One thing about Friday’s come round, people could really, finally, and truly get to where they were looking forward to the catfish stew, the catfish regular, the greens plenty, and the piles of deviled crab. Robanna’s had it all: three buffet islands, a dessert bar and tea sweetened and less sweetened. The land of Donsville had gotten sad since Monday. The great heat had been bearing down without clemency and the tobacco fields knew no rain; some of the farmers had already gone into an early retirement from the life of soil and bending back. Slim Hicks had been one of the very, very early ones.
Slim’s wife, Savannah Anna, twelve years his junior, had taken on a second job at the Donsville triage so that she and Slim would not have to give up the Buick, the brick house, and the seven chocolate labs of their life in unison. It was a life that Slim enjoyed, out on his lawnmower every day, his thin steel hair tucked under his black netted ballcap, a cheap cigar firmed up in his mouth. And Slim was not accustomed to leaving the 4-mile radius of their life, for they had at their disposal a gas station at Merle’s, a small grocery at Kesey’s, a diner at Three Oaks Club, and a U.S. Postal box near the P.O.W. historical marker. Life for Slim and Savannah Anna was as simple as a back porch.
It had taken a young Savannah Anna a good bit of luck and elbow grease to get her Slim out of the house at all back in the earlier years when they first started taking their Friday lunch at Robanna’s place. Slim had moaned and kicked and spat, but in the end, he’d given over something of an apology once he saw the catfish and the banana pudding on the wide island bars. Slim made sure they got the military vet. discount, every single week, sometimes jutting out his Navy tattoo for a sinewy, tangible kind of proof.
Robanna and her daddy gave looks. Savannah Anna had noticed them oftentimes and had sighed within her soul, for there was nothing she could do to calm her Slim when sitting there at the table. Usually he held his newspaper and slapped flies, or read about foreign affairs in the world beyond their 4 miles, or struggled and sweated over a crossword or some puzzle kook.
“Country goin to hell,” he’d mutter, dispassionately enough.
Savannah Anna would smile and clink her tea glass so that one of the ladies would come over. Bev Shayes, whom she had graduated high school with, would never come over to waitress her and Slim. And Savannah Anna knew the whys and what-fors well enough.
It was his 68th birthday and he wore his Annapolis tie for it. Savannah Anna had taken out her pink Easter Sunday dress and worked the wrinkles right out, then she had tried, fat hope against hope, to call Slim’s brother, some twenty-five miles away, over for Friday lunch—and more to the point, called him to come out for his own little brother’s big day—but the brother was not willing to come out their way, and categorically so.
A drizzle fell and the weatherman expected more.
The gravel parking lot had not yet filled at 11:30 and Savannah Anna figured not many would come to eat on account of the gray skies. She knew how older biddies could get. Her mother was one of those types—a woman who couldn’t even use a computer, a waiting-to-die sharecropper, a real nothing much, just something there sucking at the government tit.
She never wanted to get that way for her Slim. She wanted to maintain vigor.
In the cramped foyer of Robanna’s, a couple wizened men paid for the buffet at the cash register and toyed with toothpicks in their mouths. The umbrella bin was full. Puddles had collected on the parquet.
Slim waited and scraped the back of his left hand with his other hand’s thumbnail.
Robanna, proprietress, burst through the kitchen door— she a big blitzing pile of steamed plates and blonde hair— and nodded her hello over to Savannah Anna; she smiled at Slim, but Savannah Anna reckoned she knew of his 68th birthday and was trying with her soul to show some Christ. Frenziedly, quickly, she tabbed in things at the touchscreen, her extra-long lavender nails glistening under the ceiling fan light. Then she motioned the two of them over to their favorite and accustomed seats, spread the shining tablecloth, sighed, and let out, “Happy Birthday there, Slim!”
“Bitch, he said back. “Unloving bitch!”
Savannah Anna looked down at the tablecloth and started to count up all the blue checkers. She was hoping they had pulled pork spread on the buffet bar. And a fried chicken breast would be nice, she imagined. Her hunger gnawed up in her.
“Hanoi, damnit, Hanoi,” Slim continued. He thumbnailed hard behind his gold wristwatch, deep into the sweated crevices.
“Supposed to be getting Mountain Dew next week,” Robanna said. “Excited about that.”
“Yes,” Savannah Anna said. “Something for the kids besides tea, I suppose.” She hoped they had made hush puppies as well. She liked hush puppies very much.
