I rush through the door, a bell above my head chiming a welcome. And the eyes of every patron stare. At me.
There are a few middle-aged men in trucker caps, a few in cowboy hats, two little old ladies in floral dresses with thick glasses, and one young brown-haired woman—struggling with two toddlers bouncing in a booth.
I arch my hand in a wave. “Howdy, y’all.”
Most greet me with a nod, and I ask the short-haired brunette behind the counter where the restroom is. She directs me to the one unisex bathroom in the back.
Feeling the sweet relief of being five pounds lighter, I wash my hands, pull off a sheet from the paper towel roll to dry them, and toss it into the coverless garbage can. I exit the bathroom door and run smack into the person waiting to enter.
A tall guy with a beer belly, black T-shirt, and cowboy hat, smelling of stale cigarettes, with dark gunk under his fingernails. He grasps my arms, to keep me from bouncing back like a pinball after colliding with the gelatinous mass of his midsection. A lifetime of city living has me automatically uttering an insincere “Sorry.”
But as I go to step around him, he matches my move, blocking my way.
“Slow down there, honey. What’s your hurry?” he drawls, looking me up and down before his gaze gets too well acquainted with my chest.
“Hey—cowboy,” I snap. “Lose something? My eyes are up here.”
He licks his lips slowly. “Yeah, I know where your eyes are.”
But he doesn’t look at them.
“Nice. So much for southern hospitality.”
He tips his hat back, finally looking up. “You passin’ through? Need a ride? My backseat is mighty hospitable.”
“No . . . and ew.”
Using my shoulder, I force my way past the randy cowboy and walk back out onto the sidewalk. I find Stanton by the car, chatting with a diminutive older woman with poofy gray hair. Well . . . listening may be more accurate, as Stanton’s just nodding—seemingly unable to get a word in edgewise.
He looks relieved when I step up, but his face has a pink tinge that wasn’t there before and the tips of his ears are glowing red. “Miss Bea,” he introduces, “this is Sofia Santos.”
“It’s so nice to meet you, Sofia. Aren’t you pretty!”
I smile. “Thank you.”
“And so tall. It must be nice to stand out in a crowd—I’ve never known that feelin’ myself.”
“Haven’t thought about it like that but, yes, I guess it is.”
Stanton clears his throat. “Well, we should get going.”
“Oh yes,” Miss Bea agrees. But then keeps talking. “Your momma is goin’ to be so happy to see you. I have to be on my way also, stoppin’ by the pharmacy to get Mr. Ellington the laxative. He’s constipatin’ somethin’ fierce. Hasn’t moved his bowels in four days, the poor dear. He’s grumpy as an ole bear.”
Stanton nods. “I bet.”
“It was nice meetin’ you, Sofia.”
“You too, Miss Bea—hope to see you again.”
She gets about three paces away, then turns back around, calling out, “And Stanton, don’t forget to tell your momma I’m bringin’ roast chicken to the card came on Wednesday.”
“Yes, ma’am, I’ll tell her.”
Once we’re both in the car, I ask, “What’s with your face? Are you . . . are you blushing?”
I didn’t know a guy who used his dirty mouth as well as Stanton was capable of blushing.
He nods his head, confessing, “Miss Bea was my schoolteacher, in ninth grade.”
“One day, someone pulled the fire alarm and she went into the boy’s bathroom to make sure it was clear—looking under all the stall doors to be sure.”
I think I know where this is going. But I’m hilariously wrong.
“And I was in one of those stalls . . . jerkin’ off.”
My jaw drops. “No!”
He groans. “I haven’t been able to look at her since without turning red as a baboon’s ass.”
I cover my mouth, laughing. “That’s hysterical!”
He chuckles, scratching his eyebrow. “Glad I amuse you. My momma thought it was hysterical too—when Miss Bea called that afternoon to tell her all about it.”
And I laugh louder. “You’re kidding.”
“I wish I was.”
“Oh no!” I laugh, running my hand down the back of his head, rubbing his neck in sympathy. “You poor thing. You must be so scarred.”