Detour – Suzanne Crain Miller
February 13, 2019
His mother could not comprehend his decision to go to community college. The night he disclosed this bit of news, she’d cried as he’d never seen her cry before. She had negligently assumed he’d prized the idea of going away to university as much as she had. Due to his arrival on this earth she, herself, had never finished her freshman year at Columbia. By giving him a sophisticated name, Whitten Bryce McPhearson the third, she felt she’d sealed his fate as a Harvard or Yale alumni if he, by chance, did not choose her alma mater. Though, oddly, he’d never put much stock in names or their meanings. He, himself, did not feel they had to channel one’s life in any one direction and went so far as to insist that his friends called him Whit -simply Whit.
“Why would you want to do that? Why would you stay here?” She’d wailed several times in quick succession, reaching out, clinging to his shirt.
Her tears did not change his mind. He could only look at her knowing the answer was not something her life of unwarranted and excessive privilege, yet void of true love, had given her the scope for. How could he tell her that his main motivation was so that he could keep his job in the evenings at Taco Tahiti? To begin with, he’d only been allowed to take the job to pay for the friend’s car he’d borrowed and wrecked. His father had felt it would teach him the value of a dollar. They’d taken a measure of pride in his work ethic and permitted it when he first suggested it, yet neither his father nor mother would ever have anticipated that he’d want to stay on.
When he’d initially applied for a position, the manager, Mr. Rogers as he liked to be called, eyed him with a brand of suspicion typically relegated for when class lines are blurred. As they walked around the place, Mr. Rogers pointed out the grill, the bathrooms, the dining area as if they were touring the Taj Mahal. It was then that Whit inquired about the name of the establishment.
“Yeah, everybody says it don’t make a lick a sense, but, see, I’ve always wanted to go to Tahiti. Saw it on that there National Geographic channel. An’ I’ve always loved me a good taco so when I come into my inheritance an’ decidin’ I wanted to start a place a’ my own, I figured why not name it after somethin’ I want an’ somethin’ I already love.” Mr. Rogers had pontificated.
This had seemed acceptable to Whit and they continued the tour, ending up out at the main counter where he filled out his paperwork.
“You sure about this boy?” His soon to be boss queried.
Whit only nodded.
“We’ll see you tomorra’ then.” Mr. Rogers dismissed him.
With that, he did the only thing left to do and handed Whit a bright yellow shirt. Tomorrow had turned into the next day, and the day after that and the day after that. He’d gone through three of those uniform shirts, much to the chagrin of his employer, and was readying to request another what with all the grease stains on his current one.
Though working there was out of character for him, the job had certainly come in handy last summer when his father decided that his secretary’s house was where he’d take up residence. Taco Tahiti was now not only Whit’s home away from home, but an excellent excuse as to why he could not visit his father. Working or school. Always one or the other. At least he wouldn’t have to explain his decision about his future more than once. His father would not think to ask. He was so preoccupied with he and the secretary’s first baby, he would likely not register it was time for Whit to even go to college.
“Why Whitten? Tell me!” His mother transgressed glaring up at him from the couch.
There was no way he could explain in any logical terms why he wanted to continue to spoon greasy meat into hard shells, wipe down counters, chop vegetables, clean up salsa packets from behind the booths and every now and then place and order the napkins. How could he adequately outline for her, someone whose father had sent her to an Ivy League school without question, that a technical college would be a sufficient means to his end. He’d get his basic credits under his belt and he’d still have his pick of top schools, if he wanted. This wouldn’t be an outright lie. If he told her this, it would only be a half truth, or maybe a half untruth.
He found it easier to maintain his silence. He knew she wouldn’t have believed him anyway. If he said out loud the thing he hadn’t dared utter, had never dared to hear coming out of his mouth – the fact that he didn’t want to keep working at the fast food joint for love of the work itself. No, he was doing it for a girl. Not just a girl, but this girl – this girl whose name he remembered daily, hourly, and of late, had thought he might never be able to forget.
