This is an excerpt from the short story “Consider the Artichoke”, part of THE KING OF CHEROKEE CREEK.
from CONSIDER THE ARTICHOKE
The evening after TJ Goodnight left home, she was five minutes late for work. Now, she had to rush to scrub the dishwasher spots off the flatware and wrap sets in The Golden Lotus’ red paper napkins and bind them with yellow paper bands.
Bud Blossom, owner of the houseboat restaurant, appeared next to the hostess stand, in that unsettling silent way of his, pretending to be astonished to see her. He spoke with a standard Midwestern twang that had seemed odd at first, coming out of such an exotic face: brazen skin, slanted black eyes. By now she expected the voice—and the attitude.
“Oh, TJ—Are you on this shift? I thought it must be Hester’s night. She’s the only one who comes in late. Know why I let her get by with it? Because she’s old, and I feel sorry for her.”
“You let her get by with it because you don’t pay her. She works for tips.” Oh-oh…. I walked right into that one!
“So, you’re saying you want the same deal?”
“You having personal problems?”
TJ dropped the silver she had just gathered. This was the first non-business question he had asked since her interview with him, three months ago, when he had said, “What is it with the name Tara? Do I just attract them, or are all females named Tara these days?” Then he had said, “We already have a Tara on staff. She’s got seniority, so you’re TJ. Any objections?” And now this unexpected concern.
She shrugged. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
“Good. This is work. If it’s personal, keep it personal.”
That’s more like it.
* * *
“I spent the night at Julie’s, and it took five minutes longer to get here than I thought it would,” she told her middle-aged co-worker, Tara Mitchell. She might explain later—Dad and I had another argument, and he told me to move out. Last week, eighteenth birthday party; this week, hit the road. It’s okay, though. It’ll be okay.—but she didn’t have time to get into all that now. Bud discouraged chit-chat. “Bud’s letting me clean the plastic flowers to make up for the lost time.”
The older woman pursed her lips then said, “An hour’s work to pay back five minutes. Trust Bud.”
“I don’t mind.” But would Julie’s mom? It didn’t seem like a biggie, but you never knew what parents were going to think was too much.
The next time she checked the hostess station, Bud was waiting with a scowl.
“No personal calls,” he said.
“Some kid named Julie just called for you. Said she’s sorry, but her grandparents dropped in from some damn state or other. Said you’ll have to stay someplace else. Work it out on break or after your shift. No personal calls.” He stalked off.
Now what do I do?
Tara joined her at the station a few minutes later, looking back over her shoulder every couple of steps.
“That man gets weirder every day.”
No need to ask who she meant.
“He said I should ask you if they put mints on your pillow at the Honda Hilton.”
“He—” That was outrageous, even for Bud.
“TJ, what’s up?”
“I’m temporarily residence-impaired.” She explained. “I have other friends lined up to stay with for a week or two, just not tonight.”
“I got an idea: Why don’t you crash on my couch? I would worry about you in the Honda Hilton. I heard they don’t clean the bathrooms there. …I know we don’t know each other much. I know I’m just the old lady you work with sometimes. I don’t blame you—”
“No talk!” Bud materialized at TJ’s elbow, making her jump. “Not pay you to talk!” He shook a finger. “What she say? She ask you, sleep her house? Say no.”
“Bud….” TJ waved a hand around her mouth. “What’s with the thing?”
Tara shook her head with a sigh. “He caught me reading JOY LUCK CLUB at lunch.”
“Lunch over, you still reading.”
“He caught me reading JOY LUCK CLUB about two seconds after lunch. He’s been talking like that, whenever he thinks about it, ever since.”
He shook a finger at TJ again. “You no go her house. She have son, not good for you. Not nice boy, tattoos all over everywhere.”
Utterly overcome by this, TJ gave up trying not to laugh.
“What so funny? You sleep in car, sleep on couch with tattoo boy in next room, you not think so funny.”
“Will you stop it?” she gasped. “Tara—Thank you. I would be very grateful to sleep on your couch, tattoo boy or no tattoo boy.”
Tara’s face lit with a shy smile.
“Whatever,” Bud said, and spun away to greet a party of regulars.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
WRITING PROMPT: Write a family argument that results in a life-changing alteration in situation or relationships.
p.s. Oh, and just in case the “If you liked this, try that” doesn’t turn them up, here are the two interviews I did with Bud.
Interview with Bud Blossom Part One
Interview with Bud Blossom Part Two