“Get to the business!” Slim Hicks said. “Get to it,” he repeated, to no one in particular.
“Danny said he’s gettin’ some cod and and some spot for ya’ll up there soon,” Robanna said. She lit a menthol and adjusted the pheasant clock on the wall above Savannah Anna’s head. Her thick hips swayed back and forth.
Slim rolled up the Donsville Times in his grip and smacked Robanna where it counted, with vim, with grin.
“Now, Slim, it’s your birthday,” Savannah Anna sung. “Shouldn’t you let Ms. Robanna give you your own spankings?”
“Unloving bitch!” Slim shouted back.
Savannah Anna stood and looked around the two dining rooms. She saw Granny Pinckney in the corner of the rear room with her son. She could not remember her son’s name, but she knew he had been a minister until he embezzled and went to Colombia or some other such land. Savannah Anna, in the spirit of tradition, usually waited for her Slim to walk up to the buffet first, and she’d follow behind, but she did not get the sense he was going to move presently. She did not know if he would maybe like a birthday cake. She remembered he did not react well to much sucrose.
As she ate her deviled crab and her gravied rice, she tried to maintain a mousy quiet. That was what Slim had called it all those years ago; he’d said: “Eat with a mouse’s quiet.” And she had done her best, whether breakfast, lunch, or dinner, she had done her entire best.
“Knock it down!” Slim said from behind his newspaper.
Savannah Anna wondered why he had not gone up yet to the buffet islands to get what he wanted. She wondered if she needed to be doing anything special on account of his day.
“Knock it down,” he repeated softly.
The bell hanging above the entrance door clanged. Savanahh Anna knew how much her Slim hated the bell at Robanna’s place, for, sometimes, late on Friday night when they were both sitting on the back porch—she with her cold zinfandel, he with his beer—sometimes, he would silently mutter something about the bell on the door at the restaurant, how it stirred him, how it got up in him.
“Coca-Cola best thing for it,” Slim said. He tapped his grimed fingernails across the tablecloth and looked up at the foyer. “I suppose I’ll get a little salad first,” he said, standing, beginning.
Alone, Savannah Anna Hicks felt as though she could eat more forcibly while her husband piled up at the buffet, and so, she munched and she crunched and she smacked and she lapped. She nearly laughed.
A new girl—a young girl, maybe even Donsville High School fodder and farrow, came up to check on the Hicks table. Savannah Anna told the girl that they were content with their food and that the tea was especially good. Savannah Anna was quite certain she had never seen the young waitress in Robanna’s place before.
Slim Hicks devoured his shrimp. Slim Hicks devoured his catfish stew.
The birthday cake had not been Savannah Anna’s idea—she knew better.
Robanna, Savannah Anna thought.
She could see a bit of lightning among the clouds through the transom window.
Slim would not touch the cake.
“Sodomy!” he yelled. “A horrible thing is happening,” he asserted.
The bell under the front transom rang. Clang-clank, clang-clank.
Slim pounded the butt of his fork down on the table and then wiped some drivel from his lip. “Horrible,” he sang again.
The young girl had a name. Savannah Anna had asked about her, about Kaley Warrington. She was pale and well-breasted and shadowy; she played bass guitar and the standup bass to boot, she took little pills, loved men who could fish and men who could scrap—all of this coming from Robanna in an underbreath gossip, mentholated by cigarette puffs and in the sharpest of staccatos.
And the girl came by again with napkins and the tea jug.
“Rice tastes old!” Slim exclaimed. “Muddled up.”
Savannah Anna nudged the cake toward him. The candles had long since died.
Kaley Warrington spoke: “Would you like some coffee with your cake maybe? Maybe, sir? Maybe?”
It came across to Savannah Anna as the most horrific whine down within the girl’s voice. Her lungs let loose like an industrial dishwasher, like a bullet train on the midnight burst—it pierced through the thick brown warm air of Robanna’s. Savannah Anna clenched her teeth. Savannah Anna braced herself.
The transom bell clanged again and danced under the soft sunlight.
When Slim Hicks looked up at the stream of coffee, he smiled. He took it in and became witness; he saw the beautiful pour, the flamingo arm, the shine of lips, the full promise of the new.
Slim Hick turned 68 years old that year.
Ric Hoeben homes it in eastern South Carolina, holds an M.F.A. from the University of Florida, and hopes his recently finished literary-crime novel, Oceans of Gold, will be a real smash.