The only thing he knew about her other than her name was that she alone had made his heart forget its intended purpose. She alone seemed to stop his blood from pumping. Just recalling the way she’d looked at him rendered him helpless. The way her eyes opened slowly as she blinked made him think that she could indeed draw the map of his future. She was the kind of girl that most mothers hoped their sons didn’t meet until their senior year in grad school or perhaps when they were done with school – a game changer.
Hardly a Friday night passed that he didn’t hope to see her again there at the Taco Tahiti. In the few weeks since the owner had opened the adjoining truck stop that he’d hired contractors to build and what with the city detouring much of the traffic from the highway, it seemed they were rarely at a loss for pretty girls. For some reason that eluded him, the weekends, in particular, brought a flurry of them. That night it happened, the night Whitten’s game was profoundly changed, had been no exception.
“You know why they’re here right, broheme?” his coworker, MikeMike, asked as they cleaned out the grease vats out back of the kitchen.
“Seriously? Think about it. Come on.” MikeMike scoffed.
They looked up at the girls milling around the gas pumps. One twirled her hair as she leaned against the side of a truck. Another re-adjusted her bra, with one swift hoist making her breasts go from training bra status to jail bait quality.
“See!” MikeMike went on, “See that one’s gonna get in with him.”
In a matter of seconds, the girl followed suit.
“He’s probably giving her a ride.” Whitten offered, getting back to the work of hosing off the slimy pans.
This made MikeMike erupt with laughter.
“Yep! There you go. You cracked it Sherlock. She’s getting a ride.” He sneered.
Mr. Rogers called to them. The pans were only half done. MikeMike ducked inside to buy time, make excuses, leaving Whit on his own. Watching the brown murky water streak down his left hand, he was aware that he couldn’t recall the last time he’d had a moment’s peace to himself. Between school, track meets, plus work, and his mother, he rarely had time to hear himself think. It was nice – a luxury he voluntarily denied himself. His friends liked reminding him of this. They loved to joke about poor Whit, whose daddy sends boat loads of alimony, but he’s still scouring salsa off the grill over at the taco joint. Poor Whit.
“You got a light?” a voice crowbarred its way into Whit’s precious seconds of solace.
He looked up and there she was. Her fingers on one hand already holding an unlit cigarette up to her lips. The loose tank top under her leather jacket hung low in the front revealing the beginnings of womanhood. Long, shiny, black hair framed her face. At first glance she looked like a witch what with her hair so dark, but her features saved her. Her wide, child-like eyes, her small pixie like nose, the way her chin formed a perfect angle. He stared.
“Light?” She asked again, motioning with her free hand to the end of the cigarette.
Whit shook his head.
“I don’t smoke.”
“You the only one.” She remarked.
Her accent was strong. That and her complexion left no question as to whether or not she’d come from across the border. Being not even an hour from Mexico, many Hispanic people came through their town. It was so common an occurrence, he never thought much about it. Only during this encounter, here marveling at this alluring girl, did he wonder how she she’d come to be there. He imagined her swimming a rushing river or trudging miles in the desert to be in that precise spot – there behind the Taco Tahiti asking him for a light.
“All that come from tacos?” She wanted to know pointing down at the river of grease making its way to her shoes.
Whit nodded. He quickly looked at the back door, praying MikeMike would not come out. There was no telling what kind of lewd things he’d say, and he didn’t know how he’d introduce him, how to explain why a person would have a double name. There would be no easy way to explain it to this girl. To tell her that they all called him MikeMike because his brother who stutters called him that. Everyone else had just gradually picked it up until it stuck. Whit had no idea how to say stutter in Spanish. He realized he remembered little if any from his sophomore Spanish class. What a waste all that time had been.
“Glad I don’t eat that shit.” The girl scoffed.
He finished spraying off the pans and stood holding them limply like a culprit caught stealing, frozen in the headlights of a cop car. With a womanly ease far exceeding her years, she looked out at the pumps, putting one leg up higher so her knee jutted out, and relaxed her back against the aluminum building. A truck pulled into the parking lot. The girl stood up taller, squinting to see if she could see the driver more clearly.
