trained. And I worked hard to learn it. I make mistakes sometimes, but I get it fixed right quick and don’t get flustered as bad. Sometimes when I get flustered, I quick step away and do sodas. Fill one cup after another when we get busy. Or I go clean tables.
Cleanin’ tables is my favorite cause it don’t take no electronic smarts. Specially it’s my favorite to clean tables if Eddie’s cleanin’ the floors at the same time.
And that day the green pickup came and that old man got out and came in and took what wasn’t his, I was really grateful Eddie was there. I was gettin’ that old man a refill and he used his wrinkled old hand and grabbed my behind. Right there in the restaurant in the open. Then he tried to take what wasn’t his from my front side and Eddie came after him with the mop handle.
And that’s how’s come I got to meet a judge.
As another worker puts down the French fries and they sizzle and spit — I like that sound, the sizzle of the ‘taters in the oil — the customers line up, so I have to concentrate as hard as I do on the bus. I take a few orders, and things go smooth like. I pay real close attention to their money, and I’m always glad when they just swipe their cards, then I don’t gotta worry about giving out too many quarters or not enough dimes.
Things get busy all the sudden—always when City Burger gets busy, it happens all the sudden. Ain’t no gradual about it.
So Miss Manda tells me go do sodas way before I have the chance to get flustered, then clean tables. Miss Manda good at tellin’ those kinds of things. Mr. Max wasn’t and he was a yeller.
I fine with this plan ‘cause a minute ago some little child dropped strawberry milkshake all down under one table. Eddie’ll have to clean it up once he’s done emptyin’ out the garbage bins.
And aside from bein’ close to Eddie, cleanin’ tables and deliverin’ refills to the customers gives me the chance to scan the parking lot for that green truck. Chance to get away quick if I need to.
That day that nasty man did what he did, Eddie and I both got to meet the judge. City Burger sent some big smart lawyer to town to clean up the mess. ‘Cause Eddie broke that man’s wrist with the mop handle when he grabbed at me. And we could lose our jobs if that man won. Even though Eddie and me weren’t the ones takin’ things.
And I had to practice in a room with the lawyer. We pretended we was in a big fancy court, but it was just a room down at the Days Inn, and they had me put my gimp arm on top of the laywer’s black briefcase. Said it was like the Bible. And I had to raise my right hand and repeat words like, “I, Mae Dae, promise to tell the truth.” But those weren’t exactly the words, ‘cause the words were more big and smart. And then they shot questions at me until I got the answers just so.
I wipe the tabletop and seats off where that little child spilt his strawberry treat. It’s so sticky, I have to go to the back and get a couple of fresh rags and refill the bleach cleaner. While I in the back, I straighten my visor again. Sometimes the sweat makes it ride down on my forehead.
When I get back to the table, there’s Eddie, waitin’ on me to finish so he can get under with the mop. He smiled big. My heart fills up, and I shy smile back to him, but hide under my visor some.
Only time I’d ever gone anywhere with Eddie was when that lawyer and his friends took us downtown to a real court to meet a real judge. I probably would’ve liked the ride in the backseat with Eddie, but the lawyer warned me the man from the green pickup would be waiting on us in the room. And that he’d probably be angry. So my knees bobbed up and down real fast on the way to the court. Eddie patted my hand and told me it was okay. That he had my back.
Eddie always is kind that way. And my knees settled down a little.
When we got in that room with the judge I’d been surprised she was a lady. I thought all judges were men. She was red-haired and freckled. I was so taken by her that I didn’t pay much attention to the man from the green pickup. I did notice he had on a sling, though.
I wipe the table down with the fresh rag and wipe the seat off. A lady customer behind me pulls me away from Eddie and the messy table to get her a refill of Diet Pepsi. So I do that.
I fill the soda at the machine and think about that day in court as the soda hisses and hits the ice just so. That judge had a police officer bring a real Bible this time, and I let my gimp hand feel the leather of its cover. Then I remember gettin’ scared, ‘cause I know better than to tell any fibs while touchin’ God’s book. And I had to say again. “I, Mae Dae…” and more fancy words that just meant I was to tell the truth.
So help me God.
And I did. I told her what happened, and daggone it if I didn’t start crying right there in the court. And she looked at me past her freckled nose and nodded and I think she believed me. And Eddie did so good and he swore to tell it like it was, too. And the lawyer said none of us or City Burger had to worry ‘cause turns out the man in the green pickup was a pervert who’d grabbed a gob of other girl waitresses down at the diner and at the Quick-Stop.
So Eddie and me got to keep our jobs. And Miss Manda was glad City Burger didn’t have to pay for that man’s arm. ‘Cause Eddie gave him what he deserved for trying to take what wasn’t his to take.
