#4 Oxtail Dinner
Puckett started to pick up his cane, then left it where it lay as a gesture of faith. Down the elevator, out of the building, he made his way up the street. Making an effort not to look through the window, he only allowed himself to see who was behind the register after he pulled the door open.
The little chime sounded—Carla glanced up to see Mr. Puckett making his way into the restaurant, his wide, unabashed smile pointed right at her.
“Somebody call the US Marshals!” Puckett shouted. A woman waiting for her order looked up in alarm at Mr. Puckett, slightly stooped, carefully advancing toward the register.
“We got one,” Puckett said, voice still raised as he reached the counter where Carla stood chuckling, the big Jamaican flag-patterned menu hanging behind her head. “Somebody get the Marshals on the phone, we got one!”
“What are you talking about?” Carla asked.
“They said, they said you was down in Mexico.” Puckett rested an elbow on the counter, catching his breath. “They said that you’d been robbing banks and was on the run.”
“How did you get this silly?” Carla said.
He put his palms up in innocence. “That’s just what Eddie told me—I don’t know what you talkin’ about ‘silly’ for. Isn’t that right Eddie? He said ‘Carla is a cold-blooded thief and God only knows what else. She’s on the lam down in Mexico.’ Eddie said you was the next John Dillinger.” Through the glass-less window behind Carla, Eddie was in the kitchen looking down at his work, shaking his head.
The door chime rang as another customer entered the restaurant.
Carla pressed her lips together in mock disapproval. “I went to Las Vegas with some friends, Mr. Puckett.”
“So the feds not gonna bust through here any second now?”
“Not cause of anything I did.”
Mr. Puckett stood there eyeing Carla in suspicion before he asked for the oxtail dinner with cabbage, as always. He paid, sat down at a table, staring at the receipt in his hands, not-looking at Carla as she worked. The ink on the receipt was smeared from the moisture on his palm.
It was barely a year ago that Mr. Puckett moved into the senior community up the street, and shortly thereafter that he walked into the restaurant, meeting Carla at the register for the first time. He made a joke about beef patties that she let drop with icy impatience. Sitting waiting for his food, he began silently writing Carla off as one of these impertinent little fast-ass girls, probably spend all her time running all over with some no-account with his pants hanging all down off his ass, shit probably smoke reefer too, when his train of thought—at once off-rail, weightless, aloft—was hijacked by a sound. High, looping, tropical, it filled the restaurant. On the other side of the counter, Carla’s head was thrown back, throat skywards, as she laughed and laughed and laughed. When she recovered there was no sign of what had been so funny. Puckett found that his thoughts before the sound—his hurt feelings, the speculation about Carla’s character—refused to gather, so he sat waiting for his order as his esteem rushed to her.
“Hey Mr. Puckett?”
Carla was leaning over the counter, her phone in her outstretched hand.
“You wanna see pictures from the trip?”
Puckett leaned over and accepted the phone. The first picture was already on the screen: Five girls, none Carla but all around her age, sat on their luggage outside of an airport terminal looking tired. In the next photo the same five girls were standing in front of a hotel, looking impatient with the person forcing them to stop and pose. The famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign. Mr. Puckett continued swiping through the photos. In one picture three of the girls were wearing bathing suits, standing in front of a crowded pool. In the next photo, Carla made her first appearance, standing next to a good-looking, athletically built man, both of them in bathing suits. Alarmed, Mr. Puckett swiped past the photo quickly but the next photo was worse. A solo image of Carla, shot from behind in her bathing suit, her face turned looking back at the camera; Puckett involuntarily glanced up at the counter where Carla was helping a customer and hurriedly skipped past that picture and the two or three that followed without seeing what was in them. Another picture showed Carla’s friends, in what appeared to be the lobby of their hotel. They were dressed up, ready to go out. Carla joined them in the next picture, and the six of them stood there posing for the camera. Mr. Puckett flicked his eyes up, saw that Carla wasn’t looking at him, then pinched his thumb and forefinger over the photo so that Carla, all done-up, filled the phone’s screen.
Carla was working almost every time Puckett came into the restaurant, normally in a t-shirt and sweatpants, sometimes jeans. His lips soundlessly formed the words “Las Vegas.” He turned away from the phone and stared out of the window; the green tops of the trees filled the view, but the wind was moving some branches around so that a small patch of sky blinked in and out of view.
When Carla looked over at Puckett he was holding the phone on his lap, but looking out of the window. Puckett’s head turned back towards her and she too-quickly looked away.
Slowly Puckett stood up, took a few steps toward the counter, and handed Carla her phone back.
“Are you alright Mr. Puckett?” Carla said.
“Oh yes, yes. Looking at your pictures just got me remembering a trip I took when I was about your age.”
“Aw where’d you go?”
Instead of responding, Mr. Puckett closed his eyes briefly, before he opened them and said in a different tone, “I was in the woods, around St. Louis. I guess you could say I was camping.”
“Oh, you and a bunch of your buddies,” Carla said.
“No, by myself,” Puckett said.
In the kitchen, Eddie looked up from a chicken, peering through the window to try and see the old man’s face. Only the back of Carla’s head was visible. He went back to his work, bringing the cleaver down too hard; a wing went rolling onto the floor.
“I bet you’d have a lot of fun in Las Vegas,” Carla offered to the old man.
Puckett saw the shadow forming on Carla’s face and gathered himself. “What you call it there, that ‘Sin City’? No ma’am, I don’t have no business there.”
Carla rolled her eyes at Puckett but he continued.
“Only place I’m trying to go is the city of my Father.”
“You are too silly.” Carla said, though she was smiling broadly.
“It’s nothing silly about it.” Mr. Puckett said, his voice imitating a preacher’s. “Nothing silly at all about Jesus Christ. It’s not a single thing silly about everlasting life.” The sides of his mouth struggled against a smile.
Carla was laughing when Mr. Puckett said, “Not Las Vegas—Heaven! Not Paris—Heaven!”
The little chime sounded as someone else entered the restaurant; they paused at the door, taking in the scene of the man at the counter hollering about heaven and the bright laughter of the girl at the register. The new customer made eye contact with another customer sitting by the window who could only shrug.
“Not San Francisco—Heaven!” Carla’s laughter rebounded off the tables and the chairs and the walls of the restaurant.
“Not New York—Heaven! Heaven!” Mr. Puckett shouted. “Heaven!” he shouted again as the door’s little chime went off, both sounds obliterated inside the pool of Carla’s laughter.
Matthew Richardson is a writer from the south side of Chicago. His work has previously appeared in Ninth Letter. He is at work on a novel.