“You waiting for someone?” Whit rallied the guts to utter.
She shrugged and he thought about how some motions supersede language.
“You can wait inside if you want.” He offered as if it was his place to do so.
She shook her head.
“Nah. I wait here. They don’t like to go in.” She explained.
Who? He wondered. Who did not like to go in? Everyone he knew loved Taco Tahiti. It was one of the few places to eat in their two horse town, and by far the cheapest. MikeMike’s voice trailed out through the open door creating an urgency. Whit sensed he had only seconds left to say something, anything that would leave an impression.
“You don’t like tacos?” He squeaked.
As soon as he heard it come out of his mouth, he mentally flogged himself. What a stupid thing to say. She giggled.
“I look like somebody who doesn’t like tacos?” was all she answered.
He shook his head vigorously.
“Yes. I mean no! I mean…I’m not sure what the P.C. thing to say to that is exactly.” He stammered.
Her eyes got big and he thought she might stomp over and hit him across his face. He’d seen his mother do that to his father once. Somehow, what little he knew of his father, Whit had felt it was duly warranted. The girl doubled over with laughter.
“P.C? P.C?” She repeated between laughs. “Gringo, you the only guy I know who worry about that.”
Whit smiled, then laughed with her. It had sounded ridiculous. He fully recognized it was something someone in New York or San Francisco might voice, but not there in Texas. Most people he knew did not know the meaning of P.C. That was part of what made them tried and true Texans. This was also what made him certain he would not be long for this world he knew. He was a big city guy wrongfully born in a small one. His grandfather often told him God pulls one cruel joke over on everyone, and Whit was sure his misplacement had been God’s cruel one on him.
Another truck pulled in. It pulled past the pumps, coming to a stop at the shadowy edge of the lot. The girl’s phone buzzed. She stood up straight, hurriedly pulled the phone out of her pocket, and fingers flying, texted back.
“Headed out?” Whit pressed.
He put a hand in his pocket, holding the pans with his other hand, trying to seem indifferently calm about whether or not she was staying or leaving. Excess grease dripped down on the hem of his pants. He stood still, pretending it didn’t bother him, that nothing bothered him.
“Adios lil’ gringo.” The girl said as if she was any older than him. “Be good now.”
She turned to leave, and he again found an unprecedented courage.
“What’s your name?” He irreverently called without first offering his.
Her hair whipped around like a comic book heroine as she turned back to answer.
“Adora.” She announced and blew him a kiss.
As he watched her walk over to the truck, and knock on the passenger door, he felt a helpless fear wash over him. Did she know the driver? Was she one of the girls MikeMike was going on about? Would she be back? All things Whit knew he’d likely never answer, but that did not stop him from wanting to know, or from wanting to wait for her.
Ever since that night, months ago, he’d convinced himself that if he waited there at the Taco Tahiti, the girl would return. That surely, she had to. That summer, after graduation, he even worked extra shifts in hopes of increasing his likelihood of catching a glimpse of her. One evening when he was tired and his guard was down, he’d divulged to MikeMike his reason for staying in town rather than going away to school.
“Broheme, for reals?” MikeMike went off. “That’s crazy! That girl’s gone. You see all these chickens out here?”
He pointed out at the young girls meandering around the trucks, the gas pump fluorescents lighting their way. It was as close as they’d come to the paparazzi flashes that their small town living had bred them to long for. Whit looked at them and nodded.
“All these chickadees ain’t gonna be here next week. There’ll be new ones and itn’t a one of ’em would remember some chump change like us. They’re in it for the paper, the big bucks, broheme.” MikeMike educated him. “She ain’t thinkin another thing about you. Give that up. I’m tellin you, give that one up.”
It was logical, very reasonable. Maybe the only reasonable knowledge MikeMike would ever impart to him or anyone for that matter. Whit knew somehow he should heed these words, yet he couldn’t. He simply couldn’t. Adora…Adora…was all he could think about, and how it meant adoration in English. He’d looked it up online. Adoration…how exquisite, and for the first time, he began to feel names might really mean something for despite how he tried, he couldn’t help but adore her.