After all that in court, on our way back to the lawyer’s car, the judge saw us in the hallway. She’d taken off that heavy black gown and was in a pretty yellow dress with blue flowers. Didn’t look like a judge at all, woman or not. She wanted to shake my hand. And then she put her arm around me and told me not to worry about that man no more. I listened to her words but I was more surprised at her pits. Guess it don’t matter what color you are, Georgia heat ripens all pits the same.
As I bring that customer her Diet Pepsi, I scan the parking lot again. I freeze. My lip puckers. My knees go weak. ‘Cause right there in the third parking space is a green pickup. I drop the soda all over the floor and stumble backward, right into Eddie. He looks at my face and looks out the window. And he stands there with me. In the Pepsi mess, and I see the customer’s big eyes, and then I watch out the window.
And Eddie watches with me with his mop handle standing tall. Until a mom and a couple of kids get outta that truck. I feel the breath go outta me and my insides unknot. Eddie wrings out the mop to get the mess before someone falls, and I pick up the cup, and promise the customer a brand new soda and a cookie for the trouble I caused.
When I turn to get the refill, Eddie whispers in my ear. “I got your back, Miss Mae Dae. I got your back.” I smile and nod at him. A tear runs down my cheek and I quick brush it away on my shoulder.
Miss Manda must’ve seen what happened, ‘cause after I get the cookie and soda to the customer, she wants to see me in the office.
“You okay, Mae?”
“I’s just scared that man come back.”
“He’s in jail, Mae.”
“I saw that green truck, Miss Manda. I thought he was back. Am I in trouble?”
“No. But please talk to me if you’re scared or worried. I’ll listen.”
I nod again. “Can I go back to work, Miss Manda?”
“Why don’t you go take a break? Out back. Get some fresh air for a few minutes, then start again.”
I like that idea. I thank her and head out to the wooden picnic table behind the back door where the employees sit and smoke or sit and read while they take breaks. I don’t usually come out here, ‘cause I don’t smoke and I don’t care to read much, but Miss Manda’s right. I need a moment.
And I’s glad she had me come out ‘cause I just saw Lacey Phillips pull into the parking lot in her shiny new red car her parents give her to go away to college in. Lacey got all As and a fancy scholarship to go learn to be whatever her smart brain could let her be. And she’s a teaser, Lacey is. All smarts, but no heart, Mrs. Price said.
And I don’t feel like no teasin’ right now. She already know my last name, Lacey does.
I kick at a nasty cigarette but with the toe of my tennis shoe. Eddie comes out to the dumpster and smiles at me. “You alright, Mae?”
“Yeah.” I look away.
“After shift, you wanna get some yogurt before the Blue Line comes?”
Blue Line don’t come until thirty minutes after my shift is over, so I got nothing better to do most nights than wait at a City Burger table. My heart thumps. It would be nice to wait at a Freezies’ table across the street with Eddie. I nod my head.
“It’s a date then.” He grins big, and my heart goes from thumpin’ to weak and my knees start to bob up and down.
I’d asked Mrs. Price long time ago if she thought I could ever have kids. ‘Cause I’d like to try to be a momma someday. Not like my momma, but like Mrs. Price or Miss Manda kind of mommas. And I asked if those babies of mine would be like me. Not quite right. And I panicked a little when I asked her this, ‘cause I didn’t want to cause no babies no pain by makin’ them like me.
She’d patted the couch next to her and put that big fat arm around me. And she told me to be patient and do some growin’ up. And if I kept my nose clean and I chose a good strong husband who had straight-swimmin’ sperm, there’d be nothin’ to worry about.
And then she made me cry when she said what she said next. She told me that no babies on the planet would be as loved as the babies of Mae Dae. ‘Cause I, Mae Dae, had the biggest heart of anyone she knew. And she cried with me and patted my hair and told me I was gonna do just fine with my big heart.
And that got me to dreamin’ of a weddin’ day. Me and some of the girls in the home would watch them reality shows of people gettin’ married and gettin’ fancy dresses. And mostly, out loud anyway, we’d poke fun and say how we’d never do any of that mess.
But in secret, after Mrs. Price told me what she told me, I dreamed.
I watch Eddie as he goes with empty trash bins back into City Burger. He smiles at me again before the door shuts behind him.
I close my eyes and let the Georgia sun warm my back. I rub down my left arm and feel the wavy and the weakness in the muscles. I straighten my visor again. And I dream of a weddin’ day. A weddin’ day when I’ll say, “I, Mae Dae, take Eddie Morris to be my man.”
‘Cause Eddie Morris has my back. And he’s never once tried to take what wasn’t his to take.
And ‘cause I do believe he a stand-up man with straight-swimmin’ sperm.
Thank you for hanging out for a bit. Check back on the first Monday of every month for a free fictional short, and be sure to visit my Amazon page.
Copyright © 2019 by B.A. Paul
This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed herein are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.